Inside the Troubled Production of Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Get Down,’ Netflix’s Most Expensive Series Yet

baz luhrmann the Get down spinning
Luhrmann: Nick Harvey/REX/Shutterstock

An inside joke on the set of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Get Down” proposed an alternate title for the new Netflix series. Because the troubled production had started, stopped, and stalled so many times as scripts were written, tossed, and rewritten, some writers had taken to calling the show “The Shut Down.”

Over the two-and-a-half years since the hip-hop-focused project was set up at Netflix, Luhrmann went through two showrunners, numerous writers, and no small amount of strain with producer Sony Pictures Television. Production of the 12-episode season, the first half of which premieres Aug. 12, went well over the original budget of about $7.5 million per episode and wound up costing at least $120 million overall, with New York state tax incentives factored in, according to sources.

That makes “The Get Down,” Luhrmann’s first TV series, among the most expensive in history. It’s a huge bet even for Netflix, which has disrupted Hollywood with a seemingly limitless budget for original programming.

Palehorse for Variety

In an interview with Variety, Luhrmann revealed that he was so overwhelmed by the process that he briefly considered abandoning “The Get Down.” The iconoclastic director of music-driven films such as “Moulin Rouge” went into the project expecting only a light level of involvement after getting “Get Down” on its feet.

“I really believed that I was sort of going to be an uncle to the project,” Luhrmann says. “The mechanism that pre-existed to create TV shows didn’t really work for this show. At every step of the way there was no precedent for what we were doing. The standard process really didn’t work, so progressively, I was drawn more and more into the center of it.”

But once Luhrmann got more involved in “The Get Down,” the production became costly and slow, according to multiple sources. The ballooning budget and shifting creative direction sparked tension among Luhrmann, Sony TV, and Netflix. Sources say Sony TV execs advocated installing yet another seasoned showrunner to help get the spiraling costs under control, but Netflix balked at any move that would have diminished Luhrmann’s day-to-day role.

Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos felt so strongly about the director putting his stamp on “The Get Down,” sources say, that he told Luhrmann he wouldn’t move the show out of the development phase to a formal greenlight unless the director committed to shepherd it from beginning to end.

The difficult birth of “The Get Down” provides a cautionary tale for Hollywood at a time when content companies are scrambling to recruit big-name studio talent in an arms race driven by the emergence of streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon. The lure to get artists on board is often creative control, which can come at a price as steep as the enormous budgets being handed to the likes of Luhrmann.

From Netflix’s perspective, however, there are no regrets. “We’re not in the widget business,” says Cindy Holland, Netflix’s VP of original content. “We’re about supporting our artists and supporting their vision. Working with Baz and his team was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Every aspect of the process was unconventional. It was really inspiring.”

Despite the trials of getting “The Get Down” in the can, Sony Pictures TV president Zack Van Amburg offered praise for Netflix and Luhrmann. “Netflix is a tremendous partner whose engagement and support is invaluable,” Van Amburg says. “Baz is a creative visionary with an exuberance and style that stands apart. Collaborating with them has made ‘The Get Down’ a work of intense devotion and immersive storytelling.”

Like many A-list helmers, Luhrmann has tangled with major studios over creative and financial decisions. His habit of big spending is linked to his reputation as a stylistic perfectionist. He reportedly twisted enough arms at Warner Bros. to ensure that his budget on 2013’s “The Great Gatsby” was upped from $80 million to $105 million in order to realize his vision. He is known to go to extremes. “Australia,” his biggest on-screen disaster, with a budget of $130 million, was filmed in such hot temperatures that star Nicole Kidman fainted on the set.

For “The Get Down,” Luhrmann borrows elements of opera and a stage musical to tell the story of a group of teenagers who come of age in 1977-79 amid the rubble of the Bronx. He says he tapped into the tenets of hip-hop by “weaving” musical performances of both original and period tunes and dance numbers into the storytelling process. The songs are meant to reflect and advance the plot and unify the stories of disparate characters.

“It’s very challenging getting the balance of music and story right. It’s not like doing a regular [scripted] TV show. We have full-on dance production numbers in every episode. That all took a lot more time than everyone thought.”
Nelson George

Luhrmann, 53, has been fascinated with the world of “The Get Down” since he was a kid in a small town in Australia. “Everything that was interesting to me — movies, art, music — seemed to come from New York City,” he says.

Sony TV presidents Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht were fans of his film work and wooed him for an overall TV deal that was inked in fall 2012. The studio was enthusiastic about the prospects for the period drama that became “The Get Down.”

At the outset, Luhrmann was teamed with Shawn Ryan, the prolific writer and showrunner behind FX’s gritty police drama “The Shield.” Ryan is also based at Sony TV, and it didn’t hurt that the two are repped by WME. Luhrmann enlisted playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis (“The Motherf—er With the Hat”) to serve as co-creator and writer under Ryan’s supervision.

After a flurry of pitches, the project’s options came down to a pilot order from FX or a rich series commitment from Netflix. In a testament to Luhrmann’s stature, Fox Networks Group chief Peter Rice sat in on the pitch at FX, a rare occurrence and a nod to Rice’s relationship with Luhrmann from working together on “Moulin Rouge,” which was released in 2001. Netflix’s rich offer and the promise of its commercial-free environment tipped the scales.

Ryan assembled a writers’ room that was up and running in L.A. for a few months in mid-2014. Luhrmann still felt he was in “uncle” mode, going in and out to check on the topline progress. By the fall, he was unhappy with the work that had been done and decided the enterprise needed to move to New York City for authenticity’s sake. Ryan had no intention of making the move to New York and parted ways with the project by the end of the year.

“At that stage I didn’t really understand how it all worked. I took it on face value,” Luhrmann says. “I would visit, and there seemed to be a lot of people in the room, but after X amount of months, not a lot had happened.”

As the production re-established itself in New York in early 2015, Thomas Kelly, a novelist and TV veteran (“Copper”), was enlisted as the new showrunner to work alongside Luhrmann. But his hard-boiled style proved a bad fit with Luhrmann’s approach. He left a few months after filming began that summer.

Luhrmann essentially became the showrunner. By multiple accounts, he and his wife and collaborator, Catherine Martin, who has won four Oscars for production and costume design on her husband’s films, were exacting in what they liked and what they didn’t.

Luhrmann had initially envisioned the project as a feature but saw its potential to unfold over the long arm of a TV series. Nevertheless, his unfamiliarity with the episodic TV production process showed from the start, according to sources who faulted Luhrmann for failing to heed the counsel of seasoned veterans and for showing a lack of regard for the skills needed to pull off a big-budget drama series.

He acknowledges that he underestimated the task at hand. “I would never have believed two years ago that my days and nights, seven days a week, would have been absorbed in this gigantic collaboration,” he says. “I’ve never worked with so many people, and I’ve done a lot of things.”

To assist in getting the tone just right, Luhrmann enlisted a range of partners with first-hand knowledge of the material; notably Nelson George, a writer and director respected for his wide range of books and commentaries on African-American music and culture, plus pioneering rapper Grandmaster Flash and rapper-entrepreneur Nas. (The latter composed original music for each episode.)

George, who was brought into “Get Down” back in L.A. by Ryan, emerged as an important voice in the writers room, as did a scribe with limited experience in TV: Sam Bromell (nephew of the late showrunner Henry Bromell) and the more experienced writer-producer Aaron Rahsaan Thomas. Bromell had worked as an assistant with Luhrmann on 2013’s “The Great Gatsby” and had his confidence, which helped him funnel information between the director and the writing team. Paul Watters, cinematographer and longtime Luhrmann collaborator, also played a vital role in shaping the episodes, as did Martin.

Among the unusual approaches taken in the production was the establishment, prior to filming, of what became known as “the Dojo Room.” This was an expansive rehearsal space within the show’s production offices and stages in Queens where cast members were taught everything from how to spin turntables à la Grandmaster Flash to how to break-dance with late-1970s authenticity. Choreographers worked with dancers in the space to perfect the many production numbers.

“That’s where the show really got on its legs,” George observes. “The choreographers were like generals, beating these kids into shape.”

The music and dance elements were a big factor in spiking the budget, as was the slow pace of production, because a large company had to remain on the payroll. All music and dance sequences had to be worked out in advance, before scripts could be completed. Music rights to classic disco hits and other tunes added to the costs.

“It’s very challenging getting the balance of music and story right,” George says. “It’s not like doing a regular [scripted] TV show. We have full-on dance production numbers in every episode. That all took a lot more time than everyone thought.”

The skyrocketing budget was the biggest source of disagreement between Sony and Netflix. But Netflix had the ultimate say because it shouldered the burden for a significant portion of the overages. The show was originally budgeted for 13 episodes, but wound up at 12. Luhrmann directed the first installment, which runs about 90 minutes.

Under the standard terms of Netflix’s license deals with outside studios, the streaming service pays all production costs plus a premium to allow the studio to see some profit, given that Netflix controls all rights domestically and in key international territories for years to come, even after a show ends production.

Usually that premium is around 30% of production costs. But because “Get Down” had been such a hot property when it was shopped, Netflix boosted the premium to as high as 60% of the costs, according to sources. The overages that racked up did wind up eating into some of Sony’s profits. The studio’s sibling music arm is releasing a soundtrack to the series as well.

As tensions flared over expenses, Luhrmann asked himself whether he could see the production through to the end. He reconsidered out of a sense of loyalty to those he’d recruited to work on the show.

“I felt I’d drawn so many people in who had given me their trust to convey the spirit of this world and this time,” he says.

The complexity of production and post-production contributed to the decision to release season one of “The Get Down” in two parts, a departure from Netflix’s binge-friendly strategy of releasing all episodes at once. Holland says the season-one storyline has a natural break at the end of the summer of 1977, and producers wanted to mirror that timing with the release. Principal photography on the 12 episodes is completed but for a few touches to be added to the later episodes; the second half of the season will drop in the first half of next year.

As the premiere draws near, the question is whether “The Get Down” will be renewed for a second season or whether it will be Netflix’s first one-and-done series.

The streaming service has astonished Hollywood by ordering additional seasons of the dozens of original series it has greenlit since its first effort, “House of Cards,” which debuted in 2013. That has made for some head-scratching moments, like last year’s renewal of “Marco Polo,” a drama series that may have been Netflix’s most expensive effort prior to “The Get Down.” “Marco” cost a reported $90 million for 10 episodes despite generating little buzz, critical acclaim, or awards recognition in the U.S.

Netflix will spend about $6 billion on content in 2016 alone, including original productions and acquired TV shows and movies, more than any other conglomerate. But because the company doesn’t divulge audience ratings, there’s no transparency as to what value any one series has across the globe.

Luhrmann says his hope is that he can return to being “Uncle Baz” in season two, relinquishing control to a new showrunner. “I believe the particular techniques we’ve developed for this show can be passed on to a new team,” he says.

He is well aware that the unconventional approach to storytelling in “The Get Down” may not be for everyone. But he believes those with a passion for the music and the period will appreciate the spirit of the endeavor.

“As long as I felt we gave it our all, I’m satisfied,” Luhrmann says. “What it won’t be is ignored. People will be passionate about it one way or another. I’m used to that.”