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Baz Luhrmann: The MOULIN ROUGE Hollywood Interview Flashback

Posted on the 15 February 2013 by Thehollywoodinterview @theHollywoodInt
Baz Luhrmann: The MOULIN ROUGE Hollywood Interview Flashback (Baz Luhrmann, above.)
(This interview with Baz Luhrmann first appeared in Venice Magazine in June of 2001. I would later interview Baz for his opera production of "La Boheme" - check out that interview here. I seem to be in the minority, but I really enjoyed his Australia, a sprawling epic with unabashed sentimentality, reminiscent of many films from the old studio era.)

The Man Behind the Red Curtain
Director Baz Lurhmann Reveals the Secrets of Moulin Rouge
by Terry Keefe
The "Red Curtain" is a descriptive phrase coined by filmmaker Baz Luhrmann to describe his style of filmmaking, and it is apt - cinema which is also so highly theatrical that it feels like it was birthed from the stage. Think of the fevered final dance competition of his debut feature, Strictly Ballroom (1992) which was so colorful and high-octane that it almost seemed to be an animated film come to life. Or the swirling camera and dazzling production design which breathed new life into the oft-told story of Romeo + Juliet (1996). Luhrmann's films take place in a world that can best be described as heightened reality, and they combine elements of theater, opera, traditional cinema, and numerous elements of pop culture to create an almost completely new genre. The universe behind Luhrmann's red curtain is always on 10, and it demands that the audience be anything but passive. In a Luhrmann film, you know you're watching a movie, but it sometimes feels more like a live performance. So much, in fact, that audiences at the Cannes Film Festival this year were applauding at the end of each of the songs in Luhrmann's newest feature film, Moulin Rouge, as if they were at a Broadway show.
Moulin Rouge takes place in turn of the (last) century Paris and tells the story of a young musical playwright, Christian (Ewan McGregor), who falls in love with Satine (Nicole Kidman), the star of the decadently infamous Moulin Rouge nightclub. Satine also happens to be the city's most famous courtesan, and this is where trouble comes into paradise. Zidler (Jim Broadbent), the Moulin Rouge's P.T. Barnum-like impresario, has promised the hand of Satine to the Duke of Worchester (a delightfully evil Richard Roxburgh). In exchange, the Duke will finance a renovation of the Moulin Rouge into a legitimate theater, where Satine can become a true actress. It's a tale of love vs. money. Did we mention that it's also a musical? A musical in which McGregor and Kidman sing everything from the title track of The Sound of Music to David Bowie's "Heroes."
With Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann reinvents the movie musical by delving into the past. It's almost as if he took all the music videos, studio musicals, pop albums, and stage productions of the last 100 years, stuck them into a Cuisinart, and proceeded to shape Moulin Rouge out of the mixture. There are so many pop culture references in Moulin Rouge that there are references within the references -- such as the scene in which Nicole Kidman croons Madonna's "Material Girl" while a bunch of tuxedoed male suitors chase her around with gifts, the imagery of which references the 1985 video for the Madonna song. But wait, that video was itself an homage to Marilyn Monroe's scene from the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) in which she sings "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," which, incidentally, Kidman also sings here. Moulin Rouge showcases the Red Curtain style at its most full-blown yet. It even opens with a shot of a red curtain which pulls back to reveal one of the most dazzling opening sequences in recent cinematic memory, as Luhrmann's camera flies over a recreation of the cityscape of Paris, zips into various apartments to introduce some of the lead characters, then rockets into the Moulin Rouge nightclub for the opening number.

Baz Luhrmann: The MOULIN ROUGE Hollywood Interview Flashback
The roots of Luhrmann's groundbreaking cinema can be traced back to his extensive theatrical background in his home country of Australia. While studying to be an actor at Sydney's National Institute of Dramatic Arts, Luhrmann co-wrote, staged, and directed a play which he would develop into his film Strictly Ballroom. But before he made the jump to film, Luhrmann would produce his first opera, "Lake Lost," which is where he began his long collaboration with his wife and production designer, Catherine Martin. During subsequent opera productions of "La Boheme" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Luhrmann and Martin would develop their signature style which would eventually be brought to the world of cinema.
We caught up with Baz Luhrmann on the eve of the nationwide opening of Moulin Rouge, which had already completed a highly successful limited release in New York and Los Angeles. In both cities, audiences were lining up around the block to get a glimpse of what's behind the red curtain.
When you were at the conceptual stages of Moulin Rouge, did you know that you'd basically be re-inventing the movie musical by the time you were done?
Baz Luhrmann: Yes, that was what we set out to do. Apart from the other things that feed the process of deciding what to make, it's always been a desire of mine. I grew up in the middle of nowhere and we got lots of old television and my dad ran a cinema for a while, so I loved musicals as a kid. You know, music cinema, all this artificiality making you feel things, I've done a lot of opera and theater, and I just thought that somebody's got to get around to making that work in the cinema again. And so that was the project.
With all the songs, dance, and production design you had to try out, this couldn't have been a traditional scripting process.

You know, this is the third in this kind of film we've done. We set out to make a cinematic form which is the antithesis of the current cinema vernacular. Where the audience participate. Where they are awakened. Where they are alive in the cinema. Where they are actually uniting with the rest of the people in the cinema and participating. Now, the film's played in both New York and Los Angeles, in just two cinemas, but the audiences are clapping in exactly the same places during the movie in every single session. And that's good news for us, because that's why the film is different. I mention this because we built Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and this film in the same manner. And it's very, very labor-intensive. We spend a lot of time doing very detailed academic research, then we build the plot line. And the difficult thing is to build a very simple plot. They all require simple, recognizable stories that the audience knows the ending of when it begins. They require that. And that's very hard to do. We found it much easier when we were doing naturalistic work, because when you're revealing plot as you go along, you've got something to hang it on. Whereas, when people know the plot, it's about the execution. What we had to do, for example, is you're writing the scene and you've got the boy going, "Love is everything," and she's going, "No, I'm a career girl. I can't fall in love." Then you have to convert that into musical form. And we've already set up the rule, which is an old rule, that the audience had to have a familiar relationship with the music and that the music had to be of our vernacular. So it was incredibly labor-intensive. But really, that's true of all musical work. No opera and no musical has been a quick job. I mean, "Cats" when it opened did not have "Memories" in it, for example.
A lot of the rehearsal for Moulin Rouge occurred at a place of yours in Australia called "The House of Iona," described in the production notes as a "sprawling Victorian mansion." Tell us about that.
The key actors would come down for four weeks, It's a production facility but we also live there. The same thing happened on Romeo + Juliet - Leonardo DiCaprio came and lived with us for a while as we developed it. And we take very seriously working with the actors in the sense that they do their work and we redraft based on what happens in the rehearsals and the workshopping.
Baz Luhrmann: The MOULIN ROUGE Hollywood Interview Flashback
What was the casting process for the leads like? Was it always a mandate that they could sing, or did you ever consider casting non-singing stars that you could dub?
They had to be able to sing. I cherish the fact that I know of many, many famous actors and I know that they can sing beautifully. But both Ewan and Nicole I had had some contact with before, because I shot Nicole for Vogue which I was the editor of for an issue, and I knew she was very funny and warm and unlike the Nicole that most people know about. And Ewan I almost cast as Mercutio (in Romeo + Juliet). I went through the process of finding out what actors could fulfill the roles and then convey emotion through voice. They didn't have to be big singers, but they had to be able to move you emotionally. They had to be able to act through voice. Basically, Ewan and Nicole were the best for the job. That's the bottom line of it.
Is it true you weren't able to screen-test Ewan and Nicole together before making the final casting decision?
Yes, Nicole was on stage on Broadway in "The Blue Room" and Ewan was in the West End in a play as well. So I really had to take a punt on that chemistry and I must say Ronna Kress, my casting director, really held my hand and said, "Look, you've got to take the leap of faith." And we did and it really is a chemical reaction between the two of them.
How was the on-camera singing filmed?
We used all the techniques. There's the traditional technique of playback, which is your basic one: They record and we do playback (on the set). But we did use a very groundbreaking technique which is where they sing live and then you replace the voice later with digital technology. It's a program which locks what you've sung to lip-sync. And then the other thing is that for a few moments in the film they're actually singing live.
I have to ask you how you created the fantastic opening where you're zipping in and out of all those buildings and all over the city of Paris.
It's a combination of very old techniques and very new techniques. The illusion that it's black and white film and then we zoom in -- that is all model work, they're old-fashioned models that are built. And then we used digital technology to put in boats and water and sky and people. We shot hundreds of little extras. There's tiny little people walking on the bridge and things to make it real. And so it's a combination of old and new. We spent all of our digital money, and we didn't have a lot of it, making things not good but BAD. Basically stopping it from looking digitally perfect, to make it look "cinematically imperfect."
What types of techniques were used to make it look imperfect?
You can equate this with the difference between digital sound and analog. They're like CDs vs. vinyl records. Because life in digital is absolutely mathematically perfect. Unfortunately, real life is nothing like that. In fact, it's the imperfections between individual violin strings that make an orchestra warm. They're all slightly out of tune. That's why when you get a digital sample of a violin and you put hundreds of them together, they sound nothing like the real thing. Because it's the imperfection that makes something warm. And we've done that a lot on Moulin Rouge. For example, when we have our camera sweeping through buildings over Paris (in the opening), we had to actually program in digitally the imperfections of bumps and shakes. At first you really do believe you might be in a bit of black and white footage, and that's because it shakes. Also, if you look at the shot it goes out of focus. We had to digitally put it out of focus.
What are some of your favorite movie musicals?

I think that I have tastes that range from "Top Hat" to "Bandwagon" to "Cabaret." I love the early Elvis musicals, but I also love "West Side Story," which is a tragedy.
You're willing to take a lot of risks that most directors would never hang their career on. Can you even allow yourself to get scared or can you put it out of your mind completely when you're starting a project like this?
It's a paradox. I'm paradoxical about it in a really big sense. Because people say to me, "My God, you're so brave," and all that. And I'm just thinking, "What are you talking about?" I'm sort of like, "Well, gee, somebody's got to make the musical work now. I guess I'll have to do that job," you know? On the other hand, it would be a lie not to say that every morning I wake up with a sort of sick feeling in my stomach as I go towards what we're doing. But it's usually just about making the day work. It's like, "Oh my god, I've got 300 shots. I'll never get there." I have no question mark whatsoever that whether a billion people go off to see this movie or only the crowds that are now lining up in L.A. or New York, there's no question that the genie is out of the bottle (in terms of bringing back the musical). And there's no question in my mind that the genie was going to get out of the bottle. If it wasn't me, it was going to be someone else. So I'm like, "What's the big deal?" How many absolutely monolithic heads of monolithic companies in the last four days are going, "You know, this is a billion-dollar idea. We own music companies. We own film companies. You bring the two together and they work? Hmmmm." [laughs] It's not rocket science to work out that the world goes around in circles and this, at some point, was going to come around again.
Given the fact that the movie musical had been considered a dead genre by the major studios for so long, did it take a lot of convincing on your part to get the green light from Fox?

No. In the old days maybe, but just think -- I've made a film about ballroom dancing and a film about Shakespeare. Nobody was knocking on my door going, "Please, we really need somebody to make a ballroom dancing film. We know it's going to be huge." or "Shakespeare! That's a great idea!" So after the first two -- they made a lot of money and won a lot of awards. I have a deal anyway at Fox where I'm about making new culture. My company is Bazmark Films, and you either want the Bazmark thing or you don't. I went in and I just basically outlined in words the basic notion of [Moulin Rouge] and they said, "Not a cent over 45 million. Come back when it's ready." And to be really honest, as much as I'd like to go into a kind of horror story about the studio, the real truth is that they've been unbelievably, relentlessly supportive, like at a ludicrous level. People lose their jobs over squandering 50 million on having a crack at the musical. And they were the ones who said, "Hey, we think this is a summer picture." I was a little bit more like, "Art house September looks good to me." They're the ones who have gone, "This is something for everybody. This can play broad." And you know, if they believe in my commitment, I've got to believe in their commitment. We're very family-orientated, in the sense that we work with the same people over a long period of time, and I know it sounds corny but I feel really great that all the people at that studio feel really proud about the achievement of this film. It gives the studio a great sense of higher morale that there are actually people saying, "Oh, you're doing something edgy. Must be great to work there." It makes Fox an interesting place to be.
Let's talk a little about your early work. Your first film Strictly Ballroom actually started as a play.
Yes, we developed it as a play when I was at drama school. And then I further developed it in my theater company and we toured Czechoslovakia; this was before the Wall came down. It won a lot of awards as a play. Then I set out to make it into a film. I realized that if I naturalized it, and this is not to demean Dirty Dancing, it would become like a naturalistic Dirty Dancing. So one had to find a cinematic language that kept the irony, that kept the sense that it had a resonating comment about artistic oppression. That's when I began developing this idea of theatricalized cinema. And it's not brand-new, you know. It's looking back to the movies of the '30s and the '40s which have a contract with the audience. I was also very influenced by Bollywood movies, or Hindi movies. Cinema where the audience participates in a movie. Where they know they're watching a movie at all times.
While you were working in theater, was it always a goal to cross over into films?
You know, I made movies as a kid and I made plays. It's never been any different for me. I've always made little movies and I've acted in movies and I've acted in plays and I've made records. We come from a small country, Australia, so everybody does a little bit of everything. You've got to. [laughs]

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