The veteran director talks with TheWrap about fighting the ratings board and seeing uncomfortable echoes of Hitler in his black comedy of excess
Martin Scorsese is no stranger to onscreen violence, drugs and sex, and he’s certainly made movies that have divided audiences in the past. But even Scorsese has seldom gone as far as he does with “The Wolf of Wall Street,” his wild three-hour chronicle of the excesses of stockbroker Jordan Belfort and his gang of shady operators who made millions, cheated thousands of investors and partied their way to an FBI bust in the 1990s.
At an official Academy screening over the weekend, Scorsese was approached by a member who told him “Shame on you!” for the nonstop debauchery of his film. But it could hardly have come as a shock that “Wolf” offended some sensibilities — as the filmmaker told TheWrap, the film is definitely “not for everyone’s taste.”
One of the more fascinating things about the over-the-top black comedy is the sheer energy with which the 71-year-old director approached his 34rd film – and in a conversation about the film late last week, Scorsese got positively giddy as he described some of his favorite scenes in the movie. He also showed off a typically eclectic set of reference points, drawing comparisons to everything from Jerry Lewis to Adolph Hitler.
People have been comparing this film to “GoodFellas” and “Casino.” Do you see the connection?
Everybody is saying it, so what can I do? These are comparisons. Yeah, it’s another look at America, another look at who we are. And a look at human nature – it doesn't happen just in this country.
I was hoping that I could develop the style, and push it further. I don't know if we were able to. Maybe we have, maybe we haven’t. But basically it seems like part of a trilogy, in a way.
The first time we talked, many years ago, you told me that the thing you say to actors most often is “do less.” It strikes me that this isn’t the kind of movie where you’d say that.
No. In this case, it was “Do more.” It’s a matter of getting the scene, the behavior, to feel convincing to me at that moment. And it can change depending on the scene that precedes and the scene that follows. Or three scenes before and three scenes after.
In this case I decided to just go big anytime I wanted. You’re in the mindset with these characters, the way they think and behave and what their minds and souls tell them to do. And so we had to have that confidence to push.
Was that extreme approach something you hit upon early on?
Yeah. And once I settled on it, I knew we had to do it. I told [editor] Thelma [Schoonmaker], “I want it ferocious. I want an attack.” That doesn’t mean the attack can’t have humor, but it’s a dark humor.
If this movie doesn’t have humor, you’re in trouble.
But the thing is, these things do have humor. You don’t have to put it in there. I mean, if you’re going to have a little fun for your company, you want to get them riled up and you want to show your appreciation, and you actually do organize throwing little people against a target – well, that doesn’t just happen off the street. People get together and have a meeting about it. You have to discuss this, OK? So there’s the humor right there.
But there’s also shaving the head of the woman, which is extremely cruel, which brings to mind the humiliation of the collaborators in World War II. There’s the cries of “Wolfie!” – and I hate to say it, but “Wolfie” was Hitler’s nickname. Watch those rallying scenes. [Jordan Belfort] gave them something to rally around, to be like him. “Wolfie!” made me extremely uncomfortable when they started yelling that in the scenes. No one mentioned it, but I sensed it. It's mind control.
You haven’t had a movie with this much improvisation it in lately, have you?
Not for a long time, no. I think there was some in “The Departed.” But the last time we did improvs this way – “Casino,” maybe, in ’95. “The Aviator,” there were no improvs. “Shutter Island” certainly not, because the story had to be very precise. And “Hugo” certainly not.
Here it was improvising based on what Terry [Winter] wrote, and based on what Terry and Leo and I did in pre-production.
When Leo’s character has taken powerful Quaaludes, can’t stand up and has to get to his car, you just hold on one wide shot as he makes the long, agonizing crawl.
That’s all it needs. That really is all it needs. I don't like to shoot at night on location. It’s cold sometimes, and I’m not a very good person on location. But one of the most enjoyable shots we did is when he’s at the top of the steps and you see him on the left of frame, and the car on the right, and this big space in 2:35 aspect ratio, and he has to get there. [laughs]
Yes, we took some shots with the camera twirling and stuff, but I said, “I don’t need it.” Once Leo gets to the bottom of the steps, I said, “All we have to do is watch him slowly crawl over to the car, and then get in the car.” Leo has the physical flexibility of Jacques Tati or Jerry Lewis – he looked like Jerry Lewis, crawling into that car and leaving his feet dangling out.
The first cut was reportedly more than four hours long, and you had to rush to get it under three. Were you confident you could get it down in time?
Yeah, well, I’ve been doing it for years. It’s not a matter of getting it down – it’s, can you shape it? If it’s lengthy, will it feel lengthy? That’s the thing.
People automatically come in and say, “Oh, you should cut … ” And they give you a figure. Don’t give me the figure, because the figure panics me a bit. I think I can get there – and we finally got to that figure, by the way, or a figure in that area.
How did you do it?
I started kicking the film again. When I was shooting it, I didn't want to leave any doubts, so I shot a lot of stuff. But when I was watching it, I was thinking, oh, now we have to go through this scene to get to the other scene. Get rid of this, I’m not interested. The convention of the first wife – that’s a whole other story. It’s all said in one line. After she beats him up in the street, he says, “I felt terrible.” You hold, hold, hold, and then he says, “Three days later I moved Naomi into the apartment.” That’s all you need to know.
Were there times when you wondered if you could go as far as you did with the sex and drug use, because of the ratings board?
No. I felt it would be OK. I felt that the ratings board would let me know. All my life I’ve worked with the ratings board. It isn’t something new. 1973, “Mean Streets.” We negotiated. It turned out OK.
And by the way, it’s not an easy process with the MPAA. It’s not pleasant at times. But in this case, the reason it was frustrating is that I had to finish the film, and I was late. I was trying to make sure I had it down to the tightest length I could, and at the same time still being told, “Can you soften this, can you change this?” That’s where you start to get agitated. But you work it out.
Have you talked to Jordan Belfort about what he thinks of the movie?
I saw him the opening night, but I never really dealt with Jordan. Same thing with Henry Hill in “GoodFellas.” Never met him. Jordan I met after the film was shot. I saw him the opening night, and he was in good form. He seemed to be very pleased, but we never got to speak about it.
And don’t forget, the movie is an impression. It’s not Jordan Belfort himself. The man is doing what he can right now in his life, he’s got legal issues he’s dealing with, and I can’t judge what he’s doing. But he seemed to be a perfect vehicle for this story.