Jay-Z could’ve rocked the Jazz Age.
As a filmmaker and stage director known for his brand of high style in movies like Moulin Rouge!, Baz Luhrmann would seem to have a natural affinity for the dapper decadence of the Roaring Twenties. Sure enough, the 50-year-old Aussie’s new adaptation of The Great Gatsby—which reunites him with Leonardo DiCaprio, the leading man in his similarly audacious Romeo and Juliet—would be sufficiently dazzling even if it weren’t in 3-D. Yet Luhrmann’s trademark pizzazz served a higher purpose this time. “Every choice I made was to try and reveal the book,” he says. And that includes a Jay-Z-produced soundtrack that constantly shifts from hot jazz to hip-hop and back again. Since F. Scott Fitzgerald had been bold enough to give what was then “an African-American street music” a starring role in his prose, Luhrmann believes his movie’s era-mashing musical mélange could be another way to demonstrate just how contemporary The Great Gatsby was in its day. “If Fitzgerald was anything, he was anti-nostalgia,” says Luhrmann. “He was a modernist, he was in the moment and of the moment, he was a pop-culturalist. I wanted to make sure that no matter what we did, we did not put a nice sepia lens on it and look back charmingly.”
Leonardo does more than look good in suits.
Luhrmann was first struck by the idea of tackling Fitzgerald’s novel when he listened to an audio-book version while travelling on the Trans-Siberian Express nine years ago. Yet it was no easy feat to realize his ambition, especially with several studios balking at the price tag. (The budget eventually reached $100 million.) Of course, it helped to have DiCaprio on board—the director is unabashed in his praise for the star’s dedication to the cause and his interpretation of enigmatic playboy Jay Gatsby. “The thing about Leonardo’s Gatsby is the character oscillates wildly,” says Luhrmann admiringly. “One moment he’s Buster Keaton, the next he’s Hamlet, the next he’s the coolest man in the world, the next he’s the angriest man, the next he’s the most romantic. Why is that? Because he’s like a five-year-old who envisioned all these characters for himself and has only ever played them for all his life.”
A love of the stage runs deep.
Though the process of making The Great Gatsby has occupied much of Luhrmann’s waking hours for the past four years, he’s edging closer to realizing another longtime ambition. Strictly Ballroom, his fleet-footed first feature from 1992, is slated to make its debut as a stage musical in Sydney in 2014. Luhrmann admits he was working on it with writing partner Craig Pearce as recently as the day before this interview. “It’d be easier if I didn’t have to, but it’s actually lovely to have this other thing going on,” he says. While he loves making movies, there are different kinds of satisfactions connected to his work for the stage. “Just in terms of equipment, there’s something beautiful about the lack of machines,” he notes. “The actors also sometimes outnumber the people on the other side of the fence—when you’re making a movie, that never happens.”
But sometimes an even better refuge can be found in the deep blue sea.
All these endeavours inevitably leave Luhrmann hungry for free time. It’s not surprising that he’s found some creative uses for that, too. In 2010, he and artist Vincent Fantauzzo travelled through India on motorbikes, stopping to make impromptu paintings. The director believes it’s essential to find a way to let off steam after a massive, all-consuming movie project. “At the end of it, you’re really crazy and it’s not pretend crazy, either,” he says. “I think it’s why bands smash rooms up—they feel somehow empty or confused because they don’t have the show any more. I realized in my maturity that I’ve got to supplant it with an equally intense kind of adventure, except one that’s purely focused on fun and joy—more of a bucket-list kind of thing.” His latest dream is to take up diving again. “My father was a great diver,” says Luhrmann. “He was in Vietnam as a clearance diver, like a Navy SEAL. Leonardo loves scuba diving, too. I think it’s the sense of peace, as well as the feeling that you’re anonymous below the ocean. You’re inside liquid nature. I know when I’m diving, it’s scary enough, but I also feel, ‘God, I can think down here!’”
The Great Gatsby opens on May 10.