Leonardo DiCaprio and Clair Danes in Baz Luhrman’s “Romeo and Juliet”

by Thomas Beller

06/01/2000

Mexico City

Neighborhood: Across the River, Letter From Abroad

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Bewitched by the Charm of Looks (II chorus)

"Good morrow!" Leonardo DiCaprio calls out as he arrives on the set of Romeo and Juliet.

"Good morrow!" reply a several burly crew members who are struggling with a large piece of equipment--their biceps strain to lift it, but their smiles are easy. Their glance in Leonardo's direction is, I think, somewhat loving. The teeming set is like a village, and he has entered it like a prince surveying his subjects. Leonardo is wearing tight black pants and shiny black shoes and no shirt. He has a torso like a vanilla wafer. His shoulder blades protrude. A cigarette dangles from the corner of his mouth. His blond hair is tousled in a just rolled out of bed way.

He walks over to look at the fish tank which will be the center of the next shot, and around which several fish managers are gathered, sprinkling bits of food into the tank and trying to keep their little stars happy. The fish are exotic, bright, colorful... and experienced: they appeared in Golden Eye, the last James Bond film. They swim around, gulping, the only living things in the whole sprawling place who are oblivious to the presence of Leonadro di Caprio.

The set is located in huge cavernous sound stage, a dark cool airplane hangar located in Mexico City. The movie is being shot in Mexico City because, to be blunt, the Peso has just collapsed and the place is more or less on sale. But, considering the movie, there are atmospheric advantages as well.

For one thing, Mexico City is Seven Thousand Feet above sea level, and the air is very thin, and so everything here is a little dreamy. Clowns with baggy pants and big red noses roam the streets, performing skits at stop lights and then frantically running among the cars trying to collect some loose change before the light turns green. Every establishment that looks like it might have any cash at all is guarded by a man in a uniform holding a very serious looking rifle. Not a hand gun, a rifle. All of the city's taxi's are Volkswagen Beetles. They are all painted the same mint green. When was the last time you saw more than two Volkswagen Beetles on a single block? This city is swarming with mint green Volkswagen Beetles. <

But that is all in another world, the world of Mexico City. We are now on set, a compound of sound stages MGM built in the 1940s, in the heart of Mexico City. Being on a movie set is like being inside a fantasy bubble. Even when things are loud and chaotic there is a slightly hushed quality, as though everyone knows they are living in another dimension.

Bazz Luhrmann, the director, walks over to Leonardo and they both stare at the fish together. Lurhman is a scruffy 33 year old Australian with rings on his fingers, and what looks to be a small piece of scrap metal dangling from a leather string around his neck. His long curly hair has been subdued into a pony tail, which is coming undone.

"Very very pretty," says Luhrmann in his Australian accent, and it is not entirely clear whether he is talking about the fish or Leonardo.

"Hello little fishes!" says Leonardo. He waves at them and starts making faces. They gulp and swim around. Luhrmann looks like he has been drinking heavily while sitting naked on the beach for five days and nights without rest, which is to say he looks at once relaxed and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. "Today is the fish," he says. Bazz is the reason we are all here. This is his Romeo and Juliet.

"Hello fishies!" says Leonardo again, and a muscle twitches somewhere in his back, a little tremor, as though he just had a thought.

On, Lusty Gentleman! (I iv)

Romeo and Juliet is famous for being about young love. First love--perfect, unpolluted by doubt or previous experience. The sort of love one could die for. But it has another prominent theme: Stupid violence. Stupid violence is the kind that blows up because you have caught someone's eye on the subway, and eye contact is somehow conceived to be aggression. Or it is tribal, the sort of unquestioned hate that passes from generation to generation. There's a lot of stupid violence around these days, which is slightly different from violence that has some sort of political context, like students getting shot at Kent State protesting the invasion of Cambodia (not that this wasn't stupid), or Policeman rioting on the lower east side and smashing the heads of punk rockers who have taken over Tompkins Square Park. Instead we live in a time of ambivalent anger--the anger is clear, the target is not. So Romeo and Juliet's feuding Capulets and Montagues make a contemporary kind of sense--they hate each other because they just do. In some ways Romeo and Juliet seems like the perfect contemporary fable, a story of children with fast cars, of dysfunctional families, and terrible misunderstandings.

I corner Bazz in his office and demand explanations. Shakespeare did not mention a fish tank in his play and yet here it is. He did not mention very powerful handguns, or souped up hot-rods, or towering statues of Jesus Christ that sit in the middle of Avenues and rise up as high as sky scrapers. But such are the items that populate this Romeo and Juliet, which takes place in a mythical city called Verona Beach, somewhere in South Florida. Juliet's family, the Capulet's, are Hispanic, and Romeo's family is Anglo.

Verona Beach is a cross between Scarsdale and Scareface, with a little Blade Runner thrown in. Romeo and Juliet are likable but fucked up rich kids who travel in a rough crowd. Luhrmann's last film was Strictly Ballroom, a highly stylized and slightly surreal look at competitive ballroom dancing, which had the quality of a technicolor dream, realism pumped up on adrenaline and bright colors.

Verona Beach has this same quality. "This isn't the future or the past," says Bazz. "It's the Elizabethan world in 20th century images--few rich many poor." Every movement he makes, ever syllable he pronounces, contains a certain kind of manic urgency, as if he and only he knew the entire world was going to explode in a matter of hours, and he has to race to communicate the only thing that will save us.

"Romeo is definitely the first Rebel without a Cause," he says. "I often think about how Shakespeare would have made a movie today, and let me tell you..." An appealing defensive-aggressive energy exists within Lurhman on whether he is defaming Shakespeare with this movie. "Shakespeare was writing for an audience that wouldn't shut up. He had to keep them entertained. He wouldn't be precious if he made this movie. He wouldn't have Juliet sitting around the kitchen table drinking tea and talking about her problems. In this movie she's either committing suicide, fighting dad, taking drugs, or having sex..." his voice trails off, and a sad and somewhat disappointed look comes into his eyes.

Apparently there is some uncertainty about just how much sex can be put in this movie. "I was a shocked by the level of censorship involved in making movies in America," he says. I understand this to mean that if a Hollywood studio is going to provide you with fifteen million dollars to make a movie, they make it very clear they do not want an X rating. He vaguely hints that there may be a different, less prudish cut for the European market.

She doth teach the torches to burn bright! (I v)

Claire Danes stands before the fish tank. The scene being filmed is the moment when Romeo and Juliet first lay eyes on one another. In the traditional Romeo and Juliet, the two lovers first see each other across a crowded room at a masked ball. But this Romeo and Juliet is not going to be traditional, and anyway, as Bazz is quick to point out, Shakespeare wrote the play with hardly any stage directions. Every word in the movie will be Shakespeare's. But the location, the setting, the visuals, that is open to interpretation.

Claire is staring at a fish. She's at a disco, in the ladies room, and on the other side of the fish tank is the men's room. Techno music thumps in the background. There is no dialogue in the take, just her expression as she looks at a fish and then catches the eye of this handsome young man staring at her from the other side of the fish tank. Bazz keeps making her do it over. The word "action" is followed by silence. Her face undergoes the shock of seeing another person, and gradual pleasure spreads over it as she takes in the man she sees. Leonardo is off in his trailer. She is on her own with Bazz and the fish and the breathless crew, who are so silent during each take you can hear the fish tank's bubbles. Finally it is a keeper, and she retreats to her trailer, where I visit.

Everyone on the set calls Leonardo "D". Everyone calls Claire "Claire." On some deep emotional level, Claire makes it instantly clear that you don't fuck with Claire Danes, even though she never shows up before lunch because she is still in "school" and spends her mornings huddled over homework with a tutor. It's not the sort of thing you can affect; some people, like Leonardo, are light. Others are heavy. Claire is heavy, in the best sense.

"About a week into the movie Leo came up to me and said, 'How can you be so still?'" she says, reclining in jeans and a sweatshirt. She looks vaguely punkish, a potential vandal, someone with an agenda. "Sometimes I can be too still, and serious, and persnickety, and I have to make a conscious effort to goof-off and chill out." Asked to describe the difference between her personality and Leo's she says, "I sort of glow, and Leo is like a string of firecrackers that keeps going off."

Having caused something of a sensation in My So Called Life, she moved to Los Angeles with her parents two years ago, having grown up in Manhattan. She says she intends to go to college, "somewhere east of the Mississippi." She cites Jody Foster as a role model. "I could keep working, but I want to be educated." As for Juliet, she falls in love, has sex, takes drugs, dies.»

"It's a demanding role," she says with characteristic understatedness. "All the more so because the script is by Shakespeare. In normal situations you are allowed a little bit of ad libbing, maybe a 'You know' or something small, but not here." At the same time, the words are her savior. "The direction of the play is embedded in the words, the way they rhyme, the emotion of each line is so explicit." And speaking of explicit, I ask her about sex. "Well," she says, "I've had more loves on camera than off."

Oh, I am fortunes fool!

Every day in the late afternoon a group of people gather in the dark cool interior of the screening room to watch the rushes. The rushes are snippets of film that were usually shot the day before. In watching the rushes, the grand scale of movie making shrinks down to closely resemble the weird giggly atmosphere of home movies. The thing you were doing just earlier that day, or the day before, is suddenly right there on the screen. I am forbidden to see the rushes. Perhaps this is because rushes are all about mistakes and imperfection. They are about twenty different version of the same shot, only one of which will make it into the movie.

Nevertheless, I see a herd of movie people grazing off together, and I naturally follow to see where they are going.

They are going to see rushes. The first rush that we see is when John LeGuizamo, who is playing Tybalt, dies. Tybalt dies by the sword in most renditions of Romeo and Juliet, but in this new modernized version he gets shot by a handgun that would make Dirty Harry blush. ( or: shot with a very groovy looking gun that seems sufficiently heavy and powerful that Arnold Schwartzenaeger himself would grimace if he had to lift it.)

In the first rush Leguizamo stands there while several bullets rip into his torso. Little bits of blood explode on his chest. His face goes slack and incredulous - "Am I to die?" his expression says - and he falls backward in slow motion.

This happens again. And then again. They seem to have shot about twenty takes of Tybalt being shot and killed. I get to watch all these little variations, not just of Leguizamo's compelling expression, and the interesting percussive quality of the way his body shivers as each bullet rips into it, but also the interesting way that the little blood capsules explode on his chest, showering blood in different directions. There's a lot of murmuring and concern, as each take is scrutinized. I come to understand how technically difficult it is to die in the movies. In each take there are tiny but visible imperfections. In one Leguizamo seems to be shivering from the bullets before the bloody bullet holes appear on his chest, for example. In another, his facial expression doesn't seem very convincing. Having gotten through the Tybalt death scene, the next rush is of Romeo uttering his famous line: "O, I am fortunes fool!"

The line requires quite a bit of anguish. It is delivered in the midst of the pouring rain. The screening room, still buzzing with discussion about Tybalt's death, becomes quiet, and Leonardo appears on screen, hair tousled, white shirt open at the collar, large sexy gun in hand. He has just killed Tybalt.

When it rains in the movies, it pours. It rarely drizzles. Rain in the movies usually emulates a shower. And this is because rain in the movies is a shower. Here is Leonardo standing on the screen, waiting for the film to role and for the director to shout "Action!", and at some off camera command, the shower - I mean the rain - commences and he is suddenly drenched in a downpour of biblical proportions. "O, I am fortunes fool!" he exclaims. He seems wretched, wracked with guilt at his impulsive murder of Tybalt, and very wet. It seems like a good take to me, but it is not good enough, because all of a sudden there is Leonardo again, his hair dried off an re-tousled, standing up there on his little platform, gun in hand. The shower commences, he utters his line, more anguish, very convincing but, Lo and behold, the scene seems to have been re shot ten times. Each time Leonardo gets drenched, and then reappears in the next take dried off, hair more or less as it was.

Seeing the same short scene over and over is an interesting experience. You start to notice details. For example each time the director yells "Cut!" Leonardo hops off the little platform he is standing on. We don't see the platform, just this little jump, as though he were standing on a milk crate. And this little jump becomes incredibly expressive. And on the last take, after he has been soaked and emotional and said his line ten times in a row, he takes yet another hop off the platform he is standing on, but this time he does it with a little delicate leap, very girlish and comic, as though he were making fun of a ballerina, and the whole screening room erupts in laughter. It really is funny, and I don't mean to torture you, dear reader, with this tid-bit that will not under any circumstances make it into this movie, but my god it was funny. And so impromptu!

Death's Pale Flag (V iii)

It's later that night, and it is time for the men's room shot. It's Romeo's turn to spot Juliet through the fish tank. The scene is set up so that before he starts staring at the fish tank, Romeo dunks his head in a sink full of water. There are two extra's in the scene, who are peeing side by side in urinals. They are wearing elaborate costumes and are heavily made up. All this for a fleeting second in the background. An attractive woman with black hair and a very short white dress - so short that the slightest breeze would reveal much - appears on the set. She is fawned over and attended to, and for a moment I think that perhaps she is a Mexican movie star, local royalty, here to visit the proceedings. It turns out she is the woman from Dolce&Gabanna; they have designed the Capulet outfits. This is a designer Romeo and Juliet. She's flown down from New York because, as she explains to me, "I love the cinema."

Leonardo is slumped down in a director's chair, eyeing a buffet of fake pineapples and coconuts, all in garish colors and porcelain, as though he wishes he could eat one. He looks up sleepily, makes eye contact with one of the crew, and slowly, and in a friendly manner, flips him the bird. He reaches out to grab the arm of another crew member as he walks by, and bums a cigarette, which he sticks in the corner of his mouth, unlit. There is a Masked ball taking place, so Leo is done up in armor and chain mail. He moves around within it with jerky motions, like marionette who might at any moment get yanked up and out of sight. Bazz walks him through the scene. He is to dunk his head in a sink full of water, then stare at himself in the mirror, then turn to stare at the fish, whereupon he spots Juliet.

"How does it look, Mr. McAlpine," he calls out to one of the crew before the first take.

"It looks good," replies the Mr. McAlpine. This is obviously some sort of ritual.

"But does it look cool," says Leonardo.

Is Shakespeare cool? There is something blashphemous about the question. Shakespeare is timeless, cool is now. But Shakespeare, in his brilliance, and subtlty, is not fragile. There is something reckless about throwing handguns and American accents into Romeo and Juliet, but then there is something recjless about Romeo and Juliet. Ten takes later there is still no cut. The extras have done their thing, Leonardo has done his thing, but Bazz is not satisfied. In preparation for the eleventh take Leo stares into the sink full of water and exclaims, "Is there going to be a day, a single day, when I don't get wet?" "Think of this as a fabulous kind of death?" says Bazz. "Look at the tank and find a fish. Your face should say, The most fascinating fish is there."

"The most fascinating fish is there," says Leo in a facetious Australian accent, and for a fleeting moment, the whole set tenses up.

Earlier that day I had whispered a confidential question to one of the crew. Is Leo a Prima Donna? "No, not at all," I was told. "He's very nice, very easy to work with." I asked for an example of difficult to work with. "Once, in the middle of Africa, Sean Connery said he wouldn't do any more filming until they built him a couple of holes of a golf course. From scratch."

Finally, it's a wrap, and Leo and I retreat to his trailer. We step inside and sit opposit each other in the tiny living room arrangement. He flops down exhaustedly, and careful rolls down his pants to around his ankles. Then he pulls up his shirt to under his shoulder blades. He is moist. "Always wet on the set of Romeo an Juliet," he sighs, and lets his legs fall way open, knees apart, ankles together. A small peach colored towel is draped over his lap.

"I would say that about sixty percent of the movie I'm wet," he says. "I don't know why. But it's not so bad. There are a lot of takes because of you can't improvise the lines, and also because Bazz is a perfectionist. But that's O.K. Once when I was doing This Boys Life I had to do about twenty takes of me rolling in the mud. I was so miserable I almost started to cry. The director came up to me and said, 'Pain is temporary, film is forever.'"

Eventually it is time for another shot, and we leave the trailer and walk back to the set. It is on these pale shoulders that the truth will be carried, if the movie is to be any good. For a moment I can't imagine this guy in a fever of remorse and regret standing in front of Juliet's casket. But then that's what actors do, right? They act. "Squish squish squish," says Leonardo with every step he takes. "My butt is so soggy."

1994

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