Apr 1 2014, 7:08pm CDT | by Forbes
The central character of Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort is in fact a real person, but even if he wasn’t, screenwriter Terence Winter wouldn’t have to look far to find someone as a model for his grand guignol expose of the carpetbaggers who exploited our financial markets to devastating effect. Belfort’s memoir provided Winter and his collaborators with a richly dramatic foundation – a virtual catalog of debauchery – of offenses, both professional and personal, perpetrated against Wall Street, investors, even dwarves. But Belfort is hardly the only broker who recklessly exploited his clients and left the economy in shambles while filling his own coffers – and Winter is eager to observe how his subjecct’s offenses seem almost “quaint” in comparison to some of the people who followed in his footsteps.
Winter recently talked about his approach to the material, including his initial impressions of Belfort’s contrition after bankrupting investors while living a life he barely should have survived to tell the world about. Additionally, the screenwriter talked about his collaboration with Scorsese and DiCaprio on perfecting the film’s remarkably even, nonjudgmental tone, and offered his thoughts about the lessons – alternately moral and fiduciary – that audience might take away from the film’s gonzo chronicle of Wall Street excess.
When you first approached this material, did you feel like Jordan Belfort was apologetic about what’s he’d done, or did it have the same braggadocio as the film?
I didn’t really get a sense of the apology until I actually met Jordan in person. And it’s interesting – with words on a page, it’s hard to convey emotion, and even in the book when Jordan would say, “I felt terrible, BUT,” and then he would sort of go on to gleefully describe what he did. And you’d say, gee, is he sorry, or isn’t he? And it was kind of hard to tell, until I met the guy in person. And I can comfortably say, I don’t think there’s anyone on the planet who would rather turn back the clock and not be the Wolf of Wall Street more than Jordan Belfort. I think he absolutely regrets all of the choices he made going down that rabbit hole, and as he said it to me himself, he just felt like he kept drawing these lines for himself in the sand, these things he would never do, and then through the combination of Quaaludes and rationalization and all of this other stuff, he started finding himself up to his neck in water, and it was too late. But I do however think he would much rather have gone down a different road.
What if anything did you exclude in the telling of his misdeeds that might actually have gone too far, in either his business practices or his personal hijinks?
I think it’s pretty much all in there – I don’t think I edited anything. I mean, there’s stuff in there when I was reading it that I thought, this can’t be true – no one can ingest this many drugs in one day and survive. Before I was reading I didn’t have any idea about Jordan aside from that he’d written a book, and I said, this guy can’t be alive at the end of this! It’s impossible, the excess in terms of drug use, the excess in terms of dangerous situations that he put himself into, the yacht crashing, I was kind of wondering how much artistic license he took in terms of embellishing. And I spoke to the FBI agent who arrested Jordan and the first thing he said was, look – I tracked this guy for ten years. Every single thing in that book is true. And that’s what makes this book so unbelievable, and when you get to know Jordan, it’s just like he’s got one of these lives that’s full of these bizarre coincidences and insane things that happened to him. I mean, he gets to prison and Tommy Chong is his cellmate! But when you get to know Jordan, you go, of course. That’s what happens to him. And that was very well documented in Time Magazine, the whole crash of that yacht, so in terms of pulling back, I think it’s pretty much all in there – kind of the kitchen sink. I mean, I wasn’t trying to paint a picture of Jordan one way or another or persuade people one way or another. The whole mandate was to lay out this story honestly and let people draw from it what they will – to make of Jordan what they will. You know, let Jordan tell you his story, and then you can come down on him wherever you want.
How much of a collaboration did you have with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio to ensure that you were neither celebrating Jordan’s accomplishments nor prejudging them for the audience?
I had written a script, and then as we geared up for preproduction, I met with Marty and Leo for about six weeks going through the script line by line, making a conscious decision not to explain, not to rationalize, and not to let Jordan off the hook. They were very interested in being honest and telling this honest story, warts and all. If anything, we were more cautious about being truthful about the ugliness than to say, oh, let’s have a scene where he rescues a kitten out of a tree so people know he’s not all bad. It’s like, look, take this guy in all of his colors and let people decide what they think, and we’ll leave it at that.
In the bonus materials on the Blu-ray, there’s a discussion about the staccato rhythms of Scorsese’s storytelling. How readily did your original script adapt to or accommodate those rhythms?
The initial meeting once Leo came on board and Marty came on board when we got together and I basically pitched them on how I wanted to approach writing this script, I said, in a perfect world I would write this in the vein of Goodfellas and Casino. I would like Jordan to tell us his story, talk right to the audience, talk to the camera, and you should feel like you got strapped into a rocketship and it should just not stop. And Marty absolutely wanted it to feel absolutely furious and fast and move on and just be relentless – and that was my mandate. So I sort of left there thinking, great, we’re going to make this kind of a companion piece to Goodfellas and Casino in a way, so in my head, I was writing a Martin Scorsese movie, so I had his rhythms in my head. I had Leo’s voice in my head, my weak interpretation of what Leo would sound like as Jordan. And I would read the scenes aloud in my head and go, oh, that’s pretty good, imagining Leo doing it, and then watching him do it was like a thousand times better, of course. But [because] I had those tools at my disposal going in, I knew it was going to be Leo and I knew what Marty was looking for – so that was how I approached it.
Given the discussions about how much more material was actually shot, how accurate do you feel like the finished film is to the way you originally conceived it?
It’s really, really close to my first draft. I mean, there are scenes within that draft that were embellished with improv, but if you read the first draft of the script, you’d say, oh yeah, this is it! I mean, from literally the commercial and the dwarf-tossing, the structure scene by scene by scene lays out the movie. Where it differs is, you know, Marty is a genius at letting actors feel comfortable enough to improv and engage in this insanity – and certainly material like this lends itself to that. So they would rip, and sometimes that’s where the gold is, so you’ve got some scenes where the actors would go off on these incredibly hilarious tangents, and Thelma and Marty pieced them all together and that’s the end result to the movie. But I’m very, very happy at how it turned out – it was just an incredibly wonderful collaboration to work with those guys.
What do you think of that last shot of the FBI agent, Denham, on the train? Is that his vindication, or is it a reminder that he’s still going to be the guy riding on the subway even if he wins?
Well, yeah, that’s such a great open-ended shot. You think, well, yeah, the good guys won, well, what did I win? I’m here, sitting on the subway eking out a living. And yeah, I put this guy in jail, but is it worth it? You can take away so many things from that, and that’s a really personal thing that each person is going to look at it from a different way – what is this guy thinking? Sure, you put Jordan away – but it’s a drop in the bucket. Or, on the flip side, yeah, he’s not in jail. He’s going to go home and sleep at night and at least he’s making a decent living. So it was a great shot and sort of an afterthought where Marty said, you know, I want to grab this – and I’m so glad they did.
Well, yeah, I mean, look – it’s not Jordan’s fault that whatever sentence he got, he went to jail, he did his time, and he’s paying back the money as the government is demanding it. So he’s complying with everything the government is asking of him. I think the bigger question is, is the government asking for enough from these guys, or have we learned anything or is any of this changing. I mean, the idea that, gee, I went to jail and I was terrified, but I forgot I shouldn’t have been worried because I’m rich – that’s a big message. Look at all of the guys who were responsible for what happened in 2008 and 2009 – half of them are making more money than ever and nobody’s gotten punished. I mean, the whole world economy has collapsed. So it really sort of asks the question of all of us, like, well, what are we going to do about it? Jordan’s crimes are almost quaint in comparison to what went on later. And there’s a great bit that didn’t unfortunately make it into the movie which is an incredible true little nugget, where when Jordan was arrested, the chairman of the National Association of Securities Dealers came out and absolutely railed against him, saying guys like Jordan Belfort are the reason Wall Street has a black eye. This guy should go away for the rest of his life, et cetera, he’s a monster, a horrible person and so on. That person was Bernie Madoff, which you go, you’ve got to be kidding me, but no, and you cut to years later and [look at] what Madoff did to people. Jordan was all over the news when Madoff got arrested going, “this was the guy who said I should go to jail for the rest of my life, when we should hang him.” The hypocrisy is just never-ending, and again, you look at what Jordan did and compare it to what went on in 2008, and it’s definitely not an excuse or a rationalization, but the question the movie asks is have we learned anything? Is this ever going to change? At the end there is a sea of people who all want to be Jordan, and that’s sort of what it’s all about.
Source: Forbes Business
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