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Baz Luhrmann wants to 'reveal' more of 'The Great Gatsby'

The Directors: The filmmaker is concerned with what's in the novel — and what isn't. He researched F. Scott Fitzgerald's life to inform his film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

April 26, 2013|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
  • Director Baz Luhrman at Bar Marmont in Los Angeles.
Director Baz Luhrman at Bar Marmont in Los Angeles. (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" is widely recognized 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.

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But Luhrmann recognized 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" — Fitzgerald's early draft of "The Great 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.

When the source material left some questions unanswered, Luhrmann followed his own hunches. A case in point: The novel suggests that Gatsby, a former soldier, penned a heartbreaking letter to Daisy on her wedding day. The book never reveals the contents, but its impact on Daisy is profound.

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Luhrmann and his team decided that the missive was Gatsby's confession of undying love in a relationship doomed by his poverty and set out his thoughts to Daisy. "You see my uniform hid the truth that I was poor," the letter reads in the film's imagination, its lines meticulously inked with a turn-of-the-century fountain pen on vintage paper (in handwriting that mimicked Fitzgerald's, no less).

The full note never appears on screen, but the fact that Luhrmann felt compelled to create it in such detail speaks to the director's attention to detail and the intricacies of his creative embellishments.

"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.

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He filmed several sequences in long takes, as if "The Great Gatsby" were live theater, 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 Great Gatsby" from falling apart. Worried about its budget, Sony Pictures backed out of the movie (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 traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway after finishing 2001's "Moulin Rouge!" But it took a while to figure out how to translate "Gatsby" 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.

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