EXCLUSIVE: Baz Luhrmann Talks Strictly Ballroom
Director Baz Luhrmann takes us behind-the-scenes of his directorial debut, now remastered on DVD
Before creating the musical masterpiece Moulin Rouge and the old fashion classical epic Australia, director Baz Luhrmann poured all of his enthusiastic energy into his directorial debut Strictly Ballroom. This romantic musical comedy revolved around a championship ballroom dancer, and even launched the popular series Dancing with the Stars. But its, perhaps, the most unsung movie on Baz's resume. Because of that, Baz has gone back to Strictly Ballroom to remaster and release an all-new Special Edition DVD, which comes with an all-new featurette on the making of this joyous experience. It is in stores now.
We caught up with the awesome Mr. Luhrmann today, who is currently in Sydney, Australia working on his upcoming F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation The Great Gatsby, as well as a live stage production of his directorial debut Strictly Ballroom. We chatted with him about his new Special Edition DVD, as well as his other endevors. Here is our conversation:
How are you?
Baz Luhrmann: I'd say I'm doing pretty good. I just got done running around the park on a nice summer day in Sydney. I am about to start work on the live Strictly Ballroom while casting The Great Gatsby. So, you know! I am running around with my children and my wife.
That sounds like you almost have too much going on. You guys are embarking on a live version of Strictly Ballroom? How closely is that going to stick to the movie we're seeing on this newly remastered DVD?
Baz Luhrmann: I have just begun the developing and writing process. We are literally in the ballroom, where we do a lot of this work shopping. We are breaking it down, and we are inventing. One thing we are sure of, it will fundamentally be the same story and the same characters. It will be very close. Even a lot of the more familiar music will be in it. It will take the leap into some kind of musical language. What does that mean? It means it will be a full-blown musical, based very closely on the dance film Strictly Ballroom.
This new DVD release is making kind of a big deal about the fact that Dancing with the Stars is based on the original Strictly Ballroom. Is there going to be some synergy here? Will we see any of the dancers from your live show coming onto Dancing with the Stars? Or will your leading man be one of the contestants?
Baz Luhrmann: It's a funny point. I'll tell you why. Moulin Rouge and William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet are with Fox. When I did Strictly Ballroom, it was my first film. Miramax bought that film. Then Disney bought Miramax. I was never very happy with the quality of the DVD release of Strictly Ballroom. So, we went to fix the DVD print. It's a cult film in America. My other films are well known, but I am always surprised that anyone has ever seen Strictly Ballroom. In America. While I was doing this, the guys from Dancing with the Stars...You know, they are Brits...They said, "Its well-known in England that the show Dancing with the Stars, which is called Strictly Come Dancing, was a direct response to Strictly Ballroom." Which was a huge movie. It was number one for six weeks in England, that first little movie. It's a very, very big motion picture in England. The TV show, which was then licensed in the United States, came from the movie. They said, "Why don't you come on Dancing with the Stars as a judge, and we'll announce it?" I said, "Yeah, that will be fun. Sure." I did that about a year ago, I think. I'm not sure. I was on the show with Kelly Osbourne. It was a lot of fun to do. I think what people like about that show, and why its becoming an unlikely pop phenomenon, is that you take someone, like Chuck Liddell, the extreme fighter, and you put him into a cha-cha, and even though he is comfortable in his own discipline, the extreme fighting, you get him to dance, and he is vulnerable. Seeing people who are really vulnerable, when they are singing or dancing? That is really entertaining. Because we are all like that. Hmm? How would I feel. Will these people be able to overcome their fears? The big message in Strictly Ballroom is "A live lived in fear is a life half-lived." I think that there is a natural connection. I am not going to change the musical version of Strictly Ballroom. That is considered the sequel, Dancing with the Stars. And the judges can all be from another generation. But when it comes out, if Dancing with the Stars is still on when we do the musical, you are absolutely right. The guys did ask me back to do a dance spectacular on the show. They did ask me to do that.
How come we haven't seen you dancing on the show?
Baz Luhrmann: (Laughs) Well, I think my dancing style is a little too powerful for the federation. Hmm?
I don't know. I don't think I have ever seen you actually dance. I mean, I've seen all of your movies...Who knows?
Baz Luhrmann: Oh, cut it out! The whole thing came from growing up in a very isolated country town. We did ballroom dancing. It was a big part of our lives. It was like a working class theater. It was a great escape. There was a lot of show biz about it. There was a lot of competition. You got to hang out with girls, and go on tours. It was a big part of our lives. I love dancing. I think dance in any culture, in any form, is a true leveler. It's a big deal. The whole point of this movie: Is dance a competition? Or is dance about self-expression? Ultimately, I believe it's the latter. The point of Strictly Ballroom is: If someone is telling you that there is only way to cha-cha-cha, or that there is only one way to make a movie, or to paint a picture, or one way to live your life...Or there is only one particular religious code...If they are telling you there is only one way, and that is the secret, and that as long as you do what they say, and you pursue the things they set up, and you use those buffers, and you'll get a plastic cup...I just have never been able to buy into that belief. I'm not saying there shouldn't be rules or structure. But within that, you need to find self-expression. You need to find self-revelation. That is the bigger idea in what is really a simple, and fun, and joyous show. With respect to old Hollywood, the outsider is a champion, and he starts a revolution.
And that is a theme that seems to run throughout all of your movies.
Baz Luhrmann: Mm-hmm. Yes, I think that is absolutely right. It's more conscious than unconscious. I am moving towards fifty. So I can look back at my movies and wonder, "Why am I obsessed with these things?" Why do they always end up being about self-revelation? Honestly, sometimes, I think, "If only I could sit inside the box." My life is incredibly rich, and I am creative. But it comes at an added effort. No less or more of an effort than other people. In terms of movie making, I think that I would love to sit inside the box. I think it would be, perhaps, an easier road. But maybe not. Maybe it wouldn't be so truthful. Ultimately, you have to pursue your own path, not someone's idea of the right path. You need to stay on your path.
If you hadn't done that, we wouldn't have some of the movies you've given us. I would think...
Baz Luhrmann: Well, yeah. Good point. When I started on Strictly Ballroom nearly twenty years ago, the first six months were spent with the financiers, trying to say, "But can't you make it more naturalistic? Like Dirty Dancing? Can't it be?" There was a whole script written where it was set in a steel mill. We were trying to naturalize it. I realized that we weren't being true to the original idea. The idea was to have the silly, heightened style of any old Hollywood movie. But deal with serious issues. The idea was to clash the two of those things together.
When you went back to remaster this film, and you are looking at it with a fresh set of eyes, did you learn anything about yourself in the past tense that maybe you didn't know before? Did revelations come to light?
Baz Luhrmann: Do you mean with my own personality? Or with my work process?
Baz Luhrmann: Yes. I did actually. I was shocked by the finger gloves. (Laughs). And by some of the other choices. This was really the first time I had seen what a lot of people comment on. And I am not really aware of it in my own body. I am an enthusiastic, energized person. And, just how much labor I did. Picking apart the film structure, I realized how tightly structured that film is. The compression of storytelling. You can see why it started as a twenty-minute play, when I was a student, and I worked on it in my theater company, turning it into a cinematic screenplay. You can see how it gets tighter, and tighter, and tighter. The tighter the structure is, knowing one little bit...For example, if you take the scene with the Spanish father, you learn very quickly with one line, "Oh, the mother must have died! Ah, the father is disappointed." Because the hero has come into their world, the father teaches the hero. And the daughter that he always felt disappointed in, who he blames because of the death of the mother during childbirth...Its not even mentioned, but its present. Because Scott and Fran are good together, there is a little moment that leaves you going, "Huh?" You start to see it differently. Then there is a compression about twenty seconds later, where they start to do a joyous dance. Because of that, Fran is self-revealed. The next scene, we see them kissing. It is a different type of storytelling. It gets right back to Greek mythology. Telling stories in a very universally shared mythological structure. One that amplifies the human condition. On that level, I really felt like, "Hmm?" We did a lot of work on structure. And its very tightly wound. Of course I rabbit on when you ask a very good question. But the other part of it is, how focused we all were. It's like seeing us in that little entry. It was our whole lives. It was all we had. That changes as you make things. And audiences respond. And you have a brand that gets known. It's essential so that you can expand. You add more things in your life. Things like that. Yeah, there were revelations. Probably, its the first time I have been able to see it as a film. I never see things I make in the same way that the audience does. You can never do that.
We haven't heard too much abut the Great Gatsby yet. Is this film going to be a musical? Will it incorporate music and dance into the classic tale, or will it be more of an epic along the lines of Australia?
Baz Luhrmann: I can't comment on it at this moment. Because the truth is, all I am doing right now besides working on the script is casting. I am right in the middle of casting. I am really thrilled, genuinely thrilled about Carey Mulligan. I am working on casting Jordan. I am being a little sheepish about saying, one hundred percent, that it is my next film. Because I am also working on a cinematic musical. I like to make sure everything is in place before I say, "Yup, I am doing it." Because I went through that, and had a difficult time with Alexander. I want to be cautious, and not say much before I have it all in place. I will say this, I am really loving so much working on F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have been working on it for years. I worked on it even before than. I can't comment on that itself, but the story has its own music in it. Fitzgerald wrote music...It won't be a musical, but Fitzgerald wrote music into the book. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there is dancing in the book. Whatever fundamentals are in the book, that will be in the film.
I would imagine that, when you are talking about the music and the dancing that is in the book, when you incorporate that into the story you are going to tell, it is going to come with your trademark energy and enthusiasm. It's not just going to be old, musty classical music.
Baz Luhrmann: Look, naturally, if you are doing a good job, one's spirit has got to be in it. But the style of this film will be specific to this film alone. I know that. I am literally drawing it from Fitzgerald's text. So it's very interesting. I really, honestly, don't know where it will end up. One of the things I am looking at doing, after looking at a lot of the references books is, I am just going to put those things on the internet for anyone who is interested. They can come on the journey. I am really intrigued about audiences coming on this journey with us. It should be revealed from the process. You are absolutely right. I will never be able to take myself out of it, because I am the storyteller. I am in charge of telling it. The exciting thing is: I don't know! I don't know what the cinematic style will end up looking like at this point.
Are Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey McGuire for sure going to be in the movie if you move forward with this? Or is that just speculation at this point?
Baz Luhrmann: I have certainly done the most thrilling workshops with them in New York recently, and they have been really thrilling. I couldn't think of anyone else in those roles at the moment.
I want to know more about this musical that you are also working on. With Australia having come after Moulin Rouge, it's been a while since you've done a straight up musical, and that prospect is exciting to me...
Baz Luhrmann: I went through that thing on Alexander. The moment I mentioned it, a whole lot of other projects can popping up. But, without being too coy about it, it is a New York based musical work. That is about as far as I can go. There is more to say about it, but once I put it out there, I better have a clear ability to tell it. And I am not there yet. It is my homework on the weekends.
Will it be along the lines of Moulin Rouge where you bring in the contemporary pop songs, and mix that with some more classical works of music?
Baz Luhrmann: The musical language is inherent in the piece. I have been teasing now, but I really can't go into it. Because I am just not ready to talk about it. But when I am ready, you put your hand up, and we'll have a big chat about it. It's a very exciting piece of work. I am really excited about it.
Before you go, I just want to say, I have gone back to Australia in the last year, and I truly think that it is an epic, great movie. I think it will find a true resurgence soon.
Baz Luhrmann: Man, you know what? I appreciate that. I know it's not for everyone. Every movie I have ever made, every time they come out, with Moulin Rouge, and William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, there is a really big buzz of negativity about them. The same thing happened with Australia. Despite that, and its happening again with Australia...And you expressing that is...I really get it when people don't like Australia. They are very keen to express how much they don't like it. I am okay with that. I respect those opinions. But I really like it. This morning I have been talking to different people, and I am surprised how many people dig that film. I really appreciate when that voice is being heard. That is what happened with Moulin Rouge. It took ten years for Moulin Rouge...The loud voices are usually the voices that get heard, but their not the only voice. I am glad to hear you say that, and I am really touched my that.