Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby opens in theaters everywhere today and if you've watched the epic trailer, you know that it has his signature style stamped all over this classic and much loved story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Critics are divided on it - a common critique is that it's style over substance. Whatever your take is on his work - you know it will be loud and vibrant. Over the years, the Luhrmann look has definitely expanded and exploded on screen but the first signs of this unique and visual director's talent, were very original yet subdued, in his first feature film Strictly Ballroom.
Luhrmann likes to re-imagine the world his characters live in and give the audience a heightened experience of storytelling. He talked to Games First about what devices he uses to engage the audience, specifically related to his Red Curtain Trilogy films.
In the case of Strictly Ballroom we use dance, in Romeo + Juliet it's iambic pentameter, and in Moulin Rouge it's breaking out in song in a musical form. So, to a certain degree they are all kind of living in a musical vernacular. Strictly Ballroom was the first step in a ten-year journey to crack the modern musical code...In no way is it a new language. It's an old language that we used to revere taken and we sort of reinvented it.
Strictly Ballroom was created while Luhrmann was at Drama school. He made it in response to feeling artistically oppressed during the time of the cold war.
There was seemingly nothing we could do about the state of the world. It seems an odd thing, but when I did the play and we went to Czechoslovakia all those oppressed countries in the Eastern Bloc awarded it first prize. They were very emotional about the metaphorical message. It was interesting that when I went about to make the film and I wrote a naturalistic screenplay, the metaphorical message, or the second meaning was lost. That's why I reached back to my love of the musicals of the thirties and forties to create a sort of cinematic language that could contain both the clarity of the story and this second level of meaning as well.
To see where the Luhrmann look began, it's worth watching Ballroom, now on Blu-ray and make sure to take a look at the DVD extra: From Stage to Screen, which documents the progress as he is adapting the film from its stage beginnings.
If you are interested to know more about how his look has evolved for Gatsby, check out his online production journal that followed the four-year process of the making of the film. You can explore the fashion, the set, and read his production notes.