House of Iona

Sydney journal part three

Thursday 16 June 2005

On my last day in Sydney, I check out of the hotel in Potts Point at 10am after a friendly goodbye with the manager John. After a quick coffee at Paradiso, I get a taxi to the House of Iona and wait in the foyer for CM, who is running a bit late. Meanwhile, Amanda’s assistant gives me the bits and pieces I’d asked for, and takes my details. She says that Amanda wants me to sign another confidentiality agreement covering the interviews, and I ask for it to be sent electronically. Sky then takes me up the staircase to the right of the foyer to CM’s wing, which is painted white and carpeted in cream, very light and sunny. CM greets me warmly, and we go out on to a sunny balcony at the back of the house, which has wicker chairs and sofa with white cushions, and a table. CM, who is dressed in black top and trousers, with her hair tied back, sits on the sofa rather painfully, and tells me that she’s just had a baby boy.

I am totally taken by surprise, and cannot believe that Baz has not mentioned this to me. It all suddenly comes together, and I congratulate CM, and ask if he has a name. She says he’s called William, and that she’d had a crisis about him being called Willy (rhyming with Lilly), but her father had convinced her that it was a good name. We chat about names and parenting for a while before beginning the interview. As she had the baby on 8 June, I am amazed that she is in a fit state to talk to me. Her assistant brings us tea, and we begin by talking about her childhood. She is a bit hesitant sometimes, and is clearly still recovering from the birth. However, she talks revealingly about her background and her working relationship with Baz.

Costume design for 'Australia'
Set design for 'Australia'

About 45 minutes into the interview, her nanny comes out onto the balcony with the tiny newborn baby in a body cradle strapped to her front. We carry on talking, until Sky arrives at 12pm to ask whether we’ve finished. CM says we can continue for a while, so we carry on talking until 12.30pm, when there are sounds of CM’s mother arriving for lunch. Sky comes back, and I ask if we can just finish discussing the last question. We do so, and Sky comes back after 5 minutes, as I pack up to leave. CM asks whether they’ll see me again, and I say that maybe I can return to do some ‘fact checking’. I tell her that it has been a dream of mine for a long time to talk to her, and she is pleased by the compliment. I say goodbye to her, and to Lilly, who appears just as I’m leaving. Sky sees me down the stairs to the foyer, I say that I didn’t know about the baby, and he replies that that was the excitement last week. He asks me if I have all the things I need, and hopes that I feel the long journey was worth it. The receptionist calls me a taxi to the airport, where I arrive at 1.15pm in plenty of time for my flight back to Melbourne.

I’m left with the feeling that I’ve had an experience that will not only enhance the book, but has enriched my life immeasurably.

© Pam Cook

House of Iona

Sydney journal part two

Wednesday 15 June 2005

The next morning I decide that the outfit I wore yesterday (black cropped trousers, black T-shirt, snakeskin jacket and blue sneakers) was a bit too casual, so I wear the Indian embroidered jacket bought on Monday at a local boutique. I have coffee in the morning at the Paradiso, and go over my notes to decide which areas I need to follow up with Baz at the second interview at 3pm today. Although we covered a lot of ground yesterday, there are still a few questions that need answering. I take a taxi and get there a bit before 2.30pm, so take some movie footage of the House from Darley Street. As I do so, a woman comes out in a black car, and looks at me suspiciously. I go into the House for the third time, still experiencing it as entering a magical environment.

Sky shows me to the Red Room, where there are people having a meeting. He asks me to wait, and goes to check with Amanda. He returns eventually to say they will find another room for the meeting, and asks me to wait again. A little later, the meeting is moved, and Sky ushers me in to the Red Room. It has a high ceiling with even more elaborate coving than Baz’s office. The walls are painted red, and there is a large brass modern chandelier in the centre of the ceiling. Sky leaves me alone to look around. I ask if I’m allowed to take photographs, but he says I should check with Amanda. I decide it would be too intrusive and take detailed notes instead.

Baz in the Red Room

Once again, I have the strange sensation of being in a dream. Here I am, at the heart of the Bazmark operation, thousands of miles away from home. The Red Room is full of memorabilia from the films and theatre productions, the walls are covered with photographs and objects, including the original Hawaiian shirt worn by Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet, suspended behind glass. There are also black and white photographs of Marilyn Monroe. Bureaux and shelves along the walls display all the trophies and awards (apart from the Oscars), together with personal photographs of Baz and Amanda’s late father with his second wife, and their glamorous grandmother. There’s a nice photograph of Tristram Miall, the producer of Strictly Ballroom, and a soft-focus, black and white glamour photo of Nicole and Baz on the Chanel No. 5 shoot, signed ‘Karl’ [Lagerfeld]. A framed faded newspaper article reports the controversy caused by the 1981 television docudrama Kids of the Cross devised and co-directed by Baz (he obviously had attitude from an early age).  I like the fact that this is not just a trophy room, but has a personal memory dimension. I notice four BAFTAs displayed prominently at the front, and five fake bottles of Chanel No. 5, from small to large. I’m just writing this down, when Amanda comes in and talks me through the items and the function of the room. She points out the shield from early work on Alexander the Great hung on an unused door, and a piece of signage from Romeo + Juliet — black-on-yellow ‘Add fuel to your fire’ from the petrol station scene. She also describes how the Hawaiian shirt was bought at a Fox auction.

That shirt

She tells me the room is used for meetings, and for film screenings. There’s a projector in the room, and a drop down screen in the bay window at the opposite end, which also houses video and DVD equipment. The bay window is covered by blue and red striped silk curtains, which are pulled to, presumably to hide the room and its contents from intruders in the back garden. The room is lit by electric light. In the centre is a red velvet couch and an armchair facing one another. There is another small red velvet couch against the wall, under some Strictly Ballroom posters and artwork. I ask about the room being used for rehearsals and recording. Amanda says that they do occasionally use it for sound and music recording (Moulin Rouge!), after taking everything out. She leaves me there, and I continue looking around until Sky comes to get me (it is by now 3.05pm).

He shows me in to Baz’s office, and Baz gives him some stuff to photocopy. After exchanging friendly and warm greetings, Baz asks me if a meeting with CM has been organised: ‘She’d love to talk to you’. I say I’m not sure, and we get down to the interview straight away. Baz is far more rumpled today, wearing a blue argyll sleeveless pullover over a long-sleeved shirt, and definitely unshaven. By contrast, I am a bit more dressed up in my new jacket. We go through my questions, and in the middle of the interview he gets up and goes across the room to get some of the concept books to show me. I’m worried that the recorder won’t be able to pick up his voice, but decide that he projects well enough. Baz brings over two leather-bound books, one very large, and sits on the arm of the couch to show me images from the pre-production and workshop period of Romeo + Juliet, including shots of Natalie Portman and Leonardo DiCaprio under water, and later images of Claire Danes and Leonardo together. I have seen copies of the book in the archive, but the real thing is amazing. Baz also shows me the larger book, relating to Alexander the Great.

During both interviews, Baz gets up a couple of times to act out what he is saying. In the second interview, I ask him about the ‘One day I’ll fly away’ film on the Special Edition DVD, where in some parts Nicole has a different hairstyle from the one in Moulin Rouge!, and Ewan has a moustache. Baz shows me the concept book for Moulin Rouge!, in which there are early pictures trying out different hairstyles for Nicole and a moustache for Ewan. He moves closer to me, to the arm of the couch where I’m sitting, and later he sits next to me to show me the early concept book for the next film, the Australian epic. Although I’m slightly disconcerted by this, I’m struck by the fact that he does not intrude on my personal space, and that I feel comfortable with his actions. I suspect this is the key to his good relationship as a director with actors.

'One Day I'll Fly Away'

As Baz shows me the concept book for his next film, it becomes clear that it will be a western, on an epic scale, dealing with the history of Australia’s indigenous people and the Chinese immigrants. He describes a more classical narrative structure, and the history of Australia’s own ‘Pearl Harbor’. The book includes images of landscape, and it has Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe appearing on several pages. Sky comes in at 5pm, and again Baz indicates that we can have a bit more time. I wind up the interview shortly afterwards, and Baz asks Sky if he has managed to set up an interview with CM. Sky says he has mentioned it to her, and Baz asks me whether I can do it now, or am I too tired. I say I am tired, I can do it now, but doesn’t CM have childcare responsibilities (thinking of their daughter Lillian). Baz looks quizzical, and asks about Thursday am. I say I have to be at the airport at 1.15pm, but if CM could spare me an hour in the morning, that would be great. Baz telephones CM then and there, and asks her if she can see me between 11am and 12pm tomorrow, and she agrees. Baz also asks Sky to give me anything I may need: the Red Curtain box set, the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack etc. I thank him, and he says he recognises my commitment to the project, and the fact that I want to get it right. We say goodbye, he shakes my hand, saying ‘I enjoyed it’. I thank him for giving up his precious time and for his pearls of wisdom. As he goes up the staircase, he says that CM will probably question what he’s said, and ask whether he even understands the meaning of the words he used.

Designer Catherine Martin

Sky sees me out and helps me to get a taxi again. I get back to the hotel, unable to believe my luck. I’m actually going to talk to one of my all-time heroes.

© Pam Cook

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