Set Design Secrets from “The Great Gatsby”


Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” is a sumptuous visual feast for the moviegoer this summer. With a $104 million dollar budget, Luhrmann and his wife, Oscar-winning set designer Catherine Martin, have created a visually unique movie. A daring mix of old and new, this interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel has created quite a buzz offering a new look at the Roaring Twenties.

A Modern 1920s

Martin told the Wall Street Journal that she made several trips to Long Island in an attempt to make a connection with the place that inspired Fitzgerald’s book. The story takes place in imaginary West Egg and East Egg villages that the author created based on his experiences on the Long Island of the ’20s.

Martin told that Luhrmann wanted to make viewers feel like those living in the ’20s would have felt, without the nostalgia so often present in films about the period. To do this, they made the experience loud, colorful and vibrant. No sepia tones and hazy visuals. The film is meant to excite and to bring the viewer right into the Roaring Twenties.

This does not mean the film lacks in authenticity. The husband and wife team worked hard to understand what the surroundings of the decade would have been. After plentiful research and a specific design vision, they moved beyond merely an interpretation based upon realism.

Luhrmann even recruited Jay-Z to create the soundtrack — a mix of jazz and hip-hop. In this way, he hoped to make the viewer feel how revolutionary jazz was to the era.

The Sets

Creating the sets alone for Gatsby required a monumental amount of work. According to Architectural Digest, Martin helmed the creation of 42 different sets. All were crafted in Sydney, Australia and surrounding areas.

The Mansion

The work to fully realize Gatsby’s gorgeous estate took 14 weeks alone. Granted, it was one of the largest sets — with a massive ballroom, terrace, garden, library, entrance hall and master bedroom. To get the exterior shots of the mansion, the film used St. Patrick’s in Sydney, a former seminary in the Gothic Revival style. By adding artificial ivy, a courtyard fountain and a set of turrets in post-production, the religious institution became Gatsby’s extravagant estate.

The Ballroom

The ballroom is central to the famous parties Gatsby continuously throws. Martin added a ceiling of gold-filigree, chandeliers of crystal, a floor with Gatsby’s monogram and a sinuous staircase.

Nick’s Cottage

The narrator of the story is a much more modest individual than Gatsby. Martin emphasized the warmth and accessibility of Nick’s cottage. Martin looked for motifs that spoke of stereotypical Long Island during that time period, according to Architectural Digest. An Adirondack swing, a modest lawn and oak beams all embody the personality of the humble narrator.

Luhrmann Tackles 3D

Luhrmann told the New York Times that he would attempt to use 3D in a way not previously seen — as a way to increase the intimacy of the film, as opposed to mere spectacle. Whether he accomplished this or not is up to the viewer, but set designer Martin thinks that Luhrmann has always been aware of three-dimensional design and conscious of the far background, the foreground and everything in between.

Martin Stands Out

Although in many ways, Martin references her husband when referring to the vision of the film, it is obvious that she has a large part to play in the fantastic visual quality. She has been working with him since 1987, when she was pursuing a degree at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney. She did not get her degree in interior design, but rather sought degrees in visual arts and pattern cutting.

Luhrmann and Martin appear to have done everything possible to make this a stunning and memorable movie experience. And judging by the film’s impressive opening weekend sales, grossing $51.1 million in North America, according to the Hollywood Reporter, “The Great Gatsby” is poised to be one of the biggest films of the year.

Gatsby’s garden photo courtesy of Eva Rinaldi via Flickr

Guest Post written by:

Charlie Singer

Charlie loves movies, coffee shops and writing reviews for films and restaurants.

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