The Great Escape

Baz Luhrmann makes movies--and audiences--in his own image

"I don't. I ignore those ambitions," he says. (Luhrmann damned near speaks in italics, which is to be expected of a man who's been enamored of musicals since he was a child growing up in his old man's countryside Mobil gas station.) "You decide what you're going to make and...make it." Just then, the BBC cameraman jams his lens in Luhrmann's face, which becomes serious, thoughtful--and a put-on. He stops and stares down the camera.

"And I was only just getting going," Luhrmann says, feigning irritation. "I almost had that thought perfect." Still, he continues, undaunted.

"You just ignore it with unbelievable strength," he says. "You know what you want to make, what you want to see, and then go about making a code that you think allows people into what that is. If you get seduced in any way into thinking, "Would it be more commercial to this or that?' then...Let me tell you. There are a lot of choices that would have been more commercial. There were really obvious things.

Don't be such a Baz: The director at work, conducting Moulin Rouge
Twentieth Century Fox ©
Don't be such a Baz: The director at work, conducting Moulin Rouge

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Read our review of Moulin Rouge

"From day one with Strictly Ballroom, [Miramax Films boss] Harvey Weinstein, who I have respect for as a great ticket-seller, his thing was he didn't want to use the Cyndi Lauper song "Time After Time.' He would say, "That's such a cheesy '80s track. There's a song by Amy Grant, can't we replace it with her song?' It was something like, oh, "Dancing Shoes,' and it's a lovely little pop track, and in Harvey's mind, Strictly Ballroom was kind of Dirty Dancing, so he was thinking, "Can't we make it Dirty Dancing lite, because that would be easy to sell.' I am not angry at him for having that point of view, but you can see the reason we chose "Time After Time' was because it was an '80s anthem, and the reason Tara sang it was because it would seep out there and become part of the audience's participation with the girl in the picture when she sang the song."

Luhrmann began working on Moulin Rouge four years ago--and, in a sense, he actually completed the project in 1997, when he and Monsted assembled the Something for Everybody album, which featured music from Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and myriad stage productions Luhrmann had directed in the late 1980s and early '90s (among them a reworking of Hair, this time titled Haircut, and La Boheme, which he will likely bring to Broadway next year). On the disc, which spawned the surprise spoken-word hit "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)," Luhrmann and Monsted commingled Doris Day's "Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps" with John Paul Young's "Love is in the Air" with Gustav Holst's "Jupiter" until the whole thing sounded like one nutty mix tape--a collection you give to a would-be lover, to prove your sensitivity and taste.

Luhrmann hatched the idea for both projects during his three-month journey through, among other places, Cairo, Paris and Marrakesh--a ritual for him once he's done with a film. He breaks out the backpack, takes his credit cards and loses his responsibilities for a moment. He will get into trouble, he likes to say, and get a little perspective; he's no longer a director with an assistant, a cameraman and publicists trailing behind him, but a traveler who will lose his ticket just to find his way back home. It is, he insists, the only time he separates his life from his work, which surrounds him: Luhrmann's wife, Catherine Martin, is his production designer, and his home is constantly filled with assistants and collaborators filling the filmmaker's head with sight and sound. There's no way the man from the BBC could go back to England with anything less than a dazzling film of his own: Luhrmann is the director whose life belongs in front of the camera.

For now, at least, Moulin Rouge will be the director's last "theatrical-quoting" film--no more musicals, at least until the next backpacking trip inspires one. He simply doesn't feel the need to make one, and Luhrmann is a man driven by need--not, he explains, by wants, which he makes sound so pedestrian. Once, he told an interviewer that making movies like Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge was his "burden." When asked about that, he shrugs it off as being, yeah, a bit dramatic. But he doesn't disagree.

"Sometimes I think, "Well, wouldn't it be great to do a James Bond picture? How much fun would that be?'" he says, winding up like a top. "But the things I need to do are things that inform my life. Our work and our lives are inseparable. That's the deal of the circus life. Someone's gotta do it. Someone's going to do music cinema and get it back and make it in our language now, and I just figured that was my burden. I mean, I would go, "Do I have to go make this movie? Can't I just do a fun picture?' There are a lot of fun pictures I'd like to make without having to reinvent the wheel every time. So I would think, "Instead of taking four years, can't I just make this sexy motion picture that'd be fun to do?' But, alas, no. The burden is that one needs to confront these things. I am indulgent to say that, but I say it in a state of, "When will this be done, Lord?'"

He smiles, ready for his close-up.

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