Opening in theaters on October 20th, before streaming on Apple TV+ at a later date, is ‘’Killers of the Flower Moon,’ which was directed by legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese (‘The Departed,’ ‘Goodfellas’).
What is the plot of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’?
Based on a true story and told through the improbable romance of Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ tracks the suspicious murders of members of the Osage Nation, who became some of the richest people in the world overnight after oil was discovered underneath their land.
Who is in the cast of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’?
Moviefone recently had the pleasure of attending a virtual press conference, along with other members of the press, for ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ featuring Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese. The legendary filmmaker discussed his new movie, what attracted him to the story, shooting in Oklahoma, historical accuracy vs. emotional truthfulness, casting Lily Gladstone, reuniting with DiCaprio and De Niro, and the music of the late great Robbie Robertson.
Scorsese on Accurately Representing the Osage Community
The iconic director began by discussing how he and his production team went about accurately representing the Osage community in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon.’
Martin Scorsese: Well at first, it was very important for me, as soon as I saw the book, and I said, “Well, if you want me to be involved with anything that has to do with indigenous people and Native Americans, I had an experience in the 70s where I began to become aware of the nature of what their situation was and still is.” I’d been blindly unaware of that, I was too young. It’s taken me years and I’m fascinated by how do you really deal with that culture in a way that is respectful? 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. Particularly by getting involved with the culture of the Osage and actually placing cultural elements, rituals, spiritual moments. People talk about mystical realism or something. Now this is real. You see the dream. The dream is real. The ancestors come. So for me, I wanted to know how, I wanted to play with that world in contrast with the white European world. I felt that this could have afforded us the possibility. Ultimately what happened was that we were dealing with the script on the basis of the David Grann’s book, which is excellent, but the book also has the subtitle, the ‘Birth of the FBI.’ For about a year and a half to two years, I was doing ‘The Irishmen’ 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, and I wanted to keep balancing with the Osage and it was getting bigger and bigger and more diffused. Ultimately this was supplemented by the times that we went out to Oklahoma and met with the Osage. My first meeting was with Chief Standing Bear and his group, Julie and Addie Roanhorse and Chad Renfro, and it was very different than what I expected. They were naturally cautious. I had to explain to them that I’m going to 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, this sort of thing, and yet tell the story as straight as possible. 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 and in the generation before them. It was the generation before them that this happened to and so they didn’t talk about it much. The people involved are still there, meaning the families are still there, the descendants are still there. What I learned from meeting with them, having dinners with them, including Margie Burkhart, I think she was the relative of Ernest Burkhart. She pointed out, and a number of other people pointed out that you have to understand, a lot of the white guys there, a lot of the European Americans, particularly Bill Hale, they were good friends. One guy pointed out, he said Henry Roan was his best friend, and yet he killed him. People just didn’t believe at the time that Bill would be capable of such things. So, what is that about us as human beings that allows for us to be so compartmentalized in a way? After they saw ‘Silence,’ they sort of felt a little more comfortable with me doing this. Margie Burkhart said, one has to remember that Ernest, her ancestor loved Mollie and Mollie loved Ernest. It’s a love story. Ultimately what happened is that the script shifted that way, and that’s when Leo decided to play Ernest instead of Tom White. By that point, we started reworking the script and it became really, instead of from the outside in coming in and finding out who’d 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, and silent complicity certain cases. That’s what afforded us the opportunity to open the picture up and start from the inside out.
Shooting in Oklahoma
Scorsese was determined to shoot the film in Oklahoma, where the story is based. He talked about the first time he visited Oklahoma and how he began to visualize shooting the movie there.
MS: Well, I think the first time was in 2019. It was a little confusing because of shooting ‘Irishman,’ doing the CGI, which was a longer post-production, four or five months, and then COVID hitting, but I know we were there before COVID. We at least had two trips there before COVID. For me, I am a New Yorker. I grew up in the lower East side of New York. I’m very urban. I don’t understand weather that much or where the sun is when you’re on the set. I was very surprised to learn that it’s set in the West. That’s because I was driving down Sunset Boulevard one time about 30 years ago, and I saw the sun setting and I said, it’s great. It’s “Sun-set Boulevard.” The sun sets in the West, I go, “oh, now I get it.” Anyway, when I got there, all I can tell you is those prairies are quite something and they open your mind and your heart. They are just beautiful. Especially driving on these roads, straight roads were prairie and on both sides, wild horses, bison and cows, but the wild horses just out to pasture for the rest of their lives and it was like idyllic. So I said, “Where do I put the camera at this point? How much of the sky? How much of the prairie?” Should it be 1.85 or should it be 235? We got to go 235. You’re going to want to see more of this land. Then I began to realize that the land itself could be sinister. In other words, you’re in a place like this and you don’t see people for miles. You could do anything. Particularly, it turns out a hundred years ago, for me, 1920 is like fifty years ago because I was born in 1942, so the 1920s are to me the way the 1990’s are now to younger people. So when they told me, “Marty, this is a hundred years ago,” I keep thinking, “why are we making a period piece? It’s like normal.” I mean, yes, they were old cars. So I said, “It’s not really a Western, it’s normal.” But when I saw that and I realized this is a place where you don’t need the law. I mean, you have the law, but the law isn’t working that way. You can make the law work for you if you’re smart enough, as we know now, many people do. What I mean by that is that it’s still a wide open territory. You have law, but it’s a wide open territory. So the place, as beautiful as it is, can shift to being very sinister. What I wanted to capture ultimately was the very nature of the virus or the cancer that creates this sense of an easygoing genocide. That’s why we went with the story with Mollie and Ernest because that’s the basis of the love. The love is the basis of trust. So when there’s betrayal that way, that deep, and we know that for a fact that it was that way. Here’s our story.
Historically Accuracy vs. Emotional Resonance
Scorsese also talked about balancing historical accuracy with what he calls the “emotional resonance” of the movie.
MS: This was a constant, historically accurate, and I should say the word “truthful.” You can have a ritual and you shoot a ritual is the way it should be, but it may have been slightly different at the time. We had a lot of support from the Osage authority, the experts who were giving us the indication of how to go about these things, Johnny Williams, and a number of other people. So with them, we tested the accuracy of the rituals, the weddings, the funerals, everything that happened at the funerals, all of this sort of thing. In some cases there was wiggle room because quite honestly, I think the last two generations of Osage forgot about or was taken out of their experience because they had to become white European, they had to become Christians, Catholics, or whatever. So they forgot about all that. In fact, there’s a new resurgence of the learning of the language. We had language teachers there, and Lily Gladstone learned the language and so did Leo, and so did De Niro who really fell in love with it and wanted to do more scenes in Osage. But I suggested that maybe it’s too much for him, but he just liked the sound of it. They were all learning again to put their culture back together through this movie and we were going with them. So what actually happened was, we would ask, does this person put the blanket on this way, is that right? Well, one person would say yes, I would say maybe no. Another one would say, you have a little room here to play with it and have some creative license. So that’s the way we did it throughout every scene that way. That was done a lot in pre-production and during the shoot. So we had that as a basis. There are ways that were never insistent, but there were ways they got to me, certain information where it was Marianne Bower, for example, one of our producers and she’s like my archivist, and she was able to help keep it all together between myself and the Osage.
Casting Lily Gladstone
The director discussed casting actress Lily Gladstone as Mollie Burkhart and why her casting was pivotal to the film’s success.
MS: Well, I believe Ellen Lewis showed her to me in ‘Certain Women,’ Kelly Reinhardt’s film. I thought she was terrific and then COVID hit and we weren’t able to meet. So after the pandemic was calming down, we met on Zoom. I was very impressed by her presence, the intelligence and the emotion that’s there in her face, but you see it. You feel it, but it’s all working behind the eyes. You could see it happening. Also, her activism, which wasn’t overtaking the art, in other words, the art was in the activism in a sense. So the art takes over and in a way which we think then would be more resonant later on after you see the movie, you may be thinking about it more rather than a person preaching at you. I think the first big scene we did was one of my favorite scenes where she has dinner with Earnest alone and she’s questioning him, a little bit of an interrogation. “What are you doing here? Are you afraid of him? What’s your religion?” All this sort of thing. Then you begin to see the connection between the two. When she says, “Ha, coyote wants money.” And surprisingly he said, “That’s right, I love money.” So she knows, this is the other thing, she knows what she’s getting into. Even her sisters later, which is also a scene that we put in with the Osage and the Native American actors. They said, “What if we’re talking about the guys while they’re playing that game and we’re talking about my husband and talking about that guy with the blue eyes likes you and, you know, I don’t think he just wants money. It doesn’t matter. He’s nice. He wants to settle down.” Why don’t we just show that that’s how it could happen? So that’s the way the script was ultimately created by these moments. So with Lily, there was that scene, and of course the scene where he’s driving her in the taxi and it’s only one shot. He says something about, “I want to see who’s going to be in this horse race.” And she says something in Osage and He goes, “What’d you say?” And she says it in Osage again. And he says, “Well, I don’t know what that was, but it must’ve been Indian for handsome Devil.” That’s an improv, and you see her laugh for real. So that moment you have the actual relationship between the two actors. These were the two moments. We felt very comfortable with her. Also we had a feeling that we needed her. We needed her to help us tell the story of the women there. We would always check with her and work with her on the script. There were scenes that were added and rewritten constantly.
Reuniting with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro
Martin Scorsese has made ten movies with Robert De Niro, and five with Leonardo DiCaprio, but ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ marks the first Scorsese movie to feature both actors. The director discussed his working relationship with both De Niro and DiCaprio.
MS: Well, in the case of Robert De Niro, we were teenagers together, and he’s the only one who really knows where I come from, people I knew and that sort of thing. Some of them are still alive. He knows them. I know his friends, his old friends, and we had a real testing ground in the 70’s where we tried everything and we found that we trusted each other. It was all about trust and love. That’s what it is. That’s a big deal because very often if an actor has a lot of power, and he had a lot of power at that time, an actor could take over your picture, the studio gets angry with you, and the actor comes in and takes it over. With him I never felt that. I never felt that. There was a freedom. There was experimenting and also, he’s not afraid of anything. He wasn’t afraid to do something. He just did it. Years later he told me he worked with this kid, Leo DiCaprio, a little boy in ‘This Boy’s Life.’ He said, “You should work with this kid sometime,” but it was just casual. With him, something like that, a recommendation at that time, I think in the early 90’s, is not casual. He says it casually, but he rarely said that. He rarely gave recommendations. So years go by and I’m presented with Leo with ‘Gangs of New York,’ and we worked together in ‘Gangs.’ He made ‘Gangs’ possible actually. He loved the pictures I’d made and he wanted to explore the same territory. So we developed more of a relationship when we did ‘The Aviator.’ Towards the end of it, there was something happening in maturity with him, not quite sure, but we really clicked in certain scenes and that led to ‘The Departed,’ and then we became much closer. That was a project where Bill Monaghan, me, and other people, we were writing all the time and recreating that character that he played of Billy. During that time, he really found out that even though it’s a thirty years difference, he has similar sensibilities. He’ll come to me and he’ll say, listen to this record. It’s Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald. I grew up with it. He’s not bringing me anything new, but he likes it. That’s interesting. He’ll call me and says, “I had a cold and I was looking at Criterion Films and I wanted to catch up on some of these classics, and I saw this incredible movie. It’s a Japanese picture. It’s called ‘Tokyo Story.’ Did you ever see it?” This was last year, I said, “yeah.” I mean, it took me a few years to catch up. I couldn’t even understand Ozu‘s style, seeing it for the first time in the early 70’s because we used Orson Welles’ cameras, and this guy got it from watching it on a big screen TV. That’s very interesting to me to be open that way to older parts of our culture, newer parts of our culture, of course, and the curiosity that he has about other people and other cultures. There’s a trust. Even if we can’t get it right away, we know we’ll come up with something. Maybe other people have relationships where they come up with it faster. Well, we don’t. We just work it through. For example, the scene between Leo and Bob in the jail at the end. That scene ultimately was finally written, I think a few days before we shot it, working with the two of them and working with Marianne and everybody because we had said so much, and it could have gone so many different ways, but what does the picture really need? How much more is there for them to say to each other after all that’s happened? So we went that way. It’s trust. Particularly doing ‘The Wolf for Wall Street,’ by the way he came up with wonderful stuff that was outrageous. So I pushed him, he pushed me, then I pushed him more than he pushed me, and suddenly everything was wild. It’s really quite something. He had a good energy too on the set. That was also important. Very important, because in the mornings, I’m not really good and I’d get on set and then I’d see him or Jonah Hill or Margot Robbie, or him and Lily, and suddenly they’re all like, “Hey.” I said, “Okay, let’s work.”
The importance of Music in his Movies
Finally, Scorsese discussed the importance of music in his movies, and how it influences the way he moves his camera. He also spoke about his longtime collaborator, the late musician Robbie Robertson, and his musical contributions to ‘Killers of the Flower Moon.’
MS: The way I like to make pictures, for the most part I’ve learned, not intentionally, but I feel it is like the pacing of music. The boxing scenes in ‘Raging Bull’ are like the ballet scene in ‘The Red Shoes’ where everything is seen and felt from inside the ring, inside the fighter’s head. The way everything is felt and seen inside the dancer’s head of Moira Shearer in ‘Red Shoes.’ The covering of the band singing ‘The Weight’ in ‘The Last Waltz,’ doing it in a studio was very much according to the music, to the different bars of music and how a camera would move, et cetera. Sometimes I played the music back on the set in the case of ‘Goodfellas’, a number of times. The end of ‘Layla,’ for example, was played back as we were doing the camera moves. For me, ultimately a movie is more like, I’m trying to get to a movie being a piece of music. I think that’s why I do these music documentaries at the same time, I’m trying to get to the pacing and rhythm of something that can be played. For example, you play a symphony and you live with it. “I’ve heard the Beethoven Symphony so many times, I don’t want to hear it again.” No, you play it. “Well, I like the third movement. I want to hear the second movement again.” No, I mean, you live with it. Or Baroque music, anything by Bach or Philip Glass let’s say. In a case like this, very often if a film is playing on TCM, I take the sound off and I just watch. It’s living with me. I live with it. If it’s a Hitchcock or it’s a Ford or a newer one, whatever, I’m looking, and I can tell there’s a musical rhythm to the pacing of the camera and the edit. What I mean by the camera, it’s the size of the people in the frame, the editing and camera movement. I could feel it. So that’s how I exist in a sense. So for me, it’s really about getting the pace of music. That’s done very carefully on set, but also even more carefully in the editing. That’s why this picture is more like somebody pointed out recently, a Bolero, where it starts slower and moves slowly and encircles, and then suddenly gets more intense, and suddenly goes more and more until it explodes that way. So I felt it. I couldn’t verbalize the way I am now, but I felt it in the shoot and in the edit. A lot of the music that kept pushing me was what Robbie Robertson had put together, particularly that base note that he was playing. When Ernest drops her off for the first time at Mollie’s house, she looks at him, she turns, and all of a sudden you hear, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. I said, “I wanted something dangerous and fleshy and sexy, but dangerous.” That beat took us all the way through. Then he sent me some hymn and I picked up music from Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music, all this sort of thing. One particular piece called the ‘Indian War Whoop’ by Hoyt Ming and his Pep Steppers was very important. ‘Bulldoze Blues’ by Henry Thomas, which became ‘Going up the Country’ by Canned Heat. All of this, and ‘See See Rider Blues’ by Ma Rainey, and of course Emmett Miller singing ‘Lovesick Blues,’ which became the great ‘Lovesick Blues’ by Hank Williams later on, but this was the first. So it’s all that’s in there, but the drive of the movie is what Robbie put down, and we pulled it through that way.