Baz Luhrmann’s fifth feature film, an adaptation in 3D of The Great Gatsby, will begin production in Sydney this month. Although the story may be familiar from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, if past experience is any guide, mysteries and surprises will abound before the film actually reaches audiences in a year or two. When it does, it can confidently be predicted that production will have taken longer, and probably cost more, than expected. It will have employed a large proportion of the local filmmaking community, and it will divide critics and audiences. It will be, by some distance, the most successful Australian film at the box office in its year of release, albeit only after a stoush about its nationality and cultural contribution. It will be dogged by controversy, but it won’t be dull, and its marketing will be a phenomenon in itself. It will earn several Academy Award nominations. It will be a spectacular example of outward-looking Australian cinema that will resonate around the world.
All of this can be confidently predicted because the pattern is now well-made. Baz Luhrmann, Pam Cook’s portrait of this “showman auteur” in the BFI World Directors series, details the years of preparation, each peppered with incidents and accidents, that go into all of his – or more correctly, Bazmark Inq.’s – productions. Strictly Ballroom began life as a theatrical piece at NIDA in 1984. After several reincarnations on stage, multiple drafts of a screenplay, and post-production that took three times as long as expected, Strictly became not just the most successful Australian film of its year, but the number one film from anywhere in 1992, and the third best performing film of the following year. Its aesthetic and energy revitalised Australian filmmaking. All three feature films produced by Luhrmann for Fox since then – William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), Moulin Rouge! (2001), Australia (2008) – have been embraced by Australian audiences and garnered large international followings. All took longer than anticipated to appear, principally because of extended periods in post-production. All three films, in ways not all intended or planned, had lasting effects on cinema and filmmaking in Australia and beyond. It is reasonable to assume that The Great Gatsby will be no different.
Cook’s book is rich with insight into Luhrmann’s world, where his characteristically cosmopolitan outlook is anchored in Sydney by the importance he places on home. He likens himself to a “ship’s captain”,
responsible for initiating the journey or project. Once the other participants come on board, then each of them has a vital part to play in bringing the ship home, but it is up to the captain to keep it on course and not to lose sight of the initial purpose. (p. 18)
The ship has previously transported Shakespearean England to Venice Beach via Mexico, and Paris to Sydney via Bollywood, before embarking on its last, ambitious tour around our island continent. For The Great Gatsby, inspiration is being drawn back to Sydney from 1920s New York. In documenting the previous journeys, Cook deploys the idea of “boundary crossing”, so fundamental to the scholarship on transnational cinema, as a key to understanding Luhrmann’s traversal of genres and cultures, the national and the international, the local and the global, the mainstream and the periphery, the blockbuster and the art movie, Australia(n) and Hollywood. But the films do more than simply cross cultural boundaries, they bridge them; Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet were by 2000 “ensconced in the British [secondary school] media studies curriculum” (p. 57) when they became the subjects of the Film Focus segment of Channel 4’s The English Programme. The films produce multiple new relations among communities responsive to Luhrmann’s brand of “reflective nostalgia”, “a form of collective memory in which fragments of the past embodied in everyday objects and memorabilia produce multiple story-lines” (p. 151). That is, they are highly teachable texts.
Cook’s Introduction paints Luhrmann in several guises: as “a modernist who identifies with ‘the shock of the new’” (p. 3), a “democratic auteur”, and a “new kind of showman-auteur, a mixture of entrepreneur, performer and artist whose work harks back to the early ‘cinema of attractions’” (p. 4). By the end of the book the clearest picture, though, is one of an innovative, adaptive, brand-sensitive, multimedia, multiplatform producer capable of bringing the performing arts and cinema into new relation.
Cook’s first chapter, “Once Upon a Time in Australia”, fills in the backstory of Luhrmann’s life before Strictly Ballroom and highlights the creative influence on all Luhrmann’s work of his “equal partner and chief collaborator” (p. 20), Catherine Martin. The two first worked together on an experimental opera for Australian Opera, Lake Lost, in 1988, and despite the prominence given to the individual in auteur studies, Martin’s role in subsequent productions – as production and costume designer – cannot be underestimated.
The chapter on Strictly Ballroom details the project’s backstory, and its unexpectedly huge success, due in part to the careful management of the marketing campaign, something that would become a hallmark of Bazmark Inq.’s productions. In the next chapter, Cook describes how Romeo + Juliet became the first of Luhrmann’s films for Fox, before analysing the film’s mobilisation in its production design of two of Luhrmann’s other hallmarks: hyperbole and pastiche. Notwithstanding the kerfuffle over the non-designation of the film as Australian by the Australian Film Institute despite the number and variety of Australians who worked on the film’s production in Mexico or post-production in Australia, Romeo + Juliet was a significant success. It permitted Luhrmann and Bazmark Inq. greater freedom in the preparation of their next project, Moulin Rouge!. Cook describes the neo-baroque aesthetic at work in the production design and costumes within the now familiar pattern of delays and the marketing of the film as a cultural event.
Luhrmann’s last completed film, Australia, pointedly shares a chapter with Luhrmann’s 2004 advertisement for Chanel perfume No. 5 The Film. Luhrmann clearly draws inspiration and experience from music video and advertising as much as from the stage and film. He was able to parlay the lessons in branded content drawn from the Chanel film into Australia through tie-ins with tourism agencies and other corporate partners. The podcasts produced with Apple about the work of the different departments of film production – like the choice to film The Great Gatsby in 3D – show Luhrmann’s keen interest in new media technologies. He is also remarkably resilient and relentlessly persistent, a perfectionist who is notoriously difficult to tear away from his work; Cook notes that Moulin Rouge! was “still being fine-tuned” in the week between opening the 2001 Cannes Film Festival and its premiere in Los Angeles (p. 105), while Australia was still being shaped in the days leading up to its Sydney debut in November 2008. Even smaller productions such as the Chanel commercial fit the pattern of a long, intensive development period, followed by a protracted post-production stage. The three-minute Chanel film took four days to shoot, and a year to complete.
So while we can be assured that The Great Gatsby will invite the past to speak to the present, and that it will likely provoke debate about its take on the American Dream, we can’t yet be sure when that will be. One thing we can be sure of is that Pam Cook’s fine critical study will not be the last contribution to Luhrmann scholarship; his films and all that surrounds them resonate with academic debates and offer themselves as teaching tools for students at all levels. Even when other studies do inevitably appear, Cook’s first take will still have much to recommend it as a guide to the working concerns and critical frames of this hugely important director and his team.
Baz Luhrmann, by Pam Cook, World Directors series, BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2010.