The 2001 movie musical starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor turns 20 on June 1. To celebrate, we chatted with the man behind the moves.

By Ruth Kinane
May 31, 2021 at 10:30 AM EDT

Back in 1997 or 1998 (memory's a fickle friend), Australian choreographer John O'Connell had dinner at director Baz Luhrmann's Sydney home, alongside Luhrmann's co-writer Craig Pearce and producer and costumer designer (and also Luhrmann's wife) Catherine Martin. "We sat around the dinner party and he just had an idea," O'Connell tells EW. "No script, nothing. But he's very persuasive. We had a great dinner party and I walked out and said, 'I think I'm doing another movie.'"

That idea would eventually become Moulin Rouge!, an over-the-top extravaganza of a jukebox musical starring Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman as a writer and courtesan, respectively, who meet and fall in love in 1900 Paris. Released on June 1, 2001 in the U.S., the film mixes a variety of musical styles including vaudeville, cabaret, stage musicals, and opera, and borrows music from famed musicians like Elton John ("Your Song"), Queen ("The Show Must Go On"), The Police ("Roxanne"), Madonna ("Material Girl"), and Nirvana ("Smells Like Teen Spirit"). With each of those numbers comes a selection of explosive, seductive, and electric choreography. That's where O'Connell comes in.

Having worked with Luhrmann before on Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet, in addition to a number of stage shows, O'Connell had some idea of what he was getting himself into. "My best time working with Baz is when it's just the two of us in the room and we have a butcher board with pieces of paper and we just sketch out ideas," says O'Connell. "The great thing about Baz is I've never actually heard him say, 'that's too much.' Often the producer will come in and say that, but not Baz. It's very freeing. If you want to use your imagination. He's very supportive of that."

Knowing he had the freedom to go wild, the first step for the choreographer was research. Out of the 18 months O'Connell spent working on the movie, the first three were spent going through old movies, picking out elements he thought might interest the director. "It was great actually, because Fox gave me access to all their old and their rare movies which you cannot get in the mainstream," he says. "It was crazy stuff, like even pre-Busby Berkeley. I remember seeing a movie with Ann Sothern and Laurie Chevallier. They did this crazy number on a boater hat — a straw hat — that then turned into a hundred straw hats, and then the biggest straw hat you'd ever seen with a hundred people dancing on it. It really was like, 'So what drugs were these people doing?' But that sort of suited Baz." All that research — including taking Argentine tango lessons and doing Indian classical dance lessons himself along the way — then became a background that he would subliminally take into the rehearsal room with him to see what would come out of it.

O'Connell ended up incorporating about 10 distinct styles of dance, from tango to Bollywood-inspired movement, vaudevillian-style dance, and Broadway-esque numbers. "It was fantastic because there aren't a lot of films made where you are asked to do such a broad scope of things," he says. Luckily, since the spectrum was so huge, O'Connell had built in rehearsal time to teach the 70-plus dancers he had toured the country auditioning, as well as the lead actors. "I worked with Nicole for a few months, every morning for a few hours, just one-on-one," he remembers. "We had an almost two months rehearsal period, which is quite rare. We took over Fox studios, which is the big, state of the art film studio here [in Sydney]."

No matter how much rehearsal they dancers did, they always had to be adaptable to change. O'Connell can't credit the dancers enough for their focus and ability to pick up the choreography quickly. "I know that I was very lucky," he says of the dancers he selected. "Because of course, you would get on set and Baz would say, 'Actually, I think we should do it coming down the stairs. I want that red dress in the front, the thing over there, blah, blah, blah.' So the dancers have got new partners, new music, new choreography, and they're doing it down the stairs — and they've got 20 minutes before they shoot. You really need special people to do a film on that scale."

Credit: Everett Collection

He also cites the can-can girls as another example of the dedication the core dancers exhibited. They'd often have to a call time of 3 a.m. for hair and makeup, then be on set by 6 a.m. to block the cameras, and at times not even start shooting until 4 p.m. "And then they've got to stand up and dance like their life depends on it."

The dancers weren't the only ones that impressed O'Connell. The choreographer was equally wowed by Kidman, who he describes as having an "incredible presence." Indeed, it was the actress' bravery that allowed for her to descend into her first scene in the movie via trapeze. "She's crazy — in a good way — and you can see it in her career," says O'Connell. "She doesn't play safe. She jumps in and takes the risk. That trapeze is incredibly high and she just went up twice and said, 'Yep, I'm good.'" That bravery led her to do throw lifts in her first number, "Sparkling Diamonds," too.

Credit: Everett Collection

McGregor may have had fewer dance sequences to master than Kidman, but when they were together in rehearsal, there was a whole other obstacle for O'Connell to overcome. "I often had to ask them if they wanted to end their giggle fest, or if not would they mind leaving the room," he remembers fondly. "But it was great for the script that they had chemistry."

Credit: Everett Collection

Another treat to work with was Kylie Minogue, who plays a small but memorable role as the Green Fairy in an absinthe-fueled hallucination. "Kylie is a saint," says O'Connell. "She spent the entire day in a harness and didn't complain once. I absolutely adored her. She was just heaven."

As far as the rest of the cast were concerned, some of them were more nervous to dance than others, but O'Connell found a way of bringing their inner rhythm out of them. "Jim Broadbent was absolutely and utterly terrified — but that's okay!" he says. "I've worked a lot with actors and what I usually try and do is approach it in a different way." O'Connell divulges that he essentially wrote subtext for every move, like a script that an actor can relate to it. "The idea is to get them relaxed so they're not terrified of dancing, because once they think it's dancing, they think it's something they can't do," he explains.

Perhaps the most iconic dance scene in Moulin Rouge! comes when Satine (Kidman) is trying to convince the all-powerful Duke (Richard Roxburgh) that she loves him, not Christian (McGregor). While Satine finds herself in trouble with the Duke, the dancers — aware of the romance between Christian and Satine — act out a tango depicting jealousy. Set to a remix of The Police's "Roxanne," the resulting sequence is hair-raising in its intensity. "The feel in the room was just dynamite," remembers O'Connell of the scene, which took 10 days to shoot. "A lot of the makeup ladies said, 'We have to go outside. We can't watch it,' because they were all in tears. They were so overwhelmed by it. There was something about that. Sometimes you can do the right steps, you can have the right costume and… It's like baking a cake, but the cake just doesn't cook sometimes. But with the tango, it cooked." Indeed, the result was so delicious that 20 years later the dancers in that scene still approach O'Connell to tell them how much the choreography — some of which was born from improvisation in the rehearsal room — thrilled them.

They weren't the only ones moved by the number. When the movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards at the 2002 ceremony, O'Connell happened to bump into the man who wrote "Roxanne" — Sting himself. "We were going to the Governors Ball and who's standing behind me, but Sting," says O'Connell, who promptly shared with the rockstar that he'd choreographed the dance to his song in the movie. "He said, 'Oh, you did? Come here,' and he gave me this great big hug and we walked into the Governors Ball arm around my shoulder like best friends."

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