Baz Luhrmann: All That Baz

Has Baz Luhrmann, the stylishly edgy director who turned William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet into a surprise box-office hit, reinvented the musical movie with Moulin Rouge? According to Luhrmann, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor certainly made music together.


Months and months ago, early-bird culture vultures began describing Australian director Baz Luhrmann's new film, Moulin Rouge, as, variously, The Rocky Horror Picture Show meets Titanic, The Wizard of Oz meets Apocalypse Now and Topsy-Turvy meets Cabaret by way of Brazil. Like Luhrmann's earlier films, Strictly Ballroom and William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge promised to be a visceral blast. But no one could quite imagine what sort of blast might include, as Moulin Rouge was known to, singing, dancing, mythical doomed lovers, a lascivious Toulouse-Lautrec, divine decadence, satire and a music score filled with pop songs and show tunes sung by stars Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, along with assists from pop culture icons ranging from Lil' Kim and Christina Aguilera to Placido Domingo and David Bowie. The more people heard and saw of Moulin Rouge, the more it seemed that the Day-Glo fairy-tale fizz of Strictly Ballroom and the urban theatricality of William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet were merely opening acts. Luhrmann's sexy, bawdy, hellzapoppin' new opus had raised his game to a whole new level.

The son of a mother who ran a dress shop and a father who owned a back-country gas station and tried his hand at pig farming before buying the local cinema in the desolate little community of Herons Creek, New South Wales, Luhrmann began his show business career as a costar of Judy Davis in 1981's The Winter of Our Dreams. He then shifted from acting to stage directing with a wildly acclaimed La Bohème for the Australian Opera when he was just 27. These days he operates out of a rambling, two-story, late 1880s mansion in the trendy Darlinghurst area of Sydney. Dubbed the House of Iona, this is where Luhrmann has amassed a close team of about 35 people that includes his wife Catherine Martin ("C.M." to intimates), whom he married on the stage of the Sydney Opera House while the word L'amour flashed in neon behind them; screenwriter Craig Pearce (a friend of 20 years who has worked on each of Luhrmann's films); music supervisor Anton Monsted; and choreographer John "Cha-Cha" O'Connell. All play, work, create and argue together constantly. It was at the House of Iona that Luhrmann recorded "Everybodys Free (To Wear Sunscreen)," the novelty chant that became a gold record.

In person, Luhrmann is as groovy-looking, worldly, friendly and out there as you please. Handsome, with graying hair in short pigtails, he seldom speaks at less than supertrain speed. When he brilliantly trip-hops through the entire backlog of pop culture, he emits the air of one who has seen and tried everything and can't wait for more, more, more, and he comes off as equal parts P.T. Barnum, Sid Vicious, Noel Coward, Ken Russell and an unofficial member of the Monty Python troupe. No wonder virtually any actor one talks to will swear he'd give his eyeteeth to get Baz'd.

STEPHEN REBELLO: How do early screening audiences appear to be reacting to the fact that Moulin Rouge is a musical, straight, no chaser?

BAZ LUHRMANN: [Laughs] Shhh, we're not supposed to talk about the "m" word much. The thing is, the film is even worse than that because of the "o" word. [Laughs] It's partially an opera, with fully scored sequences that are really operatic. The movie moves among various forms of musical comedy, musical opera, recitative--it is its own creature. The point was to make a musical that was popular in form. That is, like Shakespeare, it can be enjoyed by the Queen of England and the street sweeper. No one making a musical since Saturday Night Fever or Grease has picked a really popular cinematic form. If we've succeeded, it's because we've decoded the correct cinematic language that allows the musical movie to live and breathe in our time.

Q: Did the surprise box-office success of your first two films mean you could pretty much write your own ticket on your next project?

A: At the House of Iona, our company, where we have dance studios, rehearsal halls, a ballroom, we just decide what we're going to make, find a "king" who is prepared to finance the art, then do the project in our own way and in our own time. We're not for hire. People come knocking on the door asking, "Can you do the Bazmark thing on Evita or the movie version of Chicago or Harry Potter?" In the end, it is always "No." I knew I wanted to do a third "red curtain" movie--that is, another movie that is highly theatrical. And loving musicals as I do, I wanted to reinvent musical cinema.

Q: That's not really surprising, since you've directed La Boheme and _A Midsummer Might's Dream _on the musical stage, and your first two movies are really musicals in disguise.

A: You get it! I'd been leading up to a break-out-in-song musical. But I specifically didn't want to do one that had an original score by a single composer. I wanted many different voices, many different styles. I loved the eclecticism of the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack, and, alter that, I coproduced Something For Everybody, a charity record, as practice for this idea of extreme eclecticism. Also, I knew I wanted to use familiar music, music that we all already have a relationship to. For me, one of the fundamentals of musicals is that, when Judy Garland sings "The Trolley Song" in Meet Me in St. Louis, the movie is set in the early 1900s but the song was the pop radio music of its time. Lil' Kim or Missy Elliot are pop radio music of our time. "Lady Marmalade" just seemed perfect because of the hook, [leaping up and singing] "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?--Do you want to sleep with me tonight?" I wanted to find contemporary language that told the story and continually change the game every five minutes. We go from an over-the-top, ridiculous ballad version of "Your Song" by Ewan McGegor backed by three tenors--Placido Domingo, a young, groovy Italian guy named Alessandro Safina and a local singer from Australia. Then. I've got Beck doing David Bowie's "Diamond Dogs," and David Bowie, a lovely man, doing "Nature Boy." John Leguizamo actually sings "Nature Boy" in the film and Bowie's vocals on the song weave through the movie, too. It's a constant warp-and-weft weaving of musical ideas.

Q: What made you decide on the sexy, sordid Parisian nightclub Moulin Rouge as your setting?

A: The first thing I do is identify what kind of story is going to thrill me enough for me to explore it for the next three years. I wanted to deal with the Orphean myth: "Idealistic young man with a gift descends into the underworld looking for idealistic, perfect love, finds her, tries to rescue her from that underworld. He makes a very human mistake, loses that love forever and is scarred." That myth is about that moment that comes for us all when you realize that some relationships, no matter how perfect, cannot be. People die. Doors close. You won't always be young. You go through that journey, and in place of the gifts of youth come the gifts of spiritual growth. You're bigger inside.

Q: The classic '50s movie Black Orpheus set the same story against the carnival in Rio. Why the Moulin Rouge?

A: We looked at setting the story against Studio 54. Our young poet hero would have been the young Bob Dylan, who would have fallen in love with Roller Girl and fallen in with Andy Warhol and his crowd in a place where the young and beautiful mix with the rich and powerful. Instead of the can-can, it would have been disco. We also looked at bohemianism in the '40s and '60s as possibilities. But I had really wanted to do an 1890s musical because I thought it would be a great way of looking at our millennial moment. The pop culture of the 20th century basically grew out of that moment in time, from Debussy and a 19-year-old Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec, who was the Andy Warhol of that time.

Q: One hears that before deciding on Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, you saw just about everybody for the roles of the beautiful Moulin Rouge star and the young poet who falls in love with her.

A: I did, just about. You see, whenever I do a work, I spend a good three months seeing everybody, all the new up-and-coming actors, all the ones I've seen before. I particularly wanted actors who could sing. I didn't want to have to turn singers into actors. That doesn't always work.

Q: Some might wonder why Catherine Zeta-Jones, who's funny, gorgeous and had a career in London in musical comedy, isn't starring in the movie.

A: Touchy subject. I saw her and she has a tremendous voice and all those things. For certain kinds of characters, for the right role, she is absolutely amazing.

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