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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.
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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.

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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