5 takeaways from the visionary director-writer-producer
Baz Luhrmann is one of the world’s most relentlessly original and wildly talented artists. From his debut film, Strictly Ballroom, to his recent box-office hit, Elvis, Luhrmann pumps life into every story he tells—even stories we already know. Think of his takes on Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby. He makes even the familiar feel exciting, visceral, and new. Which at least partially explains why he’s so revered in the industry—Elvis garnered eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.
In our debut episode of Riveted, the podcast that deconstructs that art of great storytelling that I co-host with Amy Wallace (and that is produced by Godfrey Dadich Partners in partnership with Reasonable Volume), Luhrmann took us deep into his process, his inspirations, what he’s striving for, and so much more. Throughout the conversation, he spoke in detail about how (and why) he does what he does and about the importance of teamwork. His insights into the creative process are useful for anyone working their way through a personal or professional project, or for any leader of a team, whether or not they classify themselves as a creator on their CV.
“The larger universal idea is what you have to constantly hunt as you’re constructing the storytelling.”—Baz Luhrmann
The interview is a master class on how to get into the right creative mindset, find your North Star, and inspire those around you to tell a story you can never forget. Here are five key lessons I gleaned from our interview with Luhrmann:
Lesson 1: Heighten the romance. Luhrmann recommends you ask yourself: “What creative adventure do I want to be on? What is my life about right now?” Then, he says, fully commit to embracing that space. “I can’t actually dream things up unless I’m in a heightened romantic state,” Luhrmann says. “I can’t make a film in a non-romantic environment. Even my office for Elvis was actually Elvis’s, the sort of Jungle Room reproduced. But the point is that the line between the world of the show and the world of creating a show is pretty thin. It’s a gossamer thread that divides them.”
Lesson 2: Ponder the big picture. Baz urges that you ask yourself, for any project or endeavor or story you’re telling (or selling): What central idea are you trying to explore? “I always admired the way Shakespeare would take a historical figure, use his life as a canvas, and explore a larger universal idea,” says Luhrmann. “The larger universal idea is what you have to constantly hunt as you’re constructing the storytelling.”
Lesson 3: Decode the mystery. Let’s say your idea or what you’re trying to sell is set in a world or environment that might be, Luhrmann suggests, “wackadoo or boring or not interesting.” Your job is to decode that world: “How do you let the audience know not only what it was, but what it feels like? How do you unpack something or recode it or recalibrate it so that it is what it was?” Just think of what Luhrmann did with his adaptation of The Great Gatsby—using rap music to help current-day audiences understand what jazz felt like in the 1920s. That’s decoding.
Lesson 4: Pack away your fears. Your people are looking to you to lead the way, and to give them space to be creative (and yes, to sometimes fail). One way to do this is to create a fear-free environment, says Luhrmann. “This is a contract I make with my players and with everybody. It is my job to wake up in the morning and be fearful for the first 10 minutes. [Then] pack my fear away so there’s enough space to take on everybody else’s fear. Because, you know, it’s called a screenplay. Now, play is something children do naturally, and they’re brilliant at it. But if children are scared, they can’t play. They shrink back into reality. We play for a living, and it is my job to create, to keep fear outside the play circle so that you can fail. You can play.”
Lesson 5: Never forget: audience, audience, audience. Of course, taking care of your own people and those who work for you and with you is paramount. But ultimately, whether you call them your clients, your customers, or your audience, any leader needs to think hard, all the time, about who they are trying to reach. Those are the people who are spending their hard-earned money on your product or their hard-pressed time with your creation. “My devotion is to that audience,” Luhrmann says. “I mean, it’s to my own journey, but it’s to that audience who, whatever they’re going through, take hours out of their lives, spend money, and go into a dark room with strangers and look up at the screen. And for a few moments, whether they laugh, they cry, they’re moved—they get something, they don’t feel alone.”