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Yo! Romeo!
by Shasta Darlington (L.A. Times - July 21, 1996)

In the predawn darkness, a Las Vegas showgirl, an Arabian sheik and King Nero in a purple-sequined gown carouse in the garden of the sacred Chapultepec Castle here. The castle--home of many former presidents and, legend has it, the site where a heroic military cadet once threw himself off a turret while wrapped in the Mexican flag rather than let invaders capture it--is now home to a Fellini-esque costume party.

This is William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the movie: a wild fantasy combining classical images and MTV culture, in which hipsters in bulletproof vests speak Elizabethan English.

In this famous party scene where Romeo and Juliet first meet, Australian director Baz Luhrmann draws viewers into the decadent upper circles of a "created world" he calls Verona Beach. The gaudy costumes, pulsing neon lights, castles and fast, futuristic cars speak of ostentatious wealth and power.

When the director of the 1992 hit Strictly Ballroom first concocted the idea of a "created world" as the movie setting for the 16th century "Romeo and Juliet," he said he wanted to use guns, 1970s rock 'n' roll and a palm-lined paradise to echo the violence and romanticism of the classic tragedy and make it more accessible to today's audiences.

Contemporary fashions and weapons transport the rivalry between the Montagues and Capulets into the 20th century--in what may be the most outlandish interpretation yet of the family feud. The Montagues, a loud, rowdy Anglo family, appear in bright Hawaiian shirts, carelessly brandishing pistols. The Capulet boys speak with Latino accents and are more subdued in dark clothes, fashionable bulletproof vests and expensive accessories such as silver boot heels and pearly gun hilts.

At the castle, Luhrmann looks on as Verona Beach's youth dash around the party waving guns and belting out Shakespearean lines under neon arches and Greco-Roman statues.

"The idea behind the 'created world' was that it's a made-up world composed of 20th century icons, and these images are there to clarify what's being said, because once you understand it, the power and the beauty of the language works its magic on you," the 33-year-old director explains.

During a short break, Luhrmann seeks refuge in his trailer, wrapping himself in a ski parka against a freak cold front blustering through Mexico's capital. In Veracruz, 267 miles away, 120-mph winds have tossed part of his next elaborate beachfront set into the Gulf of Mexico.

"This is a Blade Runner kind of place," Luhrmann says, relaxing against the trailer settee. The comment is equally applicable to the violent, brash fantasy setting he created for his movie and to Mexico itself.

The storm, in fact, was just another--and perhaps the mildest--evil to beset the crew during its four-month shoot in Mexico, which ended in mid-April. One of the makeup artists was kidnapped and held for $400 ransom, cast members were mugged and half the crew came down with a virus that landed producer Gabriella Martinelli in the hospital and stopped production for five days.

Luhrmann and company had turned to Mexico in their search for a tropical locale for the script's mythical Verona Beach. With a $14-million budget, they naturally looked south of Hollywood. Mexico--with skyscrapers layered over its ancient ruins, Indian campesinos living alongside armed drug lords, and a sturdy faith in religion and family--was not so different from the hotblooded, contradictory world Shakespeare portrayed, Luhrmann concluded.

"I wanted to create a place where religion mixed with politics, . . . a place with a degree of mysticism. An armed society where a small percentage of the population is fantastically wealthy. A place with an enormous underclass... In Mexico City these elements are very alive," Luhrmann says at the foot of the imposing Chapultepec Castle and its extensive grounds.

His production designer, Catherine Martin, adds: "Verona Beach and Shakespeare's Verona are supposed to be worlds where religion is important, where obvious wealth isn't embarrassing, where honor is a really big deal. All those elements exist in the real world, but they don't exist totally in combination--except in Mexico."

Luhrmann, originally a theater director, emerged from virtual obscurity with "Strictly Ballroom," his first film. The campy fable about romance and artistic independence in the world of Australian ballroom dancing was a surprise box-office success.

Afterward, Luhrmann signed a three-year contract with 20th Century Fox and received a flood of scripts and visits from big-time actors. But Luhrmann didn't want to leave his theater roots behind; he turned to Shakespeare--"a great storyteller," he says. In 1993, he directed a critically acclaimed version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for the Australian Opera. Then, in 1994, Luhrmann and "Ballroom" co-writer Craig Pierce pitched their idea for "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet" to Fox.

"I always wanted to do Romeo and Juliet, " Luhrmann says, sipping hot tea. The slightly built director added: "I suppose I relate personally to the importance of love in a world of learned hate."

Unlike other modern film adaptations, such as West Side Story, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet sticks to the original dialogue--but not much more.

'Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes star as Romeo and Juliet. They give the Elizabethan language a contemporary American accent and identity. But Luhrmann insists he is being true to Shakespeare's English, which he describes as "closest to a New England accent. . . . It was body sound, street language, rambunctious--not at all precious."

It was not easy at first for Luhrmann to convince the studio, actors and production crew that his idea would work.

"It was an immense battle. Financially, it's highly risky," Luhrmann says. But with backing from producer Martinelli (M. Butterfly and co-producer of Naked Lunch) and a number of Ballroom veterans, Luhrmann called DiCaprio--nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his role as a mentally disabled boy in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and seen most recently as Rimbaud in Agnieszka Holland's Total Eclipse.

"Leo was always Romeo for me, but it took a long time to convince him," Luhrmann says. "The deal I made was, 'Look, don't agree to do it, but don't decline it. Come to Australia, work with me for a week at this little rehearsal space I've got in a theater on the harbor, and see how you like it.' "

Lounging on a sofa in his trailer, DiCaprio acknowledges that he wasn't interested in the role initially. But after he flew down "to hear him out," DiCaprio says he discovered that Luhrmann's movie was "created around this new world--Baz's own society with its own rules and codes."

The 21-year-old actor snaps out of his slouch and leans forward. "Baz brought new life to it. He's making it more realistic, less affected. . . . It's wildly colorful, passionate and sincerely original."

"When [DiCaprio] arrived the first time, I really didn't know how he'd handle the language," Luhrmann says. "After the initial read-through, we went through the text very thoroughly and deliberately and, when we went back to it, the words just came out of his mouth as if it was the most natural language possible. . . . He speaks them as if they really are his words, and that's something you don't always get in a Shakespearean performance." Finding Juliet was tougher. After months of auditions, Luhrmann and DiCaprio chose Danes after a single reading with DiCaprio.

"She was the only girl that looked me in the eye in auditions," DiCaprio said of his 16-year-old co-star, widely praised for her role in the television drama My So-Called Life and her more recent portrayal of the frail sister Beth in Gillian Armstrong's Little Women.

Says Luhrmann: "When I met Claire, I was really struck by her. Juliet is written as a very smart, active character. She decides to get married. She resolves to take the sleeping potion. She really drives the piece."

Production designer Martin and costume designer Kym Barrett interpreted Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet and their fantastic world for the camera. They packed familiar American images--guns and gangland fashions, religious icons, big cars and neon lights--into Mexican landscapes, including Chapultepec Castle, a towering modern Gothic church, one of Mexico City's many traffic circles adorned with religious and mythical statues and a dilapidated Veracruz waterfront.

"The plan was to convey ideas through sets in a way that wasn't very subtle . . . so that people will know instantly where they are and will be able to concentrate on the language the actors are speaking," Martin explains.

In the outlandish costume party, for example, Juliet's mother sweeps through halls of rich red velvet, elaborately done up as a modern Cleopatra in satin and gold braid. In contrast, Danes emerges as Juliet in pure white, a simple costume of feathery wings and a halo of hair. DiCaprio follows the angel in his simple Romeo garb--a silver chain-mail shirt, sword and arm plates--a knight in shining armor. There is no doubt about who the heroes and heroines are here.

Cinematography--and the magic now underway in Luhrmann's studios--will play a central role in creating the fantasy world for the film, due to be released in late September. Cinematographer Don McAlpine ("Clear and Present Danger," "Nine Months") uses lots of motion and modern equipment to keep the action from appearing staged.

Just before Romeo takes leave of the castle party, for example, McAlpine's camera focuses on Juliet on a balcony then sweeps down the marble stairs to close in on DiCaprio's infatuated gaze. The cameras zigzag around the party as Mercutio drags his love-struck friend out of the castle saying, "Away! Begone! The sport is at its best." Finally, the Montague gang throws Romeo into a roaring futuristic car, and they tear out of the camera's view. Luhrmann yells, "Cut!" And the actors return with the large metallic-gray convertible back for another take.

Behind the wheel--this time in real life--they begin to joke: "I am a pretty piece of flesh." They shout out the Shakespearean line, setting it to a rap beat, looking for all the world like a gang of kids cruising Hollywood Boulevard in their parents' expensive car.

© 1996, L.A. Times