When asked about “The Wolf of Wall Street” and working with director Martin Scorsese on the film, Leonardo DiCaprio said, without a moment’s hesitation, that it was “beyond my wildest dreams.”
It’s a pretty bold statement coming from someone with a body of work that includes Academy Award-nominated performances and some of the most revered films of the past few decades. He’s also worked with some of the most esteemed directors, from Chris Nolan to Steven Spielberg and of course, Martin Scorsese, with whom DiCaprio has done “The Aviator,” “Shutter Island,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Departed,” and most recently, “The Wolf of Wall Street.” (Let’s also not forget his role as leading man in James Cameron’s timeless “Titanic,” which captured the hearts of girls and women everywhere, and cemented him into the American cultural zeitgeist.)
As part of a retrospective celebrating the duo’s longtime creative collaboration, DiCaprio joined “The Wolf of Wall Street” editor Thelma Schoonmaker and writer Terence Winter for a panel discussion at a packed Ziegfeld Theater in NYC.
DiCaprio credits much of the success of the film – one that, as he put it, “culminated in wows” – to the level of trust and element of discovery cultivated by Scorsese on the set.
“We had an incredible script from the outset, but the actors came in feeling like it was free form,” he said.
In this collaborative environment and with the comfort level and tone that Scorsese set, the actors were able to explore, DiCaprio said.
“And that’s where you find the gold,” he said. “You couldn’t script all of this. Some of the most incredible moments weren’t in the script.”
The now-famous scene in which Matthew McConaughey beats his chest, for example, was born out of his acting warm-up ritual, which DiCaprio called out, suggesting that they thread it into the movie. (Watch McConaughey explain it here.)
“It was such fun,” said Schoonmaker, who said that as she edited, she could hear Scorsese laughing on the set. “I was roaring with laughter. [The scenes were] so rich right from the start. It came out of very beautiful writing. The humor was so unique. I’ve never seen a group of actors work together so beautifully. They had this loose, very creative thing on the set.”
“This was a unique type of film,” DiCaprio said, likening the film to a Hieronymous Bosch painting. “Marty infused in the actors that we were in modern day Roman Empire. We were hedonistic to utter extremes.”
The Bosch simile resonates particularly well when thinking about the artist’s most famous painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” — a sprawling, complex painting with vivid, fantastic imagery employed to illustrate moral and religious notions. “Wolf,” too, illuminated a moral void, one hedonistically inhabited by Jordan Belfort and his crew of “sleazy salesmen.” And, certainly, much of it was fantastic: midgets being thrown at a bullseye; Belfort crash-landing his helicopter in his own yard; his yacht sinking in the Mediterranean during a wild storm; sex atop stacks of money; Belfort’s near-perfect-looking second wife… the list goes on for three hours on-screen.
As for the structure of the script, Winter had a lot to deal with, both in terms of Belfort’s voluminous real-life memoirs on which the movie is based, and portraying the moral bankruptcy of the characters and their actions — infidelity, deception, addiction, embezzlement.
“I didn’t judge Jordan,” Winter said. “It was about finding those moments that back-to-back took you down his path.” The movie would have been 18 hours if it followed the action of Belfort’s memoirs, he said.
“Plot is irrelevant to Marty,” DiCaprio said, joking that he’s sure that’s what every writer wants to hear.
But Winter ran with it.
“The deeper meaning is that it’s all about behavior and character, and that informs the plot,” he said. “Tie enough of that behavior together and you have a plot.”
“It’s a very rare film,” DiCaprio said. “I’ve been doing a lot of press for it because I want more films like this to get made. The director was able to put vision on screen without too much interference. This is the director’s cut. This is the culmination of artists that got together. It’s a dark look at the world around us. And hilarious.”