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BazLuhrmann.jpg (7597 bytes)
Baz Luhrmann, Director
April 16, 2002


Baz Luhrmann has made some of the most interesting films of the last decade. Moulin Rouge, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Julitet, and Strictly Ballroom. When I learned that I’d have the opportunity to talk with him over the phone, I was a little blown away. You see, I’m a little new to the celebrity interview game. In fact, taking with Baz Luhrman was my first real celebrity interview. Going into the interview, I knew that there were dozens before me who asked questions like, "How do you feel about not getting the academy award nomination for ‘Strictly Ballroom.’" I wanted to set myself apart. I didn’t want to ask the same questions again and again. It didn’t help that I was such a fan of his work that I’d be able to only utter, "Gee Mr. Luhrmann, I just love all your movies. They sure are keen." It would have been a lot easier if my first interview had been with the director of American Pie 2. There just wouldn’t have been that level of anticipation—that sense of awe.

Well, I learned that it just isn’t possible to come up with really good questions when you number 137 in line. I could tell the questions had been asked a dozen times before, and all his answers were coming from a well-rehearsed script. That’s not to say I didn’t relish the opportunity of talking with him. I just wish that I had had something a little more interesting to say. So, without further ado, here’s the script. (I’ve edited out the nervous stuttering from my questions to make for easier reading).

Jason Frank: We talk about Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet as your red curtain trilogy. I wanted you to talk a little bit about what are the threads that really bind those films together.

Baz Luhrmann: It’s called red curtain because that’s just a simple way of saying it is theatricalized cinema. Now this theatrical cinematic language has very direct roots in the films of the thirties and forties. This is a time when we’re looking at films like Citizen Kane, Singing in the Rain, Top Hat. The cinema of that period is not naturalistic. The mark of how artistic it is isn’t based on how real it appears. Your response is based on how high the art is in the artifice. It’s what I call the big lie to reveal the big truth. It’s clearly a heightened cinematic language.

The three films that we’ve done are all bound together by a few basic rules. One is that they are simple, identifiable myths, so that you understand how the film is going to end within the first ten minutes. You know the ending. You’re not revealing plot. They tend to be set in heightened creative worlds. Lands far, far away like the world of ballroom dancing or the apocalyptic world of Verona Beach or, in the case of Moulin Rouge, Paris 1899. These heightened worlds are distant and far away, but we recognize our own world in them. And the third thing is that you’ve got to constantly keep the audience awake through the movie.

Naturalism tends to put the audience to sleep. It invites you to forget yourself and believe that you’re looking though a keyhole into a room and observing the reality of someone’s life. There’s no way that Singing in the Rain is ever really trying to make you believe that it’s an examination of Hollywood in the silent era in a sort of gritty, real documentary. It’s clearly using that background in a very entertaining way to celebrate some big idea in the human condition. And so, to keep the audience at all times engaged, we’re using a device. In the case of Strictly Ballroom we use dance, in Romeo and Juliet it’s iambic pentameter, and in Moulin Rouge it’s breaking out in song in a musical form. So, to a certain degree they are all kind of living in a musical vernacular. Strictly Ballroom was the first step in a ten-year journey to crack the modern musical code…In no way is it a new language. It’s an old language that we used to revere taken and we sort of reinvented it.

JF: Do you see yourself making more films in the ‘Red Curtain’ style?

BL: No, it ten years of my work and right now I’m doing ‘La Boheme’ the Pucini opera on-stage on Broadway this year, and then that’s the end of it for me, the end of the red curtain trilogy. I will go one day and make more musicals, but this particular journey that I’ve been on concludes this year for me and it’s why I’m doing them all on DVD this year, and it’s why I’m saying goodbye to this period of my life. And if you think of it, I started when I was thirty and I’m about to turn forty. And our life and our work have always been one thing. They are not separate. It’s not a job. I don’t take jobs. We’re offered every kind of movie you could imagine, but we decide what’s going to make our lives rich as a creative journey and the work comes out of that. So what I’ve got to do is look at my life and ask, ‘What do I need and what can be useful to make for people?’

JF: As I was watching Strictly Ballroom, I couldn’t help but feel that Scott’s dilemma to either dance his own steps or dance federation moves has been mirrored by the Academy’s response to Moulin Rouge.

BL: Strictly Ballroom was created while I was at Drama school, and whether it’s the Academy of Motion pictures or the particular point of view of critics at a particular moment, or whether it’s drama school politics. Whenever anyone starts telling you in art that there’s only one way to cha-cha-cha as opposed to listening to your inner instinct then they’re lying. They need to control the situation because they make money out of a controlled situation. This is the essence in art but it’s also true of politics at large. Basically, popular revolution is about the human spirit being free to grow and express itself. I set out to create Strictly Ballroom at drama school as a response to feeling artistically oppressed and, in a way, feeling oppressed during the time of the cold war. There was seemingly nothing we could do about the state of the world. It seems an odd thing, but when I did the play and we went to Czechoslovakia all those oppressed countries in the Eastern Bloc awarded it first prize. They were very emotional about the metaphorical message. It was interesting that when I went about to make the film and I wrote a naturalistic screenplay, the metaphorical message, or the second meaning was lost. That’s why I reached back to my love of the musicals of the thirties and forties to create a sort of cinematic language that could contain both the clarity of the story and this second level of meaning as well.

BL: You’ve done theater, some things on CD, film, DVD, are there any other types of media you’d like to explore?

BL: We’ve edited magazines and we’ve done election campaigns. I would not be lying to say that I have a deep interest in gaming. In fact, although I’m not great with that kind of stuff, I’m sort of ok with Lara Croft, …Final Fantasy X looks just incredible to me. I do believe that storytelling and gaming will come closer and closer together. The idea of the audience being the actual protagonist is something we storytellers cannot ignore. Strangely, gaming is a window into that sort of storytelling. So, I can see in the not too distant future where if I create the story of a young poet who goes into the underworld and loses the great love of his life, where you are the protagonist in gaming, I can see that happening in cinema…I have different groups and divisions and one of my divisions is exploring this in a rather enthusiastic way.

JF: I read an interview where you expressed an interest in doing a DVD for Citizen Kane.

BL: It’s really interesting that that’s constantly considered to be the number one film of all time and yet and it too didn’t win any Academy Awards. He came from a background in which he refused to be constrained by the already existing rules. I did feel an affinity for his journey… There’s already a DVD out, but maybe one year I’ll do a special version or something.

JF: What do you think that you could bring to that DVD?

BL: There’s a lot know about Welles and a lot known about Kane and it might be interesting to really take the journey and really look at the creation of Kane in its context. And look at that question, why is something so consistently considered the ‘Great American Movie’ but was so not embraced by the public at the time.

Special thanks to Karen Penhale for setting this up.

Jason Frank


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