THE MAKING OF MOULIN ROUGE & WINNING AN OSCAR
By Geoffrey Bull (Blandford Forum Film Society member)
Something had gone wrong. The all-important chemistry between director and another cinematographer had misfired – which is how Ossie Morris found himself in a luxurious Dorchester Hotel suite in London talking with the languid, deep-voiced John Huston.
What did he know about the Impressionists? Ossie mentioned Monet and Renoir but when Huston asked if he had heard of Toulouse-Lautrec, he answered truthfully: “No”. He thought that didn’t go down too well, nor did the fact that he had not had much experience of filming in colour. All the time Huston was seemingly taking notes – or so Ossie thought. When his painful interview was over he saw that the “notes” were in fact a pencil sketch of Ossie’s face! Depressed at how the interview had gone, Ossie went home convinced he had blown his big chance, but no: a few days later John Woolf, the shrewd Head of Romulus Films, offered him the job! “What salary do you want?” he asked. Ossie had already been prompted by his great mentor, Ronnie Neame. “I’d like £100 a week, sir.” “But you were only getting £40 a week on your last film.” “Yes,” said Ossie, “but I think I’m worth much more now.” In fact, his eventual contract proved to be even more generous. This was the Big Time!
During his interview with Huston Ossie had asked a key question: “How do you see the completed film visually?” The great director’s reply was stunningly simple: “I would like it to look as though Toulouse-Lautrec had directed it himself.” Ossie took his cue. He decided that the usual “glorious Technicolor”, ideal for Westerns and the great outdoors where vivid ultramarine skies and lush green grass were vital, was too harsh and modern for Moulin Rouge. The colours had to be broken down with strong fog filters and smoke, thereby replicating the diffused atmosphere of the real Moulin Rouge. Blue filters turned incandescent light into daylight, while the necessary massive arc lights were daylight balanced anyway. But trouble was brewing. The displeased Technicolor gods in London asked Ossie to drop the smoke effect and fog filter, alleging they would damage their process’s reputation round the world. Huston dealt with the problem almost matter-of-factly: “What do you think, kid?” Ossie told himself to be bold. “To drop this now would be a disaster,” he replied decisively. “These are the foundations on which the whole concept for the film are being built.” “I quite agree. We’ll go on as we are.” The Technicolor people slunk off. But they didn’t go away entirely… The last tests from London came in, and, just as the house-lights dimmed for the viewing in a Parisian cinema, Technicolor’s entire upper echelon trooped in. No matter: Ossie was on cloud nine when he saw the tests and, thankfully, Huston agreed with him that they were absolutely on the right lines. But a visibly angry F. George Gunn, Technicolor senior executive for Customer Services, stormed over to them. “We implore you to withdraw this system of cinematography,” he said. “You must take the fog filter off the camera, stop using the smoke and stop using any colours we don’t approve of. You are crucifying our reputation.” Huston uttered a characteristic “uh-huh, uh-huh…” Again he asked Ossie what he thought. Resolutely, he repeated he thought this was how the film should look. “So do I, kid,” agreed Huston. Then, turning to the Technicolor moguls, he said, “Gentlemen – thank you, and fuck you,” and he and Ossie walked out. A few days later they received a copy of a three-page letter to John Woolf in which Gunn pleaded with him to stop what was being done on Moulin Rouge. He said such excessive and unrelieved use of the fog filter might be interpreted as faulty photography and colour printing “especially in cinemas where the air invariably contains tobacco smoke and sometimes natural fog, as in England.” Like the good producer he was, Woolf ignored Technicolor’s pleas, and the rest, as they say, is history.
After four weeks’ location work in France the production returned to shoot the interiors at Shepperton Studios. But Ossie guessed there might be further trouble because all the stages had to stay very warm and the doors kept closed to keep the fog together. Halfway through the first morning the “sparks” turned off the lights and climbed down from the high spot rails complaining they could not breathe. The solution? More electricians were brought in, everyone was given free milk during filming and half-hour breaks every two hours were introduced. Later, other significant changes had to be made: Georges Auric’s music was swapped with the original Offenbach, even though the necessary copyright cost a bomb. But such was Huston’s power after the overwhelming success of his previous film, The African Queen (also for Romulus), that Woolf wasn’t going to deny the Master for a few thousand pounds. Nor would anyone on the set dare to demur when at the last minute Huston wanted to change round the dancers’ costumes. Wardrobe had picked out the “best” costumes for the opening cancan but the director’s eagle eye spotted a historical flaw; the better costumes ought to appear later in the film because it was only when the real Moulin Rouge had won great renown via Toulouse-Lautrec’s artwork (especially the famous poster featuring the long-pointed chin character) that it would have invested in more expensive dresses. Ossie concurred with the suggested change. So Huston strode across the set to the wardrobe people and said, “Os and I don’t think these costumes are right” – thus putting the blame on Ossie! Despite some muttering the two sets of costumes were swapped round and filming went on. Mind you, the changes didn’t make any difference to the two spitfire dancers whose fierce enmity wasn’t lessened at any stage in their two spectacular fights by what they were wearing.
Everyone raved about Moulin Rouge when it was released and rumours of Oscar nominations started to fly around. Tellingly, some of the most valued accolades came from the Technicolor people themselves; they said they were honoured to be associated with such a beautiful-looking film that could only enhance the image and reputation of the company worldwide, while no less an important personage than Dr Herbert Kalmus (co-founder of the Technicolor Corporation) paid tribute to “a magnificent job of photography and printing”! Perhaps best of all was the cable from Huston that read: “First Technicolor showing tonight [of Moulin Rouge]. Triumphant for you. Praises ringing like bells on Easter morning. Photography magnificent. Congratulations from everybody, including John Huston.”