Baz Luhrmann No Longer Attached to ‘The Master and Margarita’ Adaptation (EXCLUSIVE)

Baz Luhrmann
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Baz Luhrmann is no longer attached to the long-awaited English-language adaptation of Russian novel “The Master and Margarita,” Variety has learned.

A seminal 20th century novel, Bulgakov first wrote “The Master and Margarita” in the Soviet Union in the 1930s but it was not published until some decades after the author’s death. The fantastical story, inspired by Faust, sees the Devil visit the Soviet Union and includes elements of satire, Christianity, comedy and the supernatural.

It was first reported in 2019 that Luhrmann planned to develop a film based on the iconic book via his joint-venture company with Len Blavatnik, Baz & Co. At the time Luhrmann did not commit to directing it.

But a movie failed to materialize and Luhrmann instead went on to direct his Oscar-nominated “Elvis” biopic and limited series “Faraway Downs.” Now the director has stepped back from the project entirely. Variety understands there was concern over the book rights.

Producers on the film declined to comment, although a source disputes there is any confusion over the rights.

There has been long-standing discord over the controversial text. It was first published posthumously in the late 1960s in France and, according to the outcome of a lawsuit brought by Bulgakov’s purported heirs, its first publication did not comply with U.S. copyright law, causing it to fall into the public domain. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and formation of the Russian Federation, various international laws were enacted resulting in copyright being restored in the work, which eventually passed to Sergey Shilovsky and his sister Daria Shilovskaya.

The Shilovskys are not direct descendants of the author; they claim to have inherited the book via their grandmother, who was Bulgakov’s third wife. Despite this, the duo have been fiercely protective over Bulgakov’s work. In 2014 they launched a lawsuit in New York over an English translation of the book published while it was out of copyright. (The court did not question the Shilovskys’ ownership over the rights but found in the publisher’s favor). A completed 1994 Russian version over the work by Yuri Kara was also reportedly derailed over the rights.

Rights issues aside, dozens of other filmmakers have tried and failed to make a seminal version of “The Master and Margarita” over the years including, it has been said, Roman Polansky, Federico Fellini and Terry Gilliam. In 2008 producer Scott Steindorff reportedly acquired the rights to make an English-language version which never came to fruition. (A rep for Steindorff did not come back to Variety by press time).

“Rights have been bought, scripts written, rights lapsed, money squandered, locations scouted,” Mia Taylor wrote in a 2000 article for literary journal Tin House about the various doomed attempts to make the movie. “Obscure adaptations have even been made, ones that seem impossible to track down. But something seems inevitably to bedevil these efforts. Thirty-three years after the book’s publication, the definitive film has yet to be made.”

Apparently bucking the trend, a Russian adaptation of the novel, directed by Michael Lockshin and produced by Len Blavatnik, was finally released in Russia in January of this year where it quickly became a box office hit despite backlash from the Kremlin, which included threats to ban the film.

But the “Master and Margarita” curse has, to some extent, prevailed. While pre-production and production went “very smoothly,” Lockshin said, with a snazzy festival debut followed by international theatrical release almost guaranteed, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in Feb. 2022 — followed by financial sanctions against the country — threw a massive spanner in the works. Lockshin, who has been vocal in his criticism of the war, is currently working to secure U.S. distribution and says he is optimistic, having had interest from around the world about the movie.

Luhrmann threw his own hat in the ring five years ago but the project failed to move forward leading to some frustration from the producers, Variety heard. As well as concerns over the rights, there was also said to be some disagreement over the script. With the option on the novel set to expire, there was initially hope the director would go into pre-production by next Spring but that is now no longer on the cards. Still, Variety understands that Luhrmann, who has long been a fan of the book, has not given up on returning to the adaptation some day.

In an interview with Variety at the Red Sea Film Festival last December, Luhrmann spoke of his connection to the project. “That book has followed me around since ‘Romeo + Juliet,’” he said of “The Master and Margarita.” “It’s weaved in and out of my life. I can tell you stories, but I don’t have time. I’m not saying that ‘M&M’ — that’s what we call it — is the one I’ll end up making after all. But I can’t tell you how many times people say, ‘You should do that story.’ It would be disingenuous of me to say that it’s not something that I constantly or I consistently brush up against.”

Reps for Luhrmann and Blavatnik declined to comment; reps for Shilovsky did not respond by press time.

From Variety US