Baz Luhrmann's Despair, Drive and Gamble Behind 'Great Gatsby'
Like his protagonist Jay Gatsby, the Australian director once reinvented himself with a name change and new identity. Now, he's risked everything on his flashy $100 million spectacle: "I would do anything to make sure 'Gatsby' stayed alive."
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.
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."
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."
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.
"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.