After various awards bait films, Martin Scorsese is back in the gangster genre which he made famous with the likes of “Goodfellas” and “Casino”. Using the highly acclaimed Chinese film “Infernal Affairs” as the template, Scorsese shifts the action from the Hong Kong streets to the Boston area and hired a stellar cast to fill the bill.
In crafting a purely entertaining dramatic thriller, Scorsese has inadvertently received more acclaim for this than his deliberate awards style dramas like “The Aviator”. Matt Damon, Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Vera Farmiga, Producer Graham King, and Screenwriter William Monahan recently sat down in New York City to talk about the film:
Question: Martin, my question’s for you. Why have your films become more Irish in recent years and will you return to Italian-centric cinema?
Scorsese: It’s an interesting question. I’ve always felt a close affinity with the Irish. Particularly coming out of the same area of New York City. Although by the time the Italians had moved in, by the 1920’s, 1930’s, most of the Irish had moved out of that neighborhood that it came from. And it goes back to Gangs of New York, stories about the way Irish helped create New York and America, the city itself, and don’t forget I do have a very strong love for Hollywood cinema and some of the greatest filmmakers to come out of Hollywood, films by Irishman John Ford, and others. You talk about a Ford film and you talk about the family structure and although “How Green Was My Valley” was about Welsh miners, but still, it was directed by an Irishman. It has that warmth that we felt and we felt very close to the culture, we think, the family structure, of the, uh, the Irish and the Italians felt that. Yes, there was some differences when they first moved in the same neighborhood, but suddenly, Irish literature is very important to me and the poetry of the Irish is something that’s extraordinary and the Irish sense of Catholicism is a very interesting contrast to the Italian sense of Catholicism and that’s very interesting to me. So that’s my personal reasons. And besides, the script is written by William Monahan.
Question: Martin, why did Hong Kong translate into Irish Boston? And for Matt and Leo, can you each talk about why you picked the character you did?
Damon: We actually did flip a coin. That was how we decided. No, in terms of the roles, the second part first, I think Leo and I both thought they were these incredible roles, you know, speaking for Leo, I think we would have been happy to play either one and we did it this way and we’re happy that that’s the way it turned out because I can’t imagine playing the other one now but, you know, it’s really rare in a film of this budget to have characters this interesting. Generally the bigger the budget, the less interesting the characters become and actually all of us had great things to play so that’s a real credit to Bill Monahan and his script to be able to have that much to do when you go to work everyday was really great. And then we also heard the director had done a good movie here or there, so…
DiCaprio: I agree with Matt 100%, you know, these characters are two sides of the same coin in a lot of ways. They come from different backgrounds but they could have easily made choices the other character made, but depending on the circumstances. It just sort of happened that way. I don’t know. I suppose Marty and I got the script first and Matt was the next guy onboard and it was ultimately Marty’s decision at the end of the day.
Damon: I wanted to playVera’s role.
Farmiga: I wanted to play Matt’s role.
DiCaprio: And I wanted to play Jack’s role.
Scorsese: I didn’t think of it as Hong Kong. I just thought of it as how Bill put together the script. Really. I liked the idea. You know, Hong Kong cinema, once I saw John Woo’s The Killer, you can’t go near that, you can’t even begin, as far as my skills as a filmmaker, you can’t, that’s taking our film and their culture and mix everything up together, that was not 1998, 1997, 1998. Then I saw another Hong Kong film I saw in the ’80s called King Hu. King Hu and The Touch of Zen and things like that, I saw and I said, it’s a whole other thing going on here, we do what we do, and if we influence their culture at all, it has come out through John Woo and Tsui Hark. I mean, the Hong Kong cinema of Wong-Kar Wai and Stanley Kwan, all of this is something that you can’t, you have to appreciate as a filmmaker because you say, okay, we see new ways of making narrative film, however, no matter even if I had a moment where I said to myself, gee, maybe I can make a film like John Woo, the minute I get to design the shot or I get behind the camera with the cinematographer who happens to be Arthur C. Miller in this case, well, many times I said, “my god I’ve done this shot five times already in two other movies”, you know, so, but that’s what I do, that’s how it came out, but really what it comes down to is what I was responding to was how Bill Monahan put down a way of life, a way of thinking, an attitude, a cultural look at the world, really, a very, very enclosed society, and that’s what I responded to, I think. Taking from the Hong Kong trilogy, Andrew Lau’s film, you know, that’s the device. And it’s the plot. That idea. The concept of the two informers and being totally whether I like it or not drawn to stories that have to do with trust and betrayal, I found that I kept being drawn back to the script and to the project, so. As I say, it became something else.
Question: Martin, I was wondering how the script developed on the shoot and if you had a lot of changes for Jack’s character?
Scorsese: It evolved and it evolved over a long process, a very long process. Ever since I’ve been making films, I’ve loved talking about how the process has got to be the way they are, between the writers, myself, and the actors, but I’ve found over the years that it gets misunderstood, maybe, and so it could be harmful to Bill or the people involved if you don’t really, you have to be there. It’s the old phrase, “You really had to be there.” It’s a collaborative process, there’s no doubt, but the basis is what Bill did. And he continued to do when it was called upon and when he was called upon to evolve a character, it was usually with the actors and myself, and that’s how that worked and Nicholson worked in a different way, but that again is kind of a private process. It’s again, you’d have to be a part of that situation. We developed it as a character that was a little different than what Bill had put in there but basically we had decided that the date, the age, and the power of this man and the appearance of his total coming apart with such power, so much power and yet he’s falling apart and there’s the danger of that when we went in that direction, supplemented by Bill, and whoever else had an idea. This is the way I work. This is my process. And the other actors can talk, but we all worked together.
Question: Mr. DiCaprio, can you talk about your influences for developing your character’s violence?
DiCaprio: I guess by watching Martin Scorsese movies, right? You know, well, it’s not really familiar to me, that form of immediate violence, but that’s what you do as an actor, if you can’t draw upon anything in your real life, you go meet people that have done these sorts of things and part of the process for me was going to Boston. I had never spent any time there. Sort of learning about the Boston subculture, meeting some of the real people who were around during the late ’80s, sort of the whitey era, we may call it, but I really wanted to meet some guys from south Boston. I met a guy in Los Angeles and spent a lot of time with him, told me a lot of stories about the streets there and Boston’s a really interesting place because everyone knows each other’s business. It’s like a little microcosm there and everyone waves to each other on the street and they all have overlapping stories, but for me, we shot a lot of it in New York. We should have shot some of it in Boston, it was very important to meet some of the real characters and get to know them and hear some stories. You can read books and I read a few books, but to be able to penetrate some of these guys, their minds, and really get deep into what they were thinking was important.
Question: Matt, can you discuss going on a drug bust with police? And Leo, please discuss anything that stands out from your adventures.
DiCaprio: Matt actually went on a, what was it, raiding a crackhouse? Was it? We had a great technical advisor named Tom Duffy who was there throughout the entire filmmaking process who knew the entire history of Boston and knew what the streets were like and the police gave us unbelievable advice. And he was there constantly, but Matt went on those raids.
Damon: Yeah, it was like, have you ever seen the movie “The Hard Way” with Michael J. Fox? That was me. Hey guys, can I get a gun? They’re like, “absolutely not, shut up.” I love sitting next to Marty who’ll reference 40 of the greatest films ever made and I’ll say, have any of you guys seen The Hard Way? As Leo said, Tom Duffy was a huge resource and for me Leo got connected to a bunch of people who were around Whitey Bulger, but Duff was able to get me around a bunch of police. And it was really fascinating. And you know, for me, I had a real advantage because I’m from Boston, so I didn’t have to learn an accent or do anything like that, I got to get straight to investigating this sort of subculture of state police and you know, what I knew of the state police was from the times that I got pulled over for speeding on the Pike. And so to get in there and really see what these guys do was great and any time you get access like that, it’s really the most amazing part of this job of acting because it’s your own time and it’s months ahead of time and nobody’s, there’s no production around you, you don’t have to, you know, once you get on a film set, the clock is ticking as Graham King can tell you, every minute costs a lot of money, but with research you can go at your own pace so, I spent a lot of time with these guys just sucking it in, not really having to have a goal but just sitting there and spending time, you know, meals and you just start to pick stuff up and most of that stuff ends up, for instance, this raid on the crackhouse. I mean, I’m sure I was in no real danger, they brought twice as many cops as they usually do with one of those raids and I was in the back of the line so I had my bullet-proof vest on standing there going, “well, what am I doing here?” And I didn’t go in until they cleared the house, but I got to see them do it, and so I told Marty and Bill, this is a good way to establish Colin rising up because it follows this kind of progression into, he keeps getting promoted and so one of the ways of showing that was showing the extremely aggressive and violent world that he’s in, hitting a house and what happens and how they do it. And the guys that are in the shot with me are the guys who were really in the house with me that night when it happened. Marty’s really insistent on, you know in all of his film’s there an authenticity that you just can’t fake and it’s because he uses a lot of real people and because his actors have access to these real people and get as much understanding of the people that they’re playing. I mean, ultimately it’s a giant magic trick. We’re just trying to be believable. And if you’re taken out of the movie at all, then we haven’t done our job right. So there’s all of this legwork that goes into beforehand just so when we show up hopefully the process is really smooth and the result is believable.
Question: Scorsese and Monahan, I found the last shot of the film to be amusing. Where did it come from and what did you intend by it?
Scorsese: Can I just ask a question first? Because I was wondering what you meant by it as well. Not really. I’ve worked on it a lot, that last shot. It’s an interesting thing, when I got to the end of the script, and I didn’t know Bill or who even owned the script, or who were the producers or the studio, I just knew the script. I took a long time reading it too, about three and a half hours, and that was time to get to that plot point. There’s some plot issues. But it had to do with the way the characters were interacting and the dialogue that Bill had in there. The attitude that was in there and the stance against the world that they had, particularly not only the main characters but the parts played by Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin, at the end when I saw the shoot-out in the elevator at the end and what happened, and then as Colin goes home at the end and what happens to him there, I was pretty stunned by it, it was pretty truthful, I thought it was pretty strong. And then Bill had written the phrase, saying, as written, and then a strange thing happens, comma, a rat comes out and starts to eat the croissants. And I said, “that’s really strange, that’s interesting, and then the rat comes out” and it’s like a comment from a little bit from I don’t know what you would call it, it really isn’t meant to be literal, but it’s a comment from the filmmakers on the subject matter. However when you try to this is the nature of filmmaking, and then when you try to interpret, and then a strange thing happens, on film, one runs into difficulty because the rat comes in from the left, no, no, suddenly, it all looks like, no it looks too literal, why isn’t it poetic like he wrote it? Why can’t? And it took me a while to finally, we took a while on that shot, ultimately it’s the nature of, it’s, well, without giving out the story, it’s what’s in the beginning of the frame and then as the rat is revealed, it’s the image of the statehouse itself, the gold dome, the sense of, for me, well, a throwback of the old gangster genre films at the end of Scarface, “the world is yours”, which is a shot, Tony Montana is shot in the street, there’s a shot, a shot of a sign in the movie that says the world is yours, globe, I think the end of Little Caesar is the same way, so for me, or the end of “White Heat”, on the top of the world, well the top of the world to him was that Beacon Hill and in a sense the gold dome of the statehouse was it near it, represents that, but it also represents that for me as the film developed a sense of paranoia and betrayal and one person never knowing who the other person is or what the other person is doing or if you can believe anybody and it kind of reflects the world know, the America that we know now, post September 11th. And so all those elements are in there, but first on an entertainment level as a reference back to the old gangster genre.
Damon: I was also going to say that it’s also like the end of The Hard Way. Times Square and they’re running around. A lot of neon.
Monahan: Well, what I was thinking at first was that after such an intense bloody ending, we could go out with a little bit of a joke on the simplest level. There’s also the idea of the rat behind the wall of Colin’s supposedly perfect world. And it was made to work. It worked beautifully, I think
Question: Are the three actors here familiar with the Hong Kong film or the names Tony Leung and Andrew Lau?
DiCaprio: Yeah, I mean we all watched it. And we all enjoyed the film but I think we had to separate ourselves from it to a certain extent. Certainly, the construct and the skeleton of the story is pretty much, well, it’s very similar in this version, but it’s dealing with an entirely different underworld. It’s dealing with Irish-Americans in Boston and we watched it very early on but we also had to forget a lot of those elements because we knew that we had to invent an entirely different film.
Damon: Yeah, I just echo what Leo said. I loved the Hong Kong film. I thought it was fantastic. And I loved those Hong Kong actors. But it’s such a different culture, Boston is different even from any city here in America so, it’s a very specific, with the structure was used from the Hong Kong version and then, but the world that Bill built around it was very specific to Boston.
Farmiga: For me, I didn’t see the film and I only saw it after my work was complete. I hear that it’s a compilation of three female characters, which would have been altogether confusing for me, and I think Madeline was going to be used in an entirely different way in this script to really illustrate the differences and the similarities of these two characters, so I just read from the script.
Question: Could Matt and Leo talk about working opposite Jack Nicholson in this film?
Damon: We have a lot of Jack stories. The first day I worked with him, he had been working with Leo for about a week, and so I had the week off and I came back, and it’s Sunday night and I’m looking over the script and I get a phonecall. Hi, Matt? Marty. Hi. The director. I love that he always says Marty the Director. I said, “Yeah, I know who you are.” He said, “Well, a funny thing has happened, Jack had some ideas for your scene tomorrow.” We were shooting a scene in a movie theatre. And he goes, “Ok, I’ll just get to it. Jack’s going to wear a dildo.”And so I thought, uh, ok, so I’ll see you at seven? So we went in the next day and rehearsed it, you know, and Jack’s idea was like, “Here’s the deal, I’m gonna come in, I’m gonna sit there, in the overcoat, and I’m gonna pull out the big dildo and we’re gonna laugh.”And I thought, ok, that’s a really good way to get into the scene, you know, they have to meet there and so, and Jack really brought this incredible new element, this new layer to that character. Kind of obscene. No, really, but I mean in a way that felt authentic. It felt, like these guys really would sublimate sex into violence and violence into sex, and it really is how a lot of those things did occur. I don’t know how much research he did or how much he just intuited or what his process was exactly, but I found him really committed to making the thing as believable and pushing the envelope as much as he could. He really did. I mean, I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff that I’m sure didn’t make the final version because as he said, I want to keep giving too much in all of these scenes and then let Marty figure out, the level that’s right for his film and that was just really impressive just to see how much he was thinking about it, how much work he was putting it into it, and how obscene he was willing to be in order to be again believable. I said to Martin as this was happening, I’d shot for about a month, but I’d spent months in all the police stuff and Vera and I hadn’t worked together yet except for one quick scene when we first meet. And I said, if he’s introducing this sexual element into this, then it’s fair game in the script and we have to reference it from Colin’s standpoint. So what would the effect be on Colin from this figure whose this loomed over in his entire life and who knows what’s happened between them and so we got into all these conversations and then with Vera we started rehearsing this stuff and basically what we came down to what I said to Marty was that okay we’re in this macho world, and everyone’s beating each other up. And everyone’s knocking each other over the head with glasses and pushing each other through walls and Jack’s, his sexual dynamo, I want to lose every fight I’m in and I don’t want my dick to work. I want to take an aggressive run in the other direction.
Scorsese: Because you can see it in the final touches as Jack’s leaving the mark on Matt’s shoulder and you can see it on the expression in his face. He sort of recoils from us. That’s interesting so we started following that up.
Damon: And then that scene with Alec Baldin where he says, we’re at the golf course, where he says, “a woman sees a ring on a guy’s finger and she knows he’s got a certain amount of money and his cock works”, and so we just thought the line, “you know, my cock works”, and he looks at me and he goes, “all the time”, and then Alec goes, that’s good. So we just started to talk about that and it really did seem to thematically fit with what Jack was doing and it became and it just kind of deepened the whole thing. Yeah, it was the obscene phone call too. I mean, Bill always had that. Bill had him threatening me while she was watching me, but the language that Jack and Jack really said, “look if we’re gonna do this, let’s really do this.”And the way he talks to me about her while she’s right there, it’s really obscene, there’s no other, and so, you know, and real, by the way, and real, and again that’s with Martin that’s the root of all of it. That authenticity.
DiCaprio: Well, as far as Jack was concerned, we kind of expected the unexpected. You know. We knew that if he was going to come, to have Jack Nicholson join up with Martin Scorsese and play a gangster is something that I think a lot of movie fans have been waiting for. For me, there were a number of different scenes where I had no idea what was going to happen. One scene in particular, the prop guy sort of, we did the scene one way, and I remember Jack speaking to Marty because he said he didn’t feel that he was intimidating enough, it was one of the table scenes, yeah, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life as far as being an actor is concerned. I remember coming into the scene one way and then I came in the next day and the prop guy told me, “well, he’s got a, be careful he’s got a fire extinguisher, a gun, some matches, and a bottle of whiskey.” Ok. So, you know, some things are in the film that he did that day and some things aren’t. But for me, as an actor, it wasn’t necessarily, I’m afraid, you know, we’re all professional actors and we’re all playing roles, but for me playing this character of this guy that has to relay to the audience this constant 24 hour panic attack that I’m going through for my life, surrounded by people that would literally blow my head off if I gave them any indication of who I was, coupled with the fact that I’m sitting across the table from a homicidal maniac that will maybe light me on fire. But it gives you I don’t want to say as an actor a sense of fear, but as a character a whole new dynamic. And it completely altered and shifted the scene in a completely different direction and I think we all knew that if he came on board that he would have to sort of grab the reins with this character and let him be freeform and we all were completely sort of ready for that every day that we walked up on the set. You know, he had a short run, he filmed his scenes and then he left, but those were some of the most intense moments of the film for me certainly and as a human being as a person, there were some memories that I will never forget.
Question: DiCaprio, what is it about Scorsese as a director and a person that attracts you to his films?
DiCaprio: Well, I’m a fan of his work, number one. I remember, well, truth is I suppose for me anyway that it all started wanting to work with him doing This Boy’s Life with Robert DeNiro and getting sort of familiar with Robert DeNiro’s work and obviously that means Martin Scorsese’s work as well. So I became a fan of his work at a very early age. If you asked me who I wanted to work with starting out in the business, it would have been this guy right here, and I got fortunate enough to work with him on Gangs of New York in 2000. And I think just from there, we, I don’t have an exciting term for it other than we have a good time working together and we have similar tastes as far as the films we like. He certainly has broadened my spectrum as far as films that are out there in the history of cinema and the importance of cinema. And it really brought me to different levels as an actor. I look at him as a mentor.
Question: Marty, Vera has a unique position in this cast of men. What drew you to her? And then I want all of you to talk about that dynamic.
Scorsese: Ellen Lewis, our casting director, mentioned Vera to me and then I saw a clip of a film she did called Down to the Bone, and I said I can’t tell anything from a clip because often these clips are sent you it looks like the images from the guys around 1968-1969 when they landed on the moon. The reception was better there. Somehow I said, I can’t see their faces and I said I really should see the whole film and I took it it looked like an interesting film so I had a very good experience watching that film. And then I heard about the process of how they worked on that film or that series of films that they’re working on up there in upstate New York and it really reminded me of the early days of Estelle Gettys working in New York, 1958, 1959, 1960, making independent working, rewriting, revising, whatever, with actors, with the people, with the real people behind it, and I thought this was interesting for a person to pursue and then you gotta put yourself on tape. Right? You put yourself on tape during the earlier scenes with Colin and I liked that and the next thing we do is we come in and meet and that, I think you read with Leo and I was sold. I like Vera’s attitude. I wanted someone to come in and enrich the part with Bill, with the actors, whatever, and again that’s part of the process. It comes just as Matt announcing stuff, just giving you an idea of how you get from there to there, that was just one day. But it’s just one day. So each day on a good day there were five or six of those things happening. And so this also, you know, the worlds that I depict in these films that Bill wrote, it’s male-driven, the action is male-driven, so usually the female characters are the dangers and I don’t know if it’s not, but I feel ok, so, and I’ve taken it down the line to the very, very last minute of working on this film so that I could get it right within the circumstances and everything we tried for the past year, the female characters always seem to be adjuncts in a way to the main plotlines and developing the characters in the picture with Bill and the actors, we wanted someone like Vera who was able to come in and tell them what to do or Bill or any of you guys.
Damon: Well yeah, I think Marty’s right about a male-driven film and where the female lead is often doing things that, you know, it’s like when you’re a young character actor and you have to do things that make no sense so that the lead of the film can look better, but if you hire a great actor or a great actress to take a role, they can make everything work and in our rehearsing it, it really made sense. I mean our relationship got a lot deeper and it made a lot more sense thematically because now you’ve got a guy who’s got sexual issues with this woman who, of course, she’s a shrink, of course he’s gonna go to her and of course he’s gonna be with her because if he’s got issues in his neighborhood, I mean, he’s, everyone’s going to know about it and so he seeks her out and she of course would stay with him and tough it out because of what she does. Her first instinct is to try to help him, I mean, granted, a lot of these scenes would then happen off camera, but our relationship works and makes sense because it makes sense why, and then it makes sense why she would be susceptible to Billy’s attentions because she is unfulfilled in certain ways. And so now the film is going in all these new directions, so we felt like we caught a lucky break when Jack introduced this element because it really gave us a lot to play with and a lot to work on and it was real.
Farmiga: It truly was a collaborative process. I entered into this being prepared to meet megawatts of talent and you expect there to be a certain chasm between you and there wasn’t. These guys were so nurturing and encouraging and inventive. We spent a lot of time the four of us, Bill, Marty, Matt and I, and the process working with Marty is he really brings you to bring your own tumults and your own idiosyncrasies and it’s a real workshopping and there was a point where we decided well, do we want to make her more unbalanced in the film or do we want her as duplicitous as the rest of them? And I had met with a woman by the name of Debra Glasner who is a police psychiatrist of the LAPD, who happens to be a woman, and she’s a cop psychologist and I gave her the script and she looked at and goes, oh, dear, no, she’s doing everything wrong. No way would she sleep with a client. And that’s the moment that my character became really interesting to me. And we started it from there. Talking about whether this is a woman who is good at her job. But it was a true collaboration, I mean we had a lot to do with improvising and discarding and bringing things back.
Question: Matt and Leo, how did you come to appear in this film? Did you discuss the similarities and differences of your roles? How did Brad Pitt get involved?
Damon: Brad, Leo, and I were in a bathhouse together. I think the moment these things are born, it’s an important, I have to say what happened. No, Brad came to me because his company had access and I first heard about it through Brad. And it’s like the dream of all dreams. “Hey, did you hear that Martin Scorsese is directing a movie about Boston?” For me, that was it, really? So and then I got a copy of the script and loved it and when I came back to New York, I met with Marty. But I think I had already agreed to do it. Most of these things are contingent on a meeting, on both sides, well we should meet and discuss the films. I wasn’t even trying to be cool about it, “I’m in, so if he needs to meet with me, I’ll go meet him wherever he wants.” So it was a really easy yes for me.
DiCaprio: Well, no, I never had an initial conversation with Brad and I had received the script and it was really, you know, Bill Monahan’s work here, this tightly-woven, highly complex ensemble piece, this gangster thriller, it’s very, very rare I must say in this business where a script lands on your lap ready to go. And this was one of those rare occurrences. There was a certain amount of work, character development, taking things out, changing dialogue, but to have the construct of the story there and really complex characters there, duplicitous characters, information, disinformation, plot twists, you know, all leading to a satisfying ending is something that you hardly ever get to in this business. So I know I got the script around when Marty got the script and we just talked to each other and it was one of those things that we really didn’t need to discuss. He really wanted to do it. I really wanted to do it. And for a lack of a better term, the rest is history.