Director Baz Luhrmann Reflects On The 25th Anniversary Of His Beloved ‘Romeo + Juliet’ Storytelling
His visionary ways continue to speak to generation after generation of moviegoers and these 25 years later, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet remains a cinematic achievement all its own, leaving a lasting impact on the world of pop culture today.
Much like his leading actors in the film, this too was a moment in Baz’s early career that put him on the cusp of what was to become a wildly successful journey of bringing his captivating storytelling to the world in all shapes and sizes. The first of many moving parts that brought Romeo + Juliet to life up on the big screen began with an idea that Baz had about taking the centuries-old tragedy from the stage and turning it into the brilliantly modern major motion picture experience that it became.
“How would Shakespeare address, make a film if he were here today, if that was his medium,” Baz shares with me this week exclusively at Forbes. “Having grown up in the world of Shakespeare and then really doing a huge academic study of that idea and coming up with the language and collaborating, all ending up in Mexico to shoot in iambic pentameter with a bunch of young people in a totally creative world. The fact that it even got made is kind of bonkers. When we did it, I didn’t think that. I just thought like Well, why not? and then it went on of course to have the life it did and to think all this time later, 25 years later. I mean, the amount of R+J references. It has gone on. It’s ridiculous, really.”
When it came time for Baz to cast his title roles for the film, he remembers coming across a photo of a young Leonardo DiCaprio, unsure if he was a model or a pop star. Baz knew that the character of Romeo is “not an action hero, he’s a love hero,” so Baz was determined to find a dedicated dramatic actor who could truly act. Fortunately, the next thing that Baz saw of Leo was news that he was being nominated for an Oscar for his performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
“The process was truly interesting,” Baz reveals about casting Leo. “I reached out to him. I decided that was it. Him. There was no like anybody else.” Baz knew the young actor was initially a bit hesitant about taking on the role. So, Baz decided to fly the 19-year-old Leo and his dad George DiCaprio to come meet him in Australia to do a workshop and film parts of Baz’s screenwriting (in full hair and makeup) to give Leo a real idea of Baz’s hopeful vision. Baz also knew that Leo cared about the environment, even in his younger years, so he also set up a diving trip to the Great Barrier Reef for the three of them to enjoy, a fond memory and experience in which Baz recalls Leo telling him years later of the quality family bonding experience it was for him and his dad.
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With Romeo confirmed, Baz needed to now secure his Juliet, a casting that almost went to a completely different Hollywood star today. “We looked at everyone and actually at one time, it’s well-known now and I think Natalie is completely alright with it but Natalie Portman was a real frontrunner and in fact, we explored the idea. And really, it’s that Leonardo looked so young and Natalie was so mature for her age. The truth is that when they were together, it was really clear that Nat was just too young to do the idea.”
Baz recalls the in-person chemistry workshops between Leo and Natalie, saying they were beautiful together and that Leo was so protective of the young Natalie. Nonetheless, with Natalie now out of the running, Baz would soon follow the suggestion of a friend to find the destined missing piece to his Romeo + Juliet puzzle in Claire Danes.
“The film director Jane Campion, she told me Oh, there’s this really remarkable young actor [on a] show called My So-Called Life. I watched it, she was great.” When speaking about the first chemistry workshops between the two young actors, Baz says, “I put Claire and Leo through their paces. They still laugh at me. In fact, I saw some video the other day when I made them walk out and do a scene in the snow in New York. They were like Please God, no. Not that. I don’t know why. I wanted them to do it in a way in which you change the circumstance of the environment to see whether in fact it would change the dynamic between them.”
With Leo, Claire, and a strong ensemble cast set, it was time to start filming in Mexico, a location in which Baz and his filmmaking team would effectively disguise as the modern day Italian city of Verona. However, Baz remembers the challenges that he, his cast, and his crew faced in the midst of filming Romeo + Juliet and how they had to get clever in finishing particular scenes beyond the unforeseen weather conditions that ultimately fell within their path.
“The biggest hurdle was when we were shooting, when you see the beach scenes, they were shot in Vera Cruz on the east coast. Every single thing you see in that frame – every telegraph pole, every palm tree, we created. There was grey sand. Nothing, nothing there. Not the buildings, no theater of course, none of that. And it was before CG (computer imagery). We had a little bit of CG but we didn’t have what we do now, so you had to build everything. We built this huge set and we created it all and Mercutio’s big death scene comes and we shoot it but a hurricane is coming in. Really severely, a hurricane. We have to shut down and get the hell out of there because the whole set is going to be blown to pieces. We do a master take. In the film, you’ll see it. It ends with Leo, Mercutio is dying in his arms and Leo runs to the car, gets in a car. Now that’s one big shot. It’s a master. We shot the master and got out of there. The entire set was completely blown away and destroyed and I had to finish the scene in San Francisco where we were posting at Skywalker Ranch. I had to finish the scene in the San Francisco Bay, holding up little pieces of scenery and people throwing sand in front of wind machines.”
What loyal Romeo + Juliet moviegoers might find most interesting is that arguably the film’s most memorable and romantic cinematic moment when the title characters first meet at the fish tank, came from a serendipitous encounter that Baz stumbled upon himself while out in the Miami nightlife scene shortly before filming.
“I went to the bathroom and I came out and I was washing my hands and there was a big fish tank in front of me and I looked through it, I could see a girl combing her hair. It was such a brilliant idea because you could flirt through the tank and I went Oh, look at that!”
The song that plays during the fish tank scene is “Kissing You” by Des’ree, just one of many songs from this film’s epic soundtrack that continues to be timelessly embraced by both movie and music lovers. Like in all of Baz’s projects, he purposefully chooses to have a very active hand in the selection process of the music that intertwines best within his direction and storytelling on-screen.
“Little known fact, I’ve been producing music under a pseudonym called BLAM. I have an actual record label with RCA, so I’ve made a lot of music. Jay-Z and I did [The Great] Gatsby together. I see music as part of the screenplay. There’s almost three scripts. There’s the visual language script, musical language script, and then there’s the script. I write it all back into the text. There’s even a line when Romeo and Juliet are getting married, which says something like I think A young Stevie Wonder sings a choral version of ‘When Doves Cry.’ It’s in the script.”
When Romeo + Juliet was first released in theaters on November 1, 1996, it went straight to the top of the box office, grossing worldwide approximately $147.6 million during its entire theatrical run. The film had unquestionably won over the hearts of young moviegoers everywhere, discovering an incomparable admiration for its unique storytelling and its modern depiction of a rebellious, all-consuming, and star-crossed love.
“Well, it came out and it took everybody by surprise that it went to number one,” Baz reminisces about the film’s opening weekend. “It totally wiped everyone away. It was number one. It was kind of one of those moments where the older generation did not see that coming. I was pretty young myself, I was only about 30. It was an exciting time.”
Before Romeo + Juliet, Baz had first made a name for himself in the filmmaking industry from his directorial feature film debut in 1992 with Strictly Ballroom. Since those two films, Baz has gone on to direct, write the screenplays, and produce three more publicly praised films Moulin Rouge, Australia and The Great Gatsby. With only five major motion pictures under his belt during his nearly 30-year filmmaking career so far, I had to ask Baz about his mindset behind having only released a handful of films over this rather long span of time.
“I do a lot of things. I’m always busy. To me, I don’t think of myself as a filmmaker, per se. I basically work in story and ideas and whether that’s building a hotel, doing an election campaign, doing an opera. Quite often, I’ve done things for the first time. As long as it’s truly adventurous and it serves my luck because it’s the only thing I do, then I’ll do it. As far as the films go, I have so many ideas that I already know I’ll never have enough time to do before I am finished on this planet, so I just look at the idea and I go In my life, what’s going to make my life worth getting up and doing and is it the right time to put this story out in the world? Can this truly be useful? Is it carrying a larger point?”
Baz goes on to share with me that throughout the years, he is well-aware of critics being known to give his films mixed reviews when they first come out, reactions he has become unaffected by, knowing that his creations are often appreciated and understood much more as time goes on.
“There’s often a lot of dialogue about why my films get quite controversial whenever they open. Even like with Gatsby, which was controversial, is now kind of trending on Hulu. They always take more time to be embraced than when they come out. I never make movies to try to be loved in the moment, because I really crave longevity actually.”
Baz is currently working on completing his sixth feature film, an untitled Elvis Presley biopic starring Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker and promising newcomer Austin Butler playing The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. “Right now, I can tell you I’m in post and close to a cut. I can only say about the film is that I don’t think it’s a traditional biopic. It’s really exploring America in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. We do touch upon Elvis’s life from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s and even when he’s a child. It’s all the way through. I have actually screened it a little now. The embracing of Austin in the role, he has done a remarkable job. They’re really in for a thrill.”
Returning to this 25th Anniversary celebration of Romeo + Juliet, I conclude my conversation with Baz by asking him what he would like to say to his loyal R+J fans, a question Baz tells me he has never been asked and is glad I did so.
“I really want to say to the fans, really I do, that I made the movies, you know. I might bring up a child but you fell in love with my child and married them, and so, you kind of know my child in a way in which I will never know my child and I’m glad they married well. So, I would say to the fans thanks for marrying the movie.”