Musicals can be a divisive topic for many, with people often either loving them or hating them (I’ll pitch my tent in the former). But one thing we can’t argue is the that Moulin Rouge, the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film that starred Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman, was the rebirth of the movie musical format for the 21st century. With Moulin Rouge celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, there’s no time like the present to learn about the behind-the-scenes facts that made Moulin Rouge a touchstone film.
Baz Luhrmann Had Three Rules For His Red Curtain Trilogy
Moulin Rouge is the final film in what is known as Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy. It started with Luhrmann’s debut film, Strictly Ballroom, and also includes the Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes-led Romeo + Juliet.
This isn't a typical trilogy or movie franchise - Strictly Ballroom was a contemporary look at competitive ballroom dancing in Australia; Romeo + Juliet was Luhrmann’s spin on the classic Shakespearean tragedy; and Moulin Rouge is a 19th century-set musical featuring modern day songs. But Luhrmann had a clear vision on what Red Curtain meant, which he told to the BBC at the time of Moulin Rouge’s release:
You’d have to agree he stuck to all three rules for Moulin Rouge.
Moulin Rouge Was Nearly Set At Studio 54 In The 1970s
One of Moulin Rouge’s signatures is the fact that you have 19th-century Parisians singing Nirvana, Elton John and Christina Aguilera, but the story was almost set in 1970s New York rather than Belle Époque Paris.
When developing the story of Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann said in an interview with Rotten Tomatoes that for a moment he was looking at setting the events in the famous Studio 54, with the young writer/singer coming to New York and getting involved in the club’s underworld. This would have meant that instead of Toulouse-Lautrec (played by John Leguizamo), there would have been Andy Warhol.
Trying to decide about the story’s setting, Luhrmann and his production team took a trip to do research in Paris and found that they could bring excitement to the 1890s. The fact that 54, a movie about the famous club (pictured above), was released in 1998 could also have had something to do with it, though Luhrmann makes no mention of it.
Heath Ledger And Jake Gyllenhaal Were Both Up For The Role Of Christian
Ewan McGregor is fantastic in the role of Christian, the penniless poet who falls in love with Nicole Kidman’s Satine, but two other young actors were vying for the role at the time - Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Luhrmann, again to Rotten Tomatoes, talks about test footage he has of Ledger and Gyllenhaal, praising both of their singing, but he admits that it would have been a very different story with either one of them. Mostly because of the age difference either would have had with Nicole Kidman. At the time the movie was released in 2001, Ledger would have been 22 and Gyllenhaal would have been 20, meaning a much younger version of Christian.
At the end of the day, Luhrmann didn’t feel that the age difference was best for the story, and believes that the pairing of Kidman and McGregor is in the realm of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.
Baz Luhrmann’s Father Died On The First Day Of Production
The production of Moulin Rouge was a grueling one for a multitude of reasons that we’ll dive into shortly, but one example was the heavy personal loss that Luhrmann experienced on the very first day of production when he learned that his father had passed away.
Luhrmann knew his father was sick, but as he explained in an episode of AMC’s Backstory, everything happened very quickly. He said for the first time he was forced to put something above his work and he needed time to mourn and bury his father.
But, as the film reaffirms multiple times, “the show must go on,” and Luhrmann would craft his best-known film.
Nicole Kidman Performed Her Iconic Entrance Without A Stunt Double
You’ve got to love a movie star entrance, and Nicole Kidman certainly had one for Moulin Rouge, as the raucous nightclub scene stops in its tracks when she is lowered from the ceiling on a swing in a sparkling corset before flying around the room and going into a dance number, all while singing a remix of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The scene was parodied for Whoopi Goldberg's Oscar entrance in 2002 and Rotten Tomatoes called it one of the 21 most memorable movie moments of the 21st century so far.
With all the intricacies and potential danger from the scene, it would be fair to assume Nicole Kidman had a stunt double, but Kidman refused. She trained for about two weeks for the number to be “100% stunt-free,” as Luhrmann put it, who credits the moment to Kidman’s physical confidence.
Surprisingly, it was other moments of the production that proved a bit more dangerous for Kidman.
Nicole Kidman Was Bruised And Injured During Filming
I told you that the production of Moulin Rouge was rough, and Nicole Kidman had the battle scars to prove it. During the rehearsal process, Kidman broke a rib while practicing a dance with Ewan McGregor. She took about a two-week rest before returning to shoot, only to aggravate the injury again thanks to one of her costumes.
Kidman and the other women on set had to deal with pain from the costumes. Nearly all the women wore corsets while doing elaborate dance moves, and as Nicole Kidman detailed in Backstory, that would cause bruises on multiple occasions. Perhaps the price you pay for the stunning, Oscar-winning costumes designed by Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie.
Production started with an injury and it would end with an injury for Nicole Kidman. As Kidman told Entertainment Weekly, during a late night shoot in the final days of production, she went for one more take and fell down some stairs, tearing cartilage in her knee. The injury actually forced her to drop out of David Fincher’s Panic Room.
John Leguizamo Had Special Prosthetics To Play Toulouse-Lautrec
John Leguizamo isn’t the tallest guy - on IMDb he is listed at 5 feet and 6 ½ inches tall. But to play Toulouse-Lautrec, they had to get the actor down to 4 feet 11 inches. While one Lord of the Rings behind-the-scenes fact was that they used special camera angles and other tricks to have actors appear shorter, Moulin Rouge created a prosthetic for Leguizamo that called for him to act while on his knees.
Unsurprisingly, this would cause him some pain. In an interview with Roger Ebert he said that he could only go about 45 minutes and then would need a 15 minute break out of the prosthetics. He also joked that he and Nicole Kidman would be battling over who would get to use the physical therapist on set.
The Moulin Rouge Cast Had Wild Parties During Production
It wasn’t all misery and injuries on the set of Moulin Rouge. In fact, the cast speaks of the experience incredibly fondly, from what they can remember.
As part of Variety’s Actors on Actors series, Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman were paired and of course their time on Moulin Rouge was a topic. In between the months of rehearsals and the injuries, the Moulin Rouge cast really enjoyed partying it seemed, complete with absinthe. Maybe that was the kicker, as Ewan McGregor shared:
Hey, we’ve all been there Ewan.
Satine’s Necklace Is The Most Expensive Piece Of Jewelry Made For A Movie
I’ve already mentioned the spectacular, award-winning costumes that Moulin Rouge had, but apparently one of the pieces of jewelry worn by Nicole Kidman is the single most expensive piece of jewelry ever made for a film.
The piece in question is the lavish diamond necklace that The Duke presents to Satine as a gift to finally try to secure her devotion. The necklace, designed by Stefano Canturi, was made of 1,308 diamonds and weighed 134 carats and was reportedly worth $1 million.
We’ll never know what someone would actually pay for the necklace though. It was set to be auctioned off at one point, but Canturi ultimately decided he couldn’t part with it and has kept it in his personal collection.
The End Of Production Was Pushed By Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones
The cast and crew spent practically a year making Moulin Rouge, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t pushed to get it done. In fact, the Star Wars prequel Attack of the Clones was breathing down their neck.
Detailed in the Backstory episode, Attack of the Clones was scheduled to use the same sound stages in Australia that Moulin Rouge occupied and there was pressure for the musical to make way for the next chapter in George Lucas’ saga.
Of course, Moulin Rouge and Attack of the Clones both star Ewan McGregor, so it was probably nice that he didn’t have to go very far from one job to the next. Such a problem probably won't happen with McGregor's Disney+ Obi-Wan show.
20th Century Fox Did Not Tell Its First Test Audience That Moulin Rouge Was A Musical
At the turn of the 21st century, the only type of movie musicals that crowds came out to see were pretty much just Disney animated movies. 20th Century Fox knew that it was taking a risk with Moulin Rouge, so much so that they didn’t even tell the first test audience that what they were about to watch was a musical.
Tom Rothman, who was an executive at 20th Century Fox at the time, told Backstory that they didn’t want people to categorize the movie before they saw it.
There were some reported walk outs, but what was described as a strong response for those who stayed convinced all involved that they had something special on their hands.
Moulin Rouge will celebrate its 20th anniversary on June 1. It is available to stream right now on Amazon Prime Video.
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D.C.-based cinephile. Will dabble in just about any movie genre, but passionate about discovering classic films/film history and tracking the Oscar race.