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Santa Barbara Film Fest: 'Wolf' Pack Reunites as Scorsese, DiCaprio Accept Award From Hill

The two legends, wearing matching suits, reflected on their five films together: "Gangs of New York," "The Aviator," "The Departed," "Shutter Island," and this year's "The Wolf of Wall Street."

Martin Scorsese Leonardo DiCaprio Santa Barbara 2014 H
AP
"Wolf" stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill flank director Martin Scorsese at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

SANTA BARBARA -- The Arlington Theatre has rarely been as buzzing with excitement, both inside and outside, as it was on Thursday night as director Martin Scorsese and actor Leonardo DiCaprio -- five-time collaborators whose latest work, The Wolf of Wall Street, has earned them each individual Oscar noms and an Oscar nom for best picture -- arrived to accept the Cinema Vanguard Award at the 29th Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The presentation of statuettes by Jonah Hill, another Wolf star and Oscar nominee, was preceded by a conversation with the honorees, moderated by The Hollywood Reporter's chief film critic Todd McCarthy, about how they met and work together.

Scorsese said he first became aware of DiCaprio through his prior frequent collaborator, Robert De Niro, after De Niro worked with a young DiCaprio on This Boy's Life (1993): "He said, 'I'm working with this young kid. He's really good. You should work with him sometime. For him to recommend someone for me out of the blue in that way was really, really, really special." Scorsese also mentioned that he and his wife were watching TV around the same time and happened upon What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), a film in which DiCaprio plays a mentally challenged youngster, and thought it was a documentary until they saw DiCaprio's name in the credits. Between De Niro's recommendation and that experience, Scorsese said was certainly impressed. "And then he made Titanic, which I had nothing to do with -- I get seasick!"

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DiCaprio, for his part, said he became a student of great cinema around the time he was getting ready to work with De Niro on This Boy's Life, and began watching two or three classic movies a day. He said the films he loved the most came from the 1970s, "the director's era of filmmaking," and the director whose work he admired the most was Scorsese -- "Taxi Driver, specifically."

The two men met for the first time when Scorsese invited DiCaprio to visit him on the set of Bringing Out the Dead (1999), which Scorsese remembers as a particularly low-point in his career. Between that film and Kundun (1997), another one of his that was not well received, he was on a cold streak and people were beginning to write him off. But he decided to revisit a project that he had first pursued in the mid-seventies that dealt with New York, a key character in nearly all of his great movies up to that time: Gangs of New York (2002). And he wanted DiCaprio for one of the two leading parts. For DiCaprio, it was a dream come true, and by saying yes he helped to attract the financing to get it made that had long eluded Scorsese. "It's great to have an actor who wants to work with you," Scorsese remarked.

Asked by McCarthy if the way in which they work together has changed since that first collaboration 12 years ago, Scorsese replied, "Every film has been different." What the projects do share in common, though, is that every one of them has been "shaped to Leo." One of the things that DiCaprio likes about Scorsese is that he does a lot of takes; not an exorbitant amount, a la David Fincher, but not one or two either, like Clint Eastwood. DiCaprio feels it takes a few takes to modulate a performance, and Scorsese agrees.

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DiCaprio noted that the two projects in which he was most completely invested and "felt a real responsibility for the movie" were The Aviator (2004) and The Wolf of Wall Street, both of which he not only starred in but also guided to Scorsese as a producer. The actor said he first read about Howard Hughes when he was very young and "literally became obsessed with playing him." He added, "I get very nostalgic for history -- certainly with Howard Hughes." DiCaprio recalled that when he mentioned that he wanted to bring the project to Scorsese someone told him, "Marty doesn't know anything about aviation!" DiCaprio responded, "Well, he didn't know anything about boxing, either!" (The famously nervous Scorsese, upon hearing this story, said, "All I know is I'm afraid of both!")

In the end, Scorsese signed on to direct, DiCaprio totally committed to the part (visiting Hughes' ex-lovers Jane Russell and Terry Moore, living for a time with someone with OCD and then spending most of the shoot inside his hotel room by himself) and they both wound up with Oscar nominations, plus a best picture nom for the film. DiCaprio said he enjoys that sort of complete immersion in a part, in spite or perhaps because of the fact, "You shut down the rest of your life. Everything goes on hold."

After The Aviator, Scorsese and DiCaprio reteamed for The Departed (2006), largely because Scorsese "wanted to do a down and dirty B-film" about a "street war," he said. Inspired by the Hong Kong drama Infernal Affairs, Departed, for which DiCaprio was surrounded my a magnificent ensemble, including Jack Nicholson, went on to win the best picture Oscar and Scorsese his first best director Oscar. DiCaprio mentioned that a scene in which Nicholson's character tries to scare his required a second day of shooting, for which Nicholson returned with a gun, vodka (replaced with diet soda) and matches. Scorsese said, "That's my favorite scene in the picture."

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Their next collaboration was also a genre film, of sorts. Shutter Island (2010) posed massive and unique challenges for both director and actor. Scorsese anticipated a much simpler and shorter shoot, but this was, he admitted to McCarthy, "a big miscalculation," because they needed to wait for rainstorms and required many different takes of the same scenes to present the film in a way that would be convincing once its big twist -- spoiler alert: DiCaprio's character suffers from multiple-personality disorder -- is revealed at the end. For DiCaprio, as much as anyone, "It was walking this sort of tightrope."

And then, most recently, they partnered on Wolf, a film that they had considered making before Shutter Island but that posed a lot of problems that Scorsese was not sure were worth facing and therefore "went on ice for a little while," as DiCaprio put it. Scorsese had faced all sorts of studio interference with The Departed, he said, and did not have the stomach to go through that again with Wolf, a film that he knew would only be worth making if its story could be told truthfully, which meant with a lot of sex and bad language. DiCaprio, however, took over the reigns and really went to bat for the project, and once he had secured financing from people who would allow it to be made in the way Scorsese wished, he reapproached Scorsese, who enthusiastically signed on to make it.

After 87 days of shooting (at the end of which DiCaprio, recovering from New Year's partying in Australia, performed Belfort's big speeches to his employees that he likened to "Braveheart speeches," only promoting debauchery, with set visitor Steven Spielberg looking on), plus 11 months of post-production (during which Scorsese said he told his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker to make the film "Ferocious, goddamit, ferocious," even if certain scenes don't match, etc.), Wolf was done.

When the film's ultimate triumph of directing, acting and editing was merely mentioned -- DiCaprio's quaaludes-induced crawl to his car -- the audience spontaneously broke into applause. (DiCaprio told McCarthy that his inspiration for the scene was not Charlie Chaplin or Jerry Lewis, but rather the star of "Drunkest Guy in the World," a hilarious clip he encountered on YouTube.)

McCarthy pointed out that DiCaprio has portrayed a several extremely wealthy Americans from different eras in a number of different films, including The Aviator (2004), Django Unchained (2012) and this year's The Great Gatsby and Wolf. "I've always been fascinated by wealth in America," the actor said. Of the latter two films, he said, "Jordan [Belfort, the protagonist in Wolf] is the antithesis of [Jay] Gatsby... Gatsby's doing it all for love," whereas Belfort was driven far more by materialism and greed.

Hill then came out to present the two men -- who were wearing the same suit and vest that he was -- with their statuettes. He eloquently paid tribute to his "two heroes," noting that Scorsese's GoodFellas, which he saw at the age of nine, had made him want to "dedicate my life to film," and that DiCaprio's performance in What's Eating Gilbert Grape made him want to "dedicate my life not only to being in film, but to being an actor." He then had the audience in stitches as he said, "You know when you're single... and you go out with two friends of yours, and they're this amazing couple, and you leave the dinner and you go, 'Man, I hope I end up in something like that one day'? I thought about that concept, and as an actor I hope to be lucky enough to find that partner in someone else like you two have found in each other."

At a reception after the ceremony, DiCaprio told me that he is enjoying a bit of a break from working at the moment and pretty much just making the rounds on behalf of Wolf. I told him how great I found the "Because It's Awesome" billboard that Paramount put up in Hollywood this week on behalf of the film, and he laughed and said he thought it was fantastic, as well. He wanted to tell Scorsese about it, so I pulled it up on my phone, which he took over to show Scorsese, who howled with laughter when he saw it. The fact of the matter, though, is that all five of the Scorsese-DiCaprio collaborations have been awesome, and one can only hope that there will be many more to come.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg