A perhaps unexpected offering to kick off this fortnight of high-profile international, arthouse and independent filmmaking, Baz Luhrmann‘s “The Great Gatsby” will nonetheless burst open the Cannes Film Festival later tonight like a giant glitter-and-feather-filled pinata. Which means that this morning was all about the real reason the film snagged its prestigious opening slot: the dazzling constellation of stars it brings in its wake to walk the red carpet, get their pictures taken and talk up the film in handy soundbite format to the assembled roiling masses of journalists at the press conference.
With director Baz Lurhmann, writer Craig Pearce, and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Tobey Maguire, Isla Fisher, Amitabh Bachchan and Elisabeth Debicki all in attendance, it was Luhrmann who talked for the majority of the time — not a great deal of new ground was really covered, and controversy sadly largely avoided (not one single member of the panel compared themselevs to Hitler, for example). However there was an occasional off-script moment, and a handful of meatier comments, which we’ve highlighted below for your delectation.
1. Luhrmann is clearly very emotionally attached to the Fitzgerald story as well as the book.
Early on, Lurhmann spoke with great passion about his interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald, saying “in my younger, more bohemian years I read a lot about Scott and Zelda. I was very fascinated with Zelda, his extraordinary crazy muse.” He also admired the bravery of Fitzgerald’s intention, sitting down to write using a writing technique which was intended from the start to be something “new, beautiful, extraordinary…the Great American Novel.” And the irony of Fitzgerald writing this story while his wife and muse Zelda was having an open affair nearby fed into, for Luhrmann, “how much pain and beauty went into the writing.” But after his death (Lurhmann asserts that the book “The Great Gatsby” sold more copies this year than it did in Fitzgerald’s entire lifetime) he was neglected by many critics and reviled by others as “a clown.” That Luhrmann feels the injustice of that assessment sharply was clear. He repeated, shocked, “A clown… think about that.”
When later a question was posed about how he feels about the film’s lacklustre critical reception, Luhrmann referred to that again: “Well, what about Fitzgerald — what about ‘a clown’? I just care that people are going out [to see it]”
2. Luhrmann got the film financed through Warners partly by appealing to their sense of history.
The film that Leonardo DiCaprio referred to more than once as a “risky endeavor” did have what Luhrmann called “a rocky moment” early on in the pre-production phase. “I sat with the team from Warners, and said “you know in your DNA there’s another film, about a man [longing for lost love] and it’s ‘Casabanca.’ It’s in your DNA. So I think the film found its right home.” Nonetheless, he knew that launching a 3D love story amid a lot of tentpole action adventure films was in no way a sure thing, and so the early numbers are a matter of relief to him. “It was a very nervous weekend for all of us, I’m thankful to the audience and very grateful.”
3. DiCaprio found the character of Gatsby in one particular moment.
“As an American,” said DiCaprio, ” ‘The Great Gatsby’ is taught in schools and I read it then, [but without] grasping the profound existential power of Fitzgerald’s writing. [Now] I’m fascinated and moved by [Gatsby], this new American in a new world where everything is possible, in a time of great optimism, and who somewhere along the way lost the sense of who he was and was desperately holding onto this mirage of Daisy.” And for him the moment that unlocked the character was the realization of the contradiction at the heart of the man when “he finally has Daisy in his arms, but he’s still staring at the green light.”
4. The music performed several important functions for Luhrmann, especially in terms of imbuing a degree of diversity.
When quizzed about the African-American presence in the film, Luhrmann pointed to the scene in which a car full of African-American revellers is being driven by a white chauffeur, which is “in the book, and [Fitzgerald] is just trying to say what an incredible transformation is coming about.” But it’s not a just a token scene for Luhrmann. “The bigger issue is that Fitzgerald took an African-American street music called jazz and he made it a star of his book. And people said, ‘it’s just a fad,’ but Fitzgerald replied ‘I want this book to feel right here, right now.’ And there’s another African-American street music called hip-hop and it’s right here, right now. It’s a star of the film… I think there’s a great African-American presence in this film and I’m very very grateful for it.”
5. Jay-Z was the first person to see the cut.
The collaboration with Jay-Z on the soundtrack and as executive producer, came about through DiCaprio, and while Luhrmann joked that he was nervous showing him the “terrible” rough cut, and was hoping “the music will be so great it’ll make it all better,” Jay-Z’s reaction was very heartening. “He said ‘it’s beautiful’ ” said Luhrmann, “It’s aspirational, it’s about ‘is he a good person or not, does he have a moral compass, does he have a cause?’ ” He was apparently particularly struck by the scene in which Buchanan confronts Gatsby, telling him, “no matter how much money you have you’ll never be like us.”
6. Carey Mulligan read widely around the two main real-life influences on the character of Daisy.
“Baz gave me six books about Zelda Fitzgerald” said Mulligan,”and we organized a trip to Princeton and I spoke to scholars of Fitzgerald. And I started reading about Ginevra King, another inspiration for Daisy, who was in a relationship with Scott for about a year… the language [of her letters to Scott] it was completely how Daisy talks and writes…she wrote this one letter talking about her birthday ‘walking beneath the pine trees and you were a young lieutenant and I was a fragrant phantom.’ “
7. The film has the approval of at least one member of the surviving Fitzgerald clan.
Luhrmann related, how, after the premiere, an “extremely regal woman came out of the shadows and looked at me and said — and I don’t know why she’s coming out as Katherine Hepburn but she is — ‘I’ve come all the way from Vermont to see what you’ve done with my grandfather’s book. I think Scott would be proud of this film, because people have said for many years you can’t take this first person [narrative] and do it on film, and I think you’ve done that. And by the way I loved the music.’ “
“The Great Gatsby” will play tonight at the opening of 66th Cannes Film Festival, and we will beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaslessly into the next fortnight of Cannes craziness. Stay tuned.