'The Great Gatsby' team delves into author's life

Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker and Tobey Maguire Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway in "The Great Gatsby." (2013) Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

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"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald is widely recognized as a literary masterwork. Yet, as even the book's editor, Maxwell Perkins, said to Fitzgerald about a draft of the 1925 novel, the title character "is somewhat vague." Hazy doesn't work in cinema, so when director Baz Luhrmann decided to bring "Gatsby" to the screen, he and his creative team went on the filmmaking equivalent of an anthropological dig.

The goal: unearth what was left unsaid in Fitzgerald's slender tale of Jay Gatsby, a millionaire bootlegger, and his unrequited love for a married socialite, Daisy Buchanan.

The film, opening Friday, overflows with all the touches you'd expect from the director of "Moulin Rouge!" -- elaborate production and costume design, modern music in a period setting, theatrical acting -- while hitting the seminal scenes and lines in Fitzgerald's classic.

But Luhrmann recognized the danger of missing "Gatsby's" emotional forest for all of the novel's expositional trees. So he, co-screenwriter Craig Pearce and a cast headed by Leonardo DiCaprio (who plays Gatsby), Carey Mulligan (Daisy) and Tobey Maguire (narrator Nick Carraway) looked for clues wherever they could be found -- and then came to their own storytelling conclusions.

Luhrmann delved into Fitzgerald's life, letters and other writings, ultimately relying heavily on "Trimalchio" -- an early draft of "Gatsby" -- and biographies of his wife, Zelda, whom the novelist described as the first American flapper. One of Daisy's lines comes from a note the novelist sent to his early love, Ginevra King.

"I have one duty -- to the best of my ability to captain the storytelling team, and to tell and reveal the story," said Luhrmann, 50, who followed his Oscar-nominated "Moulin Rouge!" with the critical and commercial disappointment "Australia." "I set out to reveal 'The Great Gatsby,' but I also set out to do a movie of it."

While Gatsby's famous bashes are even more excessive in Luhrmann's imagination than in the novel, with fireworks choreographed to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," the director said he labored to keep the story intimate and immersive.

He filmed several sequences in long takes, as if "The Great Gatsby" were live theater, and shot it in 3-D; the stereoscopic technology, Luhrmann said, heightens the film's emotions, moving the audience from spectators to participants.

Luhrmann began to consider adapting the novel after listening to it as a recorded book while traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway after finishing 2001's "Moulin Rouge!" But it took a while to figure out how to translate it into a cinematic language that preserved Fitzgerald's voice.

His answer, and one of the film's most notable departures from the novel, is revealed as soon as the movie starts. Traumatized by all he has witnessed, Nick is convalescing in a sanitarium. A doctor prescribes that he write about what happened in West and East Egg, the respective Long Island homes of Gatsby and Daisy, and Nick's recollections become the movie's framing device.

Luhrmann said criticism is inevitable whenever you touch a hallowed text, be it by Shakespeare or Fitzgerald. "If you go near anything, you are going to be tarred and feathered," he said.

Mulligan agreed that purists likely won't be happy with the film. "I feel that way about my favorite books," she said. "But I think people will come away witness to an epic love story."

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