When I emerged from watching The Wolf Of Wall Street, I came away thinking the movie had done for stock brokers what Marathon Man did for dentists. The Martin Scorsese-directed film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as hedonistic drug-addicted stockbroker conman Jordan Belfort, who with dimwitted cohorts plunders his way to such decadence and immorality it’s a wonder he survived long enough to be arrested and sent to prison. The three hours of darkly comic debauchery has in some quarters been met with a “how dare you” reaction, a polarizing response that could be an issue during awards season for the $100 million film financed by indie Red Granite and released domestically by Paramount Pictures. The 71-year old Scorsese has provoked that kind of reaction several times in his career with films ranging from The Last Temptation Of Christ to Goodfellas and Casino, the latter two of which, like Wolf, left behind bitter victims of the mayhem perpetrated by the film’s main characters. The shrapnel is new to DiCaprio, who both starred in and produced the film through his increasingly prolific Appian Way shingle. Here, DiCaprio discusses that fallout and the challenge of trying to uncompromisingly depict bad guys without judging them.
DEADLINE: Appian Way was just building steam when you got involved in producing Jordan Belfort’s memoir Wolf Of Wall Street. Why did Belfort’s story fit into the profile of movies you wanted to make as producer, while sparking you as an actor as well?
DICAPRIO: Coming into it as an actor, I set my entire production company up in order to find material that not only was interesting and out of the box from an actor’s perspective, but that could be developed that way from the original source material. A lot of times, I’d gone through the process of getting a great book or finding a great story, and then too many people get their hands on it and it turns into something entirely different. It is very difficult to reverse that process. When I first picked this up, I found it a cautionary tale written by Jordan. His life is much different now, but he’s looking back and reflecting on a very hedonistic time period where he gave into every possible temptation. Greed was the main motivating factor, and he was unapologetic. He realized he’d completely lost his way, but there was an honesty to it that you rarely find. You rarely find someone willing to vilify themselves so completely and not trying to create false enemies to blame so they don’t have to look inward. Everything Jordan wrote in this book was so raw. The crash of 2008 was a huge motivator for me as well to want to really see what’s going on in our culture that creates people like this. Greed is a timeless virtue. I’ve been talking about greed a lot in interviews, and you can’t pinpoint it to any specific time period, or any civilization or even just human beings. It’s a fundamental characteristic of survival. As we are progressing into the future, things are moving faster and we are way more destructive than we’ve ever been. We have not evolved at all.
DEADLINE: So that was your motivation to tell this story?
DICAPRIO: I wanted to make an unapologetic film looking at a character in a very entertaining and funny way, and isn’t passing judgment on them but is saying, look, this is obviously a cautionary tale, and what is it that creates people like this? I thought that could somehow be a mirror to ourselves. We are all consumers, incessantly consuming as much as we possibly can. I wanted to make an unapologetic film on the subject matter that didn’t give any false sense of empathy for the character, but that instead was an analysis of man gone awry.
DEADLINE: There has been a lot of media scrutiny that the movie doesn’t give a lot of time to lives destroyed by Belfort’s greed. That was clearly a conscious decision by you, Marty Scorsese and Terry Winter. Why did you make that choice?
DICAPRIO: Number one, because we didn’t want to take a traditional approach to this film. Number two, we very consciously wanted this to be an analysis of the temptation and intoxication of the world of money and indulgence and hedonism. We wanted to take the audience on that journey, and so we don’t ever see the wake of that destruction until the very end, where they implode. It was a very conscious decision on our part, so the experience would be almost like taking a drug. To me, if you’re an audience member, you want to be completely submerged in the actual film. We wanted it to be from these peoples’ perspective, an understanding of the very nature of who these people are, and why this can be so intoxicating and so exciting for them. By no means is this film a glorification or some sort of promotion of this lifestyle and those who say it is are missing the point entirely. These people are what they are and we didn’t want to give them any false sense of sympathy. Jordan Belfort is in that scene with the detective, [Kyle Chandler] and that guy says it all right there. He says, ‘Some of these Wall Street guys I bust, their fathers were like that, and they learned it from their fathers before them. But you, Jordan, got this way all on your own.’ These guys don’t apologize for their actions. That’s very much to me an analysis of that culture. Not all of Wall Street, but the people in that business sector who have no concern for anything except themselves. I think anyone who thinks this is a celebration of that, they’ve missed the point of the movie.
DEADLINE: Martin Scorsese probably saw that kind of reaction after he made true crime stories like Goodfellas and Casino, which were similar in that you watched bad guys take their journey and after you heard reactions from victims and relatives of victims. This is new territory for you, though. How much does it concern you that some people haven’t gotten that message, that Wolf is about a man who loses his soul?
DICAPRIO: It was actually a huge learning process for me. Look, Marty and I, we don’t like these guys, let’s put it that way. None of the people that made this movie likes these people, at all. We had a lot of conversations at the beginning about whether we could make them so unlikeable that people would completely not identify with them, or not care. Marty said to me, ‘I’ve done many movies like this. I don’t want to pass judgment on these people. I want to show them for what they are.’ If you look at Goodfellas, there is an attractiveness to that lifestyle, but it’s never condoning that behavior. It’s getting you, as a human being, to more closely understand what these people are like, and to understand maybe something within ourselves that could also be attracted to that world. He said you are okay as long as you portray people as authentically as you possibly can and don’t try to give some false sense of sympathy and don’t apologize for their actions. Just say look, this is who I am. Jordan says that, right off the bat. ‘I was a money crazed little prick, I was pissed off because I was just shy of making $20 million a week.’ He’s presenting himself at that guy. And that guy exists in our culture, in many forms. It’s in all of us, in a way. To me, that is original filmmaking, a film that is taking some chances. Not everyone is going to get it, but I feel like as the history of cinema unfolds, like it has with all Scorsese movies when we become desensitized, those films get imitated, and his films become films we remember. I hope this becomes one of those.
DEADLINE: You could have played this as straight drama. At what point did it become clear this should be a laugh out loud black comedy?
DICAPRIO: To tell you the truth, we knew that the very nature of what they were doing was at times ridiculously funny, but at no time did we ever say, we are making a comedy. These people were having an outrageously good time at the expense of other people. They were living in a Roman empire while other people were suffering. The intoxication of that is what was interesting to us. Now, we didn’t set out to say, okay, this is going to be hilarious. In the screenplay, the very nature of what they were doing was so ridiculous and absurd it needed to be laughed at. When you catch yourself in the middle of it and say, what are these people doing, they’re absurd and let’s look behind the curtain to where this is coming from and who’s suffering, it is dark comedy in that respect. It’s funny but it’s not funny.
DEADLINE: There seemed to be little touchstone reality checks, like the low level employee who cut off her hair to make ten grand for a boob job, or when Belfort tries to make a drug-fueled escape and his daughter bangs her head on the dashboard. Was that an attempt to occasionally remind there were victims here?
DICAPRIO: We wanted people specifically to understand the mindset. During that time period, none of those guys gave a crap about who they were screwing over. They only cared about themselves and their own hedonistic enjoyment and the accumulation of more wealth, and giving into any possible indulgence. Yes, Marty brilliantly holds onto that shot of the woman, holding a bundle of money in her hand with half of her head shaved off. He kept holding on that and only after the fifth viewing did I say, wow, those are his subtle ways of reminding us about our actions. But to me, this is a movie that’s much different. It’s outside of the box. We’ve seen hundreds of movies that have a much more traditional approach to this. I’m sorry for anyone who may misinterpret that, but this is absolutely an indictment of this world and a cautionary tale. More than that, it’s something that is in the very fabric of our culture, the very fabric of the United States. That, to me, is a powerful film. It is exploring human nature.
DEADLINE: Despite having you and Scorsese, this movie took years to mobilize. A three hour hard R movie with debauchery galore makes that understandable. When you were looking for backing, what things would you not compromise on which might have gotten you funded more quickly?
DICAPRIO: Well, we almost did this movie once before, on a different scale. But I think Marty was already feeling the resistance to the very genre and the way…if you’re going to give Marty Scorsese a screenplay like this, you know you’re going to see something rough, hard core, and really out there. That’s exactly why people want to go see his films. He started that with Mean Streets. There was no film out there like Mean Streets, before Mean Streets came out. If you’re going to give him this material, he’s got to be able to have the artistic freedom to do what he does. There was a general attitude of, okay, let’s start having conversations about how to sanitize this a little bit. How we can cut some of the excess in this world and manipulate the script a bit? Ultimately, that was a turn off for him. If he was going to do this, he was going to have to do it all the way. I’ve referenced Caligula here. If you’re going to show it, then show it in all of its absurd glory. Finally, we got financiers in Red Granite that said, look, we think there is a market out there for stuff like this. And films like this should be done and there should be people out there supporting movies like this. They said, push the envelope, don’t pull punches or sugarcoat it. I told Marty, look, we can have artistic freedom here, which never happens on a film of this scale and subject matter. We’re never going to get this opportunity again. I don’t know know if we ever will get an opportunity like this ever. I think it is an anomaly.
DEADLINE: Marty’s movies Hugo, Wolf, and his next film Silence will mark three in a row where the financing came from outside the studio system. It reminds me years ago when studios stopped backing Woody Allen because he didn’t even want them reading his script. What does it say about the studios that Scorsese has to go outside the major studios to get his movies made?
DICAPRIO: Look, I’ve seen a shift in the films that I can get financed. I suppose people might assume the two of us can get most films we want to make financed, but it is a challenge. I don’t think The Aviator would get financed today and I don’t think Blood Diamond would be financed today. Even in the last eight years, it’s like a gear shifted. If you want to do something of this scale, if you want to make an American epic, it had better be at a certain price. Anything above a certain line has to have the traditional things we see in blockbusters. Now, the other thing that has gone on in the last few years is the emergence of people who are fans of cinema, true cinephiles who love movies and certain filmmakers and want to support them and roll the dice on them. Thank God for those people, because I don’t otherwise see films like this getting made, at all.
DEADLINE: It certainly is a unique movie. I laughed harder here than in many comedies I’ve seen, then later felt guilty when I considered the victims. Was that part of Scorsese’s goal, to suck you into this world of charismatic con men and their crazy antics, only to reconsider later and think, why was I so entertained by that?
DICAPRIO: That theme has been prevalent in Marty’s work, since Mean Streets. It’s about the pursuit of the American dream, about the re-creation of oneself to achieve that dream, and the hustle that it takes to get there. I see that theme in so many of his films. He’s talking about a darker side of our culture in all these movies, and yet he’s vigilant about not passing judgment on them. He leaves that up to the audience. That’s why it boggles my mind a bit that anyone would ever not realize this is an indictment of that world. I don’t even want to use the word cautionary tale because you see what happens to these people in the end. You see Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, or Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in Goodfellas, or Jordan Belfort. It’s all there, the intoxication of these worlds and the understanding of our very nature that makes us want to go in that direction, and what happens when we do.
DEADLINE: Your last movies were directed by Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Baz Luhrmann, Christopher Nolan. If you are paying attention beyond your own performance, this has got to be the best master class an aspiring director could have. How close are you to getting behind the camera yourself?
DICAPRIO: It does appeal to me. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to have worked with a lot of great directors I’ve learned a lot from. I’ve gotten to see all the mechanics of what has to go into making a great movie and so it’s daunting to consider doing it myself. I’m sure I’ll try it one of these days, but it has to be something that moves me so much that there’s no one else on earth who could do it except for me, or a film nobody else wants to do that I see something magical in and it gets me behind the camera. Hopefully that will happen, but I don’t have that piece of material in my hands. Yet.