THE GREAT GATSBY
Doing Up the Town, Down Under
From 1920s costumes to New York in the 1920s, for the filmmakers, topography was equally integral to the story: the hot, gritty, bustling streets of New York City; the lusciousness of the playground of the rich, Long Island; and The Valley of Ashes, the dusty wasteland in between.
"The book is really set in Manhattan and East and West Egg on Long Island," explains Pearce. "We had to understand the geography. We studied maps but then we went there and it was a very hot summer, and we purposely stayed in the garment district, which is sort of one of the few parts of Manhattan that isn't terribly gentrified. It was a bit like New York would've been in Fitzgerald's time. And that really informed us."
Although much of the research and writing process took place in New York -- including numerous field trips to Long Island to visit the stately homes -- most of the film was shot at Sydney's Fox Studios.
"If you say to a New Yorker that the film was shot in Australia, they sort of laugh. 'Are you kidding me? You made the film in Australia?'" says Catherine Knapman. "Of course, Baz would have loved to make the movie in New York, but the opportunity to make most of the film here came up as being the most efficient. Building sets is really what Catherine Martin does best with her team. Filming in Australia brought a lot of advantages, including generous incentives from the Australian and New South Wales governments. There are a lot of talented people in Australia. We had an enormous crew, in excess of a thousand people, and a background cast of 960. We had close to 300 extras on set on the 'party days.'"
So, 1920s New York was brought to Sydney, carefully recreated in great detail, from the most lavish sets to the smallest props.
"What was amazing to me was the storytelling in the sets. I would notice certain elements that were incorporated into the set, and everything felt so authentic, it made it easy to believe it was real," Maguire remarks.
Perhaps the most paramount sets to be built were the magnificent homes of Gatsby and the Buchanans, as these showcase the important differences between the neighborhoods, and residents, of East and West Egg.
"East Egg and West Egg were completely different," says Luhrmann. "East Egg was a community of the highborn, of the truly moneyed, of those who would inherit the earth, and it's being attacked by these West Eggers who are all these kind of riffraff, these new-moneyed folk who have suddenly got all this cash. And that clash between the two worlds is powerful and alive throughout the whole story."
Martin says that the houses were intentionally designed to impress. "What was very much in Baz's mind was that these two houses were overwhelmingly huge and in competition, in a way, for Daisy's love."
Gatsby's colossal mansion, with its shining turrets, is based on several real buildings," says Luhrmann. "But really it's a bit like Disneyland, because in our mind Gatsby's holiday concoction is a fantasy -- it's like a playground for adults."
"Our version of Gatsby's mansion is an amalgam of a large number of references that Baz pointed me in the direction of," says Martin. It's kind of a Gothic French chateau; on the one hand it's a sad, lonely Gothic house, but it's also a house of great wealth and beauty. It had to encapsulate Gatsby's extraordinary ambitions and his optimistic, romantic soul that was willing to do anything to achieve his goal: to capture his great love, Daisy.
Gatsby's house was built over a number of sets, with the different parts of the house divided up. The pool, a very important part of the story, was built as a separate set, on stage two, and it included part of the terrazzo that continued down to the "beach" -- the actual beach was at Doll's Point, in Sydney. The grand hall, the back garden and the terrazzo were on one set. The map room, the grand ballroom, the stairs, the organ and the three-layered garden were all built on one stage, a frame that made Gatsby's party scenes that much more spectacular.
The sets were so stunning they even impressed the veteran cast and crew. "There were scenes where we would be by Gatsby's pool and he's throwing a big party, and if you look behind the camera you'd see 20 or 30 crew members with their camera phones out," says Maguire. "That never happens on film sets, but this was such a spectacle, something to behold."
The front of Gatsby's mansion, the postern gate, the grotto leading from Gatsby's to Nick's cottage, and part of the cottage itself were filmed in Centennial Park in Sydney. Everything was pulled together with the aid of a LIDAR scanner, a small laser scanner that creates a 3D model of each set, allowing the visual effects team, led by Chris Godfrey, to combine and composite all the individual pieces into one location. Godfrey's group also helped evoke New York City's construction boom of the time, with new skyscrapers reaching upward from Wall Street to Midtown at a rapid pace.
If Gatsby's wild castle is the ultimate representation of new money, the Buchanan's home across the bay is meant to symbolize the ancestral wealth of many generations. Martin therefore designed the tasteful but grand manor as an example of the American aristocracy, complete with red brick and stables and elaborate manicured gardens. "Baz's idea was that we really needed to juxtapose the ephemeral fantasia that is Gatsby's mansion against an establishment mansion," explains Martin.
The Buchanan house was one of the biggest sets of the film, taking up one of the largest stages at Sydney's Fox Studios. It encompassed the front of the house, the hallway that leads to the salon where we first meet Daisy, and then continued out to the terrace.
"The story of the book really starts here, the night Nick went to the Buchanans' for the very first time," says Martin, "and Baz always points out that in the book it says that the Buchanans were unbelievably wealthy -- Fitzgerald uses names of very prominent families at the time whose wealth was unbelievable. So, with the house, you needed to understand how wealthy Tom Buchanan was, and therefore we needed to make Gatsby's wealth feel competitive, because in Gatsby's heart he has always believed that the reason he didn't get Daisy was because he was poor."
"My favorite set was the Buchanan house, and as you walked down the hallway -- they called it a Hallway of Champions -- there are hundreds of portraits and pictures of Tom Buchanan standing in his polo gear," says Mulligan. "They go from the floor to the ceiling and every single one of them has the intricate print written on it about his sporting achievements. You get sucked in to the world so easily; it sort of does half the work for you."
Another important set created in the studio was the speakeasy where Nick meets Gatsby's dubious associate, Meyer Wolfshiem. The underground club is part of the seedy back story of the prohibition era, when corruption, organized crime, boozing and debauchery ran rife.
"There were many speakeasies," says Martin. "In Harlem you had the very famous Cotton Club, where you had a black review but only white patrons. In our speakeasy you had a mixture of white and black patrons, which was very common, particularly in Harlem."
A sound stage at the studios was also used to create a room in The Plaza Hotel, on an unbearably hot summer's day during which the five key characters play out one of the most dramatic scenes in the film: the moment Tom confronts Gatsby and demands to know the truth about his past.
"I've never experienced anything like when we were shooting the Plaza suite," remembers Mulligan. "For days we shot conventional coverage of all of us in the scene, quite a long scene, quite a sort of 'dance' of a scene. Then, right at the end, Baz took all the cameras outside of the windows of the suite. So, there was no crew, there were no lights inside, you couldn't see any technical equipment. It was like performing on stage, but with no audience. You really felt like you were alone, but for just the five of us. It was sort of one of the most extraordinary experiences that I've had working, let alone on this film."
"The Plaza scene, when they are just going at each other, is ten pages of pure acting that takes place in one room," explains Luhrmann. "The immersion is somewhat like theatre, and I really wanted to make the most of these wonderfully talented actors."
Beyond the studio, various other scenes were shot in locations in and around Sydney. The picturesque town of Mount Wilson, in the Blue Mountains, and the surrounding area, was the setting for Long Island environs. "There's a beautiful place, a family property, called Breenhold, and it's covered in European trees," says Knapman. "So, it was very suitable for Long Island."
Nick's bungalow was also built there. "Nick's bungalow is described in the book as a 'cardboard bungalow at eighty a month,'" says Martin of her initial inspiration for Nick's house. "So, when we did research into the West Egg of Long Island, which was sort of where the new money went, we realized that there had been early 19th century holidaymakers' cottages sandwiched exactly as was described in the book between various piles that were built in the early 20th century. So, you had this strange occurrence of enormous houses and then forgotten little bungalows, weekenders, for people that lived in New York. And we felt that probably was the kind of house that Fitzgerald was describing."
The Heritage-listed White Bay Power Station in Pyrmont was the Sydney location for The Valley of Ashes, the dusty badlands where the train to and from the city passes through, and where George Wilson, Myrtle's husband, has his struggling business, all under the ever watchful eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, Oculist. Using the power station as a backdrop, the crew carted in tons of ash and constructed a set that included a road, a disused train-yard, and Wilson's Garage.
"The Valley of Ashes was a real place, a place that Fitzgerald, who actually had a house in Long Island and regularly made trips to New York, would've actually gone through. It's where Citi Field -- formerly Shea Stadium -- is today and where the World's Fair was once held," says Martin.
During the research period, the filmmakers discovered that every few months, new track had to be laid through the Valley, because so much ash was dumped there, it would cover over the existing train tracks.
"All the boilers of New York using coal had to have somewhere to put the refuse, and it all went out to these great heaps," Martin describes. "So I think it must've really struck Fitzgerald, on his weekly or sometimes daily trips out of Long Island, as such a strange contrast between the buzzing metropolis of New York and this enormous wasteland. We built all the elements that came to create the little township that's described in Fitzgerald's book."
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