Anna Lisa Raya is deputy editor of AwardsLine.
The Wolf Of Wall Street — Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s memoir, starring Leonardo DiCaprio — is a wild and crazy ride that had its own wayward journey to the big screen. Helping keep things on track was producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff, who rose from executive assistant to president of production for Scorsese’s Sikelia Productions. She credits her ascent to her ability to communicate with the perfectionist director in a kind of shorthand. “Do I feel like I could handle anybody after having worked with him for so long? Sure,” she says. “He is the maestro.”
AwardsLine: How did The Wolf Of Wall Street finally get off the ground?
Emma Tillinger Koskoff: Alexandra Milchan got the book rights and then she engaged Terence Winter to write the screenplay. They brought it to Leo (DiCaprio) at a time when he had a deal with Warner Bros., in 2007. Then Leo brought it to Marty (Scorsese), and they began developing it. For whatever reason, the film went into turnaround at Warners. The film came back, fortuitously, right when Marty finished Hugo and he was looking for his next movie. Eventually, it all came together through Red Granite Pictures. They came in with Joey McFarland and scooped it up from Warner Bros., fully financed it and took it first to Paramount, which wanted to distribute it.
AwardsLine: What attracted you to the story?
Koskoff: It’s a classic roller coaster ride. It’s hilariously funny. Jonah (Hill) and Leo are hilariously funny together. The film is sexy, it’s scary, it’s infuriating, it’s wildly disturbing and it’s exciting all at the same time. The breadth of emotion that you go through watching this film is incredible.
AwardsLine: It was a big-scale production, with a big cast. What were the initial budget talks like and where did you end up?
Koskoff: You know, we ended up at a very comfortable and generous budget. The scope of the movie had to work within those parameters, and we had to make compromises to get the story told. The pace of the movie is that typical Scorsese-staccato pacing, like Goodfellas. Sometimes we shot two or three locations in a day, so that was challenging. I’m delighted to report that we stayed on budget and we stayed on time, and I think Marty got everything he wanted.
AwardsLine: Was there any scene from the book that was too big or outlandish to make due to your budget parameters?
Koskoff: At one point, when Jordan is at the height of his insanity, he insists on sailing his yacht in bad weather and he sinks his ship, which was important. Marty really wanted to illustrate the height that he had come to, that disregard for everything and everyone around him. And that was challenging because then you get into special effects with the storm sequences.
AwardsLine: Was there a conscious effort to get this movie made in the current economic climate or was it just a coincidence?
Koskoff: Whether it was on purpose or not, the timing really couldn’t be better. Society as a whole is completely fed up with the financial system, one that allows for unscrupulous behavior. And the shock and paralyses of it all has evolved into action. I think this film is going to keep that momentum going and really keep the dishonest behavior on the forefront of everyone’s mind.
AwardsLine: DiCaprio is a politically minded actor and a lot of the work he’s done has some message of wayward behavior being rectified. How would you characterize Jordan Belfort’s comeuppance?
Koskoff: The character that (DiCaprio) plays grew up in middle-class Queens. There was no silver spoon or Ivy League education, but he was hungry. It’s not just a portrait of a con man; the movie and the book both make a powerful statement about ambition and the American dream. The movie starts with this smart and beautiful young man working toward ethically achieving the American dream, but he becomes so consumed with the lifestyle and the greed that it ultimately takes him down.
AwardsLine: What is your collaborative process with Scorsese like?
Koskoff: I’ve had the incredibly privileged opportunity to work with this man for 11 years. He’s my mentor, he’s my teacher, he’s a huge support. I’m there to sort of facilitate all his needs with prep and production and development. I’m lucky to be at the apex, the highest level of art in the world.
AwardsLine: What was it like working with DiCaprio as a producer and the star of the film?
Koskoff: He was more involved in the producing side than ever before. I have worked with him on every Marty movie except The Aviator, so I’ve seen his growth and transition. He was somebody I would go to when I’d run into production issues. He was always there, waiting to problem solve while tackling this performance. His (acting) talent is not studied or learned, it’s innate. He’s had this project since 2007 so he’s been studying and connecting with Jordan that entire time. It’s one of the bravest performances of all time.