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Cozying Up With Baz Luhrmann

Photo by Jack Gould

Also in this issue: Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème reviewed by Steven Leigh Morris

Chief among the Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s talents is the power to seduce, so why am I surprised this past November when he insists we share a cramped love seat? “It’s the only comfortable place to sit,” he says, forcing equal parts enthusiasm and charm through an almost comically pronounced accent. Luhrmann was in L.A. promoting La Bohème, his outré take on Puccini’s classic tearjerker, which opened last week at the Ahmanson.

For reasons unexplained yet entirely fitting, Luhrmann is in a room at the Standard, the swanky neo-retro hotel downtown, where the shagadelic décor seems made to measure for this moment. I’m half-wondering if a circular bed is about to descend from the ceiling, when Luhrmann — shifting his weight so that his loose-fitting shirt rises to reveal a tanned tummy — says, “Ask me anything” — long pause — “I always have a point of view. It may not be right, but it’s my own.”

Right.

Like Franco Zeffirelli, who is something of an unacknowledged godfather to him, Luhrmann is a class-A romantic with nostalgic leanings. He favors source material full of high-octane emotion and creates Big Statement productions by piling on the details. Though Luhrmann started as, and remains, a creature of the theater, most Americans know him as a film director. And whatever their differences, all his movies — Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge — look just great. But detractors say that Luhrmann — who jettisoned his given name, Mark Anthony, in favor of a childhood nickname — and Catherine Martin, his production designer and, since 1997, his wife, elevate the superficial über alles. They fuss over every outlandish decorative element — a giant electric sign proclaiming “L’Amour” in La Bohème, for instance — to the point of preciousness. They’re like Merchant and Ivory after too much absinthe.

Yet for all the control he exerts, Luhrmann, 41, insists he remains dissatisfied with his work. “I never get it quite where I want it to go,” he says. “I get about 50 to 60 percent of what I want. It’s never been entirely as I’d hoped it to be.”

Luhrmann’s Bohème was Broadway’s hottest ticket for a while last winter, but the production closed sooner than most observers expected. “We all thought it would run longer,” the director says, suggesting that the lingering effects of 9/11 were responsible for the decline in interest.

Few expected Bohème to tour after that, and Luhrmann himself seems chary of banking on its future success. “There’s enough to do a few months per city,” he says, unnecessarily adding, “I’d be sick of it if I were spending six months on it.”

It’s almost as if Luhrmann were afraid of once more growing too attached to this show. “It’s very unlikely it will be done again in the U.S.,” he says, discounting the possibility of the L.A. run generating outside interest.

That’s ironic, because La Bohème has been part of Baz Lurhmann’s life pretty much since there was a Baz Lurhmann. It was the first significant work he ever staged. “In the ’80s, everyone wanted to be in opera,” he says. “It was groovy.”

And though the present staging owes its capitalization to the success of Moulin Rouge, which Luhrmann calls a postmodern Bohème, its inspiration comes from a production of the opera Luhrmann directed for the Australian Opera a decade and a half ago.

“The commission was to understand something of the energy of when Bohème premiered,” he says. To that end, Luhrmann took a bunch of fin-de-siècle Parisian bohemians and set them down amid the far more modern world of Sartre, Camus and Beauvoir. This mise en scène may lack the uninhibited glamour of Moulin Rouge, but it has a raffish charm all its own.

Luhrmann attributes his growing distance from Bohème less to boredom than to something more elemental — he has recently become a father. “The resonance changes,” he says. “We really understood the bohemian catch cry. Now, as I’m older, I understand that does not sustain you in an adult life.”

And yet Luhrmann can’t sever the bond completely. “The reason La Bohème is universal is that if you’re young, you dream of that life. If you’re in your 20s, you’re having it. If you’re past that, it’s good to be reminded of it.”

As the late-afternoon sun ebbs, Luhrmann rises from his cozy perch. He seems distracted. Perhaps he is thinking of his bohemian past, or the tug Puccini exerts.