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Yo! Romeo!

The director of 'Strictly Ballroom' catapults 'Romeo and Juliet' into the 20th century and transforms Mexico into a fantasy world's Verona Beach.

July 21, 1996|Shasta Darlington | Shasta Darlington is a researcher in The Times' Mexico City bureau

MEXICO CITY — In the predawn darkness, a Las Vegas showgirl, an Arabian sheik and King Nero in a purple-sequined gown carouse in the garden of the sacred Chapultepec Castle here. The castle--home of many former presidents and, legend has it, the site where a heroic military cadet once threw himself off a turret while wrapped in the Mexican flag rather than let invaders capture it--is now home to a Fellini-esque costume party.

This is "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet," the movie: a wild fantasy combining classical images and MTV culture, in which hipsters in bulletproof vests speak Elizabethan English.

In this famous party scene where Romeo and Juliet first meet, Australian director Baz Luhrmann draws viewers into the decadent upper circles of a "created world" he calls Verona Beach. The gaudy costumes, pulsing neon lights, castles and fast, futuristic cars speak of ostentatious wealth and power.

When the director of the 1992 hit "Strictly Ballroom" first concocted the idea of a "created world" as the movie setting for the 16th century "Romeo and Juliet," he said he wanted to use guns, 1970s rock 'n' roll and a palm-lined paradise to echo the violence and romanticism of the classic tragedy and make it more accessible to today's audiences.

Contemporary fashions and weapons transport the rivalry between the Montagues and Capulets into the 20th century--in what may be the most outlandish interpretation yet of the family feud. The Montagues, a loud, rowdy Anglo family, appear in bright Hawaiian shirts, carelessly brandishing pistols. The Capulet boys speak with Latino accents and are more subdued in dark clothes, fashionable bulletproof vests and expensive accessories such as silver boot heels and pearly gun hilts.

At the castle, Luhrmann looks on as Verona Beach's youth dash around the party waving guns and belting out Shakespearean lines under neon arches and Greco-Roman statues.

"The idea behind the 'created world' was that it's a made-up world composed of 20th century icons, and these images are there to clarify what's being said, because once you understand it, the power and the beauty of the language works its magic on you," the 33-year-old director explains.

During a short break, Luhrmann seeks refuge in his trailer, wrapping himself in a ski parka against a freak cold front blustering through Mexico's capital. In Veracruz, 267 miles away, 120-mph winds have tossed part of his next elaborate beachfront set into the Gulf of Mexico.

"This is a 'Blade Runner' kind of place," Luhrmann says, relaxing against the trailer settee. The comment is equally applicable to the violent, brash fantasy setting he created for his movie and to Mexico itself.

The storm, in fact, was just another--and perhaps the mildest--evil to beset the crew during its four-month shoot in Mexico, which ended in mid-April. One of the makeup artists was kidnapped and held for $400 ransom, cast members were mugged and half the crew came down with a virus that landed producer Gabriella Martinelli in the hospital and stopped production for five days.

Luhrmann and company had turned to Mexico in their search for a tropical locale for the script's mythical Verona Beach. With a $14-million budget, they naturally looked south of Hollywood.

Mexico--with skyscrapers layered over its ancient ruins, Indian campesinos living alongside armed drug lords, and a sturdy faith in religion and family--was not so different from the hotblooded, contradictory world Shakespeare portrayed, Luhrmann concluded.

"I wanted to create a place where religion mixed with politics, . . . a place with a degree of mysticism. An armed society where a small percentage of the population is fantastically wealthy. A place with an enormous underclass. . . . In Mexico City these elements are very alive," Luhrmann says at the foot of the imposing Chapultepec Castle and its extensive grounds.

His production designer, Catherine Martin, adds: "Verona Beach and Shakespeare's Verona are supposed to be worlds where religion is important, where obvious wealth isn't embarrassing, where honor is a really big deal. All those elements exist in the real world, but they don't exist totally in combination--except in Mexico."

Luhrmann, originally a theater director, emerged from virtual obscurity with "Strictly Ballroom," his first film. The campy fable about romance and artistic independence in the world of Australian ballroom dancing was a surprise box-office success.

Afterward, Luhrmann signed a three-year contract with 20th Century Fox and received a flood of scripts and visits from big-time actors.

But Luhrmann didn't want to leave his theater roots behind; he turned to Shakespeare--"a great storyteller," he says. In 1993, he directed a critically acclaimed version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for the Australian Opera.

Then, in 1994, Luhrmann and "Ballroom" co-writer Craig Pierce pitched their idea for "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet" to Fox.

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