Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Auteurs #23: Baz Luhrmann

A filmmaker who is unapologetic for the fact that he makes films that are essentially lavish spectacles that are often known for being style over substance. Baz Luhrmann is a man who simply wants to entertain filmgoers in any way and form. Yet, he’s also an engaging storyteller who likes to the explore the world of love in all of its complications as well as the kind of power that it brings. Whether it’s through song or dance, Luhrmann is a man that wants to create a world that is escapist and dream-like but also make audiences believe that it could be real. With the Australian filmmaker finally making his return after a five-year gap with his much-delayed adaptation of The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann is a man who always know what to give the people what they want times 10.

Born on September 17, 1962 in Sydney, Australia, Mark Anthony “Baz” Luhrmann was the son of a farmer in Leonard Luhrmann and a ballroom dance teacher/dress shop owner in Barbara where the father later ran a petrol station and a movie theater in the small Australian town of Herons Creek. It was through his father’s management of the theater where Luhrmann saw many movies in his youth while being taught by his mother in the art of ballroom dancing. During his years in school, Luhrmann took part in many theatrical productions as an actor where he became very interested in the world of theater as he would later audition for the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Kensington in 1980 where he failed. After many auditions for the institute, Luhrmann was accepted where he later graduated in 1985.

It was during those years at the institute where Luhrmann met a young designer in Catherine Martin who would later become his wife as well as production/costume designer for all of his future films. Luhrmann and Martin spent much the 1980s staging various plays where he wrote many of them and acted in a few. Two of the plays Luhrmann directed was a musical in 1986 called Crocodile Creek while the other become the basis for his very first feature-film that was entitled Strictly Ballroom.

Strictly Ballroom

Luhrmann conceived the idea of Strictly Ballroom based on his experience learning ballroom dancing from his mother as well as what he had seen in that world where it’s very competitive. With his classmate Craig Pearce helping out as he would become one of many collaborators in Luhrmann’s team of people that would include Catherine Martin and costume designer Angus Straithe as they all came from the institute where they learned their craft. The play in short form premiered in 1984 where it helped Luhrmann gain critical acclaim where he was able to re-stage the play in 1986 for a youth drama festival in Bratislava. Luhrmann would expand the play into a feature-length play in 1988 in Sydney’s Wharf Theatre where it was seen by one of the key figures in the Australia music scene in Ted Albert.

Albert was famous for discovering the famed 60s Australian rock band the Easybeats as well as Australian pop singer John Paul Young. Impressed by what he saw, Albert and producer Tristram Miall approached Luhrmann to create a film version of the play it would take years for the project to come together that included a draft co-written with Andrew Bovell before Craig Pearce came into write what would be the final version of the script with Luhrmann. Another battle in the production was funding as Albert and Miall tried to get investors to help fund the project. While it would attract such names as Barry Otto and Bill Hunter who would both play the roles of the meekly Doug Hastings and the conniving ballroom federation president Barry Fife, respectively. Luhrmann knew that he wanted to fill the cast with not just veterans but also newcomers as well as real ballroom dancers for the film.

The cast would include newcomers such as Tara Morice, Gia Carides, and Paul Mercurio, the last of which was part of the Sydney Dance Company as he had never acted before. With the cast and crew that would include such future collaborators as editor Jill Bilcock, everything was set until November of 1990 when Ted Albert died of a heart attack. With the urging of Albert’s widow, the production would continue as the film would be dedicated to Albert as the $3 million budgeted would finally be made.

Despite having little experience with directing a film, Luhrmann was still intent on maintaining his own vision while wanting to create something that was entertaining but also heart. The film would be the first in a trilogy of films known as The Red Curtain Trilogy as each film contained some form of theatricality that Luhrmann was craving for. Even as he wanted to explore the themes of love and creativity as the character of Scott Hastings that Paul Mercurio played is a young dancer fed up with the rules as he seeks for some kind of freedom. By taking in an inexperienced ugly duckling in Fran, played by Tara Morice, who does know a bit of flamenco dancing. The young Hastings would find something that would fulfill him artistically as well as do something that would help him realize to the strict world of ballroom dancing that rules are meant to be broken.

While the film would be largely romantic with bits of comedy as well as some lavish scenes involving the truth about Scott’s meekly father Doug and why he’s been dancing in total secrecy. There is also an element of satire that Luhrmann wanted to infuse as it opens in a documentary style where many of the characters wondered what happened on the day Scott decides to do something that would cost him his shot in being a champion. It all would play into a sense of style that Luhrmann wants to not just introduce his characters but also establish the events that would lead to everything that happened in the rest of the film.

Just a month before the film’s unveiling at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival, tragedy struck when actress Pat Thomson, who played Scott’s mother, died of cancer making its premiere a bit bittersweet for Luhrmann, his cast, and crew. Despite a poorly-received exhibitors screening before the festival where one claimed that Luhrmann’s career was ruined, Luhrmann was hoping for the best at the Cannes Film Festival. The result would be a smash hit as it received a bit ovation from audiences where it won the Prix de Jeunesse at the festival as well as getting a major international release where Miramax released the film in 1993.

The film proved to be a major worldwide hit with audiences and critics as it won Luhrmann several awards for the film from the Australian Film Institute as well as a few British Academy Award wins for its costume design, music, and art direction. The film also received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Film from a Musical or Comedy as it unveiled that Luhrmann had officially arrived.

William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet

The success of Strictly Ballroom gave Luhrmann the chance to take on any project he wanted as he also became part of a new wave of Australian films that were crossing over internationally that included The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding that both featured Bill Hunter. Still, Luhrmann wasn’t going to go into a new project immediately as he decided to take some time to think it over as he eventually decided to do a modern-day version of William Shakespeare’s romantic-tragedy Romeo and Juliet. Luhrmann pondered what would Shakespeare do if he was to helm a film at this time as he decided to do a modern take on the story but keep the language of Shakespeare.

With Craig Pearce co-writing the screenplay, Luhrmann wanted to be faithful to the story while changing a few things in terms of its plot and setting to make it more contemporary and dramatic. Notably by replacing swords with guns, cars instead of horses, and having the Montagues and the Capulets be rival businessmen who hate each other. Luhrmann presented his script to 20th Century Fox that were intrigued that they gave Luhrmann money to create some test footage and do workshop to see how it can be presented. The idea of a modern version of Romeo and Juliet also intrigued actors as Luhrmann wanted young actors to play the role. Leonardo diCaprio, who was a rising young star with an Oscar nomination for his supporting work in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, took part in the workshop by flying to Sydney as Luhrmann found his Romeo.

With a cast that would include such veteran actors as Brian Dennehy and Christina Pickles as the Montagues, Paul Sorvino and Diane Venora as the Capulets, Miriam Margoyles as the nurse, and Pete Postlethwaite as the friar. The cast would also be filled by then-newcomers that included Harold Perrineau as Mercutio, Paul Rudd as Count Paris, and Colombian-based comedy actor John Leguizamo as Tybalt. While filling out the cast was easy, finding the actress to play Juliet was hard as Luhrmann chose Natalie Portman to play the role. After some test footage with the then-teenage Portman, Luhrmann realized she was too young for the part as production was grounded so that Luhrmann can have more time to find Juliet. Eventually, the part went to Claire Danes who had also a rising young actress at the time following a few films and a memorable turn as a teen in the short-lived TV show My So-Called Life.

While the film was partially shot in Miami, the bulk of the production was shot in Mexico where Luhrmann’s crew of collaborators was expanded that included set decorator Brigitte Broch who was already known for her work with up-and-coming Mexican filmmakers Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron. With cinematographer Donald McAlpine shooting the film, Luhrmann wanted to use locations in Mexico and Miami as Verona Beach where it would be a character in the film. For the Capulet mansion, they used the exteriors of Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City while shooting many of its interiors in a studio nearby where Catherine Martin and Brigitte Broch created something was a spectacle as well as creating a ruined theater in Miami Beach for the scenes set the beach.

While Luhrmann wanted to maintain a sense of innocence and lavish style to help tell the story, he also wanted music to help enhance the story. With composer Craig Armstrong providing some music to the film, Marius de Vries and Nellee Hooper would also create original music for the film as well as assembling the soundtrack. The soundtrack would be a reflection of the alternative music scene at the time as it included contributions from the Butthole Surfers, Everclear, Garbage, and the Cardigans as well as songs from Radiohead and Gavin Friday while British soul singer Des’ree sang the love theme for the film. One of the tracks Radiohead created was an early version of the song Exit Music (For a Film), that would later appear in their 1997 landmark album OK Computer, as it would help add that sense of tragedy that Luhrmann wanted for the film.

The film premiered in the U.S. on November of 1996 with a lot of anticipation based on its marketing and the fact that it had Leonardo diCaprio and Claire Danes as the lead. While it didn’t get the same acclaim as Strictly Ballroom, the film still got excellent reviews while it was a major hit in the box office as it elevated the careers of diCaprio and Danes. The film premiered at the 1997 Berlin Festival where diCaprio won the Best Actor prize while Luhrmann won the Alfred Bauer Prize as the film would also win four BAFTAs for its direction, art direction, screenplay, and music while Catherine Martin and Brigitte Broch got an Oscar nomination for art direction.

Moulin Rouge!

With two back-to-back successes under his belt, Luhrmann took a break before venturing into his next project. During a trip to India where Catherine Martin was doing set design work for a theatrical production of Midsummer’s Night Dream in the mid-90s, the two spent part of their time watching Bollywood musicals where Luhrmann realized that there was something missing in the world of film which were the musicals. Luhrmann had been a fan of the musicals for many years but was aware of the genre’s decline since the 1980s where many films at the time didn’t do well commercially and critically where there was a feeling that the genre was dead except in animated films. With the success that Romeo + Juliet was able to give him, Luhrmann spent his time creating a project that would resurrect a dying genre.

With Craig Pearce helping to write what would become Moulin Rouge!, the film would take place in 1899 Paris where a young man is eager to become a writer at the Moulin Rouge where he falls for a courtesan where the two and a group of artists attempt to create a spectacular musical about truth, beauty, freedom, and love for a duke. Luhrmann cited the Greek tragedy of Orpheus as a tool of inspiration in relation to the tragic love story between Orpheus and Eurydice. Notably as the Orpheus character was someone who was a genius musician who made music that was ahead of its time as he created the character of Christian as a take on Orpheus as he would tell the story a year after everything he had encounter upon his arrival to Paris.

Retaining many of his collaborators that included Catherine Martin, set decorator Brigitte Broch, editor Jill Bilcock, cinematographer Donald McAlpine, music composer Craig Armstrong, and co-costume designer Angus Straithe. Luhrmann knew the production was going to be lavish and out of this world as he cited Francis Ford Coppola’s notorious 1982 flop One from the Heart as a way to create a world that was artificial yet full of imagination as if it was a more extravagant take of 1899 Paris. With a budget of nearly $53 million, it was to be bold and ambitious but Luhrmann wouldn’t have it any other way as he knew that he was taking a major risk.

While Peter Whitford and Tara Morice from Strictly Ballroom would make small appearances, John Leguizamo took on the role of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as he had to do a lot of his acting on his knees to play a small man. The cast would be filled by a huge collective of actors that includes British actor Jim Broadbent as Harold Zidler, Jacek Koman as the Narcoleptic Argentine, Richard Roxburgh as the Duke of Monroth, and Australian pop icon Kylie Minogue in an appearance as the Green Fairy. For the lead role of Santine, Nicole Kidman was cast while finding the actor to play Christian was difficult as it eventually went to Scottish actor Ewan McGregor.

Shooting began in November of 1999 in studios in Sydney with bits of shooting in Spain. While there were some production issues including a halt when Nicole Kidman got injured during a dance number in the production. The shooting was able to get finished in May of 2000 as it was slated for a Christmas 2000 release. Yet, there were other problems that Luhrmann had to encounter that made things much longer as he wanted to get the rights to the songs that he wanted to use for the film as it took him two years to do so.

Since Luhrmann chose not to have any new songs written for the film, he instead went with songs from the 20th Century to create something that was meant to be anachronistic but also made sense to help tell the story. Ranging from all sorts of pop songs dating back to standards like Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy to something like Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. It would be a mish-mash of music that would play up the sense of excitement of the times as well as the romance between Santine and Christian.

After being delayed for several months, the film finally made its premiere as the opening film at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival where it was well-received at the festival. The film would make its theatrical premiere in Australia in late May while opened in the U.S. a week later where it got some excellent reviews as well as making nearly $180 million worldwide. The film’s success not only helped revive the musical but also put Luhrmann on top as he was lauded for his work on the film.

The film was selected as the best film of the year by the National Board of Review while winning three Golden Globe Awards for Best Film from a Musical/Comedy, Best Score, and a Best Actress from a Musical/Comedy to Nicole Kidman. The film won three BAFTAs for its sound, music, and a Supporting Acting award to Jim Broadbent while the film would win 2 Oscars for its art direction and costume design as it also got six additional Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Actress for Kidman while Broadbent would win a Best Supporting Oscar for another film in Iris. Four years later, the film was selected by the American Film Institute as one of the 25 great musicals paving the way for more musicals to re-emerge where Rob Marshall’s Chicago won Best Picture at the Oscars a year later.


The success of Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann set his sight towards making a grand bio-pic on Alexander the Great with Leonardo DiCaprio in the role as it would also star Nicole Kidman and feature a script by British playwright David Hare. Years of development as well as building a studio in Northern Sahara faltered when another production about Alexander the Great from Oliver Stone was in the works as it would eventually be released in late 2004. Due to the poor reception of Stone’s film, Luhrmann eventually decided to abandon the project as he spent more time back in Australia deciding to make another ambitious project where he can spend more time in his home country with his two new children.

Intrigued by a group of half-Aborigine children who had been taken away from their Aborigine families to serve under white society by the Australian government that were known as the Stolen Generations. Luhrmann wanted to write a film that revolved around those children as well as a crucial period in time for the country that included the infamous Darwin bombings of 1942 by the Japanese during World War II. Luhrmann had always wanted to create a film about his home country that would be an epic similar to Gone with the Wind while infusing some of his own ideas that would give something for everyone to see as he is just simply called the film Australia.

With the exception of his wife Catherine Martin on board, Luhrmann made a lot of changes to the crew he would use as he gained sound designer Wayne Pushley and casting directors Nikki Barrett and Ronna Kress to be part of his new team. Martin also got set decorator Beverley Dunn and art director Ian Gracie to be part of her team while Luhrmann was also to retain the services of Michael Hirschfelder to do the music as the two hadn’t worked together since Strictly Ballroom. For the casting, Luhrmann was able to get Barry Otto and Bill Hunter to play small roles for the film as well as Jacek Koman to be part of a grand collective of actors who were considered national treasures like Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson.

With Nicole Kidman signed on to play the leading role of Lady Sarah Ashley in 2005 as she spent time learning to round up cattle to prepare for her role. The role of the Drover went to Russell Crowe until he left the project in 2006 due to demands over script approval. Heath Ledger was approached to play the part as it eventually went to Hugh Jackman as casting continued into early 2007 as it would include David Wenham as the antagonist Neil Fletcher. For the role of the half-Aborigine boy Nullah, Luhrmann searched for months to find the young actor to play the role as 11-year old Brandon Walters was finally selected to play the part.

After several delays that plagued the production, shooting finally began in late April of 2007 though things still weren’t easy as Kidman learned she was pregnant forcing her to not take part in another film she signed on for in The Reader. Kidman also got ill during the production including scenes set in Kununurra area of western Australia where things got worse due to weather. Despite all of the problems that had plagued the production, shooting was finally finished in December of 2007 though Luhrmann did some additional re-shoots in August of 2008. During the film’s lengthy post-production in 2008, Luhrmann had a hard time figuring out how to end the film due to a poor test screening reception as he shot three endings finally selecting it for the film’s late November 2008 release.

The film finally premiered in that late November of 2008 where it did well commercially as it grossed over $200 million worldwide but its U.S. box office numbers were disappointing grossing nearly $50 million. The reviews for the film were very mixed as some critics praised it for its sweeping visuals and the leading performances of Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. Yet, some were critical over its length, script, and other issues. While the film was a major hit in its native country and got a few awards from its local critics circle plus an Oscar nomination for Catherine Martin’s costume design. The film gave Luhrmann one of his big disappointments as he took a step away from the spotlight.

The Great Gatsby

While working on the post-production for Australia, Luhrmann was interested in doing another project that was to be a return to the lavishness of Moulin Rouge! in an adaptation of F. Scott’s Fitzgerald 1925 novel. Though Luhrmann took some time off after the release of Australia, he reunited with Craig Pearce to write a screenplay for the project. Luhrmann’s motivations for the film was to create something that showcased a world that seemed disconnected from reality as he felt that not much has changed in the 1920s to what is happening in the 21st Century.

The film would mark a reunion between Luhrmann and Leonardo diCaprio as the two were supposed to do the Alexander the Great film back in 2004 where diCaprio got the lead role of Jay Gatsby while Luhrmann also brought in Jack Thompson in the role of Dr. Walter Perkins as well as a cameo from Barry Otto. The cast would be filled by several Australian actors such as Jason Clarke as George B. Wilson, Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson, and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker. With Tobey Maguire playing the role of Nick Carraway while Joel Edgerton got the part of Tom Buchanan after Ben Affleck turned it down due to work on Argo. The search for the role of Daisy Buchanan proved to be a challenge as many young actresses were up for the part where in early 2011, British actress Carey Mulligan got the part.

Another major part of the casting was giving the role of Jewish gangster Meyer Wolfsheim to legendary Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan as Luhrmann began shooting the film in September 2011 in Sydney, Australia instead of shooting the film in New York City. With Catherine Martin doing both the costume and production design while also serving as a producer, the film was to be a lavish look of the 1920s where the whole world was exaggerated while there is this sense of disconnect with a part of New York City known as the Valley of Ashes in between the city and the home of Jay Gatsby.

Since the film was to play with Luhrmann’s continuing theme in love, Luhrmann knew that there would have to be some kind of conflict over Gatsby’s desire to win back Daisy whom he hadn’t seen in five years. While Luhrmann used the same narrative device that he had done with Moulin Rouge!, the difference was that it would be told from Nick Carraway’s perspective as a man trying to recover from the decadence he took part in. Even as Carraway would watch closely to see Gatsby’s attempt to reclaim the past as it would eventually be his own downfall.

Another reunion for Luhrmann in the project was with music composer Craig Armstrong as he created a score that was largely orchestral while the music soundtrack would consist largely of contemporary pop music as rapper Jay-Z led the charge as he was also one of the film’s executive producers. The use of music allowed Luhrmann to find something that would be anachronistic but also play up to the energy and decadence of the times where the music would seem to make sense.

The film premiered on May 10, 2013 after being delayed for more than a year as it would also open the Cannes Film Festival five days later. While the film did receive mixed reviews from American film critics, it has managed to do well at the box office where audiences enjoyed the film’s lavishness as well as Leonardo diCaprio’s leading performance. While Luhrmann was aware of the criticism he was to receive for his approach to the film. He was unapologetic for making something that he knew was familiar with his other work as the film is in some ways another winner for the director.

Additional Works

Aside from his work in films and theater, Lurhmann has took part in various projects that each featured his own stamp on things. One project he did was a music video for John Paul Young’s Love Is in the Air to promote Strictly Ballroom. Featuring appearances from Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice, it is a video that is filled with kind of lavishness that Luhrmann is known for.

In 1998, Luhrmann released an album that was filled with remixes of songs that appeared in his films as well as spoken word material. Among them was a track called Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) as it featured the words of Mary Schmich as it’s spoken by Australian actor Lee Perry where the song was a worldwide hit while peaking at number 45 in the U.S.

In 2004, Luhrmann made a commercial for Chanel No. 5 with Nicole Kidman and Rodrigo Santoro that was inspired by the film Roman Holiday. The full-length 3-minute commercial showcases not just something that is part of Luhrmann’s visual style but also something that displays the idea of what Chanel is as it includes some costumes by Karl Lagerfeld.

While he may be known for being excessive or being a sensationalist, there is no question that Baz Luhrmann just wants to give the audience a good time. With five feature films under his belt and rumors of him doing another film with Leonardo diCaprio in an adaptation of Hamlet. He’s definitely a filmmaker who has a particular style that people either go for or not yet he always find something where he can tell a story and find some way to connect it to someone even if they can’t relate to it. That’s why Baz Luhrmann is important to the world of cinema as he can create something spectacular but also infuse it with heart.

© thevoid99 2013


John Gilpatrick said...

I still need to catch up with Strictly Ballroom, but I really, really like every one of Luhrmann's other films. Wish he worked more quickly though :)

Good write-up and glad you enjoyed Gatsby!

Mette said...

Just like John, I haven't seen Strictly Ballroom yet and adore the rest of his movies. I understand how it's not everybody's piece of cake with all the splendour and glamour, but it is just mine. So I can't wait to see The Great Gatsby this weekend!

thevoid99 said...

@John Gilpatrick-I don't mind waiting periods of time for his films because he treats them like events and most of the time, they're worth it. I still wish he did Alexander instead of Oliver Stone that old fuck.

@Mette-You and John both need to see Strictly Ballroom. It's just a joy to watch. Plus, I kind of liken Luhrmann to Kiss. They're both about spectacles and making sure you get your moneys worth for a good time. At least Luhrmann is sticking to that ideal while Kiss is just making themselves look silly.

3guys1movie.com said...

I have only seen Romeo and Juliet, Moulin Rouge, and Gatsby. I really enjoyed the first two. However, I found the modern soundtrack and directorial flourishes distracting in Gatsby.

thevoid99 said...

@3guys1movie-There's elements in Gatsby I think Luhrmann could've re-tooled like some of the editing and maybe have less exposition but there's a lot in that film that I managed to enjoy. Check out Strictly Ballroom, it's a much more simpler film.

Alex Withrow said...

Great work here. Although I go back and forth with Luhrmann's work, I definitely appreciate his boldness. He tells familiar stories in unique ways, and I dig that.

I still need to see Gatsby though.

thevoid99 said...

@Alex-After hearing him in Cannes, I'm glad he's not the kind of person who will take criticism seriously as I don't think he even takes himself seriously. I appreciate the fact that he is just someone that knows who he is and what kind of films he makes. I have respect for Luhrmann.