The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Wolf of Wall Street.
What was the process of you discovering the source material and trying to get it produced?
DeCaprio: As soon as I read the novel I thought, “This is like a modern day Caligula.” It’s like the Roman Empire in the 80’s, and a time period I lived through and was familiar with. There have been films about Wall Street before, and characters like this, and it was a very difficult film to finance because it is a completely different approach to a subject matter that all of America has a very bad taste in their mouth about— they relate it to the entire fall of our economy. This kind of attitude, that moral decay, the constant consumption and need for more, especially in the world of Wall Street, is not the most fashionable thing. It really took outside financing to bring the epic scale of what this movie needed to be. It needed to look like the Roman Empire and the fall of the Roman Empire.
“The audience is meant to be seduced very much like the clients were being seduced.”
What was it like as an actor to improvise in these scenes?
DeCaprio: It was fantastic, every day we were infused with energy. I’ve honestly never seen Marty happier. It was an amazing experience. It was a freeing experience for everyone; this is a biography of somebody’s life, so essentially we brought all this new information in and had free reign to go off in a thousand different directions. We weren’t doing Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby, as far as a novel is concerned, so it allowed us to take it in a multitude of different directions. The person that I take my hat off to is really Velma having to weed through all the takes. I remember Marty telling a story about Goodfellas, about one of everyone’s favorite lines: “What am I, a clown? Am I here to amuse you?” He said that scene took maybe a day, a day and a half of filming. It wasn’t really in the script, it was just a title: “The guys hanging out.” And the actors started riffing, and he just let the cameras go and that says something about Marty and Velma’s process. Marty just sitting there for an hour hysterically laughing at these characters going after each other, and their process of taking that one little gem and polishing it down to this unbelievable moment. And that’s so indicative of their work and what makes them different. Their characters’ drive and who they are, their personalities, is ultimately what motivates the plot. Marty always talks about plot and he doesn’t want to be beholden to it, he wants the flavor of who these people are to dictate what the story is.
Schoonmaker: It’s not easy to edit improv scenes like that, but it’s such fun. We haven’t done improv in so long; there was a little in The Departed, with Leo trying to hold on to his saddle while Jack Nicholson was going mad, but Goodfellas and Casino and Raging Bull were permeated with it and it’s very hard to cut because you run into all kinds of matching problems—which we don’t care about, by the way. We’d rather have a bad cut, of which there are quite a few in this movie, and keep the performance. It’s such fun, I’ve always loved it and having had some experience editing documentaries, you’re given a big mass of material and you have to shape it to make it work as a dramatic scene.
How did you approach balancing the humor and horror in depicting the lives and actions of these characters?
Winter: These people are absurd. This is one of those situations where if you’re not laughing you’re crying. It’s all fun until somebody gets hurt. We didn’t show a lot of the people who got hurt; we blew past it consciously, it was a very conscious choice in the early meetings with Leo and Marty. For example, there’s one scene where he talks about the guy who married the girl in the office who everybody slept with, and then he committed suicide a couple years later, “but anyway, blah blah…!” Before you’ve even registered, “what? Is that a body in a bathtub?” you’ve already moved on to the next scene and you’re forgetting the carnage in the wake of these guys. That was one of many instances, along with the head shaving, where we just blew past these things. It was really consciously written in a way that the audience is meant to be seduced very much like the clients were being seduced. The real Jordan is very charming, and certainly Leo as Jordan is even more so; and you’re laughing at the fun these guys are having and it’s a riot, the money and the drugs and the sex, and you’re forgetting who’s on the other end of that telephone. And that’s very much by design. It was very well thought out, in advance, how we were going to depict these guys. I think “black comedy” is the only way to really describe it and think about it.
How does Scorsese choose the iconic music that he uses in his films, and how is it edited?
Schoonmaker: Marty is the designer of the music, not me, though I have the great joy of listening to some of his choices he sometimes brings; often he’ll have an absolutely clear idea of a piece of music he wants to use, and that’s been the case throughout my editing experience with him. I think he has the greatest gift of putting music to film of anyone I’ve ever seen. And sometimes it’s completely unexpected or over the top of what you do expect, and when he said he was going to use that cover of “Mrs. Robinson” and I laid it against that beautiful shot of the FBI coming in, I just got chills right away. It was such a brilliant idea. It just coveys the sadness of the ending of the film, and to carry it through as far as he did was brilliant. All of his choices in this film are amazing and he said he got a lot of them while he was shaving and listening to the radio, and heard all kinds of wonderful things he then put in the movie. But he did already have other ideas of things he knew he wanted to use in certain places. I will never forget when I realized that Mascagni was going to be the theme song for a boxer in America. Or Bach over the opening sequence of De Niro being blown up in a car. Marty never ceases to stun me in his choices, and it has nothing to do with me but I love working with him. On Casino he had a big chart with tons of songs and we’d try maybe seven songs against the first cut of the sequence, and there’d usually be one that just clicks. Here he was much more decisive, he knew very much where he was going with it, and when you think of what he did in Shutter Island that’s all modern classical music, it’s completely different.