Great Gatsby (2013): Interview with Director Baz (Moulin Rouge) Luhrmann

Baz Luhrmann, who was Oscar nominated for “Moulin Rouge!” in 2001, directed The Great Gatsby in 3D from a screenplay that he co-wrote with collaborator Craig Pearce, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel.

Luhrmann produced, along with Catherine Martin, Douglas Wick (“Gladiator”), Lucy Fisher and Catherine Knapman. The executive producers are Barrie M. Osborne (“The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King”), Shawn “JAY Z” Carter, and Bruce Berman.

Writer-producer-director Baz Luhrmann first encountered “The Great Gatsby” on the screen, in 1974, in a version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow that was both an artistic and commercial flop. It was in remote Heron’s Creek, Australia, where his father ran the gas station and, briefly, the cinema.

Cut to 2004. Cold, northern Russia. The clatter of train tracks. The flicker of light through the frosty window. “I had just wrapped ‘Moulin Rouge!’ and was off on ‘a debriefing adventure’ Luhrmann recalls. “Crazily enough, I’d decided to take the Trans-Siberian Express from Beijing, across northern Russia, and then on to Paris to meet my wife and newly born daughter, Lilly.” And it was in Siberia, in a sardine-box of a cabin, that Luhrmann again re-encountered The Great Gatsby, this time as an audio book, one of two he had with him.

“I poured some wine, looked out and saw Siberia racing by, and started listening. It was four o’clock in the morning before I fell asleep,” he recalls. “The next day, I could not wait for night to come, to get back in my little box, pour the second bottle of wine, and listen to the last part. At the end of it I realized three things: One, that I hadn’t really known The Great Gatsby at all; two, that it was structurally really concise; and three, there’s a really great film in it. Of course there’s a huge inherent challenge—the expression of Nick Carraway’s inner life, his inner voice—but it’s an incredibly cinematic book. I thought, ‘I’d like to make this movie one day.'” And so, as the train beat on against the rusty tracks, the first imaginings of Luhrmann’s adaption of The Great Gatsby were born.

Luhrmann joined forces with producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher who, like Luhrmann, had been trying to secure the film rights for some time. “We spent two years trying to get the rights. It was very complicated,” says Fisher. “Then one day there was a knock on our door at the office, and it was Baz Luhrmann saying, ‘I, too, am trying to do The Great Gatsby.’ We were very excited because, in our minds, there could be no better director for it. It was like a dream come true. It was suddenly a way to see and be part of the ’20s. When you work with Baz, you take a time machine to a different world.”

Securing the rights was the first step, but Luhrmann knew that, ultimately, the project would be pinned on the title character. He needed to find an actor who could express Gatsby’s core complexity, smile “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it,”* and then, in a flash, look “as if he had killed a man.”

Luhrmann says, “I’d been secretly working on it for some time, knowing all along who I’d like to play Jay Gatsby. Really, it wasn’t difficult to think of someone! complex, romantic, glamorous, great actor.” Leonardo DiCaprio, with whom Luhrmann had worked on “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” and whom Luhrmann counted as a friend and collaborator, was the obvious choice.

That novel reveals a world and a story of New York City, the city that Fitzgerald called his “splendid mirage,” the city where Fitzgerald found early success and initial inspiration for the book. For Luhrmann and the Bazmark caravan, that city was the critical first stop. At a suite at the Ace Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, and then on the corner of Canal and Broadway, on the 24th and 26th floors of building number 401, Bazmark set up shop, including: his wife, Oscar®-winning costume and production designer Catherine Martin, who has collaborated with Luhrmann on the distinctive look of all his films and theatre productions for over 20 years; Anton Monsted, executive music supervisor and co-producer on the film; Craig Pearce, scriptwriter, friend and writing partner on Luhrmann’s “Red Curtain Trilogy”; and the rest of their creative production team.

New York City, “the racy, adventurous feel of it at night…the constant flicker of men and women and machines,”* was a source of inspiration. The whole team fed off the energy and the history of the place, in its way its own character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel.

“While in New York, we did a lot of reading about the time—particularly the financial system, the bond and stock markets,” says Pearce. “We were in the middle of the global financial crisis…or just coming out of it.”

“I think The Great Gatsby feels more relevant now than ever,” Wick offers. “In a time with a glittering but unreliable economy, and a prevalent sense that we have lost our way, Gatsby could have been written yesterday. But it wasn’t. The book takes you to another time and place, a lost world of blinding allure, of extravagant hope and crashing dreams, which we knew Baz, more than anyone imaginable, could deliver for an audience.”

“Fitzgerald, I think, sensed a fundamental crack in the moral fabric of the 1920s, that things could not keep going up, up, up, as they were, couldn’t last,” says Luhrmann, “and that felt very relevant to the global financial crash of 2008. It felt parallel. If I think about it now, this fact is what told me I had to do Gatsby now and in this way. We came to New York because we had to be in New York to learn about and understand for ourselves those parallels of place, culture and mindset—Jazz Age and today.”

“Baz is a very literary director. If he’s going to make a movie based on a book, it’s because he wants to reveal what he believes is the center of the story,” Martin explains. “So, we always start with the descriptions in the book and then we try to make discoveries and, like a detective, unearth certain things.”

“When I first start working on any project, I always begin by collecting,” Luhrmann describes his process. “In terms of a visual language, I’ll just start collecting photographs and making collages and my terrible scribbles. This is how I start with CM: terrible scribbles that no one can read, and she’s so lovely. She says, ‘No, they’re full of emotion!’ What she means is only I know what that scribble is, right?”

“We’re blessed because the photographic image and also filmmaking was extremely prevalent in the ’20s,” adds Martin. “So, the time was captured not only in illustrations and drawings—cartoons of the times—but there are extensive photo archives. It’s very exciting, because you see the birth of our modern contemporary culture.”

In addition to collating paraphernalia from the era, Luhrmann and his team meticulously explored the Gatsby text, and Fitzgerald’s other writings, in particular the author’s first draft of The Great Gatsby, titled Trimalchio (a tribute to the famous Roman party-giver who appears in the Roman novel Satyricon), and consulted with its editor, Pennsylvania State University professor and Fitzgerald scholar James L. West III.

The team also undertook a variety of field trips, from the grand mansions of Long Island to the highline in Astoria, and the green lawns of Louisville, where Daisy grew up and first met Gatsby. Luhrmann also visited Don Skemer, Curator of Manuscripts at the Princeton University Library, where Fitzgerald was a student and where the F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers and related collections are kept.

This is due in part to the discovery and evolution of “Fitzlish.” Pearce explains, “Fitzlish is language that grew out of our reverence for, and desire to include, as much of Fitzgerald’s prose as we could, to write voice-over or dialogue that sat within the style of Fitzgerald’s prose and captured its power and beauty, but that was also accessible to a modern ear. Also, when you read the book cover to cover it runs for seven hours, so on a purely technical level we had to condense and we had to take interior thoughts and put them into action that was externalized, because it is a film. At a certain point we found we needed to come up with some rules for a language that could do that, and that is what ‘Fitzlish’ grew out of.”

Luhrmann wanted to be faithful to the book and the epoch and also to make the story accessible for a new generation, to create a cultural weave. Using contemporary music for the soundtrack—collaborating with ground-breaking artist and executive producer on the film, Shawn “JAY Z” Carter—was an integral part of this weave.

“We wanted to allow people to feel what it would’ve felt like to live in that incredibly modern time, when the world was being born and everyone was so young and so beautiful and so drunk and so crazy and so rich and living like that,” Pearce says. “We wanted it to feel exactly how it would feel to us to be going to the most amazing nightclub in the world and driving the fastest car you’ve ever driven. We had to make some decisions early on about what music we’d use, and how to present the story using music.”

It was a page out of Fitzgerald’s own storytelling playbook. He himself included over 70 popular songs in his writings, including the 1922 number one hit “Three O’Clock in the Morning” in Gatsby.

“I think that anything that becomes a classic is a classic because it moves through time and geography,” says Luhrmann. “Now, what I mean by that is it’s relevant in any country and at any time. You know, usually these things are like that because the stories are universal human stories, and we know the people. And Gatsby is like that. And so that is the story all of us set out to tell right from the start.”