Wolf of Wall Street, The (2013): Scorsese’s New Epic Crimer

In 2007, Leonardo DiCaprio won a bidding war against Brad Pitt for the rights to Jordan Belfort‘s memoir The Wolf of Wall Street, which followed the downward spiral (and eventual jailing) of one of the Street’s brightest stars as he got hooked on drugs and prostitutes — while the FBI nipped at his heels.

DiCaprio stars as Belfort alongside Jonah Hill as his henchman Donnie Azoff in a movie that also features Matthew McConaughey and Margot Robbie.

The film reunites DiCaprio with director Martin Scorsese for the fifth time, but nobody wanted to finance it until indie producer Red Granite Pictures agreed to fully fund the $100 million-plus drama, which Paramount is releasing domestically.

That was just the beginning of the film’s bumpy ride — which included a lawsuit demanding credit from executive producer Alexandra Milchan; a battering by Hurricane Sandy (the movie had to shut down for several days).

Then there was a race against time as Scorsese cut the film from four-hours-plus to just under three, delaying its release until December 25.

There were “multiple rounds” of cuts with the MPAA to qualify for an R rating. Says Paramount chairman Brad Grey, “There were really not major cuts in this movie; there were trims.” Despite the trims (which included the removal of many f—s and the tightening of an airplane orgy scene), all those connected to Wolf say it remains the story they wanted to tell. “Films exploring humanity’s darker nature are the most profound,” says DiCaprio.

Make it happen

SCORSESE: There was resistance based on the material. In a studio situation, this kind of picture would have been very difficult and wouldn’t be worth making. And so we stopped. And we said, “Look, we want to do something together,” so we wound up doing Shutter Island. However, over the years, Leo’s been talking to me about it.

Meeting DiCaprio

DICAPRIO: I was in New York. I was 18 or so. I had just done What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and there was an afterparty at some bar downtown. You (to Scorsese) were there. I quickly bumped into you, and I was sort of paralyzed. And I just sort of stood there, and [you said]: “Hey, kid, I saw your movie. You did a great job. Keep it up.” And I just didn’t say anything.  And I was shocked. I had done two movies at that time, This Boy’s Life and Gilbert Grape. I was shocked that he had actually seen the film and said something. I was just blown away.

SCORSESE: I don’t remember that. I remember seeing the film, of course, and Robert De Niro was the one who told me about Leo. He said, “I worked with this kid in this film. You should really work with him someday.” And he doesn’t usually do that.

DICAPRIO: I didn’t quite understand what a professor of film he is, how he could challenge anyone in the world as far as his knowledge of film is concerned. He keeps talking about plot being insignificant to him; when he does a movie, it’s about the characters, it’s about the people. And that’s a process that needs to be nurtured. So, what surprised me about him was all those things — and what a nice guy he is.

SCORSESE: Working together reignited my enthusiasm for making pictures. There’s always something more, there’s always more to mine with him. He keeps going deeper and deeper.  The energy of making films. By the time we made The Aviator, in 2004, I had made films for, like, 35 years. And it was a matter of, what would I want to spend my time on? And, getting older, what do you have to say? Is it worth spending the time and going through the process? It takes a year and a half to two years of my life each time. Leo’s enjoyment of the work and the ability to take chances made me excited again. ‘Cause Gangs of New York was a massive project and had been for many, many years, and I was depleted after that. And Aviator was the one where he pulled me back in, and I said, “Oh, yeah, I’m interested.”

Faith in the power of film?

SCORSESE: Can a film really change anything? I mean, what was the last time? Maybe the Italian neo-realists, where they became the voice and the heart and the soul of Italy, a nation that had been destroyed. I don’t know. But, like anything else — a book or painting or music — if it stays with you, if it’s part of the culture, maybe it can make some headway.

DiCaprio as Producer

SCORSESE: But we work very closely on how many days we should go, where should we put the emphasis in production. We got hit with Hurricane Sandy; we had to close down for a week. We had to stop, and every day they’d say, “We’ll go tomorrow.” And then it was next day and next, and finally they stopped.

The crane of 57th Street started to fall because of Hurricane Sandy, and my editing room is across the street, and we couldn’t get in the block so I couldn’t even go and edit. So the whole week we just waited.

Nervous as a director?

SCORSESE: All the time. It’s horrible, wonderful. Wonderful and horrible at the same time.

Extraordinary scenes: Jonah’s and Leo’s characters get high on “Lemmon” quaaludes.

SCORSESE: Leo hurt his back on the telephone when he was talking and fell backwards on a rig that we worked on.  What he did was almost like Jacques Tati or Jerry Lewis in that scene. How you gonna do it? You can’t just be talking on the phone, because you can’t form the words because of the drugs.

Drug experts?

SCORSESE: I also remembered things from years ago. I had my times. I said, “You try to form the word, but it isn’t there.” The tongue and the mouth, the palate just won’t respond.

We did rehearse in a rehearsal hall and read the scenes. And there were some improvisations typed up. It became another monster epic by itself, and I trimmed it way down in editing, and there are only a couple of lines from the improv that remain, actually.

SCORSESE: It’s also something that I think is part of human nature. I think all of us, under certain circumstances, could be capable of some very despicable acts. And that’s why, over the years, in my movies I’ve had characters who didn’t care what people thought about them. We try to be as true to them as possible and maybe see part of ourselves in there that we may not like.

Release delayed

SCORSESE: It took longer to cut the shape of the picture, that’s all. Very simple.  The final cut is 2:59. The initial version was over four hours.

Director Cut

SCORSESE: That talk about these “director cuts” — it doesn’t really apply. In the old days, if the studio took the film away from you and they made a cut and there was a director’s cut here and somebody found it — that’s a director’s cut. But a longer cut is a longer cut. There’s a couple of lines of dialogue I would’ve liked to put back in. But it’s been quite an experience putting this together in the editing room. For the past five weeks now, it’s been day and night, seven days a week, mixing, cutting, re-cutting.

Film’s subject

SCORSESE: It goes back to what the concept of America is. Yes, you can have extraordinary opportunities. But is it a place [where] the main opportunities are to get rich or about human rights? Is it about a sense of freedom, a pursuit of happiness, or is it just about getting rich?