BWW EXCLUSIVE: Baz Luhrmann Talks NYMF, Broadway, Hollywood, Oz, WICKED & More
Who has more style? More flair? More imagination? More sheer visual power in each and every frame of every single one of his films than the master of the modern movie musical - and director of the greatest Shakespeare film adaptation ever created, bar none - the fabulously talented and extremely entertaining film genius otherwise known as Baz Luhrmann. In this BWW World Premiere Exclusive InDepth InterView we talk everything from Broadway to Hollywood to Oz - with chairing this year's NYMF, Blu-Rays of his previous films, WICKED onstage and onscreen, GLEE, (the other) Oz, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Beyonce, Andrew Lloyd Webber and much, much more in-between - so follow the digital yellow brick road to the cyber emerald kingdom in the wonderful world of Baz.
The Wizard & Baz & I
The visionary of his generation. An artiste of artists. A master among masters. There is only one director - film, stage or otherwise - in the universe with the flair, fire and ferocity of the films of this man. He has single-handedly re-introduced ballroom dancing, Shakespeare and the film musical itself to a whole new generation over the course of his twenty years making films - and also directed a Puccini opera on Broadway in addition to the most glamorous and intoxicating television commercial ever made, that of Nicole Kidman and Chanel No. 5. His name and his resume only begin to say it all - the extravagance, the extreme emotion, the flawless distillation of the purest art-forms in a phantasmagorical explosion - and the images he has created can more eloquently tell the tale than that any artist of any kind ever conceivably could. No one makes movies like him. No one looks at life quite like him. No director in the world is more the master of his own personal kind of art of expression than Baz Luhrmann is. In this ultra-exciting BWW World Exclusive InDepth InterView we discuss the new Blu-ray editions of his instant-classic films WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S ROMEO + JULIET and MOULIN ROUGE, in addition to the stunning technical accomplishments of AUSTRALIA, his most recent film, and what the future holds for the stage adaptation of his first feature film, STRICTLY BALLROOM. We also discuss WICKED and all the Ozian rumors surrounding his involvement in the film adaptation of the hit stage property, as well as his thoughts on GLEE, his favorite movie musicals, how important new voices are to the integrity of the theatre, why he has benevolently chosen to chair this year's New York Musical Theater Festival and what theatre has meant to him throughout his life and career - and the role it plays in his stunning, hallucinatory film work. With a director of this stature - Hollywood, Broadway or otherwise - it is rare to be granted such an extensive interview so it is my personal privilege and honor to now present the world premiere of the exclusive InDepth InterView: Baz Luhrmann!
PC: As someone who grew up on your movies - I'm twenty-six - I have to tell you that you are single-handedly responsible for making Shakespeare and movie musicals cool again.
BL: You know, Pat, honestly - cause you seem so full of life and mature, I'm shocked to hear you're twenty-six, but - I'm very, very excited to hear you're twenty-six because when I think of musical theatre... You have to understand, I grew up in a very isolated place in the middle of nowhere. My brothers and I had this vinyl record - I tell this story because it relates me to the NYMF festival - and we played it over and over and over again. (Pause.) It was for a show named JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.
PC: Oh, wow. What a score!
BL: Now, only one of us we could afford to send to see the show, so it wasn't me, it was my older brother. I tell that story to you now, because I think to myself, that when I was growing up - and it wasn't just SUPERSTAR, there was HAIR and other things too - there was a time when the live musical event - the live musical show - in popular culture, reached out not just to fans of musicals, but it shot popular culture straight between the eyes.
PC: Like a shot in the dark!
BL: It meant nobody was excluded from it and everybody scrambled to get on board and participate.
BL: I say this also because, years later, an Australian director and designer who became mentors for both Catherine Martin and I, when we were twenty-six - your age - he was a guy called Jim Sharman. He directed those original productions. He also did a movie called THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.
PC: And CHESS! My favorite version of it!
BL: Indeed! Yes! Exactly! And CHESS - did you know Catherine Martin was a dresser on that CHESS?
BL: Wow, but you know your history! That's amazing, man.
PC: I love that production, it was the best ever done.
BL: CM was a dresser on that show. I just want to say that because, I think when we grew up, as isolated as we were, we just had an assumption - and also remember what Ken Russell was doing in a kind of really outrageous way in cinema - we grew up with a passionate love of the old musicals. At least I did. Because we had a cinema, because of what we called "cheap television", I saw THE BANDWAGON and TOP HAT and THE RED SHOES and the classic older musicals.
PC: All the best.
BL: Yes, but there was also a rock music revolution going on. Rock just simply meant that it wasn't show music, per se, it was music you were listening to on the radio: it was popular music.
PC: Yes. Exactly.
BL: I feel that we've been on the precipice of that for awhile. But, the gesture I made when I did MOULIN ROUGE - and, indeed, when you think back ten years ago when we made MOULIN ROUGE, the amount of people who said, "This is ridiculous! Using well-known songs to tell a story? An emotional story?" - and, yet, ten years later we have television shows that are the number one shows that do just that.
BL: Kids are breaking out in popular song to tell stories!
PC: You did it fist, at least this century.
BL: It seems to me we are on the absolute exciting wave - the new exciting wave - of musical possibilities. You know?
PC: You're the pioneer. I mean, Broadway has aped that concept, too - MAMMA MIA, JERSEY BOYS, AMERICAN IDIOT, etc..
BL: You know, what's interesting about that is that: when we started out I studied musicals very, very, very closely when I was growing up. Everything from Brecht and Kurt Weill, Grand Opera, every form. We were trained in a very, very big opera company when we were very young and I have my own experimental opera company.
PC: Operas are musicals and vice versa.
BL: Yes. So, I understand the methodology, the procedure.
PC: Very evidently!
BL: When we were doing research for MOULIN ROUGE, one of the things we discovered in the examination of the history of musicals - for example, a song like "White Christmas" is in several movies - so, any given new show would have a certain percentage of what you might call "familiar, popular songs" - like songs that were popular, sing-a-longs, tracks everyone already know. The adverts would say, you know, something like, "Six New Musical Numbers!" But, of course, all the rest were all well-known!
PC: That's funny, some things don't change.
BL: That's the whole point, because the idea of taking something familiar and engaging it in the act of telling a story, that's a very old idea. We just took it - as we do with a lot of the DNA - and invented a new form that was specific to our time, to our place, to our audience. I think that it's just grown on from that point.
PC: It's interesting to hear you talk about meta-musicals: Andrew Lloyd Webber's new WIZARD OF OZ uses the movie songs and he and Tim Rice have written six or seven new songs.
BL: Right. I saw Andrew recently - actually, I've seen a lot of him recently, mostly in passing - and I know him well. We were talking about exactly that. His plan was to identify that which was familiar and important but not be scared to try something new. Look, I think one of the great things that have come about in about the last fifteen, twenty years - it's come about in a bit of an oblique way - but, it's the fact that in hip-hop you can take anything and sample it without blinders on.
PC: What an insight! So true, though.
BL: Take anything, with absolutely no prejudice. "Oh, I like that music! But, I don't care whether that's a piece of opera, or that's a piece of pop - it just works! I'm just going to write around that primary sample, or around that primary idea."
BL: It has liberated a lot of us to think, "Well, why can't you do that in culture across the board?" It's no longer a headline, Pat! You would know that - the idea of removing the line between high and low culture. That's not a headline, that's how we live now. I mean, ten years ago it was kind of a headline. "Oh, it's outrageous! It's both high and low!"
BL: Why we think the great art is great - whether it's Shakespeare playing low and high, Moliere, or Mozart. Mozart wrote pop shows - THE MAGIC FLUTE - and he wrote grand opera. So, to me, that is what it is making something. We have no judgment of where we draw our inspiration from, where we draw the DNA of a show from, it's just about - in such crowded popular culture - it's just about creating something that is worthwhile experiencing for an audience. That's the beginning and the end of it.
PC: I just talked to Kristin Chenoweth about Kanye West sampling one of her tracks from WICKED. What do you think of WICKED and the Oz mythology?
BL: Hey! I come from a place called Oz! Ha! (Faux Laugh.)
BL: That's a little joke. (Pause.) Obviously, in my last film AUSTRALIA I used it thematically. When you grow up in Australia, Oz has different implications. Even as a child, I mean, they call Sydney the Emerald City.
PC: Of course.
BL: So, the idea, it‘s interesting you mention it... I love those Oz stories. I'm madly in love with them. I don't think I'm speaking out of school when I say that I have been approached many times to do, or to attempt, a sort of variant or some variations and films and things on THE WIZARD OF OZ. I haven't gone there - not because I don't think it can't be done, because I do. I think any classic work is there to be re-interpreted - the classic never changed. People get very frightened of that until someone makes it work.
PC: Exactly. And WICKED?
BL: Listen, what I think is wonderful, and the most wonderful achievement... to me, WICKED is just extraordinarily clever. Not just the celebration of WICKED - apart from all the obvious things. After all, it has got some of the absolute, show-stopping classics - and we know what they are!
BL: By the way, just so you know, believe it or not I just saw the show for the first time a week ago.
PC: You've been linked to it for so long!
BL: Crazy as it is - because other people have talked about, "Are you going to do WICKED as a film?"
PC: That's what I was going to ask!
BL: (Laughs.) Yes, that is definitely a rumor. It's for no other reason besides I've been in the desert for four years!
PC: Making AUSTRALIA!
BL: That's an exaggeration, of course, but I really haven't been around.
PC: AUSTRALIA is the size and scope of two films!
BL: First, the thing I want to say about WICKED is that what is so clever about the show - and, isn't it great that a music piece can not only be great storytelling, a huge entertainment and clever as well - was that it toys so powerfully and so brilliantly with, A., and iconic show we all know and love and know, but, B., with a perspective.
PC: What a great way to look at it!
BL: Yeah, that's the whole point of it, that you can flip perspective. I think that is very, very healthy to the culture of the musical.
PC: Without a doubt.
BL: I think that's great. Of course, THE WIZARD OF OZ is kind of like a religious icon when it comes to the cathedral of the musical. It's something very, very precious. I think someone - the right person - should do it.
PC: It should be you!
BL: (Laughs.) Going back to what you were saying about Kristin - I know her and at one stage I was supposed to work with her - I think she's fantastic on GLEE. And, I think - coming back to your Kanye example - when I saw Jay Z at the Yankees Stadium recently. I saw that concert he just did with Kanye onstage alongside him and then Beyonce came out. Of course, I had worked with Beyonce before.
PC: I watched it online, it was amazing! I wish I was there!
BL: I think it was truly, truly... I saw that show as one of those moments.
BL: Growing up I used to wish I was there at the Sinatra Main Event, or Elvis's comeback show in Hawaii. I was just sitting there thinking about how Jay-Z is truly the great ringmaster. He's truly the great showman. He set out to create something truly special and he really achieved it.
PC: Made it real.
BL: When Chris Martin came out and sang, "Rule The World" or whatever, and in that moment with Jay-Z rapping over it, you just thought how this has everything. To me, I would love to see that kind of popular-circus-but-brilliantly-invented creativity engaged in the act of telling story.
PC: That's thrilling to think of...
BL: You know, when SUPERSTAR was created or HAIR was created, that's how both the popular vernacular and musical theatre vernacular clashed in such a potent coalition. It just exploded.
PC: That's the real big bang.
BL: I just think, "What a great thing!" Of course Kanye is sampling Kristin's voice in that piece ["Popular" from WICKED], because Kanye would go, "That's a great piece of storytelling music." That's what the thing about hip-hop is: it's storytelling music.
PC: There's such stratification in music and society. Opera has culture, but hip-hop doesn't. Why?
BL: Oh, I think you're right. Furthermore, I think hip-hop is the opera - the storytelling music - of this generation.
BL: I think what the hip-hop artist has unleashed for all of us - and now we all take it on board - is that there are no borders. There's just that which affects and exults the human spirit. And that which is just OK. And that's OK, too, something that is popular and disposable. I always think that which moves through time and geography is so special.
PC: The mark of true greatness.
BL: Like you said, with WIZARD OF OZ, when it came out it wasn't a financial hit.
PC: No, it wasn't.
BL: But, it's moved beyond time and geography - now, it's part of our culture.
PC: I love your use of "Over The Rainbow" in AUSTRALIA.
BL: I think that that song - why is it so powerful - what is so incredible about it is - because it comes with an awful lot of baggage - it's almost a spiritual catch-cry for hope and possibility. In musical storytelling, you need a lot of songs that are about yearning and possibility. That song is absolutely the guiding light of that.
PC: At the end of the tunnel.
BL: Everybody's always trying to find another rainbow.
PC: What do you think of Stephen Sondheim? You're the ideal director for the INTO THE WOODS film.
BL: Look, Stephen Sondheim - I also grew up on him. When I went to the National Institute of Dramatic Art as a kid, he was absolutely the force to be reckoned with. I think that the popularity of styles, they wax and they wane and they have their verve - but that which is true - as we said, through time and geography - becomes classic. I think in that way he's a classical composer. I don't mean that in a...
BL: Stuffy way... but, again, he is the pinnacle of direct emotion - Puccini is the pinnacle in opera. Direct emotional gestures. He's like a canon, firing an emotional gesture. I think what's great about what Sondheim set out to do and continues to do is he mixed what you call "cleverness" - intellectualism - with really emotional gestures. I mean, "Pretty Women" and moments like that are really moving and stirring, but there is a kind of distant cynicism that's interesting, too. The thing of it is, I know a lot of folks and I always wish there were two of me.
PC: Wouldn't that be great?
BL: There are just so many things where I say to myself, "Wouldn't that be fun?" But, then there are other instances of ideas and creative gestures where I feel like, "Ugh, I've gotta do that." I've got to do it because it's something that's in my cupboard, in my thoughts, and if I don't do it then who's going to do it? It's something personal. And when you do those things, it's so absorbing. There are so many times I wish I had the time to do those other things.
PC: You do everything, though!
BL: We were work in film, in music, magazines, and we've done the odd election campaign...
PC: Broadway, too - LA BOHEME!
BL: Yeah! The way I feel, as we get on in life, the thing that's wonderful about Broadway is that, as your life goes on and you don't want to be tearing around the world so much, it's a wonderful thing to be working through the classical canon. And I consider everything from WEST SIDE STORY to Sondheim in the classical canon. I call the classical canon that which yearns to be produced and re-produced over and over and over again. It doesn't matter where it's come from - I mean, to me, the Beatles are classical.
PC: You got that right! What's your favorite Sondheim show? I'd assume FOLLIES... to me, it's the greatest musical of all time.
BL: Listen, that's the thing. I think music is a bit like food - you might like roast beef and I might like sushi - the real issue is that there's great recipes. And I'm only interested in great things. Great meals. Great banquets.
PC: What a feast for the eyes and ears your Blu-Rays are. AUSTRALIA revolutionized the Blu-Ray, using more layers of the disc - and on the screen.
BL: First of all, I love Blu-Ray and it's for exactly the reason you said. You can get a kind of tri-color vividness. The problem with DVD is it doesn't feel like film at all. You can get an old and a new feeling on Blu-Ray. I sat with a lovely man - Jan Yavro - and he colored Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST and also, I think, THE GODFATHER.
PC: Oh my God!
BL: So, to sit there with Jan and just meticulously go through the films... and actually realize they are very familiar because Blu-Rays are very familiar in their look. They are just deeper and more beautiful than I've ever been able to get these movies in any form before.
PC: The new MOULIN ROUGE and ROMEO + JULIET are incredible.
BL: I have to say, if you like those movies, I've really opened up the vaults of BazMark. For instance, in MOULIN ROUGE there was an original version of the opening sequence.
But, it was a real mistake.
PC: Tell me about the scene!
BL: On the Blu-Ray is Ewan MacGregor singing the original opening sequence of the film where the father and son argue. (Does Father's Voice.) "It's not time to make a change, just relax! You're still young, you have oh so much still yet to learn!" It's quite charming to see that.
PC: Great impression!
BL: There are things on there we previously have not gone anywhere near. Plus, we do all the graphics and things ourselves. The graphics, the layout; everything ourselves. We try to do it with as much care and love as fans deserve. We do our best not to let anyone down.
PC: Please do an AUSTRALIA commentary someday.
BL: You know what, there's so much there. What's happened is - you're right - so many people bought the disc, but it wasn't an actioner... so Fox convinced us that once the sales start to wane we will do a new edition. There's a lot I want to say and put on there.
PC: Is Sirk a big influence on you?
BL: Listen, I grew up where it was so isolated you had a black and white TV and the old cinema. That's it. In the 1970s, things like THE RED SHOES - even CITIZEN KANE, but people were beginning to discover that - were just considered old fashioned. Complete Rubbish. No one wanted to know about them.
PC: That's crazy!
BL: It was all dumped down into cheap country television. That's all we ever got. So, I was deeply influenced by all of that heightened storytelling and all of that heightened style of the period. More specifically, the 30s and 40s, but also moving a little bit into 50s and the Sirk era. So, the answer is, yes, he's an influence - but I'm influenced by a lot of things.
PC: A lot of his movies are coming out on DVD for the first time soon.
BL: Well, that will be exciting!
PC: One of them - TAZA - was originally released in 3D! What do you think of the digital projection innovations that head led into 3D being used more?
BL: You know, it's something I'm getting quite excited about. Now, what's great is that you can get someone like Jan doing a re-grading and you can do digital projection. You forget that it's very rare that you get to see a film that you love at the scale - and, also, the print quality - that it would have had when it was brand new. They do approach that feeling. It's quite stunning to see a classic film really big, but at a print quality that feels like it would have been when it was first released.
PC: What about using 3D technology in film - and/or theatre?
BL: Right now, I'm in the middle of two films I'm developing. I'm doing a lot of experimenting there. I think, look - we were very fortunate to have Jim Cameron come to us a few years ago and he was fantastic enough to take us through it - at one stage we were really exploring AUSTRALIA in 3D.
PC: I didn't know that!
BL: Yeah. I think the use of it so far is pretty extraordinary, but it's only the tip of the iceberg. (Pause.) A simple way of saying it is: if you ever see - and you have to go to Warner Bros. Studios to see it - Hitchcock's DIAL M FOR MURDER in 3D, it's an adult-themed film and the way 3D used is incredible. If you see the film, it's a locked shot. If there was ever any doubt that Grace Kelly wasn't the most beautiful woman alive at the time, you really want to reach out and touch her. And just the way the 3D is used in this box-set, very constrained, drama, is a revelation.
PC: I completely agree. The best 3D film.
BL: Of course, we are wowed by it now. But, to use it to amplify drama is very rare. I am most interested in that.
PC: Have you seen KISS ME KATE in 3D?
BL: No! I never have gotten to see that one. But, what blew my mind about DIAL M was how effective the system is. It's very, very beautiful. Plus, Hitchcock uses it dramatically for a lot of twists and turns. Not as a scare tactic, but the moving in and moving out - the light density. If you turn lights up and down in 3D you get a really amazing effect. I see nothing but us at the beginning, standing at the tip of the iceberg, with Jim smashing through and saying, "Here's a whole new dimension, not just a new palette!"
PC: You break down the fourth wall so often, 3D would be a marriage made in Heaven!
BL: I'd like to think so. I love participatory cinema. Obviously, the theatre is participatory and that's why I love that.
PC: Tell me about the NYMF and what it means to you.
BL: I'm being honored and I am he honorary chairperson at the New York Musical Theater Festival. Listen, I just want to put my hand out loudly and clearly and say: on any creative venture I've ever been on, it's always been about the ability to put it out there on stage - no matter who you are, Puccini to Andrew Lloyd Webber - the moment you put that work in front of an audience, the value to the work itself is extraordinary. No matter how much work you've done. You can't get it in any other way. If, however, when you put it out in front of an audience and it's sudden death it does not help the growth of theatre. So, the reason I am a part of it - obviously, I've got some other gigs going on - I think the New York Musical Theatre Festival is such a fundamental idea towards breaking through to the next level for musical theatre. I really want to put my hand and voice out there in support of that.
PC: Have you heard any of the submissions yet?
BL: (Laughs.) It's like Sundance! Everybody's like, "What's hot? What's the big next thing? What's going on?" The thing is about great work: they usually blindside you. They come out of the most unexpected place. I think that's what's really great about this: you just don't know!
PC: The element of surprise.
BL: The Greeks had it right. If you want to discover theatre, you stop work and drink wine and go to a festival. Out of it came something new and exciting and creative. To me, that's the excitement of it: we're all going in blind.
PC: When are you coming back to Broadway?
BL: I'll be doing musical theatre again soon with STRICTLY BALLROOM a little way down the road.
PC: Have you ever considered doing a Sondheim musical onstage? Weren't you considering "Send In The Clowns" for MOULIN ROUGE?
BL: You know what's funny, we recently went looking for a townhouse on the Upper East. I went up there and they said, "Yes, this belongs to Katharine Hepburn," and they were her paintings and things. I said, "Who was her neighbor?" and she said, "Stephen Sondheim". And I asked, "Who's on the other side?" and she said, "Bob Dylan." And there's this shared garden. I said, "Let me get this right, at some point in history - in this shared garden - Bob Dylan, Katharine Hepburn and Stephen Sondheim were sort of slopping around the garden and (Imitates Hepburn.) ‘How are those new tunes going, boys?'." That's sort of a nice little Kafka-esque play, that one.
PC: What a story! One of the best I've ever heard.
BL: They're so close together. It has to be called the Magic Generational Garden. Talk about touching upon three icons who sum up very clear generational shifts in music, story and performance art. (Pause.) Too far out to believe.
PC: Is Lady Gaga the 21st century icon in their class?
BL: Listen, I've done a little work with the Gaga. A little tiny thing. I know her. Indeed, I think that's right. Really, what she does is she channels so many performers' DNA - from Bowie to Alexander McQueen. What's so great about Alexander - who I knew - is that he channeled an Australian named Leigh Bowery. You may know of him.
BL: Yes. Exactly. So, to me, what's so wonderful about Gaga is she takes it all - and Madonna - and she makes it her own gesture. Also, she's an awesome songwriter and wonderful, wonderful performer. I just think: Just when you think you've seen it all, just when you think it's gotten boring: someone like Gaga comes along, completely out from where you'd least expect it. She claims her own piece of culture and her own moment in the cultural journey of life. Exciting, fun and thrilling to just be around, really.
PC: Your Chanel No. 5 commercial is the best I've ever seen - especially Nicole on the stairs! Was it a dream to work on?
BL: You know, I was actually just doing a little something for the Chanel folks just recently. Just to catch up!
PC: Of course!
BL: It was a dream. Seeing as I come from a far away place, Coco Chanel's story and the history of Chanel and those ateliers... imagine hanging around the Chanel ateliers! Some products are more than just products - they are iconic parts of popular culture.
PC: More than any other perfume.
BL: No.5 - whether it's Monroe saying that it's all she sleeps in, or all the other creative folks associated with it - what was so wonderful was that working with the Chanel company was like working with an opera company. I said, "I can create a sort of cultural event, not a commercial," and they said, "Great!" They were like a completely supportive opera company. It was a dream.
PC: What's the hardest part of the creative process?
BL: The hardest part of the process, most definitely, is the writing. There's a blank piece of paper and your imagination - and the rest is up to you!
PC: Define collaboration.
BL: Well... collaboration is when two people get in a room and they serve a higher order. They serve something greater than themselves. And, the thing that they serve is the story itself. It's the work itself. Collaboration, when everyone brings something to the table is like a great marriage or a great relationship. You are truly there, you are truly defined as self, but, when you get with another, you contribute something beyond the both of you individually.
PC: Great definition.
BL: By the way, there's all sorts of art-forms. Forms of art. And there's all kinds of private art. I've always liked people. My great excitement - my great adventure in life - is the adventure of people. To be with creative people is an adventure that has never let me down.
PC: And you never let your audiences down. We owe you such thanks. Shakespeare and movie musicals, too. You are truly the William Shakespeare of film.
BL: (Laughs.) Thanks.
PC: I can't sum it up any clearer than that.
BL: I think the great thing is that - just when you think you've seen it all - you can start all over again and it's all brand new.
PC: I hope someday you film THE WINTER'S TALE for us. For the world. Forever.
BL: That is a beautiful piece. (Pause.) I know why you say that... I know why you say that.
PC: A moving statue? How ahead of his time was he? Just like you!
BL: Pat, don't get me started on Shakespeare because it is my favorite subject! And, I was very privileged to be funded to go on a journey with that text. But, as you know, every choice in R+J was not to be hip, it came from the Elizabethan choice in culture. It's all organic.
PC: Thank you so much for this unbelievable chat.
BL: You were lovely to talk to. Very few people are as culturally broad as you. Great to talk. Bye for now.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro