Taking Another Look at Baz Luhrmann's 'The Great Gatsby'

Many said it was unfilmable; others said it wouldn't work in 3D. But in 2013, The Great Gatsby became director Baz Luhrmann's most successful movie, bringing in $145 million domestically and $349 million worldwide.

It's notable for more than its box office results. Adapting one of the great classics in American literature was risky for all involved. Each creative decision was aimed at faithfully retelling F. Scott Fitzgerald's story, while at the same time exploring and pushing the still-young 3D medium.

Inspired by James Cameron's Avatar and Alfred Hitchock's rarely seen 3D version of 1954's Dial M for Murder, Luhrmann believes filmmakers are just beginning to experiment with how to tell dramatic stories in 3D, with its added element of depth. "We are going to learn to use it in a vastly more complex way," he predicted, when meeting with The Hollywood Reporter for an interview at Chateau Marmont several months ago.

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Luhrmann is convinced that the close-up is perhaps the most powerful shot that you can create with 3D. At one point in his story, narrator Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire, observes that Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) "could see by the way [his wife] Daisy was speaking to Gatsby that they were lovers." Luhrmann uses an extreme close-up of Tom to make that realization all the more intense. "We're increasing his emotion in 3D," said Luhrmann. "He sees himself as royalty, and you understand that Tom's perception of his entire life has changed in that moment."

Luhrmann emphasized that everyone involved in the production -- the actors, financiers, production team -- all took a risk with the project. "None of those people backed away; there was never of moment of anything but belief and commitment," he said.

Of his star Leonardo DiCaprio, Luhrmann testified, "Doing Fitzgerald's character of Gatsby is like doing the American Hamlet; it's that risky." When we spoke, The Wolf of Wall Street had not yet begun to screen, but the director added, "He'll probably be great in Wolf of Wall Street. I don't care if he gets nominated for Wolf of Wall Street or Gatsby, but I do hope that the actor fraternity recognizes just how serious and how deeply thinking he is about how he uses his talent. When it comes to awards, I think he has been a little unfairly viewed, because the perception is maybe that he is too lucky, that he's gifted and has his choice of roles."

Luhrmann's collaboration with all the project's crafts departments began while the screenplay was still in development, in order to ensure a single "language" from Simon Duggan's photography in native 3D to Catherine Martin's costume and production design to the music from artists that included Jay-Z, Lana Del Rey and Florence Welch, as well as music supervisor Anton Monsted.

"Every decision in making the film came from Fitzgerald," Luhrmann said. "If Fitzgerald put African-American street music/jazz in his novels -- which he did -- and put popular songs up front in the novel -- which he did -- how could I not put them in the movie?" To some degree, that goal even inspired the decision to shoot in 3D, as Luhrmann commented that the author was "enormously enamored with cinematic and modern techniques."

Luhrmann also relied on meticulous research, working with academics, including Fitzgerald historian James West. The screenplay -- co-written by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce -- took Fitzgerald's words not just from Gatsby but from some of his other works. The idea of showing Nick Carraway writing of his encounter with Gatsby from within a sanitarium actually came from Fitzgerald's notes from his unfinished Hollywood novel The Last Tycoon.

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA