The first thing Baz Luhrmann tells you is that he’s “crazy busy, as always.” The second thing the filmmaker tells you is, well, pretty much anything you’d want to know. The Australian multi-hyphenate has never been one to embrace labels or to stick to creative boundaries — even his Wikipedia page struggles to combine all of his interests into a concise opening line, and bills him as a “writer, director, and producer with projects spanning film, television, opera, theatre, music, and recording industries” — and while he hasn’t made a film in over five years, Luhrmann is hardly resting on his laurels. And he’s happy to talk about all of it.
The latest endeavor that has Luhrmann jazzed: serving as an ambassador for the Australian International Screen Forum, a yearly New York City confab which is, per its official mission, “dedicated to promoting the screen arts by exhibiting Australian films and connecting Australian film, television and digital screen producers and screen talent to U.S. film, television and digital producers and distributors.” Luhrmann, who started his career in Australia with his own indie, “Strictly Ballroom,” sees plenty of value in putting scrappy up-and-comers with potential partners who are receptive to ideas that are a bit out of the box.
“Even though I seem like a Hollywood director, I’ve never actually made a movie in Hollywood,” Luhrmann said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I always think that what I make is independent in the sense that I don’t look for a job. No one hires me. With my first movie, which was a truly independent Australian movie, I had the notion, I got it financed, we fought for private finance. Nobody wanted to make a film about ballroom dancing, I can tell you. ‘Ballroom dancing will never be popular in the United States. Go away.'”
He added with a laugh, “You’re looking at the man who’s been on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ as a judge!”
Beyond the obvious Aussie connection, that the Screen Forum aims to connect creators of all stripes makes it a natural fit for the “Moulin Rouge!” filmmaker and “The Get Down” creator, who is heartened by the industry’s current bent towards getting away from outdated concepts regarding what kind of filmed material belongs where.
“There was a very simple language, which was television was dumbed down storytelling, and film was high-end,” Luhrmann said. “There’s no reference for that anymore. And frankly, institutions and icons fall from the past epoch daily, so there’s no reference for anything. I think that’s a terrifying thing for a lot of people, and for a new wave of emerging artists, that should be a truly exciting thing. … I’m in a slightly strange position, because it’s not that I even subscribe to the idea that there is no border in mediums, I’ve always worked in all of them.”
The filmmaker admits that even he needed to loosen up some old notions, especially when it comes to the way in which audiences consume their entertainment now. While he joked that he might “get murdered by some of my dear friends and associates and other artists,” Luhrmann isn’t afraid of going against the grain. So, yes, he’ll watch a movie on an iPhone.
“I would’ve been one of those people early on that said, ‘Oh, my God, they’re gonna watch “Moulin Rouge!” on a phone? How could they?,'” Luhrmann said. “Now, of course, I tuck up late at night in bed and go, ‘I can’t be bothered reaching for my computer,’ and the finger dangles over the Netflix button on the old iPhone. Honestly, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is best consumed in 70mm on a massive screen, but if it’s a great film, it will hold up on an iPhone, believe it or not. It won’t be as great, but it will play out.”
That’s not to say that Luhrmann isn’t still a big fan of going to the movies. “The grand experience in the cinema is about being able to luxuriate in the story, and the image, and the sound, but the biggest difference is to communally experience a story,” he said. “There’s nothing quite like laughing with a bunch of strangers, or being scared with a bunch of strangers, or trying to wipe away tears and pretend you’re scratching your nose communally. It amplifies the emotions, no question about it.”
And yet, Luhrmann isn’t opposed to making a movie for, say, a streaming service. Like Netflix, home of his dearly departed single-season series “The Get Down,” which tracked the early days of hip-hop in the late 1970’s. When the show was cancelled in 2017 — despite only spanning one official season, it was released in two distinct “parts,” one set in 1977, the other in 1978 — rumors persisted that it might find new life as a film. Luhrmann confirmed it’s not only possible, but that he already has an idea for how to frame it around a big time jump.
“The opportunity is there,” Luhrmann said. “And both Netflix and I, we’re in a really great place. … I would dearly love [to] perhaps even let a bit more time go by so the characters grow up more. I would dearly love to come back in the ’80s and tell that story in a special film in the ’80s with the cast returning, and I know the cast would too.”
Getting the cast back together is top of mind for Luhrmann, who still takes immense pride in building “The Get Down” around a group of young and mostly undiscovered performers, many of whom have already gone on to huge things.
“Can you imagine, there’d be this cliffhanger, and then we’d pick up in the ’80s?,” Luhrmann said. “And people like T.J. [Tremaine Brown, Jr.] and Shameik Moore, who have now gone off to be in every large-scale action movie, or Yahya [Abdul-Mateen II], who is in Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ and ‘Aquaman,’ all those actors, and there are many more, coming back and doing a film? That is absolutely something that both Netflix and I are very open to. It’ll just be timing, but for sure.”
20th Century Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Luhrmann is also enthused about Hollywood’s current musical boom — his 2001 smash hit “Moulin Rouge!” was the kind of music-centric spectacle that the industry had seemingly abandoned — and expressed admiration for recent new musicals like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star Is Born.” He’s especially looking forward to seeing Dexter Fletcher’s “Rocketman,” which follows the life of his “dear friend” Elton John. In a different life, Luhrmann said he would have loved to make the film himself.
“There was a time, when had I not been so slow, I would love to have been involved in that [film],” he said. “It’s a great time for those icons who have been the soundtrack to our lives. Enough time has passed for us to really look at them at enough distance.”
Time wasn’t on Luhrmann’s side when he set out to make “Moulin Rouge!” in the early aughts. Seeing the box office success of films like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Greatest Showman,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” though, is proof that the tide really has turned, and that yes, Luhrmann was on to something, even when plenty of doors were slammed in his face.
“What I think the big reality is, when I started out with ‘Moulin Rouge!,’ I must have heard, ‘The musical can never work again’ so many times,” he said. “And even when ‘Moulin Rouge!’ came out, we had to fight tooth and nail just to make sure it wasn’t clubbed to death like a baby seal. … There’s no longer a question in anyone’s mind about ‘should they bother to do a musical?’ Most financiers and studios are going like, ‘Where’s my musical? Yeah, yeah, science fiction’s fine, but I really need a musical.'”
Even “Moulin Rouge!” continues to live on, and is bound for a brand new incarnation: Broadway show. Imagined as a jukebox musical — very in line with the film’s happy melding and meshing of all sorts of popular songs — “Moulin Rouge!” the stage musical debuted in Boston last year to strong reviews. Later this summer, it will bow on Broadway at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Luhrmann didn’t write the book, and he’s not directing it. That was by design.
“I came to a point of realizing that I should not be making musicals of my own shows,” he said. Luhrmann compared his choice to avoid the director’s chair to the current run of “Star Wars” films, many of which are directed by long-time fans like J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson, and Gareth Edwards.
He wanted someone to take on the material who had the affection for it, but wasn’t precious with the material in a way that an original creator might be. Enter Alex Timbers, the two-time Tony-nominated writer and director behind the recent Broadway version of “Beetlejuice.”
“He was a young, childhood fan of ‘Moulin Rouge!’ and now he’s a grown artist and he’s gonna interpret it and do things to it that I might be a bit like, ‘Ooh, what will the fans think?,'” Luhrmann said. “It is robust storytelling, and it’s a robust musical, and he’s doing wildly creative things with it. In the end, I just sort of feel like a distant uncle. … It’s certainly easy and enjoyable just to turn up and have a gin and tonic and watch the show. I had something to do with it, but I’m not carrying the birthing burden. I’m not bringing the child into the world.”
But that original baby? He’s still a proud papa. “Just the fact that we kicked the door in, and then there were musicals that followed, and now, we’re in a place where it’s not even an issue,” Luhrmann said. “I feel at least I’ve done something useful.”