Could scenes from one of the biggest movie releases of the year and one of the most expensive literary adaptations of all time have been directed via Skype?

Crikey understands blockbuster filmmaker Baz Luhrmann last year called the shots from the (cyber) director’s chair for his highly anticipated adaptation of The Great Gatsby some 16,000 kilometers from where the action was taking place.

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Having blown his budget and his schedule, Luhrmann was bunkered down in an editing suite in New York late last year while secret final reshoots wrapped up in Sydney, according to an insider. He used Skype to monitor the set.

There is a long story leading up to this point: one of a big-thinking director who bit off more than he could chew and a studio keen to protect one of its pedigree investments, while both grappled with countless complications on the road to the red carpet. Like any decent mystery — such as the one surrounding the eponymous protagonist in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal 1925 novel — there are plenty of closed mouths and yet-to-be discovered secrets.

The idea to take on the job of bringing a new version of Gatsby to the big screen did not come to the 50-year-old Strictly Ballroom and Australia visionary after reading Fitzgerald’s unforgettable rumination on romance, tragedy and the American dream but while quaffing red wine and listening to a Gatsby audio book on the Trans-Silberian Railway in 2004. Understanding the value of pitching projects to studios with a bevy of pre-attached talent, Luhrmann convinced Leonardo DiCaprio (with whom he worked in 1996’s Romeo and Juliet) to come on board first. Then came Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton (replacing Ben Affleck, who dropped out to make Argo) and Carey Mulligan.

After failing to negotiating an $80 million budget cap, Sony Pictures passed. Luhrmann sought deeper pockets, and Warner Bros. — teaming up with Village Roadshow — pledged to cough up around US$120 million.

That still wasn’t enough — even with the generous offsets that took the total budget to a staggering US$200 million. Prior to principal photography, which began early September 2011, Luhrmann signed off on a lucrative deal with a vote-hungry NSW government (led by Kristina Keneally) to shoot at Sydney’s Fox Studios and on locations in and around Sydney. If The Hollywood Reporter‘s estimates are correct, filming in Australia saved US$85.5 million (or 45% of the budget).

The shoot, completed December 22, didn’t go smoothly: constant bad weather; a collapsed camera crane that collected Luhrmann and sent him to hospital for four stitches; a set evacuation due to “potentially noxious fog”. Two months later, cast and crew returned for a “pick-up” shoot, designed to complement/complete existing footage.

For a while things were quiet in the Gatsby universe, as the film’s release date (Boxing Day 2012, in time for the Oscars season) slowly approached. Then, in August, a spate of strange things started to happen. First, Warner Bros. announced its release date had shifted to mid-2013. The reason was simple, the details light: it was “to ensure this unique film reaches the largest audience possible”. Eight months later, evidently inspired by the lyrics of a famous Milli Vanilli song, Luhrmann took a different approach. He blamed it on the rain.

Reporters didn’t buy it. As The Daily Telegraph reported, the late 2012 reshoots were “rumoured to have been made after Warner Bros. studio bosses saw an early rough cut and demanded changes”.

Meanwhile, stories began to surface that Luhrmann not only needed more money to complete the movie, but that — having had the studio reportedly deny him more cash — he was approaching potential private investors in the hope of “finding a shortfall”. Neither Luhrmann’s representative nor his production company, Bazmark, responded to questions.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, published last week, Luhrmann said: “I would do anything to make sure Gatsby stayed alive.” Including selling his own house? Earlier this month, Luhrmann and his designer wife, Catherine Martin, put their Darlinghurst mansion, “Iona”, on the market for more than $15 million. The real estate agent was well briefed, vehemently denying any link:

“Baz and Catherine want to buy a family home with a garden for their children. The reason Iona is for sale is because they want to separate their business from their home life.”

Again, the media didn’t buy it. “Great Blowout forces Baz to sell lavish mansion”, sang The Australian.

None of this means, or even necessarily implies, The Great Gatsby (released in cinemas in Australia May 30) will be a bad movie. A studio that lost faith in one of its tentpole releases and a director obviously struggling to keep his head above water are hardly votes of confidence in the final product. Then again, Gatsby‘s controversies look mild in comparison to the problems that faced Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now (1979), which is widely considered a masterpiece. There was cocaine galore and wine flown in from France. A crew member died. Star Martin Sheen had a heart attack. Coppola had a breakdown.

People accept the nature of Hollywood excess. They accept that in large and unwieldy productions things get out of control. But they have trouble accepting lies and spin. It’s understandable Warner Bros. wasn’t keen to distribute a press release announcing its man Baz was squinting at his set through a webcam, giving directions via Skype. But it happens more often than you might think.

A famous author wrote a quote that could well apply to Luhrmann’s brand of moviemaking, as it could the wider industry: “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.” Luhrmann might recall reading it — or at least hearing it one time on a train.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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