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Baz Luhrmann wants you to give yourself permission to make art. No excuses.
The creative and recent Elvis director recently partnered with Bombay Sapphire gin to launch a new campaign “Saw This, Made This”, with Luhrmann himself issuing what he calls a “creative call-to-arms”, inviting people to discover the inspiration that exists all around them. “The idea is that you don’t have to have a sign around your neck saying, “I am an artist”,” Luhrmann tells Rolling Stone.
That is, of course, not to say that you can’t call yourself an artist, if you want to. More that anyone can create, and inspiration can be found in ordinary life, if you open yourself up to it. After putting his head down and spending five plus years working on Elvis, Luhrmann admits that he himself can’t just go lay under a palm tree. Even his rest has to involve a different kind of creativity.
The Bombay Sapphire campaign debuted with a short film directed by Juan Cabral, with Luhrmann serving as the creative director, shot amongst the streets of Buenos Aires. But even without his kinds of resources, everyone is invited to capture and share on social media what they see in the world that creatively inspires them, and what they have subsequently made, using #SawThisMadeThis. In 2023, in partnership with global arts organizations in London and New York, including the Design Museum in London, UK, the posted videos and pictures will have a chance of becoming part of a global showcase at the Design Museum. Up until then you can catch the submissions in an evolving online art gallery.
Luhrmann sat down with Rolling Stone to talk making something out of nothing, music functioning as translation in Elvis and The Great Gatsby, and how personal taste is the enemy of art.
Off the heels of the Elvis premiere, why did you shift gears to work on this Bombay Sapphire campaign?
When I make those movies, I live them for years. And this one I lived for five years. I was going back through my files, and gosh, my myriad of press junkets and things like that. I did a podcast with a journalist who wrote an article when I was in-between gigs. It might have been either after Gatsby or before, but it was over 12 years ago. She was at my place, in my Manhattan townhouse, and I was in the process of deciding what to do next. And she reminded me there was a list of things I wanted to do on the wall. There was Guys and Dolls, and actually, Elvis was on there, too. But I said, “would you not put that out there?”. Because the moment that goes out, they’ll always ask, “am I doing it?”. So she wrote it as “iconic rock star”. [laughs]
But it’s been my full time job, five years of my life living and breathing Elvis. So when I come out of it, I have to go on what I call the “methadone program”, which is when you have to get out of the level of adrenaline. You’re very adrenalized during that process. So I like to look at something that might help me settle. But I can’t just go and lay under a palm tree. That doesn’t work.
Does it have to be a creative kind of detox?
A different kind of creativity, yes. So when this opportunity with Bombay came about, one of my big focuses for me, at the age of 60, is to start helping out the next wave of creativity. Lift them up, of course. Because that happened to me, when I was brought up in an extremely tiny country town. Five, seven houses. There were technically 11, but half of them were empty. And we had the local cinema at some point. I just remember there was this government trip of hippie actors that were probably about 18. They came to our little three-room school, and I just remember this key moment where they were like, “okay, let us do a show. Where’s the curtain? The costumes?”. [laughs] We didn’t have any of that. So they said, “alright then, someone say a word”. One of the kids said something like “peanuts”. Then they made a whole story out of that.
In that moment, it just triggered me, and I realized you can make creativity out of nothing. You just have to look at the “ordinary” around you, which is our kind of catchphrase. You either see what’s extraordinary in it, or you rearrange it. The whole initiative is you saw this, made this, or saw this, and recorded it, yeah? The idea is that you don’t have to have a sign around your neck saying, “I am an artist”.
If emerging artists want to use that label, great. But if there’s some mom out there who’s getting her kids off to school, in a continent I’ve never been to — which I don’t think they exist — or some place far away, and she looks at her life, and she goes, “I’m stuck with this pattern. I’m stuck with this obstacle. This is a reality I have to accept.” Just consider, by looking around you, seeing things and doing something, if that doing is expressed through some sort of physical object, or a written piece or expression, or even moving the furniture around your space, you’ve changed something. Even changing that furniture in that space, is using your agency. It’s giving everyone permission to believe that within themselves, they have the power to actually change their lives through creativity.
That reminds me of the tradition of narrative documentary-making, such as the Cuban film Suite Habana, that just depicts the day in the life of 13 people in Havana. Do you think there’s something inspiring to be found in the mundanity of life?
It’s not that it’s inspiring. In fact, we become numb to it. You’ve got to allow your synapses to fire. It might just not happen to you. Some people have more of a facility than others, but you can actually open yourself up to being inspired.
This is a pretty good example — so I’m about 29 or something, and I’m working on Romeo + Juliet. So we were staying at a hotel in Miami, we lived behind Ocean and Washington. This is when Gianni Versace was still alive, and we used to see him going to the Pelican every morning. Miami was quite a jumping off point for Romeo + Juliet, but at that point I was trying to solve the moment of luck in the play. Because in the play, he’s in love with love, and then he goes off to the other family’s party. The whole audience knows he’s going to meet Juliet. And I’m trying to think of a way that can still be a surprise. So we go out, have a few margaritas — I guess, it was Miami. There was an iconic club that’s not there anymore called The Dome. I’m in the bathroom, and when I come out, there’s a fish tank in front of me. And I’m like, isn’t that pretty? I’m washing my hands, I look up and there’s a girl. So what had cleverly been done was that the fish tank was used to divide both the men and the women’s restrooms.
So it was born out of that moment. Then we had to re-engineer it, like why would he be in the bathroom? Then came the idea of the Queen Mab, and then maybe he gets sick from taking whatever the love drug is. I mean, we were young, trippy kids. [laughs] I say that because, sure, that’s me and my professional capacity is of a storytelling, or “ideas” guy. But if you’re not open to looking around you and going, “well look at that!” then what are you doing? For example, I wasn’t doing that on purpose. It’s all about things catching your attention.
Your films have certainly grown to take on entire fandoms of their own. Do you ever feel like these fandoms, or the mythos behind the films, eclipses the work itself?
The short answer is, yes. That happens. Believe it or not, Star Wars was a cult film, an indie film. I almost did a lecture on that and the Rocky Horror Picture Show in India. And George [Lucas], I know very well, did Star Wars looking at, primarily, men, and was making it for an audience base of 17-year-old boys. But they’ve all grown up, and now it’s almost a religion. It’s very hard.
Look, I liken it to children. There’s flirtation, and there’s the act, then you know, you’re pregnant. Then while the baby’s growing, it’s a nervous nine months, might be a nervous five years. Then you move on, the jobs done, and you make sure it doesn’t get clubbed to death like a baby seal. It grows. And right now, the child of Elvis, it’s starting to have distance from me, like it’s going off to college. Someone came up to me on the street and told me they took their grandfather to see it. They’re having a relationship with the movie, but I have nothing to do with it. Now in 10 years time, who knows? People have relationships to Moulin Rouge. Some people got married to it or it changed their lives. I don’t want to overstate my voice, of course, but the mythos and their potential becomes so great I couldn’t even possibly begin to imagine. Like a parent.
Everyone always asks about your editing style. Specifically with this campaign, what have you learned about the power of creative chaos in your career?
Well, if you’re talking about the work themselves, truthfully, and maybe intriguingly, my choices are not personal taste. I consider personal taste the enemy of art. The only personal thing is the decision to affect culture, and to say, “I think the musical can live again”. My mission is to make that happen, right? “I think Shakespeare can be truly relevant”. I take the attitude that if Shakespeare was making a movie now, how would he go about it? Because if you do enough research and study, you realize that he would use broad comedy, put pop music in his scenes, which he did.
If you look at the Elvis of it, it’s not that I did it out of Elvis fandom. It’s that I thought he and the colonel — never Colonel, never Tom, never Parker — are a great canvas to explore the American ethos of the great sell, and the great creative. Elvis is just born in a circumstance, prodigiously absorbing shame to the father going to jail, born in one of the white houses in the black community. He’s a sort of crossroads cipher for what is a great strength in America: disparate things coming together and making something new. So when those two things are in tension, it’s good drama, but it’s about a larger idea.
It’s like the two schools of thought when it comes to translation of historical texts, either bringing the person closer to the time itself, or bringing the time period closer to the person.
My catchphrase for that is, how do you get the audience to know what it felt like? So when Elvis comes along, you cannot overstate how shocking and scary and demonic he seemed to the older generation. They didn’t want to put him in jail — they wanted to kill him. He was that scary, the way he was Pied Piper-ing the youth, and not by design. He was actually very polite, very mild mannered. But what he was doing was having such a ripple effect on youth, who were so angry about their parents, and going up to war. Juvenile delinquency was not a cute, Happy Days thing for them. It was real.
So I do that all the time. That’s why in Gatsby, Jay-Z and the things I did with hip-hop, is because jazz is great, but it still feels charming. How do you make an audience realize that it originated as black, street music that’s got edge, that’s got a message.
The highlight of that specific type of musical anachronism in Elvis, for me, was the mashup of “Toxic” with “Viva Las Vegas”, because of Britney Spears and her relationship to her conservatorship and Vegas.
So no one’s actually picked that out. But that’s why I did it. Brit was in the middle of her own Colonel Parker, if we’re all being honest.
I’m glad we ended this on music. I really hope that someone in this initiative composes something, because I’m working with Mr. [Tim] Marlow, the Artistic Director of the Design Museum in London. I know I’m known visually. But I’m also known musically, so if someone actually wrote a piece of music because they looked around them and felt so inspired, that would really be awesome. The big thing would be if they actually made something visual with music. We’re living in a world where there’s no longer a line between the two. It’s a type of collective synesthesia, and the tools are in everyone’s hands. See it. Make it. Simple as that. No excuses, give yourself permission. No excuses.