F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is widely recognised as a literary masterwork.
Yet as even the book’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, said to Fitzgerald about a draft of the 1925 novel, the title character “is somewhat vague.”
Hazy doesn’t work in cinema, so when director Baz Luhrmann decided to bring Gatsby to the screen, he and his creative team went on the filmmaking equivalent of an anthropological dig.
The goal: unearth what was left unsaid in Fitzgerald’s slender tale of Jay Gatsby, a millionaire bootlegger, and his unrequited love for a married socialite, Daisy Buchanan.
The film, opening May 10, overflows with all the touches you’d expect from the director of Moulin Rouge! – elaborate production and costume design, modern music in a period setting, theatrical acting – while hitting the seminal scenes and lines in Fitzgerald’s classic.
But Luhrmann recognised the danger of missing Gatsby’s emotional forest for all of the novel’s expositional trees.
So he, co-screenwriter Craig Pearce and a cast headed by Leonardo DiCaprio (who plays Gatsby), Carey Mulligan (Daisy) and Tobey Maguire (narrator Nick Carraway) looked for clues wherever they could be found – and then came to their own storytelling conclusions.
Luhrmann delved into Fitzgerald’s life, letters and other writings, ultimately relying heavily on Trimalchio – an early draft of Gatsby and biographies of his wife, Zelda, whom the novelist described as the first American flapper. One of Daisy’s lines comes from a note the novelist sent to his early love, Ginevra King.
“I have one duty – to the best of my ability to captain the storytelling team, and to tell and reveal the story,” said the 50-year-old Luhrmann, who followed his Oscar-nominated Moulin Rouge! with the critical and commercial disappointment Australia.
“I set out to reveal ‘The Great Gatsby,’ but I also set out to do a movie of it.”
While Gatsby’s famous bashes are even more excessive in Luhrmann’s imagination than in the novel, with fireworks choreographed to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the director said he labored to keep the story intimate and immersive.
He filmed several sequences in long takes, as if The Great Gatsby were live theatre, and shot it in 3-D; the stereoscopic technology, Luhrmann said, heightens the film’s emotions, moving the audience from spectators to participants. “It was our poetic glue,” the director said of 3-D.
The director briefly needed his own adhesive to keep the project from falling apart.
Worried about its budget, Sony Pictures backed out (the film was ultimately co-produced by Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow), and numerous production delays, some tied to weather, postponed the film’s release from last fall to May.
Luhrmann began to consider adapting the novel after listening to it as a recorded book while travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway after finishing 2001’s Moulin Rouge! But it took a while to figure out how to translate it into a cinematic language that preserved Fitzgerald’s voice.
His answer, and one of the film’s most notable departures from the novel, is revealed as soon as the movie starts. Traumatized by all he has witnessed, Nick is convalescing in a sanitarium. A doctor prescribes that he write about what happened in West and East Egg, the respective New York homes of Gatsby and Daisy, and Nick’s recollections become the movie’s framing device.
That hurdle behind him, Luhrmann and his team turned their attention to the film’s supporting characters: Daisy’s husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton); Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher); Myrtle’s husband, George (Jason Clarke); and Daisy’s friend and accomplished golfer Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki).
The task, as DiCaprio said, was tying to sort out “the choose-your-own interpretation of who these people are.” “What makes ‘Gatsby’ the book that it is,” the actor said, “is that people still have conversations about it.”
Luhrmann said that adapting any well-known text will raise someone’s dander. And it may not just be his telling of the story that is faulted – his unconventional musical choices may prove polarizing.
Just as he used songs by Elton John, David Bowie and U2’s Bono in Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann infused The Great Gatsby with tracks from an array of modern musicians – Florence Welch and Lana Del Rey, plus Kanye West and the husband-and-wife duo of Beyonce and Jay-Z (the last serves as an executive producer).
Luhrmann said criticism is inevitable whenever you touch a hallowed text, be it by Shakespeare or Fitzgerald. “If you go near anything, you are going to be tarred and feathered,” he said.
Mulligan agreed that purists likely won’t be happy with the film. “I feel that way about my favourite books,” she said. “But I think people will come away witness to an epic love story.”