Urban Cinefile
24 May 2001
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By Andrew L. Urban

A musical Orpheus in the Down Underworld meets a fantasy Montmartre in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, reports Andrew L. Urban.

The story of Moulin Rouge echoes the Orphean myth of a young poet-musician who descended to the underworld in search of ideal love. “It’s a myth about idealism and adulthood, and the recognition that life throws up things beyond our control: the death of loved ones, relationships that don’t last,” explains Baz Luhrmann, co-writer (with Craig Pearce) and director of the film.

“According to the Orphean myth, this will either destroy you, or you’ll go into the underworld, face it and return having grown from the experience.” Moulin Rouge’s Orphean hero is Ewan McGregor’s Christian, whose love affair with the courtesan Satine ends in tragedy.

In the film, the Orphean myth is central to what Luhrmann calls a ‘Red Curtain’ theatrical style, which is also evident in his two earlier films, Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet. Luhrmann explains: “We take a simple story based on a recognizable primary myth and set it in a heightened, created world that is at once exotic yet also recognisable.” That is the world of Paris at the turn of the century, when artists (like Toulouse Lautrec) were reinventing painting; so, too, Luhrmann is reinventing the film musical, in every department.

If Baz Luhrmann is the painter with a unique, fantasy world vision of Moulin Rouge, Animal Logic Film is his paintbrush and his palette. In this intensely design driven musical, visual effects design was critical to the film’s final realisation. At the start, there were plans for just 30 special effects shot - but it ended up with over 300, the largest undertaking for Animal Logic Film, one of Australia’s leading digital design companies.

“Baz Luhrmann’s imagination was as fired by the process itself as by anything else,” says Animal Logic Visual Effects Designer Andrew Brown, who also worked on Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke, as well as DreamWorks’ Mouse Hunt. Moulin Rouge was fun, says Brown, in a big way. “It inspired us, it inspired Baz Luhrmann and I think it will inspire others on how to use visual effects. It was exhilirating . . .”

Moulin Rouge is a musical fantasy about love and inspiration set in the infamous, dangerous and glamorous Parisian nightclub, at the turn of the twentieth century. The film blends period with pop through its use of established songs - used in innovative contexts and unexpected arrangements. Nicole Kidman plays Satine, the club’s most notorious star, forced to choose between a young writer’s inspiration and another man’s obsession. Ewan McGregor plays Christian, the writer who finds himself plunged into this decadent world where anything goes ­ except falling in love.

The film also stars John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec, who plays cupid to the two lovers. In preparing for the role of the famous painter, Leguizamo took the research job seriously. He studied the painter's life and spent time learning about his background.

"I've read a lot of biographies of Lautrec…he was the product of first cousins and very wealthy, but he had a lot defects, so his parents stopped having children after him. He was born a dwarf with an enlarged tongue, so he spoke with a lisp, he drooled a lot, he had big sinus problems and he was a decadent little man who loved attention. He loved to be noticed. He found a way through partying; he loved to drink and he drank himself to death. He died of syphilis and absinthe poisoning. I've tried absinthe - it's wild stuff! It's like drinking acid…burns a hole right through your gut."

Lautrec’s short stature meant that Leguizamo had to work on his knees, with little stilts attached. It's a musical, so he had to dance as well. His knees got such a copping he had to use walking sticks when walking about off the set.

The Australian ensemble cast comprises the Bohemians (Bohos) in ringleader Toulouse’s gang, with Garry McDonald as the hallucinogenically inspired Doctor, Jacek Koman as the tango-dancing Unconscious Argentinean; Matthew Whittet as Satie, and David Wenham as writer Audrey.

In addition, West End musical star Caroline O’Connor, plays can-can dancer Nini-Legs-in-the-Air, Australian theatre veteran Kerry Walker plays Satine’s dresser, Marie; Deobia Oparei plays performer Le Chocolat, Lara Mulcahy plays dancer Môme Fromage and Kylie Minogue takes on the small but key role of the Green Fairy. Every nightclub needs one!

Satine and Christian, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, are acknowledged as actors: but, asked the world, can they sing? As usual, Luhrmann defies expectations. Not just audience expectations, but those of the industry - and even of his cast. Kidman’s remark that she “would find that if I was to sing I couldn’t do it. But if I sang as Satine, I could,” adds weight to the growing perception that Luhramnn is some kind of cinematic shaman, egging his actors and his crew to derring do they never before attempted on film.

Kidman reveals the secret pact she made with McGregor: “Ewan and I had a tacit agreement that we’d support each other throughout, taking risks, and be willing to make complete fools of ourselves in front of each other.”

But she hardly made a fool of herself. Luhrmann is on record praising her work: “Nicole sings like a kind of Marlene Dietrich. She’s an actress singer but she absolutely puts a hole in it. She’s not Whitney Houston but she’s an actor-singer who can kick it.” And, adds Luhrmann, people will be surprised how funny she is. “She’s really whacky.”

The music was as critical to the film’s realisation as the design. Luhrmann used contemporary music to instill in the audience the notion that the Moulin Rouge is the sexiest, wildest nightclub in the world where they perform the most dangerous and electric dance on stage. A rehash of the traditional can-can just wouldn’t do it for today’s audiences. “But if you hear Fat Boy Slim’s music . . .” yeah, we get it.

The popularity of many of the songs helps to ground the film, according to executive music producer Anton Monstead, even if they are sometimes rearranged, like Sting and The Police’s Roxanne done as a tango. Or Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend a la Kidman, or Bono with T-Rex’s song, Children of the Revolution. The first single, Lady Marmalade, is already a disco hit - reworked. As is Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy, with David Bowie and Massive Attack. Ewan McGregor teams with Placido Domingo for Elton John’s Your Song. Is this weird or wonderful? It is certainly different and intriguing.

The familiarity with the basic musical material (and lyrics) makes for accessibility. It’s inventive but also commercially sound. In that regard, Baz Luhrmann is perhaps a kind of Puccini of his day, a creative and passionate storyteller with refined talents who generates great works for the mainstream: think of Tosca, Puccini’s love drama, say. Indeed, think of Luhrmann’s productions of La Boheme (for tv and for the Australian Opera and next in New York), a precursor to his filmic view of the bohemian world of Moulin Rouge, no doubt.

The fact that the film was shot in the middle of Sydney at the Fox Studio complex, which is closer to the South Pole than to the Paris of Moulin Rouge, is evidence of the prowess of Australian filmmaking.

"Moulin Rouge perfectly demonstrates the flexibility and capacity of the production resource at Fox Studios Australia,” says the Studio’s Chief Executive, Kim Williams, “where the card carrying genius that is Baz Luhrmann and his remarkable design and life partner Catherine Martin, have created an inspirational, unique world. It really is an original piece of cinematic craft, invention and artistry.”

The invention and the artistry created challenges that pushed everyone involved; the completion deadline came and went but there was always great faith in Luhrmann and his team. By early 2001, a month or two after its originally planned world premiere, the film was almost ready . . .almost.

Moulin Rouge was still ‘work in progress’ at the end of February, mostly because Luhrmann wanted as much visual detail in every frame as possible. But the process itself energized Luhrmann - and it also also energised the whole production team. “He would come in every day and spend about half an hour just going through his ideas for what the scene would be and involving everyone. It was a very collaborative relationship. He treated us almost like actors,” says Brown of Animal Logic.

He also stretched everyone, from Kidman singing to programmers inventing. Animal Logic’s Justen Martin wrote a plug-in street map of Paris, for example, which randomly generates buildings in the distance. The team also created some unique particle animation for the Green Fairy sequence featuring Kylie Minogue.

Luhrmann’s intention with the film was to make Montmartre the cultural hub of Paris and everything outside that was inconsequential and boring. In fact, everything else outside it was reduced to miniature, shot with motion control cameras.

To create the striking, nostalgically surreal opening shot over Paris, “the front frame and mid-ground uses photos in a 3D environment, and beyond that we built 3D model buildings, “ Brown explains. “We didn’t have much by way of references to work with,” says Brown, “so one of our designers flew over to Paris and took a bunch of collage shots, from the top of the Eifel Tower and the top of Montparnasse.

This establishing wide shot, the Paris vista, carries within it one of the driving design concepts that appeals to Luhrmann, which imagines a central axis running through the frame. In this case, it runs between the Eifel Tower, the Moulin Rouge and Sacre Coeur (which was being built at the time of the film’s setting). This requires a slight rearrangement of the real Paris, but considering the fantasy-driven nature of the whole musical, it would seem churlish (not to mention pointless) to complain.

The essential stylistic guide laid down by Luhrmann meant that everything had to be related to the music and it had to play to the rhythm of the film. But after all it is a love drama, with powerful, uplifting music. The visual effects and the music are all part of the whole jigsaw that give the film its emotional impact.

That jigsaw also includes extensive production design, the area where Catherine Martin (CM, az Baz calls her) reigns supreme. In a film set in turn of the century Paris, where the can - can was today’s rough equivalent to lap dancing, it is not surprising that Martin is prompted to remark that “we needed to make the whole world of entertainment under women’s skirts”.

Martin, in an article for a special fashion edition of Black and White, explains aspects of her approach to the costumes and design issues in general. She had to bear in mind - because not much physical reference material is available, that Moulin Rouge was a nightclub where all classes mixed: artists and aristocrats, sleazebags and sultry prostitutes mingled and drank and danced and debauched. “Originally, can-can dancers were personalities, so we tried to give every girl a gimmick. So Nini-Legs-in-the-Air (Caroline O’Connor) has a yellow dress with windmills on it, because she believes that if it wasn’t for Satine, she’d be the star of the Moulin Rouge.”

And she also acknowledges the power of pretence over purity of period. “I sort of believed from college days in the purity of the period, that everything has to be hand stitched and people should have dirty teeth and stains on their underpants . . .[but] I realised that if the aim is to give people a viscreal experience of what it was like to be in the Moulin Rouge at that time … to take the pure period…it just wouldn’t read the same way to a broad audience. You’d have to know so much historical context to understand why it was shocking to flash a stocking.”

Stockings, and just about everything else inspired by Moulin Rouge, are already the hot fashion item. Bloomingdale’s in New York devoted itself to a Moulin Rouge inspired extravaganza on the eve of the film’s launch at Cannes (to be closely followed by its US an Australian release). Merchandise with the stamp of CM’s designs are spreading the word around the world. But for CM, Luhrmann and the whole team, the big moment comes at Cannes on the evening of May 9, 2001.

Luhrmann, who has “wonderful memories from when Cannes launched my first film, Strictly Ballroom,” is particularly excited about being back at Cannes. “CM and I would like to thank our Australian cast and crew and all those at home who have supported us throughout this most difficult of projects. I am particularly gratified that an American-financed film almost completely created in Australia, and specific to French culture and history, has been embraced this way by Cannes."