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

3:00 AM PST 04/24/2013 by Stephen Galloway
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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."

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.

“I don’t think I have ever met anybody who has such a visual sense of the world he wants to create,” says Sue Kroll, Warners’ president of worldwide marketing, who was traveling when Luhrmann came in for his initial meeting but then became a crucial supporter. “He is an incredible artist. I look at this movie and it is sumptuous, it’s so gorgeous. He has an unbelievable eye and an incredible sense of how things are communicated. He is very deliberate about everything he does and it all adds up to telling a different kind of story.”

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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