Until Hugo, I never emerged from a Martin Scorsese film with anything close to the sense of satisfaction that comes from a nice, happy ending. I’ve seen everything he’s done, and movies like Cape Fear and Casino left me feeling fearful such people existed; The King Of Comedy left me laughing nervously after an aspiring comedian gets a TV special after kidnapping his idol, whether it existed in his imagination or not; Taxi Driver left me feeling all kinds of uneasy; and After Hours left me feeling paranoid for days. Every one of his films left me feeling some emotion way short of peaceful — clearly how Scorsese wanted it. By comparison, The Wolf Of Wall Street was a decadent frat house comedy, Goodfellas without the chilling violent undercurrent that made you check your laughter. I laughed loud and often (and felt bad later) at the depiction of an ordinary guy who loses his soul to get rich on Wall Street and indulge every hedonistic urge at the expense of the people who trusted him with money he didn’t care if he lost. I was surprised at the outcry that Scorsese didn’t punish his sinner onscreen. At least Jordan Belfort’s ’90s run of decadence ended with him losing his family and wealth before landing in a minimum security prison. There seemed to be no shortage of guys like him who ran rampant before Wall Street collapsed in 2008 due to unbridled greed; those scoundrels got a government bailout and kept going, even though retirement funds across America might never recover. Here, Scorsese explains why what I just mentioned made it impossible for him to pacify Wolf viewers and critics who wanted to see justice served and charged him with glorifying misdeeds.
DEADLINE: I spoke days ago about the Wolf criticism with Leonardo, who never faced this before. It isn’t your first time at the rodeo, is it?
SCORSESE: Oh, I’ve been through it with Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull where people were repelled by the character. It happened with Rupert Pupkin in The King Of Comedy, and then all the way through the years and particularly with Goodfellas. Taxi Driver had elements that made it something else, but Goodfellas became a rallying cry against this kind of depiction of characters who do terrible things but enjoy themselves.
DEADLINE: How does this dust-up compare to those, and how does it feel for one of the great living directors to have to defend a movie he has made about bad guys?
SCORSESE: I have to say, I haven’t read anything. I’m given reports by people close to me and I have been through it, and had to answer questions like this one at screenings for the DGA and The Academy.
DEADLINE: What do you say?
SCORSESE: In Goodfellas, people either get killed, or they go to jail. The ones who get out clearly haven’t learned much, and complain because they can’t get good spaghetti sauce. Well, too bad. But here, the character goes to jail, but that doesn’t really mean much. He gets out and he starts all over. I don’t know about the real Belfort, I’m talking about the character. The main factor to be considered here is the mind-set and the culture which allows this kind of behavior not only to be allowed, but encouraged. And what they do is never shown. As a naïve young person I thought that in white collar jobs, people behaved a certain way, respectably. I’m sure there are people who do. But, I’m 71. And in the past 30 years or so, I’ve seen the change in the country, what values were and where they’ve gone. The values now are only quite honestly about what makes money. To present characters like this on the screen, have them reach some emotional crisis, and to see them punished for what they’ve done, all it does is make us feel better. And we’re the victims, the people watching onscreen. So to do something that has an obvious moral message, where two characters sit in the film and hash it out, or where you have titles at the end of the film explaining the justice, the audience expects that. They’ve been inured to it.
DEADLINE: What were you instead going for?
SCORSESE: I didn’t want them to be able to think problem solved, and forget about it. I wanted them to feel like they’d been slapped into recognizing that this behavior has been encouraged in this country, and that it affects business and the world, and everything down to our children and how they’re going to live, and their values in the future. It’s almost becoming like, these days in Hollywood, people misbehave, they have problems in their lives, drugs, alcohol, they go to rehab and come out again. And that means it’s okay, it’s an expected ritual you go through. You make a film about slavery, it’s important for young people to understand and see it vibrantly presented on the screen. And when you make a film that just points up and decries the terrible goings on in the financial world and the financial philosophy and the financial religion of America, we do that a certain way and it makes us feel okay, that we’ve done our duty, we’ve seen the film, given it some awards and it goes away and we put it out of our minds. By the way, Jordan and a bunch of guys went to jail, and even though they served sentences in very nice jails, the reality is jail isn’t nice and a light sentence is still a sentence. The lingering reality is, if you look at the last disaster this world created, who went to jail?
SCORSESE: That’s right.
DEADLINE: It would make a fascinating movie, but I’ve always heard you’ll never show Hollywood how Hitler charmed Germany and Europe into being his accomplices in the Holocaust; you’d have to show his seductive side and nobody wants to risk appearing to glorify an indefensible figure. This is your latest collection of bad guys who killed or stole. Leonardo said you told him that you don’t judge your bad guys. What are your rules for depicting loathsome people onscreen?
SCORSESE: I don’t know if I’d call them rules. I grew up in an area where as far as I knew, this was the world. It was an area in Manhattan, an old, old fashioned culture. An evil culture. I knew them first as human beings. Some were nice to children and other people around them, and would help other families. Some were not nice at all. Later on, I discovered a number of them were not wholesome characters, to say the least. To say the least. Yet, I also knew some of them were genuinely good people forced by circumstance or their own human weakness into a life of doing bad things. But they were basically decent people. It happens. People do it in war, people do it in business. People do it in love. This is about human weakness. If we don’t recognize it, if we don’t say it exists, it’s not going to go away. The hell with us, we’re old, but what about the young ones. What are we going to do, put some political correct ribbon over it? No. There is evil in us.
DEADLINE: You’ve said this movie was an expression of anger…
SCORSESE: More like frustration, really. I’m just sick of it.
DEADLINE: You’re 71, your films withstand the test of time, you’ve got a little one running around. How do you summon anger and intensity with all these nice things swirling around you?
SCORSESE: Because, it’s not fair. There has to be something that can be determined as fair business code. Business is not just buying and selling. It’s how you treat people. I may treat people terribly, I don’t know. Maybe in some cases I do know. I can’t judge that. But when you say I don’t judge the characters, what I meant when I said that to Leo is, the author’s stance on the character is obvious here, so we’re taken off the hook. We didn’t need to put an outsider’s perspective on it. We had to go all the way, be forced to look at yourself. Times in my life, were my acts moral or immoral? Was I right or wrong? Did I do even worse than he does? All I can show is what he does, and I do not like it. I do not like it. I’m furious with it. But, there are still some people I grew up with, they are the most charming people you’ve ever met. You would not want to be with them, though.
DEADLINE: It is notable that you resisted wrapping this in a bright, shiny moralistic package.
SCORSESE: It wouldn’t mean anything. People would accept it and forget about it. You see that on television, like every two seconds. It no longer means something. I felt here that if we were going to try and say it, let’s do it, full out. Be as open about it as possible.
DEADLINE: Leonardo DiCaprio has turned in great performances for you, but this feels like a new high bar. Can you give me a sense how DiCaprio has grown through the five movies you’ve done together, and how this performance contrasts with others?
SCORSESE: I’ll try as best I can, because I’m so close to the subject that we don’t go in and say we’re going to grow beyond what we did in The Aviator or The Departed. To me, it’s about his enthusiasm and willingness to embrace a role he really wanted to play. We were going to do the movie back in 2007 and it fell apart. He never let go of it and he would talk to me about it all the time and try to convince me to come back. I was going to do it at that time, but all the elements had fallen apart and I’d put it out of my mind and went onto other things like Shutter Island and Hugo. But that first time for Leo just whet his appetite. What I needed from him here was a total commitment to be able to do anything, to be totally free as an actor. Not to have any restrictions of any kind. This also was a condition to make the film and it’s one of the reasons we made it with Red Granite. Riza Aziz and Joey McFarlane agreed we would have total freedom in making the picture, as long as it was on schedule and budget. Once I knew Leo was ready to do anything, anything, to be this person, I began to feel comfortable. It took me a few years to come around to sensing that.
DEADLINE: He certainly is depicted in incredibly decadent scenes. Were there moments he had reservations and you said, you promised…
SCORSESE: No. There were a couple of moments that gave us pause. But the pause was always, how should we do it, because it should be done.
DEADLINE: Any specifics you can share?
SCORSESE: The Vegas scenes, going to Vegas on the plane. We had to have it, but the pause was about what to show and what was important to show. It became two shots, basically. One on the plane, which we broke up into two pieces, and an overhead tracking shot of the debris in the room, with people doing all kinds of stuff in the room. The candle, of course, is a scene…at one point it was written one way in the script, but we checked the book and that is how we shot it. That was a moment where he looked at me and I looked at him and we both said, what do you think? He smiled, and later told people that, well, I knew in that moment I had to do it [laughs]. It was a tricky scene, funny in a way. But he just felt totally free.
DEADLINE: Is that a benefit of working so often with a movie star that you can calmly walk up to him and say, I need you to put a candle up your butt here and have the hot wax dripped on your back…
SCORSESE: There, it was more like him saying, did you check the book? I said, yeah. He said, and you saw what was there? I said, yeah. And he said, what do you want to do? I think he knew immediately that he was going to do it. I must say, if he’d turned around and said no…but he never once said, I’m not doing that, to anything here. Particularly when he finally loses whatever decency he had left and becomes like an animal, trying to hold on to his child, because it was the last thing he has. There is violence against his wife. There were people around us, constantly questioning and counseling us, friends and everyone around us. There was a number of people in that circle who said, don’t do these scenes with the family falling apart at the end. I said, we have to. They said, then don’t do them with the violence. I said, the violence has to be there. Then don’t involve the child. I said, you have to involve the child. You can’t help it. That is the last thing he has and he does this pathetic attempt to trying to hold onto some sort of love, something he knows is pure. And he endangers her life.