Monday Prescriptions – How To Be Baz Luhrmann

Good morning, Film Doctor friends.

It’s become quite a tradition for some of our Monday Prescription posts to trace the origins of “directordom”‘s greatest inhabitants ( here’s a link to our “How To” series).

With the latest film version of Mr. Francis Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby” opening the Cannes Film Festival this Wednesday 15th May (and already enjoying its US success), the Film Doctor team would like to shine the light on its creator – the “master of film adaptations”….

….Baz Luhrmann.

By Eva Rinaldi [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Eva Rinaldi [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Utilising Experiences

Raised in rural Australia, Baz Luhrmann (born Mark Anthony Luhrman – “Baz”, a nickname received from his parents) gained his most prominent childhood experiences from his father’s businesses – he ran a petrol station and a movie theatre in the town. Young Luhrmann frequently helped serve customers at the station, which meant he got to meet different people, from all walks of life – which, is a treasure-find for every future ‘character creator’. And again, as a result of his father’s work, Luhrmann got to be ‘exposed’ to the world of cinema from early on – with the family managed movie theatre, Baz had the opportunity to fill in the otherwise dull, country-town days with cinematic experiences. It is his father – a former war photo correspondent – that had also made sure Baz got various levels of education — from ballroom dancing to painting, commando training, theatre and magic. In his late teens Luhrmann moved to Sydney and took part in the drama club at his high school, further paving his way into the arts.

So, sometimes it is about both external and internal motivations. It’s more important that you make the most of what you’ve got, to nurture your creative work. Look around you – no matter where you live or what you do, your everyday life encounters could be source of inspiration, too.


The World’s A Stage…

Upon graduation from high school, Luhrmann auditioned for the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), but was not accepted. Not one to give up, he auditioned again two years later – and started a three-year acting course, successfully graduating from NIDA in 1985.  He did appear in Winter Of Our Dreams”opposite Judy Davis, but soon after Luhrmann decided he’s more interested in originating creative projects himself – thus creating the original, stage, version of what would become his future film debut, Strictly Ballroom (1992).

Luhrmann continued his stage career for a while, producing musicals and opera shows throughout the 1980s and early ’90s. He began exploring story adaptations including a 1950s-set version of Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème” (1990). The music theatre experience and fascination with audience participation soon gave way to similar on-screen productions.



Developing a unique style from Day 1

When Luhrmann brought to life the cinematic version of “Strictly Ballroom(1992), it had all the traits of his music theatre experience – garish colors, exuberant dancing, and ironic yet sincere sentiment. The film played at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival and became an instant hit.

It was Luhrmann’s unique style of translating stage to screen that caught on – what came to be known as the “Red Curtain style”. Luhrmann wasn’t interested in creating “slices of life” – on the contrary, he saw movies as entertainment and was fascinated by the idea of a collective cinematic experience. A trip to see a Bollywood film had cemented his desire to make engaging & deliberate spectacle projects:

Here we were, with 2,000 Indians watching a film in Hindi, and there was the lowest possible comedy and then incredible drama and tragedy and then break out in songs. And it was 3-1/2 hours! We thought we had suddenly learnt Hindi, because we understood everything! [Laughter] We thought it was incredible. How involved the audience were. How uncool they were – how their coolness had been ripped aside and how they were united in this singular sharing of the story.”

This is how the “Red Curtain style” and the “Red Curtain Trilogy” (“Strictly Ballroom”, “Romeo + Juliet”, “Moulin Rouge”) were conceived. In the words of Luhrmann himself, we thought, let’s look back to a cinematic language where the audience participated in the form. Where they were aware at all times that they were watching a movie, and that they should be active in their experience and not passive. Not being put into a sort of sleep state and made to believe through a set of constructs that they are watching a real-life story through a keyhole. They are aware at all times that they are watching a movie. That was the first step in this theatricalised cinematic form that we now call the Red Curtain.”

Luhrmann stood out with his style and type of projects, which is why he got noticed. Whatever your story is, make sure to tell it “loud & clear”, in your own, distinct ‘voice’.

Joel Edgerton, Baz Luhrmann, Elizabeth Debicki, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire and Catherine Martin
By Eva Rinaldi Uploaded by MyCanon (The Great Gatsby) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Film Adaptations, Taking Chances & Genre Bending

Luhrmann is not one to go for ‘conventional’ projects – even when doing cinema adaptations of literature classics. When tackling  Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, Baz took the risk to reconceive the story in an overly stylised 20th century Venice Beach, California setting, while retaining the original Shakespearean dialogue. Luhrmann’s “experiment”, “Romeo+Juliet” (1996), turned into a box office hit.

His third feature proved to be an equally bold move. “Moulin Rouge!” (2001) was seen as a risky proposition: the mass audience of the early noughties was not accustomed to musicals. But Luhrmann took the chance and pulled it off – with his trademark postmodern reinterpretations and pop-culture references, stellar cast (Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent), and catchy soundtrack (remember “Lady Marmalade (Moulin Rouge)” and “Come What May”?), the film proved to be a refreshing alternative to the most 2001 summer releases. It then went on to win 8 Oscar nominations, including “Best Picture”.

In late 2004, Luhrmann took another chance and broke the record for the world’s most expensive advert – directing Nicole Kidman and Rodrigo Santoro in a 4-minute short film for Chanel No.5 campaign. “No.5: The Film”  a fairy-tale romance in which Chanel is part of the story but is not what the story is about – had cost £18 million and made Kidman a Guinness World Record holder for highest paid actress in a commercial. The ad was shown not only on television, but in movie theatres, too – a first for the brand.


Family and Work Bonds

The importance of other people will continue to be a running thread (see How to be Christopher Nolan). Luhrmann formed long-standing partnerships with his actors – e.g. Nicole Kidman starred in 2 out of his 4 features (as did Leonardo DiCaprio), plus they collaborated for the Chanel film ad.

Catherine Martin, the production designer on all of Luhrmann’s films, became his life partner too and the two got married on 26 January 1997.


‘Monday Prescription’ No.63 – Everything can be a source of inspiration and influence. Tell your stories “loud & clear”, with your own, distinctive style, but make sure it fits you & your project. And don’t be afraid to be bold or go against certain conventions – just do it right.

Film Doctor - The Great Gatsby 2013 Movie
The Great Gatsby” is opening in the UK this Thursday, 16th May.

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Have a great week!
The Film Doctor Team
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