Not many film-makers have the guts to tackle the works of literary lions such as William Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but Australian director Baz Luhrmann, with just five motion pictures under his belt, loves nothing more than challenging the status quo. Not only did he choose those two legends’ most celebrated oeuvres for cinematic adaptations – Romeo and Juliet from the repertoire of the English playwright and The Great Gatsby in the case of the American writer. He also turned these canons of English-language literature into imaginative, pop-inflected extravaganzas in which hip-hop, urban culture and modern fashion replaced the quaint piazzas of late-16th-century Verona and the charming soubrettes of jazz-age New York.
Taking a beloved classic and giving it a contemporary twist is Luhrmann’s formula, whether he’s recounting the story of his beloved homeland, Australia, which he depicted in an epic of the same title starring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, or revisiting belle-époque Paris, which he lavishly recreated for the 2001 hit musical Moulin Rouge!, also starring Kidman alongside Ewan McGregor. “I’m the guy who took ‘Your Song’ by Elton John and made opera out of it for Moulin Rouge!” says the director on a sunny afternoon in Paris during the city’s most recent fashion week. “It’s my heartfelt belief that anything that defines culture is what’s classic, what moves through time; that which lasts and touches us has value in culture. I made the decision to use ‘Your Song’ while sitting in a wine bar in Santa Fe. A guy was playing it and I thought, ‘That song is so tired. Every single piano bar player in the world plays it.’ But I went back to Elton’s original recording and realised it’s a great song. You just have to take off the rust and find the heart of the matter again.”
Luhrmann, a showman and bon vivant who wouldn’t be out of place as a performer in one of his highly choreographed productions, is in the French capital for the premiere of Chanel Nº 5: The One That I Want, a video starring Gisele Bündchen. It’s not the first time he has lent his skills to the couture house. Over a decade ago, he directed Kidman in another ad celebrating that iconic fragrance.
In the same way that the director refreshed that famous Elton John tune, he’s once again taking a beloved icon and refashioning it for contemporary audiences. “I’ve only ever done commercials twice and it was for the same brand,” Luhrmann explains. “I don’t even think of Nº 5 as a product. I got into it the first time because I thought that certain things are beyond what they are; they’re culture and Nº 5 is culture. It’s more than a great fragrance. It’s a symbol of the whole company. It’s like the Spirit of Ecstasy on the front of a Rolls-Royce; you just have to find a way of enlivening the flag. There’s no difference at all between a film and an ad because I look at both as a piece of storytelling. It doesn’t matter if it’s Nº 5 or it’s an opera; it’s telling a story, a narrative. I’m a bit cautious about calling this a film because people expect dialogue, and it’s music-driven.”
You may not call it a film but when you look at the far-flung locations, ritzy execution, brilliant photography and – needless to say – couture costumes, it’s easy to figure out that this “non-film” commanded a budget that many directors can only dream of. The video stars a Chanel wetsuit-clad Bündchen emerging in all her natural glory from the ocean in Montauk, on Long Island, after a surfing session (images of the waves were actually shot in Fiji). After a few tender moments with her daughter in her beachfront house, she heads to a photo shoot, in which the photographer is played by none other than Luhrmann. Then she suddenly abandons the set and bids goodbye to the world of glamour to return to her husband, played by Game of Thrones heartthrob Michiel Huisman. The soundtrack is an almost unrecognisable version of “You’re The One That I Want” from Grease by a rising American star, Lo-Fang.
As in all of Luhrmann’s films, music plays a key role; the ad completely lacks dialogue, relying on the song to do the storytelling. “I have a deep relationship with music,” says Luhrmann. “I produced a lot of records under a pseudonym but now I’ve given up. A large chunk of that for this video was done with my music supervisor, who found the piece a year ago. We wanted an artist who was undiscovered and on the way up. A piece that made you think, ‘Do I know that?’ Something that was comfortable but could have the right narrative because in the end the song is a voice-over, the script. Sometimes you start with a text but in this case the song was the script. Music for me often is like running text, script; it’s not that I just look for my favourite songs in my record collection. It’s more about what can serve the film.”
If you were to pinpoint the key elements in all of Luhrmann’s films, music and fashion clearly take centre stage, although never at the expense of the universal values he celebrates in his work. Collaborating with Chanel and other maisons such as Prada, with which he worked for The Great Gatsby, has cemented Luhrmann’s bond with the fashion world but another reason behind this connection is his lifelong working relationship with his wife, Catherine Martin, the costume designer for all of his films. Describing the discovery of the Chanel atelier more than a decade ago as “a dream come true”, Martin, who won Academy Awards for Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, says, “The pleasure is to have access to these extraordinary clothes and to be able to collaborate from the inside because you’re able to be in the moment of understanding who Gisele is as a character, how the atelier and Karl would like for that to be expressed through the clothes. I’m really just a conduit to express Karl and his team’s vision for how the clothes should be seen on Gisele. You can see how attuned Karl is to women and dressing women because Gisele is able to go through so many life stages in that whole little movie.”
As for the role that costumes, and fashion in general, play in his oeuvre, Luhrmann admits to his weakness for beautiful clothes and the importance they have in his work. “We want to say that it’s not wrong to wear a nice Prada jacket and to be socially concerned. Being a feminist doesn’t mean you need to have bad hair,” says the director. “But it’s more about the role that fashion plays in every person’s life because when you get up in the morning, even if you run around naked, it’s still a fashion statement, a symbolism. The moment you put something on, you’re defining your character. You can pick anyone out there on Place Vendôme. Everything they’re wearing is a statement about who their character is; the DNA of character and the expression of character are intrinsically linked to clothes. Fashion often talks about the look, the trend; what’s right and what’s wrong. I never look at it that way. I come at it from a sort of life experience.”
But what is it about Coco Chanel that attracted Luhrmann in the first place? “It’s the narrative of Coco Chanel that I love and I know that period deeply through historical research for Moulin Rouge!. Where she came from, where she went to, how she reinvented herself. She’s a true icon of the 20th century and as a consequence anything with a double C on it has an almost mythological quality. Icons are a bit like ‘Your Song’. They can get a bit rusty. Karl’s genius is that he keeps rebooting and reimagining,” says Luhrmann, who would clearly be the ideal candidate to reimagine Coco Chanel’s life in cinematic form, a task that has so far eluded many film-makers.
Whether or not Luhrmann decides to take on this new challenge in the future, he’s aware that his adoring fans – as well as his critics – have pigeonholed him as the maker of out-of-this-world productions, which makes you wonder if he will ever decide to go back to basics and deliver a small-budget film more akin to an Off-Broadway play than a Bollywood spectacle. “I like to think that with my films I sort of make couture but I want to do prêt-a-porter one day. I’m looking at a way to have a sub-land where I can just go off and leave all the Baz Luhrmann stuff behind and work on other projects. I have to be brave and strong enough to say, ‘I know everyone wants that of me but I’m doing this other thing for my own growth,’” says the unabashedly flamboyant showman, obviously turning to fashion to offer an apt metaphor of his brilliant career.