Seeing red

Nick Smurthwaite speaks to Moulin Rouge production designer Catherine Martin about the forthcoming film starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.

Who in their right mind would attempt to make a big budget film about the Moulin Rouge in turn-of-the-century Paris using music by Elton John, Madonna and Sting?

Possibly the same team that made a film about ballroom dancing in Australia – Strictly Ballroom – and relocated Romeo & Juliet from Verona to gun-toting Los Angeles in the 1990s.

There is something about all these films, like them or loathe them, that makes you warm to their director, Baz Luhrmann. His flamboyant determination to fly in the face of Hollywood conventions makes each of his new films more eagerly awaited than the last.

Luhrmann’s latest, Moulin Rouge, which opened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, mixes computer animation with precise period accuracy to produce a rollercoaster ride through what was, in its day, the most notorious nightclub in the western world.

It is also a love story involving a rich duke, an impoverished writer and the beautiful star of the Moulin Rouge. The making of the film was beset by problems: Luhrmann’s father died on the first day of shooting, Nicole Kidman injured her knee and broke two ribs and an 18m-tall fake elephant – the film’s most precious prop – was crushed by mistake.

‘It was a constant battle of faith and tenacity to get it made,’ says production designer Catherine Martin, who is Luhrmann’s wife. ‘It wasn’t as much fun to make as Strictly Ballroom or Romeo & Juliet, but I suppose you could say it was a growing experience.’

Luhrmann set himself an almost impossible task – to evoke the excitement of the Moulin Rouge in its 19th century heyday, but in the form of a 21st century pop music video. Even Martin thought he’d over-reached himself. ‘I thought a proper period movie was one where you weren’t conscious of real time. For instance, in the Judy Garland picture Meet Me In St Louis, which was meant to be set in the 1890s, it was obvious that it was made in the 1940s, so it didn’t work as a period movie.

‘Luhrmann felt we should sweep away that narrow perspective on what a period film ought to be. His idea was to create ‘real artificiality’, a place where breaking into song would feel natural. I’ve never liked musicals where people throw their arms up and start belting out a song. The songs were going to be more conversational, more like dialogue,’ adds Martin.

For the look of the film, Martin thoroughly researched the original Moulin Rouge. ‘It was a tough assignment because the building has been burnt down several times over the years, and all we had to go on, were some photographs and written accounts of the time.

‘In late 19th century Paris, anything went. They called it eclectic exoticism. It wasn’t considered unusual to have an 18m papier mâché elephant in your garden,’ she says. Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge were at the epicentre of the City of Lights, just as Studio 54 was the hip place to be in New York, 70 years later.

Luhrmann’s main aim was to communicate the dizzying excitement of being there to a modern audience, regardless of the finer points of historical accuracy or, for that matter, taste. ‘Luhrmann always says that taste is the enemy of art,’ says Martin. ‘You can be so bound up in your own pretensions that you can’t see the wood for the trees. When I started out as a designer I made all these rules for myself, like never using brown, which were ridiculous. You have to be able to overcome your self-imposed prejudices. They’re just protection against what other people are going to think of you.’

It’s glaringly obvious that Luhrmann and Martin are making the films they want to make, not churning out celluloid sausage-meat to feed an insatiable commercial beast. Their vision and passion is stamped on every frame.

Strictly Ballroom, made in 1992, quickly became a cult classic, with its fairytale-for-adults narrative, exhilarating choreography and life-affirming energy. Luhrmann compounded his reputation with Romeo & Juliet in 1996, a bold updating of Shakespeare’s romance acted out by rival gangs in LA. Again, it fizzed with energy and urgency, bringing Shakespeare alive for the MTV generation.

Romeo & Juliet took £98m worldwide, winning Bazmark – the couple’s production company – a five-year contract with Twentieth Century Fox. You can only imagine the horrified reactions of Fox executives when Luhrmann told them his next project would be a £35m musical – the genre has been box office death for years – but you can’t argue with genius, can you?

While the leading members of the cast were rehearsing at the house shared by Luhrmann and Martin in the Darlinghurst district of Sydney, the sets were being built at Fox’s Sydney studios a few miles away. These included several versions of the 18m papier mâché elephant, inside which the singer/ courtesan Satine – the Kidman character – entertains her men friends.

It is referred to as the Red Room, evoking an Arabian gentlemen’s club, with an excess of red satin and velvet. ‘There is a seedy side to the design of the Red Room because Satine is selling sex as well as glamour,’ says Martin. ‘We wanted something that was seductive, sexy and even a little shocking to the contemporary eye.’

The amazing rooftop shots of Paris were achieved with digital technology, giving the viewer a bird’s eye view of the city. But this bird is whizzing through the air at breakneck speed. Being the director’s wife never meant that Martin could get away with any half measures.

‘Luhrmann really pushes the design process beyond normal human endurance. Sometimes I would say “Oh for God’s sake, isn’t that good enough?” You are forced to become as concerned about the design of a matchbox sitting on one of the tables in the Moulin Rouge as you are about the fabric of the dresses He signs off on every visual aspect of the film [but] he is not a despot. We have passionate creative arguments about what we think is right and wrong. He believes collaboration is two people in a room arguing until one genuinely agrees with the other,’ she says.

‘Before I started working in film and theatre design, I tried to be a fine artist. I was a dismal failure because I don’t have it in me to sit in a room on my own with a piece of paper and a pencil. I like the collaborative process, which is what designing films is about,’ says Martin.

While Luhrmann considers the options for their next cinematic enterprise – Moulin Rouge completed what he dubbed his ‘red curtain’ trilogy of films – the two of them are developing a couple of projects for the live theatre. The first is a revival of La Bohème, which Luhrmann staged in Sydney a decade ago when he was 27. This time they plan to produce it on Broadway, probably next year.

They are also working on a stage version of Strictly Ballroom, which was originally conceived for the stage. They are still deciding where to premiere it – London is a possibility. Martin says she and Luhrmann have a particular attachment to the UK, not least because we were more receptive to their vision of Romeo & Juliet than the Americans.

‘The Americans were far more outraged about what we had done to Shakespeare, but I’m sure that’s because the theatrical tradition is more alive and vibrant in England. You’re used to seeing wacky things on stage,’ she says.

Whether or not we are ready for the wackiness and kitsch of Moulin Rouge is another matter. I suspect it will divide audiences into those who enjoy a sensual rollercoaster ride and those who would rather have root canal treatment.

Without revealing which camp I’m in, I leave you with Martin’s creative mantra, ‘It’s human nature to be attracted by extravagance.’

Moulin Rouge opens in cinemas across the UK from 7 September

Latest articles

Remembering Jon Daniel: 1966-2017

We look back on the life and work of the Design Week columnist, independent creative director and social activist “who helped put black participation on the political map”.