Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio Finally Open Up About 'Wolf of Wall Street'

This story first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In 2007, Leonardo DiCaprio won a bidding war against Brad Pitt for the rights to Jordan Belfort's memoir The Wolf of Wall Street, which followed the downward spiral (and eventual jailing) of one of the Street's brightest stars as he got hooked on drugs and prostitutes -- while the FBI nipped at his heels. “It was almost like a modern-day Caligula," says DiCaprio, who stars as Belfort alongside Jonah Hill as his henchman Donnie Azoff in a movie that also features Matthew McConaughey and Margot Robbie in prominent roles. The film held the promise of reuniting DiCaprio with director Martin Scorsese (The Departed), but nobody wanted to finance it until indie producer Red Granite Pictures agreed to fully fund the $100 million-plus drama, which Paramount is releasing domestically.

That was just the beginning of the film's rollicking ride -- which included a lawsuit demanding credit from executive producer Alexandra Milchan; a battering by Hurricane Sandy (the movie had to shut down for several days); a race against time as Scorsese cut the film from four-hours-plus to just under three, delaying its release until Dec. 25; and "multiple rounds" of cuts with the MPAA (in the words of Red Granite vice chairman Joey McFarland) to qualify for an R rating. Says Paramount chairman Brad Grey, "There were really not major cuts in this movie; there were trims." Despite the trims (which included the removal of many f---s and the tightening of an airplane orgy scene), all those connected to Wolf say it remains the story they wanted to tell. "Films exploring [humanity's] darker nature are the most profound," says DiCaprio, who joined Scorsese, Hill, screenwriter Terence Winter and THR on Nov. 21 at New York's Le Parker Meridien. 

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Why was it so hard to get this film off the ground?

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: You know, it's a hard R rating. This film was not easily financed. We had one opportunity to finance it [at a much lower budget], and then many, many years down the line, we found the right financiers, and Red Granite basically said to us: "Here's the budget. We want an epic that pulls no punches. We don't want to limit or censor anything." Ultimately, that was attractive to Marty getting back on board because I had gone down the road looking for other filmmakers, but I didn't think there was anybody that could quite capture the dark, sadistic humor in Terry's screenplay.

MARTIN SCORSESE: There was resistance based on the material. In a studio situation, this kind of picture would have been very difficult and wouldn't be worth making. And so we stopped. And we said, "Look, we want to do something together," so we wound up doing Shutter Island. [However], over the years, Leo's been talking to me about it.

What were the challenges of adapting this story?

TERENCE WINTER: We were all in agreement that we wanted to tell the truest version of this story and not the sanitized version. I mean, it's an incredibly wild ride. I read [the book] in galley form. Jordan is absolutely forthcoming to the point where you can't believe some of the things he's admitting. Stylistically, some of the early conversations were [about using voiceover]. Jordan is so funny, talking about people, how he goofed on people. And I didn't want to lose that, so I broached the subject of voiceover, and said, "It feels like Goodfellas and Casino. Would it be OK if I wrote it in that style?" And everybody was on board with that. I met with Jordan and downloaded as much information as I could. He was incredibly boyish and naturally charming. Talks a mile a minute. He used to give these incredible motivational speeches to his sales team twice a day, once in the morning, once in the afternoon. I said: "God, I would love to see you do that. If I could fill a conference room with assistants from CAA, would you come in and do that for me?" And he said, "Yeah." So I got a bunch of young agents and assistants and …

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SCORSESE: That was before you even wrote, right?

WINTER: Yeah. He was a little nervous. But he came in and loosened up, and within minutes he basically just ripped, yelling at people. And I couldn't write fast enough.

Leo, this is your fifth collaboration with Marty. Do you remember when you first met?

DICAPRIO: I was in New York. I was 18 or so. I had just done What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and there was an afterparty at some bar downtown. You (to Scorsese) were there. I quickly bumped into you, and I was sort of paralyzed. And I just sort of stood there, and [you said]: "Hey, kid, I saw your movie. You did a great job. Keep it up." And I just didn't say anything.

SCORSESE: That's right, yes.

DICAPRIO: And I was shocked. I had done two movies at that time, This Boy's Life and Gilbert Grape. I was shocked that he had actually seen the film and said something. I was just blown away.

SCORSESE: I don't remember that. I remember seeing the film, of course, and Robert De Niro was the one who told me about Leo. He said, "I worked with this kid in this film. You should really work with him someday." And he doesn't usually do that.

As you got to know each other, what surprised you?

DICAPRIO: We have this image of Martin Scorsese, I think. (Laughter.) But I didn't quite understand what a professor of film he is, how he could challenge anyone in the world as far as his knowledge of film is concerned. He keeps talking about plot being insignificant to him; when he does a movie, it's about the characters, it's about the people. And that's a process that needs to be nurtured. So, what surprised me about him was all those things -- and what a nice guy he is.

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