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Interview with Writer, Producer, and Director, Baz Luhrmann

Aired November 1, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who is this Gatsby?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was a German spy during the war.

MONITA RAJPAL, ANCHOR, CNN INTERNATIONAL (voiceover): It's a modern twist on an American classic, as seen through the eyes of one of the silver screen's most colorful directors. And, while the flash and dazzle of his take on "The Great Gatsby" left the film with mixed reviews -


RAJPAL (voiceover): -- it has a dramatic and visually lush cinematic style that is a trademark of Baz Luhrmann.

BILL HUNTER, ACTOR: Don't be bloody stupid, woman.

RAJPAL (voiceover): His love for high-octane filmmaking began with his first cinematic feat -

LEONARDO DICAPRIO, ACTOR: I take thee at thy word.

RAJPAL (voiceover): Then, he would go on to score success at the U.S. box office with his spin on Shakespeare.

But it wasn't until his 2001 release of the bombastic musical, "Moulin Rouge!", that he would win resounding critical acclaim. With the film snapping up three Golden Globes and eight Academy Award nominations.

His 2008 historical wartime epic that followed did not draw in the critical praise or box office numbers of its cinematic predecessor. But, despite the performance of "Australia", Luhrmann returned to the drawing board to pick up his next passion project.

This week, on "Talk Asia", we're in Beijing with Baz Luhrmann as he premiers his latest filmic masterpiece in China.

LUHRMANN: Really nice to meet you.

RAJPAL (voiceover): And we find out why it's so apt that his journey with "The Great Gatsby" ends here.


RAJPAL: Baz Luhrmann -


RAJPAL: Welcome to "Talk Asia".

LUHRMANN: I am very happy to be here.

RAJPAL: We're here in Beijing for the premier of "The Great Gatsby".


RAJPAL: What does it mean for you to keep doing these premiers? Do you still feel that sense of excitement?

LUHRMANN: Well, this one is very special. I mean, it really is very special. You know, I think the great thing for me, here, is that I actually had the idea to do "The Great Gatsby" in Beijing 10 years ago. I was about to get on a train and go on the trans-Siberian.

And I was in Beijing. And I - the first part of that trip is through China. So I was sitting there going, "Oh, how's this going to work?" And I had a recorded book - two of them, actually. And some real Australian wine. I put on the recorded book and one of them was "The Great Gatsby".

Now the other thing is, I cannot wait to see how Chinese audiences react to this iconic American book. I mean, this will be something to behold.

RAJPAL: Well, some would say that you've been able to, perhaps, connect with the wider Chinese audience for the simple fact of - when you look at the kind of material excess and the wealth and the luxury that you portray in the film - that, in itself, would be able to connect.

LUHRMANN: You know, I'm really glad you bring that up. Because, I think there is, of course, in the book - and there is this seduction of material wealth -- of the material world, of excess. But what I have noted, because I'm on Weibo - and I've never done that before.

So I'm actually interacting with, particularly young Chinese audiences - they're fascinated in - is the big idea of the book. And that is, that it's your life is only - someone wrote the other day, "Yes, money for money's sake is not good enough. You must have a center - you must have a cause to your life".

RAJPAL: What's it about this book that you decided to pick up the audio book, that you decide to pick up to take with you on a time, or during a time that was supposed to be, for you, a bit of downtime, perhaps?

LUHRMANN: Yes, yes, yes, I know what you mean. Well, I was very broken from having done "Moulin Rouge!" - meaning, you do - I was sort of like where I am now. I was at the end of this incredibly intense, controversial period. One has to remember that "Moulin Rouge!" opened right around 9/11 and the world changed. So I was a bit shattered in my spirits.

And when I played that book, I thought I knew it - like everyone thinks they know it from High School - I realized I didn't know it at all. And I think that if you read "Gatsby" at 15 or you read it at 50 or as, as someone I met the other day said, she reads it every birthday she has. You get something different from it.

And I've made the film of "The Great Gatsby", I hope, in layers as well. I hope that as you watch it more than once - people tell me this - as they watch it each time, they get a slightly different experience from it. So I guess, to answer the question, what I got from it was, well that - "So we beat on".

RAJPAL: Do you believe that certain projects come to you at the right time -


RAJPAL: -- in your life?


RAJPAL: The right emotion -


RAJPAL: -- that you're feeling.

LUHRMANN: Yes, yes. And, in fact, I think I spend - people say, "Well, why did it take so long to do projects?" And we do all sorts of creative things, you know? But with the movies, it's so - they're not a job - I mean, I do everything from the writing, the research - we spend so much time. We work with some of the great academics of Fitzgerald on this film. And then the creation - I work on the music, I work with my wife, Catherine Martin. All that, work, work, work, work, with the actors.

And Leonardo DiCaprio was such a great collaborator on this movie. And Toby Maguire. I mean, two years before, they were collaborating with me on it. So the decision of what to do is such a big decision for me. And you're absolutely right - half the new projects that somehow are going to - do what you said - come to me at the right moment in my life, and somehow nourish me. And I think that, even though - you can hear my voice - I'm a bit tired from the whole experience of - this is the last thing we will do on "Gatsby".

How beautiful that it's in China and how exciting to be in this place. I think that it is a bit like America in the 1920s -


LUHRMANN: -- with so much possibility and so many buildings going up and so much debate and so many interesting ideas, you know, alive in it.

RAJPAL: So when you look back at the production of it, what were some of the - or even before - pre-production - what were some of the challenges you encountered?

LUHRMANN: Well, I mean, pre-production is a joy, because we literally get, for two years, to be fully funded to sort of live like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, my wife and I. She did a little bit better with the champagne than I did. They liked to drink more.

But we really did work with, sort of, the rock stars of Fitzgerald academia as well as, you know, all that research. But, of course, I also knew that Fitzgerald was not nostalgic. He wrote that book in 1925 and he put African-American street music in that book because it was visceral and alive and of the moment. He put popular songs in that book because it was of the moment.

So I wanted the audience, when they watched this movie, to feel like the audience would have felt in 1925, reading that book. Which was of the moment, in the moment. And that was really my big mission. And, you know, what saddens me a little bit is, that when Fitzgerald died, you know, he set out to make something modern and new and of the moment. And when he died, he was buying copies of his own book, just to have a few sales, because he thought he was a complete failure.

He'd been very - very mixed reviews for the book, and no sales. Can you imagine what he would think if he knew that, in China today, a whole lot of young people are running out and getting translations of "The Great Gatsby" or that it opened at the Cannes Film Festival, only 20 miles from where he wrote it? So, to me, that's the really good end to the story. All that other stuff is just noise.


RAJPAL (voiceover): Coming up, Baz Luhrmann tells us about his partner in live, and work.

RAJPAL: In an interview, she said that you're the one that's riding the motorbike, but she's in the sidecar.

LUHRMANN: Yes, and sometimes she's going like this, "We're going to crash".




HUNTER: What the bloody hell's going on, Kendall?

PETER WHITFORD, ACTOR: He resorted to his own, flashy, crowd-pleasing steps.

GIA CARIDES, ACTOR: He forced me into it. Where the man goes, the lady must follow. I had no choice.


RAJPAL: So here you are, Baz Luhrmann. You've got the biggest stars in the world wanting to do your film. Some for free. And then you think back to the Baz Luhrmann who wrote "Strictly Ballroom". Were you 17 when you wrote the original?

LUHRMANN: I was about, probably 20 or something like that. Something like that. I mean, 17 sounds better, but -


RAJPAL: Exactly. So how much have you grown, do you think - or how much have you changed since that young boy -

LUHRMANN: Right, right. I don't feel different. I've never felt different. I still feel like I'm just getting going. I feel like I've done nothing. I feel like I've got all these things I want to do and create that I still just haven't even begun to touch. And yet, I do recognize that - I suppose I recognize that there's one big change. And that is, that I have these two children that I love and adore. And my little girl and my little boy. And I just do recognize that I want to reconcile my creative life with being with my children more.

RAJPAL: It's interesting, because one thing I liked about "Strictly Ballroom" was, you know, you talk a lot about - I mean, it's a film about, I mean, what dance - ballroom dancing. And taking people outside of their comfort zone.


RAJPAL: Right? And there's that line in the film, "A life lived in fear" -

LUHRMANN: -- "lived in fear, is a life half-lived".



TARA MORICE, ACTOR: Yes. "To live with fear is, like, to half-live". I mean, "Is a life half-lived".

MERCURIO: Oh, yes? Like a proverb.


RAJPAL: What scares you - what scared you the most at that time, that you actually faced and did?

LUHRMANN: Yes, I want to be really clear about that, because I live by that mantra. I really do. A life lived in fear is a life half-lived. But I want to be really clear that I am, in no way, a brave person. It's not like - people sometimes, they say that, "Oh, you're so fearless".

Like, every day I get up, when I'm working on something, I'm full of fear. Have I made the right decisions? How do I - you know. But I see it as my job, not to control fear, but to confront it. To look it squarely in the eye and realize it's just fear. And if you look at it, you know, somewhat, you can stare it down.

Now I also see it as my job to get the best out of actors. I want to help actors be their very best. And, in fact, everybody on the set. So it's my job to also take on their fears. So I love to create an environment where fear is scared to tread. You know? And that's why my sets - and that's why - I'm not a yeller on the set.

RAJPAL: So do you think, then, that despite what the noise outside -

LUHRMANN: Yes, the noise - and there's always a lot of noise.

RAJPAL: The people talking or the dissenters -


RAJPAL: Those who say you can't do something.

LUHRMANN: You can't imagine - if I had a dollar for every time someone said to me, when I was trying to get the funds for "Strictly Ballroom" - "Ballroom dancing will never be popular in America". You know, when I was at the age of 45, I was on a show as a judge in America called, "Dancing with the Stars" -


LUHRMANN: -- which was based on "Strictly Ballroom". So there we go.

RAJPAL: And then you had a film like "Moulin Rouge!" as well.


EWAN MCGREGOR, ACTOR (singing): Hope you don't mind. I hope you don't mind, that I put down in words, how wonderful life is now you're in the world.


LUHRMANN: You're right. Many people I really, really respect, very famous people who I really respect just said, "Look, man, the musical is dead. It just cannot - that form cannot work. It cannot work in cinema anymore". So I like taking these things that did connect and finding a decoding for how they can connect now, like the musical.

RAJPAL: I read that "Australia", for you - the film -


RAJPAL: -- was about reconnecting with your roots.


RAJPAL: Especially for your kids.



RAJPAL: But the Australia that you knew -


RAJPAL: Is very different from the Australia that they would probably know now. I mean, you grew up in a town -

LUHRMANN: Very small country town. 11 houses.

RAJPAL: 11 houses?


RAJPAL: So what was that kind of reconnection like for you?

LUHRMANN: For me, it was a reconnection with the very, kind of, fundamentals of my country. But the real connection was really with all those creative artists. I mean, you know, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, I mean, horses, you know, just the -

RAJPAL: Just the land.

LUHRMANN: The land. Fundamentally the land. I mean, that land, I mean, no country in the world has quite the abundance of nothing as the middle of Australia have. I mean, we have more nothing out there than any place in the world. And when I say "nothing", I mean the absolute nothingness - the complete silence and zero-ness - has this strange spiritual power.

RAJPAL: And when you think about your home and you talked about your dad -


RAJPAL: -- military man. Navy -

LUHRMANN: He was in the, yes, in the Vietnam War -

RAJPAL: In the Vietnam War -

LUHRMANN: He was the equivalent of the Navy Seals.

RAJPAL: Yes. What kind of a dad was he and are you different from him?

LUHRMANN: You know, he died, actually, on the first day of shooting of "Moulin Rouge!"


LUHRMANN: So how's that for timing? But he was extremely, like, I mean, he was obsessed that, I mean, we would get up at five in the morning. And he was obsessed that we learned everything. I mean, we were doing ballroom dancing and learning musical instruments.

We were like the Renaissance players of Herons Creek. And military training and growing - like, my brother grew, you know, vegetables and my other brother bred birds and I had fish. And we had to learn to paint. There's no doubt that he left on we three boys and my sister a kind of work ethic. And I think a sort of Gatsby-esque belief in the green light.

RAJPAL: Do you hold on to that when you embark on a project? And is your wife, Catherine Martin, the first person you talk to about?

LUHRMANN: Yes, I mean, CM's my partner in so many ways.


LUHRMANN: And she's the - I mean, I debate with her. She's the best one when I go like, "Well I'm thinking about this and -"

RAJPAL: I like the way - I read somewhere - I don't mean to interrupt -


RAJPAL: -- but she describes you as the dreamer and she's the pragmatist. And that - but this is the part I love - in an interview, she said that you're the one that's riding the motorbike, but she's in the sidecar.

LUHRMANN: Yes, and sometimes she's going like this, "We're going to crash". It's a great partnership. It's a great relationship, it's a great partnership. We own it. It's specific to us. This kind of long-term, deep love. After - and there's romance with us, but and more than people think. But this other level comes to love which is absolute trust and the ability that you - you're lucky if you've got someone you can turn to and just know that, no matter what it is, you can kind of blurt it out.

RAJPAL: How do you draw out the best in each other, because you work so closely with each other?

LUHRMANN: Well, we don't even own it. Like, we never not work - it's blurred. Now it's not just CM. It's a large family. There are a lot of us. When I travel, I travel with lots of creative partners and members of the team.


LUHRMANN: I mean, mainly, it happens in the bathroom.


LUHRMANN: Mainly, there's so many people in our household, they'll come in the bathroom and that's where we usually - that's usually our office.

RAJPAL: I love that.


RAJPAL: When you put so much love into all your work -


RAJPAL: -- and then, perhaps, there are those who don't return it. How do you feel? How does that --?

LUHRMANN: You are, in a very nice way, saying, "What's it like having really savage critics?"




LUHRMANN: I love Beijing.

"The Great Gatsby", opening in China, right now.


RAJPAL: When you have all these people around you -


RAJPAL: And you look at the work that you've also done, despite the noise that we've talked about -

LUHRMANN: Despite the noise.

RAJPAL: Do you feel more confident that the next project that you want to do - even if there are those who say, "No, Baz, you're crazy. What are you talking about? That's never going to sell". But you believe that it would.

LUHRMANN: No, I don't feel more confident. I mean, I - what happens is, and it's slightly dangerous, is there, expidentially (sic), people tend to say, "Well, everything is done so crazy. I mean, how many times can we say that's never going to work, but it did". You know, even a film like "Australia", which didn't do well in the U.S. was number one in Spain for five weeks. So it did remarkably well. And then, on Blueray.

You know, "The Great Gatsby", I mean, honestly, nothing against "Forbes", but the headline in "Forbes" was, "This Film Will Fail" on opening weekend in the U.S. because of where it was positioned. And we thought, if we did - We thought if we did $25 million, we'd be OK. If we did 40, it would be amazing. It did 50.


LUHRMANN: You know? So, I didn't expect that. I just believed that if you told that story well and if I sort of adopted Fitzgerald's attitudes, that an audience would connect with it.


LUHRMANN: You know? And that's really all I've ever gone on.

RAJPAL: See, that brings to mind that line from "Moulin Rouge!" - It's the, you know, "The whole purpose of life is to love and to be loved in return".

LUHRMANN: -- "to be loved in return". Yes.

RAJPAL: And when you put so much love into all your work -


RAJPAL: And then, perhaps, there are those who don't return it. How do you feel? How does that --?

LUHRMANN: You are, in a very nice way, saying, "What's it like having really savage critics?"

RAJPAL: No, because - no, I actually -

LUHRMANN: People who - yes -

RAJPAL: But it also - it brings to me - I question -


RAJPAL: -- the role of critic.


RAJPAL: And, of course, I might get some critics out there sending me, you know -

LUHRMANN: Hate mail.

RAJPAL: Hate mail.

LUHRMANN: You can have some of mine.


LUHRMANN: Usually, they come at me with a machete.

RAJPAL: Well, I often think, you know, watching a film -


RAJPAL: -- is very much a subjective -


RAJPAL: -- experience.


RAJPAL: Because it's where that person is at that time.


RAJPAL: They may just want to shut down and just watch -


RAJPAL: -- and be entertained.


RAJPAL: Or they want to get something out of it.

LUHRMANN: Well, there's something else, too. Look, there are famous critics - someone went back and checked this - if you cut out the review of "Romeo and Juliet" - you could apply the same review to "Moulin Rouge!" and "The Great Gatsby".

RAJPAL: So how, then, do you think you've changed the way people watch movies?

LUHRMANN: Well, I think that the fact that the films I've made have paid their bills and that people fund me - I mean, it's so funny the way that he's referred to like, you know, he's given these massive resources. I mean, do you think they, like, you know, studios are being nice? When they go, "Let's let him spend $100 million on an adult drama that's a nearly hundred-year-old book". I mean, that just doesn't happen.


LUHRMANN: And it doesn't happen easily. And it's an enormous risk. But obviously, there's an audience out there that do - there's enough of an audience that do actually - see, it's participatory cinema. I do, you know, audiences actually tend to clap when Leonardo comes on in "The Great Gatsby".


LUHRMANN: And that's intentional. Because we're actually letting you in on what it is like to be Nick Carraway. And that's just a different kind of cinema.


LUHRMANN: And, by the end of it, I hope the film - it's only razzle- dazzle in the beginning, like the book is. "Gatsby" is razzle-dazzle in the beginning.

RAJPAL: A lot of party scenes as well.



CAREY MULLIGAN, ACTOR: Was all this made entirely from your own imagination?


LUHRMANN: But very quickly, Leonardo DiCaprio is playing, in my estimation, the American Hamlet. And very quickly, it becomes more and more and more simple and more psychological and stripped-down.

RAJPAL: Another acclaimed director once told me that when she's preparing to direct a film, she has to be super-prepared. Every single element, she has to know of. And when she is that prepared, she's then open -


RAJPAL: -- to surprises.

LUHRMANN: Yes. Well, I would agree with that.

RAJPAL: What were the surprises for you?

LUHRMANN: Well, I think it's like - I almost become - I like it, I almost became Fitzgerald. I mean, I kind of lived his life that deeply. But the other director you're talking about is completely right. I mean, until I know every - like it's my blood. And then once it's my blood and I've got the plan, then you have to be in the moment. And what are the surprises? My surprises were, we had more rain - we had an El Nina. So those scenes shot in Long Island with all that sun?


LUHRMANN: It was raining all the time. On the DVD, you will see us, knee high in mud, completely covered in wet-weather gear, and there's Leonardo pretending to be in a sunny day, half of it artificially created. So the weather was a phenomena. I mean, it was - it's like when I did "Australia". It rained for the first time in 100 years in the desert. I just keep thinking, why don't they invite me to arid lands to bring on vegetation?


LUHRMANN: I mean, you know, if you really want your garden watered, invite me over for a barbecue, you know? Because everywhere I go, it rains.

RAJPAL: Well, this has been a very refreshing conversation. Baz Luhrmann -

LUHRMANN: It's about to rain.

RAJPAL: Thank you so much for your time.

LUHRMANN: Beautiful to talk to you.

RAJPAL: I think it needs it.

LUHRMANN: That'd be all right. That'd be all right. It's great to be here in China and I'm so excited to see "The Great Gatsby" play here, in Beijing.