Great Gatsby, The: Great DiCaprio

New York—Like most Americans, star Leonardo DiCaprio first read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel “The Great Gatsby” a long time ago. “I’d read the book in junior high school and I was very moved by the story,” says DiCaprio. “When I picked up the novel again, it was when Baz Luhrmann had handed me a copy and said, ‘I’ve got the rights to this.’ It was a very daunting concept. There was responsibility to make a memorable film that will be forever connected with one of the greatest novels of all time.”

For his part, Australia’s enfant terrible Luhrmann (Oscar-nominated for “Moulin Rouge” in 2001) first encountered “The Great Gatsby” on the big screen in 1974, in a version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow that’s considered to be dull and disappointing. It was in the remote town of Heron’s Creek, where his father ran the gas station and the cinema.

Cut to 2004 and cold Russia. “I had just wrapped ‘Moulin Rouge!’ and was off on a debriefing adventure’ Luhrmann recalls. “Crazily enough, I 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.” It was in Siberia, in a tiny cabin, that Luhrmann re-encountered Great Gatsby, this time as an audio book.

“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 couldn’t wait for night to come to get back in my little box, pour the second wine bottle, and listen to the last part. At the end of it, I realized that I hadn’t really known Great Gatsby at all; that it was structurally concise; and that there’s a really great film in it. There’s a huge challenge—the expression of the inner voice of the narrator Nick Carraway—but it’s an incredibly cinematic book.'”

Luhrmann knew all along that, ultimately, the project would depend on the title character. He needed to find an actor who could express Gatsby’s complexity and smile, described in the book as “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, and then, in a flash, a look as if he had killed a man.”

Luhrmann says, “I’d been secretly working on it for years, knowing who I would like to play Gatsby. It wasn’t difficult to think of a particularly complex, romantic, glamorous, and great actor– Leonardo. The two had worked together on the bold and audacious “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” in 1995, when DiCaprio was very young. Since then, Leo has become a friend and collaborator, and so he was the immediate and obvious choice.

In his adaptation, Luhrmann combines distinctive visual, musical, and storytelling skills in
3-Dimensions, weaving a Jazz Age version that’s faithful to Fitzgerald’s text and also relevant to our times. Set in 1922, “Great Gatsby” follows an aspiring writer Nick Carraway as he leaves the Midwest for New York in an era of loosening morals, glittering jazz, heavy boozing, and sky-rocketing stocks. Chasing his own American Dream, he lands next door to the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby, and across the bay from his cousin Daisy and her rich, philandering husband, Tom Buchanan.

Drawn into the captivating world of the illusions, loves, and deceits of the upper class, Nick bears witness to a new world. It motivates him to pen a tale of impossible love, innocent dreams, and shattering tragedy. Nick is played by Tobey Maguire, one of DiCaprio’s closest friends. Tobey recalls, “I got a call from Leo and he said, ‘I just talked to Baz. He was talking about me for Gatsby and you for Nick. He’s in town. What are you up to tonight?’ So, the three of us got together and hung out for a few hours, and then I picked up a copy of ‘Great Gatsby’ and read it for the first time.”

At a suite in 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, Luhrmann set up shop with his wife, Catherine Martin, Oscar-winning costume and production designer who has collaborated on of all of his films and plays.

“I think Great Gatsby feels more relevant now than ever,” DiCaprio 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 that Baz, more than any director imaginable, could deliver for an audience.”

Gatsby’s story was written by Fitzgerald in Long Island, New York and St. Raphael, France (about 15 miles from Cannes, where the film would open the prestigious festival on May 15), between 1923 and 1924. “Fitzgerald sensed a fundamental crack in the moral fabric, that things could not keep going up as they were,” says Luhrmann, ” and that felt very relevant to the global financial crash of 2008. This fact told me that I had to do Gatsby Now and in 3D. We had to be in New York to understand those parallels of place, culture, and mindset.”

“When I first start working on a project, I always begin by collecting photos,” Luhrmann says. “In terms of a visual language, I just start making collages and terrible scribbles that no one but Catherine can understand. We’re blessed because the photographic image and filmmaking were prevalent in the 1920s. The time was captured in illustrations, drawings, and cartoons, and also in extensive photo archives that document the birth of our contemporary culture.”

Luhrmann meticulously explored the Great Gatsby text, and Fitzgerald’s other writings, in particular the author’s first draft of Great Gatsby, titled Trimalchio (a tribute to the famous Roman party-giver who appears in the Roman novel Satyricon).

“Baz always recreates worlds that are part of his imagination, but this adaptation is very specific to the book,” says DiCaprio. “Not many liberties were taken as far as storytelling is concerned. The integrity of the story and Fitzgerald’s words are intact.” In the process, the team discovered ‘Fitzlish,’ the language that grew out of their reverence for–and desire to include–as much of Fitzgerald’s prose as they could.

The director elaborates: “When you read the book cover to cover, it runs seven hours, so on 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. We needed to come up with some rules for a language that could do that–that’s how ‘Fitzlish’ emerged.”

Luhrmann wanted to be faithful to the book and the epoch and also make the story accessible for a new generation by using contemporary music for the soundtrack, for which he collaborated with artist Shawn “JAY Z” Carter, who became integral part of the culture weave.

“We wanted people to feel what it would’ve felt like to live in that modern time, when the world was being born and everyone was so young, so beautiful, so drunk, so crazy and living like that,” Luhrmann says. “We wanted the audience to feel exactly what would be like going to the most amazing nightclub, drive the fastest car ever driven. We had to make some decisions early on about what music we’d use, and how to present the story with music. Fitzgerald himself included over 70 popular songs in his writings, including the 1922 number one hit “Three O’Clock in the Morning” in Gatsby.”

Luhrmann recalls one of the highlights of making the movie: “There was a bay window and New York was outside. Leonardo sat down in the window, and there was someone playing a trumpet somewhere–it was so Fitzgerald. Leonardo and Tobey started reading, and then suddenly the sun set and Tobey read Nick’s final line, ‘So we beat on, borne back, ceaselessly into the past.’ I remember Leonardo clapping, and I clapped, and off we all went on into Fitzgerald’s time and place–and into our own.”

Gatsby hopes to win Daisy back by (re)making himself. His entire existence—the ostentatious mansion, the extravagant parties, the library of books he’s never read, the hundreds of silk shirts he’s never worn, the flashy fast car—is accumulation for which he cares not, but with which he intends to recapture Daisy’s heart.

“Gatsby is an incredible character to play,” says DiCaprio. “He’s very much the manifestation of the American dream, of imagining who you can become, and he does it all for the love of a woman. But even that is open to interpretation: Is Daisy just the manifestation of his dreams? Or is he really in love with this woman? I think he’s a hopeless romantic but he’s also an incredibly empty individual searching for something to fill a void in his life.”

DiCaprio sought to bring greater depth and arresting darkness to Gatsby in a version closer to the novel’s character. When Luhrmann first saw footage of Leo, he said, “Now, this is Gatsby’s dark obsession, his absolutism. He’s the Gatsby who will not let anyone rewrite the script he has written for his life.'”

“Although Gatsby is a tragic figure, his incorruptible dream and his commitment to that dream, are what ultimately make him inspiring. For all his flaws, he is ‘great’ because he has a gift for hope that is unparalleled, even if it is ultimately out of reach or doomed, his purpose is pure and real.” says DiCaprio.
“Characters like Gatsby are wedded to tragedy,” Luhrmann observes. “What they seek to attain is unattainable. We know that Fitzgerald was a fan of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), which has that Orpheus-like structure where an innocent journeys into the underworld and meets an iconic figure.
“I think Nick is Gatsby’s only real friend in this world,” says DiCaprio. “And it’s shocking to him that he has no real friends. Nick is the one guy who takes an interest in him as an individual and not as a mega rich spectacle.” ”I don’t know if Nick is the moral compass, but he’s definitely our moral conductor,” Luhrmann says. “He takes us through the story’s moral landscape, and by the end, he’s ready to find out who he is.”

“Tobey does such an incredible job of portraying Nick,” adds DiCaprio, who is known in the business as a generous, collaborative actor. “He is experiencing life with these people but he’s reflective because he is an outsider. He never really belongs.” “We’ve made no bones about the idea that Nick is Fitzgerald , and so much of what happens in Gatsby happened to Fitzgerald,” acknowledges Luhrmann. “It is clear in the book that Nick is writing a book about a guy called Gatsby, but there is no hint as to why he is writing, where, or whom it might be for. We wanted Nick’s not to be just a disembodied voiceover. We wanted to see Nick struggling with his feelings.”
The director elaborates: “We needed some combination of editor or priest, someone to whom Nick could confess, and that’s how the idea of a doctor emerged. Dr. Menninger was one of the earliest advocates of progressive psychoanalysis in the U.S. And then came the bombshell: We discovered that in Fitzgerald’s notes for his final, unfinished novel, “The Last Tycoon,” he intended to have his narrator writing the book from a sanitarium. The Doctor ‘device’ and Nick’s narration in our film grew from there.”

Luhrmann took time to find the right actress for Daisy. “Every actor you can imagine was keen to play that part; it’s one of the great iconic roles. So we found ourselves in a ‘Gone with the Wind’ situation, where we were exploring all the possibilities, not so much as auditions but as rehearsals. We did a wide net of a search for Daisy, which is the old-fashioned Hollywood way.”

“Leo was a constant partner in this search,” says Luhrmann, who solicited his reaction after Carey Mulligan’s reading. “Leo said the most brilliant thing: ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about it. Gatsby had a lot of beautiful women thrown at him. Carey’s beautiful but she’s also unusual. Daisy needs to be precious and unique, a woman Gatsby wants to protect, something he’s never experienced before.’ We looked at each other and said together, ‘It’s Carey.'”

“We knew we had found our Daisy,” DiCaprio recalls. “Daisy is such an important character, a combination of beautiful innocence, but she also needs to have whimsical carelessness. It takes not only an intelligent actress but someone who can do both of these things simultaneously.”

Mulligan was equally impressed by DiCaprio. “I remember the first audition I had,” she says. “We were doing a scene towards the end of the film, and Leo was playing Gatsby, Tom Buchanan, and Nick Carraway. So, he’d sit in one chair and play his character, then he’d jump in another chair and play Tom, and then be standing up and he’d be Nick. He was learning all the different lines. It was incredible.”

Daisy is the phantasmal object of Gatsby’s obsessions, ethereal and captivating, his “enchanted object” beckoning from across the bay but out of reach. Mulligan offers: “The main thing about Daisy is her duality. She wants to be protected and safe and live in a certain way. But at the same time, she wants epic romance. She’s just swayed by whatever is the strongest and most appealing thing.”

Known for his inventiveness, Luhrmann made the unexpected decision to direct the film in 3D, in order to bring Gatsby’s world to life in a fresh way: “I didn’t want it to look like a period film. I wanted it to feel like we were right there and then in a sophisticated world where everything is brand new.” He says 3D technology enhanced the performance and the presence of his actors. “I had a moment of epiphany when I saw Hitchcock’s ‘Dial M for Murder’ in 3D. It was riveting just to see Grace Kelly just moving around in a room in 3D. I wanted to reach out and touch her. It struck me how much 3D is like the theatre, how powerful it is in 3D, when an actor moves towards the camera, as opposed to moving the camera towards an actor.”

“We’re probably the first to do a drama in 3D,” says Luhrmann. “You normally associate 3D with special-effects and fantasy-adventures. Ours is a real world and that’s quite unusual.” “3D is a fantastic medium for Baz’s style,” agrees DiCaprio. “It really heightens the dramatic and visual sense. We were going for a real look—3D helps simulate this. The 3D in dramatic context is interesting because you actually feel the intensity of the characters with one another.”

“Baz is always interested in looking at the past through modern eyes,” explains DiCaprio. “The 3D is a natural progression for him, because he’s always trying to break down the barrier between the story and the audience. This is just another way of taking down that wall and getting viewers to feel as if they’re actually in the same room with Gatsby and Daisy.”