11 June 2001
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Bohemian Rhapsody: 'Moulin Rouge'
By Rachael K. Bosley

The malleability of the motion-picture musical has led to some interesting experiments over the years, among them the social criticism of "Cabaret," the B-movie parody of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," the Depression-era fantasies of "Pennies From Heaven" (see Wrap Shot on page 136 of AC), and the grim melodrama of "Dancer in the Dark." The new 20th Century Fox film "Moulin Rouge" reimagines the genre yet again, this time pairing it with the offbeat vision of Australian impresario Baz Luhrmann. Known for ventures in opera, theater, fashion and music, Luhrmann is familiar to film audiences for directing "Strictly Ballroom" (1992) and the frenetic "William Shakespeare's Romeo+Juliet" (1996).

In a 1992 interview about "Strictly Ballroom," which portrays an ugly duckling's triumph in the world of competitive ballroom dance, Luhrmann said, "I wanted to tell this story that everyone knows at such a terrific pace and in such a surprising way that people would be continually disarmed by it." That storytelling method, which employed what Luhrmann called a "graphic cartooning" approach to style and characterization, would surface again in "Romeo+Juliet." For that film, Luhrmann teamed with cinematographer Don McAlpine, ASC, ACS to create what he hoped would be a "relentlessly entertaining" version of Shakespeare's renowned teen romance. Set in the fictional, sun-baked city of Verona Beach (and filmed in Mexico), "Romeo+Juliet" culled its highly stylized imagery from music videos, Mardi Gras and Miami Beach, often achieving the quality of a multicultural, live-action pop-up book whose center of gravity was its tragic lovers.

A veteran of more than 40 feature films, McAlpine calls making "Romeo+Juliet" "one of the great experiences of my career." That career began in 1962, when McAlpine was hired as an assistant cameraman for Australia's ABC-TV; he began shooting documentaries for the network and for Film Australia shortly thereafter. In 1972, McAlpine shot "The Adventures of Barry McKenzie" for first-time director Bruce Beresford. The film proved to be one of the earliest international success stories for the Australian film industry, and McAlpine and Beresford went on to collaborate on 10 more films, including "Don's Party" (1976), "The Getting of Wisdom" (1977), "Breaker Morant" (1979), "King David" (1985) and "The Fringe Dwellers" (1986).

In addition to shooting films for several other first-time directors -- including Gillian Armstrong ("My Brilliant Career") and Mel Gibson ("Man Without a Face") -- McAlpine has teamed with many directors more than once. Such collaborators include Paul Mazursky, for whom McAlpine shot "Tempest" (1982), "Moscow on the Hudson" (1984), "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" (1986) and "Moon Over Parador" (1988); Phillip Noyce, for whom he shot "Patriot Games" (1992) and "Clear and Present Danger" (1994); and Chris Columbus, with whom he teamed on "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993), "Nine Months" (1995) and "Stepmom" (1998).

"There's a limit to how often you should work with the same director, and it's pretty hard to define," McAlpine acknowledges. "It's a wonderful experience to start out with a new director. It's really the closest you can get to a love affair -- you're both very cautious, but you know you've got [to get] together to make this thing work. All directors are different, and trying to work out what I can do to be compatible with a director is something I try to learn very, very quickly. For example, does he want me to take over and visually construct the film, or does he have a strong visual concept of his own that I only need to enhance a little bit?"

McAlpine discovered on "Romeo+Juliet" that Luhrmann was an unusual mix of both. In concert with his partner, production designer Catherine Martin, Luhrmann had developed an approach to Shakespeare's story that was literally teeming with strong visual concepts. At the same time, the pair was eager to collaborate closely with McAlpine to develop strategies for achieving their goal. Interestingly, Luhrmann and Martin had demonstrated a visual and narrative approach quite unlike the Hollywood norm -- in "Strictly Ballroom," as well as in the theater and opera productions they had created in Australia -- whereas McAlpine's résumé showed he was quite well-versed in that norm.

"Hollywood's ability to believe that everyone can play only one note is well documented," the cinematographer observes. "I've enjoyed making the films I've done, but half of them ended up being solid, stylistically normal pieces of work. With Baz and Catherine, I was driven to work outside of that style. When they get together, the result is going to be something 'out there.' You just become a disciple of what they're trying to do. Although shooting [Romeo+Juliet] in Mexico nearly killed us all, it was a great experience, and when I heard that Baz wanted me to shoot "Moulin Rouge," I was thrilled to jump onboard."

An Open Bar

"Moulin Rouge" is set in 1899 and unfolds in the storied Paris nightclub that gives the film its name. Housed in a windmill in the hilltop Montmartre district, the Moulin Rouge opened in 1889 and became famous for its extravagant live shows -- frequently highlighted by performances of the can-can -- and for the diversity of its clientele, which included aristocrats, entrepreneurs and artists. Perhaps its most famous patron in the latter category was the eccentric Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose drawings of Montmartre's inhabitants became synonymous with bohemian Paris.

The film chronicles the adventures of Christian (Ewan McGregor), a naive poet who falls in with Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) and his fellow artists when he proves to be a savvy lyricist. Christian complicates matters at the Moulin Rouge by falling in love with its most famous courtesan and performer, Satine (Nicole Kidman). Meanwhile, club owner Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent), eager to turn the Moulin Rouge into a legitimate theater, encourages Satine to cozy up to a potential financier, the unappealing Duke (Richard Roxburgh). Drama ensues when Duke turns out to be a very jealous suitor. "In terms of the story elements, it's really more of an opera than a musical," McAlpine observes.


In keeping with the self-conscious style of his first two films, Luhrmann wanted to create a Paris that never really existed for "Moulin Rouge." The production was therefore filmed on soundstages at 20th Century Fox in Sydney. "The term Baz kept using was 'heightened reality,'" recalls Steve Mathis, McAlpine's longtime gaffer. "It's a very theatrical movie -- even the exteriors were all shot on stage, and we used painted backdrops. Nobody's going to think we're in Paris, but it looks theatrically real. Baz sets up the film language five minutes into the movie, and viewers will either like it or not."

Establishing that film language frequently required improvisation by both the crew and cast. "Baz is an originator, not an elaborator," McAlpine observes. "The actors would improvise, then he would improvise how he'd like to shoot it, and everyone would argue their opinions." The cameraman adds that such spontaneity suits his own style quite well. "It's easy to analyze [how I light and shoot] once it's behind me, but when I'm doing it, it's just a visceral thing. It sounds trite, but I really do try to paint with light on the day. I simply go with what I think is right. I always have a backup plan in mind, something that will definitely work for the scene, but I try very hard to stay flexible and loose.

"My relationship with Baz developed during "Romeo+Juliet," so we didn't have to go through the 'courting process' on Moulin Rouge," he continues. "We hit the ground running. What I bring to our collaboration is pretty extensive experience -- I'm going to throw away most of it [while working with him], but it gives me a basis on which to improvise. If you at least know the rules, you know when you're breaking them. And on this film, we broke every rule in the book."

Mathis, who has been McAlpine's gaffer for 12 years, agrees. "Don and I had never really done a stage show together, and this movie looks like nothing I've ever seen him shoot," he remarks. "I think his best movies, things like 'Clear and Present Danger,' don't even look 'lit' or 'shot'; they just look good, very clean and very natural. But Don adapted to all of Baz's suggestions, and you can't be too weird for Baz. On the first set we used, for example, Baz came in one night and said he wanted the sky to be green and pink for the point of view of some characters who were drunk on absinthe. We got a crew together and stayed up all night cutting gels, and we lit it. But in the meantime, the script had changed, and that approach didn't fit the scene anymore, so we didn't shoot it.

"In keeping with the idea of 'heightened reality,'" Mathis continues, "we gelled lights with Lee 165 Daylight Blue for all of the night scenes, which makes for incredibly blue 'moonlight.' Don normally goes with 1/4 Blue on tungsten lights outdoors [for moonlit scenes], so this was obviously a big departure. It was one of many."

Luhrmann's approach to filmmaking "is based on uncorrupted judgment," McAlpine observes with a laugh. "There's an unwritten style manual for Hollywood films, but that book doesn't exist when you work with Baz. If he thinks it's best to put the camera at somebody's navel, looking up his or her nostrils, then we do. If it's best to have the camera looking straight down on a lead actor's bald patch, we do it. We failed with some ideas every day, but failure has always meant to me that you've just slightly exceeded your greatest limit. If failure happens in a genuine attempt, it's a wonderful thing."

Setting the Stage

McAlpine found that the Panavision/Kodak PreView System, which he was using for the first time on "Moulin Rouge," was of great assistance in showing Luhrmann how his lighting plans would look on film. "The system is marginally useful in terms of lighting and exposure -- after all, I should know what it tells me anyway," the cinematographer points out. "Its greatest advantage for me was in communicating with Baz. He might look at something on the monitor and say 'I don't like that,' but then I'd use a laptop to show him the PreView stills of how that scene would finally look, and he'd say, 'Oh, I like that.' Most of the time, the dailies looked just like [the laptop image]. The PreView System can prevent fires before they start, and in that regard it's a great tool."

Mathis adds, "Lighting this film wasn't like lighting a classroom or a living room -- we're talking about Gothic towers and gargoyles. Baz has very definite ideas about how he wants things to look, and he needs to see stuff [in order to make decisions]. Don used the PreView to show Baz what the set in progress would look like. The system was most important with all of the painted backings -- you can get a light reading on a backing that will tell you there's X amount of light, but that won't tell you what it's going to look like. The PreView System could. I shot film tests on almost every stage to show Baz and Don what the final set would look like."

"Moulin Rouge" was shot in the 2.35:1 anamorphic format, a favorite of McAlpine's. "My last 10 or 11 films have been anamorphic, and I love the format for many reasons," he explains. "One of them is that when the audience sits down in a theater, the screen just keeps going. They know they're not watching a TV movie. [Another reason is that] you can use a medium-sized lens to capture a performance, as well as a lot of the set design supporting the performance.

"We had arguments over the format with Fox, because the visual effects people were pushing for Super 35," he continues. "But Super 35 means you're working with less than half of the visual information [available in the anamorphic frame]. Our solution was to shoot scenes that would feature CGI in Super 35 on slightly slower film stock, so that the grain structure would match the grain structure of the anamorphic work. It worked out well."

McAlpine adds that using Panavision's Millennium camera made it easy to switch formats quickly. He relied primarily on Panavision Primo anamorphic lenses, and used the C-series lenses for handheld and Steadicam work. Although he employed up to four Millenniums to shoot some of the musical sequences, McAlpine says that "97 percent" of "Moulin Rouge" was shot with a single camera. "I've got a theory that if the main camera is in exactly the right position, then the second camera can't be, because the right position is already occupied," he explains. "I also find that using more than one camera dissipates energy -- my own, the director's and the actors'. With one camera, the actor knows that that is his audience, whereas if the B-camera is alongside, it splits his attention. He thinks, 'One of these cameras has 50 million people behind it, but which one is it?'"

The cinematographer credits first AC Patrick McArdle with achieving stellar results with the anamorphic format's limited depth of field. "I've worked with Patrick since 'Mrs. Doubtfire,' and he's one of two truly gifted first assistants I've worked with in my career," he enthuses. "He compensates an awful lot for the lack of depth of field by just innate skill. I'll be truly perplexed when he moves up to the next step of his career."

"Moulin Rouge" was shot on Kodak Vision 500T 5279 film stock rated normally, and McAlpine says the PreView System enabled him to work to the limits of the stock's shadow and highlights areas. "I basically light by eye," he explains. "When you're shooting on a new set, you tune your eye in a day or so, and it's easy to play it safe and continue the same melody for the rest of the sequence. I used the PreView System to challenge myself and explore where the piece could go. The PreView is not an exact reproduction of the next day's print from the lab; it is, however, the best immediate interpretation available today.

"A financial advantage was that the PreView System enabled me to print at the same lights for the entire film," he continues. "That also removed the problems that arise when some timer in the dead of night has to interpret your intent." He adds that the production used film dailies throughout the shoot. "Working with video dailies is like tuning a Stradivarius through a microphone and a pair of cheap headphones," he says with a dismissive gesture.

"Moulin Rouge" required about eight months of principal photography, and Mathis says that three separate crews were often rigging three stages at once. "Australia operates with the European system, which means there's no key grip in the American sense," Mathis explains. "The gaffer is in charge of nets, flags, cutters, teasers, rigging, putting in clamps, and so on. That added a level of complexity to my job. Fortunately, I'd worked within that system before." McAlpine, who has brought Mathis onto all of his projects since they met on "Career Opportunities" (1991), says, "I just wave my arms, and Steve knows what to do. He's a brilliant gaffer, and we've worked together for so long that he can anticipate what I want to do. We can ad-lib on even the most gigantic sets. To me, every minute or obstacle that stops me from working with the director, the camera and the actor [is crucial] -- because that's really the making of the film."


Going All Out

Although "Moulin Rouge" is set in 1899, the musical numbers are almost exclusively popular songs from the late 20th century by artists such as "The Beatles," "Madonna" and "U2." In light of that major anachronism -- and in keeping with the theatrical visual scheme the filmmakers had in mind -- Mathis says he "kept bugging Don and everyone else to not be historically accurate with the lighting. Eventually everyone came to the same conclusion: we should make it look as good as possible. So for instance, we decided to play the tango scene [set to The Police's 'Roxanne'] with follow spots, even though they didn't have those lights in 1899. We used four follow spots, and we backlit the dancers with two of them. While Don was talking to the cameras, I was out on the floor, trying to keep the A-camera in constant backlight. The dancers were always silhouetted with three-quarter backlight.

"None of the scenes in the film are what you'd call 'normal,'" Mathis adds. "The film doesn't drop out of big theatrical numbers into typical over-the-shoulder coverage! I think the most normal set is Satine's bedroom -- and that's all red velvet and mirrors."

The highly stylized world of "Moulin Rouge" posed a number of lighting challenges, but Luhrmann's improvisational approach encouraged the crew to tackle them in a variety of ways. "Working with Baz means that you can do anything, as long as it fits," McAlpine says. Mathis adds, "Baz even likes mistakes. Don and I actually made a rule that we'd never turn off a light in his presence, because he likes the set darker than you can actually shoot. I turned off a light once when Baz was there, and he said right away, 'I like that!' Don came over to me and said with a laugh, 'Now you've done it!'"

Luhrmann's desire to achieve a look of "heightened" reality rather than pure reality meant that some effects could be achieved quite simply. "There's a night sequence in which Christian and Satine dance, then sort of fly off above the streets of Paris," Mathis details. "The actors leave a real doorway, then proceed to 'float' over a stage full of miniatures. We floated fog on the ground and had a night-blue backing behind [the city]. Someone suggested that we add some twinkling stars, so we simply cut holes in the backing, hung Mylar behind the backing and aimed hard light and fans at the Mylar. We got our twinkling stars."

The show's most complicated lighting job was one that McAlpine and his crew initially thought they wouldn't have to worry about. McAlpine explains, "In the film, Zidler builds a legitimate stage in the very back of his club, which is where he wants to stage real theatrical productions. Early on in production, Baz asked the top theater-lighting designer in Australia to design the lighting for the production that takes place on that set. He went to work on it, but a few days before those scenes were to be shot, he said he would need seven days of rehearsals on the stage to perfect his lighting, which is what he typically does in the theater. We saw on the schedule that he'd only have one night to do it. He said he simply couldn't do it on that timetable, so everyone turned to me. I said, 'Well, it's what I do.'

"We had roughly two days to light that set, and Steve Mathis and the Australian crew worked through the night to do it," McAlpine continues. "We initially thought we'd start off the performance with little footlights to be historically correct, but the style of the film had by then developed into one of extreme exaggeration, so the initial idea wasn't going to fit. It instead became a very contemporary, very complex lighting plan." [See diagrams on pages 43 and 45.]

Mathis explains, "The designer they'd hired had approached it as a stage show, so he had lit the stage to eye rather than to stop. So I went in with a rigging crew on a Saturday, and we hung mountains of lights, at least 150 of them. We didn't know where any of the actors were going to stand, and we had to light big areas. As a result, the performance is lit more like a rock concert than a play; we lit it by color rather than by position, so we could fade from one color to another. I've never lit a play, but I believe you'd normally light certain areas of the stage with certain colors. Instead, we just lit blocks of color in sidelight, frontlight and backlight. I think the only modern convention we didn't use was moving lights." (Ed. Note: The final lighting scheme varied slightly from the Overhead Stage Lighting Diagram seen above.)

Mathis and his crew rigged trusses over the stage with 1K Babies, 2K Juniors and Blondes, 5Ks, Source 4 Lekos and Par cans that held either Very Narrow Spot Pars (VNSP) or Narrow Spots; all of the lights were gelled with shades of pink, blue and yellow. In addition, booms on both sides of the stage were rigged with lights gelled blue and red. The two booms closest to the front of the stage held Par cans, Babies and Juniors, and the other eight booms held VNSPs. "We had about one crew member for every two trusses," Mathis recalls. "It was a really awkward space to rig, because we had to work around the [heart] setpieces, and we didn't have time to bring in scissor lifts or anything like that. So each guy had to go up in the perms, crawl hand-over-hand out over the stage and hang upside-down to reach the lights."

Lights were also hung at the top of each of the heart setpieces, and the crew positioned a 10K under the stage and a 10K as backlight behind the heart at the rear of the stage. In the same area, Cyc Strips were hung above the set and below the stage, and were aimed at the backing; these units were gelled pink and blue.

To augment the lights that were hung, the crew cut holes in the stage floor close to the column setpieces and positioned 2K Juniors under the stage to provide uplight. For footlights at the front of the stage, the production employed period practicals when the lights could be seen by the camera, and 1K nook lights hidden behind seashells when they couldn't be seen. To provide front fill for the performance, four 10Ks augmented with Lee 216 were hung on a truss above the steps leading from the stage to the floor of the club. Four Supertrooper follow spots were also placed in different positions to help highlight action on the stage.

The musical number is a medley that climaxes with the song "Come What May," which Satine and Christian have agreed will be a secret signal between them. As the medley progresses, backings rise from the stage, gradually revealing three distinct stages, each higher than the previous one. "We didn't shoot the medley in order, of course, because that would've been too easy!" Mathis says with a laugh. "We finished hanging the lights about three hours into Monday, then I got to see one rehearsal on the stage, and then we started shooting. We had no lighting rehearsals. All of the cues had to be called live; we didn't have time to do playback.

"Almost every light was on its own circuit, and our dimmer-board operator, Grant Neutroski, consolidated the cues into two boards," Mathis details. "He and I and four follow-spot operators did the whole thing live. There are dramatic color shifts all the way through the performance. We play Satine's entrance with a cold blue light, then we shift to a primary red, and by the time we get to the end of the piece the lighting is mainly pink and gold. The lights change on the beat. Sometimes we'd take it to just backlight, or to back- and sidelight with no fill.

"I was guessing at what would look good! I had listened to a mix of the songs in the medley a few times before we shot the first take. We managed to intuitively figure out what cues worked the best on the first take, so at the end of that take, we ended up with a lighting plan that we kept. Catherine Martin had given me a Photoshop rendering of what she wanted the finale to look like, and she just couldn't believe how well we matched it. It's exactly what she showed us." (See photo that accompanies diagram on page 42.)

The Main Hall where the audience is seated had already been in use by the production as a Moulin Rouge interior, according to Mathis. "We'd been shooting in that space for a while, and the area that became the stage for the performance had been walled off while that set was being built," he recalls. To illuminate the Main Hall during the theater performance, the crew rigged more than a dozen trusses with 10Ks, 5Ks and 2K Juniors that could be raised and lowered on chain motors and accessed by catwalks on both sides of the soundstage. (See diagram on page 45.) They also placed four 12-light Maxi-Brutes at each end of the Main Hall and positioned them as needed. To help illuminate the space from the side, the crew positioned 10Ks on rolling stands on the roofs of the second-floor booths. In addition, hundreds of practicals, including festooning and windmill-shaped fixtures, were placed around the hall.

Back to the Future

Although he has worked almost exclusively on U.S. productions for the past 20 years, McAlpine found himself working with a treasured collaborator from his early days in Australia during post on "Moulin Rouge:" colorist Arthur Cambridge at Sydney's Atlab. "Arthur worked on many of the early Australian films I shot, including 'The Getting of Wisdom' and 'My Brilliant Career,'" he says. "He's considered by many to be a genius, and now that there's more production in Australia, he's being 'discovered' by others." While shooting "The Time Machine" in Los Angeles this spring, McAlpine spent weekends watching reels of "Moulin Rouge" at Fox and working with Cambridge by telephone.

The cinematographer hopes "Moulin Rouge's" indisputably modern take on the musical will bring new life to the genre. "During prep, we all talked about how the form that was a brilliant success in the '40s and '50s just isn't acceptable to an audience today -- the magic, the innocence that it's based on, just isn't there anymore, and the audience won't even pretend it is. In a very arrogant way, 'Moulin Rouge' reinvents the musical for the younger generation, with much the same arrogance that 'Romeo+Juliet' reinvented Shakespeare. The greatest thing would be if in two years' time, the musical form were totally acceptable again. But it's doubtful, because the work Baz and Catherine put into this film would be hard to imitate."

The challenge of shooting a film like "Moulin Rouge" is "the indefinable thing of trying to capture the energy," McAlpine says in conclusion. "The fact that we were shooting many of the close-ups with extreme-wide 40-50mm anamorphic lenses was an attempt to really be 'in there' with the energy. The camera is never standing back, never a distant observer. We'd sometimes have an actor three feet away from a 14-inch-wide lens -- and those were glamour shots, which are normally shot with a long lens from a distance! I feel we've made a great movie, the kind for which you really hope there's an audience."

Unit photography by Sue Adler and Douglas Kirkland