The Land Of Baz

Inside the house of Iona, Baz Luhrmann's magnificent estate on a Sydney hill, the Australian director paces in a huge room as night falls, sorting out a dance routine as the '70s anthem "Children of the Revolution" blares from a boom box. A family Christmas party is about to start downstairs, yet Luhrmann keeps working. "She could shimmy this way," says Luhrmann as choreographer John O'Connell looks on. As Luhrmann plots this sequence--a dance that will be performed by a tiny, animated fairy in his spectacular new film "Moulin Rouge"--he clutches a glass of shiraz and sings along with the T. Rex song. Luhrmann shakes his hips, does a small leap, and exclaims, "And then all the bohemians are sucked into the underworld of the Moulin Rouge!"

Absinthe fairies, bohemians, the underworld, a French nightclub: it's a conversation no other filmmaker could hold with a straight face. Because Luhrmann is attempting something no one else has the guts to touch: a big-budget movie musical. With "Moulin Rouge," which opens nationally June 1, the audacious Aussie stands naked to the world. He has assembled a high-intensity musical collage, scrambling the Orpheus myth with an array of contemporary pop songs to convey a tragic love story set in an 1899 Parisian dance hall and brothel. It's the artistic equal of juggling chain saws atop a high wire. One false step, and you're in pieces on the ground. For Luhrmann and his creative team, it's worth the $53 million risk. "We have always been all or nothing," the 38-year-old director says. "We always expose ourselves completely."

Raised on a gas station "in the middle of nowhere" (Heron's Creek, New South Wales, to be precise), Luhrmann fed an early love for performing by concocting mock radio programs for customers topping their tanks. He's been sharing stories ever since, and they're growing more complicated. He has directed opera, produced an album (featuring the surprise spoken-word hit "Everybody's Free [to Wear Sunscreen]") and even overseen a television campaign for Australia's Labour Party. His first two films, 1992's dance-competition comedy "Strictly Ballroom," and 1996's Bard-on-the-beach "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" established Luhrmann's talent for cinematic daring. But "Moulin Rouge," starring Nicole Kidman as the courtesan Satine and Ewan McGregor as the smitten poet Christian, presents vastly different challenges.

The movie's love story unfolds against the colorful backdrop of a nightclub run by Jim Broadbent's Harold Zidler, where a group of bohemians, led by John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec, are at work creating an ahead-of-its-time musical while fending off their intrusive investor. The tale of the making of "Moulin Rouge" followed that same script. Despite early and late backing from 20th Century Fox, Luhrmann struggled during the critical middle of his four-year effort to create the film. The studio initially refused to let Luhrmann play with its trademark theme song and logo in the film's singular opening shot. The studio also declined to finance the appearance of the whimsical absinthe fairy, forcing Luhrmann to spend $300,000 of his own money to film the sequence (Fox repaid him a few days before "Moulin Rouge" opened this month's Cannes Film Festival). After a contentious screening of the film's rough cut to Fox executives in Los Angeles, Luhrmann stopped the executives' wives as they left the theater, showing them unfinished scenes on his laptop computer to marshal support. "It's not a choice," Luhrmann says of his devotion to the film. "Having come this far, why compromise? When it comes to protecting my baby, I am there with whatever weapon I can pick up."

Unlike his previous two films, both adaptations, "Moulin Rouge" was a completely original work. From the outset, Luhrman and co-writer Craig Pearce insisted on telling the story through new arrangements of current songs. Music director Marius DeVries, along with music supervisor Anton Monsted and music programmer Josh Abrahams, camped for months at Iona, searching high and low for the perfect lyrics, then rehearsing with Kidman and McGregor on new arrangements. Many tunes, from the Fifth Dimension's "Up, Up and Away" to 10CC's "I'm Not in Love," vanished as the script was repeatedly rewritten. Others, including Cat Stevens's "Father and Son" and anything from the inflexible Rolling Stones, were lost because Luhrmann couldn't get permission. But hearing "no way" never deterred Luhrmann. He personally visited pop superstars, including Elton John and Paul McCartney, to obtain song rights. "People just want to be a part of the Baz circus," says the England-based DeVries, whose three-month commitment to the film turned into 14 months in Australia. "He has this affect on people. I was immediately willing to drop everything. There is something that incredibly charismatic about him."

Brash, too. Most directors want their cinematic tricks to pass unnoticed. Luhrmann doesn't mind calling attention to himself. That's why his Man in the Moon sings along with John's "Your Song," and Kidman segues from the 1949 classic "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" to Madonna's 1984 hit "Material Girl." Yet as soon as those music sleights-of-hand pass from memory, you're hit with a deeply emotional love-song medley. "You're constantly awaking the audience so they participate," Luhrmann says. "Just when you think, 'This is so cheesy, I'm going to throw up,' I'm going to kick you in the stomach. In that state, there's an agreement that they know they are going to be emotionally manipulated, and they surrender to it. The audience does not come and pay $8 to watch someone else be really careful."

"Moulin Rouge" certainly is not careful. "Everyone kept saying, 'This is either the beginning or end of our careers'," Kidman says with a laugh. "But he's such a fearless leader and an enthusiastic personality, he can make you believe anything." Kidman's commitment was ultimately costly. She continued to dance even after badly hurting her knee falling down a flight of stairs during filming. When the injury didn't heal, she had to withdraw from a starring role in the high-profile thriller "The Panic Room." Gingerly sitting in a Fox recording studio several weeks before "Moulin Rouge" opens, Kidman is rerecording a series of Satine's gasps, giggles and grunts. Luhrmann directs her performance as intently as if he's conducting a 100-piece orchestra. Finally, his assistant Paul Watters hands him a piece of paper. Luhrmann's due to fly to Rupert Murdoch's 70th birthday party in New York. "Unless we go right now, we miss the plane," the note reads. Luhrmann doesn't leave for another 10 minutes. "If I were a studio executive," Kidman says, "I wouldn't want to make Baz Luhrmann movies!"

Perhaps it's that the director is never satisfied with good enough. Even as "Moulin Rouge" was enjoying its Hollywood premiere last week, he spent the day fiddling with the film one more time, tweaking its colors one last bit. He wasn't quite ready to let his baby go. But soon the red curtains will part in earnest and the showman will return to the hilltop spread at Iona for several months' recovery. "All I think sometimes is, 'Wouldn't it be fun to make a James Bond movie?' " Luhrmann says. "But it's just that, honestly, there's not enough time to do those things that I feel are my burden." Audiences should rejoice that he's carrying the weight.