Interview with Baz Luhrmann
By Paul Adamek
November 03, 1996
There are a lot scenes of water in this film, what are the ideas behind that?
Luhrmann - In truth, with Romeo and Juliet I've dealt with their world as if their parents are like a Busby Berkley musical on acid and it's coming at them all the time and it won't shut up. When you get to Paul Sorvino in a dress you just think please - no more. Next thing, Romeo is under water - click - silence. It's not a big symbolic thing, but Romeo and Juliet escape into water. They use water for silence and peace and their 'There's a place for us' moments. That final image when they kiss under water - it's just silence. It comes from a personal experience of mine. My father used to talk a lot and we'd be in the pool and I'd just go underwater to hide from him. It was always so peaceful. That's where that comes from. It's a theatrical device. Everything is about telling the story. The alchemy or the power or the magic is something the audience has and there is a gap or a distance between the experience that audience has, which can be profound, and the act of making it, which is ultimately mechanical. It's motivated by a heartfelt spirit, and obviously you tap things within your own mind, but ultimately it's mechanical.
Why are you shocked that your movie is number one?
Luhrmann - I thought it would stir up an interest. But we were being relentlessly told that youth are uninterested in Shakespeare and that they would not want to see Romeo and Juliet. We're not just number one, but by three times. Some critics have come out and said there are bad films, there are worst films of all time and then there's Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet. To them it is that bad and confronting and I understand that but we told it in our way.
The sound track has sold out too --
Luhrmann - Yes, they printed 75,000 copies and they don't have enough.
How much of the success of the film is down to the casting?
Luhrmann - There's no question that you have in Leonardo and Claire two young actors - - remembering that when I cast Leonardo, two years ago, he was unknown. He had just been nominated for Gilbert Grape. Claire was just on television. They absolutely have a following and are responsible for people being interested but remember this - Leonardo has not opened a film on his own. He has not even done vague box office. Claire has never opened a film. So are they alone responsible for the box office? Obviously somewhat, and also they're good actors.
Why did you choose them, when they weren't that big?
Luhrmann - Well, 'D' I just looked at and thought he looked liked Romeo. Sort of like James Dean, and Romeo was your first 'rebel without a cause', your first Byronesque 'I'm rebelling but have no political cause to rebel against' character. So I rang him up and he and his father came down to Australia and spent their own money and flew economy. They came down twice and we shot a workshop on video and finally convinced the studio to let us do it. Claire, I searched the world - I saw actors all over the world - and Jane Campion, who lives near me in Sydney said, "Have you seen Claire on 'My So Called Life?'" Which I hadn't seen so I went back to the US and Claire came in. I was looking for someone who was sixteen but who had the strength of character to deal with Leonardo, because he is a formidable opponent in the acting stakes. Plus most of the young girls were like, [Baz mimes swooning and heart fluttering] 'My god, Leonardo!' so that's undermining, to work with someone you find attractive when you're sixteen. She just walked right up to him and said, 'Art thou not Romeo and a Montague?' and kissed him. They were strong. It is crucial because the film is so frenetic that when they get together, you need time to stand still. I don't expect everyone to get it but I think they do achieve that. I think they do bring a stillness to the film.
Did you not want Natalie Portman for that role?
Luhrmann - Natalie was in the first workshop with Leonardo and she was absolutely fantastic, she is a star and gorgeous. But next to Leonardo she looked two. She's a tiny little girl. And Leonardo, which I didn't realise it at the time, is six foot tall.
How did you choose the music for the film?
Luhrmann - I worked with Nellee Hooper, Marius deVries and Craig Armstrong - three brilliant music people who have worked with Madonna, Bjork, Massive Attack. I know the guys from Massive and Craig does a lot of their string work - he's a brilliant composer. Marius has done a brilliant job of composing as well and Nellee is a music producer. We worked together on the music and it was about popular song. Shakespeare just stuck popular songs in that said something.
re the problems of working in Mexico -
Luhrmann - Look, first let me say I would not swap a day that I spent in Mexico for anything in the world. It was the most adventurous time. Having said that, it is true we were there months longer than we needed to be. We had hurricanes that wiped out the set. We all got sick. Shooting shut down for a week while I had a temperature of 110. The hair and makeup person, Aldo Signoretti, who worked with Fellini was kidnapped. We paid $US300 to get him back, I thought rather a bargain. I was not there, he was kidnapped. The bandidos rang up and said for $US300 you can have him back. So Maurizio, who is about this high, goes down clutching the money to outside the hotel holds it up, chucks them the bag and they threw him out of the car and broke his leg. So we had adventures. It was an incredible quest. It wasn't a walk in the park and the fact that the kids did what they did and put up with what they did was amazing. The reason the film is like it is, is that we embraced everything in the film. For example, Mercutio dies in that storm. Well that was the hurricane that came and blew our sets away. The wide shots, which you could never get, I asked the guys if the cameras could handle it - we got out and did the wides and caught the storms then we came back and did the close ups with wind machines. For a budget of ours, which is between $15 - 17 million you can't achieve that short of massive CGI's.
What was the most challenging aspect of making the movie?
Luhrmann - Getting it made. It was very difficult to convince people, to convince Fox. It's hard to believe that a studio made this film, at the level at which it is financed, made this film which is essentially experimental in it's execution. People say Hollywood is in love with Shakespeare. That's not true. Some of the mini's are financing Shakespeare but no major is doing a Shakespeare as far as I can recall. I thought Kenny Branagh did a terrific job with Much Ado About Nothing and I particularly liked his Henry V but the grosses for those films are $20 million domestic. they're tiny. Why do you think majors don't bother - they're not worth the biscuits.
Were there any aspects of your vision that weren't achieved?
Luhrmann - Yeah - 50% of it. I know a very famous director and he says you get about 50% of what you do. Maybe not even 50%. I think the execution of that was maybe half of what I was hoping for. But that's always the way. You never get anywhere near what you set out to do. Then it gets kind of taken away from you. You never are happy. I don't think you ever say, 'Oh - it's absolutely perfect - don't you touch a frame.' I can't even look at it now. You see it a lot of times and you just want everything to be better, that's just the way it is.
How do you take the criticism?
Luhrmann - Some stuff is really amusing. I like the really negative stuff. I don't like people sitting on the fence. I don't like it when they say something misinformed. I am staggered that people who are clearly educated are so naive sometimes. What, they think I don't notice the fact that Diane Venora's performance is incredibly over the top in the beginning and at the end of the film she's more naturalistic. They think that hasn't been a decision, do they think I missed that one, that it got by me after working on it for two years? Or that in 196-- something they saw whoever do whatever and therefore it's set in stone. Zefferelli's Romeo of Juliet of 1968, which is a gorgeous production, is not a period production, there is nothing Elizabethan accurate about it, it is an update. Also it's hilarious in that people write my film off as MTV - I've never worked on MTV. What they're really talking about is that you get these leaps in any given clip, where you may have three or four cinematic styles quoted. All clip makers that I know are always referencing old movies, someone else. And as for the quick editing, that comes from the fact that I do not like to be bored. It's about rhythm. The opening sequence is very fast and it's trying to keep ahead of the audience. Even if you look at the play, the style of the piece is you come out and say this is what's gonna happen, they're gonna die. Then you introduce all the characters and they're actually little vignettes. The story doesn't not begin until we meet Romeo. The scene when the mothers gets dressed and it speeds up. They're boring bits. Who wants to see her put a dress on? But she's got to in the scene. You can't cut away - what have you got to cut away to? Who wants to see her cross the room? But she's got to get there so bzzzzzzz, let's get that bit on. Because we are so used to zapping, I have used the idea of television as the story teller. TV is the chorus of out lives. I wanted to zip through the city and through any boring bits. I didn't quite do it as well as I wanted. It's just devices.