Australian director Baz Luhrmann is best known for his films The Great Gatsby, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! Most recently he created a stage version of his 1992 hit film Strictly Ballroom, now playing at the Sydney Lyric Theatre. I caught up with the 51-year-old to chat about the hurdles he overcame to create Strictly Ballroom The Musical, working with his Oscar-winning wife, Catherine Martin, and fatherhood.
You’re known for being a perfectionist. What was it like creating a stage musical of Strictly Ballroom?
Well, it’s not perfect, and that’s what makes it sort of human and enjoyable. You can work on musicals for years and years, but they’ve got to have a beating heart. If they’re born dead, you’re in trouble.
What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome?
Musicals by their very nature are so labour intensive because you’ve got everything in there: drama, music and visual design. You have to deal with the book, the text, actors and performers. You’ve got to act, sing and dance. And if they [are successful], they never go away. I mean, at any given moment someone is doing The Sound Of Music [around the world]. Believe it or not, live stage musicals way out-gross Titanic or the top-grossing movies. A lot more people see them because they run forever. I mean, Mamma Mia! has run for 10 years.
Out of all your films, do you have a personal favourite?
No, they’re like children [laughs].
Do your children know what you and Catherine do?
They know what we do but they are so over it! [Laughs] … I took my daughter to Paris and we were sitting in the front row of Valentino’s show and she got in the car after and said “dad, do you think mum has got dinner ready yet?”
Will your children follow in your footsteps?
CM [Catherine] and I are like any parent – we don’t know. But I say, “being a doctor would be really good” [laughs]. Lillian loves music and Will, he is obsessed with animation … Obsessed!
Has he inspired you to ever do animation?
Yeah. I mean, I’ve been asked to do animations a lot and I got very close. It’s just we do so many things and I’m just stretched.
Are you a hands-on dad?
Yeah. CM isn’t so much the physical-play person so I love to do that … I was brought up in a family business. So I prefer just to drag them along [with me] and if they’re bored, too bad!
Are you a strict or lenient parent?
Compared to my father, are you kidding? This will ruin my fatherhood, but I have to pretend [I’m] a character. I’ll take my character and I’ll be like “Never do that again!” [laughs]. But the fundamentals must be there and the most fundamental thing is love. And it’s not the quality of time [you spend with them], it’s the quantity. Even crappy times with the kids, they know about time. Lilli comes and sits in the theatre and she gives notes and walks around. I mean, she is very respectful. She loves being in the theatre.
Has she ever said “Dad I don’t like that” and you’ve taken her advice?
I don’t flip it … But when I was working on a song for Strictly Ballroom with David Foster, a really brilliant lyricist – Lilli has got a great ear for music; she is never rude about things, but sometimes she just doesn’t connect – I played it and she said “Dad, it’s perfect”. Of course, I’m her father and I’m like, “Oh! My girl loves the song.” But their innocence is valuable in terms of reacting to things because they’ll go, “Ah! Boring.” They’re not very good at pretending to like something – particularity vegetables.
Being married to an Oscar-winning costume designer, does Catherine ever help with what to wear?
No. I’ve always dressed myself. I’ve always had a pretty good sense of clothes, so we never do that. The only thing is I might text her saying, “what colour are you wearing tonight?” so we work it out if it’s an event.
What is it like working together?
Well, it’s all we have ever known. Nothing has changed, ever. Like you always end up in bathrooms.
Yeah. Increasingly, it’s the only place we get privacy because we are surrounded by so many people. It doesn’t matter how big a house or which hotel. We just always end up locking the door and really having the big meetings in the bathroom.
If you had not gone down the road of directing, what career path would you have followed?
The truth is that I have been doing this since I was 10. Having said that, I was going to join the navy at one point, because my father was in the navy. And if my fantasies are running away, the only thing I’m really interested in is archaeology. I’ve always had a fascination for that.
When you make a film, do you conscientiously think about how the audience is going to react?
I really do. I really care about how people react. I don’t make my films for critics because I think there is a way of getting ticks and crosses … whether you like Madonna or not, she is Madonna. She’s had a massive cultural influence. Take Marilyn Monroe or Kylie [Minogue], for example. When they came out, there was a ridiculous amount of negativity, but they are cultural influencers. Take the Beatles. The review for the Beatles was like, “They will last five seconds.” Now, they’re considered classical musicians … What our work will mean, I don’t know, but I do know that through time and space it has prevailed. Moulin Rouge was the only film that has been re-reviewed by Entertainment Weekly; they re-wrote the review 10 years later … He said, “I totally got it wrong”. I mean, good reviews, bad reviews, you can’t live by that because if you ever start engaging in it, you start to listen, and if you start to listen, you get lost. What you should do is listen to your heart, people that you love and the audience.
Will you ever slow down?
I bloody well hope so. Every day I think of retirement.
How would you spend your days?
Probably I’d be there five minutes and the next thing I’d be helping Will put on a little theatre show that would probably turn into a little animated video game, which would probably turn into this video game empire, and I’d be his side kick. I am seriously trying to make something that the kids can be involved in.
WE WENT TO The Royal of Darlinghurst, Darlinghurst.
WE ATE Smashed eggs with seasoned avocado on sourdough.
WE DRANK Skim cappuccino and a latte.
For video footage of the interview see smh.com.au