“Every time I arrive here it feels like the opening scene in La Dolce Vita,” smiles Leonardo DiCaprio. Then he gets serious. “It’s a great honour to open the festival.”
The Great Gatsby has just lifted the curtain on Cannes, the world’s foremost film festival, and DiCaprio is sitting alongside director Baz Luhrmann at the press conference.
The actor of course plays title character Jay Gatsby, and flanking him are the rest of the principal players: Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan), Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan), Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway), Isla Fisher (Myrtle Wilson) and Jason Clarke (George Wilson).
“I think we’re all fascinated by Gatsby,” muses DiCaprio, who read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s-set novel at school but only picked up on “the tragedy, the obsession… the existential power” upon returning to it for the film. “He’s an eternal dreamer, searching for meaning and identity. It really moved me. I was compelled to do this movie.”
“There was no list,” Luhrmann chips in. “Leo is like a detective, looking for that nuance, that shadow, the undetected.” No other actor, Luhrmann believes, could have portrayed “the American Hamlet.”
The Australian director also read the novel as a kid but rediscovered it, as an audio book, on a train journey 10 years ago. “It was us, where we are now,” he says of the precarious financial climate that backdrops the novel, with the friction between Gatsby’s new wealth and the Buchanans’ old money suggesting impending doom.
But very much at the foreground is the love affair between Gatsby and Daisy.
Not that any of it came easy. Luhrmann embarked on a 10-year journey to unlock the film rights and condense “a seven-hour read into two hours”. The research and cast discussions were also lengthy, Mulligan remembering, “He gave me six books on Zelda [Fitzgerald’s wife and muse] and told me to look at them!”
Being Baz, the director also needed to secure the rights to plenty of anachronistic music, landing the likes of Jay-Z, Beyonce and Will.i.am to score the party scenes.
Was it worth it? Luhrmann certainly thinks so, telling the story of how he was congratulated by an elegant woman who turned out to be Fitzgerald’s great-granddaughter at last week’s American premiere. She said Fitzgerald would have been “proud” and then added: “And by the way, I loved the music.”