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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 matter."

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."


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 human behavior.

"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 his mini-empire.

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 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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