WEDS. NOVEMBER 23, 2016WORDS BY BAZ LUHRMANN & HUMBERTO LEON PHOTOGRAPHY BY MERRICK MORTON
From Hawaiian t-shirts to a hurricane blowing away your set to Radiohead composing your film’s final song, Baz Luhrmann gets real on the making of Romeo + Juliet. And you’re going to want to read every single word
"Somewhere along the way we told a fundamental and universal human truth: that love and youth will get caught up in the crossfire of the incumbent generation, or that the best things in the world can be born into a broken world, and one you didn't break" — Baz Luhrmann
It’s hard to believe the iconic Shakespeare rendition directed by Baz Luhrmann was filmed twenty years ago. Since Romeo + Juliet’s official anniversary on November 1st we’ve been honored to feature original and concept pieces from the films archives to celebrate its tenure. From the costumes to the characters to the soundtrack the movie is beyond influential, but there’s a reason for that … Baz Luhrmann. A dear friend and profound filmmaker who agonized over every detail to ensure everything had a purpose. OC co-founder Humberto Leon sits down with Baz to talk Hawaiian t-shirts, filming after a hurricane, and having Radiohead compose your film’s final song, read the full interview below and enjoy never before seen images photographed by Merrick Morton … Then swing by OCNY Soho to see the exhibit still on display.
HUMBERTO LEON: Romeo + Juliet is rich with symbolism, much of which has been discussed by critics and moviegoers alike. From your abundant use of water to religious iconography, visual imagery is clearly important to the film experience. Is there any symbolic element of your film that you feel hasn't been really addressed but is just as important?
BAZ LUHRMANN: Our guiding principle or “Rule #1” was simply that every single visual element in the film had to serve the purpose of illuminating the language, and not the other way ‘round. This applies to everything from costumes to place names, down to little “unseen” elements. Even the background signs and props had quotes from the wider Shakespeare canon. For instance, we designed “Agincourt” filterless cigarettes from the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V. A “Shoot forth thunder” gun advertisement, which is a line from Henry VI, part II. There’s even a liquor whose slogan is, “Such stuff as dreams are made on” called “Prospero,” because he’s the character who says the line in The Tempest. Perhaps less known is the fact that each scene is staged and filmed with reference to a defining film or film language that could also anchor the text in something we’d understand. So the gas station stand-off is a miniature Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. When Romeo is exiled in the desert, the inspiration is James Dean in Giant. It was almost like a giant game of Pictionary—any mad scribbling was allowed but the word itself had to remain fixed and intact.
Shakespeare adapted this story of star-crossed-lovers from an Italian novella. As storytelling should improve with each iteration, what do you think Romeo and Juliet would be like in the 21st century? If you were to re-adapt this tale today, how would it change, if at all?
Well, I'm not sure that it's the storyteller's job to improve the story so much as to try their best to redeploy some basic truth about it in a particular moment, for a particular audience, and in a particular place, while being the steward or custodian of its history and traditions. And Romeo and Juliet is an ancient story, but we keep sharing it. The underlying myth is over 2,000 years old. It comes from Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe in the Metamorphoses, which itself was likely lifted from an earlier Greek tale. It appeared in Boccaccio and Chaucer, and certain forms of it settled in Arthur Brooke’s poem and the 16th century Italian novellas. And this is all prior to Shakespeare's version. Somewhere along the way we told a fundamental and universal human truth: that love and youth will get caught up in the crossfire of the incumbent generation, or that the best things in the world can be born into a broken world, and one you didn’t break. I feel like that may be the experience of many young people today. I know other directors will come along and continue the pursuit to find a cinematic language for this deceptively simple story that keeps breaking our hearts. And they’ll reveal ￼something generational that I could never have imagined. So I suppose I just couldn’t make it now, because it belonged to a mood and a moment.
I loved that despite how your film modernized Romeo and Juliet's story, it still embraced Shakespeare's original text. I've read that it wasn't easy to convince the studio of this. Did you or the cast find it at all limiting or difficult to keep the dialogue in Shakespearean English?
We certainly had to fight for it. My then-executive, who consequently has become a great 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.” But keeping Shakespeare's text was the number one priority for Craig Pearce and me when we were doing the adaption. Indeed, everything in the film is about clarifying that language. This is not something we took lightly. In Miami, 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-- changing anything that William Shakespeare had put on the page for a reason. That said, Craig and I did cut, paste, and move words around, we reduced the text in places, but we never wrote "extra Shakespeare." People are shocked sometimes to learn that.
Let's just talk about the costumes for a moment—because really, they have had such a profound influence on the way I dressed. To me, the wardrobe selections never seem dated. Even 20 years later, the style in Romeo + Juliet is still amazing—angel wings, sequined cropped halter tops and skirts, metal buckled boots, and all. And I am SO excited to feature on display in the Opening Ceremony New York store the very Hawaiian shirt that Leo wore in this film.
The costumes were always storytelling decisions. Early on, when Craig, Kym Barrett, CM, and I were developing the written and visual language in Miami, we did have iterations that may have leaned too much on dateable objects. I think there was even a moment where Mercutio was on rollerblades—yes, rollerblades. Bad idea. We then hearkened back to Strictly Ballroom, where a very clear conceptual rule was made to never have any very pointed technology that could date the film, so that it had a kind of parallel universe visual vocabulary that could be both modern but somehow timeless. This carried through to the costumes. Most importantly, fashion could never exist for fashion’s sake. On the one hand, Leo is a collage of James Dean and Montgomery Clift and the 1950s, a bit of Brando, with a little Kurt Cobain thrown in on the haircut—and he’s very cool. On the other hand, the Hawaiian shirt as fashion will wax and wane in its relative cultural coolness at any given moment. But there will always be—if we’re lucky— some lingering symbolic palimpsest of Romeo as that young boy in the Hawaiian shirt, who literally “wore” Paradise on his back. I hope the audience trusted these aesthetic decisions and remembers them fondly because they helped us understand their story. Indeed, during its early development, the idea of the Montagues being represented by military flak pants, alluding to Second World War imagery for a great moment of America's emergence on the global scene, and the Hawaiian “Montgomery Clift (Prewitt look) from Here to Eternity look” was about finding a fundamental anglo-American language. Kym was very hardworking in creating our own prints. I remember getting a whiff of this feeling way back somewhere in the nineties when I used to obsessively read the English magazine called The Face. I think there was a shoot set in Miami that really started to use the Hawaiian shirt in an interesting way. The image seemed “true” but it took a long dialogue to determine just why. Then there was a real breakthrough when we were about to do a workshop with Leonardo back in Sydney. Kym came in with a Japanese print Hawaiian shirt she'd found in an op shop. Soon we were developing our own Hawaiian prints with all sorts of Montague signs and references in the fabric itself and it became a sort of mise en abyme of Shakespearean “Hawaiian shirts within Hawaiian shirts,” but Kym, with CM’s support, did a brilliant job at this.
And how did you come to the decision of selecting Hawaiian shirts for the Montagues? Is there any special meaning behind this choice?
Shakespeare presented a “true fiction” of a feud that was rooted in a danger and violence that his audience could viscerally understand. We tried in our own way to do the same. 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 ‘90s. We also looked to evoke the broader story of American crime and immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. Our Montagues were more like a respectable old Irish crime family who now had a mayor or police chief in office—and now their sons are returning from the tropics of the Pacific theater as war heroes. With the Capulets, while the immediate gang culture of LA in the nineties was very much a touchstone, we're reaching right back into South American, Latino, and Hispanic imagery. I think one of the kind of cleverest touches was the way the religious iconography was incorporated into the clothing. I don't know if people were aware, but those cropped jackets the Capulets wear are in fact meant to be Kevlar body armor in which, you know, there are images of the Madonna, etc. are lacquered upon the top. There are so many other examples. Certainly, nothing was arbitrary: from Mercutio turning up in drag to go the costume ball, to Leonardo being a knight in shining armor, or Dave ￼Paris, amplifying his haplessness dressed as an astronaut while having to dance.
Did the shoot locations (California, Mexico, etc.) bring any inspiration to the table?
￼In fact, we only ever shot in Mexico—we shot all of it in Mexico. All the films we’ve done have been adventures, but nothing I'm sure will ever quite match the one we had there, and I'm sure I'm speaking for almost all involved. Mexico is woven into the bones of the romance. Well, there is a sad side note here, which is that a hurricane came and blew away all the sets. There was no more Sycamore Grove Theatre after that. People often ask, “was everything on that beach really built?” Well, it was; and it was swept to sea. We had to debunk and finished the post-production at Skywalker Ranch in California. We were a little low on cash, too. I remember us trying to reproduce our beloved storm- battered Mexico by using big fans and CM holding up a bit of blue scenery behind Leonardo as he poured his heart out over the death of Mercutio. 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. But we lived and breathed Mexico and it almost like its own character in the film. Even when it was gone, we were trying to get it back.
The music in Romeo + Juliet was incredible, with Cardigans, Everclear, Des'ree, and of course, Radiohead. Thom Yorke mentioned that Exit Music (For A Film) helped shape the direction of OK Computer. How did you meet Radiohead? What about Exit Music made it appropriate for the soundtrack?
￼The Radiohead story is quite an interesting one because while Radiohead had broken through, they were not—just yet—the huge, galaxy-wide, iconic band they are today. They were on tour at the time and we’d all discussed how perfect they would be to do that final moment after the tragic death. So I reached out to Thom on the road, and so began a series of phone calls where I would variously ring him, brief about the song, talk about what it could achieve emotionally. Thom understood perfectly and our chats always ended with the very exciting promise that the song was on its way. Truth be known, time passed and passed, and soon time was up. We got so late in the mix that we had to actually replace it. I only learnt years later that Thom, Jonny, and the band were going through some difficult times and they almost came to a parting of ways, which is terrible thought to me: “a world without Radiohead.” Now, no doubt R+J 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. Anyway, back at the mix, moments before it was truly the point of no return for us, someone came running in with an old DAT tape and a little note that read something like, “To Baz, from Thom. Hope you like it and that it's not too late." We played it and the rest is history.
￼LIGHTNING ROUND: BAZ’S FAVORITE...
Well, Shakespeare's not a bad place to start. There’s also that F. Scott Fitzgerald fellow. And in what’s probably an unsurprising twist, Byron. That’s already three. I find it difficult to try and number art when when it's already run the big prize of surviving time and geography.
Well, you know what? I can’t paint, it mystifies me, and I have an answer: I'm a crazy Caravaggio fan. In fact, I collaborated with another visual artist, a friend of mine named Vincent Fantuzzo on project called “The Creek” for the Hong Kong art fair some years ago that was sort of a contemporary tragedy based on the religious paintings of Caravaggio. And Caravaggio would actually “lens” and stage his paintings, so we tried to illustrate that by having the story unfold before you as different parts of the painting were lit in sequence.
My wife and I have a saying that "Paris is where you are", which is meant to remind us that romance and meaning should be portable, or at least follow wherever you go. Generally speaking, my own philosophy here is: dream in Paris, have fun in London, dance in Brazil, work in ￼LA, and get lost in Shanghai or maybe Tokyo, live in New York, and Sydney is home.
I’m particular to Catherine Martin. It’s probably a crush and I don’t care who knows it.