Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street — a rollicking three-hour black comedy based on the true story of debaucherous con man Jordan Belfort –– has become one of the most controversial films in the director’s 50-year career. The filmmaker, who has nothing left to prove after directing 23 narrative features including such classics as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, sees Belfort as part of a long tradition of the American “confidence man” who “takes your trust, takes your confidence and betrays you.” While critics and moviegoers argue over whether Scorsese is celebrating Belfort or exposing him, the director himself says of Belfort’s crimes, “This is something that’s not going to go away if you don’t talk about it.”
Despite — or maybe even because of the controversy, which has attracted passionate defenders to speak up in support of Scorsese and his film — Wolf looks likely to land him his eighth best director Oscar nomination. (He has won only once, for The Departed, seven years ago.) When he and I connected by phone for a half-hour interview a few days ago, it became clear to me that he has no intention of ever slowing down. “There’s not much time left,” he said matter-of-factly. “Now, each one has to count.”
Over the course of our conversation, we covered a wide variety of topics: what makes great movies great; how he picks his projects; why he is so drawn to films about crime (historically of the street variety, but now, with Wolf, white-collar, too); his affinity for voiceovers, which he has employed in a number of films, including Wolf; his fabled collaborations with the actors Robert De Niro (eight films over 22 years) and Leonardo DiCaprio (five films over 11 years); and how he and his career-long film editor Thelma Schoonmaker are approaching the changing landscape of filmmaking.
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What, in your view, are the ingredients of a great movie? Do all great movies share anything in common?
The first thing that comes to mind, I guess, is if it means something to people over a long period of time — people are still interested in experiencing it, not necessarily watching it, but living with it. If it still has something to say, like a great play, or a great novel, or a great painting or a great piece of music. You know, there are instances where people love certain films for 20 years or so and then they’ve seen enough of them, or they’ve read a novel two or three times but switch on to some other author. So does it have a universal appeal? And will it stand the test of time? There’s no way I know that about my films; there’s no way we’ll know, you see? We can tell sometimes with films made about 50 years ago, 60 years ago — some are still art and even younger audiences respond on a basic human level. I’m not talking about humanistic; I’m talking about something else, deeper and stronger.
How do you pick your projects? And do you only want to make films that are built to say something that will stand the test of time?
Years ago, I was able to have time to experiment with making certain kinds of films, but it always started out — Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and particularly, for me, Taxi Driver were pictures that I had to make. The Last Temptation, Gangs of New York, Departed were pictures I really, really felt I had to make. And I think that’s the test of whether I find whatever limited truth is there — limited because of who I am, limited in my knowledge of life, my personality, my intelligence or lack thereof, the sources I look to for inspiration, whether it’s literature or cinema or music. Sometimes it depends on how deep the water is you’re fishing in for sources, you know, for inspiration? [laughs] So you’re limited — I’m limited, I should say — and all I can do is trust my interest in the subject, trust my passion for being there and going through this process, which, as you get older, is, for me — I can’t speak for everyone — very, very– Well, how should I put it? “Difficult” is not the word; it’s a more arduous process on all levels. When you’re younger, it’s a bit different; you can try one film or another. Now, each one has to count. They all count, but — how should I put it? Now there’s not much time left, so you have to really feel strongly about the subject matter. That’s the only way I can gauge it. I have no idea anymore if anybody will remember anything.
You said in another interview that it has sometimes taken you years to decide to pursue a project, including The Wolf of Wall Street. Why is that?
Yes. Well, [with Wolf] I had to ask myself what could I bring to it? What could I bring to it that I hadn’t brought to other pictures that I’d made? Stylistically, it’s similar to other films I made, yet I wanted to expand the style and it was a challenge. Can I extend that style? Can I go further with it? Can I stay interested in it, in terms of the making of the film? That’s what I meant. Is there a passion for making the picture? Because there’s nothing worse than being someplace you don’t want to be, or being with people who don’t want to be there — or yourself being with people who want to be there but you don’t want to be there. I hate to say it, I’m sorry to say, but not the greatest amount of money in the world — unless there’s problems in health or whatever, and maybe, you know, financial problems, but even that– It’s very, very hard to be in a place where you just don’t want to be, you know? There’s just too much to take on. And other projects take 20 years sometimes because I have to come around to them. Yes, I’ve always been interested, tried to find ways to do it, wasn’t satisfied, and finally– In the case of The [Last] Temptation of Christ or in the case of trying to make this film Silence that’s coming up, it’s taken many years; Silence needed 20 years just to even think about.
This next question obviously doesn’t apply to all of your movies — Hugo and others certainly being notable exceptions — but, particularly during the early years of your career, a lot of people harped on the fact that crime was a recurring theme in your films. With Wolf, you’re focused on a different sort of crime — white collar rather than street — but it’s crime nonetheless. So I wonder, if you were to psychoanalyze yourself, in a way, why is crime a subject that you find yourself coming back to?
Well, I don’t know. I would have loved to have been a director in the studio system here in Hollywood in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s [when many directors were assigned to a wide array of projects]. I know that I come from mid-20th century America, urban, specifically downtown New York, specifically an Italian-American area, Roman Catholic — that’s who I am. And a part of what I know is there’s a decency to people who tried to make a living in the kind of world that was around us and also the Skid Row area of the Bowery; it impressed me. I also know that there were a lot of good people whom I saw do some not very good things because they had no choice. You can say, “Well, they have a choice. They can have an education–” They couldn’t. Simple. It’s easy for us to talk, easy for people these days to look back and say, “This could happen–” “Maybe change that person’s circumstances–,” “Do the social circumstances or the raising of the person contribute to the crime or is the person wired that way?” You know, that question is still being discussed. But, ultimately, it’s about the values of where I came from, which were family values — it’s true — and religious values. It’s a complicated subject. People were not part of the American lifestyle, you know? And so it’s not an easy one to answer. I’m interested in that world because I grew up in it. I’m also interested in style. When I eventually became interested in some theater, style on stage — I can’t do it, but I like watching it; I’m interested in style with cinema; all kinds of music; literature. And I try the best I can. But, the subject matter that I keep going back to is about who we are as human beings. I knew some really nice people and I saw them suffer. So it’s easy to classify. People want to classify and say, “OK, this is a gangster film.” “This is a Western.” “This is a –” You know? It’s easy to classify and it makes people feel comfortable, but it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t really matter. The pictures are made and that’s what happened. As far as crime is concerned, there are different phases of it. Why should we be browbeaten by the establishment, in a way, and made to feel the inferiority of where we came from and who we are? In many cases — not all — the pursuit of reinventing yourself in America is just something that “a confidence man” [like Wolf‘s Jordan Belfort] embraces. A confidence man takes your trust, takes your confidence and betrays you. And this is on all levels, whether it’s low-level street crime, a white-collar crime and even a crime in religious organizations. This is something that’s not going to go away if you don’t talk about it. Your children are not going to stay clear of it. And God forbid that your kids do! Look, it’s out there. It’s about human nature. Certain social structures facilitate it and some don’t. Now looking at this unrestrained let me make this picture, you know? It’s different from, I don’t know, Boardwalk Empire; when you’re dealing with the people in Boardwalk Empire, you know what you’re into, you know? That’s that situation. But I think of the younger people. I think of the fact that yes, it’s funny — but the devil comes with a smile, you know? That’s the idea, you know? The confidence man’s got the charm! [laughs]
Some of your finest films, from Goodfellas to Wolf, have employed voiceovers very effectively. And yet, as a storytelling device, voiceovers are discouraged by a lot of people who claim to be able to teach others how to write good screenplays …
Well, yeah, they’re right. If you’re gonna use a voiceover to tell people what’s missing, that’s cheating in a way, right? But if you use it for other reasons — if you use it for commenting [as in Wolf], “Brad died at the same age as Mozart. I don’t know why that came to mind. It doesn’t matter.” — I mean, that’s interesting. It’s about character. It’s about speaking. It takes you into the story. Homer was a narrator; he narrated his story The Iliad and The Odyssey. That was narration. Why can’t we narrate, you know? I guess it’s a way of exposition. That’s kinda the key, in a way. Look, I’ve done it, you know? We’ve done it at times. And sometimes, by the way, you can do the exposition and just get away with it; it’s extraordinary just being able to do it, flat, straight out, move on, because there are more important things than specific exposition. And then there are some kinds of exposition that you get stuck in — trying to explain the beginning of the Civil War. You know, in the old days we would see a crawl come up at the beginning of a film: “It was 1758–” And then you know you’re lost already. [laughs] We’re so simpleminded that it’s a disaster, you know? So maybe it’s better to avoid it completely and just try to find other ways. But the voiceover work that I like is voiceover about character. He could be listing everything he owns and cares about, but it’s more about him — him or her, you know? It’s not about what an IPO is, for God’s sakes. [In Wolf the character of Belfort starts to explain what an IPO is and then acknowledges that the audience isn’t following what he’s saying.]
I have read that Robert De Niro introduced you to — or first made you aware of — Leonardo DiCaprio. What was it that clicked so much for you with De Niro, and then with DiCaprio, that resulted in many of your best films coming in collaboration with them?
Well, it’s complicated to explain briefly. I don’t know if you can explain it. As I said, I wasn’t a trained director. I never took any acting courses or directorial courses. The NYU Film School was a very, very different place at the time. You didn’t go there to study film. You went there to be able to be in a creative atmosphere — in 1963, ’65, ’66, for me, anyway — to be around people to say, “Let’s do something. Let’s try something.” I already worked on the basis of friendship and became good friends with Harvey Keitel, became good friends with Brian De Palma, who then introduced me to Robert De Niro, whom I actually knew even earlier because he used to, to quote the old phrase, “hang out” downtown on the Lower East Side. I’d forgotten that. He was about 15 or 16. We weren’t in the same group, but– So he already knows where I come from, who I am, what I do, basically. He’s the only one, the only one who really knows where I come from, and then the development of me all through those years. But it was always based on friendship. He is a generous, good man who did not take advantage of his power with me. He always gave me the trust and I had the trust in him. If there were disagreements, we worked it out. But it was, finally, what I wanted to say in a film, as long as I gave the guidance and the love. It became like family. It was like a family thing, and that’s something very special. But there’s no process. It’s really friends working together in good ways and in difficult ways. Like any major collaboration, it’s tricky at times and it’s all about trust and confidence in each other. And I didn’t experience that again until– I hadn’t had the experience of working with one actor again for a number of times until Leo. I worked with Daniel Day[-Lewis] twice. It was a terrific experience. He’s wonderful — wonderful sounds facile, but I really enjoyed working with him. It really was just DiCaprio. You know, I’m 30 years older but I find in him the same instincts, the same range, in a way, the same desire to risk, to take chances and to go to places that other people are not interested in going to, or are afraid to go to — or are not afraid, but they just don’t do it; it isn’t what they do, so don’t expect them to do something that they didn’t sign on to do, so to speak, or that doesn’t represent who they are or who they want to be in the public eye. And so Leo has given me a few projects, I’ve given him a few projects and, again, with Leo, there’s that trust. And, by the way, this stroke of trust is not something where you say, “Okay, I trust you,” and you go. It’s every day — we work at that every day. If something goes over or something happens you think, “Well, you know, let the test begin! Do you want to go this way or that way?” And so it’s a constant testing of it. I feel very good about the results, whether they’re good or bad films, or films that are considered good or bad or the work is considered mediocre as opposed to others. I don’t know that. I really don’t know anymore. I just know that I got through the process and I feel content with it.
Do you find that you relate with and interact with DiCaprio in the same way that you did with De Niro? You and De Niro might have been brothers, but Leo could conceivably be a son …
That’s the difference. (Laughs.) Yeah, I have little girls, so it’s — three girls, you know? You know, his father and I are the same age — and his father’s really amazing. He’s taught him so much over the years — just an extraordinary cultural influence on him and I think that’s really the key here. You know, he’ll be talking about Andrei Tarkovsky or the Mills brothers — you know, that’s just two things that come up — or mentioning somebody else. I’ll say, “Well, I want you to take a look at this,” or “Listen to this piece of music” or “Read this book.” And there’s an enthusiasm — really more than enthusiasm, a curiosity. You’ve got to stay curious in life about everything. And he’s got it. We can talk. I mean, he’s interesting. If a person’s curious, it’s interesting — it’s more than interesting. It’s their enthusiasm which inspires you to try things. How should I put it? Sometimes you want to be alone and your friends are knocking on the door saying, “Come on out! Let’s go! We have something to show you!” “No, I don’t want to go out!” (Laughs.) But they keep doing it and finally they drag you out, and you thank God they did, you know? Meaning sometimes there’s time for reflection and sometimes there’s time for action. Simple as that.
With Hugo, you looked back at where movies came from. As you look ahead — as a guy with 23 feature-length narrative films under his belt, the most recent of which people cannot believe was made by a 71-year-old man — do you have any sense of where they are going? And is it a place you want to go to with them?
Well, yeah, I think I do. You know, we can’t keep thinking in a limited way about what cinema is. We still don’t know what cinema is. Maybe cinema could only really apply to the past or the first 100 years, when people actually went to a theater to see a film, you see? Now images are everywhere. The cinema itself changes. There are all kinds of cinema. I prefer the American cinema of more modest means, you know? Some of the wonderful filmmakers working — Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas, Alexander Payne, the Coen brothers, Benh Zeitlin, there are many young people,[Richard] Linklater, James Gray — it’d be wonderful if they could get more support from the industry and not be marginalized in any way, you know, as opposed to the bigger blockbuster films. It splits the sense of what cinema is. But maybe cinema’s becoming many things now. And it’s very exciting. Yes, I’m sad to see celluloid go, there’s no doubt. But, you know, nitrate went, by the way, in 1971. If you ever saw a nitrate print of a silent film and then saw an acetate print, you’d see a big difference, but nobody remembers anymore. The acetate print is what we have. Maybe. Now it’s digital. But maybe you could approximate that nitrate effect? So, what I’m saying, I guess, is what [George] Lucas said years ago, which is that there’s new technology, and what will happen will happen and we have to learn how to use the new technology. It’s really an exciting time. I mean, look, I tried with 3D. I would like to do every picture in 3D. But, you know?
It’s so interesting. Thelma [Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s film editor for the last 50 years], said the same thing. I recently had the opportunity to interview her because we did this thing in THR about women film editors, and I just find it so interesting that both of you are so open to new things, when so many others are resistant to change.
I understand. I understand because it’s a love of the experience. You’re afraid the experience is gonna be taken away. And yeah, to a certain extent, it will. But you know what? It’s gonna become a different experience, that’s all. That’s all. I mean, yes, when I show a film to my daughter, I prefer 35 millimeter as much as possible these days — some DCP [films supplied to a theater as a digital file called a “digital cinema package] — but in a small theater that is dark where there’s nothing else to distract them, you know? And so, they experience — whether it’s Peter Sellers in The Party, Blake Edwards‘, or it’s Rossellini’s Open City. You know? And so that experience will be there. But there will be other experiences. They’re becoming different, don’t you think? I mean, a big IMAX thing is a different experience.
I wonder what the old masters would’ve made of it, you know?
Oh, they would’ve used it! They would’ve used it — a lot of them would have. I mean, crazy things could have happened! You have no idea. Maybe, I don’t know, Robert Bresson would have used a giant screen! Cecil B. DeMille would have used 3D! Who knows what could have happened?