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The Great Escape

At this moment, Baz Luhrmann, control freak and self-proclaimed ringleader of conspirators "who conspire to something greater than ourselves," is not in control at all. The cameraman trailing behind him, like a faithful puppy awaiting treats, does not work for the director; rather, he is in the employ of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and he has been following Luhrmann for months, gathering hour upon hour upon hour of footage for a documentary that will air in England come August. "Don't mind him," Luhrmann says, nodding toward the unblinking eye that has been trained on him ever since he began putting the final touches on Moulin Rouge, the director's third film and the final installment in his so-called song-and-dance Red Curtain trilogy. "He's invisible."

But the invisible man, always hovering near, casts a large shadow. Every so often, Luhrmann becomes aware of the camera trained on him, the microphone that captures his every word, pause, breath. He will stop talking, lose his train of thought, then stare into the lens. The 38-year-old director--clad in dark suit and shirt, with his prematurely gray hair pulled behind in a small, sharp ponytail--much prefers to be behind the camera, not in front of it. He needs to be in charge.

Luhrmann--who's come for a visit with a rather large posse in tow, including two 20th Century Fox publicists; his executive assistant, Paul "Dubsy" Watters; and his musical supervisor, Anton Monsted--sits alongside Monsted in a newspaper office decorated with posters for The Right Stuff and The Great Escape, the latter of which strikes one as the perfect title for Luhrmann's biography: He makes movies so kinetic and surreal you don't watch them as much as you disappear into them, a shadow swallowed by night. They leave you exhilarated and exhausted--spent, deliriously and absolutely. His first film, 1992's Strictly Ballroom, was a coming-of-age tale set backstage at a dance contest; it played like an Aussie Saturday Night Fever starring a would-be Astaire (Paul Mercurio) and Rodgers (Tara Morice), set to the strains of Cyndi Lauper and Richard Strauss. His second, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet in 1996, set the ancient in the present-day: The cast spoke in iambic pentameter, even as their car stereos blared Radiohead, Garbage and Prince. And now, in the opulent "spectacular spectacular" Moulin Rouge, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor sing Paul McCartney, Dolly Parton and Elton John's silly love songs to one another despite living in France as the 19th century gives way to the 20th.

The filmmaker explains that his films are 'tweeners, by which he means they appeal to both the crowd that likes its cinema "artful" and the audience that prefers its entertainment "commercial." Moulin Rouge, he will say more than once, is his attempt at creating "audience-participation" cinema: He wants ticketbuyers to feel as though they're on screen, singing to one another; he wants them to join in, to break a sweat, to cheer from the cheap seats. That is why he set Moulin Rouge in the distant, foreign, garish yesterday but spiked it with pop cocktails made of equal parts Nirvana, Madonna, Marilyn Monroe and David Bowie--to get you drunk on pop, to make you blind to things like good taste and good sense. He wants you to laugh at the familiar (say, the way Labelle's "Lady Marmalade," with its chorus of "Voulez-vous couchez avec moi ce soir?," gives way to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and its chant of "Here we are now, entertain us"), because if you're comfortable enough, you will be ready for anything.

"I think that what we do is try blindly to remove our tastefulness, because that is the enemy of art," Luhrmann says. "We make it in a way in which we are without judgment, which is about connection and revelation and decoding for the audience--whatever it takes. We are a circus troupe, and I am the captain...Yes, it is audience-participation cinema. In New York and Los Angeles as we speak, the audience is clapping and cheering at the numbers. Who are they clapping to? The projectionist? No. They're communing with the rest of the people in the cinema. They're acknowledging each other: "That's funny, isn't it, stranger?' It feels better to commune."

The Australian-born filmmaker, his voice at once soft and commanding, gives interviews the way he makes movies: His thoughts jump about until they connect, but just barely, to each other. When Luhrmann was trying to get Hollywood distributors excited about Strictly Ballroom--which would go on to become Australia's most profitable cinematic offering--the director would act out scenes: "waltzing one minute, doing a rumba the next," wrote producer Tristram Miall in the introduction to that film's script, published in Australia in 1992. You get the sense he believes every word or thought he utters is an important one--a profound revelation--and he wants none wasted. When he gets on a roll, he is a boulder racing down a mountain, heading toward the village below. Only the cameraman can stop him.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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