For Baz Luhrmann, Cannes is a birthplace

Associated Press
This film publicity image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows director Baz Luhrmann, left, with actors Tobey Maguire, and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from "The Great Gatsby." Luhrmann will open the 66th Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, May 15, 2013, with the international premiere of "The Great Gatsby."  (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Douglas Kirkland)
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This film publicity image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows director Baz Luhrmann, left, with actors Tobey Maguire, and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from "The Great Gatsby." Luhrmann will open the 66th Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, May 15, 2013, with the international premiere of "The Great Gatsby." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Douglas Kirkland)

CANNES, France (AP) — Baz Luhrmann might never have gone on to direct "The Great Gatsby" — or anything else, for that matter — if not for the Cannes Film Festival.

"No Cannes, no me sitting here with you," Luhrmann said in a recent interview.

When Luhrmann opens the 66th Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday with the international premiere of "The Great Gatsby," it will be an emotional return for the Australian director. In many ways, the festival is the site of his birth as an international filmmaker.

In 1992, the 29-year-old Luhrmann had completed his first film, "Strictly Ballroom," a small-budget drama about a striving, unconventional ballroom dancer in Australia, based on a play Luhrmann had developed. The film, made for $3 million, had struggled to find financing and failed to ignite interest at home. One distributor who screened it called the film, according to Luhrmann, "the worst thing he had ever seen."

"No one wanted to finance a film from Australia about ballroom dancing," recalls Craig Pearce, the co-writer of both "Strictly Ballroom" and Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Great Gatsby." ''They thought it was the worst idea in the world."

But as Luhrmann and his wife-to-be (and regular production designer) Catherine Martin were driving up the Australian coast "to lick our wounds," Luhrmann got a call from Cannes offering the film a spot in the festival's Un Certain Regard sidebar. The category recognizes young talent and encourages daring works.

Fate had interrupted and Luhrmann was en route to the most prestigious film festival in the world.

"That moment it opens, a security guard leans over and says to me, 'Monsieur, from this moment on, your life will never been the same again,' says Luhrmann, still thrilled by the memory. "That is the beginning of my life in film."

"Strictly Ballroom" premiered at a midnight screening.

"We're sitting there all holding hands, our hearts in our mouths," says Pearce. "It started with a couple laughs in the right places."

The Cannes audience's response grew, concluding with a lengthy standing ovation and attendees dancing in the aisles. Distributors rushed to acquire the film. Miramax landed it. The film won the Prix de la Jeunesse award (prize of the youth jury) and went on to win numerous awards from the Australian Film Institute.

Luhrmann has continued to have a close relationship with Cannes, where his "Moulin Rouge" starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor was the opening night film in 2002. Some eyebrows were raised when Cannes announced "The Great Gatsby," which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, as an opener despite hitting the screens five days earlier in North America.

But for Luhrmann, bringing "Gatsby" to Cannes (near where Fitzgerald, a noted visitor to the French Rivera, wrote a portion of the 1925 novel) completes a circle that began with "Strictly Ballroom."

"Now I'm returning all these years later, with children, to be on the beach where not 20 miles away F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote 'The Great Gatsby,'" says Luhrmann. "Could he have known that, in 88 years time, the book he was laboring over, probably crying over, was going to be performed in a giant palace of cinema in 3-D?"

The director thought about the unlikeliness of that journey.

"Is it a big circle? Yes, it is," Luhrmann declared.

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Follow AP Entertainment Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/jake_coyle

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