Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street opens tomorrow, and for those who aren’t familiar with the film, it’s based on the memoir of Jordan Belfort, and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the hard-partying, drug-addicted stockbroker who was indicted in 1998 for security fraud and money laundering and served a 22-month federal prison stretch. The film also stars Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, and Matthew McConaughey. For more on the movie, watch the trailer.
A few days ago, I got to talk with screenwriter Terence Winter, whose other credits include Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos. During our conversation, we discussed his first draft of the script, adapting Belfort’s book, the movie’s heavy use of voice-over, his plans for Boardwalk Empire, his new pilot for HBO which Scorsese is directing in April, and much more. Hit the jump for the interview.
TERENCE WINTER: Thank you, I was blessed to write it and it’s a dream come true to be involved with anything with Marty and Leo together, so this has been pretty incredible.
I can only imagine. How long was the script you first gave Marty?
WINTER: The very first draft, if I am recalling correctly, I think was like 128 pages. The longest version of the script was somewhere in the high 140s, possibly into the 150s.
If I’m not mistaken there was a lot of rumors going around the last few months that Marty’s first cut was like four hours.
WINTER: Yeah I have never seen that cut, although I heard there was also. But the thing is that his first cuts tend to be longer and that he just cuts it down to what the real movie is. I think he pretty much just puts everything in there that he likes and then starts to shape it from there, and then the movie sort of comes out of that. So I think that there were not any big sequences or scenes that were cut. I think the scenes that exist in the movie that you saw were just bigger and longer and he ended up shaping them and cutting them.
Did you ever see a cut that was longer than the theatrical releases, or was that the version you saw?
WINTER: I saw variations on the theatrical release that varied within five minutes of each other.
Okay, so it’s not really that dramatic?
WINTER: No, I couldn’t honestly tell you what necessarily changed they were so similar.
Obviously you’re basing the material on a book and real life people, but a movie is a movie a book is a book. I haven’t read the book so how much did you sort of play with mixing fiction and non-fiction, if you will?
WINTER: The movie is pretty faithful to the book and certainly it’s 100% faithful in terms of the spirit of it and who Jordan is. I had to compact some of the timeline, I had to create an amalgam of three different characters into one, things like that,. Just so I could get my arms around this massive story and then find the through line and what the arc of this thing was; basically the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort. And also a lot of it is just kind of explaining a lot of the Wall Street stuff. How did it actually work? How did he become who he became and ultimately how he ended up? That’s part of the job. I think with any adaptation you have to kind- it was not written to be a screenplay, it was written just to be a memoir and a sort of prose narrative. So my job was then to find the movie within that thing. But I would say that everything in the movie certainly happened in a fashion in the book and it may just be names were changed to protect the innocent type thing.
WINTER: Yeah, I’ll tell you too, when I started to do the research I talked to the FBI agent that arrested Jordan and he said, “I will tell you that I tracked this guy for ten years and every single thing in that book is true.” I said, “That’s pretty unbelievable.” Mainly I’m thinking nobody could do this amount of drugs for that length of time and come out of the other end of this and survive. The series of coincidences that happened in Jordan’s life- you’re going, “Okay, come on you’re kidding me. The yacht crashed and the plane sent over to kill you, that crashed too?” Absolutely happened, the real stuff. Just one thing after another. And those coincidences continue for Jordan- you know, he went to jail and Tommy Chong from Cheech and Chong was his bunk mate. It’s like, of course. “You know what, of course he was because that’s how his life is.” You just turn these pages and it’s just such an insane roller coaster ride of coincidence and opportunity. Just the fact that Jordan’s first day as a stockbroker was the day the stock market crashes. You go, “Come on, was it really that day?” Yeah actually, it really was. He’s just born under either a lucky star or a dark cloud, depending what your perspective is, but stuff will happen to him.
You obviously have worked with Marty before, were you on set a lot during the filming? And how involved is he as a director in terms of changing things on set? Does he like to change things on set or is it pretty much sticking to the script?
WINTER: Well I wasn’t on set for this because I was on set for our other project, Boardwalk Empire. We were filming our third season during the filming of Wolf. So I did a lot of meetings with Marty and Leo during pre-production, a lot of late night conversations about the script, but once the filming actually started I was only on set a handful of times. In terms of how Marty works, he’s a very big fan of letting his actors explore things. I mean he is very faithful to the script, and he’s a writer himself so he’s very sensitive to honoring the material and filming what’s there, but he also loves to try new things and if an actor wants to veer off and start to ad lib he’ll let it happen. Especially when you get actors who are really great at improvisation. Leo is particularly good. Jonah Hill is an amazing improviser and Jonah’s a really talented writer himself. Sometimes that’s where the magic is. You let guys start riffing on something- you know, staying within framework of what’s there, what’s written and what’s on the page, but Jonah will throw out a different line and Leo will riff off of that to see where it goes. Sometimes you create something that’s even better. I think it’s this controlled chaos that Marty likes to give his actors license to try things. We do the same thing in the writing process too. We talk about something and go, “Why don’t you go off and write that? Let’s see how it goes. We’ll try it this way, try it that way, try it three different ways and come back and let’s read them all aloud and see which one we like better.” It’s a lot of that.
You guys used voice over in this film and voice over can either be laughable or it can really amplify a movie and make it better. Basically if voice over is used right it can really work, and I think it really works in this movie. How much debate was there about using the voice over or was that always part of it?
WINTER: Well it’s something that I hoped was going to be part of it because when I read the book so much of the fun of Jordan’s storytelling were his asides. He would describe the different phases of being high or the three types of hookers, these oddball comments. His observations about people. The ball-breaking kind of things he would say didn’t necessarily lend themselves to natural dialogue or the story. So before I went off and wrote the script one of the first things I wanted to talk with Marty about was, “Would you let me write this with the voice over?” Because I knew obviously Goodfellas and Casino had voice over and I wasn’t sure if he wanted to do that anymore. And he said, “Yeah, I actually think hits will be a good companion piece to Goodfellas, let’s write it in the same style.” So that was something we sort of hit head on going into it. And I was so happy that I got to really include so much of the Jordan stuff that would have been cut out if I wrote this without it. It just would have been things that I felt I was shoehorning into dialogue, things that didn’t necessarily belong in dialogue or that weren’t great. Just Jordan’s weird kind of take on the world.
I’m a big fan of your show Boardwalk Empire and while I have you on the phone I have to ask you about it. When you’re writing the season how far in advance have you arced out the show? And how much are you writing during the season towards an arc or are you sort of figuring it out a little bit as you go? Could you describe that process?
WINTER: Yeah, I come in at the beginning of every season with a broad strokes idea of where this season is going to go. I always liken it to a road map, like I’m going to drive from New York to LA and were going to stop in these various cities along the way, those things being various story points along the way. For example, season four, we knew we would start in 1924 Nucky and Chalky would have their nightclub, an incident would happen that would cause Chalky to butt heads with a black Harlem gangster, that guy would slowly start to take over Chalky’s world, later on there would be a love triangle. So all that stuff was sort of broad strokes laid out before we even started writing any scripts. Then it’s like, okay let’s start jumping in. We would do an outline for the first couple of episodes and then we’d each go off, because I have several writers that work with me, we’d each go off write our scripts, come back, re-write and then by the time we actually go into production we have about four or five episodes already written. We know where we’re headed for the rest of the season. And as the season is progressing with the shooting we’re writing scripts to keep up with our production and then pretty much have a good idea where we’re going. We’re going to get together in the second week of January to start working on season five and that process will start all over again.
WINTER: Vaguely, yeah I know that we’re going further into the future [laughs]. But yeah, this is sort of my downtime so I’m trying not to think about the show because that’s all I’ll be doing starting in January. You don’t think about it, but you always think about it. It’s part of what’s on my mind always.
I would imagine that you get offered a lot of stuff or get the opportunity to work on other things and while Boardwalk is this incredible show I would imagine that there is temptation to work on other things- you can only do so much when you’re working full time. So my question is how long do you envision Boardwalk being a part of your life or continuing? Do you see it as a seven year show? Do you know what I mean?
WINTER: Yeah, that’s exactly what we’re going to be talking about in January. I’m not really sure. I do know and I do have the luxury of knowing that the model for a TV series has changed. It used to be that you had to do a certain number of episodes to hit syndication in order to try to keep a show on, because it’s important to the network because it sells good commercial time. That’s really not how HBO does things. They’re really supportive creatively and if you feel like you’re done and you’ve said everything you needed to say then you can move on and do something else. We actually have another show in development that we’re going to shoot the pilot for in April that Marty is directing. It’s going to star Bobby Cannavale, who played Gyp Rosetti on Boardwalk Empire. It’s a show Marty, Mick Jagger and I are partnering up on set in the world of rock music in 1973 in New York City. Bobby Cannavale plays a cocaine fueled record executive and ’73 was the year that punk, disco and hip hop were all invented within about a five mile radius of each other in New York, so it’s a really exciting time period. HBO is really excited about it. I’m working with George Mastras from Breaking Bad on that and we’ll shoot the pilot for that in April. So that’s another thing I have going. In terms of the Boardwalk thing, how long and how far were going to go with it is really going to depend on the conversation we have in January. We’ll start to feel where the story is going. I don’t want to keep it on longer than the story dictates. If it starts to feel like we’re getting repetitive or we’re starting to tread water just to have a show on the air, that’s not anything anybody’s interested in doing.
I was actually going to ask you about the “Untitled Rock and Roll Project.” I’m very curious how it works now a days with music, has it gotten easier to license music for TV, HBO or whatever? Because it’s sort of like more people are getting music that way in terms of the music videos, and I’m just curious if you’ve already started thinking about if you’re doing a show taking place in ’73 music is obviously a huge part of it.
WINTER: Yeah, I mean in terms of how difficult it used to be, I’m not really sure. I was lucky enough to work on high profile shows where we kind of got what we needed. I wasn’t really privy to the behind the scenes stuff of what the business angle of that stuff was, but certainly having Mick Jagger involved in your music project is not going to hurt. Hopefully that will make it even more attractive for people to want their music on the show and be featured. It’s not anything that I’m too concerned about, but it’s really an amazing luxury to be able to use such incredible music. And Boardwalk too, we’ve got such a killer soundtrack. We’ve got Randy Poster, who’s the Music Supervisor, just does such a tremendous job. Randy’s also working with us on the rock and roll show and has just got this wealth of talented people who handle that stuff for us.
I know I’m running out of time with you, but I have to ask you- You worked on The Sopranos. I thought the ending of The Sopranos was fantastic and I think I got what you guys were going for in terms of the paranoia. Were you a little bit surprised by the fan reaction? And based on the fan reaction if you could go back in time would you tweak it at all? Or did you guys sort of think like “This is for us and this is what we wanted to do”?
WINTER: The ending was completely David’s, his idea and his baby, the whole show was really. I was on board with it from the minute he pitched me on it, which was probably about a year earlier. I thought it was great. I guess I wasn’t entirely surprised- I mean, I think I was surprised by the level of fan reaction to it it. But I started thinking about it, they’re just sad about it ending. They just don’t want the show to be gone. And then I started talking to people, “What did you wan to see? Did you want to see Tony get killed?” “No, of course not.” Did you want the family to get slaughtered in that restaurant?” “No, no, no.” I said, “What did you want?” “I don’t know…just I don’t know.” [Laughs] And months would go by, “Actually the more I think about it I guess the ending was okay.” So I think a lot of people came around to it. I think the initial outcry, a lot of it was more about I just don’t want this show to be over.
WINTER: I think it’s uncomfortable for people not to be told, but I think that sort of what made the show great in the first place was that we didn’t wrap everything up in a neat bow. We didn’t tell you what to think. We used to talk about the whole difference between what we did on HBO and The Sopranos, the difference between that and network TV. At the end of the hour on network TV it’s like, “We caught the bad guy, this is what happened, he’s in jail, everybody’s fine, and you should but this soap and car and just don’t worry about it. It’s all under control.” Very often at the end of The Sopranos you get the feeling that its not under control, you should be very worried and life is kind of really, really messed up at lot of times. It leaves you feeling very disconcerted. That was kind of the point of it.
Getting back to Wolf of Wall Street for one second if you don’t mind. We kind of touched on the deleted scenes thing, but I am curious did you remember specific scenes in your script or bigger scenes that had to be cut for either budgetary reasons or time?
WINTER: Yeah an example of that is the Quaalude sequence where he was in the country club that ended up with Donnie choking on the ham was actually two separate scenes. The choking on the ham scene actually took place originally at a completely different venue. It was a pool party where Jordan and Donnie were racing in the pool and Donnie started choking and Jordan saved him. Through conversation, because of production reasons we needed to combine some locations, we started talking about the idea of- what if we took that scene and combined it with the Quaalude scene at the country club and what an incredible energy that would provide too. So that was one of those examples where Marty would say, “Well let’s try. Why don’t you go off and try? Go off and write it and see what it looks like.” And I went off and did it, called him up and I said, “I think this is 100 times better than what we had.” Marty loved what we had and I said, “I think this works so much better, man. The scene now just goes on for like 12 minutes and it’s just such an amazing energy. It all comes full circle and just wraps up so neatly and I think we should do it this way.” That was a good example of that.
That sequence, involving also the Ferrari, is unfuckingbelievable.
WINTER: Yeah, its pretty wild. The fact that it was hilarious to read on paper, but then to see what it actually looked like when they actually did it- I just couldn’t believe what I was watching. it was just great.
Every writer I speak to has a different sort of writing process. Some writers love to write in the mornings when they wake up for a few hours, some are nine to five writers and some write at night. What’s your typical process? And do you believe in that whole golden time in the morning for the first few hours?
WINTER: No, for me I need to fully immerse myself in a script to the point where I’m literally locking myself away for weeks at a time and I just write it. So I can write twelve to fifteen hours in a day, with breaks in between obviously, but I need to just sort of live within the world of the script. So for this I just said, “Alright well I’m going into the hole and you’ll see me in a month.” I’d come in the house-we were living in LA at the time, I had a separate little guest house and I’d just go out to my office out there and just locked myself away for…it was about four weeks. I just need to completely immerse myself in the material to fully get around it. I’m always amazed by writers who say, “Oh you know I had a half hour so I sat down and wrote a little bit.” I just need a real big chunk of time to sit down and focus. That’s my process.