The legendary Martin Scorsese hits it out of the park again with “The Wolf of Wall Street”.
Why did you decide to lift this very dark story with some humor? Was it to make it more palatable?
No because it’s funny. It’s funny but it’s not funny! (laughs) It’s funny within the context, within the truth of what their situation is at that moment. It’s not pleasant, but it is funny. The ability to see humor, or have humor in situations that are absolutely atrocious. It’s a defense mechanism too.
And it’s quite cynical, actually…
I guess it is. I don’t even think they’re thinking about that. But cynicism is too easy isn’t it? What’s interesting to me is… if he is able to make $21m in an hour, what’s going to stop him from making $30m in three hours, or $40m or $50m. And if he feels any qualms about it, there’s drugs, there’s sex, there’s all kinds of stuff he can do. And so, there is no moral landscape there, anymore, so how could it even be cynical, in a way? We had a quote in there, I think we took it out, that ‘these tools, these ways of persuasion should only be used on people who should be influenced.’ But who make that judgment? You do. And if you could take advantage of you and you an you, you should be influenced, therefore I’ll use it on you. Well, if you believe that, it’s beyond cynicism. It’s a mentality that interests me. And also the unchecked. There’s no one there to say ‘listen this may be too much’, or ‘don’t do that to this person’. That craziness, the arrogance of youth. But then as we know, many older, supposedly revered figures behaved in a similar way, in finance.
It’s interesting that as they carry on doing more and more, they feel more and more invincible…
Absolutely. Who is going to catch them? Look at what they got away with! And when they do catch them, he catches them on what, Benihana? A Japanese restaurant! I mean he goes insane, ‘I can’t believe of all the things we’ve done, I get caught for this??’
There are really crazy scenes, how much were you by the scripts, and how much was improvised?
The scenes were there in the script, from the book. But we really worked in a lot of improvisation between the actors.
Can you give us an example?
This is a combination… The first scene with Matthew McConaughey and Leo DiCaprio in the restaurant… that’s in the script, but Matthew’s asides, all of this was something that he added. He asked if he could come from the South, well, why not? And he started bringing in all these lines like ‘feed the geese’; I’m still not sure what it means! I thought, well he’s cool, he’s got it. I mean the man is having, to start with, cocaine at lunch, and then martini after martini… that’s just lunch! He’s going to have an easy sway about him, and be loose. And then Leo saw him doing these voice exercises, and he thought maybe that would be interesting to include. He just goes around doing that, Matthew, and each time there’s a different scene it’s a different type of music that he does.
Did you put more Matthew in the story because of that?
Oh yeah, one or two scenes. A similar thing happened with Jonah Hill. Particularly in the scene where they’re talking about his family life, it’s in the script, but it was only a quarter of a page. It’s now, I think, a four-minute scene. But scenes that were not improvised were, for example, when she wakes him up with throwing water at him, and that argument. There was some improvisation with language of course, and behavior, but that was one of the key scenes that was written. And also when she was teasing him, that’s all written. And also every time you get into the scenes with Rugrat and the brokers, they’ll take off. The scene when they talk about the technical details of tossing the small people. If they’re going to do that, there has to be a meeting. And in that meeting, you accept the premise. We are going to take small people and throw them. Now you have to deal with that, and you have to deal with it in a realistic way and it’s absurd. And this is for entertainment, and by the way, it just scratches the surface of what really went on.
The throwing of the small people start the movie, and you take a lot of time on it. Is it symbolic at all?
No, I just like the way that they were thinking. To see how their minds worked, you know. And also at times, I was fascinated by the ignorance of them thinking they could not look at them in the eye, where is all this coming from? And the possibility of taking a skateboard of putting a man on, oh that you can do that. And when I heard that I thought, continue. This was in a meeting, the things people say; so I thought let’s keep that in our back pocket. Don’t shoot them with pellets you might hurt them… if something does go wrong, what are you going to do? Have twenty people jump on a small person? Why are we talking this way? What is wrong with us? The shaving of the head… you know.
You’ve been directing for a long time, does it get more fun?
This was fun. It was fun, but not fun, meaning, it’s physically hard.
You said at the Marrakesh Film Festival that you are considering ending your career?
Well, no, I mean, I’m considering ending, meaning I’m 71. One doesn’t know these days… I hope that I can continue, to find a way also to make pictures that are not subject to heavy production, let’s put it that way. This by the way, at times, if you look a lot of these longer scenes are just two or three people in a room talking, they were shot the fastest. We had good rehearsals, good script, we moved fast. Car on a road, I’ll pick out the road, I’ll work it out, work it out with my AD, my assistant director and my special effects guy, I’ll say ‘go from here to here’, then I’m in another room, he’s shooting that, I’m shooting other stuff.
Does it become more difficult being in Hollywood?
Absolutely, for me, yes. I live in New York so I don’t really… they call me and talk to me, and I have good friends out there. Paramount’s been really good to me, all my managers, WME, William Morris Endeavor, so I have my guys. But I’m trying to get other kinds of pictures made, or television too, HBO. HBO is very important.
The structure of this film is very different to a typical Hollywood film…
That’s right, that’s what I tried to do. But you see, it’s not a studio-based film. It’s Red Granite who took the chance, based on working with Leo for quite a while; he was talking to them for long periods of time. And the only reason to make a picture like this was to try and do something that wouldn’t have the normal studio constraints on it. In terms of the subject matter, the scenes, action, length, everything.
So you live in New York, how is Wall Street reacting?
I don’t go down there (laughs) I don’t go past 57th St. I grew up down there young man! I go back every now and then, but only for shooting. I mean we’ll see what they think…
Do you think Wall Street is what it used to be, the gangsters, the mob?
It’s the mentality, absolutely. But not everybody. In the mob, everyone is in the mob. On Wall Street they don’t all think that way I don’t think. I think there have been people who have been… whether it’s Wall Street, or France or Russia… there have been people who were very rich and have thought about other people, they have tried to make a difference, they have tried to give something back. In the old days it was stewardship it was called, you had all these robber barons, like Andrew Carnegie for example. Where I came from there were no libraries, so we had to walk to the library, not that bad, only 15 blocks away, but it was all the way over on the east side, Tompkins Square Park, and these libraries were made by Carnegie for the poor areas. Interesting. Now, does it offset what else he did? I don’t know. This is something to future generations. But I don’t see that happening with these guys.
In this movie, the guys don’t look like Wall Street guys nowadays; they are more like street guys. Do you respect that more than the Goldman Sachs guy who goes to Harvard?
They were the barbarians at the gate, so to speak. I don’t know if I respect it. Many people in, how should I put it, revered figures 70 years ago, made a lot of their money by bootlegging, and became pillars of the community. Now bootlegging, yeah, it was a great experiment to ban alcohol, I understand, I grew up in the Bowery, on skid row. I saw what it was; it was the dregs of Gangs Of New York. I understand the religious groups trying to have their wives not beat up, and their children not killed in the streets by these drunken madmen, the husbands. But supplying, when the supply is needed and you have to deal with certain kinds of characters, they made money. These guys made money. Then it was all over and they became the pillars of society. I just don’t trust it. I don’t trust it, that’s all. I don’t trust the images, the presentation, and everything now has become so polished. You can’t get beyond the soft, the soft totalitarianism in a way. You can’t get past that.
Did the financial crisis change the way the film was going to be made?
No, we were going to do this movie before the financial crisis. Matter of fact the financial crisis hit and we couldn’t do it, because it cost too much money and also it was owned by a studio at the time, and the studio started to ask questions about too much drug taking, and I said ‘I can’t. I’m too tired!’ It just wasn’t worth it. And then when it reverted to independent, we came back, and we began to see what was happening. Down on Wall Street, in Zuccotti Park, in Greece, in Spain, everywhere. And we thought, why not? Let’s try it!
You are always making films with a lot of violence, and drugs… do you ever get sick of fighting against the system?
Well yeah, that’s what I just said. And by the way, a lot of the people I work with, I’m lucky, a lot of the studio people are good people. They just have different points of view, and morally, they considered ‘The Departed’ extremely immoral, and it was a constant daily, almost daily discussion. Particularly in the editing of the film, it really wore me down, I got tired, I had to keep fighting back and fighting back. ‘Yeah, they’re in the streets, in a war, a street war, yes she’s in love with two men at once!’ (laughs) ‘But she’s seeing both at the same time?’ ‘Guys, where are we? Well, yes! It is a problem, but it’s her problem!’ This is the kind of stuff I was getting and I would say ‘I can’t do it, I don’t care how much… I just can’t do it, it’s just too much responsibility and the money…’ And I just don’t think I could physically do it anymore, you couldn’t physically get there, if all you were doing was just fighting the production company so to speak. That’s why the actors need to be on your side in a way, to work with them, so you can try to make the film together. But with this film it wasn’t that way, Red Granite, they were terrific.
In what way is the story of ‘Silence’ closer to your personal agenda than this story?
I think they’re both close, it’s just something that… the split in me has been that way since I can remember, since I was 8 years old. When I became aware of where I was, the lower east side, very tough area, the church, which was kind of a respite in a way, it was kind of nice. Street guys, tough kids, and good people, trying to work, trying to make a living, but just interwoven with the underworld… Because that was the nature of another way of living, coming from Sicily or southern Italy. It was 1910, 1912, 1930, they brought it over here, and they really couldn’t trust other ethnic groups in positions of power. If you’re Sicilian, or Neapolitan or Calabresian, you really can’t speak to each other because your accents are so different, and you look over there and there’s a blonde haired blue eyed Anglo-Irish person who’s got a blue uniform on… you’re finished! There’s no way! (laughs) The next thing you know there are drugs in your pocket. How did they get there? I’m serious. So naturally, they had to take care themselves… so I saw that, and I saw a lot of people I knew, I just grew up with them thinking they were the average person. There was something like America out there too, on television, I began to see that, but the main interest was finding some sort of a way out through some sort of spiritual life. And that was my main interest, there’s no way to cope with anything else, so that’s always been there. That yearning, whether it’s a chemical reaction in the brain, and we still have to deal with that as human beings, a yearning for something that has a spiritual truth to it. I can’t put it in any other words, I can try to make films about it, I’ve tried… wasn’t so successful but hopefully the next one I could. But it has to do with that part of us, that needs that sense of spiritual mystery.
Is that why you made ‘Bringing Out The Dead’?
Yes, exactly. He’s upset because he hadn’t brought anyone back to life in three days! (laughs) Who does he think he is? So yeah, all those reasons, that’s why we did that. Just trying to find, who knows the amount of time that’s left and everything else, but it’s a matter of narrowing down, but not rejecting, all that you feel may be negative within yourself. And therefore, these films, just embracing it again.
Did you have to make some final cuts for ratings?
Always, it’s always been the case, since ‘Mean Streets’. ‘Mean Streets’ we make some cuts in dialogue, which are now on daily CNN news, you can say it. But at that time they felt it was offensive, this film too. It’s the accumulation of sexuality, or profanity. And so this is something that we’ve just worked on. There were some things they didn’t want to do that we asked, some things that we negotiated through cutting and trimming and framing, but also by the way this also came out in the screenings for our friends. ‘Do I have to see that again?’ I know, but that’s part of… ‘How many times? Two hours and forty-five minutes, you keep pouring it on, yeah we get it!’ But then the idea was, do you get it, you’re not supposed to get it, it doesn’t matter, it’s there. You see, it’s always there, you reach out, it’s there. You want the coke, you want the sex, it’s there.
How was that filming those scenes?
That was wild! (laughs) It was wild. But the people were terrific, they were great.
But with all that nakedness, do you get used to it?
You got used to it, yeah, because we had to get working. You’re not there to… at least I’m not, I don’t know about the others! (laughs) I’m responsible to get them in and get them out of there! But no, they were great, they were great.
Who were all these naked people?
I don’t know! (laughs) I don’t know! There were some kids who came in to audition. You know, the one who played the assistant in the elevator, who gets married. Yeah we had auditions for that. And she was charming and very sweet. No, but the others, I don’t know if they’re dancers or what, but they were really good, they’d just come on, and… It was really the Assistant Director, Adam Somner, and the choreographer. We had a choreographer come in to figure it out. Like ‘one over here, we need this, and when the camera tracks here we need this.’ And Adam works with Spielberg a great deal, he’d done ‘War Horse’ and ‘Lincoln’ so I figured he could go right in there and do it! (laughs) A combination of the two, and this is right in the middle! He had the right attitude, ‘Ok two over here, three here please…’ Basically it was really hard. The plane was the hardest because it was a small space, they said ‘do we have to do turbulence? It will cost too much money!’ I said ‘yes that’s the whole point, the turbulence and everyone goes flying! Don’t put it on gimbals, just move the camera…’ It was shot in a fake plane, somewhere in Brooklyn. But it was rough because everyone was in there all day, it was very hard for them, it was a long tracking shot. And then I trimmed it up. Because I didn’t have an idea of how to do it. I had an idea for an over the head tracking shot, but I did that for Vegas. Because there were all these long scenes about Vegas and what they did in Vegas, I said it was boring, the only important thing there was to get, what? To have them say ‘I bought the hundred hookers, I did this, I did that, the next thing I knew it cost $2 million just to clean up the place…’ and that’s it! You don’t really need to see what they did, you can see the remnants, and so I kept the overhead shot for the hotel room. And we had all these scenes of them running up and down the main highway, in front of all the signs and Vegas, I said ‘who cares? You could see that in television. Let’s just stay on the plane, and you’ll see the room.’ And that’s the way we kept trying to cut it down, and keep it contained, because it doesn’t matter where they are, they’d do it in London, they’d do it anywhere.
The film is fun, but do you think films can make the world a better place?
I hope. I hope. I look back at Italian realism that it appeared to open up a kind of compassion for former enemies. Cinema changed that for the whole nation of Italy, the whole culture. Even when Rossellini did ‘Germany Year Zero’, he went there to Berlin in the ruins and said it’s time for reconciliation in a sense. He’s the only one who did it.
And your films?
I have no idea. I have no idea. They’re explorations, and I like humor certainly, but I also like to deal with the questions of ‘what is our nature? Intrinsically good or intrinsically bad?’
What do you think?
(laughs) I think we want to be good, and I think there’s hope, I think there’s hope, but it’s the old story of the stomach isn’t filled.
Do you feel this movie says you can be greedy but not too much? If you’re completely stupid and you refuse to close the deal with the SCC like he did…
That’s just pride, that’s just the old story of pride that’s all. He was getting away with so much, why not try for much more? His father and his lawyer told him to be careful, ‘this is the way out you idiot, get going now! You got away with it!’ He didn’t listen, wouldn’t listen. But what gets me is if you could take advantage of somebody do you do it? But you know, that’s not just in terms of the financial world, it could be in your personal life, it could be in love.
What kind of relationship do you have with Leo after all these years, is it like father and son?
I don’t know if I would describe it as father and son, sometimes he’s the father! (laughs) He’s the one that says, ‘sit down, take it easy buddy!’
And what do you tell him?
(laughs) I usually try to guide him, ‘too much over here, go over here. Less! More!’ But we talk a lot, we talk a lot, and I miss him when we’re not working, we like working together. We’re friends, oh yes.