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

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood January 6, 2014 at 6:27AM

Martin Scorsese talks 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.
Scorsese and DiCaprio
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'
'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'
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'
'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. 

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews , Martin Scorsese, Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street , Awards, Awards Season Roundup, Awards, Oscars, Leonardo DiCaprio, Leonardo DiCaprio

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.