I’ve posted before about Baz Luhrmann’s use of anachronism and pastiche – we can be certain that he and designer Catherine Martin will liberally employ both in their adaptation of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, scheduled for release in May 2013. As with their other work, the film will be based on meticulous original research that will be the foundation of creative reinterpretation – which will no doubt drive purists wild. Fearless as ever, they’ve taken on the Great American Novel.

Luhrmann’s background is in theatre, where travesty is common (he’s a huge admirer of Shakespeare). All his films use travesty to overturn accepted conventions and confound expectations – they are parodies themselves, and often parodied. This antagonises some and embarrasses others, possibly because film is perceived to have a privileged relationship to reality. 

Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is bound to have elements of travesty, but that does not mean it will be a travesty. It will reinvent the source novel and raise questions about adaptation and authorship, unsettling ideas about art as the expression of individual creative vision. Like the celebrated Red Curtain Trilogy (Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!) it will be design-led, from visual style to music soundtrack. There will be multiple layers of quotation from classic and world cinema, plus coded references to the director’s other films, creating a richly textured work replete with opportunities for  commercial spin-offs and tie-ins.

The film is already controversial for its application of 3-D to a literary adaptation. It’s sure to polarise opinion, particularly among US critics. As befits a major event movie, anticipation (whether positive or negative) will continue to build until it reaches a breathless climax.

© Pam Cook

More about travesty in Baz Luhrmann’s work in Baz Luhrmann by Pam Cook (BFI/Palgrave 2010)

The influence of fashion on the work of Baz Luhrmann and designer Catherine Martin is huge. By its very nature, fashion flouts conventional notions of time and place, plundering history for themes and styles that are then cross-bred to create a hybrid concoction. Haute couture played out on the catwalk is flamboyantly theatrical, staging clothing as high drama through spectacular display. Fashion also requires total attention to detail, with each fold of fabric, stitch, hem and seam of utmost importance to the final result — a concern that Luhrmann and Martin share. Their involvement in fashion is extensive. Luhrmann, Martin and Bill Marron were responsible for designing the signature issue of Australian Vogue in January 1994.

Martin stage-managed fashion shows to help fund her studies at NIDA, and in 1998 she directed leading Australian fashion designer Collette Dinnigan’s Autumn/Winter collection at the Louvre in Paris for Bazmark. In 2004 Luhrmann directed a three-minute Chanel No. 5 mini-film starring Nicole Kidman and Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, featuring costumes designed by Karl Lagerfeld.      

Fashion is fundamental to their working methods. During preparatory research for their films, once the broad outline of the scenario is unveiled, Martin and the art department begin by raiding fashion magazines and online picture resources for visual material that resonates with or crystallises the story ideas and archive images that Luhrmann has presented to the team. Some of this visual material is interpretive, from a different period than the film’s setting, chosen because it evokes the spirit of that time. All the images are then discussed at meetings and selections are made.    

The visual material is collected into folders that are regularly updated and provide Luhrmann with a supply of artwork. From this collection they work out with him which pictures are suitable and which are not, the order that they will follow and how the story will be told in images. Concept books, elaborate storyboards that are works of art in themselves, emerge from this process. These include sketches, photoshop material and images from widely varied times and places put into sequence, with the actors pasted in. This material then feeds back into the script, helping to refine and support the story structure.

The initial historical research, carried out with fastidious care and attention to documented facts about the relevant period, provides the basis for a reinterpretation and dramatisation of the past that collapses time and place, creating a consciously artificial world through a collage of different styles. Luhrmann and Martin’s work is grounded in pastiche, from research stage to the final product. Pastiche, an aesthetic device that mixes styles from various sources through quotation, is associated with postmodernism, and it has been taken to task for its lack of originality and authenticity. However, it can also be interpreted as a method that produces complex, multilayered works whose power lies in their challenge to the very notion of origin viewed as a single source of creative activity or meaning.

Adapted from Baz Luhrmann  by Pam Cook (BFI/Palgrave 2010 © Pam Cook)