When you’re writing a script called “The Wolf of Wall Street,” you’ve got to be a bit of an animal yourself. To adapt former stockbroker Jordan Belfort’s tale of extravagance, loose morals and general craziness on Wall Street in the ’90s, Terence Winter spent years tussling with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese (the eventual star and director, respectively, of the movie) and untangling a drug-addled narrative in a way that would make it translate logically to the screen but still keep the kinetic wildness it had on the page.
“You’ve just gotta strap in and go for the ride,” Winter said in a recent interview with MTV News. “It’s like being on a roller coaster.”
Winter is no stranger to the screen (or morally ambiguous leading men, for that matter), having created “Boardwalk Empire” and served a long tenure as a writer on “The Sopranos.” `Still, “Wolf” is a different beast, between its real-life storyline, larger-than-life cast and one of the most respected directors of the generation. We talked to the writer of one of the most polarizing films of the year about working with Scorsese, how “Wolf” is a spiritual sequel to “Goodfellas” and how he wrote the best drug scene in recent history.
MTV: This movie has been years in the making, and Scorsese definitely has his own style. How much did you collaborate while you were writing the script, and what did he bring to the process that you wouldn’t usually do?
Terence Winter: Initially, my big request of Marty, who I met before I went off to write the script, I said, you know, Jordan [Belfort] is such a big personality and one of his part of his charm is the way that he describes things, and his asides are really hilarious, the way he breaks people’s balls. Like in the movie, the five different phases of being high, three different types of hookers, things that didn’t necessarily lend themselves to dialogue but were interesting, and I’d go, “God, I’d really love to see this in the movie.” So basically I wanted his permission to incorporate voiceover into the film. I said, “Would you mind if I did it that way.” That was a discussion early on, and he said, “Let’s actually make this a companion piece to ‘Goodfellas.’ We’ll make it really in that style.” So I had permission to go off and do that, which was great, and then once I wrote the script … [there were] many, many meetings with Marty and Leo going through the script line by line by line.
As things developed, we combined some scenes, we shortened some things, we lengthened some things, we changed some scenes and got it ready for production. Most notably is the quaaludes sequence, the overdose sequence, originally the scene where Donnie chokes on the ham was a totally different scene. That had happened originally in a pool later in the movie, but Leo, while we were talking about the tone and the pacing and the energy, reminded me of the sequence in “Goodfellas” where it’s Ray Liotta’s crazy day where he has to go to the hospital to his brother, he’s gotta get the spaghetti and he’s coked out of his mind and yadda yadda. Like the whole quaaludes thing at the country club was so fun, like how do we keep that energy going? So we took that choking thing and put it on the end of that, like what if he’s on his way home and he finds out he’s on the phone with Switzerland and that sort of happened there, and in the process Marty goes, “OK, let’s try it, go write it and we’ll see how it goes.” So I went off and I did it and was like. “God, I think this actually is ten times better than what we had,” which we already loved. We did it, and we read it aloud in the room, and it was like, “God, this is really great. It really works.”
MTV: It’s also a really stylized approach, between an unreliable narrator, the voiceovers, some kind of telepathy. Was that a product of collaboration, or all one person?
Winter: It’s a little of, a little of me, a little of Marty, and a little of, really, Jordan. We’d throw out an idea like I think we were just riffing in the room, we were talking about and reading the scene where Jordan meets with the Swiss banker, we were reading that aloud, and Jordan says, you know, “What are you tellin’ me?” And one of us just aloud goes, “Well, I’m telling you to use a rathole, you f—ing idiot.” And Marty goes, “Well, that’s his inner dialogue, why don’t we do that as a bit, like what he’s thinking.” And Leo answers him and that’s what he’s thinking. And then we did it again with the aunt and realized that this is a thing that only happens in Europe. [He laughs.] Just European people can read each others’ thoughts! There were no rules. It was just if it’s funny, it’s in, we’re gonna do it, let’s try that. If it’s funny to break the fourth wall and look right into the camera, then great, let’s do that. There were no rules, the only thing was to be entertaining, compelling and funny. If it works, great. If not, we won’t use it.
MTV: You’ve worked with Scorsese on both this and “Boardwalk Empire.” Were you starstruck when you first began collaborating with him?
Winter: The first time when I was going to meet him, I was going to his house and I felt like a girl going to the prom. What am I going to wear and should I bring wine? I got to the block like 15 minutes early, walking around the block, just really goofy. But he was great, he was everything I’d hoped he would be, just so funny and personable and incredibly collaborative. Really just a funny New York guy who happens to be one of the gods of cinema and really just exactly what you want. He’s great.
MTV: The movie clocks in at just over three hours. What does a stack of script pages look like for that?
Winter: My original draft was probably like 130 pages, and then it ballooned to like 147 by the time we were done, so, yeah, that’s pretty big. Which is an incredible luxury. When I started doing this, 120 was maximum, and I’ve turned in scripts that are 97 pages long and that’s fine, that’s great.
MTV: We’ll certainly be hearing a lot about the female characters in this movie. The most significant are Jordan’s two wives, but there’s a female stockbroker at his firm who was really interesting the few times she was shown. I know the original cut was longer — was there more of her and her backstory in the original script?
Winter: No, I think that came from the relationship from that actress [Stephanie Kurtzuba] and Leo. There was a connection between them and I think it just sort of — I know Leo talked about her very complimentarily and said she gave me so much when I was giving that speech, I got so much from that actress, the emotion just sort of raised up. And I don’t know where things fell in sequence of where they shot it, but I think Marty probably shined more of a light on her because there was this special chemistry between Leo and that actress. What was there was in the script, but I think it just felt more weighty because of this connection between those two people. It all came from that dynamic.
MTV: The writing isn’t sexist, but the characters definitely are. Were you worried at all about backlash from that?
Winter: Yeah, I mean, I don’t, I didn’t write it from a place of judging it, I just told the story and let people make of it what they will. Obviously there’s some incredibly horrible and disturbing behavior on display in this movie — it’s not sugarcoated in any way, no aspect of this is sugarcoated — so I’m just trying to be truthful with it and lay it out there. People can draw their own conclusions about the lifestyle and the behavior. I can’t imagine anyone would draw a positive conclusion about that behavior, although you could be surprised. We do live in America, and there are people who say yeah, I wanna be that guy.
MTV: “Wall Street” was meant to be a cautionary tale, but it inspired a ton of people to go out and get finance jobs. Do you worry that “The Wolf of Wall Street” will have the same effect?
Winter: Yeah, I mean, I’m always surprised at what people take away from things. We never set out to glamorize things. People used to say, when I used to work on “The Sopranos,” that I was glamorizing mobsters. And it’s funny, I’d look at Tony Soprano and say like, I don’t see anything glamorous there. I see a guy who passes out, any one of his friends could put a bullet in his head, his wife and kids hate him, he’s a horrible, twisted person. If you think that’s glamorous, then OK, we’re coming at this from a different perspective. It’s the same thing here.
Look, in the movie, that Forbes article was a total exposé of what was going on there, and it made Jordan a bazillionaire because it made hundreds of people want to go work for him. So what does that say about the world we live in? It’s put out there and then you go, “What do you take from this?” By design, we did not show the people on the other end of that phone. You’re sort of, the viewer, you are that person. You’re seduced by Leo and you’re laughing, the way Marty shot it, and Leo and Jonah and the cars and everything else, and every once in a while, there’s a bump in the road, like, “Oh, this is the guy who married the girl who slept with everyone in the office and he killed himself, but anyway.” And you go, “What?!” And “but anyway.” “But he killed himself, wait.” And within 30 seconds, you’re like oh, look at the Ferraris and the girls and oh, yeah yeah yeah. But it’s happening, before you know it, you’re taken in. And then at the end, it gets really dark and you go, “Oh, f—, yeah, this is really bad.” So that’s sort of how we did it, that’s all by design.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is in theaters now.