Baz Luhrmann has made some of
the most interesting films of the last decade. Moulin Rouge, William Shakespeares
Romeo and Julitet, and Strictly Ballroom.
When I learned that Id have the opportunity to talk with him over the phone, I was a
little blown away. You see, Im 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 didnt want to ask the same
questions again and again. It didnt help that I was such a fan of his work that
Id 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 wouldnt have been that level of
anticipationthat sense of awe.
Well, I learned that it just isnt 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. Thats not to
say I didnt 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, heres the
script. (Ive edited out the nervous stuttering from my questions to make for easier
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: Its called red curtain because thats 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 were
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 isnt based on how real it
appears. Your response is based on how high the art is in the artifice. Its what I
call the big lie to reveal the big truth. Its clearly a heightened cinematic
The three films that weve 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. Youre 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 youve 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 youre looking though a keyhole into a room and observing the reality of
someones life. Theres no way that Singing in the Rain is ever really trying to
make you believe that its an examination of Hollywood in the silent era in a sort of
gritty, real documentary. Its 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, were using a device. In the case of Strictly Ballroom we use dance,
in Romeo and Juliet its iambic pentameter, and in Moulin Rouge its 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. Its 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 Im doing La
Boheme the Pucini opera on-stage on Broadway this year, and then thats 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 Ive been on concludes this year for me
and its why Im doing them all on DVD this year, and its why Im
saying goodbye to this period of my life. And if you think of it, I started when I was
thirty and Im about to turn forty. And our life and our work have always been one
thing. They are not separate. Its not a job. I dont take jobs. Were
offered every kind of movie you could imagine, but we decide whats going to make our
lives rich as a creative journey and the work comes out of that. So what Ive got to
do is look at my life and ask, What do I need and what can be useful to make for
JF: As I was watching Strictly Ballroom, I couldnt help but feel that
Scotts dilemma to either dance his own steps or dance federation moves has been
mirrored by the Academys response to Moulin Rouge.
BL: Strictly Ballroom was created while I was at Drama school, and whether
its the Academy of Motion pictures or the particular point of view of critics at a
particular moment, or whether its drama school politics. Whenever anyone starts
telling you in art that theres only one way to cha-cha-cha as opposed to listening
to your inner instinct then theyre lying. They need to control the situation because
they make money out of a controlled situation. This is the essence in art but its
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. Thats 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: Youve done theater, some things on CD, film, DVD, are there any other
types of media youd like to explore?
BL: Weve edited magazines and weve done election campaigns. I would
not be lying to say that I have a deep interest in gaming. In fact, although Im not
great with that kind of stuff, Im 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
BL: Its really interesting that thats constantly considered to be
the number one film of all time and yet and it too didnt 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
Theres already a DVD out, but
maybe one year Ill do a special version or something.
JF: What do you think that you could bring to that DVD?
BL: Theres 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.