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Baz’s Great Gatastrophe? Via Skype, Luhrmann touches up shrouded Gatsby

As The Great Gatsby’s release date quickly approaches, new revelations emerge about Baz Luhrmann’s blockbuster. Cinetology lifts the lid.

Baz Luhrmann

Could scenes from one of the biggest movie releases of the year and one of the most expensive literary adaptations of all time have been directed via Skype?

Cinetology understands blockbuster filmmaker Baz Luhrmann last year called the shots from the (cyber) director’s chair for his highly anticipated adaptation of The Great Gatsby some 16,000 kilometers from where the action was taking place.

Having blown his budget and his schedule, Luhrmann was bunkered down in an editing suite in New York late last year while secret final reshoots wrapped up in Sydney. He used Skype to monitor the set.

There is a long story leading up to this point: one of a big-thinking director who bit off more than he could chew and a studio keen to protect one of its pedigree investments, while both grappled with countless complications on the road to the red carpet. Like any decent mystery — such as the one surrounding the existence of the eponymous protagonist in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal 1925 novel — there are plenty of closed mouths and yet-to-be discovered secrets.

The idea to take on the job of bringing a new version of Gatsby to the big screen did not come to the 50-year-old Strictly Ballroom and Australia visionary after reading Fitzgerald’s unforgettable rumination on romance, tragedy and the American dream but while quaffing red wine and listening to a Gatsby audio book on the Trans-Silberian Railway in 2004. Understanding the value of pitching projects to studios with a bevy of pre-attached talent, Luhrmann convinced Leonardo DiCaprio (who he worked with in 1996′s Romeo and Juliet) to come on board first. Then came Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton (replacing Ben Affleck, who dropped out to make Argo) and Carey Mulligan.

After failing to negotiating an $80 million budget cap, Sony Pictures passed. Luhrmann sought deeper pockets and Warner Bros. — teaming up with Village Roadshow — pledged to cough up around US$120 million.

Still that wasn’t enough — even with the generous offsets that took the total budget to a staggering US$200 million. Prior to principal photography, which began early September 2011, Luhrmann signed off on a lucrative deal with a vote-hungry NSW government (led by Kristina Keneally) to shoot at Sydney’s Fox Studios and on locations in and around Sydney. If The Hollywood Reporter‘s estimates are correct, filming in Australia saved US$85.5 million (or 45% of the budget).

The shoot, completed December 22, didn’t go smoothly: constant bad weather; a collapsed camera crane which collected Luhrmann and sent him to hospital for four stitches; a set evacuation due to “potentially noxious fog”. Two months later, cast and crew returned for a “pick-up” shoot, designed to complement/complete existing footage.

For a while things were quiet in the Gatsby universe as the film’s release date (Boxing Day 2012, in time for the Oscars season) slowly approached. Then, in August, a spate of strange things started to happen. First, Warner Bros. announced its release date had shifted to mid-2013. The reason was simple, the details light: it was “to ensure this unique film reaches the largest audience possible”. Eight months later, evidently inspired by the lyrics of a famous Milli Vanilli song, Luhrmann took a different approach. He blamed it on the rain.

Reporters didn’t buy it. As The Daily Telegraph reported, the late 2012 reshoots were “rumoured to have been made after Warner Bros. studio bosses saw an early rough cut and demanded changes”.

Meanwhile, stories began to surface that Luhrmann not only needed more money to complete the movie, but that — having had the studio reportedly deny him more cash — he was approaching potential private investors in the hope of “finding a shortfall”. Neither Luhrmann’s representative nor his production company, Bazmark, responded to questions.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, published last week, Luhrmann said: “I would do anything to make sure Gatsby stayed alive.”If one was to do “anything” that would include, of course, selling one’s house.

Earlier this month, Luhrmann and his designer wife Catherine Martin put their Darlinghurst Mansion, “Iona”, on the market for more than $15 million. The real estate agent was well briefed, vehemently denying any link:

“Baz and Catherine want to buy a family home with a garden for their children. The reason Iona is for sale is because they want to separate their business from their home life.”

Again, the media didn’t buy it. “Great Blowout forces Baz to sell lavish mansion”, sang The Australian.

None of this means, or even necessarily implies, The Great Gatsby will be a bad movie. A studio that lost faith in one of its tentpole releases, and a director obviously struggling to keep his head above water, hardly engenders faith in the final product. Then again, Gatsby‘s controversies look mild in comparison to the problems that faced Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now (1979), which is widely considered a masterpiece. There was cocaine galore and wine flown in from France. A crew member died. Star Martin Sheen had a heart attack. Coppola had a breakdown.

People accept the nature of Hollywood excess. They accept that in large and unwieldy productions things get out of control. But they have trouble accepting lies and spin. It’s understandable Warner Bros. wasn’t keen to distribute a press release announcing its man Baz was squinting at his set through a webcam, giving directions via Skype. But these sorts of things happen more often than you read about.

A famous author wrote a quote that could well apply to Luhrmann’s brand of moviemaking, as it could the wider industry: “there are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.” Luhrmann might recall reading it — or at least hearing it one time on a train.

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  • 1
    Brendan Maclean
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Baz, unless the Skype was very, very high quality, was certainly there with me on set for the month and a half I filmed my short role.

    Could Baz have called whilst filming was in progress? Of course, it’s called 2nd Unit Production. He doesn’t need to watch over a scene where a character simply exits or where 500 extras dance and drink.

    I never encountered this myself, he even generously visited the set when I was filming cut away shots.

    It’s hardly a big deal.

  • 2
    vox arbor
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I’m puzzled by this post making a big deal about how Baz was experiencing the text when the idea to film it came to him.
    Assuming the audio book wasn’t abridged (and it’s a short book to start with so why abridge it?) then he’d still be getting the full force of Fitzgerald’s prose. Why does it matter if the delivery medium was text or audio? Listening to a classic novel while drinking red wine on the trans-Siberian sounds, quite frankly, awesome.

  • 3
    William
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    vox- I think the author is implying that drinking wine and listening to the audiobook whilst on a train isn’t exactly going to engender the most thorough comprehension of the text.

    But let’s be honest, films of this ilk rarely do justice to the works that they adapt- it’ll be extravagant and sexy and whatever else is required to make a tonne of money. The title of the book is just there for highbrow credibility.

  • 4
    Bob the builder
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Crikey are you f**king serious?!?
    Who gives a sh*t about this trivia?!?
    I subscribe to read real news, not to read a slightly more up-market version of the gossip magazines and tabloids.

  • 5
    Aphra
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Baz Luhrmann has the misfortune to be Australian which means that anything he does will be condemned, criticized unreasonably, ridiculed – even sight unseen! That’ll show him! Prentious upstart!

    We know already, courtesy of those bastions of excellence in reporting The Daily Telegraph and The Australian, that the studio is unhappy with Gatsby, that Baz is broke, the shooting was a nightmare…and now Buckmaster is predicting a great Gatastrophe. Maybe those of us with only a tiny discretionary income should forgo wasting any of it on this forthcoming disaster of a movie.

    However, I liked Romeo and Juliet, Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge, as did every young person in my son’s cohort(ignorant uni students, all) and even found much to enjoy in Australia, despite the shonky script. So, overlooking the fact that Baz is Australian, thus, ipso facto, second-rate, I’ve bravely decided to give his latest film a viewing and am even looking forward to it.

  • 6
    Pusscat
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Aphra,
    Don’t quite agree with your critique of Luke here as merely a Crude Cultural Cringer. (JW Howard couldn’t have done a better job himself, if that was your intention, but…)
    Personally, I seem to be constantly in either a frenzy of anticipation about what Keira Knightley can show me about Anna K or dejected when it turns out that it’s not much.
    On the other hand that doesn’t mean I don’t want anybody ever to touch Tolstoy, or Fitzgerald, again.
    I’m with you generally about excellence in so much of BL’s work. I just don’t think your comment engages with what Luke’s saying here.

  • 7
    merrilyn wasson
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    I am in total agreement with Aphra. Disgusting but predictable is negativity, probably sight unseen, from the DT and the biased and tasteless non Australian. But from the blissful time of seeing Strictly Ballroom, I have, and continue to have, the greatest admiration for Baz. If the Caucasoid commentators actually listened to the profound Indigenous experience theme in Australia, they might also have an independent and stunned realization of its excellence.

    But no, even Crikey must fall into the predictable, white male sheep/ and or lemming mentality.

    Go Baz!! Oh and instead of subscribing to Crikey in the future, think a donation to the visionary Baz and Martin team would be $$ better spent.

  • 8
    Aphra
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Pusscat – LB has released a damp squib over this film yet he hasn’t seen it. Why not reserve criticism and all commentary until then? If he says he doesn’t like it and gives his reasons I’d not cavil at that. However, I’m sick of those who denigrate, no matter how subtly, any and all creative endeavours which Australians engage in. It reminds me of the slighting comments I’ve read in the English press about the forthcoming Royal Academy September exhibition of Australian Art, again by those who’ve never actually seen any of it.

    You’re right, too, Merrilyn, about the indigenous experience as portrayed in Australia – I found it deeply disturbing because I knew that it was true – even the hatred the white father bore his young son. Like Rabbit Proof Fence, the only comments I read about this aspect of the film were dismissive and sneering – ‘King Billy, popping up everywhere without reason’???? Oh yeah?

    And I don’t know if anyone else was astounded when so many people remarked ‘I didn’t even know that Darwin was bombed’. Of course, they all knew about Pearl Harbor, so kudos to Baz for that history lesson, too.

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  1. ...] had written a handful of articles and tweets salivating over rumours the film was going to flop, that the production was a mess, that Baz should never have been director. Even though my part had admittedly been whittled down to [...

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