Strictly Ballroom, Australia's hot ticket at the 1992 Cannes
Film Festival is all about dancing passion and revolution; it
stars the Sydney Dance Company's tall, dark and handsome Paul
Mercurio as Scott Hastings, the budding champion ballroom dancer
who dares to step outside the Dance Federation's strict
guidelines. He challenges the rules, takes on the establishment -
and wins. Of Course.
"It's how we tell the
story that matters," Baz Luhrmann
Director Baz Luhrmann doesn't mind revealing the ending,
because with the film he has made, audiences will probably guess
how it ends at the very beginning. "It's how we tell the
story that matters," he says.
How indeed. With all the foot-stamping bravura of the paso
doble and the swirling romance of the waltz, dressed in the
flamboyant wardrobe of competition ballroom dancing. However, the
film is not a procession of dancing couples, but a story of the
lone individual against the status quo, full of humour and
"Borrowing from the
old golden Hollywood style - but twisting it"
Established actors Bill Hunter and Barry Otto help the process
with glowing performances, and newcomer Tara Morice plays Fran,
the ugly duckling who partners the dashing Scott (after clearing
up a skin condition). Spaniard Antonio Vargas appears in a juicy
character role, and the late Pat Thompson plays the eternal stage
Borrowing from the old golden Hollywood style - but twisting
it - Luhrmann has gone out on a limb to make a movie that rejects
naturalism, grabs the emotions and runs away with the prize.
Other than Vincent Ward's Map of the Human Heart in a
work-in-progress screening, it's the only Australian feature film
to be selected for the Festival, given the same high profile slot
that Madonna's "In Bed" enjoyed - Sunday midnight.
Luhrmann, a dark haired, intense, articulate and energetic
young man blessed with self confidence, has never directed a film
before, although he has certainly made a name for himself as an
opera director. In 1990, his version of La Boheme for The
Australian Opera sparked superlatives from critics; and he is now
preparing for a Benjamin Britten work for 1993.
"We said, no, we'll
get ourselves a new budget." Producer Tristram Miall
When producer Tristram Miall went looking for production
finance from the Film Finance Corporation, "they looked at
the A$5 million budget and a first-time director, and said; 'get
yourselves a new director.' We said, no, we'll get ourselves a
The budget was revised to A$3 million, FFC funding (with some
private money) was raised, and the director stayed. He convinced
Miall that he was the right choice. For one thing, Luhrmann had
co-written the script (with Craig Pearce) and had directed a
successful stage production of it, but he also impressed Miall
with his professionalism.
"The team, as he calls
it, is always prepared and thorough, in a way you rarely come
on Martin & Marron
"He invariably works together with designers Catherine
Martin and Bill Marron: the team, as he calls it, is always
prepared and thorough, in a way you rarely come across."
Luhrmann, once an actor, finds that "preparation is not
only highly enjoyable - while the production process is
terrifying and exciting - but if you have a strong plan, it gives
you improvisational freedom."
He worked with Marron on storyboards, and the consensus is
(among those in the industry who have seen it, including this
writer) that he and cinematographer Steve Mason have realised an
accessible and exciting visual style.
"He also had the balls
to say he wanted to direct it." Miall on Luhrmann
Miall had been led to the project by his late partner, Ted
Albert, who had seen the stage production. "We tracked down
Baz, who is an incredibly impressive, articulate person. He said
yes to the film idea, but he also had the balls to say he wanted
to direct it."
Trained at Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art,
Luhrmann and a group of friends with ballroom dancing backgrounds
developed the idea for the original story. He had grown up in the
country where his "introduction to fantasy was ballroom
dancing. There was travelling and glamour...they worked all day
and then got all dressed in fantastic gowns to dance at night.
They'd spend their weekends travelling from place to place,
competing. You had to be passionate to do that."
Luhrmann's mother taught ballroom dancing, not ferociously, he
adds, but socially. As for the real ballroom dancers, their
reactions to the play had been positive and riotous: "they
recognised it as accurate - of other people, not
"It is, in that
respect, entirely universal, while being microscopically
Of course, the story is not only about ballroom dancers or
dancing, but people and politics at the everyday level. It is, in
that respect, entirely universal, while being microscopically
specific. Hence its invitation to Cannes.
In fact, Luhrmann explains that for the creators, it even had
global resonances: "It sounds incredible, but we did it at
first in response to the Cold War...it was a statement that the
individual is not ALWAYS without power." He says that's why
it should not be seen as savage about the Dance Federation (which
it is) but more "savage about human nature".
"Without the Albert
family's ongoing help, it would never have been made."
Shot over six weeks last May/June in Sydney, Strictly Ballroom
was exceptionally difficult to sell to financiers and
distributors. (With the exception of the NSW Film & TV
Office, who provided tangible development and valuable moral
suppport.) Ted Albert, of the musical family, died at the end of
1988, at a crucial stage in the financing. Without the Albert
family's ongoing help, it would never have been made.
It also took two years of workshopping and development to hone
the screenplay, funded largely by Miall's M & A Film
Corporation. In 1990 at Cannes, everybody was interested, says
Miall, "but nobody would commit." Likewise in
Australia, the only distributor prepared to take it on was the
small independent Ronin Films, after Luhrmann virtually played
out the script in its Canberra offices.
"It proves ... that
Australian creativity does have something unique to
Reflecting on the film's selection for Cannes, Luhrmann says
he is tremendously pleased, but more for the sake of the people
who had faith in him, than for himself. "I feel it
vindicates the investors and all the team who worked with
me." It proves to him that Australian creativity does have
something unique to contribute, and we should be confident of