Strictly Luhrmann – where he leads, we will follow
He's always a step ahead of the zeitgeist, so what does the influential director have planned next? By James Mottram
Friday 22 October 2010
Agloomy autumn day in New York, and the weather has already left its mark on Baz Luhrmann. "It's a bit miserable today," he sighs. "Up until now it's been gorgeous." As are are the films of the Australian director, with their rich, multicoloured palettes exploding from the screen; it's little wonder today's grey Manhattan skies do little for him. Bold and brash, the flamboyant Luhrmann doesn't so much see the world through rose-tinted spectacles, as rainbow-coloured ones.
The 48-year-old is in town to present scenes from the forthcoming Blu-ray editions of two of his most colourful films: 1996's Shakespeare reboot Romeo + Juliet, and 2001's musical Moulin Rouge! Revisiting them has been educational, he says. "It's probably the first time that I've actually seen them as films, if that makes sense. I'm old enough and distant enough now to not just see them as troubling but much-loved children; they've grown up, and got relationships with audiences that have nothing to do with me."
Fans of the films will obviously be lured by the fact that Luhrmann has dipped into the vaults of his company Bazmark to pull out some never-before-seen footage for the accompanying extras. Highlights include Nicole Kidman's first vocal test on Moulin Rouge! and the first on-camera kiss between Romeo + Juliet stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. "It was basically a costume test," explains the director. "It's quite wonderful to see Leonardo so caring for Claire, and how really beautiful it is. It's just a very beautiful moment."
Yet more importantly, the films act as a reminder of just how prescient Luhrmann is as a director. Together with their predecessor, his 1992 directorial debut Strictly Ballroom, outside of the original Star Wars trilogy, you'd be hard pressed to find a trio of movies more influential on popular culture right now. Without Strictly Ballroom, there'd be no Strictly Come Dancing. Without Moulin Rouge! there'd be no Glee. And without Romeo + Juliet, there'd be no Ten Things I Hate About You or any of the other Shakespeare adaptations aimed at adolescents.
Indeed, living in the US right now, Luhrmann can't escape his own influence. Currently in its second season, the Golden Globe-winning Glee is "the biggest show in America", he claims. A high-school tale, in which the characters burst into well-known show-tunes and pop songs, it was a style Luhrmann popularised in Moulin Rouge! "[Glee co-creator] Ryan Murphy has been very nice about acknowledging that it was Moulin Rouge! that inspired him," says Luhrmann. "But 10 years ago... if I had a dollar for everyone that said 'The musical will never be popular in America'..."
The same goes for Strictly Ballroom, a film based on his own experiences in the world of ballroom dancing as a youngster. "Executives would say 'Ballroom dancing will never be popular in America.' It's crazy. I turn on CNN and the headline is 'Trouble in Afghanistan' followed by 'And the Hoff has been thrown out of Dancing with the Stars.'" As if to signify his contribution to what has become a cultural phenomenon around the globe, producers of this US version of the celebrity dance show even invited Luhrmann on as a guest judge, to explain to the audience that the BBC original was "directly inspired" by his own film.
As for Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann is justifiably proud that the film, be it due to the sexy casting of DiCaprio and Danes as Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers or the MTV-style visuals, influenced a generation of teenagers. "I've had people from the education system come up and say that has been their major instrument in re-engaging young audiences in Shakespeare." Such is the film's impact almost a decade-and-a-half on, says Luhrmann, "sometimes teachers tell me they have a very hard time convincing students that Romeo and Juliet didn't meet each other in a swimming pool in the original text!"
Luhrmann shrugs at the notion that everything he touches turns to gold, reminding me that back then people were "outraged" by his approach to Shakespeare (even though he'd already successful staged a Colonial India-set version of A Midsummer's Night's Dream back in 1993). "In terms of Romeo + Juliet, Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge!, what made them so controversial 10 years ago... it's not even a headline now. What's different is that they've had such a connection to the culture, that now people are really interested to revisit them as adults."
While the three films were dubbed Luhrmann's "red curtain trilogy", he maintains that the theatrical philosophy (simple story, heightened reality) behind them was inspired by what informed him growing up – "a love of classic cinema". Raised in Herons Creek, a rural town in New South Wales, Luhrmann's film tastes were fostered by his ex-Navy Seal father, who ran a local movie theatre. Among his earliest memories are watching his father thread up films in the projection room, and watching the theatre's plush red curtain draw back to screen such Hollywood musicals as The Sound of Music and Paint Your Wagon.
Yet curiously, while the world latched on to Luhrmann's "red-curtain" aesthetic, the director turned his back on it and aimed for "a more epic style". First there was his aborted project about Alexander the Great, partially abandoned, he says, because he didn't want to get into "a Hollywood race" with Oliver Stone, who eventually released a much-maligned version starring Colin Farrell. Then came Australia, a reunion with Nicole Kidman that proved his Midas touch was not infallible. Set in the country during the build-up to the Second World War, it's hard to imagine Luhrmann's bloated epic romance influencing popular culture in the way its predecessors have.
Two years on from that disappointment, Luhrmann claims he is just "six weeks away" from deciding what his next film will be. The smart money is on another epic – an adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, which was previously brought to the screen in the disappointing 1974 version starring Robert Redford. "It's second only to Gone with the Wind as a recognisable title," says Luhrmann, "and what defines it is that it captures something absolutely inherent to the American condition. Gatsby is born with ambition and possibility. And when that meets opportunity, it can be both beautiful and tragic in an operatic sense."
Already rumours are flying around Hollywood that DiCaprio – who was set to play Alexander for Luhrmann – is being lined up for the plum role of Jay Gatsby. Luhrmann refuses to be drawn on this, but he concedes that – much like he did with the boldly named Australia – he's setting himself up for a fall by tackling such a title. "I don't really care about that. I go towards things that are challenging for me and scary for me – but I want to see them up there. If I'd walked away from that, I wouldn't have tried to reinvent the musical or had a go at making Shakespeare popular or done a ballroom-dancing film. Nobody turns around and goes 'Yes, ballroom dancing, definitely! We want that!'"
Maybe that was true when he started Strictly Ballroom but not any more. While he considers his next film, Luhrmann is now planning a stage-musical version of the film, which he intends to start working on when he returns to Sydney in December. "I think the thing I'm going to be attending to with the production is keeping the familiar elements – that is plot and characters and sensibility. But I'll also look at the underlying myth of oppression, whether that's artistic or political. This idea that there's a big powerful federation with a special, private magical book that tells you there's only one way to cha-cha-cha... I'd really like to address that."
In some ways, it will bring Luhrmann full circle, given that Strictly Ballroom began life in 1986 as a 20-minute play he created while studying at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney (it later doubled in length and was taken to the World Youth Theatre Festival in a "pre-glasnost Czechoslovakia"). While the film itself was the play's next stage of evolution, it's now set to return to its roots. "Maybe its execution will be wildly simple," Luhrmann suggests. "I'm going in with a very open heart and mind as to how to represent it in a way in which it's both familiar but also pushing the boundaries in terms of music theatre."
Given the recent successes of other film-to-stage adaptations, such as Dirty Dancing and Grease, it's what you might call a no-brainer. One can only hope that when it comes to publicising it, Luhrmann takes a slot on Strictly Come Dancing. Would he ever consider it? He lets out a machine-gun laugh. "I have been asked! And I love to dance. I really do love to dance. But, no... I've got so many day jobs." He stops and chews the idea over for a second. "Maybe in my dotage. 'Here he comes now – he's got the walker!'" It's a delicious image: the man behind the red curtain finally stepping out to show us his cha-cha-cha.
'Romeo + Juliet' and 'Moulin Rouge!' are released on Blu-ray on 1 November by Twentieth-Century Fox Home Entertainment
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