THERE’S always a certain amount of hysteria surrounding summer blockbusters but Baz Luhrmann’s new big-screen adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby has surpassed all the usual hype.
The anticipation has been palpable ever since it was announced Luhrmann, the film-maker behind Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge was tackling the iconic American novel. In the ensuing five years, momentum has continued to gather, with the novel’s Jazz Age setting influencing everything from beauty and fashion to interior trends.
“It’s always exciting because it seems like his projects just energise audiences. People just look at it as an incredible event,” says Leonardo DiCaprio, 38, who stars as the mysterious multimillionaire Jay Gatsby in the film. “Baz is one of the most infectious directors I’ve ever met as far as his enthusiasm for doing great work.”
He recalls Luhrmann was the same when, at the age of 18, DiCaprio flew to Australia “to do a little test rehearsal” for Romeo + Juliet. In that 1996 movie, starring DiCaprio and Homeland’s Claire Danes, the Shakespearean classic was moved to a modern-day setting of LA’s Venice Beach. “Baz is a very risky film-maker. He doesn’t take on simple stories and I admire that in him,” says DiCaprio.
Fitzgerald’s novel follows would-be writer Nick Carraway, played by one of DiCaprio’s oldest friends, Tobey Maguire, as he leaves the Midwest and ventures to New York City in the spring of 1922. Chasing the American dream, Nick lands next door to the elusive and enigmatic party-giving millionaire Jay Gatsby, and just across the bay from his cousin Daisy (brought to life by Carey Mulligan) and her philandering, blue-blooded husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).
Drawn into the captivating and intoxicating world of the super-rich, Carraway, the eternal observer, narrates a tale of impossible love, incorruptible dreams and high-octane tragedy. Though he had to launch a global search for an actor to play Gatsby’s lost love Daisy, Luhrmann knew from the start that he wanted DiCaprio to play the title character, a role the director refers to as “the American Hamlet”.
“You’ve got to have someone with screen charisma who can also deal with the complexity of the character, the darkness of the character,” says the director.
Tentative as DiCaprio was about venturing into such respected material, he knew he wasn’t going to turn it down. He says: “By merely being in the room with Baz it was inevitable, and Gatsby to me is one of the most compelling characters I’ve ever read.”
He recalls reading the book as a 15-year-old but admits he didn’t connect with the novel in the same way he did as an adult. “It took on a new form and I had a completely different outlook,” DiCaprio says. “I never realised what Daisy represented to Gatsby. I never realised the fact he was this lost person who was holding on to this relic from the past, this mirage that is Daisy Buchanan.”
For that reason, the tale became less of a love story for DiCaprio. “It’s about this obsessed man and Daisy became a stumbling block in his great ambition to become a great American. He had to repossesses her, he had to own her and he had to erase the past.”
DiCaprio is more than aware of the expectation surrounding the new movie: “I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said it’s their favourite book of all time.” And for that reason, he knew it was a hazardous undertaking. “Every time you make a movie you have to be very specific and people may disagree with what you’re doing.” DiCaprio credits Maguire and Luhrmann, both of whom he’s known for more than 20 years, as trusted collaborators.
“We were always honest with one another and made this contract that no matter what we did cinematically, we were going to try and remain as true as we could to the novel.”
Sceptics wonder if Luhrmann’s dazzling, eye-popping style can do justice to the intricate and subtle nature of the story, but DiCaprio is keen to dispel any fears: “As much as Baz creates these fantastic worlds filled with imagery and modern connectivity, as far as connecting with a younger audience, he’s very meticulous about remaining true to the essence of what makes these stories great.”
“He did that with Romeo + Juliet. When it came to the Bard we were meticulous about it.
“And when it came to Fitzgerald and this novel, we wanted to emulate everything that Fitzgerald was trying to say about that time period, and about these multifaceted, incredibly interesting, almost existential characters and that’s what we did.”
As part of their preparation, the team meticulously explored the Gatsby text and Fitzgerald’s other writings, in particular the author’s first draft of The Great Gatsby, titled Trimalchio (a tribute to the party-giver who appears in the Roman novel Satyricon).
“What’s great about The Great Gatsby is what’s left unsaid, what’s left for you as the reader to interpret for yourself and that’s what really makes it a compelling piece of literature that people continue to talk about nearly 100 years later,” says DiCaprio. “But in Trimalchio, Fitzgerald is much more specific and at times more obvious about the intent of these characters.”
Di Caprio, a three-time Oscar nominee who began acting when he was 13, says he can relate to Gatsby’s determination: “I do identify certainly with someone who’s manifested what he wanted [to become] as an adult and worked tirelessly and had such a great ambition to become that.
“The truth is my life is different from Gatsby’s. He is someone who has erased his past and all his connections to his humble beginnings so he could reinvent himself as this great oligarch.
“While everyone wants to be part of his world and connect with him, the great tragedy, at the end, is that once he becomes tabloid fodder and people start investigating his past, no-one wants to be attached to him. Nick remains his only real friend.” DiCaprio, on the other hand, says he has “grown up with great family and friends surrounding me”.
While it’s known DiCaprio has dated some of the world’s most glamorous women, including Gisele Bündchen and Blake Lively, he prefers to keep a low profile and rarely does interviews. He many not relish talking to the press, but right now DiCaprio seems at ease.
“I’ve grown up on screen and in the public eye but I do feel more comfortable than ever before. I suppose that comes with age and the realisation that it’s been this grand journey to fulfil my childhood dreams in a lot of ways.
“I lived in Hollywood [as a child] and I was someone who knew about the industry and wanted to become an actor but I was like Nick Carraway, I never felt like I belonged.
“So when I got my foot in the door, it felt like winning the lottery and I’m so excited to be able to do what I do.”
• The Great Gatsby is released in cinemas on Thursday