When adapting William Shakespeare, most movie directors spend a lot of time fussing over Elizabethan gowns and crumbling castles. Baz Luhrmann was more concerned with guns, slang, and Ecstasy trips. For his 1996 take on Romeo and Juliet, the Australian director dropped those famously star-crossed lovers into a contemporary city with contemporary problems. The resulting Romeo + Juliet was a bombastic update that struck a chord with teens, who turned it into a major hit. Here are a few interesting details about the hurricanes and kidnappings that plagued the set.
1. BAZ LUHRMANN WANTED TO PROVE THAT SHAKESPEARE WASN’T FOR SNOBS.
In retelling Romeo and Juliet as a modern story, Baz Luhrmann hoped to shake up Shakespeare’s accessibility. “The thing I really set out to do was to smash what I call ‘club Shakespeare,’” Luhrmann told ScreenSlam. “[The idea that] you have to be a member of the club to understand it. This 26-year-old writer wrote this fantastic play so that everybody could understand it, so that everybody could be affected by it.” Luhrmann was especially committed to this goal because he was intimidated by Shakespeare as a school kid. It took a psychedelic performance of Twelfth Night to bring him over to the Bard's side, and he hoped to do the same for moviegoers with his equally brazen vision.
2. LEONARDO DICAPRIO FLEW TO AUSTRALIA ON HIS OWN DIME TO GET THE MOVIE MADE.
Romeo + Juliet came out a year before Titanic, long before "Leo Mania" had struck. Without that star power behind him, Leonardo DiCaprio had to fight hard to get the movie made. Luhrmann told SFGate that when 20th Century Fox was still on the fence, DiCaprio flew down to Australia to help Luhrmann convince the studio of the project's viability. "He cashed in his business-class tickets so he could bring his friends, and he stayed in Australia for no money at all," Luhrmann explained. "He did a video workshop, so we could persuade the studio to do it. He was extremely passionate about it." Clearly, that passion paid off.
3. NATALIE PORTMAN ALMOST PLAYED JULIET.
Luhrmann claims many now-famous actresses read for the role of Juliet, but only one has been confirmed: Natalie Portman. She made it all the way to rehearsals, but the studio execs found her pairing with DiCaprio problematic. “Fox said it looked like Leonardo DiCaprio was molesting me when we kissed,” Portman told The New York Times. That’s probably because she was the actual age of Juliet in the text (14) while DiCaprio was already 21.
4. JANE CAMPION SUGGESTED CLAIRE DANES FOR THE MOVIE.
When Luhrmann was still struggling to find a suitable replacement for Portman, a fellow Aussie director helped him out. Jane Campion, the Oscar-winning writer/director of The Piano, asked Luhrmann if he had seen the TV show My So-Called Life. She suggested he check out the series' young star, Claire Danes, because she was “so mature for her age.” Luhrmann set a meeting with Danes and pretty soon, the role was hers.
5. DANES WASN’T IMPRESSED WITH DICAPRIO.
Luhrmann was dazzled by Danes’ maturity, but there was another quality that helped her land the job: DiCaprio said she was the only actress who looked him in the eye during auditions—which was no mean feat, considering how many women were smitten with the teenage heartthrob. “Claire just came in and was just so in the moment, so there, and so not trying to do this little angelic flower [version of] Juliet,” DiCaprio told ScreenSlam. “When we were doing the scene where we were supposed to be together, she came right up to me and looked me right in the eye and starting doing her lines.”
6. MARLON BRANDO NEARLY JOINED THE CAST.
Pete Postlethwaite ended up playing Father Laurence, the priest who marries Romeo and Juliet. But Marlon Brando was initially interested in the role. Luhrmann said that Brando sent him letters about the part, but took himself out of the running due to “personal family problems” surrounding his son, Christian. (Christian spent five years in prison for killing Dag Drollet, his half-sister’s boyfriend.) Even before Brando exited, though, he had some reservations—mainly because DiCaprio was too convincing in a previous film. “He said he saw Leonardo in [What’s Eating] Gilbert Grape,” Luhrmann recalled. “[He asked,] ‘Why is it you are going to cast a young man who’s not entirely in control of his mental facilities?’ So Leonardo had him believing that he wasn’t all that balanced.”
7. A HURRICANE HIT THE SET DURING FILMING.
Mercutio’s famous line, “A plague on both your houses!” gets some extra gravitas in this movie, thanks to the thundering skies behind him. That wasn’t CGI; it was a real hurricane. As Luhrmann explained to , the cast and crew decided to capitalize on an actual storm rolling through their set in Mexico. They only had time to get two shots (one wide and one reverse) before things turned dangerous. “All the crew had goggles on, and the guys had stinging sand in their eyes, and then, after those two shots, the sets were completely blown away by the hurricane,” Luhrmann said. The crew returned four days later to film close-ups and had to use fans to recreate the effect.
8. THE HAIR STYLIST GOT KIDNAPPED.
That hurricane wasn’t the only disaster the production weathered. At one point, its key hair stylist, Aldo Signoretti, was kidnapped and held for ransom. “The bandidos rang up and said, ‘For $300 you can have him back,’” Luhrmann told Cinema Papers. “So Maurizio [Silvi, the key make-up artist] goes down clutching the money outside the hotel, holds it up, chucks them the bag and they threw Aldo out of the car and broke his leg.”
9. THE BILLBOARDS HAVE SECRET SHAKESPEARE QUOTES.
Basically every billboard, sign, and scrap of paper seen onscreen contains a Shakespeare reference. Just look at the opening gas station fight alone. You’ll immediately see signs for Montague Construction and Phoenix Gas. The motto for Montague Construction is “retail’d to prosperity,” which is a reference to Richard III. Meanwhile the slogan for Phoenix Gas is “add more fuel to your fire,” a fragment from Henry VI, Part 3. Next to the gas station is Shylock Bank, named for the character in The Merchant of Venice. Look closely at the newspaper in the display rack and you’ll see the headline, “A rash fierce blaze of riot.” This comes from Richard II. And that’s all in the first eight minutes. Keep your eyes peeled and you’re bound to catch dozens more.
10. ALL THE GUNS ARE NAMED AFTER SWORDS.
Romeo, Mercutio, Tybalt, and their friends have shoot-outs in this film, as opposed to the sword duels that take place in the Shakespeare play. But Luhrmann alluded to the original weapons by stamping all of the guns with names of swords. Some characters carry a “Dagger” 9mm, while others have a “Rapier.” Benvolio got stuck with a more generic “Sword Series S” handgun. See if you can catch the “Rapier” text on Tybalt’s pistol in the clip above.
11. THE FINAL SCENE REFERENCES ANOTHER PAIR OF STAR-CROSSED LOVERS.
For the famous double-suicide finale, Luhrmann chose a classical composition. It’s called “Liebestod” (or “love death”) and it comes from the Richard Wagner opera Tristan und Isolde. That medieval story also concerns a doomed couple who die in the final act—but with more love potions and maritime mishaps.
12. THE SOUNDTRACK WENT PLATINUM.
Romeo + Juliet featured a famously anachronistic soundtrack stacked with singles by Garbage, The Cardigans, and Des’ree. People apparently loved the dissonance. The album went multi-platinum and led to a second, gold-certified volume. But both albums were missing a song written specifically for the movie: Radiohead’s “Exit Music (for a Film).” The British band had composed the song for the Romeo + Juliet end credits at Luhrmann’s request, but didn’t formally release it until their album OK Computer dropped the following year. However, their song "Talk Show Host" does appear on the soundtrack.