When test audiences panned his “Moulin Rouge!” director Baz Luhrmann didn’t madly chop and chew his film, even after producers asked, “Why is there still that green fairy in the movie?”
The green fairy remains, hovering in all its glory, because Luhrmann is a self-proclaimed captain of fear.
“Ninety percent of this job is to sit there in incredible fear,” Luhrmann said, describing the process of screening his films and subjecting them to evaluation. “The job of directors is to be the captain of fear.”
Luhrmann and his characteristic “red curtain” style, which combines aggressive music and visuals with high tragedy and silly comedy, might be a producer’s worst nightmare, but Luhrmann continues to walk on the wild side of mainstream Hollywood. At Saturday’s Silliman College and Yale Film Society Master’s Tea, the director explained his penchant for artistic experimentation and displayed his passion for storytelling to nearly 100 students.
The self-described “jet-whacked” Luhrmann discussed the intention of his “red curtain” trilogy, which includes “Strictly Ballroom,” “William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet,” and “Moulin Rouge!”
“The red curtain part of it, we made that term up,” Luhrmann said. “It was just a term to identify this very theatrical cinematic from that we’ve evolved over 10 years now. It was the dominant cinematic form of the ’40s and ’50s.”
In addition to drawing inspiration from old Hollywood films, Luhrmann borrows from the tragicomic musicals of Bollywood, the Indian popular film industry.
“One night we were [in India], and there was this fantastic sign, these great Bollywood posters, and we thought, ‘We must go and see that,'” Luhrmann said. “So we went to this show where there was this broad comedy and then this incredibly violent tragedy, you know, a brother killed a brother, and then they break out into musical numbers. We were totally exhausted, like ‘Oh, what was that?'”
Music and dance not only are a key part of Luhrmann’s films but also play a role in his early life. The director dove headfirst into the “suburban, bizarre, crazy” world of ballroom dancing, taking lessons from a young age. After attending the famed National Institute of Dramatic Art in Australia, Luhrmann owned and operated an experimental opera company along with a theater company.
“There’s more of a relationship between opera and cinema than there is between opera, say, and a play because you’re engaged in all the art forms — the musical, the dramatic, the plastic and so on,” Luhrmann said.
In order to unite all these art forms, Luhrmann formed a core group of collaborators that includes his wife, Catherine Martin, who spoke briefly at the Tea and often interrupted herself to banter with Luhrmann.
“Their dynamic was marvelous; the way they rambled into each other out of complete passion for their craft was inspiring to see,” Jason Farago ’05 said in an e-mail.
Martin discussed the way Luhrmann draws his cast and crew into the filmmaking process from start to finish.
“I’m one of a great number of collaborators,” Martin said. “Ultimately, Baz as a director is making you, as one of the collaborators, focus on the story and try to make all the decisions to tell the story as clearly as possible.”
And the audience is Luhrmann’s main concern, regardless of the fear or the producers.
“It’s not about me; it’s ultimately about you,” Luhrmann said. “And so, what do I do? Am I a film director? No. I think of myself as a storyteller. I deal in the vernacular of story. Story is our currency, and we deal in it.”