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'The Great Gatsby': Retold Again, With A Distinct Treatment


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. "The Great Gatsby" is a classic that keeps getting retold. F. Scott's Fitzgerald 1925 novel about a man who reinvents himself, and posh guys and flappers who, to quote some famous words, "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made" has been made into a film six times. It's also been turned into an opera, stage plays, a musical - a story that people keep retelling in their own time and way. And now, a famously Australian director has brought a new version to the screen.


SIMON: Baz Luhrmann is known for turning classics inside out. His previous films include "Moulin Rouge," "Romeo + Juliet," and "Australia." His "Great Gatsby" stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey McGuire, Joel Edgerton and Isla Fisher. Baz Luhrmann joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

BAZ LUHRMANN: I'm really happy to be here, Scott.

SIMON: What's it like to shoot a story that so many people feel, having read it or seen one or more of the movies or more of the treatments, having the book more than once, a story that so many people feel they know already?

LUHRMANN: Look, a couple of things - one is everybody owns "Gatsby." That's why it's a great work. They've own their interpretation of Daisy. It's like "Hamlet." If a work is great, in my estimation, it moves through time and geography and it's there to be interpreted. To quote Benjamin Britton, "in many different ways at many different times." And what was my process? Whatever people think - the 3-D, the music, all that sort of handwringing - every single decision came from a deep, many years of deep research, came from an attitude, which is what would Scott have done?

SIMON: You've done a couple of interviews where you have intimated that you decided to use 3-D and you decided to use contemporary music because, in fact, it was being faithful to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

LUHRMANN: I don't know, Scott, if faithful is the right word, but what I know is this: I know that F. Scott Fitzgerald took African-American street music called jazz and he put that music right front and center in the book of "The Great Gatsby." I mean, but people were saying why putting jazz in your book? It's going to be a fad. It'll be gone next week. And he did it because he was, if nothing else, he was not nostalgic. He was pop cultural.

And I wanted the audience to feel when they saw the movie as the readers of the book in 1925 would have felt when they read that book. And that would have been that the book was immediate, it was now, it was the music written in the book was dangerous and from the street. And so I hatched this plot to blend between traditional jazz - and, yes, Jelly Roll Morton is in the movie - but also into what I think is the African-American street music of today that is visceral and in the moment, and that is hip-hop. And so I was lucky enough to elaborate with the other Jay - the Jay of the Z - and - as opposed to the Jay of the G - and that collaboration led to a weave of music.


LUHRMANN: And that brings us, I guess, to 3-D.

SIMON: OK. Thank you. 3-D...

LUHRMANN: Well, F. Scott Fitzgerald was extremely focused on the modern. He liked modern technique, and he particularly was enamored of the cinema. So, he took cinematic ideas and devices and used them in his writing. You know, compressions, time jumps. It's why that slender novel is so compressed. Now, when I began this, I was thinking, OK, cinematic technique - F. Scott Fitzgerald, would he turn away from the modern? He would be looking for what the most advanced techniques? Now, we all know that the novel begins with a whole lot of razzle-dazzle and the champagne and the dancing and the stars and so on. And then you're drawn down into, fundamentally, five characters in the plaza, in a room in the plaza, just around the corner from where I am, tearing their hearts out at each other - intense and singular emotional smashing. And it's those things in 3-D that I think are our special effect.

SIMON: I was impressed by the way you seem to make a point of putting famous passages and speeches into the film, and not just into the screenplay and have actors utter them, but, I mean, literally into the film.


SIMON: Why'd you do that? How'd you do that?

LUHRMANN: Well, the big thing was how do you not just have disembodied voiceover? 'Cause if you do, you don't get much F. Scott Fitzgerald into the movie. So, I had this notion: Nick Carraway is writing a book in "The Great Gatsby." Gatsby, who is the subject of this book, reading over what I have just written, he says. So, we thought wouldn't it be great to see him writing this book, struggling with his feelings about Gatsby? So, the idea that Nick is, having cracked up, is in a sanitarium and he is writing the story about his feelings for Gatsby, and, of course, as he writes, it's turning into a book, because we know that Carraway has an interest in writing and gives it up to go into the bond business. So, no he's writing a book and there comes moments when the words used in 3-D become the image and the image become the words. Because I loved this idea. I called it poetic blue. I loved this idea that the words were taking us into Nick's mind and Nick's mind was taking us into the words. It was saying how can I make the audience feel that we're inside Nick's head, but we're also on this exciting ride?

SIMON: Why does Nick tell Gatsby that he's worth the whole bunch of them?

LUHRMANN: Because, I think - let me tell you something, when Jay-Z saw the rough cut, and he summed it up so perfectly, he said, you know, it's such an aspirational film because it's not about how Gatsby really made his money, it's about whether he's a good person or not. Does he have a moral compass, does he have a cause? And, of course, to quote you, Scott, you made reference to one of the great quotes - they were careless people, you know, Tom and Daisy. They smashed up people and things and retreated into their vast carelessness and their money and so on and so forth. Are they good people? Do they have a cause? Do they have a moral compass? Haven't we just gone through a period of where, oh, so, you know, Wall Street, no questions, don't ask. I mean, it was in our way when the crash came that I realized having gotten my hands finally around the rights, I had to make this film. Because it isn't just a romance. Of course, it's a grand romance and there's a question as to where the romance actually lies, and that's interpreted for each audience member. But it's really more than anything an extraordinary comment, I think, on the American Dream.

SIMON: Baz Luhrmann. His new film is his distinct treatment of "The Great Gatsby" with Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan. Thanks so much for being with us.

LUHRMANN: Enjoyed our talk, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.