Watch: Director Baz Luhrmann and production and costume designer Catherine Martin on the making of Moulin Rouge! above.
In 2019, Rotten Tomatoes turns 21, and to mark the occasion we’re celebrating the 21 Most Memorable Moments from the movies over the last 21 years. In this special video series, we speak to the actors and filmmakers who made those moments happen, revealing behind-the-scenes details of how they came to be and diving deep into why they’ve stuck with us for so long. Once we’ve announced all 21, it will be up to you, the fans, to vote for which is the most memorable moment of all. In this episode of our ‘21 Most Memorable Moments’ series, director Baz Luhrmann and production and costume designer Catherine Martin break down how they created one of cinema’s great entrances.
Baz Luhrmann‘s breakout success, the 1992 comedy Strictly Ballroom, announced the Australian director as a bold new filmmaking talent with a wild, colorful, fast-moving style that was unlike anything anyone else was doing at the time. BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations followed, and buzz began to build for what Baz would do next. That next was Romeo + Juliet – a modern retelling that would spawn a hit soundtrack, make a star of Leonardo DiCaprio, and become the definitive version of the story for ’90s and 2000s teens. Then came the big one: 2001’s Moulin Rouge!, the tale of a courtesan named Satine (Nicole Kidman) and a poet named Christian (Ewan McGregor) who meet and fall in love at Paris’s Moulin Rouge, a cabaret club famous as the birthplace of the can-can. The Luhrmann-y twist was that their story was told as a musical filled with modern songs and mashups (and one beautiful original, “Come What May”). The ambition was grand – to give new life to the movie musical – and Luhrmann was aided in his mission by a mammoth team of filmmakers and actors that included his wife and longtime collaborator Catherine Martin, the film’s costume designer (with Angus Strathie) and production designer. Here, Luhrmann and Martin reveal how the film began to take shape, from the initial idea to building the club itself.
Baz Luhrmann: “I was debating what my next work should be. I was thinking, ‘Should I look at Shakespeare as if Shakespeare was going to make a movie, or should I look at my other great passion, which is a way of finding the musical?’ – which I loved as a child growing up in a very small country town where we had a cinema and we got very old movies. Is there a way of making the musical work at this time and at this place? At the same time, we were creating an opera of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I went off to India to do that opera and while I was there I had the incredible experience of experiencing what would be called a Bollywood movie. I went into a cinema and there was maybe 2,500 people in that cinema. And what was astounding in the language and in the form was that you could have drama, a dramatic scene, then high comedy — like, literal physical gags — then a musical number, then high drama again. And it influenced me in a couple of ways.
In one regard, it was Shakespearean, and on the other hand, you went, like, ‘Wow.’ This is audience participation in cinema. You are meant, as an audience, not to be looking at reality through a keyhole, but you are meant to participate in the storytelling. You’re meant to boo and hiss and laugh and cry and sing along, but then you’re also meant to be emotionally engaged and moved. I thought in a strange way this was completely and totally fresh. So I went off and I actually did the Shakespeare film first, and then coming a second time round, I went like, ‘It must be time to have a go at trying to make the musical work.’”
Luhrmann: “I was looking at what world to set it in and there was a serious moment when I was thinking of setting Moulin Rouge! in Studio 54 in the ’70s. The character [of] Toulouse-Lautrec, I guess, would have been Andy Warhol, and there would have been a young creative writer/singer who comes to New York and gets involved in the underworld of 54. What I found was that it’s too close to us… You’ve got to remember, at the time, the 1890s — the can-can and all of that imagery in that world, you couldn’t think of anything less cool or less hip. I remember CM [Catherine Martin] waking up in the middle of the night one night and saying to me, ‘Oh my God, Baz. We’re doing a can-can movie. I mean, how could we possibly make that, you know, in any way aesthetically interesting?’ And I said, ‘Through a perspective.’
We went to Paris. I went with Craig Pierce, my long-term co-writer, and my team, and then we lived it. Like all the movies, I live them. I literally lived the life of a 1890s Bohemian. And then reading, of course, lots of literature and research and, you know, Émile Zola’s Nana and Lady of the Camellias and all that, and then starting to DNA the story. And then looking at, ‘OK. How do you decode a musical language that’s going to kind of smash through the barrier that says musicals are dead?’ So that was the mission.”
Luhrmann: “The device that what comes out of Christian is music that we know in our universe, started this idea of being able to be both set in a period but also take leaps of faith into the future and into our world. I’m going to use this word, which was totally not around, you know, 18 years ago when I made this movie: the ‘mashup,’ slicing, montage, like mashing different things together. People weren’t talking about mashups 20 years ago. So that’s kind of where we were coming from in terms of finding a musical and visual and storytelling language. Publishing-wise, you technically couldn’t have done it before Moulin Rouge!. The only way that Anton [Monsted, the film’s executive movie producer] and I managed to get that together with Craig and I writing, was I had to ring the actual artist. I mean, I didn’t know Elton John, so I rang him up and he said, ‘Oh that sounds like a fantastic idea, darling. Of course, we’re going to do it.’ And then I reached out to David Bowie and ended up working with David Bowie and Bono and all these icons and they all just thought it was a great, daring idea. If they hadn’t have supported it, it would never have happened, but it did change this idea of publishing. That you could take all kinds of pieces of music and make something new out of it.”
Luhrmann: “One of the most touching and beautiful stories – and it’s been put out there before – was that actually at one point Heath Ledger was very much emerging and so was Jake [Gyllenhaal, for the role of Christian]. And I remember Heath and Jake, the idea of Christian being a much younger character…both of them could have played it in different ways. It just became clear that this idea of the age difference was probably putting a pressure on that wasn’t exactly right. But the beautiful story is, and they often tell it, is that they became great friends and bonded over almost getting that role. I mean, when I look at [the footage I have of them] and I look at Heath and Jake – they both sing beautifully. Jake’s got a beautiful baritone, I think, but Heath sang beautifully as well, and you know, that’s just one of those moments that happens in the journey where you go, like, ‘Wow. Well that would have been different, too.’ But Ewan and Nicole were just perfectly matched for that role. It was very like, it’s a perfect match in Casablanca, you know, between Bergman and Bogart.”
Catherine Martin: “One of the first things we did was build a scale model of what we believed was our version of the Moulin Rouge and filled it with scale people to see how that number of people would feel. (Now, we would do all of this in 3D and computer.) And as a result, we shrunk the size down, because it just was huge. Then we went in front of the show grounds in Sydney, at Moore Park [where] there’s a big open area of grass. We went out with sticks and tape and we actually marked out the whole of the Moulin Rouge, using the stick that people use to do surveying and police tape, and we marked out the entire size of it. And we got every single person we could find in the production offices to come and inhabit the space. From then we tweaked the size of it again. The idea of the entrances – like the spinning mirrors for the Diamond Dogs entrance – came from a lot of research about very classical theatrical entrances. And it seemed like a great way of getting a surprising and explosive and an unexpected way of getting our cast into the body of the Moulin Rouge. I think, on our biggest day, we had like 350.”
Luhrmann knew he wanted to give Satine a memorable movie entrance. So it is that she first appears perched on a swing above the main dance floor of the Moulin Rouge, singing a slowed-down first verse of “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” before the horn section kicks in and Satine begins swirling around the room like a glittering circus performer. It’s little wonder both the Duke (Richard Roxburgh) and Christian are entranced. The audience was, too, and the scene, along with Satine’s costume, have become defining signatures for the film. Kidman did the whole scene stunt-free, Luhrmann and Martin explain, and executed it like a pro. (She would break a rib wearing one particular corset during shooting, and take a nasty stumble in her “pink diamond” costume – she handled both incidents “like a trooper” says Martin.) Here, the duo breaks down the moment, how they achieved it, and the many films and styles they drew on to create Satine’s first look, the “Black Diamond.”
Martin: “Baz always starts from the storytelling of the scene, how he wants to stage it. His first question is always, ‘Where are the entrances and exits?’ He is very technical in that sense and very exigent. You know, you can’t have a doorway in the middle of the set that no one ever uses. Because the audience is always just looking at the door, wondering when someone is going to come in. All these things sound obvious. But you’d be surprised how unobvious they are when you’re designing something.”
Luhrmann: “Film’s best entrances, great film entrances, you could do a reel on it. Whether it’s Lawrence of Arabia and Omar Sharif coming out of the desert, or the entrance of Marlon Brando in The Godfather, the reveal. One of the technical things about the reveal [of Satine on the swing in Moulin Rouge!], is that you see ka-bang! and then you see the flitter, and then you see the silhouette of her, and then you see her body, and then you see the hat, and then the very, very last thing you see is the eyes and the face under the hat. So it’s a very slow curtain reveal: Then it’s like, the sparkling diamond. It’s quite technical.”
Luhrmann: “I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we put her in a circus trapeze and we did a trapeze number, but we’ll have to have a stunt person. But Nicole being Nicole was like, ‘No way.’ So she trained with a circus person for a good, I would say, two weeks to do that number and when you see her swing around that’s her. It’s her all the way through that footage. She’s on the trapeze, she’s being swung around, she comes down, she falls into all those guys. So she was 100% stunt-free on that moment. It was just a process of skillful circus rigging and we made the swing as simple as possible, because we wanted it to be all about her. And we also wanted it to be light and flexible and movable and to be a real piece of circus equipment, so that it would be safe as possible. Basically, it was a real stunt leap that we just decorated. I think what’s great about it is that it’s almost not there. It’s all about Nicole and Nicole’s entrance and her spectacular physical confidence.”
Martin: “Nicole’s costume, when she first appears on the swing, is called the Black Diamond outfit. It was very interesting, all our discussion about how to find, and make, Nicole kind of this quintessential and classical heroine. We wanted to maintain that 19th-century feeling of being corseted, but at the same time we wanted to call on a myriad of classical movie heroines, whether it’s Marilyn Monroe or Rita Hayworth – that kind of classic movie glamour of musical movie stars of the ’30s through the ’40s into the ’50s. So the corset shape for Moulin Rouge was adjusted a little bit to have a slightly ’50s kind of bustier feel. You see that in Nicole’s outfits. We then used, from Marilyn Monroe’s costume in Bus Stop, the fish scale pattern as a little nod to her. One of the big great motifs in the design of Moulin Rouge! is the use of the tail coats and top hats, and you’ll see in the costume itself, it actually has tails in the back, and she is wearing a miniature top hat that’s perched on the side. It was a big fashion in the late 19th century. It was considered very sexy and kind of lush for women to wear thin trousers and male costumes. It also plays with the idea of the equestrian, the sexual fetish about women riding horses, obviously. It’s all those things melded to create the ultimate showgirl costume. The first time I saw Nicole in the Black Diamond outfit, she was Satine. I mean Nicole is marvelous to dress for obvious reasons, but she always transcends her costume. She makes Satine who Satine is. The outfit is never as good on a dress stand as it is on her body.”
Moulin Rouge! was something of a sensation in its time. Praise was not unanimous – while the movie is Certified Fresh at 76%, there were vocal detractors who could not get on board with its feverishness nor its earnestness – but it struck a chord with audiences who’d been yearning for an audacious new musical. The movie made $180 million globally and earned eight Oscar nominations, with Martin winning two for Costume Design and Art Direction. The movie’s soundtrack, which included the “Lady Marmalade” cover by Christina Aguilera, Mya, Lil’ Kim, P!nk, and Missy Elliott, went two times platinum in the U.S. and spawned a second volume. The movie’s lasting impact would take some time to materialize, however. Lurhmann did, in fact, help reignite interest in the movie musical, and in the next two decades we would see successful new entrants in the genre like Chicago, Hairspray, Dreamgirls, The Greatest Showman, and La La Land. Moulin Rouge! itself remains beloved by a hardcore group of fans to this day, a passion that Broadway producers are banking on: a big-budget stage show of the movie opens at the Al Hirschfeld theater this month. For Luhrmann and Martin it’s a joyful full-circle moment.
Luhrmann: “We did open in Cannes and that was a spectacular opening, that went terrific. But there was a time when we screen-tested it in a place called Simi Valley, CA, and nothing against Simi Valley, but at that stage we were even wilder up front about the kind of things that could happen in the Moulin Rouge. Now, I’m not going to go into detail, but it was a little bit more in-your-face about the… let’s say “menu,” of erotic possibilities at the Moulin Rouge. So we had this kind of opening sequence in it, and for example, I think there might even have been Grace Jones’ ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ at some point in the opening sequence – we were putting it out in front of an audience and it was meant to be slightly tongue-in-cheek, but I’m pretty sure three quarters of the audience just walked out before the first 10 minutes [were over]. We went like, ‘Maybe we’re just getting a little bit far there. We might have to tone that down.’”
Luhrmann: “Chicago came along [a few years later] and it just meant that we kicked the door in. It took Chicago and a lot of great musicals that then followed afterwards to keep the language going. And I did a celebration of the musical — in fact I can’t remember when — but for the Oscars, with Hugh Jackman and Beyoncé and a whole cast of hundreds as a celebration that the musical was back. Well, that was years ago. When I started out in movies, Star Wars, science-fiction, that was the dominant genre, and the idea that the musical would be commercially successful, I mean, just nobody believed that – nobody– and I only did it because I loved them. But now, for example, Beauty and the Beast I think, did like a billion dollars, and then you go, ‘Wow. The musical really is back.’ Nobody even thinks about musicals being a challenge anymore. I mean, look at The Greatest Showman, look at La La Land. I’m just thrilled that the musical is now not a subject of, ‘Should you or shouldn’t you?’ The subject is: What do you do with it next? How can you keep challenging the form? How can you keep the interest in it?”
Martin: “I’m very proud to have been part of the journey. I’m proud that it’s part of the body of work that I’ve been involved in. And I’m thrilled that it has stood the test of the time and I still meet people to this day that are as enthusiastic about it as they were in the first days of it being shown. In fact, the enthusiasm has kind of grown. And it was quite controversial when it first opened, and it created a lot of polemic discussion about the cutting style, its content, the mashups, all these things. And what’s fantastic is that it truly has continued to capture people’s imaginations. And it’s viewed more fondly now probably than when it first opened. The affection that the audience holds for the title, I think, is extraordinary. [When I saw the new musical] there was every sort of person in the audience and every age group. There were like five standing ovations. Alex Timbers [who directed the musical] has done an amazing job. It’s just great to see young fresh talent reinterpret something and make it relevant again to such a broad population. I mean, there’s nothing to be said apart from the audience can’t be wrong. You just cannot believe how the audience connects to the show. It’s mind blowing.”
Lurhmann: “I think to myself, ‘Well, 20 years later, there’s a live stage musical version now heading to Broadway.’ I’m not doing that – I mean, I had something to do with selecting the young creative team and the new creative team, and they’re not just reproducing the movie, they’re doing radical interpretations of it. So I think to myself, ‘It’s got a life of its own and it continues.’ And you know, when we did it, its impact on fashion and on music, the idea of the musical mashup, that elephant love medley, where they all sing on top of the elephant and all the different love songs are all mashed together… For it to still be around 20 years later, it’s like some child that I guess I conceived and was born and has grown up, and now it’s like run away and fallen in love with an audience, and occasionally it drops by and says, ‘Hi Dad.’ And I go, ‘How you going?’ It’s got a life of it’s own. It really has.”
Moulin Rouge! was released June 1, 2001. Buy or rent it at FandangoNOW.