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MAKING OF: STRICTLY BALLROOM (1992)

BY ANDREW L. URBAN
Dance, any dance, releases our passions and fantasies, makes our hearts beat and our sweat break out; but what if it's illegal? Naughty? Passionate? Wonderful! Untamed, dance can lead to....revolution.

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 satire.

"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 mum.

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 new budget."

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 across." Luhrmann 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 themselves."

"It is, in that respect, entirely universal, while being microscopically specific."

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 contribute."

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 that.

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STRICTLY BALLROOM

REVIEW

FIRST REPORTED: 13/5/92

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3rd IN NEW SERIES:
11/6/98: The Making Of is a unique and historic series of articles on a selection of Australian films such as this one that were made BI (Before Internet), or at least before Urban Cinefile was launched. All the films covered in this series can be found in the FEATURES ARCHIVES menu page, listed alphabetically under MAKING OF

We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the Australian Film Commission in helping to publish this series.

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Making of BLACK ROBE

Making of ANGEL BABY

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