CLOSE
Original image
YouTube

12 Star-Crossed Facts About Romeo + Juliet

Original image
YouTube

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. To celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary, 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 Guardian, 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.

YouTube

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.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
arrow
science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
SECTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES