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."

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 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 perfecting 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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