Drawing a fully packed house, the 29th Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) presented the prestigious Cinema Vanguard Award to legendary director Martin Scorsese and award-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio, on behalf of their working relationship. Having collaborated together five times now, on Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island and The Wolf of Wall Street, the two have brought some intriguing stories to the big screen, with the promise of exciting things still to come. Collider was there to cover and attend the event, and we’ve compiled the highlights of what they had to say during the Q&A.
While there, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio talked about how they first came to work with each other, the experience of making Gangs of New York, how The Aviator came about, playing a real-life person versus a fictional character, what led them to make The Departed, the experience of making Shutter Island, how they almost made The Wolf of Wall Street first, and what took that film so long to get made. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
Question: Leo, this past year was a rather amazing year for you, having portrayed the two twin pillars of wealth in the 20th century, with Gatsby and with Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. How did it come about that you happened to choose those two wealthy characters, and how would you compare them and what wealth meant to them, in their era?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: The truth is that I’ve always been fascinated with wealth in America. To me, it’s been about the American dream and the corruption of that dream. Coming from where I was brought up, I went to a school in Beverly Hills and I always looked at the other side of the spectrum. It’s been a fascination of mine, for a long period of time. Certainly since 2008 and what happened with the economic downfall, [The Wolf of Wall Street] in particular, and this element of our very culture, was something that I wanted to put up on the screen. They have similar motivations. They both come from the underworld. They recreate themselves. But, putting this culture up on the screen is something I’ve been wanting to do, for a long time. Jordan is the antithesis of Gatsby. His motivations come from a reptilian part of his brain, whereas Gatsby is doing it all for love. Those are two entirely different motivations. But since 2008, I felt we needed to explore the darker nature of humanity with these character who have complete disregard for anyone except themselves, and their own greed and lust for power.
Marty, when did you first see Leo on screen?
MARTIN SCORSESE: I think it was some scenes from This Boy’s Life, but it was after Robert DeNiro told me, “By the way, I’m working with this young kid. He’s really good. You should work with him sometime. His name is DiCaprio.” And I said, “Okay.” Especially at that time, in ‘93. The last collaboration I did with DeNiro was Casino, which was our eighth film. It’s been different since. We don’t see each other that often. So, for him to recommend somebody, out of the blue, that way to me, during a phone call, was very, very special. I hadn’t seen Gilbert Grape in the theater, but I happened to catch part of it on television, on one of the film channels. Myself and my wife were watching it, and I thought it was a documentary. I didn’t know. I didn’t recognize Johnny [Depp]. The mother was great. And I was amazed by [Leo]. And then, I realized that it was actually a staged film. I thought, “Who’s that boy?” We saw the name, and it was the name that DeNiro told me about. And then, he made Titanic, which I had nothing to do with. Let’s get that clear. I get seasick. But at that point, it was a big crossroads in my career. I had made Kundun and Bringing Out the Dead, and both films didn’t do very well at the box office. Things were changing. So, Michael Ovitz came up to me and said, “Don’t you want to make Gangs of New York? I’m working with these guys and one of them is Leo DiCaprio, and he happens to like your films.” That’s important. It’s great to have an actor who wants to work with you. So, we started that way. He came on the set of Bringing Out the Dead, and we talked about working together on Gangs.
DICAPRIO: This Boy’s Life was a very coveted role, and a lot of my friends that I grew up with in the industry were all fighting for the role. So, I quickly gave myself a film education. I watched three or four films a day, for what seemed like a year. All of the actors of my generation were influenced by the films of the ‘70s, during the director’s era of filmmaking. And the films that really stood out the most for all of us were [Scorsese’s] films. I remember watching Taxi Driver, specifically, and having the protagonist fool me, in that way. I was so invested in his loneliness and had such empathy for that character, and then, all of a sudden, he was doing an assassination attempt. But more so than that, the areas that Marty was able to explore in his filmmaking, he made you feel so incredibly uncomfortable. He had a way of immersing you in his filmmaking that just really stood out to me, as a young actor. I remember saying to myself, “Someday I want to do something that good. I want to be able to be in one scene of his films.” As soon as I had the opportunity to finance films with my name, this was the first real attempt I made to pro-actively go after a filmmaker and say, “Will you work with me?” I researched Gangs of New York, which he had been writing, on and off, for 20 years, and I said, “Let’s do this.”
Marty, was the script for Gangs of New York that you wrote in 1976, basically what you made, 20 years later?
SCORSESE: Elements of it. Jay Cocks had written the original script, with the entire first section and the battle in the streets and the setting up of Five Points and where I had set the end. But, the character of Amsterdam changed a lot when we got Leo in. The character of Bill the Butcher was in the original, but that changed somewhat, too. All of it really had an extraordinarily complex evolution, as we were making the film, shooting it, rewriting and working on it there.
Gangs of New York was the first time you worked together. Before you started shooting, did you have intensive discussions about the character, his look and the psychology, or did that happen once filming began? How do you go into a picture together, when you’re working together?
DICAPRIO: Honestly, I feel that every film has been different. For lack of a better word, it’s an energy thing. You feel that some things need to be discussed at length, and others can be a discovery process. This movie was much different than any other process that we’ve had. With some films, we talk about the character, the psychology of the character, the historical facts of that time and being relevant. And then, other films have had a looseness to them.
SCORSESE: When Leo agreed to do Gangs, the script was still in flux. Both Jay and I were working on it, for many years. The character of Amsterdam had to be shaped to Leo. That’s something I did on Taxi Driver with DeNiro, on The Color of Money with Paul Newman, and on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore with Ellen Burstyn. I seem to work better that way, when an actor really wants to do it, so that I can shape it around the actors natural behavior, to a certain extent, and utilize it. That’s the most important instrument in front of that lens. That was a constant evolution, as we worked on it. Day by day, it kept changing. We kept finding it, as we tried different things. It was an exciting time, but also difficult and crazy. It was 157 days of shooting, and we were shooting in Rome.
DICAPRIO: It was an amazing set. They really recreated turn-of-the-century New York. If you walked through the backlot, there was an entire bay of New York in the 1860s. You got lost in it. It was a really incredibly difficult undertaking because the entire set was built, and we had to shoot a movie in it.
SCORSESE: So, we were not really in Rome. We were in the Five Points, every day.
DICAPRIO: And a lot of people were in character, constantly.
Marty, Leo and Daniel Day-Lewis are two great actors with very different approaches. How did you deal with that?
DICAPRIO: I remember one of the first days, Daniel Day-Lewis and Marty were getting their feet wet in the whole process, and Daniel wanted to know how to cut the meat. They got a big piece of meat and they sat there, almost the whole nine hours, discussing how to cut the meat.
SCORSESE: My brother used to work in a butcher shop. I used to sit and watch him gut the meat, back in the early ‘50s, in the lower East Side. The butcher was very, very important. The biggest issue was choosing the right knife. That was Bill’s knife, and nobody could touch it. He had a few.
DICAPRIO: We had to get him out of retirement. He was a cobbler. Before that film, he was making shoes for six years, in Italy. He was unsure whether he was going to start acting again. So, I had a big conversation with him, about one of the greatest actors of our time, if not ever, getting back into the industry. It was a pretty interesting conversation.
Leo, as an actor, do you prefer doing more takes per scene, or do you like to shoot quickly?
DICAPRIO: I do prefer doing more takes. There’s something very organic that comes from the first take, but certain things come out. More details come out, in the way another actor says something. It’s always this investigative process. You come further and further to the truth, the more you escalate. Maybe it peaks around the 5th or 6th take. You get into a groove, and then you can become automatic again and start to do a routine. And then, sometime around the 12th or 13th take, you can come back to something more organic again. But, I like to do a lot of takes. I have a hunger for it. I like to see what there is to discover in a scene, that hasn’t been thought of.
SCORSESE: We just try to stay in touch with that, every day.
How did The Aviator come about?
DICAPRIO: Basically, we did Gangs of New York and had a really great working relationship there. I had picked up a book, when I was 21, about Howard Hughes, and I really became obsessed with playing him. He was the most fascinating character I had come across, in a long time. I had actually developed a script with Michael Mann for awhile, and then he went off to do Ali. So, I was sitting there with this screenplay, and I remember sending it over to Marty, in the hopes that he’d be interested in it. The first thing he said was that he didn’t know anything about aviation, but that he didn’t know anything about boxing either, and he did Raging Bull. So, that was encouraging. That, to me, is one of the most nostalgic memories I have, of really making a movie. For the first time, I had that responsibility of bringing material like this to a director of [Marty’s] stature. And then, we created it and did a makeshift Hollywood in Montreal. We did an investigation into who this character was, and this fascinating look into his mind through this screening room and the confinement of that. It was really a miraculous part of my life. I had never submerged myself and really focused on absolutely nothing but that film, for eight or nine months of my life. I was so dedicated to that process. I felt a real responsibility for a movie, for the first time. When you grow up in the industry, the director is your father. You follow your father’s lead, but you make your own way. This was the first time I was like, “Here, dad, do you like it?”
DICAPRIO: Basically, the main difference when you’re playing somebody that’s known throughout history is that you get to look at these great catalogues of their life. When you’re playing somebody who hasn’t lived throughout history, you have to make all of that shit up yourself. In a lot of ways, it’s a lot more work. But, they’re both fascinating and different, in their own respects. I get very nostalgic for history. With Howard Hughes, the idea of this billionaire that was simultaneously deathly afraid of microscopic germs, and who confined himself into a screening room and couldn’t communicate with the outside world, and yet had this immense empire and was influential and powerful, especially in the world of aviation, was fascinating to me. It was really almost like being a journalist. I went back and meant with Jane Russell and Terry Moore, and did an account of everyone I knew that had ever met him. I did a road trip, of sorts. I lived with somebody with OCD. I met the doctor who is a professor on the subject matter. When you create a character on your own, you have to make up that history. I prefer playing people who have actually existed, or who have some grain of truth to them, because it gives you a lot more research to do. Oftentimes, history is just so much more fascinating than the shit you can make up in your own mind.
SCORSESE: This guy was an incredible genius and a brave man. He flew in a little tin tube with heavy turbulence and crash-landed. I had always shied away from the Howard Hughes story. I knew that Steven Spielberg had wanted to make it for many years, and Warren Beatty. With this particular story, I didn’t know what it was, when they gave me the script. As I was reading it, I realized it was Howard Hughes, but it was one I didn’t really know much about. But, he was like an ancient Greek king, in a way, or an old myth. He was like Icarus.
Leo, when you get so immersed in a role, does it affect you personally, at least temporarily?
DICAPRIO: Yeah, it does. The truth is, you shut down the rest of your life. Everything goes on hold. I locked myself in my hotel room, for the entirety of that shoot. What we’re ultimately talking about here is the collaboration between the actor and the director. While I’m singularly focused on my role and so concentrated on doing what I’m doing, while I’m there, it’s so amazing to have somebody that’s simultaneously doing something like using four different technicolor prints that change with the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. All these little intricate details are going on, while I’m just being narcissistic and thinking about my character. It’s amazing. It’s beyond words. He’s in his own little labyrinth, simultaneously.
SCORSESE: It was a role that fit him. He is the picture. As long as he’s there, and I know he’s going to be there, then it’s okay. I had no doubts he would be there, every time I needed Howard.
DICAPRIO: I would come to [Marty] with an intricate list of all of Howard’s eccentricities, like how he would eat his peas, what he would and wouldn’t do, how he’d use a napkin. How he translated that cinematically was amazing. I would say, “This is what I know I need to do for my OCD. This is the way it works, otherwise it equals death for him.” And then, he would shoot it.