Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton in ‘The Great Gatsby’/Still © Warner Bros
Australian director Baz Luhrmann has about as much of a chance of landing this question as he does a pike off the gables of Gatsby castle into a flute of ever-present champagne, but first he needs to qualify what precisely YA fiction is. When someone supplies, “Twilight," he nods knowingly and gives it a crack. "F. Scott Fitzgerald was a young adult when he wrote it," Luhrmann begins, "so he wasn't far beyond that age. And you can never know what Fitzgerald would really think; but there's one thing I'm pretty sure about, when he was about to die, he was going into shops buying copies of his own book, The Great Gatsby, just so there would be a few sales registered at the publishing company."
"When he died," producer Lucy Fisher adds, "there were 4,000 copies of the book in print. When it was published, the book had very mixed reviews. Its two big fans were T.S. Eliot and Edith Wharton, but the public more or less rejected it until Lionel Trilling came along in the forties and reclaimed it as the great American novel, at which point it was sent to the soldiers in World War II and then later became read in every high school."
"I don't know what he would think about this film," Luhrmann continues of Fitzgerald. "But the fact that he's the number-one-selling book in America today, I know he'd feel pretty good about that. The book has endured. I mean, when I think that we're opening here in New York twenty minutes from where he wrote it on Long Island, and we're also opening at the Cannes Film Festival where he was wrote some of the most painful passages in The Great Gatsby down on the beach where the Palais is while his wife was having an affair with a French officer…" He trails off lost in the thought of it, but his wife of more than fifteen years, production designer for more than twenty years, plows into the breach, correcting his geography. "It's more than twenty miles, Baz," Catherine Martin interrupts, pushing her thick, black-framed glasses up her nose as she rolls her eyes. "Honestly."
"My wife is the fact checker," Luhrmann cracks. "I'm in the storytelling business." Indeed he is, but Martin can stop some of those stories dead in their tracks. When the director sets the scene for how he came across the classic Fitzgerald property by beginning: "Fade in, a small country town," Martin immediately interrupts. "Oh, really," she sighs. "Really? I don't think the people are ready for this." But the people are quite ready for anything, assembled in the champagne ballroom of Manhattan's Plaza Hotel for an early morning press conference reuniting the principal cast of one of the summer's most eagerly awaited films with its creative core. Luhrmann finally offers to supply his answer in bullet points before trailing off altogether. The whip has been cracked.
"But how could he know that eighty-eight years later that book would be turned into a drama with a collection of the finest actors in the world playing out that book," Luhrmann continues, not ready to put down the Fitzgerald. "And in 3D! How could he know that?" "Baz was an incredible fan of the book," Martin adds. "He listened to a talking book. I'm sure most of you will hear the Siberian Railway story from the horse's mouth." Indeed, we already had, as Luhrmann breathlessly recounted racing across frozen Northern Russia to reunite with his wife and meet their brand-new daughter, Lily, in Paris with only the Gatsby audiobook to occupy his time.
"I don't need to repeat it," Martin says, again rolling her eyes, "but I'd read the book as part of our high school curriculum and didn't connect culturally to some of the themes. So when Baz suggested it, I was a naysayer, but he convinced me as an adult to reread it and I became the book's number one fan. Much to his annoyance, I began to act like I made the decision that we were going to do 'The Great Gatsby.'"
"And he said, 'Hang on a minute,'" Martin recalls. "'You didn't like the book until five minutes ago when I made you reread it. It was my idea! I've introduced you to this wonderful text.' But I'm extremely grateful because just the pleasure of rereading the book time and time again has been wonderful. I've really enjoyed dissecting Baz's vision for the book. I still reread passages of it now because I'm always trying to find references in it. It's so fresh and alive and contemporary, so yes, I was a naysayer, but now I'm convinced."
The actor playing the mysterious, titular millionaire had a similar early experience with the novel. "The Gatsby I read when I was fifteen years old was far different than the Gatsby I read as an adult," Leonardo DiCaprio explains. "What I remember from junior high was this hopeless romantic in love with this one woman. He created this great amount of wealth to be able to respectably hold her hand, but then to reread it as an adult, it was incredibly fascinating. It is one of those novels that's talked about nearly one hundred years later for a reason. It's incredibly nuanced, it's existential, and here at the center is this man who's incredibly hollow. And I was struck by the sadness in him and looked at him in a completely different way."