Nobody does psychosis, violence and Catholic guilt quite so convincingly as acclaimed filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Under his direction, Robert De Niro became the living embodiment of the term “psycho”, collaborating with Scorsese in eight films, most memorably in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Casino. A master of movie menace, the director has long favoured tough guys like De Niro, Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci, which is why today he looks almost out of place, flanked by rosy-cheeked proteges Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, who look like choirboys compared to their predecessors. “Marty”, they refer to him somewhat self-consciously while doing press for the film, or – with cringe-making reverence – “Mr. Scorsese.” Where’s Jack Nicholson when you need him?
Working with Scorsese for the first time, The Departed saw Nicholson head an impressive ensemble including Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, and Alec Baldwin, as well as the aforementioned DiCaprio and Damon. If cinema-goers had warm and fuzzy feelings about Nicholson following his then recent award-winning turns in As Good As It Gets, About Schmidt and Something’s Gotta Give, then his freakily obscene performance as mobster kingpin, Frank Costello, quickly restored the actor’s reputation for danger and unpredictability.
Based on the 2002 Asian crime thriller, Infernal Affairs, screenwriter Bill Monahan moved the action from Hong Kong to the tough streets of South Boston, where an undercover police operation sees rookie cop, Billy Costigan (DiCaprio), infiltrate Costello’s mob. In an almost reverse situation, Costello has his own man on the inside in the shape of ambitious detective, Colin Sullivan (Damon). Oblivious to one another’s identities, both men are plunged into a dangerous game of cat and mouse. Not that Nicholson is anyone’s pussy though, having apparently put the fear of God into Hollywood’s twin golden boys – both on and off the set.
“The first day I worked with Jack, he’d been working with Leo for about a week and so I had the week off and I came back and it was Sunday night,” Damon told FilmInk while doing press for the film just prior to its release. “And I’m looking over the script and getting ready when I get a phone call: ‘Matt? It’s Marty, the director.’ He always says that! I say, ‘Yeah, I know who you are!’ But he says, ‘Well, a funny thing has happened and Jack has some ideas.’ And the next day we were shooting a scene in a porn movie theatre, so Marty says, ‘Well okay, I’ll just get to it. Jack’s going to wear a dildo!’” says Damon, doing a spot-on Scorsese imitation. “And so I thought, ‘Well alright, you know, so be it.’ So we went in the next day and rehearsed it and Jack’s idea was ‘So here’s the deal – I’m going to come in and I’m going to sit there in the overcoat and I’m gonna turn around and pull out the big dildo and we’re gonna laugh’” he says, in an equally plausible Nicholson impression. “Jack really brought this incredible new element to that character. He made him more obscene in a way that felt authentic, because these guys sublimate sex into violence and violence into sex and it really is how a lot of those things did occur.”
With Nicholson sexing up both his character and the tone of the film, the usually clean-cut Damon decided to go in the same direction. “If Jack was introducing this sexual element, then I thought it was fair game in the script, and that we had to reference this from my character Colin’s standpoint. So what would the effect be on a mob foot soldier like Colin if this kingpin figure had loomed over him his entire life? I said to Marty, ‘Alright, we’re in this macho world where everyone’s beating each other up and throwing people through walls – and Jack’s a sexual dynamo – so here’s what I want to do: I want to lose every fight I’m in and I don’t want my dick to work! I want to take an aggressive run in the other direction.’ So we just started talking about that and it really did seem to fit thematically with what Jack was doing and it just deepened the whole thing.”
DiCaprio – who shares considerably more screen time with Nicholson in the film – puts it more succinctly. “As far as Jack is concerned, we kind of expected the unexpected,” he says. “Jack Nicholson joining up with Martin Scorsese to play a gangster is something that I think a lot of movie fans have been waiting for. For me, there were a number of different scenes where I had no idea what was going to happen. In one scene in particular, Jack was talking to Marty and saying that he didn’t feel that he was intimidating enough. I remember coming in and doing the scene in a certain way and the next day I came in and the prop guy told me, ‘Be careful. He’s got a fire extinguisher and a gun and some matches and a bottle of whiskey’. Okay…”
Despite the reticence, DiCaprio claims that he wasn’t actually quaking in his boots while on the set, though it did give him a new spark as an actor. “We’re all professionals here and we’re all playing roles,” the actor says. “But the fact that my character is having a 24-hour panic attack and is surrounded by people who would literally blow his head off if he gave them any indication of who he actually is – coupled with the fact that he’s sitting across the table from a homicidal maniac that will maybe light him on fire – gave my character a whole new dynamic and it completely altered and shifted the scene in a completely different direction. That was one of the most memorable experiences of my life as far as being an actor is concerned. As a human being and as a person, they are memories that I’ll never forget.”
The Departed is rare that in either leading actor could equally have played the other’s role. Damon and DiCaprio, chatting in a New York hotel room, joke about how they tossed a coin to decide their casting fates. “But seriously, I think Leo and I both thought they were incredible roles,” Damon says. “I think we would have both been happy to play either one. Now that we did it this way, we’re happy that’s the way we were cast because I can’t imagine playing the other one now. It’s really rare in a film of this budget to have characters that are this interesting. Generally, the bigger the budget, the less interesting the characters become.”
Discussing his relationship with director Martin Scorsese (the two men next year embark on The Rise Of Theodore Roosevelt, marking their fourth collaboration), DiCaprio is pretty much unreserved in his praise. “I’m a fan of his work, number one,” the actor says. “The truth is, I suppose it all started with wanting to work with him while I was doing This Boy’s Life with Robert De Niro. Getting familiar with Robert De Niro’s work obviously meant getting familiar with Martin Scorsese’s work as well. So I became a fan of his work at a very early age. If you were to ask me who I wanted to work with at 16-years-old, starting out in the business, it would have been this guy right here,” DiCaprio says, grinning at the bushy-eyebrowed director, who is dwarfed by the slender young actor.
“I got fortunate enough to work with him on Gangs Of New York in 2000 and I think it just continued from there,” the actor continues. “I don’t have an exciting term for it other than that we have a good time working together. And we have similar tastes as far as the films we like. He certainly has broadened my spectrum as far as films that are out there and the history of cinema and the importance of cinema. And he’s brought me to different levels as an actor. I look at him as a mentor really.”
It’s curious to watch DiCaprio portray violence on screen because his slender physique and sweet features lend an entirely different impression. Ask how he learned the mannerisms involved in portraying this hot-tempered character, and he shrugs: “I guess by watching Martin Scorsese movies. That immediate violence is not really familiar to me, but that’s what you do as an actor. If you can’t draw from anything in your own real life, you go and meet people that have done these sorts of things.”
For DiCaprio, that meant immersing himself in the streets of Boston, with the help of technical advisor, Tom Duffy, a tough-nut who knew the city – on both sides of the law – inside out. “I’d never spent any time there, so I got involved in the Boston sub-culture and met some of the real people that were around during the late ‘80s,” DiCaprio explains. “I met a guy and spent a lot of time with him; he told me a lot of stories about the streets there. Boston was a very interesting place because everyone knows each other’s business; everyone waves to each other on the street and they all have overlapping stories. It was very important for me to meet the real South Boston characters, and to get to know them and hear their personal accounts.”
Neither Matt Damon nor co-star Mark Wahlberg (who plays a tough but duplicitous cop) had such issues given that they’re both local lads, even if Wahlberg is alone in having experienced Boston’s badlands first hand. “Tom Duffy was a huge resource for me and was able to get me around the Boston Police and it was just fascinating,” says Wahlberg. “I had a real advantage in that I’m from Boston so I didn’t have to learn an accent or do anything like that. I got to skip straight to investigating this kind of sub-culture with the State Police. My entire previous knowledge of the State Police was limited to the times I’d been pulled over on the Pike for speeding! So to get in there and really see what these guys do was great. Any time you get access like that, it just really helps with this type of acting because it’s your own time – and it’s months ahead of time – and there’s no pressure on you. But once you get on a film set, the clock is ticking as every minute costs a lot of money. But when you’re researching, you can go at your own pace and so I spent a lot of time with these guys; just soaking it in. You just start to pick stuff up.”
Matt Damon got right amongst the action too, even taking part in a police raid on a crack house. “I’m sure I was in no real danger,” he laughs. “They brought twice as many cops as they normally do on those raids, and I was in the back of the line with my bullet-proof vest on, standing there thinking ‘What the hell? What am I doing here?’ I didn’t actually go in until they’d cleared the house, but I got to see them do it. We filmed a scene with my character raiding a crack house, and the guys who are in the shot with me are the guys who really did it that night when I was with them. In all of Marty’s films there’s an authenticity that you just can’t fake and it’s because he uses a lot of real people and because his actors have access to these real people to get as much understanding of the people they’re playing. Ultimately it’s a giant magic trick; we’re just trying to be believable and if you’re taken out of the movie at all, then we haven’t done our jobs. So all this leg work that goes in beforehand is just so that when we show up, hopefully the process is pretty smooth and the result is believable.”
Actress Vera Farmiga has the distinction of being the only female in The Departed’s decidedly masculine landscape, and Scorsese wanted to make sure that the role represented more than just a token splash of estrogen. “The action is male-driven, so usually the female characters are the dangers,” the director says. “The women always seem to be adjuncts in a way to the main plotlines and developing the characters, and we wanted someone like Vera for the role, who was able to come in and tell the boys what to do,” says Scorsese, who cast the actress after being impressed by her performance in 2004’s Down To The Bone, where she played a suburban mother with a drug problem.
“It truly was a collaborative process,” says Farmiga, who portrays Madeleine, a police psychologist. “I entered into this being prepared to meet megawatts of talent and you expect there to be a certain chasm between you and there wasn’t. These guys were so nurturing and encouraging and inventive. In preparation I met with a woman by the name of Debra Glasner, who is an LAPD police psychiatrist. I gave her the script and she looked at it and went, ‘Oh dear, no, she’s doing everything wrong. There’s no way that she would sleep with a client!’ And that was the moment when my character became really interesting to me and it all started from there,” she says.
When asked about the creation of the film and the development of the script, Scorsese becomes surprisingly cagey, perhaps hinting at past bridges burnt and feelings hurt. “I’ve always enjoyed talking about the process of how pictures got to be the way they are between the writers and myself and the actors, but I’ve found over the years that it gets misunderstood and maybe could be harmful to [screenwriter] Bill Monahan or other people involved,” the director says cryptically. “It’s a collaborative effort, there’s no doubt, but the base is what Bill did and continued to do when he was called upon. And when he was called upon to evolve characters, it was usually with the actors and myself. Nicholson and I worked in a different way and that again is a private situation. It’s something that we developed in terms of the character that was a little different to what Bill had originally put in the script.”
Thus the creation of the mobster Frank Costello would appear to be largely a tandem co-creation of Scorsese and Jack Nicholson’s. “We decided at a certain point to focus on the danger and the power of this man, and the appearance of his slowly coming apart. He had such power and yet he’s falling apart, and he’s losing his mind. We liked the danger of that. We went in that direction, which was then supplemented by Bill Monahan and whoever else had an idea. That’s the way I work. That’s why I say you can’t really talk about the process. It’s that old maxim: you have to be there!”
Though the film’s Irish Mob-Boston cops milieu is new to the New York bred Scorsese, its themes marked familiar territory for the veteran filmmaker. “The underlying theme of fathers and sons is something that I’ve found myself being attracted to for years,” he says. “It goes back to Raging Bull and through to Gangs Of New York. A lot of my work is intuitive, but I do understand the corruption of power, and Nicholson’s character Frank Costello’s corruption of power is beyond God. He has all the money; he’s got all the drugs; he’s got everything…but he’s still not satisfied and ultimately sets himself up to be taken in by his sons. This is ultimately a story of trust and betrayal but set in the context of the Irish Catholic world of Boston. All these characters are connected in a sort of incestuous way and I just felt comfortable in that world.”
The film’s Irish background, however, is not exactly alien to Scorsese. “I’ve always felt a close affinity with the Irish, particularly coming out of the same area in New York City,” he explains. “It goes back to Gangs Of New York, and the stories about the way the Irish helped create New York and America. And don’t forget, I do have a very strong love for Hollywood cinema and some of the greatest filmmakers to come out of Hollywood were Irishmen like John Ford and others. And the Irish family culture is also very close to the Italian family culture. Irish literature is very important to me and the poetry of the Irish is something that’s extraordinary. The Irish sense of Catholicism is also a very interesting contrast to the Italian sense of Catholicism. Those are my personal reasons. I’m also totally drawn to stories about trust and betrayal, so I found that I kept being drawn back to the script and the project, and that was another big part of the appeal.”
Despite the fact that The Departed is principally a tight and propulsive thriller, Martin Scorsese is famously not a director who merely throws together typical genre films for the sake of it. The director of Goodfellas, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and The Aviator isn’t a man who trades in the cheap currency of car chases, explosions and gratuitous sex scenes. The Departed, like all of his films, has a deeper, wider meaning than it may at first appear. “It’s about one person never knowing who the other person is or what the other person is doing or if you can believe anybody,” Scorsese explains. “That also reflects the world now; it’s the America that we know now, post September 11. And so all of those elements are in there, but first and foremost this is a film made on an entertainment level.”
And entertain it did. As well as being a major box office success for Martin Scorsese, The Departed was also the first film to bring him Oscar gold, taking out gongs for Best Film, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, and, in a first for the famous New York filmmaker, Best Director. “So many people over the years have been wishing this for me, strangers, you know,” Scorsese said in his acceptance speech of finally getting the big prize from The Academy. “I go walking in the street, and people say something to me, I go in a doctor’s office, elevators, whatever, and people are saying, ‘You should win one, you should win one!’ I go for an x-ray, and it’s ‘You should win one.’ And I’m saying, ‘Thank you.’ And then friends of mine over the years and friends who are here tonight are wishing this for me and my family. I thank you. This is for you.”
Never has a Best Director Oscar been so well deserved…for the film itself, and everything that came before (and after) it.
Martin Scorsese’s Silence is released in cinemas on February 16.