SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio hit the stage at the Arlington Theatre Thursday night as co-recipients of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Cinema Vanguard Award. A two-hour discussion, moderated by The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy, covered all bases of their 12-year pas de deux, including, of course, their introduction to each other’s work.
For DiCaprio, that moment was seeing “Taxi Driver” for the first time, as he has mentioned in the past. Having a protagonist “fool” him in that manner caught him totally off guard. Throughout Scorsese’s work, “you feel a tremendous amount of passion for a character, yet feel embarrassed for them,” he said, citing examples such as Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin. And that could certainly be extended to Jordan Belfort, but we’ll get to that.
For Scorsese, he first heard DiCaprio’s name when another frequent collaborator, Robert De Niro, suggested he work with him, as the iconic actor was very impressed with what the youngster offered on the set of 1993’s “This Boy’s Life.” Not long after, Scorsese saw “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and that name popped up again: Leonardo DiCaprio.
Of course, there were many years between then and “Gangs of New York,” the 2002 epic that would mark their first collaboration. Though “Gangs” had been gestating for over 25 years at that point (ads for the film popped up in the trades in 1976). DiCaprio was eager to work with Scorsese and, as he garnered a bit of cache in the wake of his mid-90s hits, he researched the director’s passion project and threw his hat into the ring.
As they looked back at the experience, one of the main things that stuck out was Dante Ferretti’s massive-scale production design at the Cinecittà studio in Rome.
“You got lost in it,” DiCaprio said. “It was an incredible undertaking.”
Moving to 2004’s “The Aviator,” here was a passion project of DiCaprio’s, one he nurtured and developed with director Michael Mann. But when Mann went off to direct “Ali,” he was left with this fantastic script he was eager to see through, and Scorsese seemed the perfect fit.
“I had always shied away from the Howard Hughes story,” Scorsese said. “Spielberg wanted to make it, Warren Beatty. But this was the story of Howard Hughes I hadn’t seen.” It was a portrait of a dreamer who had “wings of wax,” the filmmaker said, citing the Icarus myth. It was also an opportunity for Scorsese to indulge in his classic Hollywood and filmmaking interests. “That was the hook,” he said. “I was seduced by the possibility of creating that time. I was born in the 40s and grew up with swing music. I have nostalgia for it.”
He delighted in playing with two-strip Technicolor and tinkering with a bunch of filmic tricks to bring the film to life in exciting ways. DiCaprio mentioned at one point that it was a “next level of collaboration” for the two, because of how his research into Hughes’ neuroses informed how Scorsese shot them, from an x-ray blast of Hughes’ skull cut into a film premiere sequence (signifying the mogul’s sense of feeling invaded) to quick insert shots built around how he eats at a dinner table, it was a synthesis of creativity and clearly the moment where the two artists began to fire on all cylinders.
After the weight of those two epics, though, Scorsese was spent. He and DiCaprio knew they wanted to do something else together, but they weren’t sure what. “I wanted to do a down and dirty B film,” Scorsese said. “I had had it with ‘The Aviator,’ in a good way, because I made a spectacle. I just wanted to do a street war.”
Eventually “The Departed” crossed both their desks and seemed to be the one. “It was a film that didn’t give a damn about anything,” Scorsese said, which is significant given the overall sense that when he finally seemed to stop “caring” about winning awards, the awards came. (“The Departed” won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing.)
An aside here on “Shutter Island,” which was only touched upon briefly. That film was firmly in my top 10 in 2010 and I feel perfectly fine about that four years later. It’s an amazing, masterful piece of genre filmmaking, a forest lost through the trees by many who seemed hung up on its plot devices. When you look at the craft, it’s STAGGERING work. It should have been a Best Picture nominee (which would have made it five in a row for Scorsese as of late), but anyway…
Then, of course, there’s this year’s cause célèbre: “The Wolf of Wall Street.” We covered DiCaprio’s vision of it as part and parcel of an examination of wealth with “The Great Gatsby” and “Django Unchained” in a December interview, but to reiterate, “it’s about the American dream and the corruption of that dream,” DiCaprio said Thursday. “Putting this culture up on screen is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.” He drew a distinction between Jay Gatsby and Jordan Belfort, however, noting that the former did it all for love, while the latter was responding to the “reptilian part of his brain.”
Jonah Hill was on hand to present the award to the duo. Citing Joe Pesci’s “what do you mean I’m funny” scene, he recalled, “I had never seen something so funny and dangerous and scary and real all within moments of each other, in the same scene,” he said. “From the moment I saw that scene, I decided to dedicate my life to film.”
A few years later he saw “Gilbert Grape” and, being a young boy who wasn’t aware of DiCaprio’s work otherwise, he thought the character was played by a real mentally challenged actor. “I had never thought of the idea that an actor can become that different from who they were as a person,” he said. “From that moment on I wanted to dedicate my life, not only to film, but to being an actor. It was a moving experience for me.”
For “The Wolf of Wall Street,” DiCaprio landed his fourth nomination for acting to date, while Scorsese, too, was nominated for his direction. Both, meanwhile, shared in its Best Picture nomination as producers, so the culmination of something certainly seems to be in the air. No better time, then, for them to receive this sort of recognition from the golden coast.