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Love, American Style
by Jim Slotek (Toronto Sun - October 27, 1996)

Miami - Being 17, Claire Danes, the Juliet in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, is torn about many things. One is Shakespeare, whom she considers "truly a genius." She know's he's considered uncool.

"I saw Romeo and Juliet with a friend of mine, and he was like, 'Forget Shakespeare! This movie is so cool, you shouldn't even mention him. It'll keep people away.' "

"And I guess I want people to know this movie has nothing to do with anything scary or academic or boring."

Well scarey, maybe. Teen gangs, warring clans, gunplay, a beachside 'hood, cops, police helicopters, armageddonish news reports, a bleak urban battle zone..."

Something tells me we're not in Verona anymore, Toto. We're in Verona Beach, a parallel universe from Australian director Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom).

But soft! What light through yonder tradition breaks? This Romeo and Juliet (Leonardo DiCaprio and Danes), plus sundry Montague and Capulet homeboys, speak Elizabethan English. Every "thee, thou" and "methinks" is from the tale of tragic lovers from "two households, both alike in dignity (who) from an ancient grudge break new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean."

To facilitate the update (which opens Friday) while preserving the play, Luhrmann created a bizarro universe, with the trappings of modern times, but an Elizabethan sense. The Entertainment Tonight-type TV talking heads, hotly touting a gala soiree at the Capulet's, blather in iambic pentameter. Even the street signs and commercial billboards are in-jokes (Prospero Whiskey, The Shylock Bank, Rosencranzky's, The Merchant of Verona Beach, products touted as "Such stuff as dreams are made on").

It is, if nothing else, the weirdest take on the Bard many moviegoers will have ever seen - and director Luhrmann argues, the most faithful.

"I hated Shakespeare when I was a kid," says Luhrmann. "I was like, 'This is impenetrable.'

"This changed later when I saw a production of Twelfth Night by this quite brilliant man in Sydney. There was a point near the end when I found myself in a sweat. It was like opening the curtain onto the power of the word. I want the same for others who have the curtain closed."

How much sense will Elizabethan English make to the Gen X'ers that the studio wants to attract? "Possibly as much sense as street rap makes to me - and yet I dig those films," Luhrmann says.

"Remember, Shakespeare was a street-language writer. He invented a quarter of the language he used; words like 'bubble' were just things he made up."

"Our beliefs of the 'right' way to do Shakespeare are 19th century. Elizabethans spoke like Americans."

His first movie after the 1992 hit Strictly Ballroom (the lively-and-sentimental ballroom dance love story that grossed $100 million worldwide), Romeo and Juliet was supposed to be an easy ride.

Luhrmann dropped out of the film biz after Strictly Ballroom. He spent time as media strategist for then-Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating. He directed operas - including a production of Nejamin Britten's adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The later was, creatively or perversely, set in India, with the characters recast as deities from Hindu scripture. It debuted at the Edinburgh Festival "where it was fantastically well-received. I was surprised," Luhrmann says.

"For my return to movies I just thought I wanted to do a project that wouldn't take a great deal of time. So I decided I would do Shakespeare, because I love Shakespeare and the script is already written for me."

Key to the film was DiCaprio (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Basketball Diaries) - Hollywood's new "it" kid.

"At the time I decided he had to be Romeo, Leo was being offered the income of a small nation to do certain other movies. I rang him up and I'm sure he and his dad thought I was fairly mad. But I said, 'No commitments, Come down to Australia, go diving in the Barrier Reef - 'cause they'd never done that - and then we'll spend a week and we'll work on it. So he flew coach, spent some time with his dad and was very interested in my ideas and how they could work."

Even after DiCaprio said yes, the studio wasn't biting. "So I brought him to Australia again, and we shot three scenes on video with actors and we screened it for the studio. I remember D (DiCaprio) comes out of his car dressed in a suit and goes, "Thibald, reason had I to love thee...' And all these executive are like, 'I know what he's saying!' Luhrmann got his green light.

Then came the parade of Juliets, a process by which Danes, of the defunct TV series My So-Called Life, edged out sweet-young-thing Natalie Portman. "I keep reading Leo saying that I looked him in the eye at the audition and it was a romantic/dramatic thing. But I think what happened was that Leo was really tired because he'd auditioned, like, five girls already. He really didn't want to be there. So I just sort of seduced him with my acting, like 'I'm having fun, doing you want to have fun?' It shook him up, and he recommended me."

The movie went through preproduction in Toronto (where veteran producer Gabriella Martinelli lives), and considered shooting sites in Toronto, Vancouver, Miami and Sydney. They settled on Mexico City because of its Old World contrast between rich and poor.

"Everybody was sick," says Danes. "We all got hit with Montezuma's revenge. I was camped out over the toilet for a day. I asked my mom, can you die from this? I was dead serious."

"But it was worth it. I'd have done anything for this movie."

© 1996 Toronto Sun