Leonardo DiCaprio was on hand last night in New York to help launch a two-day film retrospective celebrating his collaborations with Martin Scorsese at the legendary Ziegfeld Theater. After a short clip reel spotlighting pinnacle moments in the five films they've made together (to the tune of "I Got Mine" by The Black Keys), a panel discussion was held prior to a screening of "The Wolf of Wall Street."
Kent Jones of the New York Film Society at Lincoln Center moderated the 20-minute discussion between DiCaprio, Scorsese's longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and "Wolf" writer Terrence Winter.
"We have a trust level together that has grown throughout the years" said DiCaprio of Scorsese. When asked if he'd ever envisioned "going so far together" with the iconic director, he replied that "it was beyond my wildest dreams." He continued to express his reverence for the filmmaker. "Sometimes I go off on tangents, and I want to be a little overt, to have somebody reel you back in and go, 'No kid, let's do less here, and this is where we do more… I've grown so tremendously as actor because I just got to be in those moments with him where he gives me the right guidance. Cinema is in his very DNA. When telling a story, he describes it in shots... It's hard for me to articulate or quite put into words everything that I've learned from him."
The bulk of the Q&A centered on "The Wolf of Wall Street," touching on Winter's challenges and goals in telling the story of Jordan Belfort, Schoonmaker's reaction to the humor and impromptu scenes, and DiCaprio's perspective on the piece while "pushing it to the extremes."
"I didn't want to judge Jordan – I wanted to tell his story" said Winter. "The biggest challenge was definitely finding the film line within the book. If we made the whole thing a movie, we'd have had something 18 hours long."
"You have the film without the downfall, which is really an accomplishment," led Jones.
"Yeah. I think he's bigger now than he was back then."
DiCaprio also commented on taking the true story to the screen. "The characterization of the people in this movie really becomes the narrative here – plot becomes irrelevant."
"Writers love hearing that," added Winter. He went on to agree: "It does start with the characters… get into them, tie enough of them together and you will find the plot."
All three had plenty to say about the improvisation in the shots, which ultimately influenced the film's course. Winter said, "You find great stuff in here that wasn't there at first." Schoonmaker added that sometimes, "you could hear Marty laughing in the background on the dailies," referring to the scene where the FBI boards Jordan's yacht. "I've never seen a group of actors work together so beautifully… they took on these, well, dubious roles and really made the most of them… I can't believe some of the things that Leo did!"
The three of them also discussed how DiCaprio came up with the idea to combine two pivotal scenes into one sequence (the mayhem of Jordan driving home, combined with the comically gnarly occurrence of Jonah Hill choking on turkey). "There was some improv… there was good energy in that scene, (and) we kept it going."
"Marty infused all the actors with this idea that we were in a modern Roman Empire," said DiCaprio, "hedonistic to the utter extremes… It's not like we were taking on a precious American Literary novel with this. We pushed the envelope."
When Jones commented that it may not be a precious piece of American literature but it was a great American theme, that they had "created an epic out of it," Dicaprio wrapped up the discussion.
"It's been an interesting process for me to be a part of a film that had an initial reaction that was controversial… So, to be able to talk about it and change the dialogue, to get the press to understand this: We're not glorifying this world, we're doing this as a reaction to the chaos that we see around us. This attitude is out there, it's in our culture, it's a dark part of who we are. And he's the type of filmmaker who's not gonna spoon-feed to an audience what to think, or what to feel. He's gonna show these people in a very authentic way. And that culminates with the way the film ends. Some of these people don't get punished properly, he didn't necessarily cut away to the victims. That's the magic of filmmaking and why he's such a brilliant filmmaker; he doesn't judge his characters. He says ‘I'm gonna put you the audience into the mindset of these people, and we will create a dialogue from that.'"
The retrospective event concludes today with screenings of "Shutter Island" and "Gangs of New York."