We bring you the Cannes Press Conference for Baz Luhrmann’s THE GREAT GATSBY

Baz Luhrmann’s highly anticipated film THE GREAT GATSBY opened the 66th Cannes Film Festival yesterday. The film is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book of the same name, and we bring you all the news from the Cannes press conference.

Baz, what drew you to the project? Did you feel a new reading of The Great Gatsby was needed?
Baz Luhrmann: I think my own revelation was 10 years ago. I knew it as a child, through being a big fan of Robert Redford. I was on a train in Siberia, I was lonely and I had a bottle of Australian red wine and I had a couple of recorded books. I put it on and I realised I didn’t know it at all. My big recollection was that it was us, it was where we are now. It was this great mirror to reflect back on. I suppose if I read it when I was 60 I would have a different experience than when I read it at 40, than I had when I was 17. Right then I felt that if we could just unlock the issue of how you take an inner monologue of Nick Carraway and tell the story, then there was a different kind of film to be made and that was the beginning of a 10 year journey; getting the rights, finding all of these incredible collaborators. Very early on, Tobey and Leonardo were collaborators, then the collaborating team just kept growing and growing and growing, until here we are today, collaborating with you good people on this press conference. That’s been the journey of it really.

Leonardo, how do you relate to the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald?
Leonardo DiCaprio: In the United States, The Great Gatsby is essential reading; everyone has read it in high school. I remember picking up the novel as a youth and being entertained by it and fascinated with Gatsby, but not by any stretch of the imagination, grasping the profound existential power that Fitzgerald had in writing this book. Baz handed me a first edition copy a few years ago and said he wanted to do a film of it, and it took on a whole new meaning for me. One of the most powerful things about this novel is that it is still discussed nearly 90 years later; people are still talking about it and trying to dissect each one of Fitzgerald’s statements, each one of his lines, each bit of symbolism. It was kind of an endless journey as we discussed this novel, trying to dissect what he truly meant for each scene. I was fascinated by Gatsby as a character; I was moved by him. It was no longer a love story for me, it became the tragedy of this new American, this man in a new world where everything was possible – in a time of great opulence in the 1920s – trying to become a great American and somewhere along the way had lost the sense of who he was and was desperately holding on to this mirage that was Daisy Buchanan. The use of Fitzgerald’s of words in certain sequences defined everything for me in terms of portrayal of him. One in particular was where he finally has Daisy in his arms and Nick describes watching these two. He is holding her after all these years of making himself from the Underworld to creating the impression of him as this rich, blue blood oligarch, here he is holding the woman of his dreams, and yet he is still staring out at the green light. He is still looking out at the mirage. When you have such eloquent beautiful writing like that to work from, it just makes the whole process much more interesting, endlessly fascinating. We could have kept talking about how to do this movie and portray this character for years and years because it takes a new meaning.
BL: When Leonardo read that book, I went up and we talked endlessly, but then Leonardo was talking about Fitzgerald’s writing and the relationship to Fitzgerald’s writing. I remember Leonardo put it very succinctly and very simply. He said ‘You know, the thing about that man’s writing is that he takes what everyone is thinking and he puts it into words and you say I know that person, I know what that is’. When [Fitzgerald] died – and I always thought this was quite unbelievable, but true – he was so forgotten that he was buying copies of his own book, just so there were some sales. Last week sold more copies of The Great Gatsby than he did in his entire lifetime…
LDC: …Because a little film adaptation is doing quite well at the box office! [laughs]
BL: Something happened the other day that was, for me, really the end of the journey. I was at the premiere in the United States and an extremely regal woman came out of the shadows, really. She looked at me and she took me by the hands and she said “I have come all the way from Vermont to see what you have done with my grandfather’s book”. You can imagine I went cold because I have never met her, and she said “I think Scott would be proud of this film, because people have said for many years that you cannot take his first person narrative and make it into a film. I think you have done that… And by the way I loved the music”. So for me, that was as good as it could possibly get. For me, if we have done anything, then that’s made it worthwhile.

Leonardo, What was it like to work with Baz Luhrmann again after nearly 20 years?
LDC: I have known Baz for 20 years and I flew out to Australia to do a very condensed version of ROMEO + JULIET where he had this crazy idea of putting the Bard into an ulterior universe, and it seemed insane at the time. What is so amazing about Baz is many things, but one is that he inspires you, every day, in the workplace to not only do your best, but to dream big. You cannot get in a room with this man and not feel inspired, not feel nostalgic, not feel like you are part of something special. He brings that out in everyone that he works with, and it’s infectious. He is also not afraid to take on incredibly classic stories that are embedded in our culture, and ones that are very risky to do. Throughout that whole process, no matter what he creates, no matter what world he puts it in, no matter what he adds to it, he is vigilant about getting to the essence of these great pieces of literature, whether it be Shakespeare or Fitzgerald. He is vigilant about dissecting each and every scene and getting to the truth.

Tobey, what was it like to work with one of your closest friends, Leonardo DiCaprio?
Tobey Maguire: I would say that in terms of our friendship and how it informs the Nick/Gatsby relationship on a personal level, I am very fond of Leo, we are very good friends, so that certainly helps when you are playing scenes. Backing up from there and saying the relationship we have, the trust we have for each other is amazing, so we have a real ease of communication in talking about scenes, the material. We both take our jobs very seriously and we have a lot of fun too. I, as Leo said, was inspired by Baz and inspired by working with my friend, is one of my best friends and happens to be a great actor. I loved watching his process and participating in his process with him. You got a sense of it when he was talking about digging into Fitzgerald’s material. He is really a diligent detective. He loves looking through the source material and finding every kernel of truth that he can and building a very layered, rich character. I was reminded the other day, that he, Baz and I ended up in this rehearsal space when we were shooting, arguing until 2 or 3 in the morning, when we had to be at work the next morning. This was a later night than usual, but it was common practice; going through the source material to try to figure out the best version of our interpretation of this material. It was a really great and satisfying experience for me as an actor, as a professional, and something that I’ll always love and treasure as a person working with a friend.

Earlier on, Baz, you said on working with these actors that they were almost collaborators…
BL: Not almost, they were collaborators.

OK, so the same question may be extended to the rest of the cast; did you help mould your character?
Carey Mulligan: When I was cast, and we started talking about Daisy, Baz gave me about 6 books on Zelda Fitzgerald and told me to go and read them all…
BL: …By the morning!
CM: [laughs] Yeah, by the next day. Then also we organised a trip; I went to Princeton and spoke with people there who were scholars of Fitzgerald and held his estate at Princeton. I started reading about Ginevra King, a woman who was one of the inspirations for daisy, and she was in a relationship with Scott for about a year. They wrote these letters to one another and I was lucky enough to be given a copy of her letters to him – his letters to her don’t exist any more – so I just had her letters and immediately you could see the way that she used words was completely the way Daisy writes and talks and looking at Zelda’s diaries as well… She wrote a letter once to Scott and it was one of my favourite letters; she wrote the most beautiful letters. She wrote this letter once when she was being nostalgic and, of course this whole thing is about people who can’t release themselves from the past. She wrote this letter and she was talking about her birthday and she wrote ‘It was my birthday; we were walking beneath the pine tress. You were a young lieutenant and I was a fragrant phantom’. It just struck me and we just soaked up the amazing words and these amazing descriptions of these two women and that’s how we tried to put Daisy together; as faithful as we could as to how she was in the book but also using these two incredible women.
BL: So it was Carey’s idea, the line in the film, say it Carey…
CM: I wish I had done everything on earth with you.
BL: Miss Mulligan would come to me and say… In fact, every single actor would come to me and say ‘what about that bit here?’ but I remember Leonardo saying, when were on the set doing the Speak Easy and it was very noisy and Leonardo leaned across and said ‘he’s got to say the line…’ They were fighting for each other to get as much of Fitzgerald’s dialogue and poetry into the film in every little corner, in every little squeezed moment.
Isla Fisher: I concur! [laughs]

Baz, here have been criticisms of the way black people are portrayed in the film, can you talk about this?
BL: Fitzgerald writes in that novel, Nick Carraway is going into new York City and there are African Americans in a car being driven by a Caucasian chauffeur. That is in the novel, and he is just trying to say what an incredible transformation is going on. Secondly in the party, we asked Professor James West… In the list by Fitzgerald there are African-American guests at the party, and you can imagine this was a big revelation. So there is that issue, but the bigger issue, and the more touching and profound thing for me is this; Fitzgerald put music front and centre in his novel. He took African American street music called Jazz, and he put it right as a star in the book. People asked why he was doing that; ‘It’s a fad, it will be gone next week’ and he said ‘I want this book to feel right here right now’. So when I set out to work with Craig and right back in the writing process we said ‘There is another African American street music, called hip hop and it’s right here, right now’ so we thought we had to do that because we wanted the film to feel like what it would have been like to read the novel in 1925. Now, cut forward and we’re indicated hip hop in the script and then Leonardo rings me and he says ‘Jay is up at the Mercer, do you want to come up and meet him?’ I didn’t know Jay-Z. That night I told Jay-Z about mixing the jazz Age with hip hop and he said ‘Let’s not talk about it, it’s too important; let’s do it’. He saw the first cut of the film and I think this is what really was, for me, a revelation, ‘cos he saw Jay Gatsby and Jay said ‘the thing about that film is that its aspirational. It’s not about how Jay Gatsby made his money, it’s is he a good person? Does he have a moral compass? Does he have a cause? And if he does, are all those other aristocrats good people?’ I think the book’s great power is that it’s universal, and it speaks to everyone no matter who you are, or where you are. Jay said that the music is a star in this film, so I think there is a great African American presence in this film and I am very very grateful for it.

Baz, is there any chance that you and Leonardo will now make your Alexander the Great movie?
BL: Why don’t we do it? Come on! Shoot tomorrow? [laughs]
LDC: Baz takes many many years to decide what he wants to do next. That was in his wheelhouse for a while. We had discussions about it, it ultimately never came to fruition…
BL: You know what, I have a vault. In that vault… We built a studio for that film in the northern Sahara and I have a vault and in it are materials… I don’t know why we are talking about it; it was kind of a painful period. But let me say this; we have gone through this experience together and it’s not yet complete. People keep saying to me ‘Are you going to go on another train trip?’ and I tell them I am definitely not taking War and Peace on that train! Or maybe I should!

THE GREAT GATSBY is in Irish cinemas now

Words: Brogen Hayes

Image: © FDC / L. Otto-Bruc