THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
The Lush Life of a Wall Street Outlaw
"This story was like a modern-day Caligula to me," says Leonardo DiCaprio,
the film's lead actor and a producer who fought for years to make "The Wolf of
Wall Street." DiCaprio can't help but compare Jordan Belfort to history's most
debauched and insanely indulgent Roman Emperor - but he was awestruck to see
Rome's boundless lust for the illicit transferred to a New York brokerage full
of salesmen from Queens.
It was the setting amidst New York financial outlaws out to have the time of
their lives while blinding themselves to the consequences that drew him in. "In
the late 80s and early 90s Wall Street was so incredibly unregulated, it was
like the wild, wild West," DiCaprio notes. "And Jordan Belfort was one of those
wolves who took advantage of the loopholes to make a gigantic fortune. To me,
his story seemed to embody that specific time when our financial institutions
went completely awry."
DiCaprio was also drawn to Belfort's unconstrained honesty about the heights
of ecstasy he found within his grasp - money flowing so freely people were
having carnal relations on stacks of it until the totally exorbitant became the
ordinary. "What was so fascinating was Jordan's absolute candidness about his
every crazy endeavor. He held nothing back. He pulled no punches. He was
unapologetic about his lust for wealth and his mad consumption - and I felt that
was the basis for a fascinating character. And the fact that he ultimately had
to pay the price made for a great story."
Before Belfort was charged with securities fraud and money laundering, he was
leading his life at the most baroque, orgiastic levels anyone could imagine -
flying own personal helicopter, driving 6 luxury cars, sailing a 167-foot yacht
formerly owned by Coco Chanel, racking up $700,000 hotel and hooker bills and a
feeding a 20-quaalude a day habit cut with cocaine and morphine.
Then, Belfort lost it all. With plenty of time on his hands to reflect, he
chronicled his journey in a tell-all book -- revealing step by startling step
how he started a penny-stock brokerage in a garage, developed it into the
ultimate "pump and dump" shop (where fast-talking brokers pump up stocks to
inflated prices, then dump the over-valued shares, bilking their investors),
then drove his life into the ground with the sheer extent of his appetites.
Written with an irreverent New York sensibility, critics praised the book's
rocketing pace and comic touch, with some seeing it as the consummate tale of
modern money madness gripping America.
Belfort may not have been in the mob per se, but many saw his story as that
of a financial gangster. While his clients suffered disastrous losses, he and
his friends made out like bandits - and they publically reveled in their loot,
causing Forbes Magazine to call Belfort "a kind of Robin Hood who steals from
the rich and gives to himself."
"He's a modern kind of gangster," says Joey McFarland of Red Granite
Pictures, who joined Scorsese, DiCaprio, Riza Aziz and Emma Kaskoff as the
producing team. "He's not like the violent gangsters we know from other films
but the kind of gangster who finds a way on Wall Street to manipulate the
system, fuel his own greed and take advantage of people. In the same way that 'Goodfellas'
was the story of a neighborhood gang, I think this is similar. But this
neighborhood happens to be that of Wall Street. And the people these guys shake
down aren't local shopkeepers but millions of regular people in the privacy of
their own homes."
That, says McFarland, made Martin Scorsese, whose intense, bold films have
been woven into the tapestry of film history, a peerless match with the
material. He was especially thrilled to watch the director take a gleefully
no-limits approach that ratcheted up the story's ink-black comedy.
"The way Marty made the film, it is so funny," he says. "You have the sex, the
drugs and the money, you have this tumultuous journey, and yet there's constant
humor mixed with many emotions. The style Marty brings to the movie makes it an
event of epic proportions. Whenever you get Marty and Leo together it's an event
-- but with this edgy, racy material, it's something special."
Adds producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff, who is President of Production for
Sikelia Productions, working alongside Scorsese on all aspects of his film and
television projects: "When Marty and I first read the script we knew instantly
that we wanted to make this film. In scope, this film is similar to CASINO --
the story is told in that classic Scorsese staccato pacing. I knew Marty's
fearless and uncompromising direction would make him ideal for this subject
DiCaprio had felt the same way. "From the start, I couldn't stop thinking of
Marty for this material," he explains. "He's able to bring a reality, a life and
a sense of comedy to the darkness in this story, and that's something very, very
few filmmakers can accomplish. I always remember Marty telling me that 'Goodfellas'
was a dark comedy - so that's why I approached him originally."
Still, everyone involved was taken aback by the sheer dauntlessness of
Scorsese's leap into unexpurgated depravity. Sums up screenwriter Terence
Winter: "When I saw the movie for the first time, it was jaw dropping. I mean it
was exactly what I had written; yet I couldn't believe the level of insanity and
intensity and hilarity. Just the level to which all of these actors, Leo
particularly, committed was astounding. Marty obviously has that gift where he
can take something off of a page and turn it into a visual storytelling
masterpiece. He created a tsunami of craziness."
THE GANGSTER TRADITION . . . GONE MAD
For Martin Scorsese, Jordan Belfort's story was a chance to go places even he
has never gone before as a filmmaker - into the most comic extremes of real-life
"Jordan's story falls squarely into American fascination with the rise and
the fall -- the gangster tradition," says the director. Yet Jordan took the
gangster tradition and turned it inside out. Rather than hiding from the law, he
flaunted his illegal wealth in every way imaginable - and some ways that weren't
imaginable -- practically begging for the comeuppance that ultimately toppled
Scorsese also saw an opportunity to take a highly entertaining trip around
the cycle of financial ecstasy, madness and disaster that seems to play out over
and over in the American economy.
"As someone who enjoys history, I've been quite stunned and amazed that the
same things keep happening over and over," the director comments. "You have
periods of financial boom with a kind of euphoria when it seems like everybody's
going to get rich and everything's gonna be great -- and then it all falls
apart, and there's a realization that only a few were getting richer at the
expense of others. It happened in the Gilded Age in the late 19th Century. It
happened in 1929. It happened in 1987, which is when our film takes place. It
happened at the turn of this century when the dot.com bubble burst and it
happened again in 2008. And, it could be happening again soon."
Belfort furthermore fit in amidst a certain kind of character Scorsese has
been drawn to throughout his career - men struck by ambition in the most
alluringly flawed, human way, men who succeed on their own terms yet can't
escape a moral morass.
"Jordan's someone who led a life that wasn't exemplary, that was pretty
ignoble in a way," says Scorsese. "Not because he wanted to harm anybody per se
but because this is what he learned from the world around him. So that's
something that I've always been attracted to and is interesting to me - people
like Jordan or Jake LaMotta or Tommy, Joe Pesci's character in 'Goodfellas.'
People try to distance themselves from these kinds of characters: it's someone
else; he's not like me. But in actuality I feel it's not someone else. It is us.
It's you and me and if we had been born under different circumstances we maybe
would have wound up making the same mistakes and choices and doing exactly the
same things. I'm interested in acknowledging that part of these characters which
is in our common humanity and we have to deal with it."
Scorsese saw all of this brought to the fore in Terence Winter's screenplay.
Winters is best known for his Emmy-winning work on "The Sopranos" and for the
hit Prohibition-era series
"Boardwalk Empire," which Scorsese executive produces, but he also worked at
Merrill Lynch for in the 1980s. So he was able to twine together an intimate
knowledge of the financial world with a penchant for writing about the lure and
perils of the high life. He began his research by going directly to the source,
meeting several times with Belfort.
"Jordan was unbelievably forthcoming," Winter recalls. "I mean the book
doesn't hold anything back, but in person it's even more so. He went into great
detail about the drug use and the orgies and the relationships and really
everything. He was an open book. From there, I interviewed his parents, his
ex-wife, the FBI agents who brought him down, the people who worked for him and
the also some of the people he scammed."
Soon, Winter had a multi-dimensional portrait of Belfort in his head, "The
genius, if you will, of Jordan is that he is extremely seductive - he's funny
and smart and he also can be charmingly self-deprecating. And I think that's
also true of the people who went to work for him. You know, these were people so
charming that for a moment you forget they were really robbing everyone else."
He continues: "For me what was interesting is that it makes you say, 'there
but for the grace of God go I.' Jordan started out a regular kid in Queens. His
parents were accountants - and he all wanted was to make good, to be successful
like we all do, and then he just fell down a tremendous rabbit hole. He had
these natural gifts as a salesman, but then he got corrupted by the system until
he was feeding off of it. I saw it as the story of a fresh-faced kid who turned
into a financial monster."
That monster soon had an insatiable, out-sized craving for every toy and
pleasure known to humankind. "This is not just a story about the rise and fall
of a guy who stole money on Wall Street. It's also a story of a guy whose life
became unbelievably full of insane events that were generated with by his
obsession with sex and drugs. He was basically addicted to everything a human
being can become addicted to," notes Winter. "He just wanted more, more, more.
More drugs. More women. The biggest yacht. Homes all over the place. And it got
wildly out of control. Part of the fun was trying to full create this
roller-coaster ride of insanity."
Winter sees this accounting of insanity as particularly intriguing right now,
in the wake of a global financial crisis that exposed widespread corruption -
and altered the public view of Wall Street forever. "Here we are in 2013, five
years after the incredible collapse of our economy, and so many of the people
who were responsible remain in incredibly important positions," Winter points
out. "So we still have to wonder if we've yet learned anything."
DiCaprio was exhilarated by Winter's writing. "Terry wrote a screenplay that
encapsulated all the most insane moments of Jordan's life - and he stylistically
wrote it for Martin Scorsese. He also
gave me some of the most wonderful dialogue I've ever had the opportunity to say
as an actor. We're incredibly thankful that he did the adaptation because he
painted so many nuances into all these characters and brought bold color into it
in a way I don't think anyone else could."
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