Leonardo DiCaprio Interview For Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’
Legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese directs the story of New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). From the American dream to corporate greed, Belfort goes from penny stocks and righteousness to IPOs and a life of corruption in the late 80s. Excess, success and affluence in his early twenties as founder of the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont warranted Belfort the title – “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Money, power, women, drugs and temptations were for the taking, and the threat of authority was irrelevant. For Jordan and his wolf pack, modesty was quickly deemed overrated and more was never enough.
Based on Jordan Belfort’s 1990 best-selling memoir of the same name, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ brings Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio together for their fifth feature collaboration. Alongside DiCaprio, the stellar cast for the film also includes Jonah Hill, Jean Dujardin, Kyle Chandler, Jon Bernthal, Margot Robbie, Jon Favreau, Rob Reiner, Matthew McConaughey and Kenneth Choi. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ opens on December 25th in the US and January 17th in the UK.
What in particular was it about this story that made you want to both produce and lead this film….?
Leonardo DiCaprio: For me, what was so refreshing about the way Jordan wrote this novel was his absolute, candid honesty about every tumultuous, radical endeavor that he went through. And he held nothing back and pulled no punches. Whenever you’re presented with an opportunity to do a movie you look for that kind of honesty in a lead character and in a storyline. He was unapologetic about his actions and about his lust for wealth and consuming everything around him – and that’s just a great basis for a character and a great story. Also, of course, the fact that he ultimately had to pay the price – that’s really something that makes for a great movie.
About six years ago, I picked up this novel by Jordan Belfort, which was a fascinating read simply because I felt like his biography was a reflection of everything that’s wrong in today’s society. This hedonistic lifestyle, this time period in Wall Street’s history where Jordan basically gave into every carnal indulgence possible and was obsessed with greed and obsessed with himself, essentially. He was so unflinching in his account of this time period and so honest and so unapologetic in this biography, I was compelled to play this character for a long period of time.
And then bringing Martin Scorese on-board to direct, someone you’ve collaborated with a number of times now. How was that process….?
Leonardo DiCaprio: Originally we got the screenplay and I just fell in love with this character and I just really wanted to do this movie – and Scorsese was very much interested in doing the project. We had just finished ‘Shutter Island’ and we were trying to set the film up, but the financing fell through. He went on to go to do another project and was about to do another one after that. I was trying to move on with another director, but I just couldn’t get Scorsese out of my mind for this material because there’s something that we’ve seen in his work where he’s able to bring a life in his characters, and a reality, and a sense of humor to the darker side…. which is so apparent in this movie, and which very very few directors can accomplish. So I couldn’t get him doing this specific material out of my mind. Terence Winter’s script had so much humor in it, and I remember Scorsese telling me that in a lot of ways ‘Goodfellas’ is almost a dark comedy, and that was his original intent with that film.
This really lent itself to that style of filmmaking, so I re-approached him and was like, “Look, we have these great partners in Red Granite, who are not only financiers but collaborators, and essentially they want to give us free rein to explore that dark side and not do a sort of G-Rated version of this movie. And they want to give us the budget to show the epic expanse of this world in the 90s in America. This is one of those rare times in our careers where we’re going to be able to do what we want, and I encourage you to try to take another shot at looking at this.” And so he did and luckily we got to make the movie and it was one of those rare experiences where the artist’s really got free creative control of what they did – and that was the attitude on this movie. I wish more movies were like that (laughs).
And I remember my father taking me to see one of Marty’s movies and saying, ”If you have an opportunity and if you have a green light in this industry, there’s one person you should work with: this man, Martin Scorsese.” I sought out trying to work with him and it culminated in ‘Gangs Of New York,’ and since then, it’s been this great relationship where we’ve trusted each other more and more. We’ve realized we have a lot of similar sensibilities in the types of movies that we want to do and we have an acute understanding for what a scene should be. A lot of times it’s unspoken. More than that, everyday for me, it’s just an honor to be on set with somebody like him. He reinforces in you what making movies is all about – sometimes you forget. Sometimes people say things and you can go off on different diversions, but a couple things he just said to me on this film, it’s always a learning experience.
When you’re doing a film about pretty disreputable people, how do you approach the way in which the audience will go along on their journey….?
Leonardo DiCaprio: That’s always the big question we had going into this movie – whether we feel audiences will be responsive to people committing atrocious acts. And it all depends on not only the subject matter, but in the honesty you depict these people. That was one of the things Scorses said very early on, “Through my experiences making movies, if you’re authentic with the characters and who they are and you don’t betray that, people will go along with anything.” And that stuck with me. It’s true for so many great character studies that we’ve seen in the past: as long as they ring true and they’re authentic, then you’ll go on any journey with them. Some of the greatest characters of all time have been pretty tumultuous, horrible people (laughs).
What surprised us about making this movie was… I think there’s a huge distaste in America and certainly around the world for Wall Street and Corporate America after what’s recently gone on in the economy, and we thought, “Would people be attracted to going on a journey with these characters that are running wild with America’s money in their hand.” What was surprising was the fact that you can’t help but… not necessarily root for these guys, but you want to watch them, you want to watch them disintegrate. You want to watch these guys who have a complete disregard for anyone or anything except for themselves and their own lust for greed. It’s ironic, but it’s incredibly entertaining. It’s one of those rare opportunities where we got to really improvise and do something that we thought was very much of our generation. This was not classic material, it’s not an iconic piece of American literature, this was one man’s account of a very insane time in recent history.
There’s a lot of riotous humor and dark humor in this film, and I understand that ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’ was quite improvisational. What did that element add?
Leonardo DiCaprio: One of the references I had was the film ‘Caligula,’ which was a massive orgy of wealth and drugs – and a group of people who wanted to succeed at any cost. But there have been films in the past like ‘Boiler Room’ or ‘Wall Street’, but this had a sense of humor that I don’t think has ever been put up on film before. And our approach was to be very improvisational, you know? All of us wanted to connect with our characters and do as much research as we possibly could. I got the opportunity to meet with Jordan Belfort himself and hear the first account of a lot of these stories and what went on.
And then there was a massive rehearsal period. There was a lot of improvisation there and we just sort of integrated all of that rehearsal into the filmmaking process. We had reference points of where we wanted scenes to go, but it was incredibly loose. It was like a theatre company of guys coming in and playing around with the material. There would be a lot of sequences that would only be a page long and we’d be improvising for hours and hours. When you’ve got the great actors that I got to act alongside, anything can happen. I think the dark humor will surprise people – but no Scorsese movie will be without that dark side, or the exploration of the depths of who these people are and the unraveling of that.
Our attitude was really, “Let’s pull no punches. Let’s not white wash anything, let’s not try to make these characters “likable”, let’s portray them for what they are.” And that means exploring the unbelievable time that they did have during those few years where they were completely unregulated and had no rules. Ultimately they had to pay the price, and everything comes crashing down in a flaming pile of rubble, but it was about being honest with what they were doing – and they were having an insanely good time.
How was it working with Jonah Hill, especially considering the humor….?
Leonardo DiCaprio: Jonah is a great guy, and he was so incredibly excited to be there, and so chomping at the bit to play this character. One of the earliest conversations I had with him was before he even got cast. He said, “This is the role I’m meant to play. This character speaks to me. I know these people. I’ve seen this world. I’m the guy to play this character.” And when an actor has that kind of passion, you immediately want to let the director know that there’s somebody out there who wants to throw everything into it. Scorsese met him and immediately hired him after that. His attitude was, “Look, I want to be your wing-man in this endeavor, I want to go out there and support you and support Marty and show the essence and true life of these characters and this man in particular.”
It was an amazing experience for all of us. I traditionally have worked on a lot of movies that have a very specific plot structure, and there’s so many different moving parts that ultimately need to happen to get to the ending…. but this was a different experience. So, with somebody like Jonah, for all of us he was such an electrifying force that ignited each scene every single day. I’m very thankful that he did that for us in this film.
The wages of greed and excess are portrayed in a grand, operatic, and very funny style. And, for me, it never feels like the audience is being “preached at”….
Leonardo DiCaprio: Yeah. I don’t think movies are necessarily there to tell a moral tale. They are there to depict people to as close to…. not even as close to reality as they possibly are, but as authentically as you can. To me those are the films that I want to watch and they are the films I think about, they are the films that resonate through the years. Those are the movies that I think can live on for hundreds of years. You have to go into the process not thinking, “I’m going to teach these people a lesson,” I think people really see that transparently… it’s very obvious.
We wanted to create the sense of a modern-day Roman Empire. We wanted the film to have this sense of everyone giving in to every temptation, minus the maidens putting grapes in our mouths (laughs). The story reflects everything that’s wrong with today’s society. This hedonistic lifestyle, this period in Wall Street’s history when Jordan gave in to every carnal indulgence, and we purposely didn’t show Belfort’s victims. We wanted the film to be a hypnotic ride the audience goes on, so they get lost in this world and not see the destruction left in the wake of this giant ship of greed. Marty said, “We’re gonna talk about a serious subject matter, but it won’t be like taking medicine.”
There will be moments in this movie where people will be shocked and appalled by some of the activity, you get wrapped up in this world – and that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to bring people into a time period that was wild and rampant without regulations and without rules. We wanted to envelope you in that world to a point where you almost become desensitized to the debauchery. I think we accomplished that (laughs).
How important was it for you in having Jordan Belfort as a source to talk to….?
Leonardo DiCaprio: He was incredibly beneficial for me as an actor. I’ve been having conversations with him off and on for years. You have to understand, he looks at this as an isolated period in his life and he’s been paying the price ever since. He’s been doing everything he can to repay his debt to everybody he ripped off. He’s since been trying to lead his life in a very respectable way. As a resource, for me, he was incredibly beneficial. He would divulge the most embarrassing things about his life because he looked at it as a part of his past. Even times where we’d start to have conversations where he’d start to veer off into, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t portray…” I’d say, “Look, you wrote this book. You wrote this book about this time period in your life and you did it for a reason, and you did it to talk about what happened behind the doors of Wall Street and the conversations that were going on in an unregulated marketplace. You’re making a statement here, so let’s tell the truth.” As soon as we had that conversation, he was like, “Alright, I’m an open book. I’m gonna tell you not only what happened on that day, I’m gonna tell you something that was ten times worse.”
I think from Marty’s perspective he wanted to have some distance from Jordan just to be able to have a perspective, so I was in a lot of ways the middle man that would bring a lot of information from what I heard from Jordan to Marty and sometimes it would result in, “Can we get this set piece tomorrow? Can we get an animal on set? Jordan said that this was happening,” and our great team over here would provide that. But it was a very free-formed endeavor in that regard.
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