Few directors have Martin Scorsese’s talent to tell entertaining stories about the seamier side of life. He has a unique ability to get us to understand and often be seduced by the people who live outside of the accepted norms. That’s an approach he’s used with great success in films like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York and others. Following this path is Scorsese’s newest, The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the memoir of stock broker Jordan Belfort.
Belfort founded the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont in the 1990s, which eventually devolved into an operation based on swindling investors. The memoir chronicles Belfort’s excursions into excesses and debauchery that eventually led to his downfall and federal prosecution for securities fraud and money laundering. He served three years in federal prison and was sentenced to pay $110 million in restitution after cooperating with the FBI. The film adaptation was written by Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, Sopranos), who himself spent some time working in a tamer environment at Merrill Lynch during law school. Leo DiCaprio stars as Belfort, along with Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughy as fellow brokers. ( Note: Due to the damage caused by the real Belfort and Stratton Oakmont to its investors, the release of the film is not without its critics. Click here, here and here for some reactions.)
I recently spoke with Thelma Schoonmaker, film editor for The Wolf of Wall Street. Schoonmaker has been a long-time collaborator with Martin Scorsese, most recently having edited Hugo. I asked her how it was to go from such an artistic and technically complex film, like Hugo, to something as over-the-top as The Wolf of Wall Street. She explained, “When I encounter people outside of this industry and they learn I had some connection with Hugo, they make a point of telling me how much they loved that film. It really touched them. The Wolf of Wall Street is a completely different type of film, of course.”
“I enjoyed working on it, because of its unique humor, which no one but Scorsese expected. It’s highly entertaining. Every day I’d get these fantastically funny scenes in dailies. It’s more of an improvisational film like Raging Bull, Casino or Goodfellas. We haven’t done one of those in awhile and I enjoyed getting back to that form. I suppose I like the challenge, because of the documentary background that Marty and I have from our early careers. Continuity doesn’t always match from take to take, but that’s what makes the editing great fun, but also hard. You have to find a dramatic shape for the improvised scenes, just as you do in a documentary.”
Schoonmaker continued, “The scenes and dialogue are certainly scripted and Scorsese tells the actors that they need to start ‘here’ and end up ‘there’. But then, ‘have fun with the part in the middle’. As an editor, you have to make it work, because sometimes the actors go off on wonderful tangents that weren’t in the script. The cast surrounding Belfort and his business partner, Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill), very quickly got into creating the group of brokers who bought into the method Belfort used to snag investors into questionable stock sales. They are portrayed as not necessarily the smartest folks and Belfort used that to manipulate them and become their leader. This is fertile ground for comedy and everyone dove into their parts with incredible gusto – willing to do anything to create the excess that pervaded Belfort’s company. They also worked together perfectly as an ensemble – creating jealousies between themselves for the film.”
The Wolf of Wall Street is in many ways a black comedy. Schoonmaker addressed the challenges of working with material that portrayed some pretty despicable behavior. “Improvisation changed the nature of this film. You could watch the actors say the most despicable things in a take and then they’d crack up afterwards. I asked Leo at one point how he could even say some of the lines with a straight face! Some of it is pretty bizarre, like talking about how to create a dwarf-tossing contest, which Belfort organized as morale boosting for his office parties. Or offering a woman $10,000 to shave her head. And this was actually done in dead seriousness, just for sport.”
In order to get the audience to follow the story, you can’t avoid explaining the technical intricacies of the stock market. Schoonmaker explained, “Belfort started out selling penny stocks. Typically these have a fifty percent profit compared with blue chips stocks that might only have a one percent profit margin. Normally poorer investors buy penny stocks, but Belfort got his brokers to transfer those sales techniques to richer clients, who were first sold a mix of blue chip and penny stocks. From there, he started to manipulate the penny stocks for his own gain, ultimately leading to his downfall. We had to get some of that information across, without getting too technical. Just enough – so the audience could follow the story. Not everything is explained and there are interesting jumps forward. Leo fills in a lot of this information with his voice-overs. These gave Leo’s character additional flavor, reinforcing his greed and callousness because of the writing. A few times Scorsese would have Leo break the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience to explain a concept.”
The Wolf of Wall Street started production in 2012 for a six-month-long shoot and completed post in November 2013. It was shot primarily on 35mm film, with additional visual effects and low-light material recorded on an ARRI ALEXA. The negative was scanned and delivered as digital files for editing on a Lightworks system.
Schoonmaker discussed the technical aspects. “[Director of Photography] Rodrigo Prieto did extensive testing of both film and digital cameras before the production. Scorsese had shot Hugo with the ALEXA, and was prepared to shoot digitally, but he kept finding he liked the look of the film tests best. Rob Legato was our visual effects supervisor and second unit director again. This isn’t an effects film, of course, but there are a lot of window composites and set extensions. There were also a lot of effects needed for the helicopter shots and the scenes on the yacht. Rob was a great collaborator, as always.
“Scott Brock, my associate editor, helped me with the temp sound mixes on the Lightworks and Red Charyszyn was my assistant handling the complex visual effects communication with Rob. They both did a great job.” Scott Brock added some clarification on their set-up. According to Brock, “The lab delivered the usual Avid MXF media to us on shuttle drives, which we copied to our EditShare Xstream server. We used two Avids and three Lightworks for Wolf, all of which were networked to the Xstream server. We would use one of the Avids to put the media into Avid-style folders, then our three Lightworks could link to that media for editing.”
Schoonmaker continued, “I started cutting right at the beginning of production. As usual, screening dailies with Scorsese was critical, for he talks to me constantly about what he has shot. From that and my own feelings, I start to edit. This was a big shoot with a very large cast of extras playing the brokers in the brokerage bullpens. These extras were very well-trained and very believable, I think. You really feel immersed in the world of high-pressure selling. The first cut of the film came in long, but still played well and was very entertaining. Ultimately we cut about an hour out to get to the final length of just under three hours with titles.”
“The main ‘rewriting of the scenes’ that we did in the edit was because of the improvisations and the occasional need for different transitions in some cases. We had to get the balance right between the injected humor and the scripted scenes. The center of the film is the big turning point. Belfort turns a potentially damaging blow to an IPO that the company is offering into a triumph, as he whips up his brokers to a fever pitch. We knew we had to get to that earlier than in the first cut. Scorsese didn’t want to simply do a ‘rise and fall’ film. It’s about the characters and the excesses that they found themselves caught up in and how that became so intoxicating.”
An unusual aspect of The Wolf of Wall Street is the lack of a traditional score. Schoonmaker said, “Marty has a great gift for putting music to film. He chose unexpected pre-recorded pieces to reflect the intensity and craziness of Belfort’s world. Robbie Robertson wrote an original song for the end titles, but the rest of the film relies completely on existing songs, rather than score. It’s not intended to be period-accurate, but rather music that Scorsese feels is right for the scene. He listens to [SiriusXM] The Loft while he’s shaving in the morning and often a song he hears will just strike him as perfect. That’s where he got a lot of his musical inspiration for Wolf.”
©2014 Oliver Peters