The first time Leonardo DiCaprio read The Great Gatsby, he was instantly intrigued by the love story at the heart of the novel. But years later, when he re-visited F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age cocktail, he found himself appreciating the book on a whole different level.
Narrated by the Fitzgerald-esque Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the story concerns the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio) and his efforts to re-ignite the spark with his now-married ex-girlfriend Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan).
“The Gatsby that I remember reading when I was15 years old in junior high school was far different from the Gatsby I read as an adult,” says DiCaprio, 38. “What I remember from my years in junior high was this hopeless romantic who was solely in love with this one woman and created this great amount of wealth to be able to respectfully hold her hand.
“But then when I re-read it as an adult, it was incredibly fascinating [how it seemed to change.] It is one of those novels that is talked about a hundred years later for a reason. It’s nuanced, it’s existential and here at the center of [the book] is this man that is incredibly hollow, and is searching for some sort of meaning in his life.
“He’s attached himself to this relic known as Daisy. She’s a mirage. I was struck by the sadness in him for the first time, and I looked at him really differently.”
As depicted in the $120 million film, the 1920s are a time of loosening morals, bootleg czars, endless parties and sky-rocketing stocks. In the middle of it all is Gatsby, a self-made man who is, in some sense, the manifestation of the American Dream.
“One really telling sequence that we talked about a lot and, for me, was really important is the one where, after [Gatsby builds] this great castle to lure Daisy in, he’s still staring out at the green light [across the bay]. He’s finally got her in his
arms but he’s still searching for this thing that he thinks is going to complete him. That was the Gatsby that I was incredibly excited about playing as an actor.”
The Great Gatsby has been filmed four times before, most memorably in 1974 with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in the roles of Jay and Daisy. Luhrmann’s version, which will open the Cannes Film Festival, is a big departure from previous adaptations thanks to the lavishness of the film, the use of 3-D and the contemporary score performed by rapper – and executive producer – Jay-Z as well as Bryan Ferry, Jack White, Beyonce and Florence + The Machine.
Another element that makes Luhrmann’s Gatsby distinctive: it was filmed almost entirely in the director’s native Australia. Oddly enough, the outside of Gatsby’s grand mansion – “a Disneyland for adults”, says the filmmaker – was filmed at Luhrmann’s old high school. (In the book, the palace is located in Long Island).
“What was interesting was that our original intent was to shoot in New York and for budgetary reasons we shipped the whole production to Australia,” says DiCaprio, who’ll next been seen in Wolf of Wall Street, which marks his fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese.
“What was amazing about shooting in Australia and recreating this whole world was the incredible enthusiasm of all the people there. I think it infused us with this great energy. Every actor, besides three or four, were Australian and the whole crew was Australian.
“Everyone’s work ethic was tireless and I don’t think [the movie] would have been infused with the same energy and passion if we hadn’t shot there.”
DiCaprio admits that from the get-go he identified with Gatsby’s drive.
“Gatsby created himself according to his own imagination and dreams,” says the actor. “He lifted himself by his own bootstraps as a poor youth in the Midwest and created an image that is this `Great Gatsby.’
Here is this emerging democracy that is America in the 1920s and [Gatsby] wants to emulate a Rockefeller of that period so he creates his wealth in the underworld. This is a new land, and it’s a very exciting time. I think we can all relate to the dreamer in Gatsby. Each one of us gets excited by the prospect of someone who has that much ambition.”
DiCaprio feels as if, at least in part, The Great Gatsby is a cautionary tale about the dangers of living only for status and wealth.
“In a way, this book predicted the great crash in the early 1930s in America. It’s a book that talks about the great opulence and wealth in America in that time period and the idea that the future is endless [but that we can’t] keep consuming and living the way we do without some consequences.
“[That’s something] we encountered again in our modern era Fitzgerald was very much commenting on society and human nature and the great pursuit of wealth. It’s a timeless novel in that regard.”
As soon as DiCaprio was cast, Luhrmann opted to give the role of Carraway to Maguire, who happens to be DiCaprio’s best friend of more than two decades. The pair met in 1990 when they were both auditioning for the Parenthood series.
The casting of Maguire as Carraway was a big boost for DiCaprio. “For me, this is American Shakespeare,” says DiCaprio. “This is one of the most celebrated novels of all time, so to venture into a project of this magnitude took a core unit of trust for me to feel comfortable, and to know that somebody I’ve known for 20 years was involved was incredibly comforting.
“[Tobey and I] are always extremely honest with each other and I don’t know if this project would have happened if we didn’t have that sort of relationship because we needed those checks and balances.”
Maguire was able to use the warmth he feels for DiCaprio to fuel his performance. “I definitely have an affection for Leo so it’s easy for me to have affection for Gatsby as Nick as well,” notes the actor.
Luhrmann marveled at the ease with which the two performers communicated both on and off the set. On the first day of shooting, for instance, the pair improvised a moment that remains in the finished film. The sequence involved Gatsby and Nick awaiting Daisy’s initial visit.
“I thought to put a locked camera on a wideshot and say, `let’s not do the scene, let’s justimprovize’,” recalls Luhrmann. “And Leonardo says to Maguire: `those flowers are lovely aren’t they, do you think it’s too much?’
“Maguire pauses and says, ‘I think it’s what you want.’ And that moment is one of the purest and most connective moments in the film. I think it comes from the depth of the relationship [between Maguire and DiCaprio]. It was funny because it was one of the first things we shot and it’s one of the most truthful and wonderful moments of the film. So, there was a grand value in the depth of their friendship.”
It wasn’t just Leo and Tobey who pitched in with dialogue. According to Luhrmann, Mulligan spent weeks researching Zelda Fitzgerald and socialite Ginevra King, the two women who inspired the character of Daisy Buchanan.
“We all went on an intense research journey together,” says Luhrmann. “Carey went down to Princeton and we had experts on speakeasys come in. [At one point], Carey says to Leo, “I wish I had done everything on Earth with you.’ That’s a line from Zelda Fitzgerald’s love letters to Scott.”