Interview: All That Baz
by MTVAsia.com's SHEILA PRICE
Baz, who? If you haven't already heard of Baz Luhrmann, you must be from another planet! He was the man who breathed modern life into Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" launching Leonardo DiCaprio's into another stratosphere in the process.
He made "Strictly Ballroom" snazzy and he's at it again with his brand new MTV-ish spectacular spectacle "Moulin Rouge." Mixing opera, Greek tragedy, silent movie, Bollywood with show tunes and popular songs, "Moulin" has it all. Ambitious indeed. Nobody's as daring as Australia's answer to Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie. And frankly, nobody does it better. Give this man an Oscar!
In minutes I will be meeting this multi-talented maestro at the MTV Studios in Singapore before the taping of MTV Screen. When he arrives, he is full of pleasant surprises. In the flesh, you could probably miss him if you were in a crowded MRT station. He's tanned, sports short pigtails with black tee, cargos and sandals. He looks more like a hippie than our vision of a powerful director. Don't they all look like Ridley Scott or something? Not Baz!
More surprises are in store when he starts talking. He's a riot, saying: "you can ask me anything you like", and extremely cool with no airs when he extends his hands to greet us, slouching over to get his make-up done while I interview him. And he has a wicked sense of humor. Hey, what more could a journalist want?
So step right up and hear what the director of "Moulin Rouge" has to say about Bono, Elton, Paul McCartney, Norman Cook (Fatboy Slim) and Kylie. AND yes, yes… Nicole and Ewan. How can we forget? Let the show begin!
Music is integral in this film. How did you decide what to include? Did you make a list of songs you wanted to fit each scene?
A lot of people think this is Baz Luhrmann's personal record collection strung by together by a story, you know? But it might be a boring answer but it's certainly the truth and the truth of it is that it's all story driven. We spent a lot of time making a very simple story. It's crucial in musical form, then you have a mythological almost cartoon-like story and than we have to scan, scan and scan musical numbers to find those that told the story. So Satine, played by Nicole Kidman is a courtesan. She is a sort of high-class prostitute and we had to convey that to the audience. So when she comes down from that ladder and says, 'The French are glad to die for love. They delight in fighting jewels but I prefer a man who lives, and gives expensive jewels.' So you get "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend." So I see she's all about love versus money. Her life is all about I can't afford love. Love is all fine and dandy but I need the money, baby. So that need to tell story and use music to it was the motivating factor in all our actions. Well, the story came first then we had to find the music to illuminate the story, that would illuminate character.
The songs might work best if you're at least partly familiar with them but for example, what about people who aren't David Bowie fans, do u think they might not feel the same sense of excitement when Kidman and McGregor trade "Heroes" lines back and forth for example?
It's interesting because I don't think given our audiences around the world now, that any one audience will know all the songs, but really the truth is this. The idea of using both contemporary music in well known song is an old musical idea. For example when Judy Garland sings in "Meet Me in St.Louis" that film is set in 1900 but she sings music from the radio -- 1940s big band music, music of her time.
The other thing is the audience will have a familiarity with some of the music, not all of it. So you know an 18 year-old kid may not know "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend." Then again, an 80 year- old grandma may not know "Teen Spirit" but there is at least a row there with some of the music you have a relationship to.
The reason for that is useful is that it engages you, we commune together. We all go, 'Oh that song!' and we commune with the film. You have to participate with this movie. It's not like a naturalistic film where you'd be passive. You either get involved or get out! Coz it ain't gonna work for you any other way. It's as simple as that.
So what sort of reaction are you hoping to get? I saw people laughing, tapping their feet and singing along with the lyrics.
I think the thing about music is it unites us through time and geography and if it can be linked with story, it can uplift us at a level almost than nothing else can. So I don't know that everyone will be spiritually uplifted. The scene between the boy and girl on top of the Elephant room as you talked about, in a naturalistic scene would go between a minute and a half. In our film it goes up for four minutes because the music embellishes it, the music elaborates it, the music lifts us up into the story telling. So I feel like it's a combination of going to a really good movie that is also like going to a really good concert, or a rock event or music event. If you can link the two things weve seen in history as in opera or the classical days of musical it's an unstoppable force.
How did you envisage Fat Boy Slim doing the can-can number?
Everything in the film is based on accurate research. Now the can-can was a very sexy, violent confronting, shocking dance. One has to fuse music to led us into what it felt like. Now I was a great admirer of Norman's work. And I what I think what the DJs do today is a bit like my films too. They take pieces of culture from all over through time and geography and they make a masala if you like, they make a new dish from different ingredients and that's what Norman does so brilliantly. He takes these ingredients from other times and other places and makes new dishes out of it.
So you were quite pleased with the result.
I loved what Norman did. I also like Norman. I love working with him. I went to Brighton and worked with him, you know.
You said a lot of the singers liked the idea of using their songs in the movie. Did you get any comments from Madonna about your "Like A Virgin" scene? What about Elton John?
I know them all. But not Madonna because she never wrote "Like A Virgin" but Elton definitely. I showed him Ewan singing the song and he went 'Oh my god, he is a real singer!' He was really excited and he was really supportive. But everyone you know -- Bono...the one person I loved was Dolly Parton, she was absolutely beautiful. One person I didn't hear from was Paul McCartney, he was going through a difficult time but they were all incredibly excited about the idea of having their music in this film. Because to them, they write popular music. But to include it in this film just makes it a grand piece of story-telling and I think there was a general excitement of doing that, you know.
What about Kylie Minogue? I read that she was a last minute inclusion. Was the green fairy also a last minute character you included or were you inspired by "A Midsummer's Night's Dream?"
You know what that was bunkum. That was always a green fairy in the script. And Kylie was always someone I wanted to play and it was a question of her coming in to do it. Some raggy newspaper in Australia wrote that before we even finish the film, the secret was Nicole hurt her leg, so we couldn't finish the film, and we had to finish it late. So we gave the secret to the raggy newspaper who said we were screening it late because we finished it late, and it was a disaster. So Kylie who was arriving late for the shoot had come in to tilt to Nicole -- it was all kinda trashy work on a columnist part. But Kylie I have worked with her 10 years ago, I had known her for a long time -- I think she is a fabulous, pop performer. I think she can act and do all sorts of things. Kylie was pretty good casting for the green fairy, I think.
Yes, she was very sexy. Didn't you wanted her in the soundtrack?
Actually I did but the thing is her original song which was "Physical" through no fault of her own -- she did a great version of it but unfortunately I had to cut that sequence so we ended up not having that sequence.
How did you arrive at the film's look? What made you decide on the Parisian nightclub Moulin Rouge as your setting?
Well I worked with my wife Catherine Martin and my whole team. But everything is based on fact. So while we referenced 20th century culture throughout the whole movie, all the time you know you see a little bit of pop culture throughout the times, where it's all only about revealing the emotional side of the characters, the clarity of the stories. And this idea is that you take a recognizable story, then you research the accuracy of what it was to be in Paris in 1899 and then what we do is we said, 'Well look, Satine is a courtesan. She sells her love to men.' She comes down in an opening scene in a trapeze. If she was dressed as a courtesan necked to knee, you wouldn't understand it. She looks a little bit like Marlene Dietrich in "Blue Angel." A little bit like Madonna. So we're saying, we're using culture we understand and cultural references that we understand to enter into the world of the characters and place. So while it's based on absolute fact, we're very liberal in the elements we used to interpret.
I heard that Nicole Kidman almost bailed out. She had some doubts about playing the character but said you carried on believing in her. Is that right?
Sure, sure, sure. She always says that. Actually being truthful, she probably had the same doubts every morning she worked as all actors tend to be and Nicole is particularly, you know, 'Öh my god, Oh my god!' which I love about her. It's what makes her so eminently watchable on screen that she's like electricity, you know, sparks fly. But that part of reassuring an actor, building an environment without fear -- that's the work I do for a living, that's the very first thing I consider to be very important.
You were sold on Nicole right from the start and very set on wanting her. What about Ewan? I heard you wanted Heath Ledger for the part?
I saw many actors for both roles. I had known both Ewan and Nicole before and I knew that they could play the roles but the issue was: Could they sing the roles? So I did fairly extensive singing auditions. And for example, for a time when I was looking at the Christian role being much younger and Heath did audition and he was fabulous but he was too young. Also the role had to go from in terms of Ewan being a naïve young man, really open and naïve, old fashion romanticism into a character who gets scarred, his heart is very scarred and he becomes a man, wounded. And you could not think of a better actor to do that than Ewan McGregor because his craft is quite something. So I just had to find out could he sing and that was the key thing.
So as a director, the chemistry that you wanted for Nicole and Ewan, was it there?
I mean, to me, it was electric from the first day they arrived and it's on screen. One has to leave that to the audience but we do have people sing in the film four or five times you know so that was part of the chemistry. If there was no chemical equation between them it wouldn't work , there would be no film.
You've casted John Leguizamo before as Tybalt in "Romeo & Juliet," why cast him again?
You know if I find an actor I really like working with…I mean a lot of the actors like Leonardo, I really want to work with him again, I just have to find the right role. In the case of Toulouse, John convinced me actually that he could do it and you know, he is quite brilliant like that. I like an actor who is an unstoppable force and he was one of those actors.
Did Toulouse have a lisp in real-life?
Infact, he spwoke like thwat in rweal lwife. He spoke like daffy duck on speed and spoke weally weally fwast like thwat. That is exactly how Toulouse spoke, because of his disformity, he got these big lips and his tongue was like there. See the tongue and he used to dribble. So that was very, very true you know and the whole accent thing was you know. John actually gave one of the more accurate interpretation because he was actually a crazy, funny guy.
There was an old movie based on Toulouse by John Houston wasn't there?
Yes, the Houston movie. I mean, I don't want to bag the film because it's quite classical but really from what we can tell of the recently Lautrec letters, he was really nothing like that. He wasn't regal and sort of arrogant you know. It was a bit of a performance actually but I think it certainly misses the crazy, wacky humorous side of Lautrec.
Oh. How did you make Leguizamo appear so short?
It was old fashioned. Being on his knees and with some technology, we removed the back of his legs.
The Baz Facts
- Mother ran a dress shop, father owned a back country gas station
- Tried his hand at pig farming, then bought local cinema in Herons Creek, NSW
- In 1981 costarred with Judy Davis in "The Winter of Our Dreams"
- Wife -- Oscar nominated production designer Catherine Martin is part of his House of Iona company that makes up 35 creative people
- Stage directed "La Boheme" for Australian Opera when he was 27
- Recorded "Everybody's Free To Wear Sunscreen" that featured cutting-edge Australian musicians and became a gold record.
- Recently worked as editor of Australian Vogue and with designer Collette Dinigan fashion show directed by Bazmark production
- Baz is a huge fan of Bollywood
- The first record he owned was "Band On The Run" by Wings.
- Favorite song from soundtrack - Beck's cover of "Diamond Dogs"
- Favorite musicals - "Bandwagon," "Top Hat," "West Side Story," and all the Elvis ones.
- Starred in a World War II movie in Singapore in the 80s called "Southern Cross"
"Moulin Rouge" is dedicated to his father Leonard who died on the first day of the filming