One of the most anticipated films of the summer is Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher and Elizabeth Debicki. The film is an adaptation of the classic American novel of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald that has become English 101 in high schools the country wide. The story of the enigmatic Gatsby and his quest to win over his one true love Daisy Buchanan comes to life in 3D this May with grandiose party scenes even Fitzgerald would have enjoyed.
At the recent press day for the film in New York, Collider was present as the director and stars DiCaprio, Maguire, Mulligan and Fisher, along with producers Lucy Fisher, Douglas Wick and Catherine Mann (also the production designer and Luhrmann’s wife) held a press conference to speak about the film. They revealed the literary influences behind many of the lines of dialogue, the surprising choice of a Jay-Z heavy soundtrack (he’s also an EP of the film) and the chemistry between the actors and director that led to the performances in the film. Hit the jump to read our coverage of the press conference.
It was clear from the beginning that the entire cast and crew were very invested in doing justice to their beloved Gatsby.
As he smoked an electronic cigarette with a green light at the end that reminded one very distinctly of the symbolic green light from the film, DiCaprio was asked if he felt connected to Gatsby growing up from humble beginnings.
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: I think everyone has some sort of connection to Gatsby as a character….he’s created himself according to his own emotions and dreams and lifted himself by his bootstraps from a poor kid in the Midwest and created this image that is The Great Gatsby and it’s a truly American story in that regard. Here’s the great democracy of America in the 1920’s and he wants to emulate a Rockefeller of that time period and of course creates his wealth in the underworld but this is the new world that is America, he has ambition.
The cast and director were also asked about playing Jay-Z (or other music) while on set to influence them.
ISLA FISHER: We had music on during the party scene but I can’t remember the name of the song.
BAZ LUHRMANN: I’ll tell you something about that party scene…if you remember we’d done all the formal structure of the scene, as Fitzgerald describes in the book, there’s a moment, this is in the 20’s, there’s a moment where he goes very abstract…and it gets all blurry. And you know that they’ve been drinking very heavily, you know that Tom and Myrtle are in next door, and it’s going to a place it gets very abstract. Eventually Nick Carraway says ‘I was both within and without. Our yellow windows had their fair share of human secrets.’ So we were about 20 minutes away from wrapping and we still hadn’t got that kind of wild party feel. The idea of having a wild party was inspired by a book Leonardo’s father gave him called ‘The Wild Party’ written in the same era. It’s a long poem called ‘The Wild Party.’ George DiCaprio gave me that book. Anyway, we wanted to go there but we weren’t quite sure how. So my sister got dressed up as a bellhop so we got all sorts of props and I said we got 20 minutes left let’s turn all the cameras on. So we started with jazz music…only about a minute of 20 minutes is in the movie. Right in the middle of the jazz I turned up very loudly a track called N.I.P., a Jay-Z track mixed with jazz…and things took off and the cameras rolled for 20 minutes and there’s a moment where a very expensive lamp smashes right in the middle of the room and my first assistant said Baz we’ve got to shut it down because by then it was crazy mayhem…and I grabbed everyone and said get in the bedroom and I pushed the steadicam operator into the bedroom and he kept rolling and that’s how it became known as the orgy scene. So that’s where the music came in there.
DiCaprio was asked about how he feels he can relate to Gatsby’s reinvention of himself as an actor.
DICAPRIO: The Gatsby that I remember reading when I was 15 years old in junior high school was far different from the Gatsby I read as an adult. And what I remember from my years in junior high was this hopeless romantic that was solely in love with this one woman and created this great amount of wealth to respectably hold her hand. Then to reread it as an adult it was incredibly fascinating. It is one of those novels that is talked about nearly 100 years later for a reason. It’s incredibly nuanced, it’s existential and here at the center of this movie is this man that is incredibly hollow searching for some sort of meaning and he’s attached himself to this relic known as Daisy. She’s a mirage and I was struck by the sadness in him for the first time. I looked at him completely different, I looked at him as somebody that was very hollow and searching for some sort of meaning and Nick was the only one who truly sees what’s going on in reality. One very telling sequence that we talked about a lot and for me was a very important one in the book, is when Nick notices that he’s holding her but he’s still staring at the green light, you know he’s finally got her in his arms he’s still searching for this thing that he thinks is going to complete him. That was the Gatsby I was incredibly excited about playing as an actor and as I got older it took on a new meaning and I think that’s what’s so incredible about this novel, everyone who reads it has their own interpretation of who these people are, who these characters are. That’s what’s very difficult about making a movie about it because everyone has their own personal attachment to this book, and they feel like they know these characters on an intimate level. When you’re making a movie you have to be much more specific.
DiCaprio and Maguire were asked about their chemistry onscreen, and if it was a result of their close personal friendship.
DICAPRIO: [to Maguire] What do you think?
TOBEY MAGUIRE: Yeah I think Leo and I have a very trusting and close friendship so I think that just the comfortable open dialogue that we had in terms of the working process contributed to what we did. In regards to the actual texture chemistry of the relationship it’s harder for me to judge what contributed to that but I’m sure that had an effect there. I think the Nick and Gatsby relationship is such an interesting relationship to explore. From my point of view obviously I’m looking through the eyes of Nick and going through the book as Nick and in relationship to Gatsby in particular and the way that we made the movie and the way the book is written he’s looking back over his experiences. So there’s both the experiences in real time as he lived them and then Nick’s relationship to them later. So looking back through who Gatsby was to him personally and as an idea inspires Nick to go off into his own future and then specifically having an understanding that Gatsby had an agenda for Nick but that unfolded into a real friendship, perhaps Gatsby’s only friendship, I think was very meaningful to Nick. And you know I definitely have an affection for Leo so it was easy for me to have an affection for Gatsby as Nick as well.
DICAPRIO: For me, this is like American Shakespeare, this is one of the most celebrated novels of all time. So to venture into a project of this magnitude, it really took a core unit of trust for me to feel comfortable, and to know that somebody I’ve known for 20 years Baz Luhrmann was involved, and Tobey was immediately involved early onset, was very comforting. We’re always extremely honest with each other and to me, I don’t know if this project would have happened if we hadn’t had that sort of relationship. We needed that, we needed those checks and balances, we needed a contract with each other to continually be honest.
LUHRMANN: Can I add a tiny little thing to this conversation? I think these two gentlemen cannot say this but it’s a little anecdote from the first day of shooting. And everything you’ve said I concur. It was the first day of shooting and it was the flower scene and we were all very nervous because I think we felt we were carrying a very heavy chalice and a great responsibility, and we’d been partnered up very early on. There was written dialogue in the scene, it’s where Gatsby is waiting with Nick for Daisy to arrive, and somewhere in there, the nerves and craziness. And I just thought wow we gotta get going. Flowers, too many too little, so I put a locked camera on as a wide shot and I said action you’re waiting for Daisy but don’t do the scene just improvise. And Leonardo says, you know, I’m going to do incredible Leonardo acting I’m going to be better and Tobey says well I’m going to do Tobey acting. And I think Leonardo says, ‘do you think it’s too much’ and Tobey pauses, no Nick pauses and says ‘I think it’s what you want’ and that moment I think is one of the purest and most connected lines in the film…it was the first thing we ever shot and for me it’s one of the most truthful and wonderful moments in the film. It’s a grand value in the depth of their friendship.
A question was put to Catherine Mann (production designer, producer and wife of Luhrmann) and producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher as to how the film started coming together.
CATHERINE MANN: Baz was an incredible fan of the book, he listened to a talking book. I’m sure most of the people here have heard the Siberian Railway story from the horse’s mouth, [the entire cast laughs] I don’t need to repeat it. Irritatingly I’d read the book, obviously from my accent I’m Australian, as a teenager as part of my high school curriculum and I just didn’t connect culturally to the book. So when Baz suggested it I was slightly a naysayer and he convinced me as an adult to reread the book. And when I reread it as an adult I became the book’s number 1 fan. So much to his annoyment it was like I had made the decision that we were going to do The Great Gatsby. And he said hang on, you didn’t even like the book 5 minutes ago until I made you read it. It was my idea I’ve introduced you to this wonderful text and I’m extremely grateful because just the pleasure of reading the book time and again has been wonderful. I’ve really enjoyed dissecting Baz’s vision for the book…I was a naysayer I have to admit but convinced.
DOUGLAS WICK: Our version was very lucky, for about 2 years we had been trying to buy the rights to the book. They were controlled by A&E, which had once done a TV movie of Gatsby. So like anything magnificent about Fitzgerald, here were the rights of one of the great works of the century held by a TV company and frozen there…We were just closing and we had agonized over, how do you make this movie work for a contemporary audience? It felt more about now than any other literature. One day we’re at the lot at Sony, we’re having a meeting with 2 or 3 employees, and after the meeting a person who’s out in front comes in and says “Baz Luhrmann was here.’ I said ‘Baz Luhrmann was here?’ He says ‘yeah I told him you were in a meeting.’ I go running out of the office running down the street thinking I want to kill the person who sent him away. Baz Luhrmann had come to check us out to see if he could stand working with us. He’s very careful…in one conversation with Baz, there are many pieces of casting, several of which are here, where you say boy if we couldn’t get that person, like who else could you possibly cast for Gatsby? But maybe the hardest piece of casting was which filmmaker in the world could ever make that movie and make it feel about them? The fact that that filmmaker had come and knocked on our door and had been sent away, I think about it and I still want to put a gun in my mouth. Just from that early conversation he started to address anything that in your stomach if you’re medium smart you’d worry about, how to make Fitzgerald relevant to to a new generation. He was talking about the parties, Gatsby, who he is now, needless to say you just got that profound relief. Somewhere between that meeting Baz had become incredibly articulate about how to adapt Gatsby.
DICAPRIO: Go ahead anyway who’s stopping you?
MAGUIRE: May I remind you, the Siberian express.
LUHRMANN: Fade in a small countryside…I could do it in bullet points. I think the epic version is out there somewhere in print.
Luhrmann was asked what he thinks Fitzgerald would have though of being a cornerstone of young adult fiction in schools.
LUHRMANN: He was a young adult himself when he wrote it, he was moving into that transition. You can never know what F. Scott Fitzgerald would really think, but there’s a lot of…there’s one thing I’m pretty sure about. When F. Scott Fitzgerald was about to die, and we worked with some of the great academics, one of my assistants called Blakey who was in that orgy scene, and another who’s name is Sam Bromell, his uncle who died recently, Henry Brommell. Sam is from a secretive family, his uncle made a film called ‘The Last Days of Fitzgerald’ with Jeremy Irons about Fitzgerald in Hollywood. When he was about to die he was going into shops buying copies of his own book The Great Gatsby, just so there would be a few sales registered at the publishing company. I don’t know what he’d think about this film but the fact that he’s the number one best selling book in the country today, I know he’d feel pretty good about that. The fact that the book has endured, when I think we’re opening here in New York 20 minutes from where he wrote it on Long Island. We’re also opening at the Cannes Film Festival, 20 minutes—
MANN: It’s not 20 minutes it’s 20 miles.
MANN: It’s not 20 minutes to Long Island.
LUHRMANN: If you drive in a sports car very quickly…can I just ask one question. Do you have a car license?
MANN: No I don’t.
LUHRMANN: Your honor I rest my case. 20 minutes, 20 miles, 20 something while he was writing some of the most painful passages in The Great Gatsby, down the beach where the Palais is, his wife was having an affair with a French officer. How could he know that 88 years later that book would be turned into a drama with the finest actors in the world playing out that book and in 3D?
MAGUIRE: I also recently heard Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby be compared to Shakespeare. By Leo. I think he’d like that.
LUCY FISHER: When he died there were 4,000 copies of the book in print. When it was published there was great correspondence between him and his editor Maxwell Perkins…it had very mixed reviews when it came out. His memorable two big fans were T.S. Elliot and Edith Wharton but the public more or less rejected it until Lionel Trilling came along in the 40s and reclaimed it as a great American novel. And then later became read in every high school, when he died there were 4000 copies in print and he had no idea it was going to be reclaimed and redeemed the way it was.
DICAPRIO: Wow. I didn’t know that.
DiCaprio was asked if he was method acting, living in Gatsby’s mansion during the filming of the movie.
LUHRMANN: We went in the morning and said wake up Mr. Gatsby, Mr. Luhrmann is here to give him his close-up. And then a dozen servants would knock on his door and he would come out in a dressing gown and say I’m ready. Gatsby’s mansion is my old high school.
MANN: The exterior Baz.
LUHRMANN: I’ll tell you what it was. My wife is the fact-checker, I’m in the story telling business. The challenge was to make the whole film in Australia. We were going to make it in New York actually but it became impossible. The dangerous moment, the project maybe being lost. Doug and Lucy by the way they’re, the connection there is true. I always thought Douglas had the hardest time with the greatest barriers…Australia became an absolute part of the equation economically. We felt we could create this grand illusion. We were able to work with lots of our long term teams…but we had to create Long Island in Australia but there was a weird problem that we could have never foreseen. There was a mountain, one mountain in Australia-
DICAPRIO: Fucking mountain.
LUHRMANN: I don’t want to bring it up he gets upset. There was this one mountain where in the 1850’s English people went up and planted trees, deciduous trees which looked a bit like the east coast like England, on top of a mountain. Everything else was gum trees. We were going to create Long Island, the driving, the parties. Well, we went up there and it rained, we got rained out two three four five times eventually we made Nick’s little, tiny cottage in 4 or 5 locations in 6 ways then we shut up, we went away, we came back in February when the sun came out. And it rained again. There’s a little documentary on this it’s called ‘El Nino’ it’s a raining phenomenon. However, the mansion, the exterior of the mansion is what used to be called ‘The Cardinal’s Palace’, I went to a Catholic boy’s school there for a short time. But it was grand enough to look like this, as Fitzgerald describes it, it looked like this Normandy castle. Gatsby’s mansion was a fantasia. We called it a Disney for Adults castle, where of course across the water where the aristocrats are their architecture is much more landed gentry.
DICAPRIO: I can’t elaborate any more on the castle than he has but I will say that what was interesting was your original intent was to shoot in New York. For budgetary reasons we shipped the whole production to Australia and I think what was amazing about shooting in Australia and recreating all these sets and the entire world was the incredible enthusiasm and work effect of all the people there. I think it infused us with this great energy. Every actor besides three or four were Australian actors. The entire crew was Australian. Everyone had this amazing enthusiasm about bringing this production there and their work ethic was tireless and their enthusiasm for this project was tireless it wouldn’t have been infused with the same energy and passion if it wasn’t shot there. I really admired how passionate everyone was.
Maguire and DiCaprio was asked why they felt that history kept repeating itself.
DICAPRIO: Baz talks about it a lot but in a lot of ways this book predicted the great crash in the early 1930’s in America. It’s a book that talks about the great opulence and wealth in America during that time period and the idea that the future is endless and we can keep consuming and living the way we do without any consequences. It is timeless in the sense that it is an 80 year cycle. We encountered it again in our modern era and it’s something that we keep doing. And it’s not just an American novel in that regard, it’s something that’s happening worldwide. Fitzgerald was very much commenting on society and human nature and the great pursuit of wealth and it’s a timeless novel in that regard.
Carey Mulligan was asked if it was difficult for her to be in a role that didn’t allow her to react at all.
CAREY MULLIGAN: I couldn’t react. I couldn’t act? Um. I think that’s sort of the core part of her is that she’s very easily led and she’s drawn to the strongest force in the room. I think she’s very reactive I just don’t think she acts very well, she doesn’t make decisions. I loved it. There were so many turns in her personality and so often she doesn’t say what she means she says things for effect.
MANN: This is my observation of Daisy but for me she was the most interesting character to costume because I think for modern women she’s difficult to connect with at first because you think she’s just the woman who let Gatsby go. There’s an incredibly telling scene where you realize she’s a product of her era and a product of her socialogical milieu when she says to Nick, ‘when my daughter was born I hoped she’d be a fool, because that’s the best thing a girl can be. A beautiful little fool.’ In that moment you realize that Daisy isn’t a fool but she’s trapped within her own circumstances. You create an incredibly attractive character and you understand why Gatsby loves her and you understand her flaws. That fragility of personality, not everyone is Jordan Baker. Not everyone is built for the modern world, you were born and bred to be a trophy wife but you’re smarter than that and that’s a difficult place to be.
MULLIGAN: When we started talking about Daisy he gave me 7 books about Zelda Fitzgerald and told me to read them all. And then I was lucky enough to read all the love letters from Genevra King to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and because there are holes in Daisy’s character and often she’s not saying what she means and she’s acting erratically there was a lot of decisions to make. Zelda and Genevra were the two women who we based her on, she was really a cocktail of those people, and really just reading how people spoke about them in that time, when they were young they way that they were raised especially Genevra King as she came from a very wealthy family, and the way Zelda was described by people when she was younger, somebody said that she has as few worries or cares as a puppy or kitten…and we just talked about how at that time, when I defend Daisy I always say that she came from a family who expected her to marry for money and if she had done anything else it would have been scandalous. It’s hardly a weakness of character at that point. We talked about the family she was raised in. We’ve become more and more liberated I hope and people still get trapped in loveless marriages and marry for the wrong reasons all the time.
LUHRMANN: I’m going to back you up.
LUHRMANN: I think the point is, Tom Buchanan says ‘women run around too much these days.’ The thing is that Daisy is trapped in a cage of the previous century, but there are all these flapper girls. In our research, there were mothers who took their daughters to court because of the length they were wearing their dresses.
ISLA FISHER: Absolutely correct, they should do that. It’s disgusting filth.
LUHRMANN: What Carey can’t say and what none of the actors can say is that we went on an intense research journey together. Carey went down to Princeton with Don Skimmer who runs the library down there, we had experts on speakeasies come in, all these actors here, there’s this beautiful moment where she says ‘I wish I’d spent all those days with you,’ these are lines from Zelda Fitzgerald, led us to Scotts in that dialogue, some of the lines Carey speaks are from letters from Genevra King she found in the library. Leonardo, who went everywhere with a copy of “Trimalchio”. Tobey, Leonardo and I, and I do think I’m not expanding on the truth here, was it 2 or 12 in the morning I don’t know in the room going round and round and over and over a scene like sharks smelling blood in the water, looking for that extra line from Tramalchio, extra piece, that extra detail. Same with Isla in terms of the scenes, any way in, any scrap, any hint and we were a theater company and in the same way you’re a theater company it was a true collaboration that began extremely early with Leonardo and Tobey, way before we even got a green light, and as each actor came in they became part of the collaborative writing process. Do you think you could get that line in just there? It would be perfect. And it was.
Click here for all our coverage of The Great Gatsby.