Baz Luhrmann has always had ambition. From his sweeping Cannes debut “Strictly Ballroom” to his wholly reimagined take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” he’s always been known for an uncompromising vision.
And whether you’re taken aback by Luhrmann’s manic, melodic, cinematic constructions or addicted to his propulsive filmmaking style, it should come as no surprise that his first foray into serialized storytelling is as wild as it is ambitious.
Labeled “among the most expensive [TV series] in history” by Variety’s Cynthia Littleton (and only pseudo-refuted by Luhrmann in THR’s follow-up story), “The Get Down” was, indeed, a lengthy production featuring many moving pieces, a non-traditional episodic structure and a young, largely untested cast. But it was not a project Luhrmann entered into lightly — nor were its challenges driven by the wrong reasons. Luhrmann was steering the ship the whole way, making decisions based on the betterment of the final product. And he’s exactly the artist Netflix executives wanted running the show all along.
Pulled from an interview IndieWire conducted with Luhrmann and executive producer Nelson George, as well as statements made by Grandmaster Flash, Jimmy Smits and Luhrmann during the series’ Television Critics Association panel, IndieWire has chronicled and analyzed the great endeavor of creating “The Get Down” Season 1 — the best $120 million Netflix has ever spent.
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The Right Man for the Job
“That’s the great thing about Baz: People don’t understand
how much factual information and research
is done in all of his work. It’s deep.”
– Nelson George, executive producer of “The Get Down”
Luhrmann was first drawn to “The Get Down” after wondering: “How did so much creativity come from New York in that moment at that time? How did something so completely new, so totally unexpected, and so creative come about?”
Hip-hop was the “something” in that sentence, as Luhrmann’s Netflix series captures the musical genre’s creative birth from the perspective of those who did it. While Luhrmann — a native Australian — doesn’t have first-hand experience as a poor, African-American kid growing up in the Bronx, he always recognized that to tell this story right, he couldn’t be the only one to do it.
“Because I come from community storytelling, you have to get the community’s trust.” Lurhmann said. “So I started to reach out to the people whose story it was, because it’s not my story. I feel like I just curated that story.”
Those people turned out to be numerous, including Nelson George — a Bronx native who lived through the era and offered the necessary producing experience in TV — and Grandmaster Flash, whose book, expertise and obvious historical relevance proved invaluable in providing specificity to the series. Luhrmann also sought out the writing team of “Aaron Thomas, Seth Rosenfeld, who grew up in the Bronx and was part of a graffiti group, New Basquiat, and, of course, Stephen Adly Guirgis — he’s got a Pulitzer.”
Beyond writers, he also nabbed two key cultural advisors who share the tiny little credit of creating hip-hop: Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa (or “Bam,” as Luhrmann calls him).
“From my perspective, I can say we didn’t have musical instruments,” Flash said. “Our instruments were turntables, a mixer, and where we can find music that would be entertaining [record stores].”
Yet it wasn’t easy getting everyone on board.
“Everyone I worked with, their caution tended to be, ‘Are you going to be doing one of these outside looking in, ‘oh woe is me’ stories,'” Luhrmann said.
George said concerns over the show’s perspective boiled down to: “Look at those poor people.”
“[But] we didn’t see it that way,” Luhrmann said.
Flash, who has never seen any of Luhrmann’s films, said he needed to know why this man wanted to tell this story before he would commit.
“And I looked him in his eye, and I says, ‘Baz, why? Why do you want to do this story?'” Flash said. “And he says to me, ‘I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time.’ In his heart of hearts he felt like something like this should be told, because this is the missing years of what has now become a billion dollar business.”
“You know, he was a little bit of, ‘Who’s this guy?'” Luhrmann recalled. “He checked me out, but I think the answer to, ‘How did I convince them?’ — time. I spent the most valuable thing I’ve got with them, which is time.”
While assembling his dream team, Luhrmann did as much research before meeting them in order to trust what (and who) they’d recommend once coming on board.
“I usually brought everyone to my space because I wanted them to see everything I’ve accumulated,” Luhrmann said. “I mean, I think I have the biggest digital databank of pictures and information [on the era].”
“His office is a museum of ’70s culture,” George added. “You go into that office, there are pictures everywhere of every character. There’s gangsters over here. There’s people in disco over here. There’s gay clubs over here. So you’re saturated with that era.”
“Because when I do something, I really live it,” Luhrmann continued. “It’s not like I’m short of a gig, you know? I’ve got choices, but I just felt this was the story that needed to be told, and I felt it had value now.”
“This was a blessing,” Flash said. “It was just really, really important that he did this — that he was even interested — because nobody wanted to tell the story.”
“I wanted to answer the question, ‘Where did this brand new idea come from?'” Luhrmann said. “And it came from active imaginations on a landscape that was devastated. From those who had so little, so much imagination sprang forth.”
The Astounding Reality of Shaolin Fantastic
” The fantastic happens, but only after you have the real.“
– Nelson George
Imagination is a constant in the world of “The Get Down.” From the story itself — where DJs are carving marks into their records and kids are tagging trains with glow-in-the-dark shout-outs to neighborhood legends — to Luhrmann’s incomparable directorial style, the six-episode first entry of Season 1 is vibrantly alive, and it all starts with the characters themselves.
“Because I come from a community-based, storytelling background, there’s actually a process to it,” Luhrmann said. “You really absorb the world, so a team of assistants and I made banks of information.”
During this process, Luhrmann considered making “The Get Down” into a straight adaptation of Flash’s autobiography, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats.”
“His book’s really good,” Luhrmann said. “But that would only be Flash’s story. What would you do about Bam? Flash and Herc, they didn’t really have that much to do with each other, and it was very important that we touched on everybody in the world — the factual characters. So we decided to create mythological characters.”
“All the storytelling in the show, it’s all based in some fact — something we either lived or researched pretty heavily,” George said.
Every important figure at this time was either integrated into the story as themselves — for instance, Grandmaster Flash is a character in the series (played by Mamoudou Athie), but his story spread between at least two characters — or as an amalgamation of people into an original character, like the series’ lead, Ezekiel “Books” Figueroa (played by Justice Smith).
“He’s a little bit based on a mashup of people,” Luhrmann said, noting how he was specifically influenced by a character in the 1983 documentary, “Wild Style.” “No character [or place] was just arbitrarily made up. Take Les Inferno. There was no Les Inferno, but Les Inferno is a mashup of very real places — every aspect. And Annie (a mob boss), she is a conglomerate of historical characters. […] Jimmy Smits’ character is definitely based on different people who were identified as ‘poverty pimps in the Bronx,’ at the time.”
Even the creative side of the mythologizing process — choosing character names and identifying places — was based in reality.
Luhrmann remembered how Flash, in his biography, said, “‘I sat down and said, ‘Right, Grandmaster after Bruce Lee. Flash after a comic-book. I’m going to mash up comic books and Bruce Lee.’ And Shaolin Fantastic (played by Shameik Moore)? That’s Captain Fantastic and Shaolin the monk.”
George recalled how Cadillac (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) was inspired by Walt Frazier. “He was a fashion plate in the ’70s — big hat, long coats, even the beard!”
“He’s a mashup between him and a famous gangster who we won’t identify because he’s still around,” Luhrmann said, laughing. “So everyone is a sort of DNA mashup.”
What $120 Million Really Gets You
“I am annoying because I wanted to get it right.”
– Baz Luhrmann
When it comes to discussing production schedules, budgets and reshoots — all of which are trigger words surrounding “The Get Down” — what gets lost is the conversation about worth. Creating TV shows costs a lot of money. FX President John Landgraf recently said his network spent, on average, $4 million per hour of original television for both production and marketing. That means a standard season of “The Strain” would run them around $52 million. But is it worth it, not only financially — a metric virtually impossible to gauge in today’s age of uninterpretable ratings — but also creatively?
Hearing Luhrmann & Co. describe the process of creating “The Get Down” — as well as the astounding visuals, production value and expansive scale evident in the final product — certainly makes for a convincing argument.
“On the wall in every version of ‘The Get Down’ office we’ve had, there’s been this huge timeline that goes across,” George said. “Part of that timeline is music from the different years in the ’70s. There’s another timeline of New York City events from the blackout to the trash storm, and then on top of that are our characters. So a lot of our decisions about the characters came out of the reality of the city. It was very, very important.”
“The thing about the show is it’s not that they just had to act, but they also had to relearn hip hop,” Lurhmann said. “I mean, Kurtis Blow had to teach the guys everything they knew about hip hop: how to stand, how to breathe, how to move.”
“These kids went through this […] boot camp of choreography and just immersing themselves on every level, every part of rap and what disco was,” said Jimmy Smits, who plays local leader Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz. “I was just so amazed.”
“There was a spot that Baz called the ‘Dojo,’ which was on the Queens set,” George said. “And, literally, one of my favorite creative experiences ever was walking in there in the afternoon. This section would have Rich & Tone, our fabulous choreographers, working with Yahya [Abdul-Mateen II] and other actors on how to do The Hustle — from the ’70s. And another part would be a guy named Mamoudou, a young actor, who was being trained very brutally by Flash in how to become a DJ. And, then, on this corner here, it would be Shameik [and Sam Mo] teaching him how to break dance.”
“This was like a boot camp on ’70s urban style that was happening for months before we started shooting.”
Just because it happened before the cameras were rolling doesn’t mean it was free. And plenty went into crafting the final product as well, from impressive VFX landscapes (elevating the massive physical sets) to a sound mix Luhrmann boasts as being “a more complicated mix than I did on ‘Gatsby.'”
“What people may not know is, if you flip the switch to 5.1 it will turn into a movie,” Luhrmann said. “It’s got incredible detail in the surround sound. I really spent a lot of time on that mix.”
And time, Luhrmann’s “most valuable thing,” is exactly what he dedicated to this series. The 10-year process, from idea to realization, of creating “The Get Down” went through a lot of phases over the years.
“It affected me,” Luhrmann said of hip-hop’s creation. “I owe something to those kids at that time because they invented something wholly new called collaging. And I think I’m a sort of collage filmmaker.”
But what it takes to tell the story correctly is hard to balance against anything other the end result. Even viewers not enticed by Luhrmann’s lack of restraint should at least be able to admire the respect driving it.
“In a time when there seems to be racial tension again, this is a really positive story,” Luhrmann said. “I’ve really tried to shepherd it down this road: In a world of negativity, instead of going for a gun, they went for a spray can or records.”
A story with such honorable goals deserves a showrunner with equal initiative — passion matched by ambition. And Baz Luhrmann earned every dollar he put toward both.