STAR CROSSED Lovers
Baz Luhrmann’s iconic Romeo + Juliet is 20 years old this week. Here, those involved take a look back at the evolution of a VERY modern classic
Shakespeare’s plays were the dry stuff of GCSE English Lit – until 1996, when Baz Luhrmann’s hyper-modern adaptation of Romeo + Juliet changed our perception forever. Starring rising talent Leonardo Dicaprio and Claire Danes – the teen actress we fell in love with in My So-called
Life – as literature’s most famous starcrossed lovers, the film smashed every rule for how the Bard’s work should be treated. The action was transported from ye old Verona to the fictional presentday Verona Beach; the arch-rival Montagues and Capulets became gun-toting mafia empires dressed in cargo pants, Hawaiian shirts and kitsch bulletproof vests, and the soundtrack featured the likes of Radiohead and Garbage.
The result was a violent, neoncoloured adrenaline surge that brought Shakespeare’s words to life for a new generation – and made Leo the hottest actor in Hollywood, a role he cemented the following year as the equally doomed Jack in Titanic. It won four BAFTAS and received an Oscar nomination, as well as launching a triple-platinum soundtrack. Twenty years after its release, heat brings you the complete history of the making of
Romeo + Juliet, in the words of those who produced and starred in it.
Getting Shakespeare off the ground
Director Baz Luhrmann: I had a deal with Fox [after his 1992 debut Strictly
Ballroom became an unexpected hit] and I was able to choose exactly what I wanted to do next. I’d always wanted to do a version of Romeo And
Juliet. Shakespeare’s plays touched everyone, from the street sweepers to the Queen of England. He was a rambunctious, sexy, violent, entertaining storyteller. We tried to make the movie rambunctious, sexy, violent and entertaining in the way Shakespeare might have if he were a filmmaker. The studio was onboard-ish, but it was a battle to get it made.
‘Leo and Claire had crushes on each other, but stayed professional’
Leonardo Dicaprio (Romeo): Baz proposed this idea to me of doing a contemporary Romeo And Juliet and I didn’t get it at first. But then we explored a lot of different ideas and we finally pinpointed the most important parts of the play, which were the violence, the two opposing families and love triumphing over hate. Then it started to feel very real.
Finding the leads
Baz: There was no one else but Leonardo for Romeo. I saw him and basically went, “If he can act as well as they say…” Then I saw him act and he was Romeo. John Leguizamo (Tybalt): I just hated Leo. I’d walk in front of the camera, and he would do my line, “Thou or I must go!” all screechy, so then I’d become really self-conscious. It came so easy to that little blond, happy, golden boy. He’d smoke a cigarette, do some laps, do a Michael Jackson impersonation, go on the set and there it was.
Baz: With Juliet, I searched the world. Natalie Portman [who was 13 at the time] was in the first workshop with Leonardo and she was fantastic. But next to Leonardo, she looked about two years old – she’s a tiny little girl and Leonardo is six feet tall. [Director] Jane Campion, who lives near me, said, “Have you seen Claire Danes on My So-called
Life?” I went, “Wow, that girl has tremendous maturity.” Claire was clearly so in command of her gifts. She and Leo were like sister and brother, and yet their chemistry was so defined. Claire Danes (Juliet): Leonardo is a wonderful person, complex and charismatic. He is a lot of other things, too. He knew which buttons to press. I think I was scared of him and he was scared of me, and that created a useful tension for the movie.
Baz: There were arguments between Leonardo and Claire. Sometimes they were like two kids on holiday. John: I think Leo and Claire had crushes on each other, but they kept it all very professional. Nothing was ever done. And that’s great, because when you consummate an attraction, you defuse the tension on the screen. Claire: The first scene we filmed was the morning-after scene, where Romeo and Juliet had just made love, so there we were, shirtless. It was one way to break the ice.
Messing with a classic
Baz: I wanted our audience to forget that Romeo was about to meet Juliet. I was in a nightclub and saw a fish tank outside the toilets and I went, “This is perfect. The men’s bathroom is the last place an audience is going to expect Romeo to see Juliet for the first time.”
Leo: Some people criticised the movie. You know, like, “You can’t do that to Shakespeare.” But Shakespeare was a genius. I’m sure if he was alive, he would have been totally behind what Baz was trying to do. Catherine Martin, production designer: Verona Beach [which was created as
a fictional hybrid of Mexico City, Miami and LA] and Shakespeare’s Verona are supposed to be worlds where religion is important, where obvious wealth isn’t embarrassing and honour is a big deal. All those elements exist in the real world, but they don’t exist in combination – except in Mexico [where it was filmed].
Baz: If you take a city in South America, the idea that gangs are carrying guns and they’ve got religious iconography is not too far-fetched.
Costume designer Kym Barrett:
Costume-wise, Romeo and Juliet have such huge historical baggage. I kept them in very plain, simple clothes. He always wears blue, she almost always wears white or pink. I thought that these simple tones would emphasise the idea that they are like spectres, the ones whose hold on life is the most tenuous of all.
Claire: I was sitting there about to go and do the balcony scene, and I was like, “What am I about to do? I’m about to say, ‘O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?’” And I’m thinking, “This is a joke, right? How do I do this in a fresh way?”
Harold Perrineau (Mercutio):
Baz wanted to make sure that we found very American-sounding voices for the characters. So, even if we were saying these very Old English sort of words, you’d still understand the pattern. Once, I was trying to find this sort of rap rhythm, and I remember doing this Biggie Smalls thing, and I was like, “Where da caaash at?” Baz left it in the film, which I thought was really funny.
Surviving the shoot
Paul Rudd (Paris): [The on-set partying] was a little more wild than it needed to be – Dicaprio’s best friend walking around the hotel naked, asking the security guys for a key to his room, and we’re sitting there filming it.
Claire: One night at a nightclub was insane – a security guard just picked a fight with one of Leo’s friends who was visiting from LA.
Leo: I went in once I saw things heating up. When we got back out, my friend was messed up. His ribs were broken.
Baz: It was the most adventurous time in Mexico. We had hurricanes that wiped out the set, and we all got sick – shooting had to be shut down for a week while I had a temperature of 110º. Then the hair and make-up person, Aldo Signoretti, was kidnapped. We paid $300 to get him back, which I thought was rather a bargain.