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The Ultimate Love Story
(Elle - September, 1996)

Reckless lovers, fast cars, breathless violence. Can the two best actors of their generation do Romeo and Juliet justice? Thomas Beller visits the star-crossed set.

Bewitched by the charm of looks (II, Chorus)
Good morrow!" Leonardo DiCaprio calls out as he arrives on the set of Romeo and Juliet "Good Morrow!" reply several burley crew members who are struggling with a large piece of equipment. -- their biceps strain to lift it, but their smiles are easy. Their glance in Leonardo's direction is, I think, somewhat loving. The teeming set is like a village, and he has entered it like a prince surveying his subjects.

Leonardo is wearing tight black pants and shiny black shoes and no shirt. He has a torso like a vanilla wafer. His shoulder blades protrude. A cigarette dangles from the corner of his mouth. His blond hair is tousled in a just-rolled-out-of-bed way.

He walks over to look at the fish tank that will be the center of the next shot, and around which several fish managers are gathered, sprinkling bits of food into the tank and trying to keep their little stars happy. The fish are exotic, bright, colorful...and experienced: They appeared in GoldenEye, the last James Bond film. They swim around, gulping, the only living things in the whole sprawling place who are oblivious to the presence of Leonardo DiCaprio, star of This Boy's Life, The Basketball Diaries, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, for which he earned an Oscar nomination.

The set is located in a cavernous soundstage, a dark, cool airplane-hangar-like space that could be anywhere in the world but happens to be located in Mexico City. We are in Mexico City because, to be blunt, the peso has just collapsed and the place is more or less on sale. But, considering the movie, there are atmospheric advantages as well.

For one thing, Mexico City is over 7,000 feet above sea level and the air is very thin, so everything here is a little dreamy. Clowns with baggy pants and big red noses roam the streets, performing skits at stoplights and then frantically running among cars trying to collect some loose change before the lights turn green. Every establishment looks as if it might have any cash at all is guarded by a man in uniform holding a very serious looking rifle. Not a handgun, a rifle. Most of the city's taxis are Volkswagen Beetles. They are all painted the same mint-green. When was the last time you saw more than two Volkswagen Beetles on a single block? This city is swarming with mint-green Volkswagen Beetles. It's strange.

But that is all in another world. We are now on the set, a compound of soundstages RKO built in the 1940s, in the heart of Mexico City. Being on a movie set is like being inside a fantasy bubble. Even when things are loud and chaotic there is a slightly hushed quality, as though everyone knows they are living in another dimension.

Baz Luhrmann, the director, walks over to Leonardo, and they are both stare at the fish together. Luhrmann is a scruffy thirty-three-year-old Australian with rings on his fingers and what looks to be a small piece of scrap metal dangling from a leather string around his neck. His long, curly hair has been subdued into a ponytail, which is coming undone.

"Very, very pretty," says Luhrmann in his Australian accent, and it is not entirely clear whether he is talking about the fish or Leonardo.

"Hello, little fishies!" says Leonardo. He waves at them and starts making faces. They gulp and swim around.

Luhrmann looks as if he has been drinking heavily while sitting naked on the beach for five days and nights without rest, which is to say he looks at once relaxed and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. "Today is the fish," he says. Baz is the reason we are all here. This is his William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. "Hello, fishies!" says Leonardo again, and a muscle twitches somewhere in his back, a little tremor, as though he just had a thought.

On, lusty gentlemen (I, iv)
Romeo and Juliet is famous for being about young love. First love -- perfect, unpolluted by doubt or previous experience. The sort of love that one could die for. But it has another prominent theme: stupid violence. Stupid violence is the kind that blows up because you have caught someone's eye on the subway, and eye contact is somehow perceived to be aggression. Or is it tribal, the sort of unquestioned hate that passes from generation to generation. There's a lot of stupid violence around these days, which is slightly different from violence that has some sort of political context, like students getting shot at Kent State protesting the invasion of Cambodia (not that this wasn't stupid), or police rioting on New York's Lower East Side and smashing the heads of punk rockers who had taken over Tompkins Square Park. It's an ambiguous anger -- the anger is clear, the target is not. So Romeo and Juliet's feuding Montagues and Capulets make a contemporary kind of sense -- they hate each other because they just do. In some ways Romeo and Juliet seems like the perfect contemporary fable, a story of children with fast cars, of dysfunctional families, and terrible misunderstandings.

I corner Baz in his office and demand explanations. Shakespeare did not mention a fish tank in his play, and yet here it is. He did not mention very powerful handguns or souped-up hot rods or towering statues of Jesus Christ that sit in the middle of avenues and rise up as high as skyscrapers. But such are the items that populate this Romeo and Juliet, which takes place in a mythical city called Verona Beach -- a town not unlike Miami. Juliet's family, the Capulets, are Hispanic, and Romeo's family is Anglo.

Verona Beach is a cross between Scarsdale and Scarface, with a little Blade Runner thrown in. Romeo and Juliet are likeable but fucked-up rich kids who travel in a rough crowd. Luhrmann's last film was Strictly Ballroom, a highly stylized and slightly surreal look at competitive ballroom dancing that had the quality of a Technicolor dream, realism pumped up on adrenaline and bright colors.

Verona Beach has this same quality. "This isn't the future or the past," say Baz. "It's the Elizabethan world in twentieth-century images -- few rich, many poor." every movement he makes, every syllable he pronounces, contains a certain kind of manic urgency, as if he and only he knows the entire worlds is going to explode in a matter of hours, and he has to race to communicate the only thing that will save us.

"Romeo is definitely the first rebel without a cause," Baz says. I often think about how Shakespeare would have made a movie, and let me tell you..." An appealing defensive aggressive energy exists within Luhrmann about whether he is defaming Shakespeare with this movie. "Shakespeare was writing for an audience that wouldn't shut up. He had to keep them entertained. He wouldn't be precious if he made this movie. He wouldn't have Juliet sitting around the kitchen table drinking tea and talking about her problems. In this movie, she's either commiting suicide, fighting dad, taking drugs, or having sex..." His voice trails off, and a sad and somewhat dissappointed look comes into his eyes.

Apparently, there is some uncertainty about just how much sex can be put in this movie. "I was shocked at the level of censorship involved in making movies in America," he says. I understand this is to mean that id a Hollywood studio is going to provide you with close to $15 million to make a movie, they make it very clear they do not want an NC-17 rating. He vaguely hints there may be a different cut for the European market.

She doth teach the torches to burn bright! (I, v)
Claire Danes stands before the fish tank. The scene being filmed is the moment when Romeo and Juliet first lay eyes on one another. In the traditional Romeo and Juliet, the two lovers first see each other across a crowded room at a masked ball. But this Romeo and Juliet is not going to be traditional, and anyway, as Baz is quick to point out, Shakespeare wrote the play with hardly any stage directions. Every word in the movie will be Shakespeare's. But the location, the setting, the visuals, all that is open to interpretation.

Claire is staring at the fish. She's at the ball, in the ladies' room, and on the other side of the fish tank is the men's room. Techno music thumps in the background.

There is no dialogue in the take, just her expressions as she looks at a fish and then catches the eye of this handsome young man staring at her from the other side of the fish tank. Baz keeps making her do it over and over again. The word "action" is followed by silence. Her face undergoes the shock of seeing another person, and gradual pleasure spreads over it as she takes in the man she sees. Leonardo is off in his trailer. She is on her own with Baz and the fish and the breathless crew, who are so silent during each take you can hear the fish tank's bubbles. Finally, it is a keeper and she retreats to her trailer, where I visit.

Everyone on the set calls Leonardo "D." Everyone calls Claire "Claire." On some deep emotional level, Claire make is instantly clear that you don't fuck with Claire Danes, even though she never shows up before lunch because she is still in "school" and spends her mornings huddled over homework with a tutor. It's not the sort of thing you can affect; some people, like Leonardo, are light. Others are heavy. Claire is heavy, in the best sense.

About a week into the movie, Leo came up to me and said, 'How you be so still?' " she says, reclining in jeans and a sweatshirt. She looks vaguely punkish, a potential vandal, someone with a readable sense of purpose. "Sometimes I can be too still, and serious, and persnickety, and I have to make a conscious effort to goof off and chill out." Asked to describe the difference between her personality and Leo's, she says, "I sort of glow, and Leo is like a string of firecrackers that keep going off."

Having caused something of a sensation in the television series My So-Called Life and the movie Little Women, two years ago Claire moved with her parents to Los Angeles from Manhattan (where she grew up). She says she intends to go to college, "somewhere east of the Mississippi." She cites Jodie Foster as a role model. "I could keep working, but I want to be educated."

As for Juliet, she falls in love, has sex, takes drugs, dies.

"It's a demanding role," Claire says with characteristic understatedness. "All the more so because the script is by Shakespeare. In normal situations, you are allowed a little bit of ad-libbing, maybe a 'you know' or something small, but not here." At the same time, the words are her savior. "The direction of the play is embedded in the words, the way they rhyme, the emotion of each line is so explicit."

And speaking of explicit, I as her about the sex scenes. "Well," she says, "I've had more loves on-camera than off."

Oh, I am fortune's fool! (III, i)
Every day in the late afternoon, a group of people gather in the dark, cool interior of the screening room to watch the rushes. There are about twenty different versions of the same shot, only one of which will make it into the movie.

I am forbidden to see the rushes. Perhaps this is because rushes are all about mistakes and imperfection. Nevertheless, I see a herd of movie people grazing off together, and naturally follow. The rush is of Romeo uttering his famous line: "O, I am fortune's fool!"

The line requires quite a bit of anguish. It is delivered in the midst of the pouring rain. The screening room becomes quiet, and Leonardo appears onscreen, hair tousled, white shirt open at the collar, large, sexy gun in hand. He has just killed Juliet's cousin Tybalt. Here is Leonardo standing on the screen, waiting for the film to roll and for the director to shout "Action!" and at some off-camera command, the rain commences and he is suddenly drenched in a downpour of biblical proportions. "O, I am fortune's fool!" he exclaims. He seems wretched, racked with guilt at his impulsive murder of Tybalt, and very wet. It seems like a good take to me, but it is not good enough, because all of the sudden there is Leonardo again, his hair dried off and retousled. The shower commences, he utters his line, more anguish, very convincing, but the scene seems to have been reshot ten times. Each time, Leonardo gets drenched, and then reappears in the next take dried off, hair more or less as it was.

Death's pale flag (V, iii)
It's later that night, and it is time for the men's-room shot. It's Romeo's turn to spot Juliet thought the fish tank. The scene is set up so that before he starts staring at the fish take, Romeo dunks his head in a sink full of water. There are two extras in the scene, who are peeing side by side in urinals. They are wearing elaborate costumes and are heavily made-up. All this for a fleeting second in the background.

An attractive woman with black hair and a very short whit dress appears on the set. She is fawns over and attended to, and for a moment I think that perhaps she is a Mexican movie star, local royalty, here to visit the preceedings. It turns out she is the woman from Dolce & Gabbana; they have helped design the Capulet outfits. This is a designer Romeo and Juliet. She's flown down from New York because, as she explains to me, "I love the cinema."

Leonardo is slumped down in a director's chair, next to a buffet of fake pineapples and coconuts, all in garish colors and porcelain. He looks up sleepily, make eye contact with one of the crew, and slowly, and in a friendly manner, flips him the bird. Her reaches out to grab the arm of another crew member as he walks by and bums a cigarette, which he sticks in the corner of his mouth unlit.

Baz walks Leo through the scene. He is to dunk his head in a sink full of water, then stare at himself in the mirror, then turns to stare at the fish, whereupon he spots Juliet.

"How does it look, Mr. McAlpine?" Baz calls out to one of the crew before the first take.

"It looks good," replies the Mr. McAlpine.

"But is it cool?" says Leonardo.

Is Shakespeare cool? There is something blasphemous about the question. Shakespeare is timeless, cool is now. But Shakespeare, in his brilliance and subtlety, is not fragile. There is something reckless about throwing handguns and American accents into Romeo and Juliet, but then there is something reckless about Romeo and Juliet.

Ten takes later, there is still no cut. The extras have done their thing, Leonardo has done his thing, but Baz is not satisfied. In preparation for the eleventh take, Leo stares into the sink and exclaims, "Is there going to be a day when I don't get wet?"

"Think of this as a fabulous kind of death," says Baz. "Look at the tank and find a fish. Your face should say, The most fascinating fish is there."

"The most fascinating fish is there", says Leo in a facetious Australian accent, and for a fleeting moment the whole set tenses up.

Earlier that day I whispered a question to one of the crew: Is Leo a prima donna? "No, not at all," I was told. "He's very nice, very easy to work with." I asked for an example of difficult to work with. "Once, in the middle of Africa, an older action star said he wouldn't do any more filming until they built him a couple of holes of a golf course. From scratch."

Finally, it's a wrap, and Leo and I retreat to his trailer. We step inside and sit opposite each other in the tiny living-room arrangement. He flops down exhaustedly and carefully rolls down his pants to his ankles. Then he pulls up his shirt to under his armpits. He is moist. "Always wet on the set of Romeo and Juliet," he says, sighing, and lets his legs fall way open, knees apart, ankles together. A small peach-colored towel is draped over his lap. I am reminded of a comment a friend of mine made, that whenever she lusts after Leonardo DiCaprio she feels like a pedophile. I open my notepad with as much businesslike authority as possible.

"I would say that about 60 percent of the movie, I'm wet. There are a lot of takes because you can't improvise the lines, and also because Baz is a perfectionist. But that's okay. Once when I was doing This Boy's Life I had to do about twenty takes of me rolling in the mud. I was so miserable I almost started to cry. The director came up to me and said, 'Pain is temporary; film is forever.' "

Claire Danes seems like a perfect Juliet, because she has within her some of that Elizabethan, old-style elegance. Leonardo compares her to a young Meryl Streep. But Leonardo has it both ways -- the old style and the new, the antiquated and ultramodern -- and it is on his shoulders that this hyped-up contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet will either sink or swim.

"My feeling about Romeo is that when you're sixteen, people underestimate you to a high degree. You haven't experienced a lot, but you know things, you just know them. There are so many levels in Romeo. At first I felt a little affected speaking his lines, but I slowly came to feel that he always speaks the truth."

What kind of truth?

"Shakespeare is actually a little gnarly, you know? Injecting the sauce into the goose. It's an amazing feeling having the master working for you in your dialogue. I don't want to say I'm totally sure about anything, because you never know, but I think this is going great."

Eventually it is time for another shot, and we leave the trailer to walk back to the set. For a moment I can't imagine this guy in a fever of remorse and regret standing in front of Juliet's casket. But then that's what actors do, right? They act. "Squish squish squish," says Leonardo with every step he takes. "My butt is so soggy."

© 1996, Hachette Filipacchi Magazines