Editor’s note: The video referenced in this post is no longer available online.
If you were among the millions who caught The Wolf of Wall Street this week, perhaps you left the film with a few questions. Among them: How did such a project come to the attention of Martin Scorsese — or, for that matter, Jonah Hill? What was the inspiration for Matthew McConaughey‘s chest-thumping scene with Leonardo DiCaprio? And did Margot Robbie show even more skin than appears in the finished cut, before Thelma Schoonmaker edited it down from four hours to three?
Answers to those questions, along with a wealth of other fun facts about the making and meaning of the controversial blockbuster, can be gleaned from watching the video at the top of this post or reading highlights of it below. (And, spoiler alert: Do not do either until you’ve seen the film.)
The session was recorded last week at a Q&A that I moderated with a large contingent of the people who worked closely with director-producer Scorsese and star-producer DiCaprio on the production: supporting actors Hill and McConaughey, supporting actresses Robbie and Cristin Milioti, screenwriter Terence Winter, producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff, executive producer Irwin Winkler and film editor Schoonmaker. It took place during a luncheon that Paramount hosted for its big end-of-the-year Oscar contender at New York’s Four Seasons hotel, the site of a key scene in the film.
The project got off the ground, according to Winter, when Alexandra Milchan of EMJAG Productions sent him the galleys of Jordan Belfort‘s autobiography, The Wolf of Wall Street, in 2007, which he read in one sitting. “I could not believe the person who wrote the book was still alive by the end of the book,” he told me. They took it to DiCaprio, who had the same reaction and brought it to the attention of Scorsese (who serves as an executive producer on Winter’s HBO television show Boardwalk Empire). “And we were off to the races.”
Koskoff, who has produced five Scorsese films over the past decade (including the best picture Oscar-winner The Departed), said, “Marty responded to it immediately, and, interestingly enough, always saw it as a black comedy.” After “a couple of false starts” in terms of securing financing without stipulations, they ended up partnering with Red Granite Pictures, which let Scorsese make the film he wanted to make. Winkler, who has received four best picture Oscar nominations, one of which resulted in a win (Rocky) and two of which were for Scorsese classics (Raging Bull and GoodFellas), said he came on board after most of the pieces were already in place. But he, like Scorsese, felt that it had real comedic possibilities.
One of the big challenges facing the creative team, Winter said, was figuring out how to get the audience to feel invested in the story of a protagonist who is doing such reprehensible things. His solution: “It was a really conscious decision to let Jordan tell you his story as if he was selling you his story. It was very much a choice. You never see the people on the other end of that telephone and, basically, by default, you become those people. By the end of the movie, you’re being sold this story with a guy you’re laughing with and admiring in some twisted way. And then, when it turns really dark, you realize, “Oh, my God, I’ve been had just like a lot of the people who were on the other end of those phones!”
For any actor, getting a call from Scorsese to audition for one of his films is a big deal. For Hill, it was just the latest in a string of milestone moments within the last three years that had already taken him from Judd Apatow‘s frat-pack comedies to the Oscars as a best supporting actor nominee for Bennett Miller‘s Moneyball. “These last three years have been hell,” he joked.
More seriously, he continued, “What Moneyball and an Academy Award nomination did bring was an opportunity to be in a conversation with these people [referring to his fellow panelists]. It led me to have Martin Scorsese know that I’m a person who exists in the world, you know? It’s been incredibly amazing, and I’ve just never been so proud to be a part of something.”
Hill said that the scene in the film that challenged him the most was the one in which he had to communicate, with almost no dialogue, his sense of dismay at DiCaprio’s character upon being made aware, via a note that was covertly slipped to him, that the other man was wearing a wire in order to entrap his former “family” of business associates.
Robbie, meanwhile, erased any notion that she is actually from Bay Ridge, as her accent in the film would suggest, when she spoke in her natural Australian accent. How did she come to the project? “I did an audition hoping that Ellen Lewis would watch it — she cast the film — and I was gonna be ecstatic if she saw even half my tape. And she did — and she loved it and sent it straight to Marty. … Everything went rather quickly after that.”
She flew to New York to audition in front of Scorsese and with DiCaprio — they did the first date scene, the nursery scene and the water-throwing scene (accidentally hitting DiCaprio in the face in one take). The result, she says, was that she got the part, and “I can now call him ‘Marty!’ ”
As for the making of the film itself, she said that her most difficult scene was the one that unfolded after her character asked DiCaprio’s for a divorce. Much of it was mapped out only the night before it was shot, meaning there was no backup couch, garage door or windshield available if they blew the takes in which they destroyed each of those things. “We had one chance at it, so it was a bit of pressure to know that you had to get it right the first time,” she admitted, “but that also creates the magic in it because the energy’s there.” (She said that when she came around the corner during the take that appears in the film and saw the destroyed couch’s feathers strewn everywhere, “For a second it just caught me off-guard, and I started laughing. Then I was laughing but crying ’cause it just hit me. Then it turned into this laughter-crying, so I thought I should just be like, ‘Look at you!’ [at DiCaprio] and started saying those things. It was all very bizarre, and it felt a little crazy, but it ended up working, I think.”
While Winter provided a first-rate script, there was also plenty of improvisation on the set. “We did play a lot with it,” said McConaughey, whose relatively brief appearance in the film is highlighted by a chest-thumping routine that he performs in front of DiCaprio’s character. Where did that come from? “That’s something I personally do to relax before a scene,” he revealed. “I was stepping into a Martin Scorsese film, I had a scene with Leonardo, and the machine was already rolling and going well when I stepped in, so I was needing to relax, plus the character needed to relax there. And so I would do that before every take and then we would start the scene.
“Well, we had five takes down, I was happy, Martin was happy, and we said, ‘OK, we’ll move on.’ And it was Leonardo’s idea! He held up his hand, and he said, ‘Hang on a second, Marty.’ He goes [to me], ‘Hey, what’s that thing you do?’ This thing [and imitates the chest-thumping].’ And I told him, ‘I’m doing it to relax, get my voice down and everything.’ And he goes, ‘Do that in the scene!’ And so the next take we put it in the scene, and that became sort of a bookend baseline for the mantra that [McConaughey’s character] Mark Hanna was giving to him.” McConaughey never imagined that it would become a hallmark of the film — “And then I go to the movie last night to see it for the first time and saw that it resurfaced!” He added, “I’m excited to be a part of a nice piece of film history.”
Milioti, meanwhile, was shooting her Wolf scenes by day and then starring in the Broadway show Once by night. She cracked, “It made me want to get in a time machine and go back to middle school and find the 12-year-old unibrowed Cristin and say, ‘Shit’s pretty rough right now, but soon this is gonna be your day!’ ” She also noted that while shooting the scene in which her character catches DiCaprio’s character cheating with Robbie’s character, where she takes a real swing at him, she actually unintentionally fell down, as is captured in the film.
As for Schoonmaker, who has now worked with Scorsese for 50 years, the legendary 73-year-old editor had never had to turn around a film so fast, since Paramount wanted it in theaters before the end of the year. Further complicating matters, the original cut was four hours and an hour had to be cut off of that. “We did have to finish it quickly,” she said. “Fortunately we didn’t have to drop whole scenes … we were able to shave the movie down.”
When she noted that there had been a middle part of the risque scene in which Robbie’s character tortures DiCaprio’s “for having been a bad boy,” Robbie jumped in: “My mom is happy that you cut parts of that scene out! Thank you for cutting that!” But working under tight time constraints didn’t shake the veteran: “We were mixing, cutting, doing the color, timing — all on top of each other — and it actually turned out to be very efficient.” It helped that she found herself laughing so hard at some of the scenes she was editing that her assistants came in to make sure she was all right. “The comedy in this film was such a delight,” she said. “We have had comedy in a lot of our films, but it was a little more subtle. Here it was just full-on.”
She shared that the much-discussed sequence in which DiCaprio’s quaaludes kick in while he’s at the country club and has to get home quickly was one that worried her, because Scorsese shot no coverage for the wide shot in which DiCaprio slithers down the club’s stairs. When Schoonmaker asked him why, he told her it was because he didn’t want any. But, thanks to Scorsese’s direction, DiCaprio’s acting and her editing, it couldn’t play better. She said that, after seeing the finished film, Scorsese himself told her, “That’s my favorite shot in the film.”