How did you make Romeo and Juliet, especially with the backing of a major Hollywood studio?
It was an incredibly difficult film to get made. After Strictly Ballroom we were offered all kinds of possibilities. We spent a long time not being involved in making a film. We went and did other things: operas, the 1993 Australian Labor Party election launch, a Vogue magazine layout and other things. Our philosophy has always been that we think up what we need in our life, choose something creative that will make that life fulfilling, and then follow that road. With Romeo and Juliet what I wanted to do was to look at the way in which Shakespeare might make a movie of one of his plays if he was a director. How would he make it?
We don't know a lot about Shakespeare, but we do know he would make a `movie' movie. He was a player. We know about the Elizabethan stage and that he was playing for 3000 drunken punters, from the street sweeper to the Queen of England - and his competition was bear-baiting and prostitution. So he was a relentless entertainer and a user of incredible devices and theatrical tricks to ultimately create something of meaning and convey a story.
That was what we wanted to do. We were interested in that experience. It wasn't that Fox rang up. There's this kind of story in America: `How clever. What genius at the studio rang you up and said, `Do a funky MTV-style Shakespeare and wipe the floor with all the other pictures, go to number 1 and get the kids in'?' That was not the case.
Basically it was no, no, no, but because I had made a film about ballroom dancing and it grossed $80,000,000, I was in a first-look deal, and I said, `Look, don't say yes. Give me a few thousand dollars'. I rang up Leonardo di Caprio, whom I consider to be an incredibly important part of actually getting the film made, and he agreed to fly to Sydney himself, pay his own money. I mean, this was a kid who's been offered the incomes of small countries! We did an initial workshop, did more script work. He flew down again and with local actors we created this workshop; and when they saw him (in the fight scene) get out of the car in a suit and come up and say,
Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee
doth much excuse the appertaining rage
to such a greeting. Villain am I none;
therefore farewell; I see thou knowest me not,
they went, `Oh, yeah, I get it. They're kind of like gangs. Yeah, that could work. Gangs, that's good, that's good'.
So then the executives said, `All right, we'll give him enough money to get to production'. So it was sort of a war of attrition and, eventually, I got to a point where they said, `Look, just give him a cheque' and, you know, `See ya'!
Then we had the problems of making it. It was an enormously difficult shoot: storms, sickness and kidnappings.
Pre-production was all here in Australia and all the development. Then we pre-produced in Canada. And then we shot in Mexico. We did most post-production in Australia, that is, we did all the sound here in Melbourne at Soundfilm, all the optical effects here at Complete Post. So, it's technically a Canadian-Australian? co-production distributed by 20th Century-Fox?. But, in reality, it's my team. At a certain point I was flying 16 Australians, DOP, producer, editor, costume designer, production designer, music guys, assistants, choreographer, special effects, sound, et cetera to North America.
So to answer the question: it was very hard to convince them. Once I had convinced them, they were fantastic but kind of like, `Look, you know, he does these weird things, they seem to work. This one won't, of course. But let's let him make this and when it turkeys, he'll be ready to do Jingle All The Way. He'll be begging us to let him do Arnie's next picture'!
Hollywood! People have many wrong ideas about Hollywood: firstly, it's much worse than The Player, much more bizarre. In fact it's a community in the desert, made up of people from all over the world, the best people from all over the world.
Now, what normally happens with the internationals - and most players in Hollywood are internationals - is that they are hired with their producer and they pick up American teams. One of my non-negotiables is that I work with my team - we work together, we are a team, we are an environment. Since the success of Romeo and Juliet, I now have an unprecedented deal where working with my team is actually ensconced in the deal.
Do they reject us - no, they don't. I mean, half of the best people in Hollywood are Australians! I think a huge percentage of the DPs are Australians.
I wanted to do Shakespeare makes a film, Romeo and Juliet. The first thing to identify was a way of conveying the notions of the piece and release the language. A device would be to set it in a particular world. You couldn't set it in the real world because it would then become a social exploration of Miami or LA or Sydney, whatever. So we decided to create a world. That world was created from meticulous research of the Elizabethan world. For example, a social reality for the Elizabethan world was that everyone carried a weapon. Then we found a way of interpreting that in the 20th century. There were schools of swordfighting; they became schools of gunfighting. Only gentlemen would carry weapons, not the poor. Suddenly you had a place that looked a bit like South America, but it also looked like Miami. We picked the dominant culture. Whatever you say, the dominant culture in the western world is American, especially through the media.
So we created a world - it's American, Latin, it looks a bit like South America, it feels a bit like Mexico, it feels somewhat like Miami but, ultimately, it's Verona Beach, which is ultimately a universal city. Now, that is not so out of keeping with what Shakespeare did. He never went to Verona. He created his mythical city. But really it was London - dressed up as a hot version of London. So that was that part of the process.
Then we spent a lot of time researching the Elizabethan stage and then we put that into cinematic ideas. We went to Miami because we chose Miami as a really good place that identified or condensed American or contemporary western images. It is both culturally mixed and also a very violent city, almost an armed society.
Then, out of that research we wrote the screenplay. We came back and did a series of workshops with actors in Sydney. Then I got Don McAlpine? in who, for free, got a video camera and, for a week, we shot scenes with Leonardo, the fight scene, the death scene.
We are noted for doing a ludicrous amount of preparation. And we are noted for ridiculous kind of research, but this is what we like to do - the act of making must make your life rich. It's got to be interesting and fulfilling and educational and take you on a journey. They're the choices we make.
The only sacrifice you have to make is fiscally. To have been very, very wealthy would have been easy after Strictly Ballroom. I'm not poor, but the kind of wealth that I know others have is not ours because we choose to do the Bard in a funky manner. That's more interesting than doing Jingle All The Way! But, also, we're not for hire; we never have been. Freedom is worth something.
So it's not just a relocation of Romeo and Juliet to a different city and it's not even an updating, bringing it into the 20th century?
I think what we are doing is William Shakespeare's play of Romeo and Juliet and interpreting it in 20th century images to release the language and to find a style for communicating it to a contemporary audience. Now, you might say, `Well, that's a bit of a mouthful', and it is. I got a card from Kenny Brannagh saying, `Look, love the film and what a great thing for our Hamlet, because it's opening up an audience too'. I love the Laurence Olivier productions and I think Kenneth Branagh is fantastic.
In fact, some critics have left the film and said, `The accent is completely wrong. How dare you do it that way. It's embarrassing'. The truth of the matter is that Shakespeare wrote these plays for an American accent. Americans speak a version of Elizabethan sound. With a rolled R in there, you would basically have the Elizabethan stage sound. I worked with Sir Peter Hall on this. He does the accent. He came to Canada and did it for me. Now, it doesn't mean we should do all Shakespeare in the Elizabethan sound. But round-vowelled English pronunciation is a fashion. It was just the right way or the right fashion or the right device for a particular time to tell or reveal the play for that time.
To have Leonardo di Caprio asking, `Is she a Capulet? in a southern Californian accent is not too far from the Elizabethan stage sound; it is just another way of revealing the language. So it's not wrong. It's not the only way, but it's not wrong. I had a great triumph when two Californian academics, after a kind of Mr Ex-English? teacher/`I've become a local critic of the Boulder Daily News' declared the film was an outrage, stood up and said, `Well, in fact, Mr Luhrman is correct about this'. A professor from the University of California said it's been in the New York Times in the critics' notes and an editorial - it makes for ticket sales really. And who cares?
I mean, the truth is this: the one thing we know is we don't know much about Shakespeare, but he was sure as hell focused on box office and he is not displeased that he's packing the houses. I know! William Shakespeare was an actor in a company that was competing with another. All they cared about was packing the house. Who is worried that we put rock music in? Oh, here's the news - he put popular songs of the time in his shows because it was a good way of telling a story!
In terms of liberating the language, the cast had a strong sense of the rhythm, the poetry. Dustin Hoffman did Shylock in The Merchant of
Venice on Broadway but he lacked a sense of the verse rhythms.
Do you know what I think that is? Dustin Hoffman is a fantastic actor, but what you get there is a brand of American actor that has this reverential attitude towards the English Shakespearian style, so you get a mid-Atlantic feel. Americans don't use their natural sound. They adjust their sound, and they try to take on a kind of subtle interpretation of what an English actor would do with the language. Leonardo and Clare, in their innocence, brought the language to themselves. Iambic pentameter is a natural rhythm for speaking and thoughts beat roughly in that iambic way. And they were able to find rhythm without it becoming a signpost.
There are different styles that the other actors use because they're such different characters. We've got clowning characters, the parental world, which is like a bizarre acid trip. Then you've got Father Laurence, who is midway. But the kids are really human and natural, so they're the most natural.
It's not right, it's not wrong. It's wonderful to hear Laurence Olivier say, `Now, is the winter of our discontent'. And it's fantastic to hear Kenny Branagh chomp it a bit more like Midlands sound. It's also great to hear Leonardo di Caprio in those soft Californian sounds say, `Tybalt, the reason I have to love you'.
The visual style helped liberate the language and break down the barriers?
It actually isn't visual style. Even on the Elizabethan stage they wore their day clothes. When it came to doing the balcony scene, they would find a usual device to free and clarify story and language.
It is true we are intensely visual, and that intense visual language has to be freeing, not oppressing. We make pictures. Cinema is like opera, strangely. That's why cinema directors do a lot of opera and vice-versa, but not necessarily plays. They are the synthesis of the visual, the plastic, the written, the acted, the audible, the audio arts, synthesising all those things into one singular statement. There is no rule. If someone says there's only one way to do it, that's the way, I've got the book', you know they're talking crap because stories do not change. But the way you tell them has to be a product of the times. I'd call my book about my work, `The Way I Tell It', but in the telling, the visual representation is a good 50% of that.
On the visuals, you have a great number of Catholic statues and images.
We shot in Mexico and Mexico is very, very, very Catholic with Catholic iconography everywhere. The giant statue in the middle of the city, that is Mexico City, with Jesus' statue put in the middle of the city. That's an electronic addition. All the iconography was about the fact of the plot point that when you marry, it is in the eyes of God. Families can't pull the couple apart. So the slightly-on-the-edge priest says, `but actually, if you do get married, the families can't do anything about it; so it's a way of forcing them to stop running around killing each other'. It's a key plot point in the play. It's very weak dramatically. So you have to have the audience believe that no-one questions religion, no-one questions the existence of God or the power of Jesus Christ. So when Juliet says, `No, if thy love be honourable, thy purpose marriage', Romeo could not say, `Look, you don't have to get married to have sex'. There's no argument about the fact that they existed in a religious context in terms of their thinking and beliefs. So it turned out like an Italian/Mexican/South American location. I mean, when you're in Mexico, religion is absolutely wrapped up with politics.
This Mediterranean, Hispanic piety is strong, as in the shrine in Juliet's room with so many statues of Mary, so many candles. Even the seedy
apothecary has holy cards on his counter.
There's a lot there and they're on the weapons as well. Now, some can say that's sacrilegious. No-one has, actually - it's been a bit of a surprise - but the truth is that's an interpretation of religion in our societies. You can have an armed society like Bosnia, where everyone's running around claiming they uphold Christian notions, or Mexico where it's all very Catholic and yet you go into a restaurant and people are holding guns.
In the Elizabethan times a lot of that iconography was put upon weapons of war - and I always think that's a very disturbing notion. So it's not a judgment or an analysis of any kind of religion; it's about saying that everyone has to have a belief in a certain set of rules.
And the cross on Father Laurence's back?
Well, Father Laurence is very important but, actually, in the play Laurence is a bit of an idiot. You remember that the Elizabethan world was slashing away at Catholicism. The good news is just because he's a priest he's not God, he's a human being. I think Father Laurence is a great character and a good person, but he's had sin himself to deal with. He's had a struggle with the human condition himself. He's not perfect.
Our scenario was that he went off to Vietnam and he was into drugs. He was tussling with his own personal dilemmas. Maybe he had a wife and a child or whatever, but he went back to the church and really he is a good person. He really wants good to be done and really believes in the ideas of Christ and God. But he's not this guy in a white caftan who says, `I have a wonderful idea. Let's marry and all will be hunky-dory'. So I was showing him to be a complex man - you know, he's a drinker. I quite like the idea - it's an old-fashioned idea - that Spencer Tracy always played priests but secretly he was a drunk, which doesn't say he's bad. I think priests that are flawed are at least more human. If you reveal it, you're therefore truthful. You're saying, `I'm a human being. I'm not a deity'. I have a slight problem with the deity version of priesthood, as I'm sure certain churches do.
Your sets? Do you ever think, `This is just too much? This is overwhelming?'
Do you mean too much in terms of its effectiveness in the storytelling or just incredibly decadent?
No, just in sheer extravagance.
Let me give you an extravagance. That pool: that entire outdoor pool is a set, interior built. It was made from concrete and it was filled with water. The day we walked off the set, in a frenzy to go up to Verona Beach, they had drained it the day before and now there were guys with jackhammers just tearing it to pieces. It was a million-dollar pool. It's a weird little world, film-making, and you do weird little things. One of the things I hate is waste, and I was not able to avoid the kind of waste I would like to avoid. Everything you see on that beach is built. There's not a palm tree or a telegraph pole on that beach that wasn't put there by us. It was a desert.
The illusion of film is fascinating and difficult but tricky. We were able to do things in Mexico that you can't do anywhere else in the world. We had this one chopper, that big white one, but it seems like a flotilla of choppers. You can tell the electronic ones, we're not trying to hide that too much. The military guy in the chopper in silhouette early on, sitting, pointing with a gun - that's me. And Don Mc Alpine, we're just in a Bell chopper, the camera chopper, and he's there with the camera, hand-holding, and I'm just strapped in. And we've got all these stunt guys dressed up and flying through Mexico City - I mean, in the middle of Mexico City - and they were hanging out of the chopper. I'm just pointing out the kind of bizarreness in what needs to happen to get a scene is always extraordinary.
I'll give you an example of the surrealness of it: flying, looking for Mantua. We're flying over the desert. We're up in a chopper. We see tiny little sheds. So we fly down, we land, and the wind blows everything. The villagers live in cardboard boxes. Our Mexican interpreter says, `Look, we want to make a film... and we're going to build some things here, but we'll leave everything for you and we're going to pay you this money'. They're over the moon. So we came back. We built the entire Mantua, everything you see in Mantua, all those shacks, the cars, everything, like a town. And they bring all their cars and they're all employed and they're all great. Then we shoot and we're always desperately behind. So all the trucks leave the next morning. We get the final shot. We leave and, as we're leaving, they're all waving. And there's a town left behind where their little shacks were, and it's their little town now. I mean, there is a surrealness about that. There's a big sign now that says Mantua.
Talking of names - why William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet?
Things are marketed very intensely in the US. Because it was modern images and because it was Romeo and Juliet, of which there are many Romeo and Juliets - even Shakespeare stole the story from other sources - with the way their minds work, it would be, `Let's just flog it as a kind of funky-looking movie called Romeo and Juliet and not mention Shakespeare'. So by forcing them to put William Shakespeare in there, no matter what they did to it, there was no question that it was the play.
Not only is it the text, but the Zefirelli version, which everyone thinks is the Elizabethan show, actually has additional dialogue and does actually change the text. From, `Do with their death bury their parents' strife', not, `Doth with their death...' I'm not criticising that, because I think it's a gorgeous production of 1968. But we are textually more accurate. We have cut about a third - under a half, which is probably normal. Zeffirelli cut half the text.
Actors love Shakespeare because it's like giving them a sports car. They have a lot to say, and actors like to talk, God knows. It was a meticulous rehearsal process, but they dug it. There's no actor on that show that's not happy. Brian Dennehy had three lines. He's a terrific stage actor. I just asked him. I said, `Look, I really need someone who could really believe he's Leonardo's father and someone with real credibility and who has good craft'.
You bring Shakespeare to the people. Was that a surprise that it's done so well and seems to have introduced many Americans, at least, to Shakespeare?
Being number 1 was a surprise to everyone. Being number 1 in America is like saying, `I don't care what it is; I want it', to the industry. It killed Sleepers. That was a $70,000,000 film with Robert de Niro, Brad Pitt and Dustin Hoffman. In a town where, `What do you mean, Shakespeare's number 1? How come you didn't tell me about it?', it means a lot. But yes, I wanted to take it back to where it began, and that was for everybody. It was for everybody.
With such box office you'd almost be subject to a deity principle now, wouldn't you?
More the alchemy principle, I think. What we've done in our two sorties is that we've turned lead to gold. To understand means gold so, therefore, we must understand something about the audience that they don't. Frankly, no-one knows anything, and those that do what we do are only paid because they have a better instinct than others. They don't know. I don't really know. I know what I'd like to see out there, and we have the audacity and the guts and, I suppose, the sort of energy to sustain the fight to get it done.
So what has that left me with? Well, I was certainly offered higher cash deals, much more wealthy deals, by other studios, but with Fox, they embraced the notion that I wanted to work from Australia and that I work with a large team in an idiosyncratic way in which we work. The truth is it's not just about film. I don't think we're film-makers or directors or whatever. We tell stories. So what we have purchased or won is the ability to think something up and do it.
Post-script: a report in the Melbourne Herald- Sun for 1 January 1997 said that for the four days after Christmas, Romeo and Juliet topped the box-office with $A 2,277,014 while Daylight took $A 2,235,000. Baz Luhrmann is quoted: We feel very proud that an idea launched in Australia has been embraced so wholeheartedly and I know Shakespeare will be happy to hear that he outgrossed Sylvester Stallone.
Interview: 19th December 1996