The setting might have seemed a bit low-brow for such a glittering event – a preview showing of the sure-to-be blockbuster of the season, Baz Luhrmann’s “Gatsby”. But in other ways, it was most fitting – perfect really. Baz Luhrmann, the director and co-screenwriter of “Gatsby,” certainly thought so. Here, in this small, suburban movie theater in Port Washington – on the Peninsula dubbed “East Egg” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic American novel that defined the Jazz Age, this was the first screening of the film in an actual movie house, and a local, independent Soundview Cinema, recently acquired and refurbished. That brought a nostalgic note for Luhrmann who said he had grown up in a tiny town where his father owned the local cinema.
“Gatsby is back home,” he told the group of some 300 invited guests to the preview.
Gatsby was truly home, though, because from the Port Washington Peninsula you could see the opposite shore, the Great Neck Peninsula, the “West Egg” of Fitzgerald’s imagination, where the Nouveau Riche and strivers (that is, the self-made men) lived, and where Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, actually lived from 1922-1924, living the life which he put on the pages of “The Great Gatsby.”
Fitzgerald, who put much of his own life into the characters of Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby, may well have formed the images as he sat on the porch of writer Ring Lardner’s house – drinking no doubt – which overlooks Manhasset Bay separating Great Neck and Sands Point, where even today the “old money” still lives.
Luhrmann said he was grateful to be part of the preview screening – a Gold Coast international Film Festival event of the Great Neck Arts Center (soon to be renamed the Gold Coast Arts Center) and the town of North Hempstead. Three years ago, Luhrmann was at the first festival, held at the Gold Coast mansion built by US Steel cofounder Henry Clay Frick that is now the Nassau County Museum of Art, where he talked about his plans to make a “Gatsby” for our time.
He began his research then and spent the next 18 months living on the North Shore, visiting just about every one of the Gold Coast mansions and gathering the documentation which animate the movie.
He confessed that he had originally intended to make “Gatsby” here on Long Island – his children attend school in New York – but that the film rebates had been used up (“Men in Black 3” apparently got the last), so he took his research and re-created every detail in Sydney, Australia.
There have been six other versions of the film, including a silent film that Fitzgerald reportedly walked out of and is now lost, and I ask Luhrmann how he made Gatsby his own?
The essential problem, in bringing the novel to film, Luhrmann said, is showing the internal dialogue within narrator Nick Carraway’s head.
Luhrmann solved that by setting Nick Carraway in a sanitorium where his doctor urges him to put pen to paper to sort out the emotional conflicts that have been driving him to drink after the loss of his friend, Gatsby. Then Luhrmann literally has the poetry of Fitzgerald’s passages leap from the page and onto the silver screen, in a stunning visual way.
Nick, who had been a striving writer before coming to New York to be a bonds trader, produces his novel, “Gatsby” which in a final gesture he pens in “The Great”.
With this device, Luhrmann, who is also a screenwriter on the film, is able to preserve what is the best part of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”: the pure poetry of the language. Luhrmann puts the poetry onto the Silver Screen, as if it were his canvas.
Every frame is visually exquisite.
Imagination, was what Jay Gatsby used to reinvent himself, and Luhrmann has that in spades – he did it so brilliantly in his Romeo & Juliet (which featured a 19-year old Leonardo DiCaprio), and in Moulin Rouge.
The visualization is utterly stunning – “a masterpiece,” says Regina Gil, executive director of the Great Neck Arts Center.
Luhrmann also went high-tech, rather than old-timey, using 3D. But instead of making an essentially two-dimensional medium more realistic with the third dimension, 3-D heightens the theme of illusion, distortion, unreality, and artifice.
In this case makes the movie less “real,” more of a fantastical dream, an illusion. Jay Gatsby used illusion as the means to achieve his dream, in an age when the American Dream had already become an illusion. success was built on a bubble.
Most interestingly, instead of using the Jazz of the Jazz Age which animates Fitzgerald’s novel, Luhrmann opted for hip-hop of Jay-Z.
“Fitzgerald took African American street music, Jazz, and he put it right in the middle of the book, put popular songs right in the middle of the book, I wanted to do that,” Luhrmann says “Fitzgerald was being very modern. He lived in the Jazz age. We live in hip-hop age, so let the chairman of the board, the other J, we need a Jazz Age. But I wanted it to feel like you were reading a novel in 1925, that’s why I did it.
We would react to the music as nostalgic and sweet, but Luhrmann wanted something that would evoke the same reaction of wildness, rebellion, youthful exuberance, the edgy quality and freedom that Hot Jazz had in its own time. So he went hip-hop.
Luhrmann has done it before in period pieces, using anachronistically modern music. Gatsby’s guests dance to Jay-Z, Florence and The Machine, Fergie and Nero.
But in the setting and costuming, he used stunning authenticity. He came to Long Island three years ago, visiting every Gilded Age Gold Coast mansion he could find, looking through archives.
He says how he discovered an overgrown pool at a Vanderbilt Mansion, found the plans, and painstakingly recreated it.
“We were at the Vanderbilt mansion” he says, “and six months earlier we had found a photo of swimming pool that once existed for the famous scene in the story. We were out doing scouts, and saw a grassy knoll and a filled-in swimming pool, So I got my assistant to stage the scene -when you see the film tonight, it’s an identical replication of that pool, filmed in Sydney Australia with exactly the same staging.
“There are so many things you will see. ‘Hang on. Isn’t that?’ The answer is yes it is, just not here,but in Sydney Australia.
“Even Gatsby’s wharf – we just reproduced things as precisely as we could.”
Indeed, the scenes you see of Manhasset Bay, looking from Gatsby’s dock to the Buchanan mansion, the landscape proportions are exactly right.
The drive through Queens and over the Queensborough Bridge…. the view of the skyscrapers of Manhattan that would have been in the 1920s.
And he clearly has used computer imaging in order to take real scenes – the real geography, as it were – and turn back the clock to the 1920s so there is a stunning historical feel as we see New York’s skyscrapers under construction (the sand came from the very sand pits of Port Washington and Sands Point, says North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman), the train tracks being laid and the roads being paved, and we see New York as it was when they ride through Queens (the Valley of Ashes) and over the Queensborough Bridge.
The casting is inspired, but Luhrmann said that there was no question but that Gatsby would be played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who Luhrmann directed as a 19-year old Romeo in his modern interpretation of “Romeo & Juliet.”
“He was a young boy, now he’s a man, in full control of his powers and abilities, a real collaborator on the film – He was collaborating with me on the film two years before we shot the film.”
As for Tobey McGuire who is a close friend of DiCaprio’s, he said, “ I would have thought of him anyway even if Leonardo wasn’t Gatsby, but the fact they had a friendship – a special bond between Carraway and Gatsby – Tobey was as much about collaboration as Leonardo.”
Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby are two aspects of Fitzgerald, himself – the man from St. Paul Minnesota, who wanted to be a writer; the man who was frantic to make himself a success so he could woo and win the debutante who was the love of his life, Zelda, Montgomery, where they met when he was a soldier stationed at Camp Sheridan.
He fell in love with the wild 17-year old beauty. Zelda finally agreed to marry him, but only after he could prove a success. With the publication of This Side of Paradise in 1920, Fitzgerald became a literary sensation, earning enough money and fame to convince Zelda to marry him.
“Was all this made entirely from your own imagination?” Daisy asks Gatsby in the one joyful moment of the film when he feels that his life’s quest, to win Daisy, is at hand. And that is literally true of Fitzgerald, whose financial success did come as a product of his imagination
But Gatsby was not universally well received. As Luhrmann told Steven Colbert, in just the last week, the book sold more copies than in Fitzgerald’s lifetime.
When Fitzgerald passed away, in 1940 at the age of 44 of a heart attack, he had only sold 25,000 copies – he even was reduced to buying copies himself to maintain sales. Today, the book, a staple of High School curriculum, has sold more than 25 million, at the rate of 500,000 a year.
Those who adore the book will be cheered by how Luhrmann shows it to great affect; those who are less enthusiastic about the novel (like me), will find so much more to appreciate the poetry and the themes through Luhrmann’s presentation.
Luhrmann has found a way to relate the Jazz Age novel to our own Gilded Age, when we are faced with a similar divide between ultra-rich who also hold the reins of power, and the rest.
“In the ‘20s, there was the very rich and the very poor, ‘10 percent, no questions asked. Wall Street. Sound familiar? It is an incredible reflection of the time we live in now, it’s incredibly who we are. It’s the beginning of modern era, and in many ways a reflection of the era we have now.”
As for all the versions of Gatsby that have come before, and may well come after, he said, “There is always a Gatsby for any time and any place; we’ve all done our best to create one suitable to our time. I think Gatsby is the American masterpiece; it should be done this year and at later times. There will be different interpretations in different times.
As I am watching Gatsby, I am realizing that Fitzgerald wrote “Gatsby” four years before the 1929 Crash on Wall Street, the burst bubble of excess. He was prescient.
He was not just writing about the death of the American Dream, it was the birth of cynicism.
These are the themes that Luhrmann has chosen to emphasize in his “Gatsby,” making it stunningly contemporary and relevant to modern audiences.
Luhrmann has done a brilliant job of setting “Gatsby” as a grand opera, a tragedy. People have said that the theme of Gatsby, and why it is an iconic American novel, is that it shows the American capacity for reinvention, to start over, that this is the American Dream. Luhrmann doesn’t take that path at all – he shows the utter corruption of a society, the corrosion of its moral and legal fabric, the shallowness and fraud. He emphasizes the novel’s theme that the American Dream, the notion that anyone who has the talent, ability and perseverance has an equal chance to succeed is a fiction, an illusion, a fraud – how people are kept down by the likes of the Tom Buchanans, who control money and power for whom laws don’t apply.
In this broken society, the only way to get ahead – and winning the love of your life -is by breaking the law – in this case, becoming a bootlegger and doing shady Wall Street deals. It is a story about the corruption of society, the death of the American Dream It is about a rigged system – laws that apply differently depending upon the level of influence you have with the enforcers.
“I try to reveal the book… At a screening, a regal, older woman came out of the crowd afterward and said, ‘I’ve come to find out what you did with my grandfather’s book – I think he would be very happy and very proud, because all the time, people have said you can’t make a film of your book….’ That was probably the best thing to happen.
“I really wanted to come out….Regina asked me – but I really I wanted to come out to say thank you,” he tells the audience at the Soundview Cinema in Port Washington. “Gatsby is back home here in Nassau County and thank you for all your help in doing that.”