Originally set in Italy in Shakespeare’s play, it is set in a mythical place in America, in Baz Lurhman’s film. Lurhman chose to set the film in a mythical place simply because it would allow him to use his imagination to its fullest, making the place whatever and however he wished it to be. It also prevents viewers from stereotyping, anticipating, expecting and comparing the setting to a place they know of. Basing Romeo and Juliet in a real place would have restricted Lurhman from achieving the effect he wished to create.
His use of contemporary weapons and costumes create a modernised version of Shakespeare’s original which allows the viewers to identify with it. In fact Baz Lurhman has created a world of his own using the setting, the music, the costumes and props, the camera angles, the editing and lighting and colour to make Romeo & Juliet a true success.
Setting plays a big part in influencing the viewer’s feelings and ideas and building up the atmosphere.
It is also quite varied to create contrast. The film starts with a dark room and a single T.V showing the news. As the camera zooms in, it focuses on the face of the statue of Jesus. Then it zooms out to reveal two buildings, both the same height but on opposite sides, one with the name Capulet on the top and one with Montague. This shows the viewers immediately the status of the two. Both equal and yet so different.
The scenes then focus on the city. We see traffic, helicopters flying, tall skyscrapers, casualties and scenes of overall chaos. This world that the viewers are shown is a world of crime overwhelmed with violence and out of control people.
Referring to the statue between the two buildings, the fact that the statue of Jesus is used holds a certain symbolism. Lurhman was trying to compare the deaths of Romeo and Juliet to the death of Jesus. The positioning of the statue implies that the two lovers, Romeo and Juliet did not identify with either side but were caught in the middle. The sacrifice of Jesus was to save the people of this world and similarly the sacrifice of Romeo & Juliet would end the feud and bring the two families together creating peace in their frenzied world, hence saving the people of fair Verona of the misery and the pain and the turmoil caused by the feud.
As a contrast to the violence of the city is the beach. At least at the beginning of the film, it is a place of peace and tranquillity where people could escape from the commotion. It is away from the chaos of the city, almost like a world within a world, like a sanctuary. Later on in the film even the beach is inflicted of violence and the crime, when the murder of Mercutio takes place. The hatred between the families is like a plague which kept on spreading and if it hadn’t been stopped, would have overwhelmed the whole world. In fact throughout the film the setting and the events brought the film to its inevitable ending.
The setting is also used as an instrument to show us the viewers the ‘good’ people from the ‘bad’. Romeo, Juliet and the friar are always surrounded by nature, giving us the message of clarity and innocence. For example, when Romeo & Juliet first meet, they meet at the fish tank. Fish and water are part of nature. When we first meet the priest, he is surrounded by plants, again part of nature.
In contrast when we first meet Tybalt, we see him at the petrol station, a place prone to catching fire, with guns.
Along with the setting another big part of the film is the music. The music in any film plays a huge part as the music is the thing that gives any scene its atmosphere. In a scene if two different types of music are played each will have a totally different effect on the atmosphere of that scene.
In the film, when we see the two families, at the petrol station, the music for each is very different. When we meet the Montague boys, the music is very loud, fast and crude. When we see the Capulet boys, the music changes to western style, the type used in western movies. The music helps us to understand the style of the two ‘gangs’. The non-existent use of sound bridges creates fairly erratic music which stops and starts creating clear distinction between characters.
Just as the families influence the music so do individual characters. Through the type of western style music used when Tybalt is introduced tells us the type of individual he is, sleek, spiteful and ruthless.
On the other hand, when we meet Romeo for the first time, the music is sluggish, laidback and relaxed and also a bit melancholy, accentuating Romeo’s feelings. When Romeo and Juliet first meet, a diegetic song plays in the background, which is slow and romantic and is the only piece with sound bridges making the music consistent and flowing.
Use of music in this way helps to set the mood of the situation as well as the feelings of the characters, helping the audience to understand them.
Throughout the film non-diegetic sound is used but there are parts which make good use of diegetic sound, as I have mentioned earlier. When the Montague boys are introduced, the music being played by them in their car effectively renders their characters. The non-diegetic sound used in the film is also used effectively to create pace, tension and excitement. Right at the beginning, after the newsreader scene, the non-diegetic sound used is linked with the clips, from the movie, which are shown. The music and the clips are slow to start off with but get faster and faster building up to a climax and then ending with a big deafening sound and then stopping completely to silence for about two seconds and then another piece starts. This is a very good technique as it creates anxiety and nervousness in the audience.
Although the setting and the music link together well to create this sadistic world, the use of camera is also very important in order to create tension and reactions. One scene which shows how the use of camera, dialogue and editing style can create the right atmosphere is the scene at the petrol station.
We meet the Montague boys; the camera focuses on their number plate ‘Mon 005’. They stop at the petrol station and the camera focuses on the sign ‘Phoenix Gas’. It is quite ironic that the camera focuses on this, as ‘Phoenix’ is a bird who is supposed to rise out of fire. It is like a prophecy about what’s going to happen.
Then the Capulet boys enter the petrol station and as before the camera focuses on their number plate ‘Cap 005’. The number plates are another thing they both have in common. These little things which are so alike show us the similarity of the two families in wealth and status and to some extent nature. When the two gangs see each other, each one shows their family crest like badges and the camera focuses on both. The camera then focuses on the silver teeth work of Abra, a Capulet, with the word ‘sin’ on it. The two families try to intimidate each other with things like this as the music builds up and the camera moves from one side to another. Then suddenly Abra yells ‘Boo’ causing the Montague on the other side to fall backwards out of fear. Things then start hotting up and the two men end up pointing their guns at each other when Benvolio returns. When he sees what is going on he takes his gun out and the camera focuses on the engraved ‘sword 9mm’. He commands them to “Put down thy swords” as the camera focuses on his movement from one side to the other. The speed at this point is rather fast. Benvolio then says “Poor fools, you know not what you do!” He is like a voice of reason in this disarray. At this point Tybalt enters.
Everything in the background quiets down and the camera focuses on the heels of Tybalt’s boots, as he gets out of his car, crushing his falling cigarette. The camera is in slow motion at this instant and then moves suddenly to focus on Benvolio’s restless fear-filled eyes. The camera then focuses on Tybalt’s face as he is introduced as the ‘Prince of Cats’ implying how powerful he is and the fact that his primacy allows him to have 9 lives, resembling a cat. His movements are slow but calculated. The camera again focuses on Benvolio as he asks Tybalt for peace. The camera shifts to Tybalt’s face, with an amused expression. “Peace-Peace, I hate the word, as I hate hell, and all Montagues.” The camera seems to be focusing on his gritted teeth as he says each word with a passionate intensity. In the background we can hear the wind blowing and silence everywhere else. The camera then swiftly moves to the sign up at the petrol station ‘Add more fuel to your fire’. The sign gives us the message that there is more to come.
The camera moves back to focus on Tybalt as he moves his jacket aside to reveal his guns “Look upon thy death” with the picture of Jesus on his t-shirt. As Tybalt takes his gun out a boy screams out behind him. At this point everything seems to accelerate. Tybalt turns back swiftly and points the gun at the kid and says ‘Bang’, all the time which the music builds up so that the audience anticipate that he’s going to shoot. The camera angles become sharp and fast, as the fighting starts, showing the urgency of the situation. As the two gangs shoot at each other the camera focuses on the sign again ‘Add more fuel to your fire ‘being shot at continuously.
During the fight, the speed fluctuates a great deal, sometimes moving very fast with the movement of the camera very erratic and occasionally moving in slow motion. Although the editing makes this scene overall fast paced the camera centres on Tybalt several times, in slow motion, as he prepares to shoot. His movements are like a ritual which it seems he has performed many times. Every distinct movement is exaggerated. His taking his jacket off then taking his gun out and kissing it. The camera also focuses on his skills with the gun. He doesn’t seem to be disturbed by the situation in the least. He seems very comfortable with the scenario and takes his time in every movement rather like a cat.
In fact all the characters in this scene seem to have an exaggeration on their personalities. When the two gangs shout at each other it is to show they are not scared, which is true for Abra but not for the Montague boy. He is very scared but tries to increase the volume of his voice to cover the fact. The camera angles in this scene focus mainly on the facial expressions especially eye movements as well as the exaggerated actions of each of the characters. It also focuses on the little things like the engravements on the gun and the signs at the petrol station to emphasize what is going on at the petrol station and to allow the viewers to understand the situation immediately and also form opinions about each character promptly.
As with the music, the light and colour used also help create the mood. After Mercutio is killed, the clouds move in and it suddenly turns very dark. The colours are very bleak and dreary.
When Romeo goes after Tybalt, it is in the dark of the night and the only light there is, is that of the moon giving everything a blue tint. The viewers themselves find it hard to make out the scene. The reason for it being dark is the fact that Lurhman was trying to show the audience the world through Romeos’ eyes, blinded in anger and moving in confusion. In this anger and confusion he kills Tybalt.
It stays dark up until Romeo and Juliet see each other again. When he goes to Juliet’s house the colour returns. It’s like Juliet brings the colour to Romeos’ life. As the colour changes, so does the atmosphere. The ambience becomes romantic. In fact in this film when there is a change in the scene the colour and lighting seem to change with it to suit its mood.
All the way through the film, especially at the beginning, props like fireworks, smoke and fire are used. They symbolise almost the same thing. In fact the city covered in smoke holds a profound significance. Smoke is the after-effect of fire and using smoke shows us, the viewers that the city has had trouble before. i.e. a raging fire, so to speak. In some ways it also represents people’s emotional fires, the anger and the rage between the two families, letting off this smoke. After the fire at the petrol station, things heated up further between the two rivals hence resulting in the two families becoming closer to each other. If truth be told, in this film a lot of physical things hold a great emotional meaning.
For example another effective use of prop was at the start of the film with the T.V and the newsreader. A lot of us associate bad news with the News. It seems to be the only news they do show. This immediately lets the audience know that the story will be terrible, even before they hear the news reader.
Parts of the props are the costumes and the costumes in this film help the viewers to understand each character and group. There is great contrast between the costumes worn by the two families. One side is very bright and colourful and the other side dark and sinister. Both the families are like gangs with their own identity. The Montague’s style is Hawaiian shirts, jewellery around the neck, sunglasses and tattoos, almost punk like. Capulets, on the hand, are sleek with black uniform like costumes and slicked back hair. Again they have a lot of jewellery and tattoos as well. Part of both groups costumes are the guns. The jewellery worn by the two families shows their wealth. Both families wear crosses around their necks. They also have crest like badges with their family name to identify themselves. Even their number plates have their family initials on. The two families are equally rich and have the same status but it’s like they can’t stand to have another family who is as wealthy as themselves. They alone want to be the lords of the city.
The main characters in the film have their own certain distinctiveness which we identify them by. For example, Tybalts’ costume immediately tells us what type of person he is. When he gets out of his car at the petrol station the camera focuses on the heels of his shoes. His metal heels make a crushing sound on the ground. He then drops his cigarette and crushes it under his heel. His body language with the help of his costume makes it clear what he thinks, about himself and others.
Later in that scene when he opens up his jacket to reveal the guns we see his t-shirt with the picture of Jesus on it. The picture is very symbolic of who Tybalt thinks he is. He thinks that he is the lord and that he is justice.
When we look at the costumes worn by the characters at the party, we discover that each character is in fact dressed as who they really are on the inside. Tybalt is dressed as the devil, the root of all evil. The other Capulet boys are dressed in skeleton costumes, bringing death? Juliet’s’ mother is dressed as Cleopatra and her father as Julius Caesar, both extravagant and exaggerated. Paris is dressed as an astronaut, out of this world, oblivious to what’s really going on. Juliet herself dresses as an angel, signifying innocence, and Romeo as the knight in shining armour, brave and valiant.
The images used in the film hold deep significance too. The fireworks are used right at the beginning of the film, between fast moving clips. The fireworks are the raging explosions between the two families which eventually led to the deaths of the two lovers.
The image of Jesus is shown constantly in one form or another, continually reminding us of the type of society this place is and the link between the death of Jesus and Romeo & Juliet. We are shown the statue of Jesus in what seems to be the city centre; we see it on Tybalt’s t-shirt, we see it in the church several times. Even the music is related to Jesus, and of course we see Jesus through the crosses that the characters wear. It is quite ironic that these people give so much importance to religion, as their actions totally contradict their faith. The world in Romeo & Juliet is supposed to be where religion is given a lot of importance but this family feud overtakes them creates such anarchy that they forget their morals and beliefs.
The world that Baz Lurhman has created in Romeo & Juliet is cruel, brutal, corrupt, unpleasant, dangerous and ruthless. His use of setting is quite varied and greatly contrasts for example the beach and the city, which although in the same place, are very diverse. The setting works well to influence the mood of each scene. The music and the setting work well together to create a range of emotions. The costumes reflect each character’s personality. There are some common themes which are emphasised through the use of props and images for example the image of Jesus shown in different forms such as the statue. The camera tends to focus a great deal on facial expressions of the actors which show us their inner feelings. The use of dialogue is limited in fight scenes but is very romantic in the sonnets. The editing style fluctuates throughout the film with some scenes being very speedy to some scenes being quite sluggish when certain actors speak their soliloquies or monologues. The lighting and colour used tend to reflect individual character’s feelings and what they see when they look upon the surroundings and the activities around them.
The way Baz Lurhman has created this film allows the audience to relate to it. It is something that the audience is familiar with. The making of this film also allows the audience to appreciate the work of Shakespeare even now, as a lot of the themes of the plays written by Shakespeare are timeless, such as Romeo & Juliet, which can be adapted to the modern era, whenever it might be, as the language can be made more understandable if the setting and the gestures used in the film by the director and the actors is familiar to the audience. This is what Baz Lurhman has done, hence making this film a success. Lurhman is famous for adaptations of many films and is well known to be an exceptional director. His most recent films include Moulin Rouge which again was a huge success.
I think Romeo & Juliet is a very exciting film. Baz Lurhman has met his aim by capturing the essence of the original story and combining it with a contemporary location and style to produce a masterpiece. He has managed successfully to create a world with great contrast of love and violence which I think Shakespeare himself wanted to create.