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This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Heading into 2012, a lot of handicappers had penciled in Baz Luhrmann‘s The Great Gatsby, scheduled for a Christmas release, as a potential best picture contender. But then, in August, Warner Bros. postponed its release until 2013. The movie eventually arrived in May, serving as the opening-night film at Cannes. But greeted by mixed reviews, it never made it back to the top rungs of handicappers’ lists, even though it is Luhrmann’s most commercially successful release with $351 million in worldwide grosses.
Gatsby earned costume design and production design Oscar nominations after nabbing noms from other groups–including Costume Designers and Art Directors guilds–but the best picture category proved elusive.
Still, I’d argue that Gatsby, which took a major risk by faithfully retelling one of the classics of American literature in the still-young medium of 3D, will gain appreciation as cinema continues to evolve. Not long from now, it could even be seen as more influential than some of the movies that earned more nominations than Gatsby.
By filming his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s novel in 3D, Luhrmann wasn’t opting for a visually arresting gimmick but rather was determined to use distance and space as part of his palette. He wanted to explore the depth in each scene in a manner that can’t be approached similarly in conventional 2D movies. However technology evolves — today’s big-screen 3D could give way to glasses-free 3D television, holograms or something not yet invented — depth will be part of that future. And filmmakers like Luhrmann — and Gravity‘s Alfonso Cuaron — are leading the way.
While 3D has become commonplace for animated features and big effects movies, it’s largely unexplored territory when it comes to live-action narrative drama. That’s why the medium’s enthusiasts are examining closely such movies as Gatsby and Martin Scorsese‘s Hugo — as well as early experiments like Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1954 thriller Dial M for Murder — to understand how to use it.
“We haven’t even scratched the surface in terms of the use of depth,” says Luhrmann. “We are going to learn to use it in a vastly more complex way.”
Luhrmann got his first real look at 3D’s potential when James Cameron invited him to the set of Avatar. “It was great to see worlds in 3D, but it was more extraordinary to see actors,” he recalls thinking.
He then viewed the rarely seen 3D version of Dial M, in which Grace Kelly plays a woman whose husband is determined to see her murdered. Dial M didn’t earn a single Oscar nomination in its day, but recently it has drawn renewed interest from filmmakers such as Luhrmann and Scorsese who are seeking inspiration.
“That is a drama set in a room,” says Luhrmann of Hitchcock’s adaptation of Frederick Knott‘s play. “When you watch Grace Kelly without the camera moving much, you recognize that the actor is more empowered in their use of the space in 3D than in 2D.”
That realization inspired his approach to Gatsby‘s tense confrontation scene at The Plaza hotel. “It’s a long scene,” says Luhrmann. “I wanted to see the young actors in the prime of their abilities, standing in a room, using Fitzgerald’s text and seeing in 3D what it would feel like to have them psychologically tear each other apart. During that sequence, Tom [Joel Edgerton] walks up to Daisy [Carey Mulligan] and says, ‘Can’t you see what he is?’ The power of Leonardo DiCaprio [Jay Gatsby] deep in the frame is equal to the power of Edgerton in the foreground of the frame. You can’t do that in 2D; you’d have to cut [between the two].”
Luhrmann believes close-ups demonstrate the most powerful use of 3D. Citing the same scene, he describes how “Tom is chipping away at Gatsby, and when he finds his Achilles’ heel, we have an extreme close-up of Gatsby where you can tell he is about to explode. Fitzgerald described Gatsby as looking like he ‘might have killed a man.’ In the extreme close-up, you do feel like he is about to murder someone. That was the intention.”
In the novel, one of Fitzgerald’s characters says, “I like large parties — they’re so intimate.” That pretty much sums up Luhrmann’s overall approach: “It’s generally a quiet, internal story about very loud, colorful, intense things. I wanted to make a film that was a large party — that was extraordinarily intimate.”
Hollywood might not have grasped that on first viewing, but Luhrmann’s successors are likely to study exactly how he did it.
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