THE GREAT GATSBY
Casting a Classic
At first, everything we know about Gatsby is drawn from "the bizarre accusations that flavored the conversations in his halls" -- he is the fabulous but mysterious party-giver, the man who drifted "coolly out of nowhere to buy a palace on Long Island,"* who opens the towering doors to that palace each and every weekend to anyone and everyone, but who no one has actually met. That is, until he invites his new neighbor and the narrator of the story, Nick Carraway, to one of his lavish parties. This begins a chain of events through which Gatsby will ultimately reveal and be ruined by his romantic obsession, Nick's cousin, "the golden girl" Daisy Buchanan.
"What is eventually revealed is that Gatsby grew up poor. When he was younger, Gatsby had this grand vision for his life. And then, one day, he happens to fall in love with this girl, Daisy," says Luhrmann. "He'd known other women, so he thought he might just take what he could get from her and go off to the war, and that it'd be nothing. But she's this extraordinary girl and he gets hooked. He goes away to the war, and she promised to wait for his return, but then the rich and powerful Tom Buchanan sweeps in and steals her away. Gatsby loses his girl, comes back from the war penniless, and so begins his quest to erase and then repeat the past more in line with that grand vision he has always had for himself."
Gatsby hopes to win Daisy back by "making something of himself." His entire existence -- the ostentatious mansion, the extravagant parties, the library full of books he's never read, the hundreds of silk shirts he's never worn, the flashy fast car -- is an accumulation for which he cares not, but with which he intends to recapture Daisy's heart.
"Gatsby is an incredible character to play," acknowledges DiCaprio. "I think he's very much the manifestation of the American dream, of imagining who you can become... and he does it all for the love of a woman. But even that is open to interpretation: Is Daisy just the manifestation of his dreams? Or is he really in love with this woman? I think that he's a hopeless romantic but he's also an incredibly empty individual searching for something to fill a void in his life."
"What Gatsby represents is this romantic ideal," notes Pearce. "By saying that, I don't mean he's just a lovely guy, because actually there are some really dark aspects to Gatsby. I mean he represents this purity of vision, of what he is prepared to do for love."
DiCaprio sought to bring new depth and an arresting darkness to his version of Gatsby -- a version closer to the character in the novel. "When James West first saw footage of Leonardo as Gatsby, he said, 'Now, this is Gatsby, Gatsby's dark obsession, his absolutism,'" says Luhrmann, who adds, "He's the Gatsby who will not let anyone rewrite the script he has written for his life.'"
Although Gatsby is a tragic figure, his "incorruptible dream" and his commitment to that dream, are what ultimately make him inspiring, "worth the whole damn bunch put together" in Nick's eyes. "Nick realizes that Gatsby, for all his flaws, is 'great' because Jay Gatsby has a gift for hope that is unparalleled; even if it is ultimately out of reach or doomed, his purpose is pure and real," says Pearce.
"Characters like Gatsby are inherently wedded to tragedy," Luhrmann observes. "What they seek to attain is unattainable. And they don't change. We know that Fitzgerald was a fan of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), which has that Orpheus-like structure where an innocent journeys into the underworld and meets an iconic figure; the iconic figure, in the case of Gatsby, doesn't transform, he lives and dies with 'Daisy' on his lips. In the process though, he inspires us mere mortals to be better, to transform ourselves, to look for a purposeful life. And Nick does. Nick begins the story turning his back on his artistic inclinations in order to focus on making money on Wall Street, but ultimately comes to the realization, through finally writing a story about this guy Gatsby, that he, too, must pursue a meaningful and purposeful life, as Gatsby did."
And what is it that Nick gives to Gatsby?
"I think Nick is Gatsby's only real friend in this world," says DiCaprio. "And that's shocking to Gatsby... he has no real friends. Nick is the one guy who actually takes an interest in him as an individual, and not as this sort of mega rich spectacle that is 'Gatsby.'"
The role of Nick Carraway is played by one of DiCaprio's closest friends, Tobey Maguire, who recalls, "I got a call from Leo and he said, 'I just talked to Baz and he's thinking about doing The Great Gatsby... He was talking about me for Gatsby and you for Nick. He's in town... What are you up to tonight?' So, the three of us got together and hung out for a few hours, and then I picked up a copy of The Great Gatsby and read it for the first time."
Nick Carraway is the story's narrator. Like Fitzgerald did, Nick comes to New York from St. Paul, Minnesota, to make his fortune in New York (Fitzgerald's attempt was in advertising, Nick's in the blossoming bond business). In doing so Nick is, by his own admission, giving up his dream of being a writer. He rents a small bungalow on Long Island's West Egg, the nouveau riche part of town, and, unwittingly, right next door to the mysterious Mr. Gatsby. Nick just so happens to be the cousin of Daisy Buchanan, the object of Gatsby's affection. He is lured into Gatsby's world, first to a "little party" and from there into doing Gatsby the favor of inviting Daisy over to tea so that Gatsby can happen to drop by.
"Nick represents any person on a journey who's searching for the right path. He's sensitive, artistic...an observer," says Maguire of his character.
"Nick is stuck between these two worlds, his allegiance to Daisy and Gatsby and this kind of wild ideal of love that they've got, and also this more traditional tie to Tom as Daisy's husband, though he's not the nicest guy in the world, nor the most trustworthy," explains Joel Edgerton, who plays Tom Buchanan.
"Nick is the innocent who comes into this world and is changed -- he becomes terribly affected by the world and by what happens," notes Pearce.
In the end, tragedy strikes, and Nick's proximity to, and involvement with, that tragedy -- to Gatsby, the Buchanans, New York City, the parties, the speakeasies, the "profusion of champagne" -- it all causes him to crack-up. "He's disgusted by everyone's behavior," Maguire says. "And this is a character who, in the beginning of the book, is described as someone who reserves all judgments. Essentially, he still wants to believe that people, at their core, are good, so it breaks his heart to learn that they are not. And I think his own culpability and indulgence with these people adds to his disgust."
"I don't know if Nick is the moral compass, but he's definitely our moral conductor," Luhrmann says. "I think he takes us through the moral landscape of the story, and by the end he's ready to find out who he is and what he wants."
"Early on, Tobey was searching for the real Nick and I think he made an incredible discovery," says Luhrmann. "Much like Fitzgerald was, Nick is something of an outsider, an awkward goose, an honest but out-of-his-element Midwestern guy grappling with life in the East. And Tobey took the grand step of expressing that, at first, in somewhat comic turns, but then, as Nick breaks down and becomes psychologically distraught, so, too, does Tobey's performance become more psychological until finally we meet, at the end of the film, the Nick that we met at the beginning, a totally destroyed human being, not comic at all. This progression was a very brave choice on Tobey's part -- his Nick moves deftly between comic outsider, observer, broken, and, finally, changed man."
"Tobey does such an incredible job of portraying Nick," adds DiCaprio. "Here he is experiencing life, he's with these people, but he's reflecting because he really is an outsider. He never really belongs."
Comparisons have long been made between Nick and Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald himself famously confessed, "Sometimes I don't know whether I'm real or whether I'm a character in one of my novels." Indeed, Fitzgerald and Nick share a birth year, 1896, a hometown, St. Paul, Minnesota, a temperament, and a passion for writing -- it is, in fact, Nick Carraway who is writing about Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel.
"We've made no bones about the idea that Nick Carraway is F. Scott Fitzgerald in a way, and so much of what happens in Gatsby happened to Fitzgerald," acknowledges Luhrmann.
In his collection of autobiographical essays, The Crack Up, Fitzgerald admits, "I have spoken in these pages how an exceptionally optimistic young man experienced a crack up of all values, a crack up he scarcely knew of until long after it had occurred." Nick Carraway, in the pages of Gatsby, undergoes a similar crack up, and then retreats back to St. Paul to write his book.
Luhrmann notes, "It is clear in the book that Nick is writing a book. 'Reading over what I have written so far...' writes Nick. He is, in fact, penning a book about a guy called Gatsby, but there is no hint as to why he is writing, where, or whom it might be for. Craig and I really struggled with this. We wanted Nick's voice not to be just a disembodied voiceover. We wanted to see Nick struggling with his thoughts and feelings. So we needed some combination of editor and/or priest, someone to whom Nick could essentially confess the tragedy that had occurred and then start to write. And that is how the idea of a Doctor came into our minds. We were very lucky then to engage with Dr. Menninger, whose family were some of the earliest advocates of progressive psychoanalysis techniques in the States, as far back as the 1920s, and it was an explosive moment for us when Dr. Menninger explained that it is was very reasonable to think that patients would have been encouraged to come to terms with their experiences through self-expression, writing for example. And then came the bombshell. We discovered that in Fitzgerald's notes for his final, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, he intended to have his narrator writing the book from a sanitarium, and the Doctor 'device' and Nick's narration grew from there."
"Baz put Tobey on tape very early in the process, and we heard his voice do the narration. He immediately brought such a human element to the story," says Lucy Fisher. "He put away any concerns of 'Does this feel old-fashioned?' or 'Does it feel too literary?'"
Daisy is the phantasmal object of Gatsby's obsessions, ethereal and completely captivating, especially her voice, "the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again." Daisy is Gatsby's "green light," his "enchanted object" beckoning from across the bay, but forever out of reach, "high in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl..."
Maguire notes, "As soon as I heard the words come out of Carey's mouth as Daisy, she drew me in, just like Daisy is meant to draw you in. I was swept away by her."
Carey Mulligan, who stars as Daisy, offers, "The main thing about Daisy is her duality. She wants to be protected and safe and live in a certain way. But, at the same time, she wants epic romance. She's just swayed by whatever is the strongest and most appealing thing. She's not a grounded person or a genuine person, in a way."
When we first meet Daisy, she is at a somewhat melancholic juncture in her life. Once a much-admired Southern belle, "the most popular girl with all the officers from Camp Taylor," she's still very charming and beautiful, but she's sadly aware that her husband is a serial and unapologetic philanderer, prone to "sprees." It is thus, when Nick reintroduces her to Gatsby, her lost love of five years ago, that she is tempted into a return to the past.
Luhrmann took his time to find the right actress for the part. "I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that every actor you can imagine was keen to play that part; it's one of the great, iconic roles. So we found ourselves in somewhat of a 'Gone with the Wind' situation, where we were exploring all the possibilities, not so much as auditions but as little rehearsals."
"We did a big, wide net of a search for Daisy, which is the old-fashioned Hollywood way," echoes Fisher.
"Leonardo was a constant partner in this search," says Luhrmann, who immediately solicited his reaction after Mulligan read for the part. "Leo said the most brilliant thing: 'You know, I've been thinking about it... Gatsby has had a lot of very beautiful women thrown at him. Carey's very beautiful, but she's also very unusual. Daisy needs to be sort of precious and unique and something that Gatsby wants to protect. Something that he's never experienced before.' We looked at each other and said, 'It's her.'"
"We knew we'd found our Daisy Buchanan," DiCaprio recalls of that moment. "Daisy is such an incredibly important character in the film. She has to be a combination of the beautiful innocence that Jay sees in her, but she also has to have that whimsical carelessness. It takes not only a very intelligent actress, but also someone who can do both of these things simultaneously."
It turns out that Mulligan was equally impressed by DiCaprio. "I remember the first audition that I had," she says. "We were doing a scene right towards the end of the film, and Leonardo was playing Gatsby, and he was playing Tom Buchanan, and Nick Carraway. So, he'd sit in one chair and play his character, then he'd jump in another chair and play Tom, and then be standing up and he'd be Nick. He was learning all the different lines. He was incredible."
Mulligan portrays Daisy as complex, more than just a vacuous heroine. "I think that when Daisy says something, she really means it, but five minutes later she might not mean it at all," Mulligan observes. "She's almost living in a movie in her own life, looking in on herself, which makes for a rather thin personality that was probably typical of women in her circumstances, and interesting for me to play."
Tom Buchanan is Daisy's husband, and therefore Gatsby's rival.
"Tom is the bad guy, he's a bully, he's very destructive and he's also super rich and entitled," comments Joel Edgerton on his character. "It's my job to present that, but it's also my job to present Tom as a real person and not to judge him.
"I know from reading a lot about Fitzgerald that he kind of hated guys like Tom; he's a guy who embodies the ultra-wealthy kind of characters of that era, and he is married to a woman who actually had a chance at love with someone who didn't have that money. Instead, she chose Tom," marvels Edgerton. "I'm fascinated by that. I understand that there's a love there, but there's also something deeper about the culture of money."
Despite Daisy's unhappiness, Mulligan points out that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to her relationship with Tom. "Daisy and Tom have such a great dynamic. When they walk into a room, they know they are the most powerful people there because of their wealth and status," she says. "There is a reason they are together and a reason that they were, at one point, really in love. So, that's what we had fun playing with. I think it's really easy to make them an unhappy couple, but they're not necessarily."
Luhrmann found the part of Tom difficult to cast. "Honestly, all sorts of actors wanted to play that role, but finding exactly the right quality was really hard," he says. "Joel is a talented young Aussie guy, and he was coming in to read for Tom Buchanan, but I cannot say that I thought at the time, 'Well, that'll be a slam-dunk.' But from the moment Joel walked in until the moment he left, he was Tom Buchanan."
Edgerton was so immersed in his character that he continued using his upper-class American accent on set, long after the cameras stopped rolling. Luhrmann recalls, "I forgot what Joel Edgerton -- the guy who has the Aussie accent that I know well -- sounded like, and I really think it would be very hard to find anyone who won't see the Tom Buchanan that is on the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in the interpretation that Joel found, because he's boorish and you love to hate him. But he has his own kind of moral universe. And to that he is faithful. As Nick says, 'I couldn't forgive him or like him but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified.' It's both complex and entertaining."
"Fitzgerald said Tom Buchanan was one of the best characters he ever created," adds Doug Wick. "Joel owns it all. He owns the bigotry, he owns the energy, and he makes him multi-dimensional. He did a brilliant interpretation."
A regular visitor at the Buchanans' home and reveler at Gatsby's parties, socialite pro-golfer Jordan Baker is played by newcomer Elizabeth Debicki in her first major movie role. Nick finds Jordan extremely elegant, beautiful...and profoundly intimidating.
"She's sort of terrifying," admits Mulligan, "but she's got this underlying warmth that she reserves for very few people, and you know that she has it for Daisy."
Fisher calls Debicki, who held her own with the Hollywood heavyweights, "The Discovery!"
"We didn't know her work, we didn't know who she was," explains Wick. "Baz said he'd found Jordan and that she was extremely athletic and tall. We said, 'What movies has she done?' and there weren't a lot of them. But then we went to a reading she was part of, and though she was relatively inexperienced, she brought a wit, a comedy and a presence. The fact that she was in the company of such extraordinary actors and she was comfortable was amazing."
"I hope that Jordan comes across as a modern woman," says Debicki of her performance. "Fitzgerald is very specific about the way he writes her: she's the new breed of woman that has literally just appeared out of thin air. One day everyone's walking around in corsets; and the next day some brave woman picked up a pair of scissors and chopped her hair off. She's not married and doesn't appear to have any intention of marrying; she's feisty and brave; and she's got attitude as well -- she's not a people pleaser."
In stark contrast to the women of East Egg is Myrtle Wilson, Tom Buchanan's illicit paramour, who lives on the other side of the tracks. Australian actress Isla Fisher plays the character as a smoldering vamp with a tragic vitality.
"I love Myrtle. She's trying to be independent and having an affair and living this life, and she's desperately trying to be sophisticated," says Fisher of her character. "She also has this kind of sensuality. She's totally in love: she has a beating heart for Tom Buchanan and she wants out of this Valley of Ashes, and, quite naturally, she sees him as the ticket to freedom. She's just a really great, complex character who ultimately meets a very dramatic fate."
"Isla is one of the true surprises of the movie," says Fisher. "In the book she was written as stout, but Isla is sultry, so you really understand Tom's attraction to her."
"I think the relationship between Tom and Myrtle is very important," says Edgerton. "Tom is the most powerful, wealthy guy in the story, and even he can't have what he really wants."
Myrtle's cuckolded, down-on-his-luck husband, George Wilson, is played by Australian actor Jason Clarke. The impoverished mechanic gets caught in the web of deceit surrounding the Buchanans, Gatsby, and his own wife, and, ultimately, it is he who takes the story to its very tragic end.
"George Wilson runs Wilson's Garage shop, in the Valley of Ashes. He pumps gas, fixes cars, and also sells second-hand cars," Clarke says. "He's married to Myrtle and he's basically a very good man who just can't give his wife the life she wants, and it tears him apart."
Rounding out the cast of "The Great Gatsby" are Jack Thompson as Carraway's confidant, Dr. Walter Perkins, and legendary Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan as Gatsby's shady business partner, Meyer Wolfshiem.
"To me, this story shows everything that is pure and beautiful about the American dream, as well as its Achilles' heel, everything that's problematic," Wick observes. "The cast that Baz put together really brought to life the characters I've envisioned as I've read it, over and over, and made these inhabitants of Fitzgerald's world feel even more real to me than I ever imagined."
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