At the age of 81, Martin Scorsese is not playing it safe.
Decades after demanding that Hollywood notice him with the one-two punch of “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver,” and long after he placed himself in the pantheon with a string of classics that includes “Raging Bull,” “The King of Comedy,” “Goodfellas,” “Casino” and whatever else you want to drop into that list, he has spent the last 10 years working on an epic scale. In 2013, there was the rampaging “The Wolf of Wall Street,” bursting with the raucous energy of a director a fraction of his age. Three years later, “Silence,” a shattering two-hour-and-40-minute meditation on faith. Three years after that, “The Irishman,” three-plus hours that forced the gangsters who populated Scorsese’s films to come to terms with the wreckage they left behind.
And now there’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” a massive undertaking born during the pandemic that takes an unflinching look at American injustice. Based on David Grann’s nonfiction book about the murders of members of the Osage Nation in 1920s Oklahoma, it stars Robert De Niro as William King Hale, a political boss who befriended the Osage and also stole their oil money and masterminded a string of killings; Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart, Hale’s nephew and a World War I vet who falls in love with Osage woman Mollie Kyle and is either a pawn in Hale’s schemes or a willing participant; and Lily Gladstone as Mollie, who sticks with the man who may be poisoning her, even as family members and friends die around her.
On Wednesday, Scorsese received the 11th Directors Guild nomination of his career for “Killers,” placing him second only to Steven Spielberg as the most-nominated feature-film director in this history of the DGA.
When you’re making a movie set in this location and time, do you unavoidably think of the vocabulary of Western movies?
I come from the generation that saw the best part of the Westerns from the mid 1940s to 1960 or ’62. And by ’68, the Westerns were over with Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.” So for me to even attempt a Western after Hawks and Ford and Delmer Daves and Peckinpah, there was no place for me to go.
But this story, there’s an oddness to it. They have cars and airplanes and they’re playing golf and living in a modern way, to a certain extent. I had to find something I would feel comfortable with, because I’m from another culture, an urban culture. And there’s a constant that just streams through our culture, which is: Take as much as you can, win as much as you can. Winning is better than losing, taking is better than giving. If people are in your way, work out a deal. If you can’t work out a deal, put them in their place. If they can’t stay in their place, kill them. I felt I could identify with that.
You’re telling a huge story on an epic scale, but it has a very intimate love story at its heart.
That’s what made it fresh for me. Eric (Roth) and I tried in the script to deal with the epic scale of it. And ultimately, I didn’t know where to stop it. Meaning, there are so many details, so many characters. And so we were talking about where’s the heart of the movie. Leo asked me that question. I had to say it was Ernest and Mollie. So that’s where we went in. That was the metaphor for the whole acceptance of genocide, basically. How some decent people could become indecent by just going along with it.
There’s a lot of talk these days about who has the right to tell a story, especially a story from a group that traditionally has not been able to tell its own stories on a large platform.
Yeah. Yeah, I know.
At the end of your film, you explicitly show us white people telling this story.
And then you appear onscreen playing a radio actor, and you deliver the last words yourself, which in a way are criticizing the way white people told this story.
Yeah. Absolutely. I am. I felt something and I felt I should say it, that’s all. It’s my own sense of atonement, I guess, on one level. I don’t know if I can put any reason to it. I just felt it was right.
You’ve now made your last two movies for streaming companies, “The Irishman” for Netflix and now “Killers” for Apple. Are the traditional Hollywood studios not right for you?
No, I don’t think so. The last four movies I made have been independently financed. I don’t know if the studios… First of all, I’m 81. If I’m lucky, I’ve got one or two more pictures that I can make. What are they gonna do with me at this point? The studios today, what are they interested in making? Can I fit in there? I don’t think so. Honestly, I don’t think so.
I feel like you could go back 50 years, and you and people like you didn’t really fit in the studio system at that point either.
Never did. Even then, I was always an outsider. I wanted to belong, but I never belonged in that sense. I just didn’t. You learn to accept that it’s all right to be an outsider. (Laughs) You know, we worked together with some really great people at certain studios over the years. We were really lucky.
You greeted your 70s with “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and since then, all of your films have had an epic feel. Is there something about being at this stage of your life that makes you want to tackle these huge stories?
I think that happened organically. I didn’t intend it. Once I got involved with the subject matter, I found myself creating worlds — universes, maybe — that needed this time or this size. I didn’t say, “We’re gonna make a 15-hour epic.” But once I got into it, like “Wolf of Wall Street” or even “Silence,” I became appreciative of the immersion into those worlds. And I thought we should take the time.
I know now everybody has TikTok and everybody’s moving around real fast. But you go to a movie theater, maybe see this on a big screen with an audience, you feel it. But I didn’t plan… (Pause) I think in ‘Wolf” we did plan to make a sweeping epic of greed and lust and all bad goings-on. (Laughs) We really did that. I wanted to show flat-out what it is. And I think that taking advantage of the Osage is directly in line with “Wolf of Wall Street.” If that’s who we are, that has to change.
There’s an argument being made in some circles now that it’s damaging to teach the dark side of our American history. I feel as if films like “Killers” are making the argument that you have to acknowledge those things and face them.
I think you do. I mean, it’s like hiding the secrets in the house. At some point, when it does come out, it’s going to be too traumatic. So why don’t we just say the truth or, or at least give the facts to what happened? Then you could say, “Why did it happen? Why did Nazism rise in Germany after World War I? How did they allow it to happen? How did fascism begin with Mussolini in Italy, and what tradition are they coming from?”
This is another world, of course, but it can happen here and it may be happening here. So I think the more we learn about even the unpleasant truths, we can work on a new world, we can make it different. How could you make up for the horrors that occurred? You do that by respecting the people, giving them the dignity they deserve and the love, if you can. That’s how you do it, you know? And maybe by acknowledging the past, as unpleasant as it is, we can make a change in the future. Hiding, it’s not gonna go away. It’s gonna get worse when it comes out.
This story first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.