Martin Scorsese has been making motion pictures – some of the most heralded in film history – for close to six decades. Despite all those passing years, the 80-year-old New York native continues to display a deep and obsessive love for creating cinema.
While talking about his latest project, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” he uses words like “honest,” “commitment,” “loyalty” and “passion.” And when he talks about his movie, Scorsese is definitely not at a loss for words.
Scorsese knew as soon as he was given the book by David Grann about 1920s Oklahoma that depicts the serial murder of members of the oil-wealthy Osage Nation that the only way to make the film was to have a complete working relationship with the tribe.
“I had an experience in the ‘70s where I began to become aware of the nature of what their situation was, and is, still is,” Scorsese says. “I had been blithely unaware of that. I was too young. I was in my 20s. I didn’t know. And it’s taken me years, and I’m fascinated by how do you really deal with that culture in a way that is respectful, and also is not hagiographic. It doesn’t fall into, I think, Rousseau like, the noble native, that sort of thing.
“None of that. But how truthful can we be and still have authenticity, and respect, dignity, and deal with the truth honestly, as best we can? Having said that, that story, when I read it, indicated to me that this would probably be the one that we could deal with that way. And particularly by getting involved with the culture of the Osage. And actually placing cultural elements, rituals, spiritual moments.”
His deeply honest approach was used to tell the story of how the Osage Nation was given land that was supposed to be worthless. The discovery of oil changed everything. Instant wealth gave the Osage Nation opportunities but also attracted those who wanted to swindle them out of their fortunes.
An endless string of brutal crimes eventually gets the attention of the Federal government. Investigations of the murders became one of the first major cases for the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigations.
Work on the film started with Scorsese meeting with Chief Standing Bear and his group. The meeting went differently than Scorsese had expected.
“They were naturally cautious. I had to explain to them I’m just gonna try and deal with them as honestly and truthfully as possible. We weren’t going to fall into the trap. We think of the cliche of victims, or the drunken Indian, or all of this sort of thing, and yet tell the story as straight as possible,” Scorsese says. “What I didn’t really understand the first couple of meetings was that this is an ongoing situation, an ongoing story out in Oklahoma.
“In other words, these are things that really weren’t talked about in the generation I was talking to. In the generation above them, before them I should say. It was the generation before them that this happened to. And so, they didn’t talk about it much. And the people involved are still there, meaning the families are still there, the descendants are still there.”
Scorsese managed to maneuver his way through those initial talks to set the foundation for the film. His next step was finding the right structure. Gann’s book deals with both the story of members of the tribe and how the endless string of murders became one of the biggest cases in the early days of the FBI.
The original plan was to focus on the investigation with Leo DiCaprio taking on the role of FBI agent Tom White. The passion Scorsese felt for the book on which the movie is based and the Osage people made him eventually change the primary focus to the relationship between Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) and Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone).
“The David Grann book also has the subtitle ‘The Birth of the FBI.’ And, for about a year a half to two years, I was doing ‘Irishman’ and that sort of thing. And Eric Roth and I were working. And we felt that we took the story of the birth of the FBI as far as we could take it,” Scorsese says. “We started reworking the script and it became gritty. Instead of from the outside in, coming in and finding out who done it. When in reality it’s who didn’t do it. It’s a story of complicity.
“It’s a story of sin by omission, you know? Silent complicity in cases, certain cases. And so, that’s what afforded us the opportunity to open the picture up and start from the inside out.”
And gave Scorsese the chance to passionately and honestly create the latest film in a resume that includes such efforts as “Goodfellas,” “Raging Bull,” “Taxi Driver,” “The Departed,” “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator.”
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is currently playing in local theaters.