INTERVIEW: Leonardo DiCaprio on ‘Inception’ and ‘Shutter Island’ parallels and a shifting industry landscape

Posted by · 8:37 am · December 10th, 2010

*PLEASE NOTE: There will be spoilers of both “Inception” and “Shutter Island” in this two-part interview with actor Leonardo DiCaprio.  For yesterday’s installment, featuring extended conversation with the actor and director Martin Scorsese, click here.

Leonardo DiCaprio was very aware of the similarities between “Shutter Island” and “Inception” when he was considering starring in the latter. The idea of a man haunted by his past and living in an alternate reality, these are themes that interest him, in particular because he enjoys playing characters which are in some ways unreliable protagonists (to play on the “unreliable narrator” literary device).

“There’s nothing obvious,” he says. “It forces you to sit with the other characters and be deceitful to yourself and to the people around you. No line is taken for what it is. You can never read a line with either of these characters and say to yourself, ‘He means exactly what he says.’ There’s a hidden agenda there. Both of these characters are lost in the labyrinth of their own mind and living an alternate life completely that they hadn’t come to terms with. And how one lies to oneself is interesting, too, with both of these guys.”

He of course had to give it all some thought when Christopher Nolan presented him with the dense screenplay for “Inception.” But as soon as he sat down with the director, he realized the two films were going to be executed in vastly different ways.

“The themes were there,” he says. “And I had to very specifically not repeat myself, even though there were some obvious things of seeing my haunted, dead wife in both movies. They had to have their own sort of individuality.”

While noting that Scorsese and Nolan are quite different in their execution, the actor points out that they are similar in how they handle actors. Nolan, he notes, wants every actor to be as natural as possible and really puts his performers in charge of their characters.

“He makes you feel like you have complete ownership of it,” he says. “He’s a great combination of somebody that conceptually can pull off incredible narratives that are so intricate and so wound in the fabric of his mind, yet there are no bad performances in his movies. We spent months, he an I, sitting in a room together talking about this guy and who he was and what haunted him and how we were going to give that emotional experience to an audience amongst this insane world that he created, and he did that with each one of the actors that he worked with, too. It’s a lot in the pre-production process.”

Pre-production intensity was also something he remembers being told about Scorsese prior to first working with him on “Gangs of New York.” While asking early on about the director and specifically his collaborations with Robert De Niro, people kept telling him it was all in the preparation.

“There’s so much discussion about what they’re going to do,” he says, “and Marty has his shot list and he draws out his storyboards and he discusses his influence from film, the genre, what he wants to put up on screen. But performance-wise, in the editing room, I’ve discovered it’s really where you go as an actor that dictates the movie that he wants to do.

“I think [‘Shutter Island’] took on its own life after a while because we didn’t really realize how emotionally heavy this story of Teddy was and how impactful that last sort of sequence is and how you really understand that this is a very dark, damaged man who’s been through so much that he wants to just sort of cut himself off from society. He can’t deal with it anymore.”

Conversely, DiCaprio’s character in “Inception,” Cobb, is a man who desperately wants to re-embrace his life and what’s left of his family after tragedy struck his wife, Mal (played by Marion Cotillard). That might have been one of the keys in triggering a unique depiction of a similarly damaged persona. But he was mostly taken by the fact that Nolan had toiled away on the idea for as long as he had.

“That is something he’s been deliberating about for 10 years,” he says. “And it has taken on so many different shapes and forms but has so much to do with visuals in his head that you need to sort of unlock, waves crashing over and buildings disintegrating and the movement of the world. To unlock a lot of that stuff, you need the Chris Nolan narrative experience to understand what you’re doing along with the script. I needed to sit down with him and say, ‘Okay, let’s specifically talk about what this means and what your vision of it is.’

“He’s so cerebral it’s unbelievable. He’ll talk about bleeding into a fabric for ‘Insomnia’ and how that was this haunting image that kept coming to him for that film and images in ‘Inception,’ it’s hard to understand unless you get the one-on-one face time with him. I spent a lot of time with Chris shaping what that was and what specifically the character in ‘Inception’ was haunted by, and how he dealt with it, as opposed to how Teddy dealt with it [in ‘Shutter Island’].”

An industry in flux

As an actor with movie star status and a certain amount of bankability, and given the projects he has chosen over the years, one would think DiCaprio must feel a responsibility to drive creativity ahead of simple commercial prospects. And for his part, he tries, but he’ll more quickly admit that it just happens that his interests are generally more aligned with ideas that push creative boundaries.

Back at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre Q&A, he tells the audience, largely consisting of actors, that he decided early on in his career that there was a certain serious path he wanted to take as an actor, and after his big break in “This Boy’s Life,” that path really began with “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” But he concedes film is a director’s medium and that, as a result, and by design, actors are very much in the hands of filmmakers.

“I knew that ‘Inception’ was going to be something unique, but at the same time, there was really no way of telling how the film would actually turn out,” he says. “I only knew that Chris Nolan was a pretty phenomenal filmmaker, so when you’re going to bet on something, you bet on the filmmaker and what you think that they can ultimately do with that material. I said to myself, ‘This guy is a visionary.’ He really is, and I love hearing that 10 years of thought went into that. When you hear that you just feel like there’s a lot of things about this movie that I haven’t thought of and maybe I don’t understand immediately. It takes further investigation.”

Like anyone else in the business, however, he has sensed a real shift in the industry over the last few years. The middle ground of serious filmmaking has almost disappeared entirely.  And “The Aviator,” he says, with it’s $90-100 million budget, probably couldn’t be made today. The same goes for “Gangs of New York.”

“I’ve seen a huge transition,” he says. “And I don’t know whether it’s the recession that has clicked studios into saying–they use that as an excuse to be able to say, ‘Look, we’re going to hedge our bets here and do $150 million tent pole films one after the other, and then we’ll some small ones, we’ll do the small serious one.’ But the whole middle ground of serious sort of interesting character studies I don’t see at all. They’re independent movies, which is cool, I love independent movies, but it’d be interesting to have that other color on the palette, to be something that combines both things.”

Challenged on this with the notion that, as a movie star with box office cachet, he certainly isn’t in a helpless position, he’s quick to remind that he’s run into trouble financing the kinds of films that interest him along the way, too.

“Look, I’ve had movies that I’ve wanted to do, even after the success of ‘Inception’ this year, that they don’t want to make,” he says. “We’ve had to hunt down financing for things. Two of them have fallen apart. I’m somebody that’s made some money making movies and made money for the studios and for all intents and purposes the stuff I do has been relatively bankable, but the appetite for films that I feel like are intense character studies or are taking chances that are more than $20-30 million in budget, I see disappearing.

“I’m only saying that because it’s a fact, and from personal experience. It’s a different time period in movie making now, and that’s what I’ve tried to do, not to make stuff that’s commercial and interesting at the same time, but some of the films I’ve wanted to do have been that. I’m doing J. Edgar Hoover’s story next and that’s going to be a relatively low budget film. We got it made thanks to Clint [Eastwood] and his reputation, but I hope to see the resurgence of that kind of stuff getting financed again because I like to see the range of films out there being made.”

At times he says he’d like to try his hand at directing and be fully in control of the creative process, but he still has a big appetite for playing different characters and pushing himself as an actor. Maybe later in life he’ll try it out, but for now, it’s not really a major desire.

“It’s a lot of work,” he says, “and I love working, but I don’t know if I’d want to take on something of great magnitude. I’d want to try something small first.”

“I hear his voice in my head all the time.”

“It’s an interesting ending for a movie like this,” DiCaprio says, switching gears back to “Shutter Island.” “What’s been interesting is watching the whole marketing process and the trailers and it really being sold as a genre piece, which comes with a certain expectation I think about what kind of a movie it was or was going to be, but at the end of the day, when you sit through this whole experience, it becomes this character study. You’re sitting with a man and everything sort of dissolves away and here’s this one guy, this tragic figure that has now come to terms with the horrific events that happened in his life and is trying to be a man again for the first time and pick up the pieces and say, ‘What is the right choice for me? Because obviously I can’t deal with reality.'”

He says he’s heard of the film’s denouement proving somewhat confusing to some, which he’s actually okay with, because he always loves when there’s a little bit of confusion. He references other films from the Scorsese canon. “Is he still in his mom’s basement doing his shtick at the end of ‘King of Comedy,’” he ponders. “Is he really a hero in the end of ‘Taxi Driver?’” Which further helps to crystallize his interest in “Inception” as well, for that matter.

The first thing Nolan said to DiCaprio was that the final image was meant to leave audience members to their own interpretation. A top, holding considerable narrative and thematic significance by that time, would be spinning on a table and, just as it might fall, the director wanted the image to cut to black. “The audience has to sit there and say to themselves, ‘What’s reality and what’s not,'” he says. “That kind of stuff, it’s exciting when done right.”

After four features and in the midst of a still developing professional relationship, Scorsese says he senses DiCaprio’s development as an actor each and every time out.

“I think there’s a richness in the shadings and the emotional psychological levels,” he says in a telephone interview. “It’s not an easy thing to say. What I mean by that is I’m not saying it lightly. There is a richness there. There is a development. And he is still evolving as a person. We’ve kind of gotten used to working with each other in a way. And if I ask for something, we can find it, I think. In other words, the expectations are filled. I must say surprisingly, in a good way. Sometimes I’m watching a take or watching his behavior in a certain scene, an expression on his face, the tone of his voice, it’s something that’s quite moving at times.”

And DiCaprio, naturally, seems to revere Scorsese not only as a talented collaborator but as a mentor. “I hear his voice in my head all the time,” he says.

History and imagination

Next up for DiCaprio will be the aforementioned J. Edgar Hoover biopic “J. Edgar,” directed by Clint Eastwood. Also in the cards is an adaptation of the Erik Larson novel “The Devil in the White City,” which tells the story of the H.H. Holmes murders at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.  He admits an attraction to historical dramas in such a vein.  In addition to the work he’s already done in that capacity, he nearly starred in an Alexander the Great biopic with Baz Luhrmann at the helm once upon a time. And he’s hopeful he can light a fire under a long-dormant Theodore Roosevelt biopic with Scorsese.

“Putting these eras and these different times in human history up on screen and letting an audience immerse themselves in that environment, if done well and done with integrity, there’s nothing like it to me,” he says. “I just get into it. It’s like going to college or something.”

He humorously adds that he himself never went to college. Who has the time when your career is taking off at such a young age? But “Shutter Island” and “Inception” proved to be rewarding territory in different ways this year.  It was a chance to rely on imagination, he says, and the results yielded two of the most dynamic studio productions of the year.

But for now, the actor forges ahead, looking, as always, for the right balance of ingenuity, commercialism and art to keep him interested…while of course weathering the usual storm of admirers. It comes with the territory.  Lucky  for him, the coast is clear as he exits the room and hustles off into the night.

***Given the amount of time I spent with DiCaprio for the purposes of this interview, it was inevitable that a lot of great material would be left out of these two pieces.  So I’ve decided to include here the full audio of our conversation.  Most of the conversation with Scorsese was not included as the quotes used were largely restricted to DiCaprio’s work in “Shutter Island,” but that material will be used in a separate interview at a later date.  Have a listen to my chat with DiCaprio below.

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[Photos: Warner Bros. Pictures]




→ 25 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Interviews

25 responses so far

  • 1 12-10-2010 at 9:47 am

    Maxim said...

    This idea of “liyng to oneself” that DiCaprio is talking about has truly been mastered by Nolan in “Memento” to such an extent that seems impossible to top.

    Great interview.

  • 2 12-10-2010 at 10:12 am

    Silencio said...

    Regarding “Hoover” (evidently changed to “J. Edgar”), I wonder if they changed the title because of perceived competition with “Lincoln”.

    As for the interview, I dig his approach to these projects. Though I still think the Inception ending was wishy-washy. I left thinking, “make a choice, Nolan.”

  • 3 12-10-2010 at 10:50 am

    Maxim said...

    I have related problem with Inception’s ending actually. I didn’t think it was wishy washy so much as kind of unecceasary. I, for one, would not have thought of the movie any less if it ended with Leo’s character exactly where aimed to be.

    It doesn’t help that I see strong parallels with Solyaris, whose ending seems to match the implied ending of Inception.

    That said, we now have DiCaprio on record, saying that Nolan wanted to cut “right before the spinning top fell”. I know he doesn’t necessary mean it like that but still.

  • 4 12-10-2010 at 11:03 am

    Patriotsfan said...

    Maxim: Agreed.

  • 5 12-10-2010 at 11:08 am

    Drew said...

    Kind of off topic, but will there be a podcast today?

  • 6 12-10-2010 at 11:21 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Read the round-up.

  • 7 12-10-2010 at 11:32 am

    Drew said...

    Thank you Kris.

  • 8 12-10-2010 at 3:49 pm

    Trish said...

    Great read. Thanks , Kris

  • 9 12-10-2010 at 4:23 pm

    James said...

    As Kris has been saying this year, props to Dicaprio for picking challenging, smart, well made commerical flicks. The actor has never slacked off and his career could have gone in one direction and he avoided it. I feel like he actively tries to find the best material not only for him, but because he’s trying to be in good films.

  • 10 12-10-2010 at 5:17 pm

    austin111 said...

    I really look at DiCaprio as an actor who just wants to get better and better. He’s intelligent enough to understand that being a power player is only part of the equation. You also have to be not only really really good but willing to take chances to stay there.

  • 11 12-10-2010 at 10:06 pm

    Pete said...

    Shutter Island just seemed like a trashy, poorly executed ripoff of a Chris Nolan film.

  • 12 12-10-2010 at 10:15 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    That doesn’t make sense, let alone compute.

  • 13 12-12-2010 at 2:12 am

    mac said...

    good interview. i’ve never seen shutter island; i’ll rent it one of these days.

  • 14 12-12-2010 at 2:54 pm

    ninja said...

    Great interview, keep it up!

  • 15 12-26-2010 at 8:35 pm

    Emily said...

    Pete: you are a moron and I can prove it.
    1: shutter island is directed by Martin scorsese, who is regarded way more highly than Chris Nolan.
    2: shutter island is based on a fascinating book, while inception isn’t.
    3: shutter island is more deep, interesting, psychological, and sophisticated than inception.
    4: shutter island sends a more meaningful message than inception.
    5: shutter island has a better ending that leaves the watcher pondering, “why did dicaprio say that? Is he really insane? Or does he just not want to deal with reality?” while the ending to inception simply leaves the viewer annoyed.
    6: Teddy Daniels is a much more interesting and rounded character than cobb. Cobb is just a really smart guy who’s job is to sneak into people’s dreams and can’t get over his dead wife and misses his kids. Meanwhile Teddy is a dark, troubled character who had such a traumatic thing happen to him that he had to create an alternate reality for himself and, by doing so, denies the fact that he murdered her. He created andrew laetus, who he hates, which means he hates himself and would rather die- and kill- than be andrew (himself). He is someone who can’t decipher his own mind and his haunted by his past and can’t escape reality no matter how hard he tries.
    7; shutter island was made BEFORE inception.
    This is all undeniable proof that shutter island isn’t a rip off of inception, isn’t trashy, and is, in fact, better than inception (although inception is good). If you had half a brain you’d know that any movie by Martin scorsese isn’t trash. Also if you actually watched shutter island and/or did some research you’d know that shutter island is a masterpiece, while inception is simply an action movie that also makes some interesting points about reality and greif. I find the defendant wrong and stupid based on these facts.

  • 16 1-17-2011 at 11:45 pm

    Jay said...

    Emily, you’re spot on there. I think Leo’s performance in Shutter Island was much better and the film’s script allowed him to show the emotion journey of the character. Th build-up to the finale was great too. I like this film more maybe also because I prefer thrillers to heist films.
    I found Inception was rather hurried towards the second half but the trick, ‘Real five minutes equals an hour in the dream’ was very good.

  • 17 1-18-2011 at 2:25 am

    Emily said...

    Thank you. I totally agree!

  • 18 3-02-2011 at 11:15 pm

    mara said...

    “Shutter Island” is one of DiCaprio’s best movies. And he is very good for the role of Teddy Daniels

  • 19 3-26-2011 at 3:59 pm

    Gema said...

    didn’t you ask anything about his marriage? I don’t know what happened finally, but I have to say that:

    Be careful Leonardo DiCaprio!

    Obviously marriage is needed, but you are absolutely doing the wrong thing if you marry that model girl (B.R) from that dirty country (I don’t even want to mention the name). I think it’s the worst thing that you have done in your life…. especially converting to a lower-level religion is the worst. People should progress in their lives; by doing this, you are converting to a lower-level religion which means adversity. It’s that girl who should convert to a higher-level religion not you. I am reeeeeeeeeeally sorry for you if you do that. At least, you could marry someone from your country and your religion.

    I’ve head of you being impressed by Islam and the muslims while doing body of lies in the middle east.
    I hoped (and still hope) that you convert to Islam (the last religion and the only religion that God wants people to believe in). Islam is the highest level religion (because it is the last and the most complete religion which has been sent exactly for nowadays’ people (who can easily perceive it) and if you (and anybody else) convert to Islam, have made yourself sooooooooooo prosperous in both worlds.

    Obviusly The US government and that cancer-like country don’t like you to become a muslim (I’m not sure, but it seems so). When micheal Jackson became a muslim, they couldn’t tolerate it and killed him (as I’ve heard, I’m not sure again), maybe because they knew that if he converts to Islam, many other people who are his fans will convert to Islam, too. and it would mean a disaster for them. I’m not sure and don’t wanna say anything without any proofs, but how is it possible that exactly the time when everything is ready for you to become a muslim, a such wierd marriage condition happens for you, specially with a girl from that dirty cancer-like country?! And that girl wants you such wrong things about religion!!! It means that exactly on the time of being prosperous forever, such things happen and make everything inverse for you ….

    The best thing for you is to become a muslim, and there’s no problem about your acting in the movies, it’s no more than going to another country (like Iran whose the majrity of people are real muslims) and continue acting (they will welcome you then).

  • 20 4-20-2011 at 7:06 am

    Owen said...

    @ Gema…..wow, just wow.

    I really enjoyed Shutter Island more than Inception, mainly because Inception just felt to me like they were trying to hard to make a blockbuster hit, at the expense of a more heartfelt movie- they were going all out for the epic status and went over the top. Shutter Island had more feeling to me, the filmography felt more natural, not CGI-laden. I liked the character of Teddy/Andrew more than Cobb, as well….Scorsese makes Gangs of New York, a brilliant plot with complex characters, Nolan makes Dark Knight, a kickass action flick- and we see these directors making similar movies in Shutter Island and Inception. I prefer story over explosions every time, but that’s my two cents. Plus I just liked the scenery and feel of Shutter Island…I dig nature and 50’s vibes, and the island setting and old-time clothing style/lifestyle/architecture sold me.