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Leonardo DiCaprio on 'Wolf': What is the drug behind such hedonism?

December 30, 2013|By Glenn Whipp

Leonardo DiCaprio has followed the fortunes of his latest movie, "The Wolf of Wall Street," since it opened Christmas Day. The film, his fifth with director Martin Scorsese, is based on the autobiography of Jordan Belfort, a broker (played by DiCaprio) who made a fortune selling penny stocks and shamelessly indulged in a hedonistic lifestyle that might give Caligula pause.

The movie's exhaustive depiction of Belfort's appetite for sex, drugs and money has divided audiences, to say the least. It grossed $34.3 million in its first five days, but earned a C grade from exit-poll audiences. 

"I hear my friends talking about it, and it's in a different way than the other films I've done," DiCaprio says over the phone, adding with pride that there aren't many filmmakers around like Scorsese, who at age 71 still relishes a good provocation.

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DiCaprio does too, and during our conversation he took pains to explain "Wolf's" ambitions and how the public's mixed reaction might reflect our own ambivalence toward the way people like Belfort represent an aspect of the American psyche. Part of the interview discusses the movie's ending, which, being based on a true story, is a matter of record. Still, consider this a spoiler alert for those who aren't familiar with the story.

"Wolf," more than your other movies with Scorsese, is really your initiation into his alpha male movie world, a place that's equal parts exhilarating and repulsive.

Yeah. It started with "Mean Streets." That's how Marty came in. The difference between him and a lot of filmmakers is that he doesn't really pass judgment on these characters. He leaves that up to the audience because I think he's analyzing something within our very nature in a culture.

But because there's no explicit condemnation, a lot of people read that as an implied endorsement of this behavior.

People want to see the wake of the destruction. But to Marty, that's been done so many times. It was too much of a traditional approach to understanding what makes these people completely self-consumed and hedonistic. What is the drug behind that? What is the fascination with that? If a movie can give you a greater understanding of our darker nature -- whether you agree with it or not -- that's the best thing a film can be to me.

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But going from the reaction since the film opened, it would seem some moviegoers need some clearer sense of judgment.

But movies that do that don't last. If you look at so many films that have been about certain subject matter, even about gangsters, there's always an indictment. Those movies don't hold up. What lasts is a filmmaker being honest about the portrayal of who these people are and he doesn't try to sugarcoat or give some false sense of sympathy. He doesn't try to apologize for the actions. He just shows it the way it is.

We began to get a sense of how polarizing this movie would be when an academy member, Hope Holiday, posted on her Facebook page that a screenwriter approached you and Scorsese after the academy screening and started screaming, "Shame on you!"

I heard some ruckus but we didn't really respond to it that much. We were on our way down to the theater. I think it got blown out of proportion.

But, yeah, people are talking about the movie ... for better and for worse. It's somewhat polarizing. It's a film that's taking some chances. But anyone who doesn't think that we are repulsed by this world is missing the point.

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Scorsese does make his point of view clear by the way he shot and edited the film, though, if you look closely. One image that comes immediately to mind is the woman getting her head shaved in the middle of the Stratton Oakmont office party. The way the camera lingers on her anguished face would seem to indicate the movie's feelings about the behavior happening around her and to her.

Absolutely. As my father always says, "One of the worst things is to be misunderstood." By no means do we condone this behavior or think of this as a way of life. But I look at the world around me, and this is our culture. This attitude is incredibly destructive and one of the most damaging things in the modern world. And we wanted people to understand our fascination with it. That, in a lot of ways, was the purpose of doing this movie.

By the way, that was my best friend's little sister from Silver Lake who agreed to have her head shaved. She was the only woman we could find. And Marty held on her because she had such an insane reaction. That's the beauty of what he does. He searches for these moments and then when he and [editor] Thelma [Schoonmaker] get in the editing room, they polish them into gems.

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