New YORK -- When hard-living, Quaalude-popping Wall Street player Jordan Belfort was arrested in the late '90s for money laundering and securities fraud, no less a personage the vice-chairman of the National Association of Securities Dealers rose to denounce the upstart founder of the notorious securities firm Stratton Oakmont. The chairman labelled him "the reason Wall Street has a black eye" and suggested Belfort should go to jail for the rest of his life.
The chairman's name? Bernie Madoff.
No one appreciates the irony of that magnificent, outsize hypocrisy more than screenwriter Terence Winter, who adapted Belfort's 2007 memoir The Wolf of Wall Street for producer-star Leonardo DiCaprio with an eye to tailoring the material to director Martin Scorsese, DiCaprio's frequent creative partner (The Departed, Shutter Island, The Aviator).
Winter says his research led him to the conclusion that while the highly visible Jordan Belforts of the financial world were easy targets for dubious moralists such as Madoff, they were ultimately nickel-and-dimers compared to some of the big, bad Wall Street institutions.
"Going into this, I quickly realized these weren't the fat cats that were destroying our economy," Winter says of Belfort and his peers at a press conference for The Wolf of Wall Street. "These were the street urchins. They were trying to be the guys that were really simultaneously robbing our country of billions and billions of dollars," Winter says.
"They represented an attitude more than anything."
Even so, that attitude proved irresistible fodder to DiCaprio, especially in light of the widespread fraud that caused the collapse of the financial markets in 2008. When he got his hands on the memoir, DiCaprio was captivated, calling it, with a laugh, "a reflection of everything that's wrong in today's society.
"(During) this time period in Wall Street's history, Jordan basically gave into every carnal indulgence possible and was obsessed with greed and obsessed with himself, essentially," Di Caprio says. "He was so unflinching in his account of this time period and so honest and so unapologetic in this biography, I was compelled to play this character for a long period of time."
Scorsese, who was first pitched the project after making The Departed, is not averse to projects that come to him from actors. Both Raging Bull and The King of Comedy came to him from his erstwhile leading man Robert De Niro.
"When something is given to me by other people, I don't necessarily respond to it right away," Scorsese says. "King of Comedy was 10 years before I was able to come around to it. Raging Bull took six or seven years. I have to find my own way with it."
Exacerbating the process, the major studios proved to be nervous about the content of the film, which features both pharmaceutical and sexual excess on an epic scale. Scorsese finally came to it after making Hugo (2011), one of the rare feature films he's made that's friendly to a juvenile audience.
"After Hugo is when we finally pulled it all together," Scorsese says. "I thought I'd found a way that I could approach the material in a different perspective from my other films."
One such approach was to shoot the film in an uncompromising manner. An early scene in Belfort's book involves a hooker using Belfort's posterior as a candle holder. The scene makes it to the movie, thanks to DiCaprio's decision to "pull no punches, push the envelope and go the distance with it.
"We were trying to depict like a modern-day Caligula and all the debauchery that comes with it," he says. "So you detach yourself from your own individuality for the accurate portrayal of a character. That's what we do."
Jordan Belfort joins a rogue's gallery of extreme personalities DiCaprio has portrayed, including reckless millionaire Howard Hughes in The Aviator, drug-addicted proto-punk Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries and pansexual poet Arthur Rimbaud in Total Eclipse.
"Some of my favourite films of all time have been a reflection of the darker side of human nature," he says. "In a way, those films are an accurate portrayal of humanity.
"And I wanted to do a film that was a depiction of the times that we live in," he says. "Jordan Belfort, to me, is not the problem, but he represents something within our very nature and something within our society that is very wrong."
Scorsese concurs, even as he adds Belfort to a collection of unlikely movie protagonists that include real-life figures such as Frank Rosenthal (Casino) and Henry Hill (Goodfellas). They all have a common denominator.
"They're human beings," Scorsese says. "And we are not all one thing, are we? We're capable of many different things under different circumstances.
"I'm interested in people. And some people who are basically good do bad things."
The Wolf of Wall Street opens Thursday at Grant Park, Kildonan Place, McGillivray VIP, Polo Park and St. Vital cinemas. It is rated 18A.