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Podcast – Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin revisit Moulin Rouge!

To mark the 20th anniversary of Moulin Rouge!, writer, director and producer Baz Luhrmann and production and costume designer Catherine Martin look back on making the movie musical.

Still from Moulin Rouge! the movie musical

Moulin Rouge!

Find this episode of the Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, SpotifyStitcher or Pocket Casts

Catherine Martin remembers back in the late 90s, when she and Baz Luhrmann wanted to make Moulin Rouge!, there were three things the Hollywood movie studios hated.

“That was hats, facial hair, and break-out-into-song musicals,” the Academy Award winning production and costume designer says.

“Even the first trailer of Moulin Rouge! there was no one singing in it. We weren't allowed to have a poster with anyone in a hat - and for anyone who's watched Moulin Rouge! that's quite hard to do.”

On the latest episode of the Screen Australia podcast, Martin credits Luhrmann – who directed, produced and co-wrote the film – for staying true to his vision of a movie musical.

“Baz kind of had the trifecta of studio dislikes. And I think that's a testament to his strength of will and his artistic ability, that he was able to create something that transcended all of those dislikes and prejudices.”

Headshot of Baz Luhrmann.Baz Luhrmann (Photo credit: Hugh Stewart)

The movie, which was filmed entirely in Sydney and starred Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, opened Cannes Film Festival in 2001 and went on to be a global hit. In Australia alone it’s one of the top ten highest-grossing Australian films at the local box office (along with three other films from Luhrmann and Martin – Australia, The Great Gatsby and Strictly Ballroom). Similar to Strictly Ballroom, it’s found a new life as a stage show by Global Creatures, which opened on Broadway in 2019, has been nominated for 14 Tony Awards, and is set to open in Melbourne this August.

But despite its success, Luhrmann says those early reviews of the film were particularly polarising. When Time released its “Top Everything List 2001”, one critic listed Moulin Rouge! as one of the best films of the year, while another claimed it was the worst.

“Nicole [Kidman] and I... we knew it was going to shake people up a bit and it was different, but we weren't ready for the vitriol of some press,” he says of the experience after the Cannes premiere. “But what really happened was… the audience found it and the audience celebrated it.”

Headshot of Catherine Martin.Catherine Martin (Photo credit: Hugh Stewart)

Throughout the episode of the Screen Australia podcast, Luhrmann and Martin took time out from post-production on their upcoming Elvis biopic, which was filmed on Queensland’s Gold Coast, to reflect on their time making Moulin Rouge! Stories range from Nicole Kidman recording her vocals at their home in Sydney; how Martin and her team painstakingly created the world and costumes of Moulin Rouge! (winning two Academy Awards for their efforts); how Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce incorporated music into the screenplay; and how he went straight to the likes of Elton John and Dolly Parton for their blessing back when a musical mash-up was unheard of.

Luhrmann says it’s incredible to watch how Moulin Rouge! is still finding its way to people – whether that’s through the film or the stage show.

“The thing that I find most fulfilling is that works that have been made 20 years ago… they still have life and they go on and they reconnect through to audiences now,” he says. “The fact that I know whether I'm around or not it will be ongoing just means that the work that everyone put into it is still putting joy out there.”

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Audio transcript

[00:00:12] Caris Bizzaca Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast, I'm Caris Bizzaca, a journalist with Screen Australia's online publication Screen News. It's hard to believe it, but it's been 20 years since the movie musical Moulin Rouge graced our screens. Directed and produced by Baz Luhrmann, who co-wrote the screenplay with Craig Pierce, it starred Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor alongside a slew of Australian actors and crew, which included editor Jill Bilcock, cinematographer Donald McAlpine and, of course, Academy Award-winning production designer and costume designer Catherine Martin, or CM, as she's often referred to. Aside from Moulin Rouge, Baz and CM have worked together across films including Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Australia, The Great Gatsby, the upcoming Elvis biopic, the TV series The Get Down and also in 1997 founded the production company Bazmark. Similar to Strictly Ballroom. Moulin Rouge also has a new life as a stage musical. Created by Global Creatures, it opened on Broadway in 2019, has been nominated for 14 Tony Awards and is now set to open in Melbourne this August. Both Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin took time out from post-production on their Elvis biopic, which was filmed on Queensland's Gold Coast, to take a trip down memory lane and discuss memories of Moulin Rouge, including filming entirely on soundstages in Sydney, the audience reaction to a movie musical and their thoughts on the stage show opening in Australia 20 years after the film premiered. Remember for the latest episodes of the Screen Australia podcast you can subscribe through Spotify and iTunes, where you can feel free to leave a rating and review. If you have any feedback, send it to [email protected] . For updates from the local screen industry, subscribe to Screen Australia's e-newsletter where you'll get all the latest articles, videos, funding announcements and more delivered to your inbox every fortnight. Without further ado, first off here's director, writer and producer Baz Luhrmann talking about how Moulin Rouge the movie first came about. 

[00:02:23] Baz Luhrmann I've got endless ideas, things I think 'I must make that one day', but I always spend a lot of time working out 'what might be good to put out there right now'. And I was debating about reinventing the musical, but I decided doing a modern dress Shakespeare might be easier. So I did Romeo + Juliet. And then I thought, well, now's the time to look at how do you reinterpret the musical? That was the first gesture. And then the next thing I do is identify a myth, an underlying story that I can relate to, because that's about the most selfish thing you do during the process, is you go I'd better have a story that I'm thinking about, that means something to me, because the rest of it is about really giving out, you know, a landscape of collaborators. So that would have been me identifying, I guess, the Orpheum myth. And if you look at Christian's story, it's the story of a young man who is in pursuit of a kind of youthful ideal love or an ideal life, and runs away, rejects the life of the family and goes into the underworld. There's a king of the underworld who has some abilities and because of those abilities, he's able to move through the underworld and, you know, Satine, the character of Satine is this symbol of ideal love and of course, pursues that. But it's a love that can never really be. And so that is lost. But then the main character returns, having grown from the journey. That's really the Orpheum myth, it's about growth, growing up. So I kind of needed to do a growing up piece, you know, because I needed to grow up. And I took those two things, got very, very busy and deeply involved, as I do, in the research process with Craig Pearce, who is my high school chum and collaborator on many projects, and of course, Catherine Martin. And we went to Paris and that's where we started researching the Moulin Rouge. 

[00:04:19] Caris Bizzaca And talking about that kind of movie musical, so the logistics of having a movie musical are very difficult in terms of obtaining of rights, but also delivering a cohesive sound. Can you talk us through that musical process? 

[00:04:36] Baz Luhrmann Well, I think - and this really speaks to the current live production - I think if there's a really big stroke in the invention of Moulin Rouge, it's that on the journey there with my collaborators, we were always looking at what are the rules, what's the science of previously existing musicals. Now, one of the things was that the classic musicals of the Hollywood era would have new songs, but also they would have old songs - music that everybody could sing along to. So I think that what I call 'the preposterous conceit' in the musical, in the show, in Moulin Rouge is that the genius poet comes to Paris and he opens his mouth and apparently out comes genius, at the time, 'poetry'. In the musical, it's changed to genius song. And that's where this preposterous, crazy idea that's kind of silly, but engages the audience in a very visceral way. When our poet opens his mouth out comes a popular tune of the 20th century, you know 'the hills are alive with Sound of Music'. And everyone goes 'oh my God, that's great'. Now. Well, that's funny. And while it's fun to hear all of this, all of these musical references you love, and I got to tell you, in the production of the theatrical version of Moulin Rouge, the one opening in Melbourne right now, the new team, the younger team that's taken this notion, they've even gone further with the idea of quoting every possible song you could possibly think of and turning it into something new. Now that is an old, but new idea. And so that notion, that 'preposterous conceit' has been consistent throughout the whole show. Easy enough to think of, but to do it, this is way before the invention of the 'mash up'. So publishing was almost impossible. Now, this may not make the cut and it may be boring, but technically speaking, in those days, musicals had what they called grand rights. So you could never take, say, a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune away from the musical and use it separately. Popular tunes, you know, like 'All you need is love' from the Beatles, to put that with another song, publishers would lose their minds and it cost a fortune. So the great journey for us on the movie, and it only really happened. We both [music producer] Anton Monsted and everybody involved, but it only really happened because I would pick up the phone to an Elton John, who I did not know at the time, and tell him the idea. And it was the artists. It was everyone from Elton John to David Bowie and Bono and people like that - or Dolly Parton. I'll never forget meeting with her. And she said, 'well, that song of mine's been a hit twice, maybe you'll make it three times'. And you know, like it was the artists who went, 'I can see this working, and I want my song to be in a musical'. Not to diss the publishing companies, but there's no way they could have seen the vision of this working. So it was a personal - going around the world, meaning often icons of mine and telling them about the show. And because they're creative people, they got it. I mean, that elephant love medley with all those love songs in it, if you can even imagine back 20 years ago to have got that - the publishing, the money involved, the artist signing off: almost impossible. And yet today you see a lot of it. See now it's nothing in a show to have a hundred mashups. But it was really, really a challenge then. 

[00:08:06] Caris Bizzaca And, you know, you mentioned then some of the artists that you approached, the film itself has some of the most celebrated artists, not just in music, but in stage and screen. When you were writing this, did you envision all those people for those roles? 

[00:08:24] Baz Luhrmann Yeah, actually, interesting and good question, because it was quite scientific. It wasn't. I often say this over the years I've talked about Moulin Rouge is that it wasn't like I went like, well, here's my favourite songs, how can we weave a story throughout the favourite songs. We structured the story - Craig and I would meticulously go through the beats of the story and go, 'OK, the character is saying, I love you, I love you, I love you. How many love songs fit that emotional trajectory?' You know, sometimes it was just a question of lists. Sometimes it was just really offhanded inspiration. And it really was the iconic - as well as start-up artists - but the iconic artists were the ones who were quicker to say, 'go with my blessing'. 

[00:09:12] Caris Bizzaca And similarly with that question, yes, kind of talking about the music. But did you write it as well with those cast members in mind for those roles? 

[00:09:23] Baz Luhrmann I would have had structure for sure. Also being Australian, you have to travel all the time. So I'd be on casting tours and meeting musicians, but I already had structure and scenes but that continued to evolve. And then when even the casting of Ewan and Nicole, when that was done, of course, once I got them into workshopping and rehearsals in Australia, that took on a whole life of its own. And, you know, Nicole recorded so much of her vocals in our house, in the lounge room, in the House of Iona. Yeah. I mean, I had so many artists come and we had mobile rigs in those days. They were considered this new idea that you could actually record anywhere. And so we did most of it in the house and like Spectacular, Spectacular or just, you know, Jose Feliciano on guitar in the lounge room. It was the way we made things. Still do. And every single part of it was shot indoors in sound stages. And that was a challenge in itself because you're indoors all the time. You know, it's only night. And for a film that looks a whole lot of fun and there was great joy in it and really romantic times, it was difficult. It was difficult, and, you know, Nicole and I went through really personal big life issues and it was bonding as well. It was just kind of the ethos of the movie, a whole lot of truth, beauty, freedom and love. 

[00:10:52] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, and you know as well, like what was the toughest scene, do you think, to shoot? 

[00:11:00] Baz Luhrmann Let me just think about that for a second, because a lot of the set numbers meaning the musical numbers and dance like that. They look tough. You know, the big Chamma Chamma at the end, you think that's going to be tough. But actually, you're so ready by the time you get there, you're about to shoot. You basically shoot multicam. So that stuff is not too bad. I tell you what was difficult, actually. It was difficult to shoot Satine's death behind the stage, with Ewan. And Ewan's emotion and like by then, the movie was, the emotions of everyone were just raw and the millennum has come and Nicole was going through her difficult moment. I'd had mine and we were making the movie and movie had been everything. And then Ewan had to really open his heart, just open his heart, and expose this kind of wailing crying. And when that's happening, it's an intimacy that you don't want to interrupt. So you're letting it go like that. But at the same time, you looking at the monitor going like, 'oh, my God, her dress is sticking up in front of her nose'. And so you literally go in there while the cameras are rolling. And I have to go in there. And obviously I'm really not saying it's like birth, but you know how a mother gets really angry when you're trying to help the birth? It's like they're kind of not angry, but you're in there and you're trying to adjust and keep it going and keep the life of it going, but also get the shots. And also of course for my sins, I thought wouldn't be a great idea if the entire cast is standing around watching. So you've not only got this heart-wrenching scene going on, Ewan's totally exposing himself in only the way that a great actor can in a moment like that. So it's not fake wailing. It's absolutely heart wrenching. And then every actor from Jim Broadbent to someone whose first time they've been in a movie is standing there emoting, too. So, you know, that kind of stuff is really, that's hard because you think, 'will I disturb it, will I regret in those days it wasn't as easy to rub things out, [so] will I regret not going in and asking them to go again and move the camera up two inches?' And, you know, we all get highly strung about things like that. And my job is to take on everyone's fear. The way I like to work is create an environment of security and trust. And where people play as creatives feel completely secure. If you have a lot of fear in there, it just gets all joyless. 

[00:13:37] Caris Bizzaca And so if we go back 2001, Cannes Film Festival, opening night, world premiere, Moulin Rouge. 

[00:13:43] Baz Luhrmann Wild night. Great party. 

[00:13:46] Caris Bizzaca (Laughs) Can you tell me- 

[00:13:48] Baz Luhrmann Amazing party. Nicole and Fatboy Slim DJ-ing together, the dancers from the Moulin Rouge, the Spiegeltent, which had never been seen outside I think of Germany, which is now a fixture at the festival. Great party. 

[00:14:03] Caris Bizzaca And so Cannes, that opening night. Can you tell me a bit about the atmosphere there and the reaction from the audience? 

[00:14:08] Baz Luhrmann Yes, it's like everything I do. There's kind of always a split reaction. Pretty much like - I mean, Strictly Ballroom, it was unusual in that it was a twelve o'clock screening and it was low key. No one expected it. And we were nobodies really at all. But with Moulin, they were waiting. And there was a kind of, I remember this, Francis Ford Coppola was there and I knew him very well and he was there, so supportive. I think he was releasing the long play of Apocalypse Now, one of the great films. And we just come in off the PR tour. And yeah, the papers came out, and I think Time came out. There were two Richards. Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss, two critics, just to give you an idea, just to remind you of how split people were: at the end of the year when people did their wrap up, one Richard called it the second best movie of the year, and the other one was the second worst movie of the year. So that's how polarising it was. Super polarising. And then, of course, after opening night, you've got to face these junkets. You're out on the rocks in these little cabanas and you've got all the journalists coming in, but you also got the reviews coming in. And Nicole and I were really, really... we knew it was going to shake people up a bit and it was that different. But we weren't ready for the vitriol, right, of some press. And then there were some commentators that sort of stood up and said, 'really dig this', but they weren't sure, you know? And then we went out and then had a great engagement with the audience. But what really happened was then we started getting nominated and the audience found it and the audience celebrated it and it became like-

[00:15:40] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, it became kind of part of popular culture. 

[00:15:42] Baz Luhrmann Yeah, everyone thinks back like they always do. They always think, oh, it just kind of arrived. And of course, so obvious: reinvent the musical. I mean the music was non, it was DOA back then. 

[00:15:54] Caris Bizzaca And as fate would have it, Moulin Rouge the Musical is releasing in the twentieth anniversary of the film, so a real full circle moment. When you think back from the film to now, what comes to mind? 

[00:16:10] Baz Luhrmann I mean, this is not always going to work, but I always set about doing my work with the idea of it not particularly being, you know, of a flash of lightning, meaning it's the grooviest, hippest thing now, but has no life going on. And the thing that I find most fulfilling is that works that have been made twenty years ago. I mean, Romeo + Juliet is now getting on 30 years. Strictly Ballroom's at least 30, I think. You know, the fact that they still have life and they go on and they reconnect, albeit decoded and recoded through to audiences now, is very fulfilling that they're still living. I mean, there's nothing wrong with people who also make stuff that is kind of like snapshot. You know, it's amazing noise and you never really want to go and see it again. That's great, too. But I think the fact that I know whether I'm around or not it will be ongoing just means that the work that everyone put into it is still putting joy out there. So that's a good thing. 

[00:17:02] Caris Bizzaca And when you think about the cinema experience, what is it that you personally love about the cinema? 

[00:17:09] Baz Luhrmann People, audiences. Like audiences going into a room, all mostly strangers, the lights coming down and being unified by watching a story play out. When you laugh, you laugh with others. When you cry, you cry with others, people you've never met, and when you walk out of there, you feel not alone, you feel part of the bigger human picture. And I think that the future, the future is always bright because people will always want to get together and commune over story. It will just change in form. I mean, television came along and everyone said, 'oh, you know, movies are over in the 50s. That's it, because you can watch it at home!' Movies just got better and bigger. Movies from the 50s on just got Vista Scope and gigantuan. Or they got more director driven or they got serious or they just found ways of going, 'OK, let's punch in, in a certain time and a certain place'. There is no set rule how you do that. It's about having yourself open and knowing in the work we do that that's your number one priority is to decode the story for a particular audience in a particular place at a particular time. That is the rub of it. 

[00:18:20] Caris Bizzaca And so you are part of one of the most successful creative partnerships in Australia. What is your creative process? Where do script, design, direction and music meet? 

[00:18:33] Baz Luhrmann Look, I'm a serial collaborator, but I absolutely bring something to the party in every era. I don't even think about departments. I just never have. You know: idea, structure, story, music. I mean, you know, CM and I, but also other collaborators like CM and I, of course, on the visual language of it I bring my own very particular starting points and my own way of expressing. And CM's absolutely genius is that, it's not like I go 'there it is. You go do it'. We are always in dialogue about it, but she just comes up with ways of doing things that I would never think of. And I think what needs to be celebrated about CM more than anything [is] on the films and on the storytelling works, I always have to deliver the the first gesture, however clumsy that is. But she has an aesthetic in her homewares, her interior design. Just recently, we have a space up in the GC for post. I have to do with spaces for example, the actor comes in. I know that that space is only going to exist for one minute in time. So where the stairs are is secretly all about drama. Whereas when CM takes a real building and says, 'I want to make this room great', she has a science and a kind of sensibility to take a horrible room - she could make this room feel great not to be in as a set, that's one set of her skills, but she can make this room great to live in and that's an incredible gift she's got. 

[00:20:02] Caris Bizzaca Now to hear from Catherine Martin herself, who won two Academy Awards for her work on Moulin Rouge, one shared with fellow costume designer Angus Strathie, and the other with set decorator Brigette Broch. In total for her work Catherine has won four Oscars, five BAFTAs and a Tony. But here she is talking about the reaction from industry to the idea of making Moulin Rouge a movie musical. 

[00:20:27] Catherine Martin Well, back in the day, there were three things that the studio hated, and that was hats, facial hair and break out into song musicals. So Baz kind of had the trifecta of studio dislikes. And I think that's a testament to his strength of will and his artistic ability, that he was able to create something that transcended all of those sort of dislikes and prejudices that the studio had against a movie like this. So, yeah, I think break out into song musicals before Moulin Rouge weren't very popular. And I think even the first trailer of Moulin Rouge, there was no one singing in it. We weren't allowed to have a poster with anyone in a hat. And for anyone who's watched Moulin Rouge, that's quite hard to do. And yeah, moustaches were quite controversial. 

[00:21:27] Caris Bizzaca And so some people would maybe be surprised to learn that it was filmed in Sydney. Was the plan always to film it in Sydney? 

[00:21:34] Catherine Martin Yes, I think Baz - we had wanted to shoot Romeo + Juliet in Sydney, but basically the finances fundamentally didn't work out. We actually went and created a budget for Sydney, and in the process of creating that budget, there was more of an offset, a Producer Offset. So it became more interesting to shoot something like Moulin Rouge in Sydney because you could make the numbers work and it seemed very attractive to the studio. The other great thing about Australia and about Sydney at that time, I already had collaborators who had worked with me on other things and had all of the expertise to be able to not only make all the costumes, understood all the underpinnings, we had the ability to do just about anything the collective's imaginations decided to dream up. 

[00:22:35] Caris Bizzaca And when you think back on the experience of making Moulin Rouge, is there any memories that kind of jump out at you? 

[00:22:43] Catherine Martin What memories jump out at me? I think I remember it being a kind of wild, dangerous, life affirming ride. So it was great. You did feel a bit like, you know, on enfantible, running around Fox Studios, making a movie that seemed to work against Hollywood norms. It felt rebellious and poetical. And I obviously am really thrilled that Baz invited me on that ride. 

[00:23:18] Caris Bizzaca And I mean, any film brings with it its own unique challenges for set and costume design, I imagine, anyway. But what were they in particular for Moulin Rouge? 

[00:23:30] Catherine Martin Well, with Moulin Rouge, because it was an entirely created world film, so we weren't dealing with elements of contemporary reality, so there was no popping out to Coles to get a T-shirt and a pair of flip flops. It was everything had to be made from scratch or sourced from a specialist shop, or shopped in Paris, or shipped in, or created. And we're lucky enough to have very talented model makers and prop makers who can make just about anything. But I think it's when you're creating something that's its own reality and you're trying to make that consistent and perfect, it means that everything within that world needs to be consistent and thought out. So if the camera pans over a table at the Moulin Rouge, there has to be the right glassware. There has to be the right absinthe spoon. There has to be in this case, they didn't have branded matches, but they had these strange egg cup like things that had a scratchy surface on one side and they would put matches in the top on the bar and you could scratch the side. But everything needed to be researched. It needed to be drawn. And it needed to be sculpted, in the case of this funny egg cup thing. And then it needed to be manufactured en masse. And it was only the very, very beginning of 3D printing. I think that was something that we never believed that we would be able to use as a prop-making technique. Now, you can sculpt one thing, scan it, put it into the 3D printer, and it takes a while because it's printing one little sheet of particles after another. But you can actually make multiples of something in a mechanised way, where back in the day it just involved a lot more handwork. So I think the thing that's the best about shows like Moulin Rouge is it's all about the imagination and about creating a world. And the scariest thing is to be able to maintain your way through the straight and narrow of budget because that can easily get away with you. It's the volume of things that you have to do. And it's time, because when you have to make everything no one says to you on set 'oh OK. You didn't get all the petticoats ready for the can can scene? No problem, we can wait another day'. The camera waits for no man or woman. 

[00:26:26] Caris Bizzaca And so then looking at, thinking about the production design, the costume design, are there any particular things that you feel most proud of? 

[00:26:35] Catherine Martin I think that I feel proud that costume, production design, the set dressing, the props, all work in concert with every other department on the movie to create the story, help support the story. That the narrative - that the creation of the characters by the actors and Baz - are all supported in concert by all these sort of infinite strands that are indivisible from each other when you see them on screen. I feel very proud of that. It's nice to be in the orchestra. And because my interest, of course, is design. So I always think of us as the first violinists. We're not the conductor, but we're pretty important to the way that the narrative of the story takes place. We try and support that storytelling. 

[00:27:35] Caris Bizzaca And of the top 10 all-time highest-grossing Australian films at the local box office, Bazmark has four of them, which is pretty incredible. So Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge, Australia, The Great Gatsby. What is it about your films do you feel like really resonates with Australian audiences? 

[00:27:56] Catherine Martin I think we're certainly the hometown team, so that probably helps us resonate with our Australian audience. I think that Australians have a lot of pride also in work that's made in their own town. I think that Baz has always tried to showcase the very best of Australia in his movies, actors, you know, as I spoke of all of the artisans and crafts people that work on the movies. And to me, that is very impactful, I think, in a country that's so far away from everything else. It's a huge land mass with very few people. Quite often we feel very far away from, you know, we feel that the big, bold, red, beating heart of the world is somewhere else, so I think Australians like to remember that we can tell stories that take place anywhere in the world. That we have the resources here to make big movies by anybody's standards and that we can be slightly larrikin and lead the way and not be disrespectful, but challenge authority and challenge the ways that people think you ought to do things. 

[00:29:34] Caris Bizzaca That was production designer and costume designer Catherine Martin and thanks to Catherine and Baz Luhrmann for joining us on the podcast, as well as to the Bazmark and Global Creatures teams. A reminder that you can watch Moulin Rouge on Disney +, while Moulin Rouge the musical will premiere in Melbourne in August, and to keep an eye out for the Elvis biopic in the future. For more episodes of the Screen Australia podcast, subscribe through iTunes, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to the fortnightly Screen Australia newsletter for the latest updates from the local industry. Thanks for listening.