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.
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 …
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.
DICAPRIO: No, seriously. I saw those movies, and I was like, "What is this human being like?"
SCORSESE: Working together reignited my enthusiasm for making pictures. There's always something more, there's always more to mine with him. He keeps going deeper and deeper.
Your interest in film was flagging?
SCORSESE: The energy of making films. By the time we made [2004's] The Aviator, I had made films for, like, 35 years. And it was a matter of, what would I want to spend my time on? And, getting older, what do you have to say? Is it worth spending the time and going through the process? It takes a year and a half to two years of my life each time. Leo's enjoyment of the work and the ability to take chances made me excited again. 'Cause Gangs of New York was a massive project and had been for many, many years, and I was depleted after that. And Aviator was the one where he pulled me back in, and I said, "Oh, yeah, I'm interested."
DICAPRIO: There's something about that film, the nostalgia. That was special.
Do you still have faith in the power of film?
SCORSESE: Can a film really change anything? I mean, what was the last time? Maybe the Italian neo-realists, where they became the voice and the heart and the soul of Italy, a nation that had been destroyed. I don't know. But, like anything else -- a book or painting or music -- if it stays with you, if it's part of the culture, maybe it can make some headway.
Jonah, describe your entree to Wolf.
DICAPRIO: Do you remember when we first met in Mexico?
JONAH HILL: Yeah, yeah.
DICAPRIO: We were sitting outside, and he said, "I read this script, and there's nobody else who should play Donnie Azoff except for me." I was like, "OK." And you started talking about how incredible you thought this screenplay was and how you knew guys like this, where money was paramount. You knew who this guy was. And I had to relay that to Marty.
SCORSESE: The first time I met [Hill] was at the [Oscars]. He was sitting in front of me. He was great, just sitting there.
HILL: The back of my head was really expressive.
Was it hard shifting from comedy to drama?
HILL No. I mean, I love all different kinds of films. I've gotten to express myself a lot comedically, and I like doing that. But opportunities like this are the greatest thing in the entire world, and it's just about playing the character truthfully. There are ridiculous situations in this film that would be the same in a broad comedy.
Leo, you did three films back-to-back. How much does that take out of you?
DICAPRIO: I actually did The Great Gatsby first, then I went into Django Unchained, and then I went straight into this. Usually I like to take a nice six months to prepare for each role in between; but look, I had been waiting for this movie to happen for so many years. And finally everything was lined up perfectly to make it happen, and I felt like I'd already done so much of the preparation in my head that it was worth doing three movies back-to-back. It takes a toll on you, though.
Why is producing important to you?
DICAPRIO: The whole motivation for producing films for me is to try to create and hone very specific material that I wasn't receiving straight from the studio system, to try to craft characters for myself. At the end of the day, everything is about the material. The one thing you have to realize is, the material is king.
But that also put you in a position to say no to your director. Did you ever?
SCORSESE: In what way?
You can't shoot more. Fewer takes.
DICAPRIO: No, no, not that. No, I wouldn't do that.
SCORSESE: But we work very closely on how many days we should go, where should we put the emphasis in production. We got hit with Hurricane Sandy; we had to close down for a week. We had to stop, and every day they'd say, "We'll go tomorrow." And then it was next day and next, and finally they stopped.
DICAPRIO: The crane fell on the building.
SCORSESE: The crane of 57th Street started to fall because of Hurricane Sandy, and my editing room is across the street, and we couldn't get in the block so I couldn't even go and edit. So the whole week we just waited.
Do you get nervous as a director?
SCORSESE: All the time. It's horrible, wonderful. Wonderful and horrible at the same time.
Who do you turn to for advice?
HILL: (Indicating himself.) You can be honest. (Laughter.)
Did you call Spielberg?
SCORSESE: Well, he came on the set the day we were shooting the speeches. He said he came in to say hello, and he stayed the whole day and was helping me, saying, "I think you should move the camera." (Laughs.)
DICAPRIO: That was like a double-whammy for everyone on set. Everyone who had to act that day was like, "Spielberg and Scorsese are watching me? Jesus Christ!"
HILL: We would go back to get notes, and they were sitting next to each other. It was insane.
SCORSESE: And I hadn't been on his set [since] Catch Me If You Can. Back in the '70s, we'd hang out, and we used to get [each other's] advice a lot. But as we all got older, [we] grew apart, in a way, making our own kinds of pictures.
There are some extraordinary scenes -- especially one when Jonah's and Leo's characters get high on "Lemmon" quaaludes. Jonah, what did you think when you read that?
HILL: Leo and Marty really built that scene as an end of my character's screw-up journey. You guys had the brilliant idea to make taking the Lemmons really to numb Jordan to the information that I screwed up.
At one point in that sequence, Leo is on a pay phone and can't even form words, then has to crawl to his car.
SCORSESE: Leo hurt his back on the telephone when he was talking and fell backwards on a rig that we worked out.
DICAPRIO: It was a few days of crawling around like that. You contort your body and …
SCORSESE: You hurt yourself. What he did was almost like Jacques Tati or Jerry Lewis in that scene. How you gonna do it? You can't just be talking on the phone, because you can't form the words because of the drugs.
Did you have drug experts? I'm assuming you didn't try Lemmon quaaludes?
HILL: I tried as hard as I could to find a quaalude, and I could not find any. (Laughter.) I mean, I'm not like a drug person, but I genuinely would've tried one to see. We had a drug expert. I spoke to a drug expert who …
SCORSESE: She was stoned. No, I'm only kidding. And I also remembered things from years ago. I had my times. I said, "You try to form the word, but it isn't there." The tongue and the mouth, the palate just won't respond.
Did you improvise a lot?
DICAPRIO: I remembered seeing a documentary on King of Comedy and seeing a lot of improvisation having been done. But this, by far in our collaborations, had the most controlled chaos. A lot of the films in the past had a very structured plot. But this wasn't redoing The Catcher in the Rye. This wasn't some Great American Novel that we had to be specific to.
SCORSESE: We did rehearse in a rehearsal hall and read the scenes. And there were some improvisations typed up. It became another monster epic by itself, and I trimmed it way down in editing, and there are only a couple of lines from the improv that remain, actually.
HILL: The first rehearsals were just the three of us. For me, obviously, it was intimidating: This is my favorite director and my favorite actor, and now I was working with them. You have to check that at the door at some point.
What did you do to calm yourself? Take quaaludes?
HILL: (Laughter.) I'm gonna clarify that. I meant that it was before my generation, so I didn't know anyone who had ever taken one.
What kind of an impact does it have on you playing characters like this?
DICAPRIO: You know, when you jump into that world headfirst, as we did, we just became kind of different people on set. You have to stop yourself from being this incredibly arrogant prick.
HILL: Well, I didn't. (Laughter.)
What was hardest to pull off?
DICAPRIO: The speeches. I had been thinking about them for seven years. But I had never had a monologue like that in my life -- I mean, [one] went on for four pages. It was amazing. And there was such a lead-up to it, it was almost like an adrenaline dump. And I immediately got sick. I was supposed to get up there in front of 600 extras and give this giant Braveheart-like speech on greed, and my throat just seized up. I got strep throat.
HILL: I have a great picture of you with all the medicine. He had like 9,000 medicine bottles.
DICAPRIO: Thank God, I got a couple days to rethink all of it and prepare myself, get better.
WINTER: There was a lot of techno-speak about, "What is an IPO?" for example. And in the original drafts of the script, Jordan explains it. And Marty and I talked about it. I said, "This is sort of like science fiction where they talk about sending the rocket into space and you know, the flange has to be blah, blah and the thermometer blah, blah." And all you need to know is: If this thing goes up and explodes, it's bad.
SCORSESE: We still don't know what an IPO is!
DICAPRIO: One of the early conversations we had was about why these people are so detestable. You know, they have no conscience for people outside of their finite little world. I remember talking to Marty about that, and he goes, "Look, the thing that I've learned about doing movies is, if you make these people as authentic as possible, and you don't sugarcoat that, people will forgive anything, and they will like those characters -- not what they're doing, but they will be invested in them." It's a very conscious choice that [Winter] made in the screenplay not to show the ramifications of their actions. Throughout the picture, you go on this acid trip with them, without any regard for the people around them.
WINTER: Jordan is so inherently charming, and you're laughing at these guys and laughing with them -- and then you're realizing, "Oh, this guy committed suicide. Wait a minute." It's so despicable, and you go, "Wait, I'm falling for him." This is exactly how they managed to do what they did.
SCORSESE: It's also something that I think is part of human nature. I think all of us, under certain circumstances, could be capable of some very despicable acts. And that's why, over the years, in my movies I've had characters who didn't care what people thought about them. We try to be as true to them as possible and maybe see part of ourselves in there that we may not like.
The film's release was delayed. What happened?
SCORSESE: It took longer to cut the shape of the picture, that's all. Very simple.
The final cut is 2:59. How long was your initial version?
SCORSESE: It was over four hours.
Would you want to release it at that length?
SCORSESE: No, not really. That talk about these "director cuts" -- it doesn't really [apply]. In the old days, if the [studio] took the film away from you and they made a cut and there was a director's cut here and somebody found it -- that's a director's cut. But a longer cut is a longer cut. There's a couple of lines of dialogue I would've liked to put back in. [But it's been] quite an experience putting this together in the editing room. For the past five weeks now, it's been day and night, seven days a week, mixing, cutting, re-cutting.
DICAPRIO: At the end of the day, no one's going to prohibit Martin Scorsese from making the film he wants to make. The only conversations were about whether the film should be released at a certain date or not. Nothing else.
This film is set on Wall Street in the past. What does it say about the world today?
WINTER: How history repeats itself and how we're not learning from our mistakes. I mean, it's just holding a mirror up to what is still going on.
SCORSESE: It goes back to what the concept of America is. Yes, you can have extraordinary opportunities. But is it a place [where] the main opportunities are to get rich or about human rights? Is it about a sense of freedom, a pursuit of happiness, or is it just about getting rich?
DICAPRIO: It's fundamentally a part of evolution and existence. It comes back to, are we, as this intelligent life form, able to supersede that, to ultimately live harmoniously with others in the world? It's inherent in every problem out there. Greed is the basis of all of it.
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