You may not have seen Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby just yet, but you probably already have a pretty firm opinion about it.
In fact, it’s likely you fall in one of two camps: The Great Gatsby is a dynamic and visually-spectacular masterpiece from a visionary director, or The Great Gatsby is a gaudy travesty that lays waste to one of the 20th century’s greatest novels. That’s the effect Baz Luhrmann has – his films are big and bold explosions of colour and movement, laying the melodrama bare and then cranking it up to its maximum setting. His films may be dazzling, but subtle they are most certainly not.
Brendan Maclean shares something of an affinity with Baz Luhrmann. The young singer is prone to grand gestures, writing lyrics that take everyday emotions and experiences and explode them to one hundred times their size. He doesn’t just sing, he performs, and his videos always offer some sort of visual splendour or surprise. Maclean is a life-long fan of Baz Luhrmann’s films, but he never imagined he’d get to perform in one, until the day he auditioned for The Great Gatsby. It was a strange and slightly surreal journey, involving burly tradesmen and butterflies, but it gave Maclean unique insight into the inner-workings of a Luhrmann production.
It all began when a friend told him about the film’s Sydney auditions. “They needed piano players,” he says, “and I thought, ‘oh, I can do that, playing piano in a film sounds like fun.’ So I went along and did the audition, and then they gave me some lines and asked if I could read them.” Maclean had never done a film before, so he read the lines as best he could, and was sent off without a word. Needless to say, he felt a bit down. “I felt like I’d screwed up,” he continues, “like they’d never want to see me again, so I sent them the video for my song ‘Practically Wasted’, because that’s just incredible, it’s a really theatrical video clip, and it showcases a lot of the madness and joy that I bring to my live show on stage. After that, I got a little call asking if I could come back in again.”
The call back was a second chance, and Maclean embraced it. “I walked into a room at Fox Studios, and there was a man in a silver suit, with silver hair and a salmon pink tie – it was Baz Luhrmann!” he says. “The guy is my hero – I grew up with his films, I grew up with all the things that surround his films, so yeah, I was a little bit blown away. We spent a long time improvising – he gave me this old telephone receiver thing, and we improvised around the script for about 40 minutes, for the role of Klipspringer.” Like any vulnerable and nervous young actor in an audition situation, Maclean asked Luhrmann if he had a lot of other actors coming in to try out for the part that day – ‘no, I just have one’ was Luhrmann’s reply. “I just started bawling on the spot,” Maclean says. “I had the part!”
The Great Gatsby takes the affluent world of 1920s America and turns it into a decadent fantasyland. As Jay Gatsby, Leonardo Di Caprio speeds around in a shiny yellow car, and throws lavish parties with glittering fireworks and flapper girls in various states of intoxication. It’s paean to wealth and privilege, each end every shot crowded with details. Maclean was blown away to find himself in the centre of it all. “It was a stunning production,” he says, “the sets for this thing were just beautiful, you really felt immersed in the world. You can’t go wrong with something like that. I think people will be blown away – I think it’s going to be the film of the year and win every award.”
Baz Luhrmann is a perfectionist, and no detail of the film was small enough to be overlooked. Maclean discovered this for himself when he arrived on set one day to find himself in the midst of a very unusual debate. “It was so funny,” he says, “I walked on set the first day, and there were like 16 big, muscly tradies in a circle. I was like, ‘what are they doing?’ I looked down, and in the middle of them were little butterflies, little felt butterflies. They were having this manly argument about whether the eyes should be glitter or diamante! There were 16 grown men arguing about butterfly eyes. That’s the level of detail that Baz Luhrmann’s films have – it’s insane.”
Maclean continues to grow in his primary career as a musician – a few months back, his single ‘Stupid’ was a viral hit, and anticipation continues to grow for his new album, out later this year. His work in Gatsby has given him a taste for film acting, and he has more on the way. “I just did another little part in a film called Tracks, with Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver from Girls,” he tells me. “We shot that in outback South Australia – we got to play with camels and emus and kangaroos – it was great. But of course, the thing I’m most excited about is Gatsby coming out – I feel like that film is going to explode the world!”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
The Great Gatsby hits cinemas Thursday May 30.