BWW Interviews: Baz Luhrmann Passionate About GATSBY, Plans for STRICTLY BALLROOM On Broadway
With STRICTLY BALLROOM, ROMEO + JULIET, MOULIN ROUGE, and AUSTRALIA as his previous credits, Tony and Academy Award nominated director Baz Luhrmann is largely hailed as one of the most creative and artistic directors working in film today. His lush and vibrant adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic American novel THE GREAT GATSBY began as the director rode the Siberian Express for 10 days, as a debriefing trip after finishing MOULIN ROUGE. More than a decade later, as he prepares for the Blu-ray and DVD release on Tuesday, August 27th, Luhrmann is still as passionate about the film as he was when he listened to the audiobook on that train.
In a free-wheeling conversation with BroadwayWorld, the director spoke passionately about adapting the "unfilmable" classic (and what critics thought of his efforts), the best review he received, and his new project, a stage musical adaptation of his 1992 film STRICTLY BALLROOM. I spoke to Luhrmann shortly after he found out that China was going to allow the release of THE GREAT GATSBY, and just hours before he boarded a flight to Beijing opening.
It sounds like it has been quite a hectic morning for you.
Well, you know what it is Matt, a very rare amount of films are selected for China, and GATSBY wasn't going to be, and then all of a sudden the Chinese said, "Yes, Gatsby, go." So, I had to scramble my whole team, and we're all on a plane, and off we go to Beijing. The film's gonna open in like three days, and then it's opening in China this weekend.
Do you know what changed their minds in terms of releasing it there?
I do know. It was that, I do believe, that they didn't realize that we had made the film in Australia; that it was an Australian film, and it had to do with their quotas. But, I'm not sure that's entirely the reason of course. You know, everything in China is quite mysterious.
It's interesting that you are heading out to China for the final premiere, because this film started as an idea on a trip that began in China.
I know. It is absolutely full circle.
As you were listening to that book on the iPod on the Siberian Express, what was it about THE GREAT GATSBY that really spoke to you and made you want to turn it into a film, especially since it's been made into films a couple of times in the last three or four decades?
When I was on that train, listening to it on the recorded book on the iPod; I had read the book in high school, but I realized that I didn't know the book at all. And so much of it spoke to me as an adult; in a way that didn't when I was a teenager. And what really spoke to me was this fundamental transformation of Nick Carraway's character. The book is very seductive and glitzy and glamorous in the beginning, like Gatsby is seductive and glitzy and glamorous as a character in the beginning. Nick Carraway is drawn into that city, that majestic city, that mirage, that "golden mirage" as Fitzgerald calls it. He goes there to make money on Wall Street; he goes there to make money, really just for money's sake. He gives up his desire and interest in literature and art. What happens is by meeting Gatsby, and experiencing Gatsby, he essentially has a break down; of course in our film, we clearly align Nick Carraway with Fitzgerald. But, Fitzgerald virtually says that himself. There are many cross-references between Nick Carraway the character and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
What I felt when I was listening to (THE GREAT GATSBY on the Siberian Express), apart from being totally exalted by the experience and spiritually nourished, because I was really exhausted, what I felt was the way Nick Carraway actually finds himself, his self-revelation, he realizes that no matter how much buildings soar into the air, no matter how much money is gushing through Wall Street, no matter a beautiful suit or a string of pearls, or glamour or glitz, there must be a center to your life.
And that final idea (the novel's closing line), "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." My read of that is that, "And so we go on to live a life. Of course it's imperfect; of course it can never be as idealistic as Gatsby sees things, because he sees the world through a magic idealism, but we go on with a center to our lives. We go on to have a purpose in life."
On comparisons to the 1974 adaptation of THE GREAT GATSBY
Well, first of all, I want to just be very clear that Robert Redford (Jay Gatsby in the 1974 film) was part of the reason I did GATSBY too. We had a cinema in a small town I was in, we only had it for a short time, but one of the first movies I saw there was BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. And when I saw Robert Redford, I said, "That is the coolest man I've seen, and the other guy (Paul Newman) with him isn't bad either." And so, I was a great Robert Redford fan as a kid. Then I saw THE STING, and I just thought that was incredible. When I saw GATSBY, I remember as a child not being clear; thinking it was beautiful, but not being clear who Gatsby actually was. Now interestingly, years and years later, Bob Evans, who was running the studio at the time (of Redford's GATSBY), said to me almost the identical thing. He said, "We made a very beautiful, but not very clear film; a somewhat boring film."
Now what I read, interestingly, in a book about the making of the 70's GATSBY, was that Redford himself really wanted to put more back-story about young Gatsby in the movie. There's actual scenes where the journalist in the book is talking to Redford and Redford is essentially debating with the director about putting the Dan Cody story in.
As someone who has read the book multiple times, I was a little apprehensive about the framing story you used in the film, but as it played out, it really helped bridge the gap from the book to the movie, and watching the Special Features on the DVD I was really taken by your idea of using that "poetic glue" (a term for the connectivity throughout all aspects of the film to Fitzgerald's prose) across the entire film. Can you just talk a little bit about solving the problem of bringing an almost entirely narrated book to the screen?
You know what Matt, I certainly can, and I'm very happy to, because you know, as someone who knows the book, generally THE GREAT GATSBY is called, the unfilmable book, because of that internal narration. How many times have we read, "It's unfilmable,"? How many times have we read, "You can't really bring it to the screen,"? How many times have we read that F. Scott Fitzgerald has never really worked in the cinema?
What I never realized until I heard it on that train, was that Nick Carraway was actually writing a book. I didn't realize the first time that he was writing a book about Gatsby. He says, "Gatsby, who is the subject of this book," and then he says, "Reading over what I have written," it's so chic the way Fitzgerald does that. And so, I realized that if I could craft a way of externalizing the internal experience of Nick Carraway writing the book, if we could crack that, then there was a different kind of movie to be made. And let me say, Matt, everything I did, no matter what the commentators say, or other people think, I did because I wanted to try and reveal Fitzgerald's text. I wanted to make it work for Fitzgerald, and the idea of Nick Carraway being in the sanitarium was Fitzgerald's. We found it in his notes, and he was going to use it in "The Last Tycoon," but he never did it, because he never finished the book. So everything that I did, despite what people might think, essentially was inspired by Fitzgerald and the research we did on Fitzgerald.
I will tell you the most beautiful story, the best review I ever got, Matt, on this film. I was at the opening of the film, in New York, and out of the shadows came a very regal woman, and she grabbed me by the hand, and she said, "I've come all the way from Vermont, to see what you've done with grandfather's book." You can imagine how I felt; I went cold. I knew that Bobbie (Fitzgerald's granddaughter, Eleanor "Bobbie" Lanahan) existed, but at that point, I hadn't met her. She was quite reclusive, and she said, "And you know, they always said that my grandfather's books, and particularly GATSBY, were unfilmable." And she said, "But I think you've solved it. You've solved it." Then she leaned over to me and said, "And I loved the music."
So that was really touching. That has been the most touching moment, and the most valuable response. Let me say another thing very simply, Matt, which maybe answers the question; the framing device, with Nick in the sanitarium, which was inspired by Fitzgerald's own idea, if I didn't have it, then all you would have is a lot of disembodied voiceover. And the problem with disembodied voiceover is that the audience simply tunes out. When you read it (on screen), you tune in, but you can only have a little bit. Whereas seeing Nick Carraway struggling with his feelings about Gatsby, and seeing the "poetic glue," and seeing him write the book, you understand he is writing a book, and therefore, he is being cured by the act of storytelling; he's been made healthy. He's coming to terms with his relationship with Gatsby, through the act of storytelling. And that is really what caught my attention when I heard it on that train in Beijing.
Switching topics all together, I know that you are working on STRICTLY BALLROOM THE MUSICAL, is there any news you can share with us?
Yea, I'm trying to cast Fran [the female lead, played by Tara Morice in the original film], and I'm gonna have a go at doing some casting in New York. I've done a lot of casting, and I've done a lot of work on it in the last month in Australia. We did a little, kind of mini-workshop, and we've got another one coming up. It is advancing and we are very much moving towards our opening which is in March-April next year. Other than running to China (for GATSBY's release), right now I'm working on STRICTLY BALLROOM.
Are there any plans to bring it to New York after the Australian run?
I think that's a pretty simple answer. If it's any good, Matt, we'll be on our way to Broadway.