The Pursued, the Pursuing, the Busy, and the Tired
We occupied two floors of a nearly 30-story building on Broadway, perched in the northeastern-most corner of TriBeCa, culturally saturated by the bordering neighborhoods of Chinatown and SoHo. I walked in the first morning, finally met the man on the other end of the phone, and promptly began to tackle the massive order of furniture to equip our entirely empty floors of office space. The 26th floor, the higher of the two, proved to be the gem—a beautiful, open room with 360-degree views of Manhattan, a spectacular terrace, and a private back office for Baz.
I soon discovered that no room was ever “finished.” Each office functioned more like a theater stage—any day could bring a scene change—and reflected the inspirations for the story. Photos of 1920s New York, Gatsby in timeline format, flapper fashions, and excerpts from the novel adorned the walls, leaving scarcely a white space. There were bookshelves that would have impressed old Owl Eyes himself, boasting tomes on the rigging of the 1919 World Series to the art deco styles of East Coast mansions, to the Prohibition Era and World War I journals—not to mention all the works by and biographies of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. By chance, I had been reading The Beautiful and the Damned when hired, so I continued the process of enveloping myself in Fitzgerald’s world, and I read those texts that had escaped me: This Side of Paradise, Tender is the Night, and the compilation On Booze, among others.
And, of course, after consuming the script, I reread The Great Gatsby itself. I first studied the classic as a junior in Scottie Buron’s English class at Deerfield—a memory I cherish—and my copy’s emphatic underlining and scrawled margin notes brought me back to the basement of the Classroom Building. I recalled mornings spent discussing Nick’s function as a narrator, the difference between gesture and emotion (East and West Eggs), and the “colossal vitality” of Gatsby’s illusion.
Reacquainting myself with what I had learned then was crucial to my understanding of where Baz and all of us were taking the story. In addition to the thematic and narrative groundwork provided by Ms. Buron, I benefited from the extraordinary level of expectation Karen McConnell had for her students in her “Modern Times” class. The moment you stepped into her room you needed to be “on,” and thankfully, this ability to be ready at a moment’s notice prepared me well to be the sole production assistant in New York.
Despite the massive undertaking of the project itself—as indicated by the daily reminders of the set construction and preparation in Australia—the pre-production months in the New York office felt intimate with our fluctuating crew of about 20. New York happened because Baz and his Aussie team wanted to immerse themselves fully in the Gatsby lore, and tap into what Fitzgerald called “the restlessness that approached hysteria” in New York. They traveled beyond the city limits, too, not just to Long Island’s gold coast—the speculated non-fictional West and East Eggs—but also to Yale and Princeton, the alma maters of Nick and Tom and Fitzgerald respectively, and down to Daisy’s hometown of Louisville.
This preparation and research culminated with the “Playshop,” an intensive, weeklong orientation and rehearsal involving lead cast members and featuring table reads, fittings, and presentations from department heads. This essential step in Baz’s process was the closest thing to shooting I would experience, and the week, days, and moments leading up to the Playshop would prove to be the most hectic I had witnessed.