As a rain-drenched Cannes Film Festival prepares to put on its 1920s glad rags and uber-bling for tonight’s premiere of The Great Gatsby, its Australian director Baz Luhrmann, perhaps to ward off any critical brickbats, was at pains to point out to the media his dedication to F Scott Fitzgerald’s literary intentions and memory.
It has been a long journey, which started on a train trip through Siberia after he had wrapped shooting in 2001 on Moulin Rouge! (also a Cannes opener). He was on the Trans-Siberian Express from Beijing to Paris to meet up with his wife costume designer Catherine Martin and his then newly born daughter.
He described listening to the audio book of the novel within the confines of his carriage as the Siberian scenery flashed by. "I poured some wine and started listening. It was four o'clock in the morning before I fell asleep. The next day, I could not wait for night to come to get back in my little box, pour the second bottle of wine and listen to the last part.”
He added: "At the end of it I realised three things: one, that I hadn't really known The Great Gatsby at all, two, that it was structurally really concise, and three, that there's a great film in it. It's incredibly cinematic.”
It took him ten years to negotiate the rights, to assemble the cast including Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan.
“Many people say to you that it is their favourite book and read it every year and get something different out of it each time. The slim volume has that magic,” he said.
He and DiCaprio read the book aloud to each other, stopping at the end of each section and making notes.
DiCaprio confirmed that he also fell under its spell. He ssaid: “In the States it is regarded as essential reading. I picked up novel as a youth but I did not grasp the profound existential power that Fitzgerald conveys. One of the most powerful things is that it is still talked about all these years later.
“We tried to dissect what he truly meant from scene to scene. It is not just a love story, but a tragedy of this man who wanted to become a great American and who had lost the sense of what he was. He has Daisy in his arms but he is still staring out at the mirage. It’s incredibly eloquent and beautiful writing.”
Luhrmann takes particular pride in a chance encounter at the recent New York premiere. “A woman looked at me and said she had come all the way from Vermont to see what I had done with her grandfather’s book," he said. "She said she thought Scott would be proud of this film because of the first person narrative and she added that she loved the music [which mixes hip hop and jazz]”
With a release at the start of the summer blockbuster season Luhrmann admits he was slightly nervous of the competition - but with buoyant box office results in the States he declares himself well satisfied. “I just care that people are going out and seeing it,” he said.