Q&A with Martin Scorsese

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Killers of the Flower Moon.

Marty, the book and the film tell the same story, but they tell it in a different way. Can you talk about the process where you saw this film as a love story, a marriage story, and an Osage story?
Martin Scorsese: I think it goes back first to my love of the American Western genre that I grew up with in the 1940s and 50s, and that was capped off in the early 60s with The Wild Bunch. Then that ended. New world, new time. We came in, we started making films, I made my own scores. I rarely worked with composers because they were part of the Hollywood studio system. I eventually got to work with the likes of Bernard Herrmann and Elmer Bernstein. In any event, I’ve always kept away from it. When I was given the book to Killers of the Flower Moon, I was even more cautious because it had to do with oil. I remember movies like Boomtown and things like that. But I don’t like oil in the street, in the mud, and that sort of thing. I had read the book, but I hadn’t really understood about the nature of the Osage Nation, and how sophisticated and how rich they had become. The scene you’re seeing at the beginning in black and white with the airplanes? That’s their actual 16mm footage. We couldn’t fake that one. The rest of the prologue we shot, and Ellen Kuras directed it for me. We have an old camera from 1916 where we do hand cranking, in black and white. And that was based on their actual footage. All of this was really fascinating. I said, then what happened? They were the richest people in the world, per capita. Then all of a sudden, they’re dying off, just like that. Eric Roth and I started working on the script, and no matter what I did with it, I found that Leo DiCaprio playing Tom White felt too familiar. I felt I had seen it before.  

The violence is done through love and trust

Yeah, you would have basically been making Thunderheart.
Right, or at best, I kept seeing Henry Fonda on the porch of My Darling Clementine, with his legs up on the post. Or the best of Clint Eastwood. We were trying to find the way to make it different. Eric and I were trying to find different ways, and I kept thinking, what’s going on here, really? And, the biggest influence was the visit to Oklahoma that first time. Because I’d never seen land like that—I liked it, I loved it. I tried to create with the Atmos some of the sense and the feeling of being in the prairie. You see differently and you get to know people differently. We started by having a meeting with Chief Standing Bear. At first, I was rather cautious. And so was he. 

How did you make initial contact with him?
When the producers first gave me the book, I told Dan Friedkin and Bradley Thomas and Rick Yorn that the first thing we have to do is make sure it’s okay with the Osage. First, let’s see how far they’ll go with us. Not a hagiography, right? And it went very well. It was in Pawhuska, in the Chief’s office with him and his wife, Julie, and Addie Roanhorse, and Chad Renfro. They were very polite. But they knew the movies I made. And they were concerned about victims and depicting the violence. I was told the meeting would take about half an hour. But instead, it lasted two and a half hours. I started telling stories, we were listening, laughing a little bit and I told him about Silence. He could see Silence.

And Kundun.
And Kundun. One of the guys said, listen, you need to be careful. You’re going to have Mollie Burkhart—Mollie Kyle—as a character and you’re going to be putting words in her mouth. She’s a person that we admire and a person we love. And he was absolutely right. These people are all dead and we’re going to be putting words in their mouth.  After that meeting, we felt more comfortable. Then there was another meeting and they said, well now you have to make this film. Then they took me on location scouting. That’s when I fell in love with the place. There were three main places— Pawhuska, Gray Horse, and Hominy. Three units of the Osage Nation. And because most of the events occurred to the people in Gray Horse, the people in Gray Horse insisted that we meet them too. I felt that that was going to be even a bigger difference, and they organized a dinner for over 250 people, and they were in full regalia. It was beautiful. And, during this traditional dinner, a number of the descendants got up and started talking about it, and that’s the story. Once I heard them, I said, what are we doing with the Bureau guys? I’ve seen that movie. I like those movies, but…

But you haven’t seen this other movie.
Exactly. And then these guys are getting up to speak and talking about their uncle coming in the room and dying in front of them. Margie Burkhart got up—she’s the great granddaughter of Ernest Burkhart. And she said, don’t forget that it’s not just victims and villains, it’s not that straightforward. Ernest and Mollie were in love, she said. Remember that they were in love, and that stayed in my head.

There’s a lot of complexity there. Did you really see it as love story? I kept questioning whether he loved her.
Absolutely. And her too. How much did she know? She must have sensed something. But she trusted and loved him so much and he tells her, “I’m behind you.” When we shot that scene, there were other takes, but that was the take where I believed him. I said, he is behind you. Nothing’s going to hurt you. Of course, they’re giving her this medication, but nothing’s going to hurt her, you know? It’s just going to slow her down. That’s it. Does he understand what’s really going on? No. He’s weak and he’s afraid, and he may be a little dim at times. But the reality is that he doesn’t really believe that Uncle King, that Hale is going to let it go that far. I think Ernest really begins to get it when Hale says, you just got to sign this paper. When Steve Spielberg saw the picture he asked, So Marty, what’s on the paper? I said, I don’t know—are you going to sign papers from that guy?! We didn’t even know when we were shooting if he was going to sign it. Then Leo just took it and signed it. He’s so weak; he gave in. It was perfect.  

You have to be really smart to play dumb.
He would sometimes laugh about it and ask me what was going on in his head. I said he has to be totally delusional about his uncle.

And he deceives himself about the marriage.
The marriage between the two of them, they really loved each other. Everybody kept saying that. Even the FBI guys at the end in the book, they kept looking at each other and asking why she was still in the courtroom. What is it with her, when is she going to realize the truth about this guy? And then she broke up with him afterwards. After, yeah. But I thought, well, that’s the metaphor. The violence is done through love and trust.  

One of the things I really loved about the film, and all your films, is the anthropology. All the details… the cups and saucers, the chairs, everything. It’s amazing. It really looked like Oklahoma.
Well, that’s Jack Fisk. He’s great. Paul Thomas Anderson suggested him to me. We were talking about this… I had to change so much of the crew after Covid. And I put Jackie West on costumes. Originally, when they talked about the rich Osage, I had imagined Mollie’s house to be almost like Tara in Gone with the Wind. And Jack did the research and pointed out to me, it’s more like this and that. Oh my, I said, so we don’t have her coming down the big staircase? My biggest question to him was, how do we know that they’re rich? And he said, well, they spend money differently. And we realize, of course, the cars. It’s a joke, they used to say Europeans would buy cars and when you get a flat, you just go buy another one. Well, it’s a joke, but in reality, a hundred years ago—you know, no roads. You get a flat tire in the middle of a field, you might as well leave the car there.  

That’s right, because you can’t get the inner tubes for them. (To the audience) These are old people talking up here!
You might as well leave the car there, go buy another, and eventually go pick it up, if you can. But the thing that Jack pointed out was that to them, cars were like horses. So, no problem if you had six horses, but if you have six cars, you don’t know what you’re doing with your money.

Q&A with Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino

This film has a different editorial pace and perspective than you usually portray in your films. Would you be able to talk about your approach with these older men in the film?
Martin Scorsese: This is not a film we could have created or made as effectively if we had tried to make it ten years ago. It’s a situation where, like Robert’s character says at the end of the film, you don’t know what time is until you get there. Not until the kids are running around you and worried about you do you have that vantage point. From that perspective, when I read Charles Brandt’s book and Steven Zaillian designed the script did it come together. We went back to the audio recordings of Frank Sheeran. With all those elements, we deduced it was all about memory. Memory is often in flashes, but I was always fascinated at why a slower paced picture is effective. I always remembered Val Lewton films and not seeing everything being the reason it is effective. Or learning again a language of movie making or movie narrative through a slower paced Antonioni which for different reasons, people did not find that accessible in their lifestyle but found it accessible through the film. It is about learning patience with the work. It’s patience and timing. Yes, over the years we have had a lot of excitement and enthusiasm and bursting energy, as part of my makeup; I can’t help that. And the humor is very important, but ultimately over the years, I could not connect, and I think it is bourgeoisie lifestyle, over in Japan, France and here too. And at a certain point I was not interested because there were worse things going on in the world. The thing about it, ultimately, the Ozu pictures when you start to look at them, something happened. Over the period of 20 years ago and earlier is when I began to appreciate the use of inserts and the objects that are photographed. I do still have to put myself in a frame of mind to watch one of those films. I have been in Taiwan and other places, where I see something on Television and I say that looks like Ozu. He’s peeling an apple for 20 minutes and it’s really good. Why am I looking at that? There is a series of small essays by a Japanese author from I think the 17th century called “Essays in Idleness” which has this tone of the film. It deals with life and it deals with the passage of time and how dying is a part of living. Ultimately, it’s like reading Nabokov’s autobiography, “Speak, Memory.” He talks in his autobiography about a memory of light coming through a window when he was a small child. These sorts of things are the memories that stay with us, for whatever reason!

I could have shot for another six months. It was just great.

How did you live inside Jimmy Hoffa and figure out who he was through your very internalized performance? Who was Jimmy Hoffa to you?
Al Pacino: First of all, I had the help of these two great artists, so that was comforting. It’s just that age is part of this, as well as the things you learn and find out. I’ve worked with Bob before, but I only appreciated Marty and what he has done, but have never worked with him. This was a wonderful opportunity, so that helped a lot. Going into the question, to me I have to understand him on my own actor’s terms and try to interpret him. I also had to find him within myself. That is the long complicated story of the actor and the actors work throughout the years. It is to try and find different ways to try to get to something and make it alive and relevant to oneself. There is so much data on Jimmy Hoffa. They were in the process of filming for weeks before I hopped on the project, so it was almost necessary for me to get the research, although actors always use research. There is a certain gestation time where the information needs to be absorbed, and I had so much help here. At the same time, there was all this data, and I watched it, took on some of it in, tried to understand some of it, and find what I would say to him, which would probably be different from someone who knew him very well. It had something to do with his love of something, and his need to somehow be behind something, which was the union and the connection to it. It was that sense of righteousness in him that is understandable when you think of his background and the poverty he came from and the fighting for the rights of the people who did not have wealth. He was sent away to prison and what did he do? He formed groups and tried to help people. When he saw what they were living through, he knew. That aspect of him I related to. The machinations of his life, I don’t know much about them, but he had to take up whatever kept him going. That’s all there was to it. There was a reality and it was real, and although he had the power and believed in it, he was not doing it for the power. He connected with the people he felt connected to in some way. They came from the same kind of background, but he was not mob person.

Mr. De Niro, you are the one who found this book. Is the film as you visualized it? You also do so little and say so much in the performance; can you speak to that?
Robert De Niro: Marty and I were doing another movie. It was kind of like a popular hitman type of thing, but it was not the same thing. Then Marty started showing me the movies of Jean Gabin and Jacques Becker. So then I was saying I had to read this book I had been aware of for a couple of years. I first became aware of it with Eric Roth about two years earlier and he said you have to read this book while we were editing The Good Shepherd. So I said let me read it for research. Then I said to Marty you have to read this. When he read it, he said this is more of what we should be doing. 
MS: Also, me and Bob had been trying to make a picture together since 1995. So that was 24 years we had not worked together. And we kept trying to meet up but we kept missing each other. He would be involved and I would be involved. It ultimately came down to what Bob felt when he read the book and what you thought of the character Frank and the situation of his life. He had a strong connection when he presented the idea to me. I immediately felt we could tap in and go with it.
RD: I felt it also had a greatness and grandness to it. It had these historical characters that had died in ways that we still haven’t actually found out how they died. But there was enough in the character of Frank Sheeran. Personally, I believe what  Frank said. There are others who might not, but I do it as Marty says. This is the way we tell it. It’s like Jake LaMotta. At the end of the day, we interpret it how we felt. 

In this film, there are so many scenes where the characters are not saying what they actually mean. They don’t say “go kill this guy. I know he’s your friend, but oh well.” Can you talk about how you play those scenes?
RD: With Marty, it’s great because we were all so lucky to have the time to do it in the way we wanted to do it. I could have shot for another six months. It was just great. Marty would allow us to try anything, and if he thought it was not right or it was going off track, he would say direct it this way. It was this terrific experience allowing you to explore those subtle things, because you don’t have to do very much to convey something. Nobody understands that better than Marty. That is what it’s about.