It’s 20 years since William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet came out…
An interview exclusive with Baz Luhrmann
It had Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. It had a killer soundtrack. It’s THE classic love story. We were lucky enough to talk to director Baz Luhrmann
When did you realize the adaptation would work?
"We certainly had to fight for it. In fact, it was extraordinarily hard to get the film made at a major studio. I had this first-look deal with Twentieth Century-Fox at the time and I presented the idea I had never pitched a movie before, so I was something like a guy practicing a speech in the mirror, throwing on his best suit, and then tripping as he enters the room. Plus, a friend told me on the way in, “whatever you do, don’t mention the language.” As a result, I think I was trying to bludgeon things like “what light through yonder window breaks?” into, “Ok…so the lights are on.” It didn’t feel like a great victory. Or at least I don’t recall a breathless pause and a standing ovation when I’d finished.
"I think what happened instead is, rather than just let me go, they said something along the lines of, “We’ll give him $100,000, let him do his little “workshop” and maybe it’ll go away.” Well it didn’t. But it bought us some time. And luckily, I got this talented young guy named “Leonardo DiCaprio” to come down to Australia for several weeks to participate in our “workshop.” We tried all sorts of things and taped the proceedings. When the studio saw these young lads running around in Hawaiian shirts and tattoos and dropping pills, I think they decided it might just work because “it was kind of about gangs?”
Then, of course, there was still the “problem” of Shakespeare’s language. He talked funny. In the early stages, they asked us, “Now, we love the idea. But please God, can you change the language?” In effect, “We love Shakespeare, but…just don’t use his script.”
So we resisted, and kept resisting, and resisted some more. But we were a passionate team, cast and crew. What you see on the screen was the product of a bareknuckle fight.
And after two years, I suppose we just wore everyone down."
Where did the ideas for various updatings come from? Branding the guns with sword names, for example. The Post Haste delivery company. The Sycamore Grove theatre.
"With Romeo + Juliet what I wanted to do was to try and imagine how Shakespeare might make a movie of one of his plays. Our feeling, based on the kinetic energy of the text itself, and the rather restless historical context in which it was performed, was that he wouldn’t make a “sleeper,” some languid and wistful chamber piece. He would make a 'movie' movie. He was a player. He’d even bring out clowns at intervals just to spice up the action. It was the Elizabethan stage and he was performing for 3,000 drunken punters, from the street sweeper to the Queen of England-- and his competition was bear-baiting and prostitution, which are two things that, even now, would be hard to top as pure spectacle. But we know he did. He was a relentless entertainer and used incredible theatrical devices and tricks. And perhaps his greatest trick was that he created something of meaning and conveyed stories of such depth through all of it. That was what we wanted to try.
"I did immense research with a three-pronged team of my wife Catherine Martin or “CM,” Kim Barrett, and Craig Pearce— my dear friend who had previously collaborated with me on Strictly Ballroom. What's unusual about the way we did it is that the design was generated at the same time as the writing. We wanted to find a cinematic language that could translate the text as a visual and narrative whole. Each had to be marbled with the other.
"So, something like the Sycamore Grove Theater, for instance, is the product of this dual writing and design development period in Miami. And there was an epiphany in Miami that we had to create an alternate universe. The intertextuality and layered allusions of Shakespeare’s texts would have to take place visually in our Verona. And, of course, we were making a film, so the intertextuality compounds by reverberating within our own medium.
"So it’s a mashup of all kinds of references from the worlds of film, Shakespeare’s text, but also the modern world at-large, in which we chose to stage the action. Each of these collage elements that we ‘released’ into this reality we also tried to lasso in order to clarify and amplify specific things in the text that we felt needed illuminating as-cinema.
"Once we had set the rules, it was a just question of applying them to each new problem of representation. And this was far from being a “flawless” method. We acknowledged as much. Craig and I used to work in the same room hammering out the text, each on an old black and white Mac, and we called ourselves “the butchers of The Bard.” I think we even had hats made to that effect. It wasn’t because we thought it was cute. It was a genuine moral anxiety-- cutting, editing, or moving anything that William Shakespeare had put on the page for a reason."
Everyone has favourite details from the film, things they've spotted in the background (for example, Prospero’s whisky, Romeo’s graffiti tags). What’s your favourite nerdy detail from the film?
"Yes, that’s another example of us trying to create an entire world that, at once, felt real but would be an echo chamber or mise en abyme of “Shakespeare within Shakespeare.” We had someone dedicated full time to creating Elizabethan signage.
"While I’m not sure this is my favorite detail, it is at least something of a good inside joke. When the military chopper is flying over Mexico City in the beginning, the soldier in the foreground is pointing, and his finger’s broken and crooked. Well, that is my broken finger. Only two people could get in the camera chopper: the director and the DP, Don McAlpine. So I had to play the soldier while I was directing. It was my big debut. I was “ready for my close-up” and all I have to show for it is a sorry looking finger."
Is there anything you love about the film that people never mention?
"Yes, and it’s less to do with the film itself than the fact that I wish I could share with the audience what an adventure it was to make it -- the adventure behind the adventure onscreen. For those who liked the film, I wish they could be transported somehow to join in the wild traveling theater troupe we had running around in Mexico, and the wild and unimaginable things we did just to try and tell that story.
"Now, it wasn’t a particularly safe shoot, between the ransoms and the natural disasters, and surely I didn’t realize at the time just how crazy we must have seemed, stomping through Mexico, dressed up like insane people— astronauts, angels, Roman emperors. But I feel like fans of the film would be happy to know that it wasn’t a cold, calculating, professional machine, but a bunch of well-intentioned lunatics doing everything we could to try and tell it right, hoping they’d love it."
How would you describe the difference between the Montagues and the Capulets?
"Scholars have debated the “historical Montagues and Capulets.” The debates themselves struck me less than the sliding scale on which they take place and the fictional gesture that any of them require. At the very literal end, you have old historicists who will name a Veronese family. Others argue that Shakespeare based his “families” on what were actually warring 13th century political factions or bands. Haunting all of these is the fact the family feud—whatever it’s historicity—was lifted straight from the pages of Dante’s Purgatario.
"What was more important to our world was that Shakespeare decoded, across all these possibilities, a “true fiction” of a feud that was rooted in a danger and violence that his audience could viscerally understand, while raising up the essential futility at the heart of it-- all the dead sons and daughters who were caught in the crossfire of these paternalistic, tribal, conflicts.
"In terms of our time and geography, we looked to the parallel universe of a Verona made up of Miami and LA, the gang violence in those cities during the 1990s. We also looked to evoke the broader story of American crime and immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. So, our Montagues were more like a now-respectable old Irish crime family who had a mayor or police chief in office. But like the Irish, they’d once entered as outcasts, “immigrants,” rose up through organized crime, but by that time the Italian mob is growing in power; they’re the new upstart “immigrants” and the Irish are now “Americans.” Our Capulets evoked Latino culture, perhaps they are perceived by the “old crime” Montagues as “new crime,” in the way bluebloods snuffle at “new money.” But the Capulets are hungrier, perhaps more reckless, and the Montagues undergoing that softening transition into “legitimacy,” even if it means actively forgetting that few generations ago, they were the Capulets. Either way, there’s blood and blame and futility to go around, and it tears our two kids apart."
The soundtrack is still fondly remembered and is still considered one of the best film soundtracks. You worked with 1990s super-producer Nellee Hooper. Can you tell us about that?
"His was the music I was using very early on in the style reels for the movie, trying to evolve a musical language alongside the story and design. As I recall, the studio was against the idea of using someone who wasn’t a traditional film composer. But I wanted to identify just who it was working with Massive Attack and Bjork that we’d already woven in as the sound of this world. So I tracked down Nellee and his team.
"From then on, we were in the trenches together on all the music. Nellee has truly great musical taste, and just great taste, generally. I’m not sure if people realize his background is in engineering, so he’s also a scientist on the desk. He and his team came to Melbourne with us, they came to Skywalker Ranch, and Nellee even helped mix it down for us. That was a special group; they’d worked together on many albums, and it was a special soundtrack. But even if it had been a total train wreck, the fact that Thom Yorke and Radiohead were able to use that context, story, and environment for a moment to come up with Exit Music (For A Film), which became part of that small triumph called OK Computer-- that would have been enough."
Which character was your favourite?
"Leo and Claire are forces of nature, of course. It was a blessed cast. If I had to single one out, I think the most unexpected interpretation would probably be the great, fearless leap that Harold Perrineau had to take in that performance of Mercutio. Believe me, it takes courage to enter into the film dressed in a lamé mini skirt, silver high heels, with a wig and bra, and packing heat. It’s not easy to strut out in that get up and then deliver a powerful, heartfelt performance of Queen Mab as though he were completely unaware that he looked like he was on his way to a roller disco. But Harold did it, and he’s a great, conflicted Mercutio."
We've heard that the storm that occurs as Mercutio dies was real and not an effect. Could you tell us about filming in a hurricane?
"It was real. We went down to shoot it, and we got blown away. The majority of sets were built from scratch and they were destroyed in the storm. As the hurricane was coming in, we were all wearing goggles, were about to decamp, and I asked if we could do just one more take. The kids were game and said, “We'll do it!” Off they ran, took off their goggles, and they did it. And we got it. If you look at the film, you'll see that's the whole master from Mercutio’s death to Leo screaming to the storm, getting in the car, to the car leaving-- that's all in one take.
"There was no more Sycamore Grove Theatre after that, so we had to do the extra shots in San Francisco, reproducing everything in that take by using big fans and CM holding up a bit of blue scenery. There were about four people in the crew; it was more like a student film project by then. Rather a tight little set-up compared to the natural cinema of a hurricane."