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How Martin Scorsese Pushed ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ Into Mattering: “I had to find a more furious energy”

How Martin Scorsese Pushed 'The Wolf of Wall Street' Into Mattering: "I had to find a more furious energy"

Martin Scorsese is freezing in Manhattan. He and his family just returned home after their boiler broke down. We’re talking on the phone about “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a peculiarly polarizing film that has ignited passionate debate. The question is why. Something about the movie rubs some people the wrong way, makes them uncomfortable. 

As far as Scorsese is concerned, it’s obvious what he was trying to accomplish. He wanted the untrammeled voice of bad boy broker Jordan Belfort’s memoir to come through loud and strong, to shove us inside his maelstrom, fueled by unrestrained drugs, sex, adrenaline and greed. 

Clearly, in the filmmaking, actors Matthew McConaughey and Jonah Hill spurred Scorsese and his producer-star Leonardo DiCaprio, who had developed this material for seven years with hopes that this would be his and mentor/director Scorsese’s fifth collaboration, to jump into a more improvisational mode. “I had to find a more furious energy,” Scorsese explains, in order to take the movie beyond “Goodfellas” and other charming Scorsese criminals past.

Funded at $100 million by foreign sales co. Red Granite and finally released later than planned on December 25 by Paramount, “The Wolf of Wall Street’ was an independent production–but still had to meet studio length requirements (Scorsese and long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker got it down from four to just under three hours) and MPAA rating demands.

With a clutch of Golden Globes, PGA and WGA noms and likely DiCaprio Globe and Critics’ Choice wins coming up, “Wolf of Wall Street” looks good to go in the awards derby.

Anne Thompson: You’ve stirred up past controversy, from “Taxi Driver” to “The Last Temptation of Christ.” There’s been a torrent of responses to your new movie, defending and decrying it with equal passion. It’s touched a nerve.

Martin Scorsese: It should touch a nerve! What would be the point of making a film that exposes corruption in the financial world, in a conventional way? It’s already been done! That only makes us feel, as we watch the movie, anybody with any sense, it makes us feel better. It falls into a false system that’s put in place. It’s akin to euphemism–the language of political correctness, very much in the same way that a person who has problems with alcohol or drugs or whatever in Hollywood now, the process includes now rehab, then they get back out, hopefully don’t get involved again but they do. These would just feed into the system and trivializes the impact of what we’re trying to say. In other words, it anesthetizes, makes us feel like we’re watching news on TV. It doesn’t mean anything, it’s not even entertainment. I’m talking about people with good hearts who are making some well-made pictures that make everybody agree with each other and nothing changes. Nothing is going to change with this either! 

Well, timing seems to play a role here.

I just made the movie. We were supposed to make the movie in 2006 or 2007. What would have happened?

You throw the audience into the action, immerse us is this world, so that we get so involved in enjoying it that we feel guilty and complicit in it?

We are complicit, in the sense that we have let the culture become something where the only thing that has genuine meaning is cash. That’s it. I’m 71. I’ve been around for quite a while now. Yes, I was young in the 50s and the 60s. I just remember, and I come from a Medieval culture, Sicilian Americans on the lower East Side. America was a place where, yes, you had opportunity, there’s no doubt I took advantage of it. My parents took advantage as best they could with no education. 

I gotta tell you the danger is that the assumption now–and young people don’t know any better, they were not alive before– is that America is a place where anybody can get rich. And everything else means nothing. So it’s ruthless that way. It’s always been part of the American story, but not to the extent where people are living below the poverty line, people can’t eat, people are sleeping in the streets, there’s a disaster in 2008. And nobody is culpable. Nothing gets done.

Did Jordan Belfort serve much time?

I think 22 months, he did his time, even if it’s two days in a locked room, that isn’t pleasant. I don’t know the real Jordan Belfort. We took it from the book and other elements and combined stories, it’s about the mindset, of the ability to make money that way, disregarding everything else, the ruthlessness of it. And if you dare to have a touch of real guilt or concern, there are drugs to help that sort of thing.

With this film were you channeling your own past drug years?

My drug years were about a year and a half. My drug years started when I was three years old, with severe asthma. In 1945 when they took out my tonsils and suddenly my lungs went, they almost went when I was two weeks old when I had whooping cough. My lungs have never been any good. The doctors did the best they could at the time. I was always around the medical world, always a patient, in that sense. So to me, it’s just part of my life, I know it.

What we know is that deep inside of every one of us, we have weakness, we are human beings and in the right wrong circumstances we are capable of anything and that’s what the movie is about. I am that person, yes, I am capable of that in the right wrong circumstances during filming, maybe not to that extent. It could be in my world of filmmaking, could be in a love situation, dealing with your family, children. You are not perfect all the time. I am far from perfect, I’ll let you in on that. I am very far from perfect. 

If you have young people around you, it’s a matter of how the message gets to them, really, today everything is shown, put through computers and iPhones and they see everything. What means something, what makes a difference? This is the key, ultimately. Yes, I can channel myself. I don’t need to channel a year or two of playing, experimenting with drugs and stuff, to make this movie. I don’t have to do that. It’s about channeling anything in me. If people feel that’s wrong, that’s the nature of the beast.

You had periods of depression over your relationship with the film industry? 

It was ’76 to ’78. I was pretty close to expiring around that time. I was saved at the last minute, by some accident. 1982 was very bad. After “The Last Temptation of Christ” was canceled at the end of ’83, that was another very difficult period. I sort of came back into form in a way by making “The Color of Money” and “After Hours,” those two pictures, and then eventually I made “The Last Temptation of Christ” and I felt at least that I had finished something I had tried to do. The years ’78 to ’82 and ’88 were very bad low points of depression or quite honestly indulgent behavior that then becomes depression. That’s my problem. That was ’76 to ’78. ’82 was really the worst. 

You were shaping “Boardwalk Empire” writer Terence Winter’s script, which doesn’t follow the standard conventions of narrative storytelling, and allowing more improvisation than usual during filming, and then had a prolonged editing period. That made finishing the film more difficult?

Why make it otherwise? There’s not enough money in the world to get bored doing your own work. It’s a big challenge to tell the story in a different way, especially when there were similarities to things I did in the past. I had to find a more furious energy that reflects the rapaciousness of the mind set.

Terry, myself and Leo worked on it and then we did a lot of work in rehearsals with the actors — about three or four weeks on and off on certain key scenes. That was done with Jonah, Leo and also with all the actors playing the brokers.

Over the years, you keep getting involved in movies that are too long –by somebody’s else’s measure. 

The system makes you think that anything over two hours or 1:45 is too long. I get to the point at 71, if I want to see a film, I do check the length. I have to know what I’m in for. It’s an investment of my time. If you’re younger you’ve got the time. If you’re serious about cinema, sit the 3 or 4 to 5 hours. Very few people are serious about cinema now. As Paul Schrader pointed out to me a couple years ago, I come from a time when we took cinema seriously.

Do you have more freedom working in cable TV now, like “Boardwalk Empire”? On this film you were free, it was like an independent movie. But you still struggled with the MPAA.

HBO is very free. It’s an independent film, no doubt about that. I’ve worked with the MPAA since 1973 with “Mean Streets,” every picture I made, a few became controversial, every one I made was within the structure of the American film industry, and that includes the MPAA. I have no problem with it, at times it was difficult, I had more problems with it back in the 70s, dealing with it. The actual process. 

You were not happy on this film that you had to fight with the MPAA?

I think what I was not happy about was that I had to do the work, because I was under such a schedule. I got confused at one point. I didn’t know whether I was cutting for my agreement with the MPAA or the scene, I got confused and frustrated, we really were under pressure. Either way it was difficult but we did it, there was no problem with what we trimmed.

You didn’t lose any set pieces, you said. What are your favorites? Did McConaughey get cut?

The scenes with the actors. With Leo and McConaughey. Nothing got cut of Matthew, no way. In trimming you lose a line here or there. It was the first week of shooting. By doing that scene Matthew opened up the whole movie, the atmosphere changed, it was fantastic what he did. The scene with Leo and Jonah in the bar when he asks, “did he marry his cousin,” that opened things up for me. The scene when Margot [Robbie] is waking up her husband with water I enjoyed enormously when we did it. We didn’t have to rehearse, we read it once before shooting, then I said, “Let’s get in there and do it when we get to it.”

The two big speeches we saved until the end of shooting with Leo. At that point, the extras, the bit players, the character parts, they were all so well developed, everyone was working so well together, that it was a joy. The big sequence with the quaalude scene we got into in a good way. 

Hilarious. Jonah told me he and Leo choreographed that scene. The bit with Leo getting to the car was unforeseen?

What was unforeseen, I knew he had to crawl to the car, the problem was the Lamborghini. The door opens up, I had forgotten that, he couldn’t reach it with his hands. “Shall I try my foot?” I said, “Sure.” As I was watching him I could see that the body language was like Jacques Tati or Jerry Lewis, perfect. That was two takes. We were out of there that night. That was amazing. 

Check out: THR’s “Wolf of Wall Street” round table, with Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill and Terence Winter, is here. Our review of “Wolf” is here; our dissection of why reviewers have been piling on negative critical reaction to the film is here. New Yorker critic Richard Brody’s explanation, here. Our TOH! ranking of Scorsese’s dozen best films is here.

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