The Great Gatsby returns to the screen under the extravagant eye of Baz Luhrmann. Dominic Corry went behind the scenes on the film's Sydney shoot
Welcome to Long Island, New York, 1922. Tonight a decadent soiree is under way at the luxurious seafront mansion of the enigmatic Jay Gatsby. Hundreds of immaculately attired party-goers are hurling themselves about, their manic dancing a physical expression of the era's social liberation.
But one significant detail is off. The music is not a jazz staple, but rather LMFAO's mega-hit club banger Party Rock Anthem. It's quite a sight seeing all these flappers and dandies shaking their booties to a song from 89 years in the future. There's only one explanation: we're on the set of a Baz Luhrmann film - The Great Gatsby, his star-studded pop-pumped version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel.
"It's been an extraordinarily intense shoot," Luhrmann says later that day after the decibels have died.
"Can't say it's always been easy. Can say without question every single person involved, particularly our cast, has really gone above and beyond the call of duty.
It's The Great Gatsby! It's F. Scott Fitzgerald text - they put their fingers in it and go deeper and deeper."
Luhrmann's adaptation of Fitzgerald's 1925 story about lost love and the intoxicating dangers of nostalgia is being shot at Sydney's gargantuan Fox Studios. The director tapped his Romeo + Juliet star Leonardo DiCaprio to play the title role - a mysterious figure known for his epic parties and the potentially shady means by which he acquired his fortune.
Nascent starlet Carey Mulligan plays Daisy, the object of Gatsby's obsessive longing; and Tobey Maguire plays neighbour Nick Carraway, the audience surrogate whom Gatsby taps to facilitate his meetings with the married Daisy.
In the scene playing out today, Gatsby is leading Carraway through the writhing crowds at one of his extravagant gatherings. The cavernous set is enormous, but contains only the front of Gatsby's mansion and the top few tiers of his patio, including a pool with a walkway over it leading to an island in the middle. The rest of Gatsby's property exists elsewhere on the lot. That sea view will be digitally inserted later.
DiCaprio and Maguire snake up through the party-goers, exchanging pleasantries, and at the top of the stairs they meet Elizabeth Debicki, the lithe Australian newcomer playing Jordan Baker, Carraway's love interest.
Maguire and DiCaprio are childhood pals in real life, and their natural rapport comes through despite the heightened nature of their surroundings.
"I've seen Leo more now over the last few months than I've seen him over the past few years," Maguire says. "It's fantastic just getting to see your buddy every day and work with him."
Is he finding their real-life friendship informs the on-screen one?
"I haven't drawn any specific comparisons, but certainly our relationship plays into our 'relationship' but I'm not sure how exactly."
Did DiCaprio give him any tips about working with Luhrmann?
"I auditioned for a role in Romeo + Juliet so I had a little experience with Baz. I remember that audition as one of the best working experiences I'd had even though it was just an audition. I've known Baz a bit throughout the years and he's always been great and he remains a lot of fun. The work is hard, we work long hours, it feels like our lives are consumed by it, but it's fun."
Luhrmann's ability to channel his passions into epic cinema is legendary, but The Great Gatsby is coming at a time in his career when he could really use a hit.
After the triumph of 2001's meta-musical Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann spent several years developing an Alexander the Great project with DiCaprio attached to play the lead. Oliver Stone's rival film with Colin Farrell hit screens first though and flopped big time, which lead to Luhrmann's version being scuppered.
The film he made instead, 2008's Australia starring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, wasn't an outright failure, but it didn't get the acclaim his previous movies had enjoyed.
It's not difficult to see the appeal an adaptation of The Great Gatsby held for the film-maker - the glitz and glamour of the jazz age setting seem perfectly suited to Luhrmann's strengths. The 1974 version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and written by Francis Ford Coppola isn't particularly well regarded, and the inherent theatricality of the story has yet to be fully exploited on film.
Luhrmann buzzes with passion for the project. On set, he's just as comfortable riling up the 250 extras in the party scene as he is intimately instructing Maguire and DiCaprio on their respective motivations. He's positively electric when discussing the dramatic and aesthetic possibilities of the era.
"Ten years earlier women were wearing their dresses down here [gestures towards ankles], and now they're wearing their underwear out and they're drinking. Women go into nightclubs for the first time and start drinking. Everybody is drinking. Fitzgerald describes it so brilliantly as this 'orgy of money and booze'."
While everyone would agree that "an orgy of money and booze" could make for a great movie, one aspect of the film that has raised some eyebrows is the fact that it's being shot in 3D. Audiences are used to seeing sci-fi and action blockbusters with goggles, but a period drama?
"It was a simple choice for me," says Luhrmann. "Some time ago I saw [Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 3D film] Dial M For Murder. It's a drama in a room. There's a bit of spectacle, but the really big special effect is five actors standing in the plaza suite doing an eight-page scene in 3D. To see them act in 3D - it's not theatre, and it's not what I'd known as 2D cinema. But it's definitely something else."
Luhrmann is known for the startling choices he makes for the music in his movies. A demo reel we've been shown features all sorts of modern music, including that of Kanye West. He cites the original text as inspiration for its inclusion.
"Fitzgerald put contemporary music in his books - jazz was very contemporary. Critics said 'why have you put this silly jazz pop in your book, yuck?' So we're doing that device a little bit here."
Australian actor Joel Edgerton plays Daisy's blue-blooded husband, Tom Buchanan. He took the role when the originally cast Ben Affleck bowed out to direct Argo. Edgerton is clearly excited to be working with Luhrmann and refutes the notion that the director has anything to prove to his critics with The Great Gatsby.
"I think at some point those concerns become obstacles to just doing the work. If you sat around all the time doubting yourself, then that's too much wasted energy. Part of the reason I love Baz is because I see him as one of the guys in Australia who doesn't seem fearful of the tall poppy syndrome. He's sticking his neck out, trying big things and being really bold and taking big risks."
Many months later and the film in the can, Luhrmann is still effusive as he holds court with a group of journalists at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan where some of the story's integral scenes are set. Especially about his leading man, who, in Gatsby, gets to play up to his matinee-idol looks for the first time in many movies.
"When I first met Leo he was a wildly gifted 19-year-old. He cashed in his business-class tickets to bring his friends with him to Australia to shoot Romeo+Juliet at a time when I wasn't anybody; I'd just done Strictly Ballroom. But now he's a man in control of his talents and in control of his life," he says. "And listen, I don't care what anyone thinks; he's a great actor. But no one wants to hear that about someone who's that attractive," he says, "let alone that he's a nice person who's thoroughly committed to environmental issues."
The pair have remained in regular contact since the shooting of Romeo+ Juliet. "Actually, I think we were scared to work together again because we had become such close friends. This film was a maturing for both of us," he muses. "He's 38 now, and I'm 50. This is a new chapter for us."
Backers Warner Bros has given Gatsby the royal treatment in terms of marketing and priority. It's probably no coincidence this highly anticipated film, made for a reported US$104.5 million ($122.8 million), has nabbed the prestigious opening spot at this year's Cannes Film Festival just as it goes on release in the United States and much of the world.
And of course, as with past Luhrmann movies such as Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, there's a big soundtrack tie-in, a hook to get the younger demographic into a period film. "Leonardo introduced me to a chap called Jay-Z," says Luhrmann of the guy behind the album. "He's a bit like the chairman of the board when it comes to hip-hop. He calls himself a serial collaborator, and he took this project very seriously. In fact, he was the most professional person ever."
All of which causes massive expectations. Enough for even the most confident experienced director to feel nervous.
He says, "Look, some people will like it and some not. But for the actors, I hope they get the acknowledgment they deserve. This wasn't just another movie for them. They were passionate and they gave, and they gave. For me, I can go away and be with my kids." He laughs. "I'll do what I always do; wonder if I'll ever make another movie again."
Facts about The Great Gatsby
* It was mostly written while Fitzgerald was residing on the Riviera in the south of France.
* It was only 148 pages long, Fitzgerald having cut it back on the advice of his editor, Maxwell Perkins.
* It's been a film three times, starting with a silent version in 1926, and a television production once. None has set the world on fire. "Fitzgerald doesn't bring out the best in moviemakers," the New York Times said in its review of the 1974 film. "The problem is that Gatsby really has a plot no bigger than a pea."
* Author Hunter S. Thompson was apparently so inspired by the book he used to type it up on a typewriter to experience what it was like to write that way.
* It has inspired various stage productions including an opera, and has even been turned into a computer game, in which Nick Carraway must dodge flappers and evil butlers in his quest to locate Jay Gatsby.
* Fitzgerald met his wife, Zelda Sayre, in Alabama, where he was stationed during his army years. Most of his flapper heroines were said to be based on her.
* Fitzgerald was just shy of 30 when the book was published (also the age of the narrator, Nick Carraway).
What: The Great Gatsby
Who: Baz Luhrmann directing Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire
When: Opens in New Zealand on June 6
- TimeOut / Additional reporting, Michele Manelis.