From the archives!
Here is my interview with filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, first published in November 1996.
What was your motivation to jump from a musical to Shakespeare?
Baz Luhrmann – We don’t just do films, we make things. We do operas and have made films and I don’t think of it like that. I was interested in dealing with Shakespeare in film in perhaps the way that Shakespeare may have addressed doing a movie if he were here today. That was just an interest I had in doing. How did I get into this project? We have a simple philosophy – we make the things we want to make. We don’t take jobs. We decide to do something and just do it. I wanted to address Shakespeare in a filmic way rather than be shackled by all these rules and beliefs that are really spurious notions, made up from the 19th century; not 400 years ago but 100 years ago.
NB – The ‘we’ Luhrmann frequently refers to are his longtime collaborators, in particular production designer Catherine Martin and screenwriter Craig Pearce with whom he studied at NIDA during the early eighties. The creative team has grown since the Strictly Ballroom days to include producer-art director Martin Brown, picture editor Jill Bilcock and choreographer John ‘Cha Cha’ O’Connell. Hence, their company now called BAZMARK Productions
Why do you think that Shakespeare is so popular?
Luhrmann – Classic text is, to me, that which survives time and geography. The idea of which and the execution of which transcends and moves through country and time. Shakespeare does. There were other writers when Shakespeare wrote who were considered great artists. People wrote Shakespeare off at the time as an uneducated popularist. Yet, 100 years later they started taking his work seriously. What’s terrible is it has become more and more about being in an exclusive club. In fact, it began as the most popular art form you can imagine. It’s just about reclaiming Shakespeare for the popular audience for which it was written. For everybody. His audience was everybody from the street sweeper to the Queen of England. He was an absolutely relentless entertainer. If you look at the plays there would be a joke, a song, violence, tragedy all in one package. There was no such thing as a consistent style. It was about entertaining, communicating and revealing a story. People say it’s an MTV interpretation but I didn’t take my cues from MTV. We meticulously researched the Elizabethan stage and every choice we made came from there. Stand-up comedy next to a music piece. Shakespeare used popular song. We used popular song. It was simply about grabbing the attention of the audience and making it available to everybody. I am shocked that it’s the number one film in America this weekend. Everyone is running around saying, ‘How did that happen?’ Not in the history of cinema has Shakespeare been number one at the box office. Well he’s a hell of a good story teller. I can’t imagine he’d be too displeased about selling a few tickets.
Is there a set of criteria you used to decide which elements you’d use to make it contemporary?
Luhrmann – Yes. The criteria came from a direct analysis of the Elizabethan stage. An understanding and also a simple equation; How do you make the story clear, and reveal the story through the language. Everything was an invention based on that and it just really was a whole lot of devices that you make up. For some people it’s too over the top or whatever. It’s the way we tell stories, in the Opera work that we’ve done, as well as the films.
It is flamboyant and it may not be suited to all things —
Luhrmann – We invent the style based on what we need to do. When we do theatre work it can be quite minimal. It depends, we invent the cinematic or theatrical language based on the pieces. Strictly Ballroom, again, actually belongs to a particular style. That is taking a classic, primary myth and interpreting it in a language where you, the audience, I hope, are aware that we, the story teller, are there. This is not social realism or naturalism. It is a style where, not unlike a forties musical, you know how it’s going to end. In the case of Romeo and Juliet we tell you in the prologue. Enjoying the journey and being fresh or different or, if you like, flamboyant in the telling is what the fun of the game is. It is a particular style. This idea that you pluck style from books. The whole idea about making something is invention. You invent your way. There are filmmakers that I just love and adore and admire but it’s their way. For every Martin Scorsese, there are 35 people who mimic it and are shooters.
What was the wildest Shakespeare you’ve ever seen?
Luhrmann – A lot of wild stuff doesn’t work – it becomes about being groovy for the sake of being groovy. I could tell you about some great productions I saw. I worked with Peter Brook very briefly – two weeks – on The Mahabharata – and his production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I’ve seen on video, is fantastic. But I remember, actually, one production. We have in Australia somebody who I think is a genius, don’t you think Pauline, and that’s Neil Armfield. He did a production of Twelfth Night, which went on to be, sort of, a film. I remember going to the theatre, I was at NIDA at the time, and I was, like, ‘Yeah Shakespeare’s good, but hey, it’s hard work.’ And I went in and it was fantastic. It was set in Club Med and there was a Latin band playing and champagne was being given out to the audience. I thought, ‘This is good already.’ And the music was building, and suddenly bang! It goes dark. A door opens. There is a slash of white light, this guy comes out, Robert Grubb in a white suit, and he goes, ‘If music be the food of life – play on.’ Bang – the band starts up again and from that moment I was focussed. Then after two hours it finished. We were, like, ‘Let’s do that again!’ It was like people were speaking with their own language and people used their own accents and brought the language to themselves. So you just realised, take a great story and covert it into a way in which the audience receives it. That was absolutely influential on me. No question. That had a sensational effect on me.
You’ve put a lot of effort in the decoration of your film.
Luhrmann – Yes, we have. In fact it is a visual language that we’ve used. Let’s talk about that cinematic language. You get a lot of people saying, ‘Oh my god, you change style every 5 minutes. How MTV.’ Well, have you ever seen a Hindi movie? Please. That idea of low comedy one minute, a song, then Rebel Without a Cause, is aligned with Shakespeare’s need to keep changing style, to keep clarity, to keep surprising the audience, to keep ahead of them. Is it more visual than Shakespeare? Absolutely. Most people ask me, ‘Why have you changed it from classic Shakespeare where people run around in tights on big sets?’ Well, none of those things had anything to do, whatsoever, with the Elizabethan stage. [Baz mimics a plummy voice] ‘But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?’ is a fashion from the thirties. The Elizabethan accent, certainly as spoken to me by Peter Hall and as ratified by Anthony Burgess is incomprehensible. It’s a rolled ‘r’. There is a joke in Romeo and Juliet about it. The Nurse says, ‘R – his name begins with ‘r’. That’s the sound a dog makes.’ It’s a joke on their rolled ‘r’. The idea that there is a correct way to speak Shakespeare – there has been a fashion for speaking it in a certain way and I do love the Olivier films, they are voice beautiful. But they are a fashion. On the Elizabethan stage, people wore last year’s fashions and got up and declaimed. Two comic actors came up – ‘allo, ‘allo, ‘allo – and got them laughing. Then a boy would come out in a dress as Juliet. It was funny. The play is meant to be funny. Are we more visual? Absolutely. For that reason we cut things like ‘Here come the horses over the hill’. That’s why you cut a third of it, as it is visual description. Things which you cannot see. ‘But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?’ There was no light breaking from yonder window, it was daytime. So you had to say it. Our cinematic language is just the way we tell it. That’s what changes, not the story I hope.
There are a lot scenes of water in this film, what are the ideas behind that?
Luhrmann – In truth, with Romeo and Juliet I’ve dealt with their world as if their parents are like a Busby Berkley musical on acid and it’s coming at them all the time and it won’t shut up. When you get to Paul Sorvino in a dress you just think please – no more. Next thing, Romeo is under water – click – silence. It’s not a big symbolic thing, but Romeo and Juliet escape into water. They use water for silence and peace and their ‘There’s a place for us’ moments. That final image when they kiss under water – it’s just silence. It comes from a personal experience of mine. My father used to talk a lot and we’d be in the pool and I’d just go underwater to hide from him. It was always so peaceful. That’s where that comes from. It’s a theatrical device. Everything is about telling the story. The alchemy or the power or the magic is something the audience has and there is a gap or a distance between the experience that audience has, which can be profound, and the act of making it, which is ultimately mechanical. It’s motivated by a heartfelt spirit, and obviously you tap things within your own mind, but ultimately it’s mechanical.
What do you think about the themes of Romeo and Juliet today? Sometimes the film is a parody and sometimes you take it very seriously.
Luhrmann – It was written that way. Actually, it’s less parody cut with tragedy than in the play. Father Lawrence comes in at the end and makes jokes. He says, ‘I will be brief,’ and then goes on for three pages explaining what happened. The idea of parody is in line with the Elizabethan execution of it. When you’ve got a large, declamatory comedy – it’s the lowest kind of puerile, stupid humour you can imagine, cut with high tragedy. Yes, we’re uncomfortable with that because the fashion is, particularly with cinema, is style coherence, that everything is smooth, it belongs to the one world. We’re happy with that. But go and see an Indian movie – one minute you have got people leaping about in costumes, doing a musical number singing ‘We’re so happy!’ then the next moment you’ve got incredible violence. The style of storytelling is fashion. What doesn’t change is the content or the idea. Are people being moved by it, do they get it? Are we putting ourselves so much on the story that we are standing in the way of it? I don’t know.
Romeo + Juliet is the story about love. What is your idea of love – is love not possible?
Luhrmann – I believe in love. Sounds like a song, but I do. All my works have essentially been about some degree of love. It may be a word, but in truth it’s a profound emotion that is, in your body and your veins, chemical. Do I believe in the extraordinary, passionate mad things people will do for love? Yes. Is young love a lethal and dangerous drug, in a world of learned hate, where you are being told to hate someone because of their name or skin colour, then you’re gonna have a tragedy. Do I believe in that primary myth? Absolutely I do. Am I telling it in a offhanded way to disarm people, yes. But do I ultimately hope that you are moved by that tragedy, yes.
Do you think love is the same now as it was at the time the play was written?
Luhrmann – Yes. I think everything human is the same at all times. I don’t think the human condition changes. The conditions around us change, but what makes us human beings does not change.
This movie shows us it hasn’t changed that much...
Luhrmann – Read his other plays. I know Hamlet. I know so many 33 year olds going round saying, ‘I don’t know — what am I gonna do, man? What’s the point of living on past 33?’ The genius of Shakespeare is not his stories. He did not write Romeo and Juliet, he stole it a long poem that was based on an Italian novella. He stole it, but his genius is his understanding of the human condition and his ability with words. One quarter of the English language was manufactured by William Shakespeare.
Was your intention more to tell the love story or was it more to bring a classic into our day?
Luhrmann – The intention was to reveal the power of that myth, which is actually not about young people so much as if you pass down to an incoming generation your hatred, you anger and bitterness, then you are going to end up with a tragedy, it is going to come back on you. It is really much more about what hand on to the next generation.
Why are you shocked that your movie is number one?
Luhrmann – I thought it would stir up an interest. But we were being relentlessly told that youth are uninterested in Shakespeare and that they would not want to see Romeo and Juliet. We’re not just number one, but by three times. Some critics have come out and said there are bad films, there are worst films of all time and then there’s Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. To them it is that bad and confronting and I understand that but we told it in our way.
The sound track has sold out too —
Luhrmann – Yes, they printed 75,000 copies and they don’t have enough.
How much of the success of the film is down to the casting?
Luhrmann – There’s no question that you have in Leonardo and Claire two young actors — remembering that when I cast Leonardo, two years ago, he was unknown. He had just been nominated for Gilbert Grape. Claire was just on television. They absolutely have a following and are responsible for people being interested but remember this – Leonardo has not opened a film on his own. He has not even done vague box office. Claire has never opened a film. So are they alone responsible for the box office? Obviously somewhat, and also they’re good actors.
Why did you choose them, when they weren’t that big?
Luhrmann – Well, ‘D’ I just looked at and thought he looked liked Romeo. Sort of like James Dean, and Romeo was your first ‘rebel without a cause’, your first Byronesque ‘I’m rebelling but have no political cause to rebel against’ character. So I rang him up and he and his father came down to Australia and spent their own money and flew economy. They came down twice and we shot a workshop on video and finally convinced the studio to let us do it. Claire, I searched the world – I saw actors all over the world – and Jane Campion, who lives near me in Sydney said, “Have you seen Claire on ‘My So Called Life?'” Which I hadn’t seen so I went back to the US and Claire came in. I was looking for someone who was sixteen but who had the strength of character to deal with Leonardo, because he is a formidable opponent in the acting stakes. Plus most of the young girls were like, [Baz mimes swooning and heart fluttering] ‘My god, Leonardo!’ so that’s undermining, to work with someone you find attractive when you’re sixteen. She just walked right up to him and said, ‘Art thou not Romeo and a Montague?’ and kissed him. They were strong. It is crucial because the film is so frenetic that when they get together, you need time to stand still. I don’t expect everyone to get it but I think they do achieve that. I think they do bring a stillness to the film.
Did you not want Natalie Portman for that role?
Luhrmann – Natalie was in the first workshop with Leonardo and she was absolutely fantastic, she is a star and gorgeous. But next to Leonardo she looked two-years-old. She’s a tiny little girl. And Leonardo, which I didn’t realise it at the time, is six foot tall.
How did you choose the music for the film?
Luhrmann – I worked with Nellee Hooper, Marius deVries and Craig Armstrong – three brilliant music people who have worked with Madonna, Bjork, Massive Attack. I know the guys from Massive and Craig does a lot of their string work – he’s a brilliant composer. Marius has done a brilliant job of composing as well and Nellee is a music producer. We worked together on the music and it was about popular song. Shakespeare just stuck popular songs in that said something.
Regarding the problems of working in Mexico –
Luhrmann – Look, first let me say I would not swap a day that I spent in Mexico for anything in the world. It was the most adventurous time. Having said that, it is true we were there months longer than we needed to be. We had hurricanes that wiped out the set. We all got sick. Shooting shut down for a week while I had a temperature of 110. The hair and makeup person, Aldo Signoretti, who worked with Fellini was kidnapped. We paid $US300 to get him back, I thought rather a bargain. I was not there, he was kidnapped. The bandidos rang up and said for $US300 you can have him back. So Maurizio, who is about this high, goes down clutching the money to outside the hotel holds it up, chucks them the bag and they threw him out of the car and broke his leg. So we had adventures. It was an incredible quest. It wasn’t a walk in the park and the fact that the kids did what they did and put up with what they did was amazing. The reason the film is like it is, is that we embraced everything in the film. For example, Mercutio dies in that storm. Well that was the hurricane that came and blew our sets away. The wide shots, which you could never get, I asked the guys if the cameras could handle it – we got out and did the wides and caught the storms then we came back and did the close ups with wind machines. For a budget of ours, which is between $15 – 17 million you can’t achieve that short of massive CGI’s.
What was the most challenging aspect of making the movie?
Luhrmann – Getting it made. It was very difficult to convince people, to convince Fox. It’s hard to believe that a studio made this film, at the level at which it is financed, made this film which is essentially experimental in its execution. People say Hollywood is in love with Shakespeare. That’s not true. Some of the mini’s are financing Shakespeare but no major is doing a Shakespeare as far as I can recall. I thought Kenny Branagh did a terrific job with Much Ado About Nothing and I particularly liked his Henry V but the grosses for those films are $20 million domestic. they’re tiny. Why do you think majors don’t bother – they’re not worth the biscuits.
Were there any aspects of your vision that weren’t achieved?
Luhrmann – Yeah – 50% of it. I know a very famous director and he says you get about 50% of what you do. Maybe not even 50%. I think the execution of that was maybe half of what I was hoping for. But that’s always the way. You never get anywhere near what you set out to do. Then it gets kind of taken away from you. You never are happy. I don’t think you ever say, ‘Oh – it’s absolutely perfect – don’t you touch a frame.’ I can’t even look at it now. You see it a lot of times and you just want everything to be better, that’s just the way it is.
How do you take the criticism?
Luhrmann – Some stuff is really amusing. I like the really negative stuff. I don’t like people sitting on the fence. I don’t like it when they say something misinformed. I am staggered that people who are clearly educated are so naive sometimes. What, they think I don’t notice the fact that Diane Venora’s performance is incredibly over the top in the beginning and at the end of the film she’s more naturalistic. They think that hasn’t been a decision, do they think I missed that one, that it got by me after working on it for two years? Or that in 196– something they saw whoever do whatever and therefore it’s set in stone. Zefferelli’s Romeo of Juliet of 1968, which is a gorgeous production, is not a period production, there is nothing Elizabethan accurate about it, it is an update. Also it’s hilarious in that people write my film off as MTV – I’ve never worked on MTV. What they’re really talking about is that you get these leaps in any given clip, where you may have three or four cinematic styles quoted. All clip makers that I know are always referencing old movies, someone else. And as for the quick editing, that comes from the fact that I do not like to be bored. It’s about rhythm. The opening sequence is very fast and it’s trying to keep ahead of the audience. Even if you look at the play, the style of the piece is you come out and say this is what’s gonna happen, they’re gonna die. Then you introduce all the characters and they’re actually little vignettes. The story doesn’t not begin until we meet Romeo. The scene when the mothers gets dressed and it speeds up. They’re boring bits. Who wants to see her put a dress on? But she’s got to in the scene. You can’t cut away – what have you got to cut away to? Who wants to see her cross the room? But she’s got to get there so bzzzzzzz, let’s get that bit on. Because we are so used to zapping, I have used the idea of television as the story teller. TV is the chorus of out lives. I wanted to zip through the city and through any boring bits. I didn’t quite do it as well as I wanted. It’s just devices.
I remember when I made Strictly Ballroom, the first person that we showed it to, we were exhausted and we travelled up the coast and had it on cassette. Bill Marron, who was working with us then, his brother was a pig farmer and we screened on a little TV and he watched the film and Bill said, ‘So what do you think?’ and he said, ‘I like Westerns.’ Very honest. As opposed to I don’t get this so how do I make myself appear that I know why it’s wrong, how do I ingratiate my view as if it’s the word of God. That I find slightly offensive, but hey, you can’t live or die by that. In the end, what is the most important thing is that there are people who do get it and if a lot of people get it then I am happy that they get something from it. Even some of my closest friends say ‘It doesn’t work for me.’ That doesn’t mean it’s wrong or it doesn’t work. It’s a personal experience.
Why did you give up acting?
Luhrmann – I haven’t, I just don’t get much chance to do it. I occasionally do a role. I don’t know that I’ll do another movie. I have to find a need or a reason to tell something. I’ll probably keep my relationship going because you can have these deals where they give you a little bit of money and you don’t have to do anything for it. Why not? I’m gonna go walking, traveling and let everyone cut loose and catch up when we feel a passion to tell something.