Hollywood loves a project arms race and you may or may not remember that circa 2003, Luhrmann and Oliver Stone were in a competition to make an Alexander The Great movie. Stone beat him to it with 2004’s deeply reviled “Alexander” and it killed Luhrmann’s project two-fold: 1) because it got to screens first and 2) it did so poorly and lost so much money, Hollywood was essentially convinced there was no appetite for this subject even if the movie was fantastic. Because of this, Luhrmann fell into a great funk. And it’s part of the reason that during the aughts, he only made two films: “Moulin Rouge!” (2001) and “Australia” (2008). From THR:
This is the man who admits to self-doubt, speaks of bitter disappointments and sporadic depressions; who says he was devastated when his Alexander the Great biopic crumbled after years of work and describes instances of a black despair that left him feeling almost suicidal -- "very rarely, but when I do, it's totally real. It's been a half-dozen times, and it's deep."
2. Did Luhrmann know he was going to get critically pummelled by the press?
Was it the stylistically bold and anachronistic approach to the material or is the material just too much of a sacred cow? Luhrmann suggests the latter may have made him a target, in an interview with the LA Times.
Luhrmann said criticism is inevitable whenever you touch a hallowed text, be it by Shakespeare or Fitzgerald. "If you go near anything, you are going to be tarred and feathered," he said.
“I certainly have been offered a lot of very well known movies where we would have made ourselves very rich very quickly,” he told Coming Soon. “We consider that we're wealthy in life experience, so I don't know that all my choices have been the smartest commercial ideas, but they've all been about what I do feel compelled and what I love to do, creatively. That's always been where it's coming from, you know? We definitely could be cash richer than we are because of the things that have come our way, and every now and then I say, 'Oh, maybe I should just say yes next time someone says 'Harry Potter' again."
Was he being cheeky? Nope. “I was actually offered the first one,” he clarified.
4. Luhrmann cranked Jay-Z on set to get the mood started in a party scene.
There’s a party scene in the film with Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Isla Fisher, Joel Edgerton and a few other friends all gathered at Gatsby's. Luhrmann said the party had to accelerate to the point that it got crazy and abstract, so to push the mood, he cranked up wild jazz and then Jay-Z on set. Luhrmann said there was only 20 minutes in the day left and he yelled to the cast and crew, “let’s turn all the cameras on and lets go for it.”
“So we started with jazz, there was a bit of pillow fighting and some photographs being taken, and it went fine,” he said during the ‘Gatsby’ press conference, but he wanted more. “So right in the middle of it I very loudly turned up a Jay-Z track called 'N. I. P.' ['Niggas In Paris'] which was mixed with jazz, and things took off.”
The cameras rolled for 20 minutes, [very expensive] lamps crashed and the scene almost got out of hand. “My first assistant says ‘Baz we got to shut it down,’ because by then it was crazy mayhem of levels you can’t imagine,” he recalled laughing. “There were clothes coming off and feather fights and flowers being thrown and I remember I grabbed everyone and said, ‘Get in the bedroom!’ and I pushed this Steadicam operator into the bedroom and they kept rolling.”
That’s splitting hairs to an extent, but Luhrmann suggests listening to it, rather than reading it, opened up his mind to its visual possibilities. Also, part of it was practical. He’s a slow reader. “Reading is such an intense experience,” he told Florence Welch in an Interview magazine interview.” My wife can read three novels in a night; she's a speed reader. But I read a page or two of, say, Aldous Huxley's 'The Devils of Loudun'—which took me almost six months to read, by the way—it overpowers me. I can hardly get through it.”
Luhrmann listened to "The Great Gatsby" on a Trans-Siberian Railway trip after “Moulin Rouge!” to clear his head.
“It’s like listening to music. It's like the movie is in my mind,” he said.”I think they should sell going on the Trans-Siberian Railway as an out-of-body experience—locking yourself in a tin box, having bottles of really great Australian red wine, and having great books read to you as the birch trees of Siberia flick by the window and the sun sets. That's got to be one of the greatest experiences of my life. It was so beautiful. And guess who inspired me to do it? When I was a kid, I remember reading that David Bowie had gone on the Trans-Siberian, and I knew I was going to do that one day.”
“The Great Gatsby” is now in theaters. It has its international premiere at the Cannes Film Festival later this week.