Baz Luhrmann's Despair, Drive and Gamble Behind 'Great Gatsby'

The Hollywood Reporter
Baz Luhrmann's Despair, Drive and Gamble Behind 'Great Gatsby'
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Baz Luhrmann's Despair, Drive and Gamble Behind 'Great Gatsby'

This story first appeared in the May 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In early 2011, Baz Luhrmann flew from Sydney to L.A., attempting to save The Great Gatsby from collapse.

Seven years after he first had contemplated adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel about obsessive love, the director's passion project was in trouble. New York, where he had hoped to shoot, was proving too expensive for Sony, which wanted to limit his budget to $80 million, and now the studio insisted on finding partners to defray the cost. Without them, the movie was dead.

So in January of that year, Luhrmann plunged into a Warner Bros. conference room, where he met such top-level executives as Jeff Robinov, Greg Silverman, Veronika Kwan Vandenberg and Kevin Tsujihara. For two hours, he bewitched them with a torrent of words explaining how he would mix old and new, blend hip-hop with sounds from the '20s and use 3D to make the movie modern -- all while showing clips he'd videotaped of Leonardo DiCaprio workshopping scenes. "I went into that room and thought, 'In this moment, I've got to tell this story like I've never told it before,' " he recalls.

Sitting with the 50-year-old Australian on a mid-April afternoon in New York's Ace Hotel, not far from the place he now calls home and in the very room where he and writing partner Craig Pearce wrote their script, it's easy to understand why Warners said yes. He virtually bubbles over with passion, his enthusiasm erupting in a cavalcade of words.

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He can entrance you with tales of dining alongside Bill Clinton at his neighbor Anna Wintour's (he does a spot-on impersonation of the former president); or having David Bowie walk his dogs; or discussing 3D with Ang Lee and James Cameron. All this he does with such a lack of self-consciousness, you almost overlook the name-dropping -- helped by his touch of Gatsby's flair, with his immaculately coiffed silver hair, Patek Philippe watch (a gift from Tiffany & Co., a marketing partner on the film) and gleaming shoes on sockless feet.

Sometimes manic, sometimes more modulated, he flits from one subject to another without pause -- from the books he's been reading (Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and Jay-Z's Decoded) to the TV shows he watches with his children (Disney's Gravity Falls, when not skipping among CNN, the BBC and Fox) to his hair. Especially his hair.

"I've had it since I was 30," he says, referring to its whiteness. "I'll be honest about that. I used to dye my hair on Moulin Rouge! My hair went half-gray on one side, and I thought, 'I am going to get ahead of the game.' "

He says this with an almost innocent lack of self-consciousness and an intensity that he maintains whether his subject is the mythological Pothos (a symbol of yearning) or the "babushka" who showed him a hose that doubled as a shower when he was once traveling on a Russian train. This, and his ability to mix high and low, are key to "Brand Baz," as he puts it, and have stamped his empire, Bazmark Inq., with divisions handling design, film, live entertainment, music and housewares.

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Running it keeps him constantly in motion, from the time he wakes (around 8:30 when he's not shooting) to the moment he goes to sleep (as late as 2 or 3 a.m.) -- often staying in bed for chunks of the day as his collaborators shuffle around him.

But strip away the sizzle and a rather different person emerges, both shyer and more vulnerable than the compulsive showman he sometimes appears to be.

This is the man who admits to self-doubt, speaks of bitter disappointments and sporadic depressions; who says he was devastated when his Alexander the Great biopic crumbled after years of work and describes instances of a black despair that left him feeling almost suicidal -- "very rarely, but when I do, it's totally real. It's been a half-dozen times, and it's deep."

This also is the man who occasionally questions his own work, no matter how much he might trumpet it in public: "I am always worried when someone says, 'This is perfect,' " he admits in a rare moment of introspection. "I have doubts; nothing is ever really good enough. Is it worthwhile? Is it of value?"

International audiences will decide that when Gatsby opens the Festival de Cannes on May 15, following its domestic release. After a protracted battle for the rights and a troubled shoot that eventually led the film to cost $104.5 million (it would have cost more than $190 million without hefty Australian location subsidies), the picture is being given a massive push by Warners, which is counting on its mix of star-laden cast, cutting-edge soundtrack (produced by Jay-Z) and period glamour to win over young audiences.

A Tiffany deal (the company designed jewelry for the film and has created its own Great Gatsby collection) and some lavish costumes by Luhrmann's friend Miuccia Prada are all elements in making this an event, perhaps the event of early summer.

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That will be boosted by DiCaprio, who reteams with Luhrmann for the first time since 1996's Romeo + Juliet, giving young women another chance to see him in a love story -- though the actor says Gatsby is far more nuanced than that.

"My recollection from high school was always of this hopeless romantic," says DiCaprio of the novel's title character, noting that Luhrmann gave him a first edition several years ago. "I didn't quite see the emptiness of Jay Gatsby. He concentrates on his love of this woman, but does he really love her? When he finally has her in his arms, is it enough and is she enough?"

The fact that DiCaprio had another film out late last year, Django Unchained, was one reason Warners pushed the Gatsby opening from Christmas to early summer. "Finishing the soundtrack and the visual effects and converting everything into 3D -- Baz could have made the release date," says Robinov. "But we said, 'Give this enough time to make it great.' "

Greatness may have seemed a long way off during the Australian shoot, when one disaster followed another, culminating in a crane cracking open Luhrmann's head. "It was scary," says DiCaprio. "But he handled it like, 'Oh, it's just a bump!' -- like Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet -- 'A scratch, a mere scratch. I would love to keep filming, but they tell me I must go to the hospital.' I have never seen anyone be able to keep going like that."

Born in 1962, Mark Anthony Luhrmann was a young child when his family relocated to the 11-house hamlet of Herons Creek, where his father operated a gas station and movie theater in the shadow of a deadly bridge from which drivers occasionally would plummet to their deaths.

A Vietnam vet and reformed alcoholic, Leonard Luhrmann pushed his four kids relentlessly, rousing them at dawn, putting them through commando exercises and forcing his three boys to have military-style crew cuts. "Long hair defined the era," his son explains. "My brother suffered great physical violence, and it was all about the short hair. People would beat you up because you were weirdos."

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Insisting on this was just one of his father's eccentricities. Once, "he dropped us at night in the middle of the bush and we had to find our way home," says Luhrmann. "It was terrifying."

Despite being "tough, tough, tough," the director maintains his father was fair and that "his obsession was the education of his three boys in his tiny gas station." His voice cracks when he speaks of Leonard's death from cancer in 1999, and it's clear that Luhrmann has a deep love for him. Still, he grants, "It was obviously a pretty mad upbringing."

That upbringing took a turn for the worse when Baz's mother, Barbara, who had issues of her own that he won't discuss, fled to Sydney when he was 12, leaving him distraught and abandoned -- an emotion he carries with him to this day.

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Then, at age 15, he ran away, moving to his mother's new home, where he created a new life -- first in the strict Christian Brothers school (which later would double as Gatsby's mansion), then as an actor, as the head of a small theater company and as a documentary filmmaker -- all while in his teens.

Like Gatsby, he turned his back on the small world that had let him down. And, like Gatsby (formerly James Gatz), he changed his name. In a stunning act of reinvention, he took on a nickname given him at school in a joking reference to the TV character Basil Brush, whose haircut resembled his own.

Mark was no more; from now on he would be Baz Luhrmann.

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With this new identity, Luhrmann propelled himself forward, ferociously driven to succeed. He starred opposite Judy Davis in the 1981 film The Winter of Our Dreams and worked as a bricklayer by day while appearing in the theater at night, before attending Australia's National Institute for Dramatic Art.

After graduation, he turned a short, semiautobiographical play into the film that would put him on the map. Strictly Ballroom wasn't just about a young man striving to break the conventions of ballroom dancing; it was about Baz himself, with a thinly veiled version of his larger-than-life mother played by actress Pat Thomson. (His real-life mother was an extra in Gatsby and has appeared in all his films.)

The movie became a worldwide hit in 1992 and got Luhrmann an invitation to Cannes, launching a career that would include 1996's Romeo + Juliet and 2001's Moulin, which divided critics but gained him a best picture Oscar nomination.

By then he was married to Catherine Martin, a fellow Australian and NIDA graduate whom he had met when she interviewed to handle the costumes for Ballroom.

Martin recalls being distinctly unenthusiastic when she came to the apartment where he lived above a brothel. "I had the incredible arrogance of youth, and I thought, 'What kind of name is Baz, anyway? And all he does is musicals.' " Then they started talking, and "we are still engaged in a conversation about life and art and the world that started over 20 years ago."

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By age 40, Luhrmann no longer was a small-town kid but a global celebrity. Then he faltered.

Alexander was a stunning blow. "It was the first time I set out to do something that I could not make happen," he reflects, "and around the same time we were having trouble conceiving children. [They now have a 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son.] It was heartbreaking. It was shattering. I was lost."

Then came the disappointment of his 2008 epic Australia, which earned $211 million worldwide but largely was dismissed by critics. The New Yorker's David Denby even argued, "Luhrmann is drawn to kitsch as inevitably as a bear to honey."

"It was really a difficult time," admits Luhrmann.

And yet what's intriguing is how he responded. Rather than retreat to his Sydney cocoon, he reached out for something even bolder, as if the survivor instincts his father had drummed in were kicking into high gear.

"I knew when I went out again," he says, "I would see anyone and do anything to make sure Gatsby stayed alive."

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The idea of filming Fitzgerald's work came to Luhrmann when he listened to it as a book-on-tape while traveling on the Trans-Siberian Express in 2004.

"The train was basically full of Chinese people smuggling stuff into Mongolia," he recalls. "I had two bottles of red wine and the new iPod with two recorded books. There's Siberia ticking by, and the birch trees, and the wine bottle, and I'm listening [to Gatsby] -- and when it ended, I had inconsolable melancholia. I was like, 'Can we do all that again?' "

After inquiring about the rights, he found that Sony-based producers Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher were closing a deal with A&E, which had made a Gatsby TV movie with Mira Sorvino and Tony Stephens in 2000. The two parties agreed to join forces, then Luhrmann approached DiCaprio.

"I was excited, but it is a daunting task to make an adaptation of any novel, let alone one woven into the fabric of America," says DiCaprio. His decades-long friendship with Luhrmann proved decisive. "Baz and I are able to be incredibly honest with each other. You try to do that with every director, but when you have a long friendship with him, you have the capacity to be incredibly direct. I wouldn't have felt so comfortable taking on this material if I didn't have a relationship like that."

The star soon was joined by Tobey Maguire (Carraway) and Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan), who replaced Ben Affleck when he dropped out to make Argo. Then an intense search got under way for Daisy, Gatsby's lodestone. Luhrmann reportedly considered a host of actresses from Blake Lively to Scarlett Johansson to Natalie Portman to Michelle Williams before auditioning An Education's Carey Mulligan.

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"I only found out about it three days before the audition," recalls Mulligan, "so I read the book quickly for the first time and went to see him. It was unlike any audition I had done, in a loft in SoHo, reading with Leo, and there was a huge 3D camera, a handheld camera and people taking photographs -- really like a workshop for the scene."

Mulligan hung on for weeks before learning she had the part at a formal dinner with Martin, who handed her a cell phone. Luhrmann was on the other end to tell her the good news. Mulligan burst into tears.

But it was unclear the movie was a go. With his cast waiting in the wings and locations on hold, Luhrmann discovered Sony was pulling out; miraculously, Warners now agreed to shoulder the burden in partnership with Village Roadshow Pictures.

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Now the production shifted from New York to Australia, benefiting from its 40 percent-plus tax breaks. In September 2011, Luhrmann commenced the type of nightmare shoot every director fears when Australia experienced its third-rainiest season ever. "We got washed out three times in the Blue Mountains," recalls producer Fisher. "We drove three times to a location that was a several-hour drive -- and every time it was pouring."

The rains weren't the only problem. Out-of-control paparazzi invaded a house rented for DiCaprio, forcing him to seek refuge in a hotel and leading the crew to construct a vinyl screen to block him from photographers. At the same time, camera cranes took on lives of their own, with one nearly crashing into Edgerton and another leaving that gash in Luhrmann's head, requiring four stitches. Worst of all was when the 300-strong crew gathered again in February, only to find a strange, potentially noxious fog belching from the earth, leading safety officers to evacuate the set.

"It was a giant circus," remembers Luhrmann. "I got one shot of Leonardo in a military uniform, then we had to pull out."

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Now, 15 months later, Warners seems genuinely convinced it has something special on its hands. Early tracking bodes well, and if the film fulfills its promise it will remind audiences just how unique Luhrmann is in today's film world.

Few directors are so willing to go out on a limb; even fewer do so with his peculiar mix of chutzpah and heart. "His primary motor is that of a genuine artist who is compelled to tell his story," says Wick. "He's like an alchemist looking for the right mix, and he is fearless in pursuing it."

Luhrmann has avoided the safety of a franchise, stayed away from anything that ever seems like a sure bet. An inner force keeps pushing him to probe further, ever testing himself, taunting disaster just like those drivers who would sometimes careen off the bridge next to his Herons Creek home.

"For some reason, I am wedded to risk," he admits.

He no longer is the wunderkind who was a legend at drama school and made his first feature in his early 20s. Nearly three decades later, he only has five films behind him (along with a host of theater and opera productions) and is haunted by the sense time might be running out.

He keeps reminding this reporter that he is now 50, though he looks years younger, and says the prospect of not completing his work drives him unceasingly.

He currently is writing a full-length stage adaptation of Strictly Ballroom that will debut in Sydney next year and says he is working on a number of other projects, including a potential TV series for Sony. Like Gatsby, he believes in the green light, that "orgastic future that year by year recedes before us."

"I feel like my time is limited, and I've always felt that," he reflects. "I don't fear dying, but I feel there are things I would still like to get done."

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