7 September 2001
With his first two films, Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann marked himself out as one of modern cinema's greatest visual stylists. On the occasion of the release of his latest movie, the lavish musical Moulin Rouge, the Australian director talked to Geoff Andrew about his life and career.
Interview by Geoff Andrew
Geoff Andrew: Thank you for coming, and thank you for making it so hard to choose a clip. The last clip [Mercutio's death in Romeo + Juliet] ran on rather longer than we usually allow because it was such a great scene that I couldn't cut anywhere until the end.
Baz Luhrmann: Long enough for me to think that I might like to change a few things in it still. [Laughter] I haven't seen any of those films for a long time, so probably a dangerous thing to let me look at them.
GA: One of the things I wanted to bring out from that clip of Romeo and Juliet; the film, like many of your films, is full of great artifice, but when you were shooting that particular scene you actually had a real hurricane.
BL: That's very true, yes.
GA: So there you are, making a film about artifice, and then nature breaks into it. Does that freak you out when that happens?
BL: Well, no. While we are dealing with Romeo and Juliet, that sequence, the very last shot where the car leaves, that is in fact a real storm. The thing about creating these theatrical [scenes], what I like to refer to as real artificiality, is that the actual level of control you need to have in the artifice is so great that they're incredibly laboured. They take a lot of labour to get right. For some reason they always seem to run into endless disasters, or acts of God. So on that film (apart from the fact that our wonderful hair and make-up department were kidnapped by bandits, we eventually got them back for $250, which was a bargain) everything you see in that sequence, every palm tree, every telegraph pole, is built. There is nothing that is in that scene that is not created. It was just a fairly grubby piece of beach in Mexico originally.
What happened was we had this very short window in which to shoot this huge amount of text, and then the storm came in. Now, you've got a whole load of young actors down in Mexico, and they'll do anything and it's like they could have said: "Oh, we're doomed! We'll have to go back to San Francisco." But they said: "No. We wanna get out there." So we got out and we shot that one final wide, where you can see the palm trees, and we shot the reverse, which is looking down towards the beach and the ocean. All the crew had goggles on, and the guys had stinging sand in their eyes, and then, after those two shots, the sets were completely blown away by the hurricane.
Four days later they were useless, but what we were able to do was to come back and reconstruct the sequence with some fans and things, so all those close-ups were built around these two major pieces that we had. So this is a rather long answer to your question, but I guess the short answer is, no. Because it's a duality. At all times in this theatricalised cinema, it is real rrtificiality, that is there is a sense of absolute control, but at the heart of it, it allows a very direct, emotional connection. It's a device to disarm oh-so-clever, oh-so-cool people, so that you can have these very direct, emotional experiences, which you couldn't have in a naturalistic film because they're too direct.
It's a bit like in the sequence [a clip was shown of the scene when Fran's Spanish family teach Scott how to feel 'the rhythm'] from Strictly Ballroom. When the film begins there are all those crazy, manic 'World of Ballroom' interviews, and it's a cartoon-like world. When Scott meets Fran, the first time they are alone is when we go from the interior set to the exterior, and eventually the only reality scene is that scene you just showed. At a certain support you need to inject, within this construct that you've made, some humanity. So I suppose with that scene, it was one of the scenes that really needed it and it helped us out. That's a very long answer I know. I try not to babble.
GA: The reason why I chose that sequence was because it's dance. You did that in your first film, which itself had originated out of theatre workshops. Were you always interested in dance and have you always wanted to make a musical?
BL: I'll try to give you a short answer, but I know I'll fail. I was born in a very small country town, actually I wasn't born there, I grew up there - I'm a mythomaniac. I grew up in this tiny country town and we owned a gas station, and a farm, at one stage. The guy that sold us the petrol also ran the local cinema, and, sadly, he died of a heart attack. My dad knew how to run a bit of film through a 16mil gate, so he took over the running of the cinema for some time. At a very young age I was allowed to go into the cinema and watch adult films. The first one I saw was a provocative, shocking piece called Paint Your Wagon.
In that number I saw the first female breasts that I'd ever seen - a child's imagination. Maybe that screwed with my head, Paint Your Wagon. As well as that there was a lot of old, cheap television which in those days, before we recognised the value of pop culture, were musicals - things like Bandwagon and Top Hat. I loved them. I had a love of musicals.
So, we jump forward. I eventually went to drama school and I devised a play, this metaphorical play about a world I knew a lot about, because my mother was a dance teacher, called Strictly Ballroom. The thing about that play was that, I was into [US author] Joseph Campbell at the time and his idea of universal mythology, the idea of putting a universal myth in a far-away, exotic land that was still familiar. It was a place that was strange and crazy, the world of ballroom dancing - apologies to anyone who is a professional dancer - but it could be your local football club, it could be, say, a government body.
So we made this metaphorical piece in this heightened metaphorical style and we went to a Czechoslovakian theatre festival and we won awards. Great. Then I had my own theatre company and opera company simultaneously - which made for difficult times, but I got through. At the end of that, I wanted to make a film, and this wonderful guy came to me and said: "I've got a music company, a band called ACDC." You can see the natural connection. He said: "I want to make a film company and I want to buy the rights for Strictly Ballroom." I said as long as I directed it then that would be great.
There's a longer story here, but finally, we came to the moment when [my co-writer] Craig Pearce and I set out to do the screenplay of Strictly Ballroom. Because we wanted to be very professional, we wanted to have a traditional, realistic screenplay. In that screenplay there was a whole union strand, it was naturalised - you'd cut from a tango to someone in a steel mill. It took us a long time to get rid of that. But we found out one thing - it was finally Dirty Dancing. That's not to denigrate that film. It was a realistic expression, but what was lost was the power of the metaphor. What was lost was the notion behind this piece of artistic oppression. There's a great line in Strictly Ballroom where the kid says: "But the audience loved it." [And he is told:] "The audience? The audience? What would they know? These flashy steps."
So that had been lost. So we thought, let's look back to a cinematic language where the audience participated in the form. Where they were aware at all times that they were watching a movie, and that they should be active in their experience and not passive. Not being put into a sort of sleep state and made to believe through a set of constructs that they are watching a real-life story through a keyhole. They are aware at all times that they are watching a movie.
That was the first step in this theatricalised cinematic form that we now call the Red Curtain. So, the short answer is, yes, I did ballroom dance as a child.
GA: Why are you a mythomaniac?
BL: In terms of story, do you think? In terms of the mechanics of story, myth is an intriguing one because we didn't make myth up, myth is an imprinture of the human condition. Romeo and Juliet was not written by William Shakespeare - it was an Italian novella, and probably goes back to Pyramus and Thisbe [lovers in Greek mythology who were forbidden to meet]. The idea that the incumbent adult world is in conflict and their kids fall in love, that the incumbent adult world uses the grand tragedy of their children because of their hatred, is happening today in countries and towns near here. That is an imprint of the human condition. So these primary strands, when they are condensed down into a mythological form, they are not a social or economic or a realistic explanation of what it is to be in Miami, but they do unite us on a fundamental level through time and geography, and they move themselves through time and geography.
So I think that the whole idea of primary storytelling was something that I became very engaged in while I was at drama school. I ran towards Brecht and Strindberg - anything my mother didn't understand was pretty interesting art. The primary myth part came out of a revelation of the value of Shakespeare. Those are dramas that play to the simple person and the complicated person. It's been a fascination, but also the power of the myth and storytelling is something I've been at work on in many levels - opera, election campaigns, all sorts of communication.
GA: In Moulin Rouge you deal with the Orpheus myth, where you come to an age where you realise life isn't what you want it to be and you have to deal with death.
BL: Things bigger than yourself, yes.
GA: And your father died at the beginning of filming, so that has personal relevance to you. Does that make a film easier or harder to make?
BL: Probably richer to make, or more fulfilling to make, because Strictly Ballroom came out of a genuine, heartfelt feeling - we were in drama school and we had a whole lot of people telling us that there was only one way to tell a story, by the nature of being in an institution you are academically oppressed and want to find your own voice. As well as that, the early versions of Strictly Ballroom were concerned with the Cold War. In the stage version, during costume changes, Ronald Reagan came on and talked about the Star Wars project. We thought we were making wonderful connections to the Cold War as well.
Having said that, the metaphor of this young, ballroom dancer who feels a connection to telling a story his own way, and the oppression he feels by an organisation that tells him that there is a rule book that states that there is only one way to cha-cha-cha. The notion of that was something that we felt very strongly about.
So when I select a work, Romeo and Juliet being about youthful love in conflict with society, particularly with Moulin Rouge - I started with the notion that I would love to address the musical, how to find how to make a musical work in this place, in this time. I wanted to work with my team, and it really is a collaboration, in this Red Curtain piece. I wanted to take this cinematic language I had been working on and do a final work on it. But I didn't begin that. I began on a personal quest asking not will this be set in the Moulin Rouge, not what do I really think of can-can dancing, I set thinking what kind of story must I tell? One of the primary ways of telling this kind of story is that the audience must know from the beginning how it is going to end, so that within the first ten minutes you know how it's going to end, but you think, how?
It's not a revelation of plot, it's how the story is told. So my first step is to work out what kind of story do I need to work on. I was 35 then, so it didn't take me too long to realise that I was going to be walking through the Orphean journey, the transition of youthful idealism to when you realise that there are things bigger than you - people die, some relationships cannot be - and you are destroyed by that. The scars of that experience and that loss allow you to grow internally and spiritually, and that's the adult journey.
There is a fair exchange between the gifts of youth and the gifts of growing old, you've got to hope that anyway. Plus I wanted to make a musical. Not great bedfellows - the Orphean myth and a musical.
When you do it you've got something like Cabaret - one of my favourite musicals by the way - where the musical numbers don't really advance the plot. I wanted to break up the song. A quest is much easier - they triumph in the end, you know, Wizard of Oz. So we're done with that.
Then came, 'What world to set this in?' This is a basic process for us. About ten years ago when we were researching La Boheme, the Puccini opera, and we went to the Moulin Rouge in Paris to see Latoya Jackson wrestling a snake.
Unfortunately she didn't wrestle the night we were there, so we missed that. But I was reminded - all these German tourist buses were pulling up - of a time and a place - when Picasso was passing through there - when the popular culture of the 20th century was sediment that moved downstream from that place and that time. It stuck with me. Finally, when we were looking for a place to set our Orphean world, it became not the idealistic bohemianism of 1830, but the commercialised bohemia of 1890/1900. This is a great reflection on us at this time, a time of incredible technological change, a time when the world is moving forwards and backwards. Armed with those three things, we had a starting point. That took two years to get there. We're very slow.
GA: Is that the end of the answer?
BL: I'm not sure what the question was, sorry.
GA: You had some problems on Moulin Rouge - Nicole cracked a rib.
GA: And sprained an ankle?
BL: She actually smashed her knee and for that reason we did not finish the movie. We had to quietly and secretly finish the movie in Madrid. She finally had the operation and had to pull out of the next picture she was in. [There were] many, many, endless acts of God that seemed to make it more difficult to make. When she says in the film: "A real actress," she's in a wheelchair with her leg up.
GA: It's obviously difficult to make a musical - every time you had a take with somebody crying, you had to make them up again because of the glamour.
BL: The emotional is in supreme control - they tear their heart out. But the level of control made it excruciating to film.
GA: Did you ever feel like giving up?
BL: Yes, I did.
GA: What kept you going?
BL: Well, my dad died on the first day of shooting - how mythological is that? Quite typical of him, in a sense. He was very generous, he said: "What are you doing here? You must go back and do the film. You must work." I made the decision that for the first time in my life I would put something else above my work, and that was to spend the time to go through the ceremony of death. So there was that. That was kind of the feeling of every single day on this piece, and I am now in my fifth year of Moulin Rouge. It has always had moments of real euphoria, of 'we are going to do this and get to where we set out to go'. It's not just me, it was all the people who trusted me to come out on the road, Nicole and Ewan, it's hard to understand what they gave up - they worked for nothing on the film and it took four months to rehearse.
The elephant sequence, we were supposed to shoot for a week, but we ran out of days, and George Lucas, who is a very nice man, but his producer just ripped the thing down. I had to condense the shooting of that. Your question about whether I wanted to give up, I wanted to give up so much, more than ever before and, I hope, more than I ever will again. I think that is something about this journey. Without getting too sentimental about it, I did say to my dad that I'd get it done.
GA: The film is full of references and allusions, did you rack your brains for them, and why are you so keen on doing that?
BL: It is absolutely inherent in the process because the Red Curtain requires some basics. One is that the audience knows how it will end when it begins, it is fundamental that the story is extremely thin and extremely simple - that is a lot of labour. Then it is set in a heightened, created world. Then there is a device - the heightened world of Strictly Ballroom, Verona beach. Then there is another device - dance or iambic pentameter or singing, and that's there to keep the audience awake and engaged.
The other thing is that this piece was to be a comic tragedy. This is an unusual form, there's been a few goes at it - [like] Dancer in the Dark - but it's not common in Western cinematic form. When I was in India researching Midsummer Night's Dream, we went to this huge, icecream picture palace to see a Bollywood movie. Here we were, with 2,000 Indians watching a film in Hindi, and there was the lowest possible comedy and then incredible drama and tragedy and then break out in songs. And it was three-and-a-half hours! We thought we had suddenly learnt Hindi, because we understood everything!
We thought it was incredible. How involved the audience were. How uncool they were - how their coolness had been ripped aside and how they were united in this singular sharing of the story. The thrill of thinking, 'Could we ever do that in the West? Could we ever get past that cerebral cool and perceived cool.' It required this idea of comic-tragedy. Could you make those switches? Fine in Shakespeare - low comedy and then you die in five minutes.
To do that you need the audience to know very, very quickly where they are. When we were evolving Romeo and Juliet we encoded in text and design referencing for the audience:
OK. They're at the gas station. They've got guns. That's a bit weird. What if we dealt with it like a spaghetti western? You get close ups and you get the language vernacular of that. By the time you get to Romeo and Juliet in the love scene, it's pretty much a bit Zeffirelli, it's very romantic, even if you don't know that, you understand very quickly what kind of cinematic form you are in, subconsciously. The idea of that is to help the very fast gear changes you need to do.
Ultimately our Romeo is a mixture of James Dean and Kurt Cobain, and that referencing is absolutely specific - the Hawaiian shirt and the floppy hair. The coding and referencing is to help the audience understand where they are as well as making a new work in itself.
In Moulin Rouge, we went further. Our recognisable story, though Orphean in shape, is derived from Camille, La Boheme - whether you know those texts or not, you recognise those patterns and character types. Finally, by developing this recognisable code, we work in a lot of music, I've just worked with Missy Elliott, you know? Missy Elliott? The great thing about the hip-hop folk is that they are fearless and culturally blind. I can be with a rapper called Cannabis and he will tell me that he's going to take the soundtrack from Titanic, sample and make a song out of it. Their ability to steal from culture without judgement, without a decision about what is right or wrong or good or bad, it's just does it affect you emotionally or not, that blindness to pretension gets me going. I would like to think that, cinematically, that's the road we're going down.
There are successes and failures in what we're doing, but that's the road we're walking down - stealing from culture all over the place to write a code so that very quickly the audience can swing from the lowest possible comedy moment to the highest possible tragedy with a bit of music in the middle.
Geoff Andrew: There's a line in Moulin Rouge which is, "Enough of your dogma!" Your film-making is almost the direct opposite of the DOGMA rules, isn't it?
Baz Luhrmann: First of all, no. It's really not. We have our own dogma. Interestingly, I know Lars Von Trier's producer very well, and his journey and ours is similar in a sense, in that the only difference is it being the complete reverse.
My early work was 16mm documentaries shot on the streets of Kings Cross, and he was very baroque. He's moved towards a kind of minimalism, whereas as we've moved to our own code, a kind of heightened artifice which is like his early work. But that isn't relevant. What is relevant is that we're sort of heading in the same direction, and there's a mutual admiration there, in the sense that we deal with primary mythology. Whichever way you look at it, the idea of access a direct emotional response through a kind of twisting of simple melodramatic - melodrama is a good word to use, because primary mythology is a basic kind of melodrama. All good, clean stories are melodrama, it's just the set of devices that determines how you show or hide it.
GA: Is teamwork very important to you? You don't go down the easy route.
BL: I had a project when I was very young, I had this very high-profile company and I was advised by the people that ran the company, and this was probably the first time I didn't listen to my own instinct, to hire the edgiest producer I could find. The reason was that I was advised that I shouldn't make my company up of people who agreed with me or who I got along with. I was so passionate about being strong that I really went overboard on that one, and so we couldn't even decide to make a decision.
So, after that first experience in that company, I evolved. I realised that all my relationships had grown up out of work. I grew up on this gas station/farm and we only knew work... I'm only thinking about this now as I get near to 40 and write notes about my childhood... It's about time to do that film, isn't it? Why is our life and our work inseparable? Why do we find it so hard to just go to a resort and have a good time? It's because that's how I grew up.
Because of that, I realised that the talent I needed to work with was around me, and were the people I had found a connection with and who had shared the journey. So like a circus, a long-term creative group was worth a hell of a lot of effort.
I started the screenplay of Strictly Ballroom with a professional writer, and at a certain point I had to go to the producer and say that it wasn't working and that I wanted my best friend to write it with me because he understood the vernacular of what I'm talking about. I've known him for twenty years and I've been working with him ever since I knew him, exchanging ideas. And that's something that I am so thankful about, and considering I'm sort of enslaved to the work, it's important that I work with people I have a profound connection with. However, each new project has new blood, whether it's Ewan McGregor or the fabulous hair and make-up team that have worked with Fellini. When I do an opera, I don't work with Craig. It's not rhetoric, it's not a PR line that our life and our work is as one - that's the truth. Out of that comes these creative relationships. The short answer is that it means everything to me, it's my life and I like to think it will continue to be that way.
GA: Is that why you made this film in Australia, you could have made it anywhere?
BL: We were very lucky with Strictly Ballroom, because nobody wanted it. Even when we made it, we screened it to this guy who had the distribution rights and he had two cinemas and was the first person to see the film. I didn't know what happened when you made a movie, you screen it and... The guy who owned the rights came in, and walked out with a red face and told the producer, "I can not, in all my good conscience, give two cinemas to that movie."
He said, "You have ruined Pat Thompson's career!" So he took away the two cinemas. But then it was selected for Cannes...
GA: And that provoked a bidding war...
BL: I keep saying this, it's probably out of date now, but 24 hours later - apart from the incredible euphoric moment when I think my life was irreversibly changed - the truth of it is is that it has the record for the most amount of sales. That's curious, because the rights were held by this one guy, so it was this highly acclaimed art-house picture which had a crossover effect...
So, yes, we won for ourselves a criteria, a mantra, which is that we only make what we want to make in the way we want to make it. I believe we make universal stories for the world, but it has an Australian voice, and to maintain that voice you must be connected to your land. So the need to be in Australia motivated us to motivate Fox to build this studio down there, where they now shoot Star Wars and The Matrix, so it's a wonderful facility.
For us, every single frame in Moulin Rouge, apart from those two pick-ups in Madrid, was created in Sydney, Australia, and it's set in Paris. All of it was shot inside a sound stage. That might give you an idea of the weight of importance that it carries. So the answer is, yes, it is very important - I'm not saying we shoot everything there - it's very important that we're connected to our land.
GA: You do a lot of other things - operas and music. How do you get the energy for that? And is there anything you prefer to do?
BL: Good question...
GA: He's being very nice about my questions now...
BL: No, that's good. It's one I haven't been asked that much before. You're warming up...
It's a good question, because if you make a film full of risk, studios don't run towards you to give you $50,000,000 in order to reinvent the post-modern musical, I can tell you. If you do manage to cajole them into doing it and you want to maintain the flag of creative freedom, you better make sure that it pays its bill.
So every five years, I grow myself the silver mullet, or whatever it takes, and go out there and communicate the film. And, as you'll see in this silly documentary, I'm in the Mid-West, riding an elephant with a Texan cowboy hat going, "Yee-ha!" SO there's nothing you won't do.
I say that because I also say in the documentary that I have to spend six months of very valuable time doing this, rather than sitting there just giving pre-scripted answers, I try to use these discussions to find out something new.
I think, if I was really honest... I used to have a rote answer to this which would be that they were all the same and there's no difference between stage and screen, because you're fundamentally telling a story. I am not a film-maker, some people would really agree with that, or an opera director, or an election campaign deviser, I see that we deal in the currency of story. What I like to think I have some craft in.
The actual journey of Moulin Rouge, the dimension of it...We did the album as an experiment in hands-on producing and trying to make something eclectic, and also as a charity record for the Aboriginal cause in Australia. We didn't really mean to create a world-wide hit with Sunscreen. So it was an experience for us, and it only took a week to make.
In a way there's something about baring oneself in the process is also a hiding... Having an idea and then making it in a week... I guess the answer to your question is that in terms of the creative process, no, I think it's not producing music, I think it's directing music. It's exactly the same process. You don't actually play the instruments, you talk about ideas, you give examples and notes - musicians and actors are the same thing. But the dimensions, elements and the scale of things can be very different. I'm looking to revisiting those fresh, less demanding scales.
GA: It is important to you to have creative freedom, do you think you actually have it?
BL: Well, it's pretty hard for them to sack me and put someone in to do iambic pentameter in modern dress, you know? What we've made, we only have one iron-clad guarantee every single time which is it will never work and no-one will ever see it. Because it has gone on to more than pay its bill, and, by varying degrees, it has been acclaimed, the notion that the studio interferes... I like to engage with them, I don't have a producer... There's a whole system in Hollywood where the director never speaks to the studio, but I like to engage them in a discussion. I listen. But then finally we listen to ourselves.
So, what is creative freedom? We can make what we want, how we want. The only constraint is: not for any budget. It was $45 million originally, and then it went to 50. That was a big ask. 50 was a bit of a worry. Over 50 was a big worry. Thankfully, even if we do reasonably well in these territories, we've paid the bill and we can continue to fly the flag of creative freedom. I don't just consider that to be important, I consider it to be everything. We are not for hire. I don't want to be. I wouldn't take a directing job if I didn't think it was enriching life. That's not to disrespect the shooters that do that, that's a very particular craft, but there are other things in life that I would prefer to spend my life doing.
GA: In the documentary, you do say that you are thinking of becoming a recluse in seven years time. Were you telling the truth?
BL: That guy Adrian was driving me crazy, following me around with a camera in Texas, Taiwan... Yes I am. I shouldn't have said it because now everyone asks it. What I mean is this: I consider the work I do as a story-teller... we give everything to it. I would like to think that I have a claim to some privacy so I can look internally in life. I feel ludicrously embarrassed that I'm sharing this with you, but nonetheless it's true. After I've said it, in the documentary, my assistant, Dubsy, turns to the camera and says, "And then I take over!"
Yes. Yes. I'm not unappreciative of all those things that come with recognition, but I do want my life back at some point. When I say me, it's everyone I live with. I want to have children...This is so personal! I feel like I'm on Oprah! I've scheduled it in as a project - looking at life!
GA: Let's open it to the audience...
Question one: What comes next?
BL: The only thing we're committed to is doing La Boheme in New York on Broadway next year, because it truly was the beginning of this Red Curtain language. Then I go to Hong Kong and talk about the film. Then I have this period, as I did before, where I go away on my own and let go of the mantle of being a director. I have a backpack and a credit card and I don't know where I'm going. Last time it was a disaster - the first few weeks was, like, the laundry - how do you do that? But that process is about zero-ing out, stripping away all the stuff that is... I'm not saying it's not real life, It's my real life, but to just realise that in the end it is just art and movies and it's not everything. In that moment, you're probably appreciating the possibility of being able to make something... I find not what I want to make - what I want to make is a James Bond movie - that would be fun! - but what do I need to make to enrich life? All I can guarantee is that it won't have a Red Curtain language. It will have our cinematic language.
It might be psychological rather than mythological, but we will need to find a cinematic form in which to tell it, and that journey will begin. That's the only plan I've got - to not have a plan.
Question two: With its Bollywood influence, will Moulin Rouge go down well in India?
BL: Well, I'm very happy to report that when I landed in Glasgow today, a lovely Indian student ran up to me and said, "I've just come from Delhi, and I've just seen Moulin Rouge, and it has this Bollywood track in it and it's a huge hit. I've come here to study computer science at the university, and my first day here I see you!" So we are a big hit in India!
That's unusual, and I'll tell you why. I have a profound connection with India because I was there at a time when I had lost interest in the work and life really - I had been to all the groovy hotels, so what else is there left to do - and it revitalised my understanding and my spirit. That was many years ago. The thing that is so great about India is how strong their film industry is - they make more films than Hollywood. Western films don't do very well in India. We were very keen to have our premiere there, and we did and forget all the other gigs - forget Cannes! This giant elephant came out and put a wreath round me and stuff like that. I'm proud of the Bollywood influence in the film.
I don't know if you've seen Lagaan at all, but everyone was raving about it. It's the simple story of, if I get this wrong, forgive me, this Indian village having to learn cricket and wanting to beat the English at their own game. There's this beautiful moment when they're trying to win the game and there's this guy with a deformed hand and he's trying to bowl, and as his hand comes up they all shout, "Spin bowler!"
And the secret of spin bowling is revealed! So it's an awareness that you're participating in the movie. In a really simple way, I don't want to be seen as stealing from someone else's culture, but I owe the experience in India an awful lot. Now, the end track is an Indian pop hit with a techno Beethoven and then Nicole Kidman singing Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend and then one of the great Indian vocal stars singing over the top. That's the last cue. So the cultural mixes there are a good indication of the work that we're doing.
I'm wanting to work with some of the tune writers who work in Hindi-pop, because they have a great access to a freshness in tune, so that's a future project.
Question three: If you won the Best Director Oscar for Moulin Rouge, what would you say?
BL: I'd say, "You're kidding!"
They're funny things, awards, and we've won some. And winning's better than losing. I know what it's like. One of the proud moments for us was Robert Wise, who directed Sound of Music and West Side Story, he is the great-great grandfather of musical cinema and he said, "I've seen Moulin Rouge and the musical has been re-invented." I bring this up because you get that kind of thing and that's wonderful... There's no doubt that when you're up for an award you want to win, but, finally, art is not a horse race. If Gladiator was a great film in its form and Crouching Tiger a great film in its form, which is better? They're just different. It's not a horse race. You can't say, you know, Gladiator is so much faster!
Or, we did a colour check, and one is brighter.
It just isn't that. And I know this because everyone says it to you after you've lost. But at the end of a year, there is always some extraordinary work and awards do two things - they shine a big, bright light on that work and they help us strive to do that.
Question four: How close is the film to how you originally wanted it?
BL: All the films I make are about 60% of what I imagine them to be. Because it's a musical, you have to play it to get the rhythms right. In MGM musicals, in Wizard of Oz there is a fabulous routine performed by the Scarecrow that is not in the final movie, because the beat is playing too flat and it has to go. The writing or placing of musical numbers is amazing.
Just as you get towards the end of a structure, you find that the final piece may move in and out of the movie. For that reason it is partly why we have problems making contemporary musicals, because you have to pre-record everything and then shoot a long video. Flexibility was my mantra. We developed some new technology to record vocals live on stage so we weren't restricted to a 4-4 beat. For that reason we were always trying to maintain a level of draft and re-draft right down to the last minute.
Question five: What role do you play in post production?
BL: I'm involved in everything. It was long and arduous. There wasn't just the thing of cutting drama, we also had to cut and synch music, trying not to be locked to even beats. The traditional way of doing a musical is to record it and then play it back in an ear-wig and mime to it. Dramatically, if it was in an opera, you can have total flexibility because there is a conductor and an orchestra and a singer. The conductor can follow the singer.
We tried the playback, and it didn't work. So she recorded it in situ, we enhanced it in post and then we able to change it. It was a killer. I think we still have the longest digital effect in cinema. That was a lot of work.
Question six: There is a line in Strictly Ballroom about a life lived in fear, where does it come from?
BL: I try to be honest, and sometimes I suffer for it. I believe that, just to put it in context, and there is a saying in Spanish that is quite similar, but the truth is that Craig and I heard it on a kung fu show called Monkey.
Question seven: What did you learn from Shakespeare?
BL: Well, I thought let's learn from Shakespeare. So we spent a year stripping away that 19th century notion of Shakespeare - all that notion of language, that RP. Peter Hall demonstrated that the sound of Shakespeare would have been completely different. It was an extraordinary revelation, but above everything else, Shakespeare had to deal with a city of 400,000 people and a theatre that held 4,000 and everyone from the streetsweeper upwards. Not unlike your local cineplex, and he used everything possible to arrest and stop that audience - really bawdy comedy and then, wham! Something really beautiful and poetic.
Everything we did in Romeo and Juliet was based on Elizabethan Shakespeare. The fact that there was pop music in it was a Shakespearean thing. We would be fearless about the lowness of the comedy.
Could it be true that one person nailed the human condition so well and wrote poems on the side? I don't know. I like to go back to it every now and again as a gymnasium for drama.
GA: We're coming to end...
BL: I could talk all night...
Question eight: How did you make John Leguizamo...
We had all these elaborate digital plans. The perfection of digital music to me is not human. In an orchestra, the slight imperfection of the strings gives you that orchestral sound. A lot of the music in cinema is aggressively perfect. We have to address that.
We had lots of elaborate digital devices. The idea was that John would be shot on his own against blue screen and then I'd shoot all the actors on their own. So we did 4 months of rehearsing and we realised we had to let the actors be connected. So in the end we did this - we made him wear blue socks and then you'd paint them out. So basically he's on his knees but you can't see the little legs sticking out at the back.
GA: Thank you very much for coming.