Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet: On set with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes
The following article originally appeared in the September 6, 1996 issue of Entertainment Weekly.
It’s not improbable that William Shakespeare had someone who looked a lot like Leonardo DiCaprio in mind when he created Romeo, a youthful hero at once innocent and reckless. It is, however, unlikely that he imagined Romeo suffering from Montezuma’s revenge, which has, on this January day, already taken its toll on DiCaprio in a hotel bathroom in Mexico City. His lovely Juliet, played by Claire Danes, is over a bout with the flu that caused production to close for a few days, but her mother, who came down to Mexico to be with her, is just getting out of the hospital with pneumonia. The director, 33-year-old Baz Luhrmann, whose novel idea it was to do Shakespeare in sharkskin, set amid the baroque grime of Mexico City, is sitting in Chapultepec Park, a tissue in one hand and a bottle of vitamin C in the other. The man next to him, doubled over, looking miserable, fighting dizziness by bowing his head to his lap? That’s the cinematographer.
As German shepherds and armed guards patrol the Renaissance-style grounds of Chapultepec Castle, a history museum that serves as the exterior of the Capulets’ home, the omnipresent smog settles over the city below. Crew members paraphrase the local newspaper’s version of a weather forecast: ”The carbon monoxide level will be dangerous, but the dioxide won’t be so bad.”
The challenges of Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, which attempts to combine old language, modern attitudes and settings, South Beach style and Latin exotica, all while shooting on a location chosen for its no-frills dirt cheapness, are considerable to begin with. With today’s coughing and sneezing, they become impossible. Word is passed via walkie-talkies: The set is closing for the day. While the film’s $14.5 million budget leaves little room for running over schedule, the editors aren’t panicked at the prospect of no dailies to screen; they’re all sick as well. ”What can you do?” asks the on-set Mexican doctor. If it’s not the water, it’s ”the pollution, the exhaustion,” the altitude headaches, the nosebleeds, and the stomach ailments. Halfway through the 72-day shoot, the combination of all of the above will knock the crew out of commission for four days.
Sure, the course of true love never did run smooth, but this is ridiculous.
With American accents, sharp camera angles, and a soundtrack that MTV audiences can relate to (the music producer, Nellee Hooper, has worked with Madonna and U2), R&J, which opens in October, is hardly the project Twentieth Century Fox had in mind when it contacted Luhrmann two years ago, after the release of his critically acclaimed Australian comedy Strictly Ballroom, and told him to write his own ticket. ”They got very nervous,” admits Luhrmann, whose first step was to lure DiCaprio to Australia for a run-through of an early script soon after the actor’s Oscar nomination for 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
The director, a former dancer who glides across sets, dresses for work in immaculate linen suits, and is given to such pronouncements as ”It will be abstractly clear,” wasn’t an instant hit with DiCaprio, and it wasn’t simply because he could offer only scale wages. ”Most of the movies I do, I don’t get paid a lot of money,” DiCaprio says. (”Maybe I shouldn’t say that,” he adds quickly. ”People will get used to not paying me a lot of money.”)
“At first I thought [Luhrmann] was on the pretentious side. But then you start to get to know him and he’s exactly what you want a director to be. Because actors are, you know, completely insecure. They need attention all the time.”
Danes, cast at 16 when she was hot off TV’s one-season succes d’estime My So-Called Life, may have gotten more attention than she bargained for; she was called back to read for Luhrmann and DiCaprio several times. Anxious about showcasing a very young actress, Fox nixed then-14-year-old Natalie Portman (Beautiful Girls), after the director had searched “for months all over the world. I saw hundreds of people.” Danes was introduced to Luhrmann by fellow Australian director Jane Campion — who had auditioned her for The Portrait of a Lady. At one of their first meetings, Luhrmann recalls, Danes “had just come from an Elle shoot, and she had so much makeup on.”
But DiCaprio was impressed. “She’s a really mature girl for her age,” says the 21-year-old leading man. “She was the only girl when we did the audition who came straight in my face to do the lines. She said them looking at me right in the eye. And some of the other girls did, like, the affected flower thing. You know, they stroked their face and looked up and tried to do things with their eyelashes, and it was not nearly as truthful as Claire’s performance.”
Truthful is a buzzword for a young cast that’s eager to have its say with the Bard. “Most kids my age think Shakespeare is like, ‘This is stupid, I don’t get it,’ you know?” says Jesse Bradford, 16, who plays Romeo’s servant Balthasar. Waiting on the Mexico City soundstage where interiors are being filmed, he plays with one of the silver rings he bought nearby for pennies. “If you put it in modern terms with guns instead of swords, and cool cars and stuff…[it] will clear up a lot of confusing Shakespeare mumbo jumbo.”
Danes avoided any bewilderment by studying the play with her high school English teacher in L.A. the semester before she headed south. “I didn’t necessarily study my character, but the odds and ends of the play itself, to get past the initial fear of having to play Shakespeare,” says Danes. “Juliet’s situation is pretty desperate. She has parents who neglect her, and she doesn’t really have any friends. The material is so dramatic and extreme. One minute I’m getting married, and the next I’m dying. There’s no in-between, which is wonderful. It’s exhausting.”
DiCaprio was attracted to the idea that the film would have a timely edge: “I wouldn’t want to do it if it [were done as usual], because that would be BS,” he says, digging into an enormous vat of caramel popcorn and wiggling around in his chair like a golden-retriever puppy. “If you’re excellent at every little verse, if you’re perfect, then it’s like a high school play or something.”
Danes, dressed for the costume-ball scene, attempts to maneuver into a chair without bashing passersby with the angel’s wings that are sprouting from her back. DiCaprio stands nearby, chatting with the makeup artist who’s applying his powder, the wardrobe person who’s making sure the lint on his pants looks just so, the production assistant who’s lighting his cigarette, and the bodyguard, the back of whose neck bears the tattoo from his last job, “JDTD” (“Johnny Depp to Death” didn’t fit). A representative of Dolce & Gabbana, one of the film’s clothiers, circles the set — an elevator where Romeo and Juliet will exchange their first kiss. DiCaprio, who seems in a perpetual hyperkinetic frenzy, and Danes, who maintains an apparently unshakable state of serenity, have become unlikely friends. When they finally step into the elevator, his hair and makeup are fussed with so much it tests even Danes’ patience, and her unoccupied hands start to roam. “Uh-oh,” she says, looking up with the hint of a smile. “I just broke off a piece of the set.” The elevator’s “up” button is reattached, Luhrmann instructs the pair to fly at each other with passion, and the stars obey, coming together with such force that they crack heads and begin to giggle.
The next take is better, but there seem to be 10 more, and then 10 more. DiCaprio rolls his eyes and yawns. “Come on, D, show me a kiss,” Luhrmann encourages his Romeo, who is busy thumb-wrestling with his costar. They kiss some more. “One more!” yells the director.
“It’s the Baz Luhrmann school of counting,” a crew member jokes in a whisper. On what must be take 23, the scene is nailed. “The amount of kisses that are in this movie is astonishing,” says Danes, whose onscreen parents, Diane Venora and Paul Sorvino, are absent, but whose real-life father looks on proudly. “I’m getting kind of used to it.” Although Danes insists that she’s comfortable in the few scenes where she appears topless (she will not be shown from the front), “Claire has to be covered up,” says DiCaprio protectively. And even when the two consummate their marriage, “there’s no real love scenes. We just say a bunch of stuff, and then I roll over in the sheets, and then we wake up the next morning.”
Off in a trailer, a bare-chested John Leguizamo, who plays Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin and Romeo’s nemesis, is being coached in the use of firearms by gun wrangler Charlie Taylor. Taylor’s been working on the film for seven months, creating jeweled semiautomatic guns for the cast, who will battle each other with bullets rather than bayonets (even Juliet packs a Walther P5 compact). DiCaprio’s bodyguard, who knows from such things, affirms that the weapons “are the shit” (that’s bodyguardese for cool).
Leguizamo’s fingers are blistered from practice (he even brings the guns back to the hotel with him, which was apparently no problem even with the president of Mexico staying there; Leguizamo simply strolled through the lobby with the firearms in a brown paper bag). But while he’s gotten the hang of spinning and throwing his black pearl-handled piece, “I have to talk at the same time. I’m going to get performance anxiety, I know it. Someone was watching the other day and I panicked. ‘I can’t get it up!'” Back on the soundstage, DiCaprio, dressed in a blue Hawaiian shirt and slacks, dangles from the ledge of a terrace that is the exterior of Juliet’s bedroom, with nothing but a swimming pool below him. Danes is off taking a chemistry test that her teachers have mailed to her; she’s not needed for the scene in which Romeo flees her room, jumping into the pool and swimming underwater to escape Juliet’s mother.
Luhrmann’s thesis is that water is the one place the lovers can escape the world, but between bathing scenes and rain scenes, DiCaprio has had enough of getting wet. “I’ve been in the water so much, it’s like an aquatic version of Romeo and Juliet,” he says good-naturedly. While the crew figures out how to get him from the terrace into the pool with a minimum of danger, DiCaprio balances on the precipice. “I don’t know if I’m ever getting married,” he says. “I’m probably not going to get married unless I live with somebody for 10 or 20 years. But these people took a chance and they did it. We don’t have the balls that Romeo did.” DiCaprio clings to the rail and begins to moon-walk, a la Michael Jackson. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, crap, Jesus,” he mumbles, as his foot slips through a trellis. “This sucks.”
Down below, Luhrmann lets out a laugh. “It’s very wild, it’s very sexual, it’s about two young kids who have sex and commit suicide,” he says. “But there are ludicrously comic things all the way through the structure. It’s irony where something is both funny yet tragic — you know, you’re crying and laughing at the same time.”
With that, the cast and crew pack up their equipment and prepare for the six-hour drive to Veracruz, where coastal scenes will be shot. The company is excited about escaping to more comfortable climes and experiencing good health. One week later, a crew member calls with the news that irony is alive and well on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “No pollution, no nosebleeds,” she says happily. “Just El Norte winds and killer bees.”