Chattering Class

Baz Luhrmann Follows Tradition by Going Modern

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VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images

From setting up his own imaginary radio station in his Dad’s small-town gas station to directing some of the most lush and extravagant movies of last few decades (“Romeo + Juliet,” and “Moulin Rouge,” to name two) Baz Lurhmann has  never lacked for creative ambition.  And all along, he’s been obsessed with soundtracks.

His most recent film, “The Great Gatsby,” (out this week on DVD) has spawned multiple albums: the megahit soundtrack on which Lurhmann collaborated with Jay-Z, an all-instrumental jazz album developed with Bryan Ferry, and a collection of the movie’s orchestral music. After comparing their godlike bodies (!), Rico chatted with Baz about Bowie, the Bee Gees, taking cues from Scorsese,  and meeting a real Fitzgerald.

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Rico Gagliano: I wanted to start with your musical background. Your soundtracks, they’re so eclectic. What did you grow up listening to? What were your musical tribes?

Baz Luhrmann: Wow. You know, I grew up in a very small, tiny country town, 11 houses, and my dad had a gas station. And believe it or not Rico… you’ll like this: In the gas station I had my own little radio station. I was about 10.

Rico Gagliano: It transmitted and everything?

Baz Luhrmann: Well, it was basically a record player with two speakers stuck out the front where they would come in for gas. And I was a 10-year-old who believed he was in a radio station. I had two records. One was “One is the Loneliest Number” by Johnny Farnham…

Rico Gagliano: Of course.

Baz Luhrmann: …But then, something amazing happened: I went to this older kid’s house — and they were like teenagers, I mean they were twelve — and I went downstairs. My father was upstairs, and the lights were out, and they were playing this guy singing. “This is Ground Control to Major Tom…”

Rico Gagliano: Oh yes.

Baz Luhrmann: It was Bowie, and that was a life-changing experience. I mean, I became Bowie obsessed.

Rico Gagliano: Do you think that’s where your eclecticism comes in? ‘Cause Bowie kind of reinvented himself with every album.

Baz Luhrmann: Yes. I actually think that’s a very, very good point. I think he changes… the idea that he is performing characters that were transformations of himself, yes. I think eclecticism and Bowie, yes, I mean it probably did influence me.

Rico Gagliano: Well let’s move from the music and into music and movies.

Baz Luhrmann: Sure.

Rico Gagliano: You know, music has been essential to movies almost from the beginning, but it’s pretty recently that a film’s music can cause as much, or sometimes even more excitement than the film itself. Do you remember the first time you found yourself maybe paying as much attention to a movie’s music as the movie?

Baz Luhrmann: Well that’s easy — “Saturday Night Fever.”

Rico Gagliano: Oh right.

Baz Luhrmann: I mean, I was there. I danced at the opening, as a kid, of ‘Saturday Night Fever.” You can’t even imagine my disco moves. I had it; I had the white suit. I was about 15, and this sort of cheap Australian company made the shoes.  And I mean look, that soundtrack… The Bee Gees were Australian.  So of course I remember “Saturday Night Fever” and then “Grease.”

But you know, I grew up in this isolated place, so I also grew up seeing films that people disregarded. In those days, films like “Citizen Kane” — you know, old cinema — was very much poo-hooed, because it was the 70’s; it was a modern era.

Rico Gagliano: Oh right, rejecting everything.

Baz Luhrmann: Yeah, I’ve always had a DNA for that kind of expressionistic cinema. And their soundtracks, Fellini for example…

Rico Gagliano: Nino Rota, Fellini’s composer.

Baz Luhrmann: …Yeah; incredible, incredible.

Rico Gagliano: Your soundtracks are also often anachronistic. In “Moulin Rouge” you have turn-of-the-century Parisians dancing to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” In “Gatsby” you have 20’s party-goers dancing to a tune by Fergie and Q-Tip. What attracts you to that?

Baz Luhrmann: I think… I mean honestly with “Moulin Rouge” it came from a desire to reignite the musical.  And musicals had… you know, “White Christmas,” that song is in several movies. Musicals didn’t have complete new scores. So the whole idea of using familiar music, plus some new music, was born out of just the desire to reinvent a musical.

With “Gatsby,” some of the critics have whacked the movie and said, “Oh it’s like Luhrmann’s really set out to play to a younger generation.” But you know, F. Scott Fitzgerald, if he was anything he was a modernist.  And he took African American street music called jazz, and he put it front and center into his book, and he put popular songs in his book. And I wanted to approach the movie as if a 29-year-old Fitzgerald was making a movie.

Rico Gagliano: Today?

Baz Luhrmann: Yeah, and I just didn’t want it to be nostalgic, and that’s where a lot of the music came from. That was the idea of mixing jazz with hip-hop.

You know what, the other day, probably the best review I ever got in my life happened. At one of the openings, out of the shadows, this regal woman came.  And she grabbed me by the arm.  And she said, “I’ve come all the way from Vermont to see –” I don’t know, she sounds like Katherine Hepburn.

Rico Gagliano: I know; that’s interesting.

Baz Luhrmann: — “I’ve come all the way from Vermont to see what you’ve done with my grandfather’s book.”

Rico Gagliano: It was a Fitzgerald?

Baz Luhrmann: Yeah, it was his granddaughter Bobbie, and I knew she existed, but she’s a bit of a recluse. I mean, I went cold. She had just seen the movie.  And she said, “You know, people always said that you couldn’t make ‘Gatsby’ work. I think you’ve done it. And by the way,” she said, “I love the music.” And then she just went off! So, I was like, “Okay; I’m good with that.”

Rico Gagliano: That is a hip elderly lady.

Baz Luhrmann: Yeah, she was a very cool and regal person.

Rico Gagliano: I remember hearing Martin Scorsese’s philosophy is to put the least germane song possible over a scene. So for example, he used Donovan’s kind of hippie tune “Atlantis” over the scene in “Goodfellas” where gangsters are beating a guy to death.

Baz Luhrmann: Yeah.

Rico Gagliano: What kind of rules do you have that guide you in picking the right music for a scene?

Baz Luhrmann: Well I- look, first of all I know Marty very well, and he’s always been a great inspiration. I mean, I was a great Martin Scorsese fan, and the great thing about Marty – and I do this too, and maybe I learned it from him – is that he uses music on the set.

Rico Gagliano: While you’re making the film?

Baz Luhrmann: Sure. I was doing the scene in Myrtle’s apartment – a very crazy, wild party – and I wanted it to go kind of wild. So right in the middle of it, I cranked up “N.I.P.” from “Watch the Throne.”

Rico Gagliano: Kanye and Jay-Z.

Baz Luhrmann: Kanye and Jay-Z, yeah. Cranked up the music, and the wildness of that scene in “Gatsby,” just suddenly the actors… we just rolled for 20 minutes. The blood started running and clothes were coming off. That’s how it became referred to as “the orgy scene,” I think. When we used to test the film, we’d be: “Okay, what scene did you like the most?” And they’d say “Gatsby and Daisy meeting,” and the second most popular one was “the orgy scene.” I cut the orgy down a bit, I have to tell you.

Rico Gagliano: So we can blame that all on Kanye, basically.

Baz Luhrmann: Well, on the Blu-Ray at some point I wanted to just run one of the shots uncut.

Rico Gagliano: Oh man, you’re appealing to our audience’s prurient interest.

Baz Luhrmann: Well, you’ll find it interesting as an acting exercise, just how committed they were.

Rico Gagliano: Absolutely.

Baz Luhrmann: Certainly my assistant enjoyed being kissed by all those girls!

Rico Gagliano: I wanted to ask you about what I think is the greatest musical moment in your work. It is the climax of the love song medley between Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in “Moulin Rouge.” They suddenly break into the song “I Will Always Love You.” I remember seeing that on opening night, and the audience went crazy.

How did you choose that song for that moment? Did you know it would have that impact?

Baz Luhrmann: Mine is participatory cinema. I literally expect the audience to participate. The fact that the audience applaud when Leonardo comes on in “Gatsby” – it’s participatory cinema. The answer is yes, I constructed it that way. With that song, “I Will Always Love You,” we had to top the finale, and what song could it be? So I went to Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, and I met the writer of the song, and her name was Dolly Parton.

Rico Gagliano: I’ve heard of her.

Baz Luhrmann: And afterwards I called her “the Dalai Lama of L.A.”  the Dolly

Rico Gagliano: I get it.

Baz Luhrmann: — And it was because she was so gorgeous, she was so lovely.  Because what people forget is that it was a country and western song…

Rico Gagliano: And then Whitney.

Baz Luhrmann: …And then Whitney did it as a ballad, and then I said “Look, we’ve got to top all these love songs, and you’re the one.” And she said, “Well, I don’t know why we’re even talking about it. You’re gonna make it a hit three times,” you know?