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Amazon Tackles Hollywood’s F. Scott Fitzgerald Obsession

It was published only after the critic Edmund Wilson completed a version based on notes left behind. The best-known adaptation, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Robert De Niro, was a disaster in 1976. “So enervated that it’s like a vampire movie after the vampires have left,” the critic Pauline Kael wrote at the time in The New Yorker.

But the creative ensemble behind the new “Last Tycoon” saw the unfinished aspect of the book as an opening.

“Keep the icons from the novel — the Shiva head, the two-dimes-and-a-matchbox speech — but polish them up, move things around, explore characters in deeper ways,” Mr. Berg said. “There could be 50 episodes here if done correctly.” He added, “What was put together as a book was extrapolated itself, so let’s extrapolate from there.”

“The Last Tycoon” is a roman à clef. Fitzgerald had returned to Los Angeles in 1937 to give screenwriting another stab. He had bills to pay after the commercial failure of “Tender Is the Night,” published in 1934. As he typed in an office on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot, he began to hear tales of the interaction between Irving Thalberg, a next-generation film executive seen as a “boy wonder” for his ability to meld art and commerce, and the grandest of studio grand pooh-bahs, Louis B. Mayer.

His observations became “The Last Tycoon.” Joining the men at the forefront of the story is the plucky Celia (Lily Collins), whose father (Mr. Grammer) runs the studio.

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Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Great Gatsby.”

Credit
Warner Bros.

“There is just so much going on with Celia — steadfast, tenacious, passionate, naïve but saucy,” Ms. Collins told me between takes. “I think fleshing Celia out was a little bit of how Billy and Chris solved the puzzle, and, you know, made this story into something that can last multiple seasons.”

For his part, Mr. Ray said he was not overly worried about solving anything. Rather, he saw Fitzgerald’s novel as a doorway — to period and setting (as exacting with 1930s Hollywood as “Mad Men” was with 1960s Manhattan) and the movie business, past and present.

“Who has power, what do they do to get it, what do they do when they’ve lost it?” Mr. Ray said. “What are the trades, compromises and deals that you’d make to get your movie made? No difference between 1936 and 2017. None.”

Mr. Ray pointed to a plotline in the pilot, which has been available on Amazon since last summer, about how Mr. Bomer’s character wants to make a movie but can’t because the German government might find the story objectionable. In the 1930s, Germany was a huge box-office market.

“Those exact same conversations are being had about China right now all over Hollywood,” Mr. Ray said. “It’s too big of a market to offend.”

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From left, Robert Mitchum, Robert De Niro and Ray Milland in the 1976 film version of “The Last Tycoon.”

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Sunset Boulevard/Corbis, via Getty Images

He added, “This is a world — then, now — where creative impulses are systematically tempered if not squashed by the system.” He insisted, however, that the companies behind “The Last Tycoon,” which include Sony Pictures Television in addition to Amazon, had made requests that only improved his show. “They were interested in the glamour and the romance, and they were right,” Mr. Ray said.

(Amazon executives do seem to have a fondness for the period — and Fitzgerald. In January, the streaming service unveiled the series “Z: The Beginning of Everything,” starring Christina Ricci as a fictionalized version of Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda.)

Mr. Ray’s point about the unchanging nature of the movie business came into sharp relief during my visit to “The Last Tycoon” set. The show had taken over Stage 4 on a compact West Hollywood lot known for hosting productions like “Some Like It Hot” (1959) and “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971). Over the decades, Charlie Chaplin, Howard Hughes, Frank Sinatra and Francis Ford Coppola used it as home base.

Mr. Grammer took a rest on a bench outside the sound stage to chat with me. (“My character has a lot of self-knowledge, but he’s also a bit of a brat,” he said. “All of a sudden, he’s slamming into an emotion he didn’t see coming.”) Inside Stage 4, where the air smelled of paint and wood, Mr. Bomer was marveling over the meticulous production design by Patrizia von Brandenstein, who won an Oscar for “Amadeus” and put John Travolta in his white “Saturday Night Fever” suit. Indeed, there did not seem to be a matchstick out of place in the palatial, wood-paneled office belonging to Mr. Grammer’s studio boss. A monumental carved mahogany desk sat on a platform at the end of the room. Flanked by torchères and ferns and dramatically decorated with an ormolu-mounted encrier, the desk — sitting in front of a stained-glass window — was more throne than anything.

The same scene could well have unfolded in 1936.

Filming soon resumed, with Mr. Bomer and Mr. Grammer performing that confrontational scene. Their fictional studio had fallen on hard times and borrowed money from a cutthroat competitor. Mr. Grammer’s character wanted to pay back the loan by requiring all employees to take a 30 percent pay cut. And he wanted his popular production chief to break the news.

“You can’t treat people this way and expect them to do good work!” Mr. Bomer shouted.

“No,” Mr. Grammer replied. “But you can.”

The director called cut.

A swarm of crew members came out of hiding to fuss over various details. One woman adjusted Mr. Grammer’s pocket square ever so slightly, and a man holding a rolled-up script gave a suggestion to Mr. Bomer. Perhaps add a touch more smoke to the air, someone suggested. (It filters the light in a pretty period way.)

“Let’s try it again,” the director said.

After all, the pressure was on. This time, Fitzgerald was going to be done right.

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