What two directors are battling to tell an ancient tale? Baz Luhrmann says he's not in a race with Oliver Stone and tells why Alexander the Great is Hollywood's hottest property

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh and Allison Hope Weiner
Updated August 08, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Alexander the Great Illustration by Thomas Fluharty

Suiting up with gleaming armor may be passé, but fiercely fought battles are hardly out of style in Hollywood — just witness the dueling Alexander the Great epics. Sure, it’s a couple millennia later, but Alexander is the topic du jour for two major directors: Baz Luhrmann (”Moulin Rouge”) and Oliver Stone (”Platoon”). ”Alexander conquered the world when he was 30,” says Intermedia chairman-CEO Moritz Borman, who’s producing Stone’s version for Warner Bros. ”He was the rock star of his time.”

Battle lines were drawn several years ago, when Stone and Luhrmann each announced projects about the Macedonian king. (Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson also considered — but abandoned — Alexander projects at various points.) According to Borman, he and Luhrmann’s producer, Dino De Laurentiis, discussed combining resources, but De Laurentiis had optioned Italian novelist Valerio Manfredi’s Alexander trilogy, while Stone was relying on the expertise of Alexander scholar Robin Lane Fox. Stone then cast Colin Farrell as the conqueror and Angelina Jolie as his mother, while Luhrmann crowned Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicole Kidman for his version, produced for DreamWorks and Universal.

The productions, both reportedly costing north of $100 million, were head-to-head until Stone announced he would begin filming this summer — six months before Luhrmann’s original start date; in May, Luhrmann delayed his start. Now, while Luhrmann finishes his final draft, Stone and crew are en route to Morocco, where principal photography begins Sept. 22. Whether Stone’s project will be a thorn in Luhrmann’s side remains to be seen: The film won’t be released until Thanksgiving of 2004. (Still, it’s worth noting that in 1998, two movies about rocks found enormous audiences when ”Deep Impact” and ”Armageddon” opened two months apart. ”Armageddon,” the later release, grossed $201 million versus ”Deep Impact”’s still-impressive $140 million.)

Entertainment Weekly caught up with Baz Luhrmann in Greece, where the director is hardly taking a vacation: Even though filming in the Australian outback won’t begin until next winter, Luhrmann is already shooting digital backgrounds, applying for clearance to do some filming in Iran, and plotting out an elephant battle in Thailand. But, as he reveals in this exclusive Q&A, Luhrmann’s still got a bit to accomplish — including casting the young Alexander.

What do you make of the race? I know ”the race” makes a good story — goodness knows, I’m in the storytelling business — but I have huge respect for Oliver, and he should make his production. He is one of the great mavericks of American cinema, but I know nothing about what he’s doing [with his movie]. I have no doubt it’s a subject that can be told in many different ways. Having said that, I’m on my own schedule.

Why has there been a delay in starting production on your film? When Marty Scorsese decided to do ”The Aviator” [and not a film about Alexander], I made a coalition with Dino De Laurentiis that we would produce together. Once Oliver [Stone] came on the scene, I said I would not race. I make no judgment on how anyone else works, but the only way I could address such a large-scale work is at the highest possible quality. My telling is going to be distinctly different from any other filmmaker.

How so? I’ve been researching Alexander the Great for over 10 years and there is no one true telling of the story. I’ve set out to explore the Greek notion of pothos — the characteristic in some people that no matter how much they achieve, no matter how much they’re loved, they continue to chase a horizon that will never arrive. Alexander is the poster boy for pothos.