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Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet
by Pauline Adamek (Cinema Papers - February, 1997)

Twentieth Century Fox is buzzing with the news. William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet is number one at the box office during its opening weekend, taking US$11.1 million on 1,277 screen and beating its closest contender (one of those comedian-with-an-elephant buddy movies) by three times over.


I thought it would stir up an interest. But we were relentlessly told that youth are uninterested in Shakespeare and that they would not want to see Romeo and Juliet. Some critics have come out and said there are "bad films", there are "worst films of all time", and then there's Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet. To them it is that bad and confronting, and I understand that, but we told it in our way.

The "we" Luhrmann refers to are his long-time collaborators, in particular production designer Catherine Martin and screenwriter Craig Pearce, with whom he studied at NIDA during the early 1980s. The creative team has grown since the Strictly Ballroom days to include producer-art director Martin Brown, film editor Jil Bilcock and choreographer John "Cha-Cha" O'Connell. Hence, their company is now called BAZMARK Productions to incorporate the two Martins. With this, his second feature, Luhrmann has shot a highly-stylized - at times frenetic - gangland version of the world's most enduring tragic and romantic fable. His intention was to reveal the power of Shakespeare's 400-year-old myth, which not so much about young love as the belief that the inheritance of hatred, anger and bitterness within a culture or family inexorably leads to tragedy.

To date, the film's audience has been made up of a high proportion of teenaged girls and young women. The success of the film has proven that the two young leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, have a strong enough following to open a film. Made for a sum between US$15 and $17 million, clearly Romeo and Juliet will have no trouble making its money back and possibly a decent profit, as proven by a healthy US$9 million take for the second weekend.

Luhrmann maintains this is the first time a major studio has taken a chance on a Shakespearean adaptation, and that even independent productions such as Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing only took $20 million domestically. Although the Mexico City shoot was shut down due to illness, hurricanes and a kidnapping, Luhrmann says the hardest part of the job was convincing the studio to give the go-ahead to the film:

It was very difficult to convince people, to convince Fox. It's hard to believe that a studio made this film at the level at which it is financed, which is essentially experimental in its execution. People say Hollywood is in love with Shakespeare. That's not true. Why do you think majors don't bother? They're not worth the biscuits.

On the wings of the film's strong opening weekend, 20th Century Fox has signed Luhrmann to an exclusive, two-year deal that calls for him to write, direct and produce for the studio. With an office on the studio's U.S. lot and another in Sydney, Luhrmann will not start the developmental process for another two months. He has even turned down an invitation to stage an opera at London's Covent Garden. Several other studios were making offers, but Luhrmann decided to stay with the studio that had brought him to Hollywood. He felt that News Corp president and CEO Peter Chernin and Fox Filmed Entertainment president and CEO Bill Mechanic had taken a big risk when they gave the go-ahead to Romeo and Juliet. If it was a gamble, with an entire budget less than certain stars' salaries, then it has certainly paid off. Surely the finest cinematic experience you could ask for is the pure magic of watching fresh, young love unfurl before your eyes. In the scene when the lovers first meet, gazing through a gorgeous aquarium, actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes personify love at first sight, their faces suffused with delight and sweetness. It's as if we are watching cinema history, witnessing the emergence of a legendary screen duo for our time. If this were the 1940s, we could expect half a dozen more films starring this compatible pair.

How much of the success of the film is due to the casting?

There's no question that you have in Leonardo and Claire two fine young actors, remembering that when I cast Leonardo, two years ago, he was unknown. He had just been nominated for What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Claire was just on television [in My So-Called Life]. They absolutely have a following and are responsible for people being interested, but remember this: Leonardo has not opened a film on his own. He has not even done vague box office. Claire has never opened a film. So are they alone responsible for the box office? Obviously somewhat, and also they're good actors.

Why did you choose them, when they weren't that big?

Well, 'D' I just looked at and thought he looked like Romeo. Sort of like James Dean, and Romeo was your first 'rebel without a cause', your first Byronesque 'I'm rebelling but have no political cause to rebel against' character. So, I rang him up and he and his father came down to Australia, and spent their own money and flew economy. They came down twice and we shot a workshop on video and finally convinced the studio to let us do it. Claire, I searched the world - I saw actors all over the world - and Jane Campion, who lives near me in Sydney, said "Have you seen Claire on My So-Called Life?" As I hadn't seen it, I went back to the US and Claire came in. I was looking for someone who was sixteen but who had the strength of character to deal with Leonardo, because he is a formidable opponent in the acting stakes. Plus, most of the young girls were like [Baz mimes swooning and heart fluttering], 'My god, Leonardo!' So that's undermining, to work with someone you find attractive when you're sixteen. She just walked right up to him and said, "Art thou not Romeo and a Montague?" and kissed him. They were strong. It is crucial because the film is so frenetic that, when they get together, you need time to stand still. I don't expect everyone to get it but I think they do achieve that. I think they do bring a stillness to the film.

Originally transcribed by: Lela Kaunitz

© Cinema Papers 1997