A month before the election, the NSW Labor government triumphantly announced that Baz Luhrmann, one of Australia’s most beloved film directors, would be filming F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby in Sydney — in 3D!
If any announcement was designed to annoy movie people, it was probably that one. For starters, 3D might be Hollywood’s latest toy (just as it was in the 1950s), but is it needed to evoke Long Island society of the 1920s? ‘It’s great for a movie like Alice in Wonderland, but maybe not for a love story, or even The Great Gatsby,’ Douglas Trumbull recently told me. Trumbull, for those non-geeks among you, envisioned the visual effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He loves 3D extravaganzas, but within reason. ‘Certain types of stories are theatrical in nature. They’re about actors and acting and the stage. I think that when you put 3D into that mix… it could actually hurt the natural style of a movie.’
Here in Australia, the news has angered film and television producers for completely different reasons. They assume that Luhrmann is eligible for a producer offset through the government organisation Screen Australia, allowing a large payback (40 per cent of qualifying expenditure) from the Australian Tax Office.
So what’s the problem? The film will provide work for Australian technicians and actors (825 jobs, according the state’s media release). Terrific! In fact, the main complaint is inconsistency: ‘If Baz gets it, why did I miss out?’
Mind you, this is all speculation. Screen Australia has said nothing, and despite the announcement, Luhrmann has been very coy about his plans to shoot The Great Gatsby in NSW, NYC or anywhere else. ‘I have made no comment about anything,’ he insisted to New York magazine. ‘So until I say it, it’s not said, you know?’
Speculation it might be, but producers’ concern is reasonable. Why else would the NSW government make such a bold statement? Why else would Luhrmann come all the way back home to make Gatsby if not for the savings? But then, if Screen Australia wants to help Luhrmann, they’ll need a good explanation.
The Great Gatsby is a literary classic, but it’s an American literary classic, set in New York, with American characters. Some would call it the Great American Novel. From our side, this might not have mattered a few years ago, when the ATO was happily investing in the Matrix and Star Wars movies. But the system has changed since then. Now, if you want Australian money, you’re supposed to have sufficient Australian content.
Fine, but what does that mean? Marsupials? Drag queens? Australian actors? An Australian writer? Must it include Australian characters, and should they exhibit such ‘typically Australian’ — but really universal — qualities as rebelliousness, larrikinism and ‘mateship’ (or friendship, as it’s known in other English-speaking countries)?
Or do you just need to be hugely successful like Luhrmann, so that the film organisations will presumably fall at your feet? Actually, even that might not work. Among the filmmakers to be refused the production offset is the esteemed Dr George Miller, of Mad Max and Happy Feet. In 2008, he wanted to make the movie Justice League Mortal, based on the American superhero comics, in Sydney. Apart from Miller and some of the cast (including supermodel Megan Gale as Wonder Woman), there was little Australian about this proposed film. Despite his credentials, Miller was rejected.
So even Luhrmann’s name probably won’t be enough. It’s not as simple as his last film, which was set in the Outback, starred two world-famous Australian actors, was used to promote Australian tourism and titled Australia just in case anyone still thought it was filmed in Luxembourg or Burkina Faso. Now, even if he’s trying to help our constantly struggling film industry, Luhrmann will need to convince a few bureaucrats.
But how can he make The Great Gatsby seem Australian? Could an Australian actor be cast in the title role? Of course, but it might open yet another can of worms. Americans usually accept British and Australian actors playing archetypal American characters. But at times — like right now — Hollywood wants to keep American roles for Americans. It’s the superheroes that have them fuming. When they next appear in movies, Batman, Superman and Spider-Man — the Holy Trinity of comic-book do-gooders — will all be played by British actors. Americans in Hollywood are starting to say ‘Enough is enough.’
No worries. Gatsby will likely be played by the all-American Leonardo DiCaprio. Other main roles have also been attached to non-Australians (including rising British star Carey Mulligan as Daisy, but that’s forgivable). One Australian actor, Isla Fisher (former star of Home and Away and goofy redhead of Hollywood comedies) was recently cast in a major supporting role. In the meantime, perhaps Luhrmann is reconsidering his alleged plans. It is a nice idea to help the Australian film industry, and a nice idea to do another big-screen version of The Great Gatsby, 2D or not 2D. But under the current rules, it’s not economical to kill both birds with one stone.
Of course, he could always suggest that The Great Gatsby is a universal story. It won’t do him any good, but he could say it nonetheless. The characters’ backgrounds, the Jazz Age setting, are all just decoration. At its best, Hollywood tells universal rather than blatantly American stories. For simply commercial reasons, they aimed for universal stories. The hero of Casablanca happened to be American, but it hardly mattered. The heroes of Star Wars had American accents, but they’d never been anywhere near the place. These movies were adored worldwide.
Perhaps Screen Australia shouldn’t get so hung up over Australian content, and be more concerned with telling universal stories with — and here’s the good bit — an Australian voice. Luhrmann, Miller and other filmmakers don’t have to try to be Australian. They are already Australian, and their cultural sensibilities are apparent in their work. Want an Australian film? Give a story to Australian filmmakers, film it in Australia… and the rest comes naturally.