Opens May 10

By Josh Rottenberg
Updated April 12, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Most people first encounter F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in high school, but director Baz Luhrmann’s rendezvous with the book took place in a far more exotic setting: a train crossing Siberia. Following the release of his 2001 musical Moulin Rouge!, the Australian filmmaker decided to decompress by taking a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway. ”I get on the train with a couple of bottles of wine, and I think it’s going to be amazing,” he recalls. ”And it was terrible: ‘You, metal bed. Toilet, share.’ ‘Hang on, didn’t I get a first-class cabin?”’ He laughs. ”Anyway, after the first day of thinking, ‘I can’t do this,’ I started listening to a recorded book of The Great Gatsby. By four in the morning, I was three-quarters of the way through the book.”

More than a decade later, Luhrmann has finally fulfilled the dream born on that train: adapting Gatsby into a visually sumptuous big-screen drama. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire who throws lavish parties at his Long Island estate while keeping his humble origins shrouded in mystery; Carey Mulligan costars as the shallow, emotionally fragile Daisy Buchanan, with whom Gatsby has a doomed affair. Luhrmann blows the cobwebs off the literary classic by bringing all of his famed visual flair — and a reported budget north of $120 million — to Fitzgerald’s slim but thematically rich novel. In a post–Great Recession world, he says, the book’s indictment of the empty pursuit of wealth and status is as relevant as it was in the Roaring ’20s. ”You can see the bond scam in it, you can see the subprime scam,” he says. ”We’re not putting that on top of it — it’s there.”

From the start, Luhrmann envisioned DiCaprio as Gatsby; the two had worked together on 1996’s Romeo + Juliet and had also tried to mount a film about Alexander the Great. Luhrmann brought on the actor’s close friend Tobey Maguire to play Gatsby’s neighbor Nick Carraway, who also serves as the book’s narrator. ”I left school pretty early and I had never read the book,” Maguire says. ”I’ve read it a few times now and I’m a fan. It’s an interesting book to get into a conversation about…. What does it mean to be great, and what does it mean to be successful?” Luhrmann’s search for Daisy became highly publicized, with actresses such as Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, and Keira Knightley reportedly vying for the role. Mulligan was at a fashion awards dinner when she got the call from Luhrmann that she’d won the part. ”I burst into tears in the middle of this room with Karl Lagerfeld and all these people standing next to me,” she recalls. ”They thought I was mental.”

This isn’t the first time Gatsby has been adapted for film — in fact, it’s the sixth. Most famously, Robert Redford played Gatsby opposite Mia Farrow’s Daisy in Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation, which was widely deemed a dull letdown. Luhrmann chooses his words carefully when talking about that version. ”It has its charms, but even as a kid, I was unclear who Gatsby really was,” he says. He pauses. ”Now, that’s not to make a criticism of that film, because I wouldn’t want to draw down hubris.” As it is, Luhrmann is taking quite a risk with his own Gatsby. His decision to film in 3-D has garnered more than a bit of skepticism. ”The idea of drama in 3-D is thrilling,” he says. ”You’re so absorbed in it. In 2-D, you tend to have to artificially create energy.”

Last August, Warner Bros. pushed Gatsby‘s release back from its original Christmas 2012 date. Though giving up a plum Oscar-season spot raised questions about the film’s viability as an awards contender, the studio insisted that Gatsby can appeal to a wide summer-movie audience. In any case, the stakes, both creative and financial, have only grown. Mulligan, for one, admits she has some trepidation. ”I’ve never been in a gigantic film like this,” she says. ”I’m a little bit nervous. But I’m really excited to be with the whole cast, going to parties and having dinners. Baz knows how to do that stuff really well.”

The Great Gatsby

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