The curtain lifted: Baz Luhrmann, CM and me

In 2005 I spent three months in Australia on a research trip for my monograph Baz Luhrmann, the first book-length study of the director’s life and work. I lived in Melbourne, which I loved, and I made three trips to Sydney to interview Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin (CM) at their production base at the House of Iona in Darlinghurst, just as their second child was born. I also spent several happy days in the Luhrmann personal archives, housed in a Sydney lock-up, sifting through original research materials and documents. I was lucky — academic researchers are rarely allowed this degree of access to filmmakers and their operations. Luhrmann, Martin and everyone at their company Bazmark were extremely welcoming and helpful – I gained a unique insight into their Australian context that increased my awareness of the significance of their local background to their global productions. The six hours of interview material were integrated into the book; I kept a journal, previously unpublished, of what happened during my visits to the House of Iona, posted here in three parts.

House of Iona

Sydney journal part one 

Tuesday 14 June 2005

I arrive at the House of Iona a few minutes before 4pm to meet Baz for our first interview. I’m excited and a little nervous, but looking forward to meeting Baz in person. The book project has been fraught with difficulties since the beginning, but the fact that I’m finally here means that it was meant to be. Not for the first time, I’m reminded of the Bazmark motto: ‘A Life Lived in Fear is a Life Half Lived’. It has the ring of a fairy tale, and I remember when I came to the House two weeks ago to meet Amanda Luhrmann [at that time Bazmark’s chief administrative officer]. I had just been watching the House of Iona episode on the Behind the Red Curtain disc in the Special Edition box set, where entry into the House is presented as a magical journey into an enchanted creative world. As I passed through the front gates into the tree-shaded courtyard where a rococo stone fountain sparkled, and I saw the ornate wrought iron balconies on the first floor, I had the sense of walking into a dream. 

Bazmark company logo

This feeling intensified as I was shown into the foyer. I sat on a red velvet couch covered in exotic cushions opposite a grand piano. The foyer was flanked by reception and a large kitchen on the left, and Amanda’s office on the right, while ahead a wide entrance covered by a red velvet curtain led to Baz’s office and the Red Room, and a large staircase. A corridor to the right, housing shelves carrying hundreds of CDs, led to another staircase up to the first floor, whose balcony was visible from the foyer. As well as the piano, the foyer was home to the Ganesh elephant, the Hindu god to whom prayers were offered before shooting began on Moulin Rouge!. Another memento was there in the form of an original poster of John Huston’s 1952 version, hung behind the red velvet couch. Next to the couch was a small coffee table covered in trade film magazines.

John Huston's 'Moulin Rouge' (1952)

Despite having seen Baz’s tour of the House on the DVD, I found it difficult to work out the spatial organisation. The House appeared larger on the DVD, and had the ambience of a gothic mansion, surrounded by an overgrown tangled garden separating it from the outside world. In reality, though it was more domestic in scale, it retained this strangeness, the sense of a heightened created world that is central to Baz’s work. This was my first live experience of the way he collapses the boundaries between art (theatre) and life, and not just in the films. To an extent, of course, we all do this, but Baz’s work demands that we acknowledge the creative process.

My return to the House today feels no less magical. As I wait on the red couch opposite the grand piano, I notice that it’s covered with bouquets of flowers. When I comment on them, Baz’s assistant Schuyler (Sky) tells me that he thinks they were sent to Catherine last week. I know that CM is expecting to give birth very soon, and I assume that they were sent to wish her luck. As well as the flowers, there’s a pink plastic tree with many branches that looks as though it may be an Indian fertility symbol. However, my mind is on the interview, and Sky shows me into Baz’s office to wait for him. I take the mug of peppermint tea, made for me by Amanda’s assistant, with me.

The room, painted white, has high ceilings with ornate coving and ceiling rose. To the left is a large, Victorian-style desk with green leather top. The room is divided into two areas by a couch, which faces a large fireplace with a white marble surround, on which are perched mementoes of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, one of which is a small plaster statue of the Virgin Mary. There are also a couple of miniature elephants. Two armchairs are on either side of the fireplace, with a low coffee table between, where I put my mug of tea, sitting on the couch, which is covered in red velvet. Four large clocks on the chimney-breast wall tell the time in Los Angeles, New York, Sydney and London, and I feel their presence strongly. A few minutes after 4pm, the door opens and Baz comes in, greeting me with a friendly smile, which I return. I thank him for taking the time to see me.

He looks relaxed and arty in a silver grey suit, with lilac silk tie loosely knotted and shirt collar open. His hair is silver, cut short in what I like to think of as Greco-Roman style, with curls on the forehead. He has a slight stubble. He sits in the armchair to the left of me, which has a small table draped in red fabric decorated with gold elephants on his right. He asks whether I’d like coffee or tea, and I reply that I’m fine. Sky goes off to get Baz a coffee, while I start to talk to him about the book. He remarks that he’d like to know what I want to do, as it’s a creative enterprise. I’m encouraged that he understands this, and I say that I want to tell his story, but that I’m coming to it as an outsider, to which he responds that this could be a good thing.

Baz Luhrmann

I tell him about the structure of the book, and then ask if he minds if I use a voice recorder. He comments that he will try not to mythologise too much, as he is a great mythologiser. He has a strong voice, which will be easily picked up by the recorder. I begin by re-winding in time to his childhood, asking when he first discovered a passion for theatre and performance. This question throws him slightly, as he is used to being asked how he came to make movies. He relaxes as he begins to talk about his early life, his experiences at NIDA [National Institute of Dramatic Art] and so forth. As I listen to him, I am struck by how handsome, even beautiful he is, and that he’s very slim and slight in stature. He gesticulates quite a lot, and sits cross-legged in the chair. Although I’ve decided not to talk much, I get drawn in to his discussion of his ideas, and we start to have an intellectual exchange, which we both enjoy.

At one point, as I raise the question of the Sydney context for his work, he suggests that I should meet his wife, CM. I reply that I think she may have other things on her plate (meaning the pregnancy) and he responds that they have a few days’ grace when it comes to the baby, and he will get Sky to set it up. I am, of course, delighted, and express my gratitude. We get on very well as the interview progresses, and when Sky comes in at 6pm to remind Baz of his next appointment, Baz says that we will be about another 10 or 15 minutes. I wind things up in 10 minutes, and Baz reiterates that he will ask Sky to set up a meeting with CM. He shakes my hand and says that he enjoyed our chat: ‘I do enjoy a chat’. We go back to the foyer, where Amanda is talking to someone. She suggests that I come half an hour early the next day to look at the Red Room. We talk about the archive for a while, she gives me a DVD of the Chanel No. 5 film and two versions of the ‘Film du film’, and then asks Sky to walk with me to Darlinghurst Road to pick up a taxi, so that I won’t be accosted by kerb crawlers. Apparently they approach anyone, including her, no matter what you look like.

Directing 'No. 5 The Film' (2004)

When I get back to the hotel at Potts Point, I have a bad headache, which indicates that the day has been stressful. However, I remember it as an engaging and productive experience, and I enjoy listening to the recording before I go to sleep. I feel that Baz has been very open with me, and exceptionally helpful, as indeed has everyone at Bazmark, and that the Bazmark collaborative ethos is genuine. 

© Pam Cook

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