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

by Anne Thompson
January 6, 2014 6:27 AM
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Scorsese and DiCaprio

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. 

'The Wolf of Wall Street'

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.

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

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. 

'Wolf of Wall Street'

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. 


  • independent cinema | January 7, 2014 10:04 AMReply

    Support independent cinema! :)

  • Sam Goode | January 6, 2014 9:36 PMReply

    I cannot believe anyone could possibly say a Martin Scorsese film is too long. I am 16 and to me at most they feel like they are 2 hours if anything I wish his films were longer. Although I do have more patience with movies than most people its not like The Wolf of Wall Street is Satantango, he makes high pace movies that are never dull (Okay maybe not The Last Temptation of Christ, but that has the excuse of just being one of the greatest films ever). Also I was not saying that Satantango is a bad in fact its one of my favorites ever, but could you imagine the average american sitting through 20 minutes much less the entire 7 hours.

  • steve barr | January 6, 2014 6:05 PMReply

    I don't understand why no one mentions that twice Robert Deniro was better than Scorsese as a director . Bronx Tale was the movie Goodfellas should have been. He showed the lure of the mob and it's consequences in human terms without resorting to the directorial pyrotechnics that Scorsese has become known for . And unlike Scorsese in The Departed Deniro in The Good Shepherd shows us that there is more to a film about betrayal ,deception , and deceit than an easy bullet in the head . That thereare some things worse than the death of the body , like the death of what makes us human . No matter how "entertaining " some people may think the boring , bloated Wolf of Wall Street is i can only imagine what Deniro would have done with the same material .

  • back | January 7, 2014 5:31 PM

    I think scorsese and de niro are both amazing. Period. By the way, When will they make their movie together? Wasn't pacino supposed to be in it too?

  • Tony | January 6, 2014 3:47 PMReply

    I think Scorsese's total skirting of the question about if the film reflects his own drug experience says a lot... Why skirt the question if all is on the up and up?

  • No tony no | January 7, 2014 5:11 PM

    Hey tony , what's the matter with you?

  • dmso | January 7, 2014 3:30 PM

    Did Marty run over your dog, Tony?

  • Brian | January 6, 2014 4:41 PM

    @Tony: I got the same thing from Scorsese's response. Pretty clear to me he was in denial about his own past history of drug use.

  • MDL | January 6, 2014 4:33 PM

    Tony, the argument you are making is the same tired argument that conservatives made about movies in the 1930's, 1940's, 1950's, 1960's, 1970's etc. In your view the whole wide world is a mess because of movies! There is no more absurd argument to be made than that. As I said, how come YOU are smart enough to misinterpret a movie like WOWS and still make the right choices but everyone else is just too dumb to know the difference? Come on. Also the idea that Scorsese is in on this 'Hollywood propaganda' is a joke. He makes films on his own terms. You also don't understand what propaganda is - because, yes, there is propaganda in Hollywood. But WOWS is not the type of propaganda they make. An just why would Hollywood want us to side with a drug using, creepy, oversexed, Wall Street day trader? Answer: They don't.

  • Tony | January 6, 2014 4:20 PM

    But they DO teach us lessons. 99% of what Hollywood makes nowadays is propaganda. That is something you in your blind defense of Scorsese do not take into account. People ARE taking away a lesson from WoWW and it's the wrong one.

  • MDL | January 6, 2014 4:13 PM

    Why must a film be on the' up and up'? Also, if you read the interview it is pretty clear that Scorsese is not skirting anything. He clearly says that ALL of us have failings. He has made a movie [like many of his movies] in which the main character is not a good, clean hero. He is an anti-hero. What of it? It is not Scorese's job [or any filmmaker's job] to teach us lessons. Their only job is to tell a story. If you don't like the story then so be it. But don't start telling filmmakers what they should or should not do with regards to moral obligations.

  • Brian | January 6, 2014 1:54 PMReply

    GOODFELLAS may have been about awful people but they all got their comeuppance and we got to see their downfall step-by-step. In that case, the system worked. And the culture those characters came out of is a fascinating one, whether we share their values or not. I lived on the outskirts of a neighborhood like the one Henry Hill came out of, so I knew people like that. (A BRONX TALE was about that neighborhood.) Also, Henry Hill aroused a certain amount of sympathy from us (at least in the years after the movie) because of his drunken appearances on Howard Stern and the spectacle of the pathetic figure he'd become. We got to know him--a little.
    Jordan Belfort, on the other hand, got a light sentence after ratting out the associates whom he'd recruited. I don't know anybody like Mr. Belfort, nor do I want to. Nothing fascinating about him, his friends, his milieu or his excessive behavior. I don't want to watch them drink, drug or have sex. I just want to see them get punished for their crimes, not glorified. I have no problem supporting GOODFELLAS because I don't believe it glorified or glamorized its characters. WOLF, on the other hand, seems to revel in its characters' bad behavior without commenting on it, so I have no desire to see it. When I get a chance to see it for free, without contributing a dime to Belfort's coffers, then I'll be able to determine if I was right or wrong.

  • vevo | January 7, 2014 5:14 PM

    I looooove Goodfellas.
    It's a classic.

  • Tony | January 6, 2014 4:10 PM

    More like, how UNLUCKY we are to have Martin Scorsese and his friends looking out for us. You seem to think that movies exist in a void without any political context. It's that exact political context that WoWS severely underestimated. You do not concede that most mainstream entertainment is for people to consume WITHOUT question, and that this movie seeks to play both sides of that, being both a thinking man's critque and a non-thinking man's obscene fantasy.

  • MDL | January 6, 2014 4:05 PM

    Tony, So you're saying viewers might get confused by watching a movie in which the bad character doesn't get his comeuppance? How absurd. Don't you find it ironic that you are never confused about such movies? How lucky we are to have you looking out for the rest of us.

  • Tony | January 6, 2014 3:59 PM

    MDL, you're more than naive if you think films don't aim at subconscious areas of the human mind that DONT register right and wrong. When you're getting a boner off graphic violence, it's pretty hard to take a rational view of the subject. Even moreso when people are being slaughtered in real life graphic violence elsewhere, unseen and unheard by the American media, but with the full complicity of the American people nonetheless. So you think, by and large, the "American mindset", of which mainstream films are aimed, is awake and morally conscious? The whole point of mainstream movies is to put that mindset asleep.

  • Tony | January 6, 2014 3:46 PM

    I think WoWS possibly casts Scorsese's prior work in a different light. I caught some of The Departed on TV last night, and was aware of the same moral ambivalence in the obvious use of severe graphic violence as empty entertainment. I'm not aware of how it ended, but even if those characters did receive their comeupance, its hard to justify Leo's beating to death two men set to rock music (not that it can't be done, I'm sure). There is something deeply wrong with our country, and its not being a prude or a censor to question what the hell is Hollywood putting into people's minds? We're still reeling from two immoral, illegal wars, forgive if one questions a work's moral objective.

  • MDL | January 6, 2014 3:35 PM

    First, Scorsese didn't set the jail time for Belfort. The courts did. And the courts - right or wrong - felt that 22 months was enough. Don't blame that on Scorsese. Second, if you need a filmmaker to hold your hand and tell you a character is 'good' or 'bad' then clearly you don't know how to think for yourself. Third, storytellers have been making films about bad characters for a few centuries. It is pretty easy to see that these storytellers are not 'reveling' in the character's bad behavior. Have you seen A Clockwork Orange? Fourth, it will never be available for free because you pay for cable. If you wait to see this movie for free then you are cheating and taking money from the people who made it - not from Belfort. Obviously you have made a value judgment on a film you will never see. I'm assuming you only watch Disney movies where characters are perfect, 'clean' and simplistic.

  • Scum Bag | January 6, 2014 11:48 AMReply

    "he did his time, even if its 2 days in a locked room...". I'm amused that the film is supposed to be seen as not condoning the behavior, but it always comes down to a defense of Belfort. DiCaprio did the same thing. You can't have it both ways: both a defense and a condemnation. What a cop out.

  • Oliver | January 6, 2014 8:48 AMReply

    From an older interview:

    "I know there were people who felt I was morally irresponsible to make a film like 'Goodfellas'. Well, I'll make more of them if I can." -- Martin Scorsese

    Good for him!

  • rocco | January 7, 2014 5:27 PM

    As a viewer, I want to see movies about all kinds of people.
    What I don't like are those people in hollywood who only seem interested in a certain type of physique, age etc.....
    Then they throw them away and look for some new "fresh meat".
    They take their actors and actresses and put them in the same type of role over and over again.
    So I would rather see a well made film with characters that don't pretend to be "perfect".

  • Oliver | January 7, 2014 10:50 AM

    And where does your art come from -- Andrea Dworkin's cooch?

  • filcher | January 6, 2014 11:57 AM

    Yes, he's SUCH a rebel. Sucking up to Wall Street and white male power. Too bad his films devolved into mediocre muck: Gangs, Aviator, Hugo... But I guess that's what happens when art doesn't come from a good place.

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