The Wolf of Wall Street faced a tough market

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NEW YORK CITY—Everyone flashes on a different image when they think of Leonardo DiCaprio. Maybe it’s Jack taking Rose’s arms and holding them out over the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe it’s Billy Costigan checking into prison while the Dropkick Murphys blast over the speakers. It could be Dom Cobb hurtling his way through a dream sequence or Howard Hughes frantically rubbing his hands in a sink. Heck, some might picture Arnie Grape pulling on Gilbert’s leg or Frank Abagnale Jr. flirting with flight attendants and running away from Carl Hanratty.

After the actor limps in front of journalists and onto a podium with the help of a cane (it seems he sprained his ankle tripping over a floorboard), he eventually gets into his seat in front of a giant window showcasing downtown Manhattan. He looks out at the members of the media with that steely stare and a polished confidence that makes it very easy to forget that the man, unbelievably, has yet to win an Academy Award.

DiCaprio is here promoting his latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street (opening Christmas Day), which sees him play real-life Wall Street tycoon Jordan Belfort, a man who swindled his way from selling penny stocks to running a billion-dollar company. The movie was directed by DiCaprio’s frequent partner in crime Martin Scorsese (it’s their fifth together), and at three hours long, it’s certainly one of the duo’s most ambitious efforts.

It was DiCaprio, doing his best imitation of Robert De Niro, who pursued this project and pushed hard for Scorsese to come aboard, as the veteran De Niro did with the director on at least two occasions (Raging Bull, King of Comedy). “About six years ago, I picked up this novel [The Wolf of Wall Street] by Jordan Belfort,” DiCaprio recalls, “which was a fascinating read, simply because I felt like it was really a reflection of what’s wrong in today’s society. It was so unflinching in his account of this time period and so honest and so unapologetic in this biography that I was compelled to play this character for a long period of time.”

Proving that today’s movie market is tough as nails, DiCaprio and Scorsese actually had trouble getting the movie green-lit. “We almost got the financing during Shutter Island [2010] and the film fell apart, but I was obsessed with having Marty direct this film,” DiCaprio says. “It was a long waiting period to get the film financed, and finally our friends here at Red Granite [Pictures] said, ‘Look, we want to take a chance on this film, we want it to be a grand American epic of greed and pull no punches, push the envelope, and go the distance with it.’ So I reapproached it, brought it back to Marty and said: ‘Look, we really don’t get opportunities like this very often; these things don’t come out of the studio system,’ and, thankfully, he agreed to do the film and here we are.”

Scorsese, also in the room, notes matter-of-factly: “I don’t really know who’s calling the shots anymore, seriously. The cinema that we know, the cinema that we took seriously when I was growing up, that’s all changed now with a marketplace like this. And this film, like Leo said: ‘We have an opportunity here to make something that we can take a risk with.’ Being aware of America since the early ’50s, everything’s changed and it’s all about where the money is.”

The two fought hard to make a film they were passionate about, something even the most successful people in Hollywood have to do these days. And maybe, after Christmas Day, those images of Jack and Rose, of Billy apprehending Colin, will be replaced by scenes of DiCaprio in Belfort’s suit and tie giving an inspirational speech.

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