Any film that reaches audiences is the end result of countless choices by a broad range of players. The Turning Point is a series that examines the critical creative decisions made during the making of a film, and how they helped shape the eventual end product. In this edition, Co.Create spoke with Terence Winter, the long-time Sopranos writer and Boardwalk Empire creator who is currently up for an Academy Award for his Wolf of Wall Street screenplay. Below, Winter discusses the key decision he made early on that informed the direction of the film. He also talks about the time he spent working with stocks on Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s original conception for the film, and how the now-infamous Quaalude scene arrived in its final form. Be warned, if you haven’t yet seen the film, minor spoilers follow.
Right out of the gate, I knew I wanted my approach to be similar to Goodfellas and Casino. I was very interested in using voiceover—letting Jordan tell you, or sell you, his story. He's a salesman, so I wanted Jordan to tell you the story from his point of view. "This is who I am, this is what I did, this is what happened to me." I was worried that Marty wouldn't be interested in doing that, because he did it already in Goodfellas and Casino, so I went in there hoping I’d be able to make my case. Also, there are these little asides in the book, like Jordan would talk about the four stages of being high, or the three kinds of hookers, and these were things that I couldn't figure out how to work into dialogue, but they were really funny detours for Jordan to take. So I really needed voiceover to do that, and Marty was on board immediately. He wanted to make this movie a sort of a companion piece to Goodfellas, in the same tone and style. He used the word "ferocious." He wanted it to feel like strapping into a rocket ship and it takes off and never slows down. Those were sort of my marching orders when I went off to write, and I kept that in mind throughout the whole process.
Once I got past the introduction, I knew who Jordan Belfort [Leonardo DiCaprio’s character] was. It was probably only six or seven pages of the script, and it took me a long time to get it right, but once I did, I felt I knew who I'd be spending the next few hours with. It helped that I already understood the business aspect and the jargon from when I worked on Wall Street. I was actually on the Merrill Lynch trading floor the day the market crashed in 1987. Jordan Belfort was working for L.F. Rothschild a quarter mile away that day, but of course I didn't know him. I understood who those guys were, though. Merrill Lynch was of course a much more conservative space than Stratton Oakmont became. It was a whole different game than what you got in Manhattan. But I understood the lingo, and I understood these sort of "big swinging dick" guys and their flashy suits and cars and money, and it certainly helped me get perspective on what I was writing about.
Leo's handling of those big speeches made me feel like I’d written the character to the best of my abilities. An important part of Jordan Belfort is his gift of oratory. He’d written in the book about these speeches he used to make to motivate the brokers at Stratton Oakmont, but not in great detail. So I asked if he had any old speeches, and he didn’t. But we ended up filling a conference room at CAA with agents and their assistants and he sort of recreated one of these sales speeches, and he was amazing. When I eventually wrote the speeches that you see in the movie, I'd read these things aloud to myself in my head, and say "That sounds pretty good," but I couldn't imagine how much better it would sound when Leo did it. You get it in the hands of an actor like that, he'll just hit it out of the park.
Winter discusses one of the movie's comedic highlights: the scene wherein DiCaprio attempts to exit his country club and drive home under the creeper effects of some vintage quaaludes.
Originally, [the Quaalude scene] was two separate scenes. The part where Jordan rescues Donnie and saves him from choking was originally later in the movie, after Jordan had gotten sober. Donnie was high and challenged Jordan to a race and they're swimming. Jordan looks down and Donnie's at the bottom of the pool and he has to pull him out and save him. But then we were talking about the whole wonderful energy of the first part of that scene earlier in the movie, where Jordan's at the country club and he passes out and has to get home, how funny that was. Leo said he wanted to keep that insane sequence going. We talked about the wonderful part in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta has that one crazy day where he has to get to the hospital, make the sauce, and get the drug dealers to the airport. Leo said what if there was a way to put Jonah's character choking at the end of this scene. And we talked about it and decided the only problem is, Jordan’s so high, how would he rescue Donnie unless, of course, he did more cocaine, to counteract the effects of the Quaaludes. I said that it's sort of like Popeye eating spinach. And then we thought, what if it's actually Popeye who motivates it—that it's on TV, and that's where he gets the idea. We were laughing and Marty said to try it, so I went off and worked on it for a couple of days. Then we got together again, we read it out loud, we were laughing hysterically, and we said "Let's do this."
In the last six weeks prior to actual production, I met with Marty and Leo pretty much every single day. We met at three in the afternoon and worked until one in the morning. We went through the script line by line, word by word, reading it aloud, acting out the parts, talking about "Is there a better line? Is there a better way to say this? Because this is for keeps, this is gonna be the movie." We really continued to play with it until it went live, changing the voiceover at the last minute, trying to get it just right. It's never done until it's completely done.