14 November 2001
'Moulin' showing strength as Oscar, Globes contender
By Martin A. Grove
"Moulin" musical: Although this year's Oscar race is one of the most wide open in years, some films are starting to emerge now as likely contenders. A case in point is 20th Century Fox's "Moulin Rouge," director Baz Luhrmann's innovative reinvention of the movie musical.
"Moulin," starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, is turning up on Hollywood handicappers' early lists of potential nominees in such prime races as best picture, director and actress. "Moulin" was released theatrically this summer, but Academy members can have a fresh look at it starting Nov. 21 when Fox brings it back to theaters in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. The Bazmark production, which will receive a major DVD and home video release Dec. 18, was co-written by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, and produced by Martin Brown, Luhrmann and Fred Baron.
"When we began the journey in summer when the film was coming out there was a whole lot of, 'Don't mention it's a musical.' And, rightly so. One was very frightened about would a film that told a story through a musical form die, sink and disappear within 10 minutes up against all that summer action? Now, it's been a struggle, but the boxoffice will be $170 million (worldwide very shortly)," Luhrmann told me.
Luhrmann is particularly pleased with comments earlier this year about "Moulin" by Robert Wise, whose directing credits include such memorable musicals as "West Side Story" and "The Sound Of Music." "We set out to do what he said in his way, which is, you know, 'I'm an older person. I know something about musicals. It's a new kind of musical, but it has reinvented the genre.' To me, that's what we set out to do. We did that but like anything, I guess, it hasn't been an easy journey in fitting it into the machine that lets film get to an audience. So I've been relentlessly going out there and just explaining the film to (people). Some people absolutely connect with it in a really passionate way, but with others it's a bit like, 'Oh, my God! Is it a musical? Is it not a musical? What is it?' "
He welcomes the film's return to theaters, noting, "As I understand it, from the studio's point of view they're bring it back because a sort of demand and interest in the film has grown. I think they've seen that also in Europe it was much more (successful). They just were much more up front about it being a musical. I think that, basically, there's been a feeling that it was always going to be opening at Christmas and that they should bring it out at Christmas as a precursor to the DVD. I was talking to someone yesterday who was saying they'd seen the DVD. They were reviewing it and they said, 'You know, I've never seen it in a cinema. It made me want to go and see it in a cinema.' So what I understand from the studio is that there's just a feeling that they could put it out on 40 screens and there's an audience who hasn't seen it who still wants to see it."
It's also, of course, a good time to make "Moulin" readily accessible on the big screen to Academy members as they start to think about Oscar nominations and to Hollywood Foreign Press Association members as they get ready to fill out their Golden Globes nominating ballots. The Globes, of course, has separate categories for best motion picture -- musical or comedy and for best actor and actress in a musical or comedy, making "Moulin" even more likely to surface as a best picture nominee. Because Kidman is also a potential nominee for her strong dramatic performance in Miramax's "The Others," she could wind up being nominated in both of the Globes' best actress races. On the other hand, in the Oscar competition where there's no separation of dramas and musicals or comedies, votes for Kidman could easily be split between two worthy performances.
"The Academy has been one of the few organizations in the world to recognize musical cinema often," Luhrmann said. "They said that they've been getting a lot of feedback and there's a real interest in 'Moulin Rouge' (for) Academy consideration. What I've said is, look, I was going to be moving on to my next work. But (I want to continue to focus on 'Moulin' for awards consideration) because Ewan and Nicole and the (other) actors have taken such risks. I just believe Nicole Kidman has taken such risk, and Ewan McGregor, in coming to sing and dance and die that I have to get out there and support their voice and be part of talking about that because I think they deserve a nomination. It's that simple."
Luhrmann also points to cinematographer Donald McAlpine and production designer Catherine Martin as having done awards worthy work. "Don is a 60-year-old master of cinema who's done everything from 'Die Hard' to 'Mrs. Doubtfire' to beautiful artistic Australian films to 'Romeo & Juliet' and 'Moulin Rouge,' " he said. "I feel like he's got to be nominated. He's a master of his form and he's on the 'it's-his-turn' list." Martin, who is Luhrmann's wife, received an Oscar nomination for best art direction and won a British Academy Award for production design for her work on Luhrmann's critically acclaimed "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet." Martin's film debut came in 1993 on Luhrmann's first film "Strictly Ballroom," for which she won BAFTAs and American Film Institute awards for production design and costume design.
In the months since Sept. 11's terrorist attacks, some of what Luhrmann has to say in "Moulin" about the importance of love in our lives has taken on greater relevance than anyone could possibly have imagined. "There's no doubt that we were so numb before that changed world moment that the comedy of violence or the sort of 'let's see someone's head blow up or a building explode just to feel' was a very dominating need. I'm not judging it at all, but the truth is we all know that nobody's having trouble feeling at the moment. If anything, people are feeling too much. Their nerve endings are alive and raw and, if anything, the real need is to feel those emotions -- those feelings and those ideas of truth, beauty, the need for freedom and love. They are a nostalgic charm that has turned into an absolute vital reality."
The country's emotional climate these days is likely to be even more welcoming for Luhrmann's point of view. "I think that in this time with 'Moulin Rouge' being on 40 screens, if there's only two people or one person who goes, 'Ah, thank you. I so needed that' (it's enough for me). And I've had that experience. If you ask around, you will find the 'Moulin Rouge' zealots. And I'm not blandly promoting the film by saying that in every territory people come up to me and they go, 'You don't understand, I've seen it seven times' as if I'm going to go, 'That's weird. I've never seen that before.' It's quite a common thing for people who once they connect with it see it four and five times -- because it's not about revelation of plot, it's about the depth of your relationship with a known story. You know, you play it like a Beatles album (like) 'Sgt. Pepper.' You play it over and over and over again. I've noticed that as a universal pattern in all countries of the world. So the bottom line is, if 100 more people who never got a chance to see it for whatever reason (see it now, that's great). There will be those who never connect with it, but I do believe there's probably a large body of audience in the United States who had they seen it would connect with it, but didn't get to it because they were unclear about the message (as to) what it was."
The film that Luhrmann chose to make is a musical, but definitely not a conventional one. "There are fundamental basics of musicals, whether it's stage, opera or cinema, and I've done all of them and have worked in all those areas very extensively," he explained. "They're the fundamental rules -- simple recognizable story line where the complexity's in the execution not in plot. Plot must be thin so that execution can be thick, if you like. Those are the underlying basics. But while I've (paid homage to) the past at times and looked to the future at times, it's a combination of those two things that have made a style that I hope plays to (audiences) now. I think one of the great honors we've had is that the London Institute of Film recently had a festival of movies that have influenced the making of 'Moulin Rouge.' Now I didn't speak to them. They curated it. But on their list was everything from 'Les Enfants du Paradis' to 'Singing in the Rain' to 'Cabaret' to Murnau's 'Sunrise' to 'Lola Montes' and 'The Sound of Music.' What we've done in a way is ironically quoted cinema throughout history but found a way of allowing the audience to accept the contract. And that has to do with each element -- both visual and in terms of music, plus the storytelling rhythm. It's tremendously fast, the film, and that is for a very specific reason."
Had he made "Moulin" in the style of reality cinema or naturalism, Luhrmann told me, it would have been an entirely different movie. "The naturalistic version of 'Moulin Rouge' would begin in the following way. It would begin -- wide shot Paris and then we see 'Moulin Rouge.' And then a train would go, 'Chhh...chhh...chhh...' Then you'd see Ewan McGregor walking up the streets of Montmartre (and on the screen you'd see) 'Starring Ewan McGregor.' And he'd look up and he'd see (a sign that said), 'Place for Rent.' Then you'd see him walk into the room and put down his typewriter (and you'd then see) 'Also starring Nicole Kidman.' Then he'd say, 'I'll take it.' 'A Blah-blah-blah production.' And then eventually the opening credit music would slow and the door would go 'knock, knock, knock' and 'Hello, I'm Toulouse Lautrec. I wanted to borrow a bowl of sugar.'
"Now what's happening is you're very slowly educating the audience (with) a lot of facts and figures and information we need to know. But during that sequence, we would be eating our popcorn and chatting to our friends, saying, 'Quiet, quiet. Let's start to get ready to watch the movie' because the movie hasn't really begun. You're really relaxing into the idea of seeing a movie. The idea of that is that eventually you start to believe you're looking at life through a keyhole. But what we do because we need you to participate in the movie, you're never going to believe that it's reality at any time. You're always aware you're watching something (but) from the word go it's just like, 'Bang! Wake up, wake up! Come on, come on! Be on board!' And it's very, very confronting for the first 20 minutes and, hopefully, you haven't even put the popcorn in your mouth (and) to your friend you're going, 'What is this? Where are we going?'"
Reflecting on where "Moulin" goes at that point, Luhrmann said, "When Nicole finally does come in and it relaxes into a traditional form, you surrender and you're not even thinking, 'Will I or won't I be able to accept (them) breaking into song?' You're actually so challenged by it that even the most cynical and the cleverest and (those who think they're) 'an intellectual giant,' whoever you think you are, however cool you think you are, you're so involved in 'Can I handle this or not? Do I want to leave the cinema or not?' that when they do break into song, that's the least thing on your mind. Interestingly, the biggest fear the studio had was that when they broke into song people would leave the cinema. It's the only thing that has been absolutely not a problem. That's the singular thing that people don't have a problem with. If we've had criticisms, it's been because it's too challenging or whatever, but finally the whole idea (of actors singing isn't a problem for moviegoers). If we'd gone into a traditional mechanism for breaking out into song, you would go, 'Here comes the number. Am I going to be able to handle it?' So that's really been, if you like, the mechanical process we followed to try and get you to surrender, to accept, to be actively involved. That was what it was all about."
And, yet, it wasn't all that many years ago that people were accustomed to seeing performers in a movie singing. "We all forget that cinema came from this kind of form," he pointed out. " 'Citizen Kane' is not a musical, but 'Citizen Kane' is burlesque in its style in a sense that it is a theatricalized cinematic form that uses a whole lot of artifice to make a bigger point. I love 'Mean Streets' as much as anybody else or 'Taxi Driver' or all that realism that's come along, but it really is a fashion that came out of the '50s and evolved strongly in the '60s. Theatricalized cinema or style-ridden cinema or device-ridden cinema. It's not as if this is a shocking new invention. It's actually at the very core and the very roots of cinema. We used to be able to accept it. I think our younger audiences (are) so aware of the manipulation of media. They know that when you see something shot with a shaky camera, reportage (style) it's giving the illusion of reality, but it's not. It's there to manipulate you and the story."
Of course, the musical form has provided good escapism for movie audiences for decades. During the Depression we had the Busby Berkeley musicals. During World War II we had many of the great MGM musicals. "When it works -- whether it's in the golden years of opera in Italy or whether it's the classic MGM musicals -- when you can bring music and story together the thing that it does (is very effective). Psychological drama or naturalism makes you think on a very profound level. But, actually, if you want to feel on a very profound level, almost on a chemically adjusted level, music is (the way to go). If you can shackle that to story, it's the most direct way of kind of exulting that feeling. Opera seldom works, but when you see an opera really work and the drama and the music come together and you believe, you go into a stratosphere of feeling that is unlike a normal drama. It's a much, much more heightened sense of feeling. And it's a very direct way to escape if you're disturbed, if you're frightened. People (today) are insecure. 'What's going to happen? Are we going to survive?' It's almost like taking a pill to escape your existence. It's a very direct way of escaping. You're not engaging the intellect first and then the heart. You're engaging the heart and then intellect. That's the great powerful thing about music. That's why music is a universal language through geography and time."
In making "Moulin," Luhrmann succeeded in getting impressive musical performances from Kidman and McGregor, neither of whom had achieved stardom as a singer or dancer. "I always loved the musical form," he said. "You know, 'That's Entertainment,' for example, was a great way into the history of musical form. What one learnt was that in the old days of Hollywood, all actors were expected to be able to sing and dance and communicate through voice. Even Clark Gable or Marlon Brando (did) musical numbers. It wasn't about beauty of voice. When Brando sings (in 'Guys and Dolls'), 'Luck be a lady tonight,' it's not Perry Como. But the truth is, he's conveying story through song. It wasn't about voice beautiful, it was about telling story. We started from a very passionate commitment that we wouldn't go chasing a pop person whose voice was great and that was it and couldn't act. You had to have an actor who could convey emotion through voice.
"Then it was about finding two actors who were brave enough to risk that. I can tell you now in retrospect because I've just seen this video clip she's done with Robbie Williams, an English pop star, and it's a big hit on English radio at the moment. And Ewan McGregor, who I believe is coming to the States in the next few weeks to sing, there are people who want to record with him. So now we can go, 'Actors who can sing,' that's been around. But the truth is, I had to find two actors who were prepared to risk -- I mean, it could have fallen terribly flat for them and been quite destructive -- to come down to Australia and to workshop not for four weeks but for four months. That's how much time they had to give up to be involved in this project. And they did not get paid for the film their normal number at all. They got paid Australian scale. So it was a big request. You can see now why I'm bothering to get out there and bang the drum about (how) they deserve to be nominated at the very least. They made such extraordinary sacrifices."
It goes without saying, though, that Luhrmann is a filmmaker that actors who are serious about their art really want to work with. "You would be amazed how many actors came knocking on my door, desperate to be involved in a musical," he said. "I know many, many, many of the well-known actors who can truly sing. I saw them all. But if I can say that I offer anything, what I offer actors which is unusual is that I'm very much all about the actor. I create an environment in the House of Iona, where we work, of total security, so we block away all the fears of, 'Am I liked in the industry? Will I? Where am I?' My big thing is to find an actor and say, 'You have so much more to give. Let us reveal to the world what you can do that they don't even know you can do.' That's really the road I go on and build a sort of environment of safety. Now they finally have to walk across the high wire, but I get them up there and put net there and choose the moment to pull the net away so that they feel extremely secure. That would be the one thing that I would say is key to the process. They come to the House of Iona and in the morning they start with movement class. Then we begin doing a scene workshop. Then they'll do a vocal coaching. And we'll have (an occasional) party at night, so that joy is a big part of it, as well. But I've never done that thing of (working with actors who say), 'I'm sorry I'm such a big star I blow in and you've got me for two weeks and I'm out of there.' That's not my bag. I don't judge people who work like that, but that's not what it's about on the work that we do."
Looking at "Moulin," which I thought was visually stunning, it's hard to imagine what must have been on the script pages to result in the imagery Luhrmann has captured on the screen. "In the history of musical form -- whether it's opera or it's the musical stage or musical film -- draft and redraft is fundamental and crucial," he observed. "So while we went on with this process of finding a very simple plot that was thin, if you like, and recognizable -- and in the case of this piece it's (about) the mutual idealism into adulthood -- we transposed on to it classical text ideas (such as) 'La Vie Boheme,' 'Nana' and 'Camille,' so that you've got these recognizable patterns in it, we then went about meticulously scanning hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of songs. Once we'd come up with the device to make Christian (McGregor's character) a sort of poetic genius, they should almost channel contemporary music. So the audience didn't question if we'd written original music, 'Is that good poetry or bad poetry? Is it clever or not?' And then we scanned hundreds of songs, finding the right song to tell the right bit of story. We began with that. The actors came down. We started with a very fat script. We workshopped with the actors and things that the actors did actually helped us make that text work. So we would then rewrite after they left and they'd come back and we'd do it again. (And we'd then) rewrite after they left and (they would) come back and do it again.
"Even during shooting, I would add and subtract numbers. For example, (the disco style music video song) 'Lady Marmalade' came into it during the shooting process. Originally, there was a wrap and I felt (it wasn't) clear enough that the women of the Moulin Rouge (nightclub) were for sale. So we added the musical line over the top of it, 'Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?' -- 'Do you want to sleep with me tonight?' -- which made it clear that the women were selling themselves. Now even in post-production I added a final number, which was the 'Nature Boy' book-ending because it was in the body of the film. The story of 'Nature Boy' is the story of the film. Draft and redraft. If you look at a musical, 'Memories' was not in 'Cats' when it opened. You had to have your out of town tryout and you put the number in (or) you take it out. If you go to opera, for example, in 'La Boheme' the third act was completely removed after it opened because it concealed the rhythms. And in film, you know Ray Bolger's wonderful scarecrow routine was pulled (and 'Over the Rainbow') almost never made it into 'Wizard of Oz.' Unlike psychological drama, (the musical) is so precise that you must play it and replay it so you can construct and redraft. We had a text. It was very solid. It would have looked very strange and weird, but all the musical numbers were written into it. But we draft and redraft as we go, as well."
Luhrmann has also been devoting himself in recent months to preparing the film's DVD. "I've become a fan of DVD," he pointed out, "but I think there are some DVDs that are cynical attempts not by the filmmakers but by the studios to sort of say, 'We've dumped 10 hours of stuff (into this and) it's amazing!' I've used my whole theme to make a DVD that, I hope, really lets you into exactly what we've just discussed, which is really the depth of the process involved in 'reinventing the musical,' to quote Robert Wise. All that I've talked about is embodied in (the DVD). I've really become involved in making that DVD."
Martin Grove is seen Mondays at 8:35 a.m., PT on CNN and heard weekdays at 1:55 p.m. on KNX (1070 AM ) in Los Angeles.