Martin Scorsese’s latest film, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” hit theaters over the holiday and was met with very interesting reactions. In some corners, it’s an unqualified masterpiece, willfully overt and satirical in its depiction of greed and excess. In others, it’s an irresponsible culprit that appears to be delighting in the wild ride it depicts.
For the film’s producer and star Leonardo DiCaprio, it is a bit of both, as the sheer entertainment of the piece isn’t meant to be at odds with its social indictment. That, in some ways, is the horror of it. But it certainly isn’t the first Scorsese film to cause a stir upon release and it won’t likely be the last.
DiCaprio recently spoke to HitFix about the high ambition of the project, the gobsmacked reaction it has received and how not just his work in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but his involvement in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” earlier this year and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” in 2012 have all been an examination of a shared theme: pursuit of a corrupted American dream.
HitFix: I don’t know if you recall but we spoke after the Golden Globes last year when you were in the middle of filming “The Wolf of Wall Street” and you told me you thought it was going to be your best work. Does it feel that way now that the whole thing has finally come to fruition?
Leonardo DiCaprio: I think that at least the attempt going into it was to try to do something really outside of the box and I think Marty had the same approach. Every time we wanted to make a choice to go into a sort of traditional story structure or make choices for the characters that were things that we’ve seen in films before, we tried to do something a little different. In that regard I feel very proud of this performance. I think we took a lot of chances, and no matter what people think of the movie, we swung for the fences on this one. That’s what I’m really excited about and happy that we just had the opportunity to do, to tell you the truth, because I’ve been in this business for a long period of time and certainly when you’re doing an epic of this scale, you don’t get an opportunity to do that very often. That was in large part due to the people that were financing this, who said, “We want to take this chance. We think there’s a marketplace for something like this.” I keep referencing “Caligula” but you think about “Scarface,” films like that, I don’t know how people are going to react to it right off the bat, but I think as the years roll by people will appreciate what we were trying to do here.
Well that’s what’s interesting because, like a great many of Scorsese’s movies, this one is being met with a touch of controversy right off the bat for its depiction of excess. There are those who see it as more of an irresponsible glorification than a satirical takedown. What’s your response to that?
I think anyone who thinks that missed the boat entirely. I grew up in a generation of watching Marty’s movies and when you come from a standpoint of being someone who is so influenced by him and De Niro’s work, to hear specific reactions they had to films that, now, as the years roll by – we’re all desensitized to those things, you know what I’m saying? To hear that there were any type of reactions that weren’t – I’m not saying people should particularly praise this film for that reason, but I think it takes a while to permeate into the culture a little bit. When I see his movies now, it’s a shock to me that there was ever any kind of – I mean I listened to stories of “The Last Temptation of Christ.” I listened to stories of “Goodfellas” and “Taxi Driver” and even “Mean Streets,” but to me they’re a classic part of American cinema history that have influenced so many other filmmakers and so many other genres. It’s insane.
It’s exciting to be a part of a film, in a way, that is kind of bold and is taking a chance like that, and I think that anyone that thinks this is a celebration of Wall Street and this sort of hedonism – yes, the unique thing about Marty is that he doesn’t judge his characters. And that was something that you don’t quite understand while you’re making the movie, but he allows the freedom of this almost hypnotic, drug-infused, wild ride that these characters go on. And he allows you, as an audience – guilty or not – to enjoy in that ride without judging who these people are. Because ultimately, he keeps saying this: “Who am I to judge anybody?” I mean ultimately I think if anyone watches this movie, at the end of “Wolf of Wall Street,” they’re going to see that we’re not at all condoning this behavior. In fact we’re saying that this is something that is in our very culture and it needs to be looked at and it needs to be talked about. Because, to me, this attitude of what these characters represent in this film are ultimately everything that’s wrong with the world we live in.
It’s “warts and all.” It’s, “Here it is. Can you believe it? Can you handle it?”
It’s true, and, look, I’m going to be 40 years old, but I see the new generations – of course there are a lot of very conscious minds out there that want to do good for the world, but there’s this incessant need for consumerism and wanting more and wanting to give into every indulgence that is more rampant than ever. That shift doesn’t seem to be happening in the evolution of our species. It just seems to be getting larger and larger. So yeah, to me, look, this movie is incredibly entertaining. But what we’re talking about is, to me, a very serious subject. That’s the best way I can put it.
I spoke with Thelma Schoonmaker recently about the improvisation of the movie and how that is what ended up blowing the film up like a balloon, and then they shaved it down from there. But it was crucial to getting what you were going for. So what did that improvisation open up for you as an actor.
This is our fifth collaboration together and everything coming into the process of “Gangs of New York” was a different experience for me. I really wanted to just support Marty in making this epic about the history of New York that he had wanted to do for so long. And then through the years, we did a lot of work that I’m very proud of, but they were very beholden to a very specific plot structure – not specific plot structure but we had certain endings and certain things needed to happen from a story perspective that would culminate in that specific ending. This, we knew we weren’t taking on Shakespeare. We knew we weren’t taking on precious material. This was a character study. We were trying to capture something in the characterization of these people. So very early on, every time the screenplay or the rehearsals got to a point of taking a traditional approach, he would challenge all the actors to free things up.
It was a lot like what I remember the process was like from watching the documentaries on “The King of Comedy.” That’s really one of my favorite films that Marty’s ever done and one of the most under-appreciated films that he’s ever done. I watched a lot of the improv stuff with Jerry Lewis and De Niro. They had a pre-production sort of improv process. So then [on “Wolf”], the scenes would be sort of rewritten, all with the basic structure of what Terry wrote, but then we’d go on set and everything would just fan off into a million different directions. I think it was probably hard for them to contain all of that. I mean, sometimes we’d do certain sequences that would go for a day that we were only supposed to be there for a couple hours on, but that’s what Marty is always trying to capture and I realized that more so than ever on this film. He really is trying to find that one moment in the interaction of the characters or those few little bits of dialogue and the way the characters interact that ultimately define what the entire movie’s about. And that’s where he and Thelma are so unbelievable. They’ll sit and wade through all that improv. Thelma said she had a great time with it but it’s about finding those little gems through an entire day of actors sort of going haywire. For me, this guy, Jordan Belfort, really took on a life of its own within me as an actor. Those features that I got to do, they really were something that I never predicted they would be through this six years of thinking about them.
With all of that in mind, the quaaludes sequence is obviously going to be the scene everyone talks about with this film for years to come.
That was really through the pre-production process, too. We got together and said, “How do we up the ante of adding tension to this stuff?” Because there were three different sequences that I kind of suggested, “Let’s make this like a film within a film,” almost like that great sequence within “Goodfellas” when he’s stirring the marinara and the helicopters and the cocaine and the hat. I wanted it to be something like that. That was Marty’s favorite sequence in the movie, too. And then the Popeye thing came into play, which I thought was just the cherry on the cake.
And getting back to the sort of controversy bubbling around the film, it seems worth it to sit back in awe at a guy in his 70s who is still able to rile people up like this.
To be honest, just as an audience member, to see somebody that is this current and this vital and can get a whole new generation of people excited to go see something that is taking a lot of chances, to me, is a gift in its own right. The response that I’ve been getting from a lot of peers really makes me feel proud that he got to do a movie like this still, and that he’s still that relevant. Maybe there aren’t any directors that are still this relevant at this day and age. It’s incredible to be able to go to a movie theater and be able to see a Martin Scorsese film that is still radical like this. The guy is still swinging for the fences, which is fantastic.
I wanted to touch on Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” a bit, too, which is a film I liked quite a bit with a passion I appreciated. But it’s interesting that you’re depicting these two characters of excess – and Calvin Candie from last year’s “Django Unchained” fits, too. But these two characters this year have fascinating parallels.
Totally different motivations for the characters, but, nonetheless, you know, both characters that are from the east coast accumulating wealth in the underworld. Motivated for different reasons. Obviously we know what Gatsby was doing it for and I think Jordan was doing an entirely self-serving endeavor. And that’s what we wanted to focus on for this was having absolutely nothing that the audience could feel we were trying to create some false sense of empathy or sympathy for the character. We wanted it to be an embodiment of corporate greed in a lot of ways. The book was written by Jordan to be a cautionary tale, and it is. He looks back at this time period as a huge learning process for him and he’s been making a lot of changes in his life since.
For me, the truth is that I’ve obviously been fascinated by this subject matter. In a lot of ways I look at America and the world we live in and the world economy and it’s just surreal. Coming from where I grew up to being an observer of the massive amount of wealth that’s out there and this incessant need that people have to accumulate more and what people deem as important to them is fascinating subject matter for me. It really is. And I suppose that’s why all three of these movies have been, in a way, some sort of an indictment of that, no matter how people perceive it. Because I feel like we’re endlessly expanding. We’re endlessly accumulating more and more and there are more and more billionaires popping up every day, and you often wonder, “Okay, what is their contribution to the world?” When are we going to take that crossroads where they actually have a concern for anyone except themselves? All three of those movies, I didn’t even realize, were about Americans trying to pursue that same corrupted dream.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is now playing in theaters.