Interview : Martin Scorsese, Matt Damon & Leonardo DiCaprio


Director and Stars of “The Departed”

Its either because he’s sick of pasta, or maybe he’s simply discovered Guinness, but one thing’s for sure, director Martin Scorsese, known for his Italian-centric pieces, definitely seems to be more interested in making Irish films at the moment.

“I’ve always felt a close affinity with the Irish”, says Scorsese, whose 2004 hit Gangs of New York and latest film, The Departed are concerned with the Irish. “Particularly coming out of the same area of New York City – although by the time the Italians had moved in, by the 1920’s and 1930’s, most of the Irish had moved out of that neighborhood that I came from. And it goes back to Gangs of New York; stories about the way Irish helped create New York and America, the city itself…. I’m very interested in all that”.

The New York-born director is also quick to point out that some of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers are Irishmen – John Ford for instance “How Green Was My Valley was about Welsh miners, and it was directed by an Irishman. He made films with good family structure – films that demonstrated the warmth and closeness of the Irish.

“Irish literature is very important to me – the poetry in particular. I’m also intrigued by the Irish sense of Catholicism – it’s a very interesting contrast to the Italian sense of Catholicism”, Scorsese says. “So there you have it. They’re my personal reasons [for doing films about the Irish].”

Not that his new thriller The Departed is an Irish film at its root. The movie is, in fact, a remake of a Hong Kong thriller called Infernal Affairs – which has not only gone on to spawn a couple of successful sequels, but evoked much critical acclaim – which tells of a mole in the police department and an undercover cop whose objectives are the same: to find out who is the mole, and who is the cop.

“I didn’t think of it [the story] as Hong Kong – I just like the idea. Hong Kong Cinema is something you can’t duplicate anyway – you couldn’t go near John Woo’s The Killer, for example. My skills as a filmmaker just can’t compete with that. What I liked was the underlying story – the way of life, the way of thinking, an attitude, and a cultural look at the world in a very enclosed society. The original film, by Andrew Lau, is great – the plot, the idea, the concept of the two informers. The underlying story of trust and betrayal keep me coming back to his one”, he says. “The elements remained the same [as the other film], but, well, ours became something else”.

Matt Damon and Leonard DiCaprio play mirrored characters in the film. Damon is the Irish-American crook hiding out in the police force, and DiCaprio is the Irish-American copper that goes undercover with the mob.

”We actually flipped a coin to see who plays what role”, says Damon, whose hits include The Bourne Identity and Ocean’s Eleven. “I think we would have been happy to play either one [though]. We’re happy that that’s the way it turned out though because now, after all is said and done, I can’t imagine playing the other one.

DiCaprio, now on his third film with Scorsese, adds, “These characters are two sides of the same coin in a lot of ways. They come from different backgrounds but they could have easily made choices the other character made, but depending on the circumstances.”

The star of hits like Titanic and Romeo + Juliet says his character is quite a violent fellow – and it was interesting to play against type for a change.

“It’s not really familiar to me, that form of immediate violence, but that’s what you do as an actor – you adapt”, he says. “And if you can’t draw upon anything in your real life, you go meet people that have done these sorts of things. Part of the process for me was going to Boston [and meeting these types]. I had never spent any time in Boston before. I learnt about the Boston subculture, met some of the real people who were around during the late ’80s, sort of the whitey era, we may call it, and most notably, met some guys from south Boston”.

DiCaprio become engrossed with the history of Boston and its inhabitants – and wished he could’ve spent just a little more time there.

“Boston’s a really interesting place because everyone knows each other’s business. It’s like a little microcosm there and everyone waves to each other on the street and they all have overlapping stories. We shot a lot of it [the film] in New York – I think we should have shot some of it in Boston, because I would’ve gotten to know more of the real characters and get to know them and hear some stories. You can read books and I read a few books, but to be able to you know, penetrate, some of these guys, you have to get inside their minds, and really get deep into what they were thinking was important.”

Damon did a lot of research into his role too – in what he likes to call the ‘Michael J.Fox’ approach.

“Have you ever seen the movie The Hard Way with Michael J. Fox?” he asks, referring to the 1991 action/comedy about a spoilt-brat actor who tags along with a police officer to research a role. “That was me. ‘Hey guys, can I get a gun?’ They’re like ‘absolutely not, shut up.’

DiCaprio had met a lot of contacts, says Damon, so he got to meet some real-life folks through him.

“It was really fascinating”, he says, “And you know, for me, I had a real advantage because I’m from Boston, so I didn’t have to learn an accent or do anything like that, I got to get straight to investigating this sort of subculture of state police and what I knew of the state police was from the times that I got pulled over for speeding on the Pike. And so to get in there and really see what these guys do was great and any time you get access like that, it’s really the most amazing thing. You don’t have to do all this research, but if you do, it makes it a lot easier on you when you step onto the set. “

Damon was also on the scene for a real-life raid on a crack house.

“I’m sure I was in no real danger – they brought twice as many cops as they usually do with one of those raids and I was in the back of the line so I had my bullet-proof vest on standing there going, ‘Well, what am I doing here’? And I didn’t go in until they cleared the house – but I got to see them do it. I told Marty and Bill [Monahan, the scribe], ‘You know, that this would be a good way to establish Colin [my character] rising up?’. So we put it in. The guys who are in that shot with me are the guys who were really in the house with me that night when it happened.”

Scorsese is pretty insistent on his actors looking as bonafide in the parts as possible, says Damon – so he was never going to slack off.

“In all of his film’s there an authenticity that you just can’t fake and it’s because his actors have access to these real people and get as much understanding of the people that they’re playing. Ultimately it’s a giant magic trick, we’re just trying to be believable, but if you’re taken out of the movie at all, then we haven’t done our job right – and researched well”

Both actors also watched the original film, Infernal Affairs, but didn’t examine it too closely – after all, this was to be a completely different beast.

“Yeah, we all watched it. And we all enjoyed the film, but I think we had to separate ourselves from it to a certain extent”, says DiCaprio, who previously worked with Scorsese on Gangs of New York and The Aviator. “Certainly, the construct and the skeleton of the story is pretty much the same in this version, but it’s dealing with an entirely different underworld. It’s dealing with Irish-Americans in Boston and we watched it very early on but we also had to forget a lot of those elements because we knew that we had to invent an entirely different film.”

“I loved the Hong Kong film”, gushes Damon. “I thought it was fantastic. And I loved those Hong Kong actors. But, you know, it’s about such a different culture, Boston is different even from any city here in America so although the structure was used from the Hong Kong version we then built that world around it that was very specific to Boston.”

Jack Nicholson plays gangland chief Frank Costello in the film. Costello is a character that “evolved” over the process, says Scorsese.

”It evolved and it evolved over a long process”, he says, “a very long process. The character was a little different on paper – we had decided the date, the age, and the power of this man, but when Jack came onboard we collaborated on making the role his.”

The younger actors – who also include Mark Wahlberg and rising newcomer Vera Farmiga– loved working with the screen veteran.

“We have a lot of Jack stories”, says Damon. “The first day I worked with him, he had been working with Leo for about a week, and so I had the week off and I came back, and it’s Sunday night and I’m looking over the script and I get a phone call. ‘Hi, Matt? Marty’. ‘Jack had some ideas for your scene tomorrow’. We were shooting a scene in a movie theatre. And he goes ‘ok, I’ll just get to it – Jack’s going to wear a dildo’. And so I thought, uh, ok, so I’ll see you at seven? So we went in the next day and rehearsed it, you know, and Jack’s idea was like, ‘Here’s the deal, I’m gonna come in, I’m gonna sit there, in the overcoat, and I’m gonna pull out the big dildo and we’re gonna laugh’. And I thought, ok, you know, that’s a really good way to get into the scene. Obscene sure, but Jack really brought this incredible new element, this new layer, to that character. In a way that felt authentic. It felt, like, you know, these guys really would sublimate sex into violence and violence into sex, and it really is how a lot of those things did occur.

“I don’t know how much research he did or how much he just intuited or what his process was exactly, but I found him really committed to making the thing as believable and pushing the envelope as much as he could.”

“And then that scene with [co-star] Alec Baldwin where he says, ‘We’re at the golf course’, where he says ‘A woman sees a ring on a guy’s finger and she knows he’s got a certain amount of money and his cock works’”, laughs DiCaprio. “It really did seem to thematically fit with what Jack was doing.”

Both Damon and DiCaprio say its not only a pleasure to work with Nicholson, but also Scorsese, whose worked they’ve both admired for many years.

”I’d been wanting to work with him doing This Boy’s Life with Robert DeNiro and getting sort of familiar with Robert DeNiro’s work and obviously that means Martin Scorsese’s work as well. So I became a fan of his work at a very early age”, says DiCaprio. “If you asked me who I wanted to work with starting out in the business, it would have Scorsese, and I got fortunate enough to work with him on Gangs of New York in 2000. And I think we have a good time working together and we have similar tastes as far as the films we like. He certainly has broadened my spectrum as far as films that are out there in the history of cinema and the importance of cinema. And it really brought me to different levels as an actor. I look at him as a mentor.”


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Caffeinated Clint
Clint is the creator, editor and maintainer of Moviehole. Loves David Lynch, David Fincher... actually, any filmmaker by the name of David.