Terence Winter knows a thing or two about crooks. Not bad guys, not men who were born evil and inherently pitched towards corrupting the world as we know it, but rather robbers and reprobates steadily corrupted by circumstances and opportunity. Winter, who served as one of the most crucial writers for "The Sopranos" before going on to mastermind "Boardwalk Empire", has over the course of his career evinced a rare understanding of the criminal mind, and even more rare gift for translating those understandings to the screen. Tony Soprano and Nucky Thompson may not be great men, but Winter's empathetic writing never forgets that they are men all the same. Winter's particular talents and interests naturally make him a perfect collaborator for Martin Scorsese, whose career has effectively been dedicated towards mapping the void between our ideals and our failings.
If Jordan Belfort didn't exist, Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter would have to collaboratively create him. "The Wolf of Wall Street" himself, Belfort personified the greed and wanton excess of twentieth century capitalism run amok. An insatiable addict, this middle-class kid from Queens turned America's unregulated financial system on its head by playing fast and loose with the law and bilking the investors of his start-up stock firm for more money than you could spend in a lifetime. After somehow surviving a roller-coaster ride that genuinely has to be seen to be believed, Belfort wrote a tell-all memoir about his sociopathic career of screwing people over, and now Leonardo DiCaprio is starring in the movie Martin Scorsese made of his life story. If "The Wolf of Wall Street" is a hit – and it certainly deserves to be – Belfort stands to make north of $15 million. He claims that the money would be used as restitution for his victims, but he's lied about money before.
The funniest movie of 2013 and also perhaps its most furious, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is a blistering indictment of excess and the slippery slope of moral compromises, a portrait made all the more damning and seductive by virtue of how much fun it is to watch (much has been made of the fact that it's Scorsese's longest film, but I've seen all three hours of this thing twice already and – if my frequent cable encounters with "Casino" are any indication – I'll be compulsively revisiting it for years to come). I recently had the opportunity to sit down with a warm and unsurprisingly articulate Terence Winter for a quick chat at the film's NYC junket, where we discussed why Belfort's story is, for all of its wild deviance, ultimately such a recognizable one.
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW FREELY DISCUSSES THE PLOT OF "THE WOLF OF WALL STREET"
FILM.COM: Right from the beginning of the film, one of the first things we understand about this story is that Jordan Belfort is telling it to us. He’s not an unreliable narrator so much as a subjective one.
TERENCE WINTER: Or a “drug-addled” narrator, maybe. [Laughs]
With that in mind, do you see this story as a confessional?
Yeah. The book was very much written in that way, and one of the early conversations I had with Marty was about how I was hoping that we could preserve that. You know, part of the fun and the charm of the book is in hearing Jordan’s voice, in hearing his take on things. Things that don’t necessarily lend themselves to dialogue, like him detailing the three different kinds of hookers, or the different stages of a quaalude high, those are just weird little observations. So I asked Marty’s blessing to write it with voiceover, knowing that “Goodfellas” and “Casino” were written the same way, and to a certain extent “Mean Streets” as well. And so he said ‘Yeah, let’s make this a companion piece to “Goodfellas”. Let’s write it like that.’ So that was great that I had license to tell the story in that way.
So there was a very practical element by which knowing that you were writing for Scorsese informed the script.
Very much. And I had the luxury of knowing that it was going to be Leo’s voice, so I could sort of play it through sort of what I imagine Leo’s voice to be like, except he’s much better at being Leo than I am.
Fair. Well, jumping from the beginning of the film to the end, something that really struck me about that final scene is how it hammers home the cyclicality of Jordan’s whole narrative. It happened before, and it will happen again.
Yeah, and we’ve learned nothing. You know, it’s funny, I wrote this in 2007 and then the market bottomed out in 2008 and here we are five years later and as far as I know Wall Street is still there. And some of the people who were responsible for the crash are doing better than ever. And there are a sea of hopeful people out there who want to be Jordan and learn to live like that. And of course there’s also a sea of rationality out there, people thinking “oh I could never do what these guys did... but how do I get the ferrari, and that girl, and all that stuff...”
Well if the story is so ineffably human, and could be told in one form or another at any point in history, how do you balance the hyper-specificity of this story with those universal themes, or achieve the latter through the former?
Well the hyper-specificity wasn’t as specific as it appears. Some of the real techno speak, the Wall Street stuff, it was sort of an ongoing joke as we were in pre-production, with Marty and Leo going “What’s an IPO, again? How does a stock work?” And I’d explain it again and we sort of all came to the same conclusion that you’re not really listening to this stuff. It’s sort of like science-fiction where they’re talking about the hyper-drive or whatever and all you really need to know is that if the red light goes off, we’re in trouble. This is the same thing. All you need to know is, “We made 22 million dollars in two hours, and it was illegal.” So we said alright, let’s just shine a light on that. He’ll start to explain and then go: “Well, you don’t give a s**t about this, it’s not important.” It was there, and certainly it’s an accurate depiction of what a trading floor looks like, but we were less concerned about that stuff than one might think.
Well one of the things he said early in the film that certainly sounded important to me was: “Money makes you a better person.” Do you think that he still believes that at the end of the movie?
Well that’s one of the big rationalizations that allowed Jordan to fall down that rabbit hole. He certainly didn’t start out as a master criminal or with the ambition of robbing people and going to jail, he was an ambitious kid from Queens who wanted to be successful and then started to get involved with shady activities. He said many times that he tried to draw these lines in the sand and tell himself the things that he would never do, and then he found himself crossing the next one and the next one and doing drugs to numb myself to what I was doing and the next thing I knew I was in over my head and I didn’t know how I got there. So he started donating money to charity, or telling himself that “these people are greedy, too, and you can’t cheat an honest man”, and all the s**t that you tell yourself to make yourself look better. “If I’m not gonna rob you, someone else will.” All this twisted logic. But I think probably by the end of the movie, and certainly the Jordan I know now, says he doesn’t feel that way anymore, and I believe him.
There’s something that really struck me the second time I was watching it, is the idea of addiction. There’s a bit where he’s given a chance to cut a deal with the SEC and he doesn’t take it, and knowing how addiction works... it’d be like telling a heroin addict to stop cold turkey. It’s just not going to work. It made me feel as though the F.B.I.’s approach to these sort of white-collar crimes is very naive. Do you think that’s true?
I think it speaks to the bigger addiction that Jordan has, which is the adulation that he got from the people who worked for him. He said he felt like a cult leader. He said the day he was quitting he looked out onto those faces and thought “I don’t know how I can live without this anymore, those faces... these people worship me.” I’m always fascinated when I see these movies about people who have 30 million dollars and they can just walk away, and you’re like “just quit! Just quit!” And they never do. I don’t know whether or not the F.B.I. is naive or not, maybe there are plenty of people who are smart enough to take that deal and we just never hear about them because those aren’t the people they make movies about.
Sure, it’s not a pyramid scheme, he could walk away. He’s not a Madoff, where the nature of their fraud results in an ever-increasing upkeep, where you have to borrow more money to pay off more debts and so on, but Belfort really could have walked away.
I’m sure if he had it to do over again he probably would have. He would have left.
I’m sure. To go back to something we were talking about earlier, there’s an obvious appeal to the things we see in the movie, and there’s a certain percentage of viewers who are only going to take one thing away from the movie. People who aren’t going to learn any lessons from this. The obvious parallel would be De Palma’s remake of “Scarface”... how would you feel if this became the new “Scarface”?
I don’t really think about that while I’m writing, I’m very much of the opinion that art should ask questions and not give answers, so I’m just laying it out there, telling the story of this guy without judging it, and letting you take away from it what you will. It was the same criticisms and questions raised by gangster stories like “Goodfellas” and “The Sopranos”, and it’s funny because from my perspective Tony Soprano doesn’t make the gangster lifestyle look all that glamorous. Here’s a guy who passes out, needs to see a shrink, any one of his friends could put a bullet in his head, and his family hates him. It doesn’t look that appealing to me. But some other people are gonna go “Oh, he works in a strip club and he gets to bang whomever he wants and this looks great!” Okay, if that’s what you’re talking away from it, fine. But we’re just laying it out.
It’s very much by design you don’t see the people on the other end of Jordan’s phone calls. You, the audience, are the people being taken in with him. You’re being taken in by Jordan’s persona, and Jonah, and the hilarity of it all. Every once in a while they’ll be a little bump in the road, where there’s an aside in which Jordan tells us that “yeah, I think that guy killed himself a year later, so anyway...” And you’re going “Wait, what did you just say? Can we talk about that for a second?” And the movie says “no, we can’t. Hey, look at this girl and her bikini!” And it’s not until the end when it gets really dark when you’re like, “f**k, this is horrible.”
Well I think the fact that this, unlike “The Sopranos”, is an outright comedy, definitely adds a different layer to that.
Jordan is very much a buffoon.
Well it’s absurd. These are absurd people. You’re either laughing or crying. These people are unhinged.
Listening to you now, I feel like the scene that might typify the whole film is the moment early on in which the women is getting her head shaved as the hedonistic office party kicks off around her...
Yeah, absolutely. What people will do for money. At what cost are we acquiring things? It’s very much an American story, about the unquenchable desire to acquire things and get more and bigger and faster and better and louder and how we can’t be happy with what we have. Why can’t you walk away? Why can’t you be happy with 20 million dollars?
Well his father, Mad Max, seems like one of the more rational characters in the film. What I found most interesting about him is his latent but still transparent pride for his son. He didn’t want his son to be a crook, but even after he learns the truth, he still can’t help but be somewhat proud.
I don’t know in real life if the real Max knew the extent of the illegality that was happening there. I think that was born out by the fact that he never got in much trouble from the feds, and I think Jordan went to great lengths to make sure that his father never knew what was going on, at least to its full extent. He was certainly aware of the lifestyle Jordan was living, but he never knew about the money laundering and whatnot, as Jordan went to great pains to ensure that. But he was certainly much more of a straight and narrow guy, by a million miles.
My last question is about Donnie. There are always elements about transcending class in stories like these, and I think it’s really interesting to me that this Jewish kid from Queens was determined to become the ultimate WASP.
So much of his journey seems about recasting his identity, I’m wondering if his ambitions were notably different from Jordan’s?
I don’t think they were all that different. I think they were both kids from the suburbs, Jordan from Queens and Donnie from Long Island, who wanted to achieve the American Dream. Jordan wanted to be bigger than he was, but Donnie had no filter, unlike Jordan. He had even less of a conscience, if that’s possible. I think it’s very relatable. Whether or not they want to admit it, I think a lot of people see themselves in this, and think “There but for the grace of God, if I had crossed paths with Jordan Belfort and was presented with this opportunity, who knows...” Had I met Jordan in 1987, who knows, I could have been his partner. But I’m glad it worked out and I went to Hollywood instead.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" opens in theaters on December 25th.