Baz Luhrmann on re-imagining The Great Gatsby

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He wore pink suits, jammed with Jay-Z and downed mint juleps in the name of research. Baz Luhrmann describes his re-imagining of The Great Gatsby exclusively for Stylist

"I first discovered The Great Gatsby in the 1974 film starring Robert Redford. Even as a 12-year-old, I had a distinct feeling it was beautiful. Then years later, after Moulin Rouge, I went on a journey on the Trans-Siberian Express with some Aussie red wine and a recorded book of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I listened to it for six hours in a row and couldn’t wait for the next night to listen again. I was aware how perfectly structured the novel is and if you could crack the issue of showing the story’s narrator, Nick Carraway’s, inner voice, you could tell the film in a very proactive way.

ABOVE: Director Baz Luhrmann

I’m passionate about Fitzgerald and the Twenties era; I get completely lost in it. It is such a culturally rich period, how could you not love it? Postwar America is the new exploding place. There’s an industrial explosion and at the same time, the stock exchange and new monetary products are being created. In many ways, it’s very much like the modern era; people who couldn’t afford things were being brought into fiscal schemes and there was this whole notion that money was to be made and money was the reason and the end. In the novel, Nick Carraway puts aside his interest in literature to make money on Wall Street. Buildings are going up, hemlines are going up, hair is going up and planes are going up. Everything is going up, up, up in an orgy of money. Mention The Great Gatsby and people think, ‘Oh the parties, oh the glamour.’ But it’s really about how it’s all going to end in a terrible crash and in my estimation, Fitzgerald predicts the crash of 1929 in a book he wrote in 1925. He can tell there’s something fundamentally corrupt in the fabric of society.

Another endless fascination with the era comes from the huge collective lie that was taking place; the shared hypocrisy called prohibition. Even the most moral people would rail against alcohol publicly, then expect wine on their tables. It meant there was a shift in the moral dial, with gangsters and governors mixing together in secret drinking cabins. Out of that comes a new type of economy and women are liberated. They’re drinking, there’s the Charleston dance fad and morality goes crazy. People are intoxicated by money, drinking, sex and music. Not to mention everyone wore great suits and had fantastic props.

Fitzgerald and [his wife] Zelda were the poster children of the generation, but what’s so interesting is that he was really a bit of a loser. Everything he tried, he failed at. He started the Twenties as the un-coolest person in the world, then in a drunken rampage managed to write This Side Of Paradise [1920] and suddenly won back Zelda, the girl of his dreams, and became famous overnight. He and Zelda rode the great wave of the first youth quake of the Twenties in a wild, intoxicated champagnedriven miasma. It was extraordinary and amazingly exciting. But it killed them.

ABOVE: The beautiful and damned: Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio as Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby

Of The Moment

Making the The Great Gatsby, I didn’t want to look at Fitzgerald’s most revered book through a nostalgic lens because he didn’t write it that way. He was a great fan of popular culture; he was of the moment. I wanted our audience to feel like the people who read the novel in 1925; Fitzgerald was really big on this new African American street music called jazz and I think the jazz of today is hip hop. I happened to be with Jay-Z when he recorded No Church In The Wild and we just looked at each other and said, “Listen, this is something we’ve got to do together.”

Jay-Z is the film’s musical director and executive producer and it was his idea for Beyoncé to sing Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black. We needed a piece of music that symbolises the darkening turn in the relationship between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. The song is so achingly about an impossible love and imbued with tragedy, it turned the film onto a slightly darker bent. You needed to hear a female yearning so we’re really lucky that Beyoncé came on board to sing it in such a different way.

But it’s not just about contemporary artists; the film weaves from traditional jazz into hip hop then Bryan Ferry and his orchestra. I grew up with a stepfather who had 14,000 78s [records] from the jazz era, so I weaved in some Jelly Roll Morton [American ragtime pianist] and “Bix” Beiderbecke, who died an alcoholic trying to reach an impossible note on the trumpet. The film takes the music the characters are hearing and what it meant to them, and translates it [for modern audiences] so they feel the excitement the readers of the book felt in 1925.

ABOVE: The 1928 book about twenties debauchery that inspired The Great Gatsby’s party scene

Another great love of Fitzgerald’s was movies and I’m a huge fan of silent films from the era such as [director FW] Murnau’s Sunrise. It has a great sequence where a woman seduces a country boy and they go off to the city. It’s a jazz fantasia. When you think of film stars from the era, everyone mentions Louise Brooks. She’s the It girl, she’s got the bob and she’s a fantastic icon. She’s the combination of a young Madonna and a young Coco Chanel. She’s a gamine from the streets. But for me, it’s Clara Bow who’s the star of the era. Fitzgerald said of her, ‘This girl is the real thing! Someone to stir every pulse in the nation.’ She was outrageous, channelling the fashion vibe and the pulse of youth. She’s a true flapper.

Fitzgerald’s love of film extended to modern cinematic techniques, which is why I wanted to do the film in 3D. During the Twenties there was this new invention called sound, but the studios said, ‘It will never take off.’ They only used sound for songs in films because they said, ‘No-one will ever want to hear actors speak.’ Which I think is a bit like people saying, ‘No-one will ever want to see actors in 3D.’

ABOVE: Twenties jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton joins Jay-Z on The Great Gatsby soundtrack

Getting In The Spirit

My wife [Academy Award winning costume and production designer Catherine Martin] and I are extensive research junkies. We’ve been living the life of Zelda and Scott for some years, perhaps a little bit too enthusiastically in the alcohol department, as my wife is giving Zelda a run for her money in the champagne stakes! We have fun with it but we take it very seriously too. I started the research process by travelling on the Queen Mary 2 and arriving in New York harbour under the Statue of Liberty, just like the Fitzgeralds. We also relied on the original texts of Fitzgerald’s canon in Princeton library, and took inspiration from other books from the time, such as [Joseph Moncure March’s] The Wild Party, which inspired the party scene.

I tend to get into character during filming so I started buying pink suits [worn by Jay Gatsby] three years ago to get an idea of the right colour pink. The costumes are the result of an extraordinary collaboration between Catherine and Miuccia Prada; it’s been one of the great joys of the movie. Fitzgerald himself made references to exotic European couturiers, but they were all fake. Miuccia is a very old friend of mine, and she did the first suits for Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet. What we share with Miuccia is that she takes old classical things, that were once modern but are now seen as clichéd, turns them on their heads and reinvents them in a way that they’re refreshed and renewed.

What’s shocking from our research is how similar the fashion and the aesthetic from then is to what we like to wear right now. Images from La Croisette, Cannes during the time the Fitzgeralds were hanging out in the Côte d’Azur show the rage for stripes, and the whole nautical look is still very current. There was a revolution taking place, where mothers, whose dresses were down to their ankles, were taking their daughters to court for wearing what they perceived to be underwear.

ABOVE: A rare moment of calm for Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald

It isn’t just music, fashion and parties; the extraordinary explosion of wealth that occurred during the Twenties is also displayed in the architecture. We’re lucky to live in New York and there’s probably not a square inch of Long Island [where the film is set] we don’t know. We did a tour of the Woolworth Building [completed in 1913] and what’s so extraordinary is that in the mosaic tiles you see gargoyles with faces of the billionaire who built this cathedral to money.

In the film, Gatsby’s mansion is a fantasia; it’s inspired by several mansions, rather than just one. It’s a Disneyland-like structure because it’s a Normandy castle, whereas the Buchanans are more aristocratic and live in a more classical colonial structure. We have a reference for everything in the movie, so when people start saying, ‘Were there really rubber zebras?’ we have a photograph of a woman in the Twenties with a rubber zebra.

I only just finished the final version of the film a month ago and I’m back in New York. The Twenties was the birth of the cocktail so it’s fitting that last night I was at Maison Premiere, one of my favourite bars in Williamsburg, drinking mint juleps with my co-writer and friend Craig Pearce. We had a few… we went totally Jazz Age."