Kelly talks with Moulin Rouge
director Baz Luhrmann
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Dan Kelly: Is this a 2-disc
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
Dan Kelly: Future work -
you're working on La Boheme
for Broadway right now. How's that going?
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.
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!