With a starry cast by his side, Baz Luhrmann puts a ravishing new spin on The Great Gatsby.
While a world away from Long Island where The Great Gatsby takes place, traversing the Russian Steppes on the Trans-Siberian Railway still feels like an appropriately romantic setting for falling in love again with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s finest novel. That’s where, in the early ‘Noughties, Baz Luhrmann found himself listening to the talking book of the American classic, which is both a consummate snapshot of the Roaring Twenties and a ruthless expose of its greed and excesses. Ending up a passion project for the Australian filmmaker and his closest collaborator in all senses, Oscar-winning costume and production designer (and Luhrmann’s wife) Catherine Martin, it has become this century’s most anticipated literary adaptation. “We’re only here because Baz saw the potential, and encouraged me to see that potential too,” expands Martin. “It’s a fantastic canvas, a fantastic period, and a beautiful story.”
As the title suggests, it’s the secretive and immensely wealthy Jay Gatsby who propels the narrative. Describing the novel as “more intense and beautiful than most people know”, Luhrmann asked his Romeo + Juliet star Leonardo DiCaprio to portray the enigmatic millionaire, while casting Maguire opposite him as Nick Carraway, the writer whose narration whisks the reader into Gatsby’s glittering world. Several high-profile actresses were clamouring to play the alluring yet capricious Daisy, married to old-money snob Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) but falling under the spell of first love Gatsby when he resurfaces in her life. Reading Fitzgerald’s nimble prose, it’s easy to understand why Gatsby obsesses over this beautiful charmer, but also why his memorable heroine comes to symbolise the superficiality of the American dream. Mulligan found it a daunting but electrifying challenge. “To feel for Gatsby, you need to, at some point, feel for Daisy,” she observes. “You need to want them to make it.”
While Luhrmann was committed to honouring the source, the inventive director behind Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet was always going to put his own unique imprint on the material. He decided to film in 3D, for one, and recruited superstar impresario Jay Z to fashion a lush soundtrack that blasts this Gatsby into the 21st century. “Baz never puts in modern reference for its own sake,” observes Martin. “In the case of Gatsby, he said, ‘We’ve got to get the audience to feel how it must have felt to hear jazz for the first time at a party.’”
Although an ill-fated romance swirls at its core, The Great Gatsby is also about decadent, splashy parties and living the high life in 1920s New York. Shot in Australia, Gatsby’s lavish sets and period costumes are a crucial part of the aesthetic. Beyond being gorgeous, which they undoubtedly are, Maguire and Mulligan were also impressed at how Luhrmann incorporated Martin’s prodigiously well-researched design details into the story, bringing substance to the style. They were also thrilled observing their co-star work to deliver his incarnation of American literature’s greatest mystery man. “It’s sad because Gatsby can see that his dream is crumbling,” sighs Mulligan. “But he’s holding on to so much hope because he’s built his whole life on his dream to get Daisy back. It was amazing to watch Leo play that.”