Baz Luhrmann on new Netflix series The Get Down
Known for his big screen epics, flamboyant director Baz Luhrmann is calling his new hip-hop themed Netflix drama serial "the greatest collaboration of my career". Gemma Dunn catches up with the bold Australian to talk about The Get Down
PICKING a Baz Luhrmann film out of a line-up isn't a struggle: Grandiose, spectacular, chaotic, and packed start to finish with big characters, big costumes and even bigger musical numbers, the work of this visionary director is anything but subtle.
And that's just how he likes it.
"I come from a devising background," Luhrmann announces.
"Not the traditional, 'you sit alone in a garret, you write a play, you direct it from the text' background. Devising is a social act; it's about talking to people in the world you're depicting, bringing their memories to life and collaborating with other storytellers.
"It's a collective memory and feeling for a time and place; the real experiences of people, and the relationships you develop, are the process.
"You want to tell a story that crosses paths with their stories, a myth rooted in a history."
And he certainly isn't about to lower the theatrical bar with his first small-screen foray, The Get Down, a 12-part music-driven Netflix drama series which chronicles the birth of hip-hop in late 1970s New York and its subsequent explosion as a cultural phenomenon in the 1980s, told through the lives and music of the South Bronx kids who pioneered this bold new genre.
"It's the greatest collaboration of my career", reveals the 53-year-old, sat with one leg crossed at the knee, his rolled up skinny black jeans revealing bright white plimsolls worn sans socks.
Luhrmann is both engaging and funny, breaking off in-between questions to passionately explain the series format.
"I liken it to the way Dickens wrote his novels, in episodic form, as opposed to novella," he tells me.
Serving as executive producer and having also directed the series' first episode, he gushes proudly over the new Netflix original series.
"In every aspect, the production has been vast," he recalls of the series' decade-long story arc, which weaves fact and archive footage with fiction, original music and re-imaginings of classic songs from the era.
"It's vast in the ambition of what we're trying to tell, and vast in the collaboration. The amount of artists, people, creatives, experiences that I have had, I've never actually done anything quite like it."
And despite being known for acclaimed, inimitable films such as Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, Sydney-born Luhrmann (who relocated his family to New York last year) isn't just being modest.
His wife (and mother of his two children), four-time Oscar-winner set and costume designer Catherine Martin, is also on-board with the project as a fellow executive producer; as is hip-hop artist Grandmaster Flash as associate producer, and hip-hop historian Nelson George as supervising producer.
The ensemble cast includes an assortment of both up-and-coming and established actors, including Shameik Moore and Jaden Smith, son of Will.
But perhaps most telling of its scale is the fact hip-hop artist and producer Nas has composed original compositions for every episode, as well as the signature record on the soundtrack album, Rule The World, in addition to serving as executive producer.
"When we first began, it was really important to go and connect with the stories of the founding fathers," explains Luhrmann, his nasal Aussie accent familiar.
"But it was also really important to draw a line between then and now.
"What became clear is that in the 1990s, the culture of hip-hop took a particular direction that had a lot to do with the celebration of material success. But hip-hop was born of a creative gesture: art for art's sake.
"I really needed to find someone who could write from the now, and someone who would very much acknowledge the journey," he adds, with a smile.
"When I met with Nas and showed him footage of the show, he had a very intense reaction. He immediately made the show a priority.
"Whenever we need to re-draft lyrics or needed him to come to the studio or go to the rehearsals to encourage the actors, he's been personally, spiritually, and practically involved."
A total perfectionist, the detail-orientated Luhrmann refreshingly wants to hear what everyone makes of his "baby".
He says: "It's like a child: it's born and it's out in the world and all you're trying to do is make sure no-one clubs it to death before it has a chance of walking, but the truth is, it's got its own life."
And it's his keenness to connect with the next generation that made him sign up to a partnership with Netflix.
"The form is new and this is what's really exciting," he says, explaining why he chose the subscription service to release The Get Down.
"It was at the nexus of the moment when a sea change was taking place in how audiences related to television. You didn't have to wait for the service to portion out your slice of cake; you could now eat the whole cake in one go if you wanted.
"It's a thrilling way to experience a story."
As a storyteller, he recognises that "you can run into limitations in the film industry in terms of the language, scale, and narrative manoeuvres" when faced with a certain budget and running time.
"The thing about Netflix is that they actively promote creative risk," he adds.
"It encourages cultural strength. It says, 'Go out and make something that is going to have an imprint or affect culture', because its not trying to sell just one thing; it's trying to attract you into the store and say, 'By the way, there's something for everybody'.
"So I'll have a bit of that."
:: The first six episodes of The Get Down are available on Netflix from today.