Year 9 English - Roses and Daggers
Baz Luhrmann Interview
For fans of director Baz Luhrmann, these are very good times indeed. His recent Moulin Rouge is currently a Best Picture nominee and is already available on DVD. The disc (which Luhrmann and his company produced) has been getting rave reviews for its quality and content, and has been doing bang-up business. Next week, 20th Century Fox will release the Romeo + Juliet: Special Edition on DVD, with director's commentary and many additional features (also produced by Luhrmann). And on March 19th, Miramax and Buena Vista round out the director's Red Curtain Trilogy on disc with the release of Strictly Ballroom. There's even word (as reported in our Rumor Mill recently) that a DVD box set of all three films will be released later in the year, with an additional disc of extra material.
Luhrmann is currently in the middle of a whirlwind publicity tour for these DVDs, and particularly for the film's Oscar campaign. But he was gracious enough to find the time to chat with me this weekend about his work...
Dan Kelly (The Digital Bits): I understand you're a little busy…
Baz Luhrmann: Well, I like to think I'm always keeping myself busy, so I'm trying to do all sorts of things.
Dan Kelly: Well, thanks for taking the time to speak with us.
Baz Luhrmann: That's alright.
Dan Kelly: From Strictly Ballroom to Moulin Rouge it seems like doing a full-on musical was a natural progression for you.
Baz Luhrmann: You are right. It was the first step in that sort of ten-year journey to make musical cinematic language. La Boheme and Romeo + Juliet were along the same form. That is what we call the Red Curtain cinema, but basically it has its roots in the cinema of the 30's and 40's. Everything from Citizen Kane to Singin' in the Rain. It's a heightened theatrical cinematic language, which I like to think of as a big lie that reveals a big truth. It's not the gritty observing of life so much as exploring, you know, a particular human condition or gesture, and doing it through artifice.
Dan Kelly: Some of your films, especially Moulin Rouge, really require the viewer to let their guard and just allow themselves to swallow it. It's very flamboyant. That, for me, was the fun part of the experience. But I think a lot of people weren't willing to let go of that to fully enjoy it.
Baz Luhrmann: You're exactly right. You know what? It's constructed absolutely and precisely. We don't ask you to do it. We demand that you do it in the first fifteen minutes, and at that moment you either surrender and actively choose to participate or you may as well leave. Basically, some people like westerns. What I say about that is that this is not a new form. This is a very old form. You know, participatory cinema is the opposite of naturalism. There's a reason why - in a naturalistic version of Moulin Rouge all those opening scenes would be very slow. While you're chatting and eating your popcorn, you're just getting a bunch of facts and figures so the film can start. In our film, we're demanding that you say, "Are you in or are you out?"
Dan Kelly: And do you think that got in the way of some people enjoying it?
Baz Luhrmann: Initially, yes, because it's quite confronting, that engagement - right?
Dan Kelly: Sure.
Baz Luhrmann: But having said that, we now sit at a place where it's $175 million worldwide. It's still clocking up. It's 2 million units into the DVD. The second album actually comes out today, which is the second part of the soundtrack. Now what that means is, and what's interesting is, that even many people who refuse to accept the contract first up, because so many others have, they've now gone back. Some of the people who've seen it 20 and 30 times are people who at first found it confronting.
That's interesting, because really if you do accept the contract, if you do surrender, even we very cool people, cerebral folk, can find ourselves very caught up and affected emotionally. It's through the window of our emotions that we access the depths of our intellect. That is the game plan basically. So, yes, we are addressing the form, and anytime you address the form, you're going to accept a whole lot of folk, but that's just par for the course.
Dan Kelly: I saw your version of La Boheme, and I thought it was brilliant.
Baz Luhrmann: Thank you.
Dan Kelly: Visually, I think it shares a lot with Moulin Rouge. Did you reference that a lot when doing Moulin Rouge?
Baz Luhrmann: Indeed. In fact, if you look at the lovers, they're clearly singing in front of the "L'amour" sign. If you look in Strictly Ballroom, the lovers are in front of a giant, industrial Coke sign. If you look in Romeo + Juliet, the "L'amour" sign interpreted in the Coke version is actually in Romeo + Juliet. If you look at Moulin Rouge the lovers are again singing in front of "L'amour." There's actually cross-referencing and coding through all of the works of these ten years of work of the Red Curtain Trilogy.
Dan Kelly: There's an almost like circus-like feel to Moulin Rouge as well as La Boheme, and even to a certain extent Romeo + Juliet. They're all filled with characters that have an absolute devotion to the arts and romance. Do you think this sort of thing, tragedy even, is missing from film today?
Baz Luhrmann: You're correct in saying that. It's an active choice. Our lives and our work are inseparable. To a certain degree, we express our life in our work. We live in a big sort of old house in Sidney, Australia, and we record all the vocals there. We make all our art there. And whether it's film or music or the election campaign or whatever we create, there is something of the circus about it.
You know, I've lectured at Oxford and recently I was lecturing in… just let me find out… (talking off the phone). Mark, which University did I lecture at on the East Coast? I keep getting it… was it Harvard? Yeah, at Harvard. I recently lectured there, and a young guy sent me his thesis he did on Moulin Rouge. What was interesting about that, he said "Halfway through the film, I thought 'Oh my god, this director is serious about this truth, beauty, freedom and love. How embarrassing. I'm not going to be able to look at this. I'm going to have leave.' I stayed, and by the end, I wanted to be embarrassed. I wanted to stand up and without cynicism, believe in truth, beauty, freedom and above all things, love." In a way, that is kind of a step. They aren't platitudes. That is a sort of maturing journey I've gone on. I started out as a kind of, I wouldn't say cynical intellectual, but anything my mother didn't get was sort of art to me.
More progressively, like Shakespeare, I've come to believe in trying to speak to many different people in many different ways. From the child, to the adult, to the simple person, to the complex. The journey of Moulin Rouge and the musical form, and this idea of it being a comic tragedy and the idea of a burlesque of signs and symbols… that has been specific and is a direct result of what we're trying to do in the work and in our lives.
Dan Kelly: With the success of Moulin Rouge and Hedwig and the Angry Inch this year, it's kind of been a banner year for musicals. Do you think the movie-going public is ready for more musicals?
Baz Luhrmann: Yeah, there are more in production. And maybe the next ones that come out won't be so great, but maybe they will be. We only need one film. You know, they said the sandal flick would never come back. You only need one film set in ancient Rome, with people running around in skirts to work. Everyone suddenly forgets that it couldn't possibly work.
Dan Kelly: Are you ready to do more musicals, or something completely different?
Baz Luhrmann: This is the last of the Red Curtain movies I'm doing for a while. I will make another musical in the future, but not right away. I am about to go on my own journey - go back into life for a while and get into the real world. Then, after taking some time, I'll start to ask myself what to do next. I have literally hundreds of project ideas that I write down in a little notebook I keep. And I'll never live long enough to see them all done. There are too many. So I have to work out what will make my life rich as a journey. More importantly, what can I do that will be useful in this changed world that has happened? It is inevitable that our life and world will change. That cataclysm that causes it, you can never quite identify. You only have to look at the history of mankind, and basically every 100 years or so, there's a big transition. Life builds itself, then destroys itself, then builds itself up. You have to be part of that as an artist to reflect it.
Dan Kelly: I think that reflects itself in different parts of life - not only in art, but in humanity as well.
Baz Luhrmann: In everything. That's what I'm talking about. To me, life is humanity. Art is useless if it's separated from it. Or it's a confection. It's kind of, you know, it can be anything. It can be music. It can be distracting. It can be an aphrodisiac. It can be an intoxicant. Ultimately, its big function is to be life itself, to reflect life itself.
Dan Kelly: The Moulin Rouge DVD has been getting praise, being called one of the best DVD's of the year. Did the work start on it while Moulin Rouge was filming?
Baz Luhrmann: No, see when I started work on Moulin Rouge, DVD was but a glimmer in the eye of cinema. But I love the form! I've come to be a great fan of the form. I think we're looking at the tip of the iceberg with DVD. I think we'll see it become like novella when it comes to cinema. I think we ought to have a 2-hour sitting of the story, then on DVD have extra chapters that deepen your relationship with characters, not in a horizontal fashion, but a vertical fashion. You're adding depth to the experience. You're not dealing with one chronology of the storytelling. You're dealing with it as a side chapter. Much like Dickens doing chapters in a story.
So, I've been deeply involved with it. I have been deeply involved in all three DVD's. In fact, the Romeo + Juliet DVD comes out next week. I really approach DVD the same as I do making the film in the first place - it's the same process. I start with an idea, and then I bring my people in on it, to create the experience. When you buy the DVD, I want to do everything I can to make it worth it for you. To give you value, you know?
I see that you ignore it at your peril. To me, that is something that is very, very interesting, and sort of, you can't ignore it. I personally travel the world carrying with me DVDs. In fact, I just bought a bunch of them today. What have I got? I've got Bergman's The Magic Flute. I'll have a look at Newsies. I've never seen that. Breaking the Waves - I know Lars very well, and I've never seen his film. Requiem for a Dream - I know Darren [Aronofsky] very well, and I've always wanted to see that. And a film I've never seen called All the President's Men. I've always wanted to see that, so there we are. There's what - one, two, three, four movies - and I can put them in my little CD packet…
Dan Kelly: And you've got time to watch them?
Baz Luhrmann: Exactly! When I'm awake from jetlag at 3 a.m. in the morning, which is basically the story of my life.
Dan Kelly: Some filmmakers feel that adding commentaries or even deleted scenes, or anything of that nature, kind of ruins the magic of the movie and takes away some of the enjoyment. You, obviously, don't feel that way. You've recorded two commentaries alone for Moulin Rouge.
Baz Luhrmann: No. I've got a really simple observation which is - you don't have to turn it on. I mean, it's really simple. If you love Apocalypse Now in its absolute first form, which I happen to, then buy the DVD, play the movie and don't touch the button. However, if, like myself, when you were young, any scrap of information on the filmmaking process or any way of getting inside the film, or buying a magazine about what Nicole Kidman does off set, if that interests you, it's there. And why not? It deepens your relationship. I personally love seeing David Lean talking about painting the white line to the horizon for the entrance of Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia. It deepens my relationship with the film. I make absolutely no judgment about filmmakers who say, "I don't want to know about it."
Dan Kelly: The upcoming DVD's of Strictly Ballroom and the re-issue of Romeo + Juliet…
Baz Luhrmann: Well Romeo + Juliet I've worked on extensively too. It's quite a big deal. Strictly Ballroom is the simplest one I've done, because the film is simple.
Dan Kelly: Were you approached at all for the initial release of Romeo + Juliet on DVD?
Baz Luhrmann: What do you mean, Dan?
Dan Kelly: As far as supplemental material is concerned. When Romeo + Juliet was first released on DVD a few years back, there weren't really any…
Baz Luhrmann: Oh, yes, I'll tell you what - Romeo + Juliet DVD is a bit of a fake, the one that's out there at the moment. I'll tell you why - I did a little bit of work on the video disc. You know, the laser disc? And they just transferred the laserdisc to DVD. There are some documentary elements on the current one, but it's nothing compared to the work we've done on the new one. The new one actually shows, for example, the early workshops we did with Leonardo [DiCaprio].
Dan Kelly: Is this a 2-disc set?
Baz Luhrmann: No, it's one disc, but it's got a lot of material on it. This is something I've been working on in the last six months. I think if you're interested in how the journey of Romeo + Juliet came about, you'll learn a lot about that. Also, just the notion of Shakespeare in film is dealt with.
Dan Kelly: It sounds like you've had input on the recent DVDs, right from the very beginning.
Baz Luhrmann: Yeah, Dan, there's nothing that comes out of the Bazmark world, whether it's packaging, publicity, you know, whether it's the DVD, the 2nd soundtrack from Moulin Rouge comes out today - that's the second half of the soundtrack - that I'm not involved in.
Dan Kelly: That will have Like a Virgin by Jim Broadbent?
Baz Luhrmann: Yes, exactly. I meant to bring them all out at the same time, but I didn't want to make it too expensive for the young people. So, let me put it simply - I consider, my team and I, there's nothing that's arbitrary. We consider all of it to be part of the art, therefore it all has to be addressed in the best way we can. We just try and do the best work we can.
Dan Kelly: Future work - you're working on La Boheme for Broadway right now. How's that going?
Baz Luhrmann: Well, I've been all over the world, looking for the best young opera singers in the world. We've found a glorious soprano out of St. Petersburg in Russia, never seen before. Great, young American tenor. Good girl out of Shanghai. I've got to get a lot of cast together, so I'm almost done basically. Then I'm back in New York where we're working on it, and I'm starting to enjoy it. You know, we're crazy to be bringing an Italian opera to Broadway, but why not?
Dan Kelly: Will this be similar in feel to the one done with the Australian Opera?
Baz Luhrmann: Similar. I will evolve it somewhat, but similar. It's the same notion. It'll be set in 1957. It's young singers, and it's sung in Italian.
Dan Kelly: Any truth at all to the rumors about you bringing Rent to the screen?
Baz Luhrmann: No, no. no. They've asked me to do all those musicals. Chicago they've asked me to do. You know, Phantom. I have respect for all those works. In fact, when I was doing Romeo + Juliet, they asked me would I bring Rent to the big screen. But, Rent, the play, was entirely based on my production of La Boheme, you know? And to be honest with you, I feel there are others who can do that job well, but to me I'm all about original work. So, no, I'm not going to do that production.
We'd like to thank Baz Luhrmann for taking the time to speak with us. Special thanks also to Karen Penhale of Carl Samrock Public Relations for arranging the interview. Hope you all enjoyed it!