Fresh off of a strong box office opening stateside that caught the bulk of prognosticators by surprise (it came in a close second to "Iron Man 2" in its second weekend, earning a very healthy $51 million over its debut weekend), Baz Luhrmann much maligned 3D take on F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" screened for press here in Cannes in advance of its official opening night screening tonight. Before donning their formal evening wear for the big night, Luhrmann and his collaborators (including cast members Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire and Isla Fisher) spoke to the press about their adaptation, which remains surprisingly faithful to the novel despite an audacious hip-hop flavored score orchestrated by none other than Jay-Z, whose own music appears in the film alongside work by artists including Lana Del Ray, Florence + the Machine and Fergie.
"In the USA ‘The Great Gatsby’ is essential reading," DiCaprio said to the international press, kicking off the conference. "I was entertained by it and fascinated by Gatsby, but not by any stretch of the imagination did I grab the existential nature of this book [when I first read it]. When I came on the project, the book took on a whole new meaning to me. People now are still trying to dissect each one of his statements. It was an endless journey as we discussed this novel. It no longer became a love story to me but this great tragedy of a man who had lost a sense of who he was. When you have such eloquent poetry to work from, it just makes it endlessly fascinating."
For DiCaprio, this marks the second project he's worked on with Luhrmann , following their work together on Luhrmann's modern-day take on another classic love story, "Romeo and Juliet." Asked to address their working relationship, DiCaprio said, "Look I’ve known Baz for 20 years. What is so fantastic about Baz is many things, but one of them is that he inspires you every day in the workplace to dream big. You cannot get in a room with this man and not feel inspired. It’s infectious. He’s also not afraid to take on very classic stories, very risky undertakings. He's always vigilant about getting to the essence of the drama and getting to the truth."
Tobey Maguire, who plays the film's narrator Nick Carraway, cousin to Jay Gatsby's romantic obsession Daisy Buchanan (Mulligan), has never worked under Luhrmann, but has with DiCaprio on "This Boy's Life." On reuniting with his bud on screen, Maguire said, "I trust Leo. We have an ease of communication. We both take our jobs very seriously and have a lot of fun too. I was inspired by working with Baz and working with my friend, who is also a great actor. He was really a diligent detective. He loved looking through source material and building a very layered rich character. We ended up in this rehearsal space arguing till two or three in the morning when we had to be on set early the next morning. So it was a really satisfying experience and something I’ll always love and treasure -- the experience of working with a friend."
The topic of Luhrmann's much-ballyhooed use of modern day music to spice up the period tale inevitably came up. On why he chose to go down the route he did with Jay-Z's musical ear, Luhrmann said, "Fitzegerald put music front and center in the novel. He put African American music, jazz, as the star of the book. He wanted it to to feel right here, right now. When I set out to write with Craig Pierce, I said there’s another form of African American music and it’s right here, right now -- and that’s hip-hop."
Luhrmann revealed that it was DiCaprio who introduced him to Jay-Z. The rest is history. "Jay-Z saw the first cut of the film before anybody else did," Luhrmann said. "He said after the film, ‘it's beautiful but the thing about that film is that is aspiration, it's not about how Gatsby made his money -- is he a good person or not. Does he have a cause? I think the book's power is that its universal and speaks to whoever you are."
And of the film's many critics stateside (the film opens throughout most of Europe the day following its premiere here), Luhrmann had this to say: "I made 'Moulin Rouge,' 'Romeo' and 'Strictly Ballroom' and I knew critical backlash would come… I just care that people are going out and seeing it. I really am so moved by that.
"I was at premiere in the U.S. and an extremely regal woman came out of the shadows and told me, ‘I came all the way from Vermont to see what you did with my grandfather's book. I think Scott would be proud of this movie because people had said that you can’t take this first person narrative and make it into a film. And I think you’ve done that. And by the way... I love the music.' It doesn't get better than that."