Audience members flock the stage of the television Academy’s Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre in North Hollywood, cameras and signables at the ready, as Leonardo DiCaprio patiently weathers the Black Friday-like storm of appreciation.
They’ve all just seen “Shutter Island,” many for the first time. During a post-screening Q&A they’ve heard him tell stories of an “anxiety-ridden,” “intense” shoot, of playing through multiple versions of his character for the purposes of creative editing and of his perspective on virtually growing up on camera over the last two decades.
But they want to be closer. They want to be around greatness, talent, fame: that unmistakable glow of movie stardom. And yet DiCaprio has made a career of translating his celebrity into precious fuel for an insatiable creative fire. Rather than rest on paycheck laurels of notoriety, he consistently places himself at the crossroads of art and commerce, even putting his money where his mouth is as producer if need be. And two financially successful films that embraced creative risks in 2010 prove that the actor shows no signs of changing course.
In Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” DiCaprio took a leap on a very dense and perplexing script that promised to pull audiences in with big budget ingenuity and no brand-name appeal. The film made over $825 million worldwide and finds itself in the hunt for year-end film awards recognition.
In Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” DiCaprio saddled up to a complex role in a film bathed in stylization while further deepening a working relationship that has helped to define him at this stage in his career. The film made nearly $300 million worldwide and may feature his most layered and nuanced performance to date.
But for now, he’s surrounded by love, envy, obsession, appreciation or maybe some mixture of it all. And it’s probably just another Saturday for him.
The forging of a relationship
A few minutes later DiCaprio walks into the green room of the facility having taken a few precious puffs from a cigar outside following his encounter with the adoring horde (which nearly followed him into the room before being quickly turned away at the door). He’s dressed down, jeans and a leather jacket, happy to be home after a trip to Moscow that started out rough to say the least: The following weekend the flight he was on experienced engine failure and had to be re-routed back to JFK International Airport.
He’s back now, safe, and trying to balance whatever promotion he can for two films with strikingly similar thematic textures without appearing to choose sides. But while “Inception” is a thrill-ride experience signaling hope for original blockbuster filmmaking, it is difficult to deny the levels of intrigue built into his fourth collaboration with director Martin Scorsese.
The two first worked together on 2002’s “Gangs of New York.” Though there have been only eight years since, it almost feels like a lifetime of work for the actor.
“I want to do more with him and I’d love for there to be a continuation of movies we can do together,” DiCaprio says, picking at his leather chair in thought. “At 18 years old, I remember having a conversation with my father and we talked about opportunities that were going to come up and he said, ‘You know, there’s really one guy, if you ever get the opportunity to work for him, you have to go for it.’ So I really researched the films that he was going to do and films that he wanted to do. ‘Gangs of New York’ was something that I took a number of years of tracking and talking to his agents and saying, ‘I want to just throw my hat in the ring. If he ever wants to do this I’m there, whenever, wherever,’ and finally it came around.”
DiCaprio remembers the initial meeting he had with Scorsese and the countless questions he asked. He admits it might have been off-putting at the time as he sensed a little bit of frustration from the revered director, not because of the questions but because Scorsese didn’t know him yet. But such recollections are beginning to feel like distant memories now, he says.
He has a real affection for “Gangs of New York” and the follow-up, 2004’s “The Aviator,” because it was the forging of his relationship with a director who has come to be a mentor. The latter, in particular, was a trial by fire as the actor had been developing the project, a biopic of industrialist Howard Hughes, with Michael Mann for some time. When Mann opted out of directing, DiCaprio, serving as a producer for the first time ever on a film, offered it to Scorsese.
“There was a whole other level of understanding of one another on that movie,” he says. “For the first time I really felt like a real solid responsibility for a movie. I felt like, ‘This is the best script that I’ve ever had in my hand and if you would do this, I’ve got to be responsible for this on every level.’ I got to work on all the different facets of the movie. It was just a whole different level of work.”
The two films netted a total of 21 Oscar nominations and over $400 million at the box office.
Teddy #1, Teddy #2, Teddy #3
Calling from London, where he’s currently in the middle of production on “Hugo Cabret” (his first foray into 3D and a completely new experience as a result, he says), director Martin Scorsese recalls how his working relationship with DiCaprio came to be an accidentally prolific one.
“It didn’t develop intentionally for four films in a row but it just seemed to work that way,” he says after a long day of shooting. He and DiCaprio wanted to make another film together after “The Aviator” and the actor was keen on playing a figure in the street war movie “The Departed.” DiCaprio wrangled a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Best Supporting Actor and Scorsese finally won his Oscar for Best Director.
After that, the two set about planning an adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but complications arose with the writers’ strike and the project fell through at the last minute. Not long after, Scorsese was handed the script for “Shutter Island” and he immediately thought it would be a great part for DiCaprio. Suddenly they were working on their fourth film together.
“You wouldn’t normally pursue the creative relationship if you don’t think it’s going anywhere or you think you’ve explored everything you could explore,” Scorsese says. “And in this case it seemed there was much more to explore. When I use the word explore, that means that you’re expecting to find something. And I think that’s always there when I work with Leo. That’s a process and it’s a journey and it’s very rewarding for me to have a collaborator at this stage in my life, particularly someone who is 30 years younger than me and of another generation. So I know there’s more there and I like seeing it develop. It seems that he has similar tastes and interests that I do, the stories and characters, the tone, and so we’re just not afraid to go there.”
And “go there” they did, as the filming of “Shutter Island” proved to be a psychologically taxing affair by both men’s accounts. The film, adapted from the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name, tells the story of Andrew Laeddis who, upon returning home from World War II and taking to drinking heavily, drives his wife to filicide.
But the narrative is told from the perspective of U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, a personality manifested by a distraught Laeddis (who killed his wife for her actions). He is now a patient at Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane on Shutter Island in the early-1950s. A charade is employed by the facility’s head psychiatrist, Dr. John Crawley (played by Ben Kingsley), to drive Teddy back to reality as, all the while, Teddy is haunted by the image of his dead wife. It builds to a climactic reveal and, in the film’s final moments, the truth of the character, his integrity as a man, is finally revealed.
“It was very hard for me at first with the character because you have to keep the narrative in mind,” DiCaprio says. “You want to be as pure as you possibly can in portraying somebody with a mental disability like this and be as honest, but you have to be aware of this game that’s being played out for him. That’s why we made a decision very early on because we didn’t know what extremes would sort of expose the entire film and ruin the experience.”
The way DiCaprio went about performing Teddy was to do so on varying levels. Essentially he played three different versions of the character. One was more flippant, one was completely committed to the case at hand and one was more erratic, out of control and violent. The idea was to produce enough choices so that in the editing room, Scorsese and his longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker could choose which performance was most appropriate from moment to moment, refraining from tipping the story’s hand while establishing the character’s psychosis via edited performance.
“We started to figure, ‘What if we layer in elements of schizophrenic mental disorder,'” Scorsese says. “Speech defects, sometimes. Mannerisms, twitches, repetitions, moving his feet a certain way, walking up and down the room a certain way, the constant use of cigarettes. The danger was not to throw the audience such a heavy clue too soon in the film. And then, if you’ve seen the film and you’ve enjoyed it and are somehow taken by the film, it could stand a second or maybe a third viewing, because you’d find these other layers in there. You can see the choices in the visualization and the editing choices. And if you look at the editing choices, you can see the acting choices, different clues and references throughout.”
Says DiCaprio, “There are certain scenes which are pretty insane or erratic behavior. But put into the right moments in the film you can understand that he has a reason for acting that way. You identify with his passion for trying to uncover the case, and that’s what we kept on reverting back to. ‘Okay, look, we can do this when he’s uncovering the conspiracy. When the audience understands that something is going on and Teddy the detective is going to find out what it is, that’s when he can act that way.’ It was hard for me in certain moments but I tried to distance myself from it and let him and Thelma–that’s where the Thelma thing comes into play.”
Scorsese adds that it’s all in the actor’s reactions. “Sometimes he understands something as the real Teddy, as the real character, as the real self, but he refuses to accept it and he moves back into Teddy two or Teddy one,” he says. “This is what we were doing. I don’t know if it comes across. You don’t have to know it specifically, but you can see it in his eyes. Because when Thelma edited with me, we were very specific about the looks and the moves of his eyes and his body language, all of that, and the sense of betrayal of trust with the doctor and with everyone. It was rather complex so that’s just the way we approached it.”
The family that Marty built
Speaking of Thelma Schoonmaker, she and costume designer Sandy Powell are the two below-the-line specialists Scorsese has employed on each of his collaborations with DiCaprio to date. Cinematographer Robert Richardson shot “The Aviator” and “Shutter Island,” while Michael Ballhaus was behind the camera on “Gangs of New York” and “The Departed.” Dante Ferretti designed the productions of “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator” and “Shutter Island,” while Kristi Zea headed up the art department on “The Departed.”
In so many words, it really is a family Scorsese has built as of late, a well-oiled machine in service of his own creative vision.
Earlier at that post-screening Q&A, DiCaprio tells a humorous story about Richardson, in particular.
“Bob Richardson is a mad man,” he begins. “I remember my first real realization about how passionate this guy is for getting the right shot when I was doing ‘The Aviator.’ We were in the middle of Simi Valley or something somewhere and Dante Ferretti had created this whole set of the XF-11 crash site and I’m in the middle of the cockpit and Marty just sort of throws me in there and says, ‘Just get out. Get out of the cockpit. Just fight your way out,’ I’m like, ‘Alright, alright.’
“So there’s literally a wall of flames around me. I’m encircled by fire and I have no idea where the camera is. There’s no camera anywhere around me. I hear on the loudspeaker, ‘Action!’ So I just start smashing through this cockpit and kind of out of the corner of my eye looking for where the hell this camera could possibly be. And through the wall of flames, like Zeus, comes Bob Richardson. He has this white, flowing hair and he’s on this crane and just, woosh, hovers right in front. I had to stop myself from cutting the take and saying, ‘You are an absolute fucking maniac. What is wrong with you? How could you go through flames? And you don’t have any protection. How does your hair not catch on fire?’ He said, ‘Oh no, no, I’ve researched it. If you go real fast the flames don’t catch you.'”
Later in the green room the story prompts further questioning of Scorsese’s principal crew and what they have meant to DiCaprio these eight years. Starting off with Ferretti, the actor says he was the one that first really blew his mind. Calling the Cinecitta Studios alum “truly a magician,” DiCaprio recalls taking walks around Shanty Town in the Five Points New York set that was constructed in full for “Gangs of New York” back in 2002.
“There would be extras there who would be in costume and you’d kind of lose yourself completely in the environment,” he says. “You disassociate yourself from the filmmaking process. It’s immersing yourself in a completely different environment. And then on to ‘The Aviator,’ we couldn’t film the Mann’s Chinese in L.A. because of permits so he rebuilt the Mann’s Chinese in Montreal. He rebuilt the entire Spruce Goose and the construction of that whole thing and the Coconut Grove. I mean, he’s the best of all time.”
Regarding Powell, DiCaprio has always been struck by how unfussy her approach is. “For all of the amazing work she’s done in the past, it’s very simple, what she wants to do,” he says. “She always really gets to the core of exactly what people were like in that time period, exactly how they would look. She doesn’t like to frill it up. She gets down to the basics of exactly what is right for the character and she doesn’t like to delineate from that.”
Richardson was once again his “maniacal” self on the “Shutter Island” shoot, of course, but as most would concede, Schoonmaker is “really the key,” Dicaprio says. “That’s when the magic happens, I think. The real incredible work is with Marty and Thelma and that relationship that they’ve forged. It’s just them two in a room alone and they’re so old school in their approach to the editing process. They’ve been introduced to new technological advances in how to cut film, but you walk in there and it’s literally like her holding out reels of celluloid like this and measuring and them, stopping and saying, ‘No, no, take out three frames. No, no, stop, right there, right when he’s about to blink.’ It’s like this incredibly precise stuff, and it’s all for the performances.”
Says Scorsese, “It turned out that ‘Shutter Island’ was a rather difficult one because of weather problems and it really was the psychological aspects of the picture had an odd effect on me that lasted throughout the entire editing process. It’s kind of a strange, disturbing world to stay in, for me. So when you’re working, you’re working with friends, almost like family in a way. That helps a lot.”
[Photos: Paramount Pictures, Miramax Films]