Baz Luhrmann on His Big Budgets: People Think 'I Don't Care About Money' (Q&A)
"The Great Gatsby" director delves into his creative process, the value of long train rides across the tundra and why his lips are sealed when it comes to his next project.
LACCO AMENO, Ischia -- Don't ask director Baz Luhrmann about his plans now that The Great Gatsby is screening in cinemas around the world -- he says he's not yet finished with the project.
Luhrmann is in Italy for the 11th Ischia Global Film & Music Fest, where The Great Gatsby will be Friday's centerpiece screening. Speaking on the sidelines of the festival, he said he's still at work on two separate Gatsby soundtrack releases (including a previously unannounced album of Brian Ferry's jazz music from the film: "Was I not supposed to mention that yet?" he asked a collaborator in Ischia), plus preparations for the approaching Blu-ray release.
"For me, it's important to get everything right on a film, down to the smallest detail, and that applies to specific scenes or dialogue all the way down to the Blu-ray box," he said.
Even as he makes progress on finally concluding work on Gatsby by his standards, Luhrmann spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the "burden" of making big-budget films, errors in the way the public sees him, and how a journey on the Trans-Siberian Express five years ago gave birth to the Gatsby project.
The Hollywood Reporter: Many thousands of words -- with varying degrees of success -- have been spent on trying to describe your style as a director. But I'm curious to know how you would yourself describe your style.
Baz Luhrmann: You're being very kind. Not all those words try to describe my style; a lot have criticized it. But to answer your question I should say first that I don't think of it so much as a style as I do a cinematic language. When I started as a director, going back to Strictly Ballroom [Luhrmann's directorial debut, from 1992], I focused on trying to make the film seem natural, participatory. I like it when the audience is aware that they're participating in the experience. It's different from a psychological drama, where the audience can be passive.
THR: You have mentioned you were influenced by Italian cinema growing up. Since we're here in Italy, can you speak a little about that?
Luhrmann: I grew up in a town of about 11 houses. Actually, not 'about'; it was exactly 11 houses, I remember that. There was a gas station, a farm, a dress shop. And my father ran the local cinema for a time. For entertainment, we had that and a black-and-white television, and a lot of what made it out to us were great films, in cinema or on TV. These were films people in the big cities already knew well. I'm referring to [Orson Wells'] Citizen Kane, The Red Shoes [by U.K. directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger] and of course great Italian films like [Federico Fellini's] La Dolce Vita and The Leopard [from Luchino Visconti]. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I wanted to come to this festival is because of Ischia's connection with Visconti [who lived on the island for many years].
THR: Your films are so elaborate that that has become a kind of signature for you. Would you ever consider making a simple film with people in jeans and T-shirts talking?
Luhrmann: Are you kidding? I dream of doing a film like that. I want to do that; I need to do that. But you also need to have the right story. I haven't always worked with big budgets: Strictly Ballroom, my first film, had a budget of just $2 million, although I admit that seemed like an enormous budget at the time. In any case, I am interested in something like that. But the story has to be right for me. I don't want to do it to prove I can. I have to do it for the right reasons.
THR: What are some of the ways that working with such a big budget can be a gift, and some ways it can be a burden?
Luhrmann: You said it right: It can be an advantage and a burden. I think the advantage part is obvious. And as far as the burden, the right answer would be to say that once someone invests $100 million, there's the pressure of having so many dreams and hopes of people resting on me, that the responsibility of delivering the piece through the wilderness is heavy. That would be the right answer, but it isn't true. The truth is that pressure comes from inside, and I have the same feeling of intense responsibility whether it's a two-person theater piece, or I'm helping someone out with their wedding, or making a major film. It feels the same to me.
THR: Do you need downtime between films?
Luhrmann: I am a big believer in something I call "power cleansing," used to reset the system. After Moulin Rouge! I decided I needed an adventure, and it was great. I decided to book a ticket on the Trans-Siberian Express. I read once that David Bowie did that, and I figured if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me. I booked my ticket, took my luggage, two bottles of Australian red wine, and a new invention they called the iPod. (Laughs.) It had some recorded books on it, and one was The Great Gatsby. That's where the idea of this film came from. I drank my wine, listened to five hours of the book, and the next morning I couldn't wait, I really could not wait, to finish the last two hours. Eventually, the film emerged, years later.
THR: So what will you do once you decide to "power cleanse" following The Great Gatsby?
Luhrmann: Maybe the Orient Express? No, just kidding. It's a good question, and to be honest, you have caught me in the moment of consideration about that. I'll make a decision soon, as soon as we're done with the albums and the home release for the film.
THR: And do you have any thoughts yet on your next project? Maybe the jeans and T-shirt film?
Luhrmann: I have some ideas, yes.
THR: Can you share them? Or at least one of them?
Luhrmann: No, I'd really rather not. No offense. When I was in postproduction for Australia [in 2008], I mentioned to someone that I was considering a project based on The Great Gatsby, and that's all I heard for years. I'd like to avoid that this time.
THR: OK, fair enough. Last question: Do you think the public has big misconceptions about you?
Luhrmann: I think there's an inaccurate mythology. Some people see me as someone dressed in a top hat and carrying a cane, saying to nobody in particular, "I don't care about money. Stop the rain! And bring me the elephants!" But it's just not like that. My films are expensive, but they also feature a tremendous efficiency. Everything we do, we do in the most efficient way possible. It's just that we have some ambitious things we are trying to do. We're also more than a little brave: We made a film based on a 90-year-old book and we released it in the summer when it has to go up against Hangover III and a bunch of comic book sequels. Don't get me wrong, I love Iron Man. But it's tough to go into release under those conditions.