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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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Martin Scorsese on the set of "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Martin Scorsese on the set of "The Wolf of Wall Street"

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. 

'The Wolf of Wall Street'
'The Wolf of Wall Street'

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. 

Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Wolf of Wall Street'
Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

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.


  • 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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