Lunch with a Legend, Part Two: Honoring the Osage, Scorsese and DiCaprio reckon with America’s brutal history

Lily Gladstone and Martin Scorsese in a Catholic church on the set of Killers of the Flower Moon. 
Lily Gladstone and Martin Scorsese in a Catholic church on the set of Killers of the Flower Moon

The bloody American story behind Killers of the Flower Moon, the movies that influenced Leonard DiCaprio’s approach to his role, and how the Osage Nation changed the script: Brian Formo concludes his two-part report from Martin Scorsese’s lunchtime CinemaCon chat.

My interest in the story was how a human being could do these things. How a group of people could show acceptance and then rationalize inhumanity by saying, with civilization: ‘one comes in, the other goes out’—and how people can excuse it as ‘just natural.’ It’s such a common tragedy. 

—⁠Martin Scorsese

Las Vegas, shown in all its complexity in one of Martin Scorsese’s best films (Casino), provided the ballroom setting for the first screened footage of his next American epic, Killers of the Flower Moon. The director and his male lead, Leonardo DiCaprio, gave an advance peek at scenes from the film at CinemaCon, an annual event where theater exhibitors and cinema technology providers gather to get excited about the studios’ major slates for the coming months.

I’ll leave descriptions of these scenes in a classified and sealed dossier, since Festival de Cannes attendees will share details soon enough when their reviews drop after the world premiere on Saturday, May 20. (The reel that we saw at the event was not the first teaser, which is viewable below.) But I was interested in the insights we gained into the filmmaker’s evolving approach to ensuring more voices were included in his epic new undertaking. Context is everything, and Scorsese and DiCaprio provided plenty.

An act of faith

Killers of the Flower Moon, the first official Western from the master, is based on an immense chronicle by New Yorker journalist David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. It concerns a heinous chapter in American history in which insidious injustices were committed against the Osage Nation tribe, the investigation of which effectively brought the Federal Bureau of Investigation into existence.

Story sovereignty—the notion of “nothing about us without us” —⁠is at the forefront of current film discussions, and Flower Moon is not just a tale about the feds, it’s an Osage tragedy. While an FBI origin story certainly fits with Scorsese’s general interest in gangsters, grifters and undercover operators, it’s fair to ask whether the director is the best voice for this undertaking. The answer may never please everyone, and is absolutely worth interrogating.

The initial link lies in his upbringing: as Scorsese elaborated to DiCaprio earlier in their lunchtime conversation (which I covered last week), he was raised working class in New York. He is a white filmmaker of Italian Catholic descent, has met Pope Francis several times —including a lovely exchange about the gift of crying—and has been grappling with the religion and its missionary work throughout his career, from Mean Streets through Silence. Likewise, the church has been grappling with Scorsese’s filmography: his 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ was banned in many regions on release.

Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel) prays for a break from the Mean Streets (1973).
Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel) prays for a break from the Mean Streets (1973).

The Osage have strong ties with the Catholic Church dating back to the early 1800s and, indirectly but crucially, far longer than that. Almost every corner of the globe has been impacted by a series of 15th-century papal decrees known as the doctrine of discovery, which set the ground for land theft, Indigenous suppression and in some cases genocide for centuries to come. This year, finally, the Vatican rejected the doctrine, but the damage is done.

Catholicism’s status within the Osage Nation likely provided a familiar entry point to Killers of the Flower Moon, but Scorsese’s drive to take on the full adaptation is also rooted in his place as a major American storyteller. He has the resources to help audiences learn about the worst parts of United States history, in a political climate that is scared to teach them.

He revealed to DiCaprio a conversation he had with The Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie about the story, explaining that he wants to pose to audiences the question: “How many of us are capable of genocide—genocide with complicity?” Rushdie told Scorsese, “‘If some of us are capable, that means all of us are capable of it.”

What struck Scorsese was how complicity rests in the stance where “you want it to go away, you don’t want to think about it”, he told DiCaprio. “My interest in the story was how a human being could do these things. How a group of people could show acceptance and then rationalize inhumanity by saying [that] with civilization, ‘one comes in, the other goes out’—and how people can excuse it as ‘just natural.’ It’s such a common tragedy. Instead of doing a story about the ‘good guys’ who come in and investigate and put an end to it, I wanted it to be about the people who were there during it.”

Line by line, scene by scene: a living script

Killers of the Flower Moon is the sixth collaboration between Scorsese and DiCaprio and it’s the first feature film from Scorsese that also stars Robert De Niro, the actor Scorsese has worked with the most over his long career (this will be their tenth film). Certain Women actress Lily Gladstone and Cree and Métis acting legend Tantoo Cardinal also star, alongside a swath of Scorsese newcomers.

After the CinemaCon audience had comfortably finished their chicken, salad, and iced teas. DiCaprio began his conversation with Scorsese by reading aloud a note from author David Grann:

“In the late 1920s, members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma were the wealthiest people per capita in the entire country. There is oil that they discovered under their land, and one by one they began to die from mysterious circumstances. Killers of the Flower Moon tells the story of one of American history’s most sinister conspiracies and terrible racial injustices.

Like the Tulsa race massacre [featured in the most stunning episode of HBO’s Watchmen], which occurred only 330 miles away during that exact same time period, this critical chapter has long been erased from our nation’s history books… It is an American crime story that is less about who did it than who didn’t? It is about widespread complicity and conspiracy, and  overdue.”

For added historical context, on March 3, 1921, Congress passed a law requiring the Osage to pass a measure of competency proving that they could manage their funds responsibly. If they couldn’t, they would be appointed a guardian, which happened in the vast majority of cases. New money was dropping all over the United States during expansion, but the binding of finances to competency was not applied to white people.

As pointed out by the US National Archives, this law was a bullhorn “to con artists, unscrupulous businessmen, and corrupt lawyers and bankers to siphon off funds from annual royalties. Many whites even married their way into rich Osage families to exert their legal rights as spouses and obtain guardianship that way.” These appointments were not only immensely racist and condescending to the individuals of the tribe but it also opened the door to a more insidious plot. Written into law as well was that if the individual died before “establishing competency” on their estate, the guardian could petition to inherit their wealth. The crimes that unfolded were called the Reign of Terror.

Killers of the Flower Moon actress Tantoo Cardinal as Black Shawl in Dances with Wolves (1990).
Killers of the Flower Moon actress Tantoo Cardinal as Black Shawl in Dances with Wolves (1990).

Scorsese had been trying to make Killers of the Flower Moon for several years; it frequently hit postponements due to, first, DiCaprio’s shooting availability and then Covid lockdowns. With hindsight, postponement might have been a blessing, allowing the filmmakers to reassess the angle of the story. Writing for, Sarah Knight Adamson interviewed Jim Gray, a former Osage Chief (2010–2020), whose great-grandfather, Henry Roan, was brutally shot and killed during the Reign of Terror in 1923. (Roan is featured in the film, played by William Belleau.)

Gray told that he believed the Covid shutdowns helped Scorsese and company reshape the script, affording more time for the Osage community to provide input. An early dinner gathering “was an opportunity to exchange ideas of concepts that aren’t in the book, although helpful for him [Scorsese] to incorporate,” he said.

In the land of film discourse, there’s sometimes a perception that a screenplay that is still being worked on until the last minute is a sign of a weak or troubled script. But there’s another way to look at it: the script as living document. At CinemaCon, the director confirmed this, recalling that after a traditional dinner with approximately 200 members of the Osage community, the shooting script became a dynamic text, constantly revised with community input, “line by line. Scene by scene. We kept working and working on the script until the last day of shooting.”

DiCaprio’s heel-turn (a nod to Montgomery Clift)

Leonardo DiCaprio was originally slated to play Tom White, the lead FBI agent on the case during one of the earliest large-scale investigations by the new federal unit (White is now played by Jesse Plemons). But the star was more interested in the role of Ernest Burkhart, which was helpful in pivoting the script away from documenting the investigation and resting it more on how events were instigated.

Burkhart, the nephew of a wealthy cattle rancher, William Hale (De Niro), lived with the Osage and willingly helped his uncle carry out a horrific plan of removing Osage oil heirs, despite his growing personal ties to the community via his marriage to Mollie Kyle, played by Gladstone. (As Knight Adamson notes in her interview piece, Gray’s great-grandfather was close with Burkhart and Kyle.)

Scorsese explained that DiCaprio’s interest in Ernest opened up his adaptation via human contradictions because “as the Osage verified for us, Ernest and Mollie were truly in love with each other. He’s an outsider and she trusts him. Yet, he did terrible, terrible things.” And thus, with DiCaprio shirking the (more “heroic”) investigative role, the story was able to move directly into the community via a complicit and morally corrupted character. This is a storytelling angle that squares up with some of the best films in Scorsese’s oeuvre.

Montgomery Clift with Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951).
Montgomery Clift with Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951).

During their discussion, DiCaprio fondly recalled how, with every new project, Scorsese holds cast and crew screenings of movies that he’s using as reference points. As the focus of Killers of the Flower Moon shifted toward Ernest and Mollie, DiCaprio said these screenings included films starring one of cinema’s most hurtful romantic deception artists, Montgomery Clift, such as A Place in the Sun, where Clift seduces the older Shelley Winters for her money and society access but falls in love with a younger Elizabeth Taylor, and The Heiress, where Clift strings Olivia de Haviland along for her money and society access, but is always absent when needed.

Another Clift film, Red River, was used as a reference point for the epic Western scale, but for DiCaprio it was the two domestic melodramas, with Clift as the deceptive heel, that immensely aided his performance and gave him the entry point into Scorsese’s vision for the film. In those films, where the audience’s heart lies with those he’s deceiving, we can infer that Gladstone’s role (and hopefully additional members of her community) will need to be (at least) equal in stature to his. Time will tell.

What we do with the time we have

Which brings us to runtime. Long before the official duration of 206 minutes was revealed, there were numerous reports that Killers of the Flower Moon was close to four hours long, a rumor that sent film discourse into a tizzy. Runtime discussions ahead of a movie’s release are a seemingly inescapable, “just having fun” online phenomenon.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how long a movie is in a vacuum; it matters more what is done with that time.

Killers of the Flower Moon could have entirely focused on the FBI investigation, but 206 minutes and a massive $200 million budget ideally allows more space for the Osage community to be featured with more texture and nuance beyond their displacement, exploitation and murders. So the runtime, coupled with many of the statements from both Scorsese and DiCaprio, indicate hopeful signs of community-led filmmaking.

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio in conversation at CinemaCon. — Photographer… Brian Formo
Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio in conversation at CinemaCon. Photographer… Brian Formo

In Knight Adamson’s interview, former Osage chief Jim Gray named three Hollywood films set among native North American tribes that were immensely successful, but were problematic to his community: Little Big Man, Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans. Gray recalled telling Scorsese that those films “have three things in common that I hope you try to avoid. All three of these films were written by non-Indians, all are works of fiction, and all required a white savior. If possible, you can avoid these traps in your film.”

Gray continues:

“David Grann has allowed you to do that with his book because it’s not a work of fiction. It is non-fiction. The people are real. And their descendants are in this room. And most importantly, let us help you. We don’t want you to fail, sir. We want you to make the film that everyone in your industry and the world will point to in the future and say, ‘That’s the one they got right.’ I’m asking you to let us help you.” Gray said. Scorsese immediately jumped out of his chair and shook my hand.

Osage News has been compiling news hits every step of the way, from 2017 to now, including a study of the Native American artistry visible in recently released production stills. Osage News reporter Shaw Duty notes that she, her husband, and her children were also extras in the film and described the experince to as “a big machine, the chance of a lifetime.” She also says, through being on set and reporting on the film that, “everyone I talked with on the film said they were always treated with the utmost respect and kindness.”

While promoting Fancy Dance at Sundance earlier this year, Gladstone took questions from Variety about Killers of the Flower Moon, saying, “The work is better when you let the world inform the work.” The actress, who was raised on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwestern Montana and comes from the Kainai (Blood), Amskapi Piikani (Blackfeet) and Niimiipuu (Nez Perce) Tribal Nations, added, “As the community warmed up to our presence, the more the community got involved with the film. It’s a different movie than the one [Scorsese] walked in to make—almost entirely because of what the community had to say about how it was being made and what was being portrayed.”

With a considered approach, history writ large by popularists like Scorsese and DiCaprio has the potential to reach a massive audience—and perhaps be as educational and eye-opening as the inclusion of the Tulsa race massacre was in Watchmen. At a time when many American states are trying to rewrite history via approved educational texts—curricula that would continue to skirt around some of the worst moments in our history—film and television can carry the burden that our classrooms are being legislated away from. If done right.

Restoring the past

It must be noted that the only credited screenwriters of Flower Moon remain two white men, Scorsese and Eric Roth (The Insider), despite the town hall, and the open door relationship with the Osage community.

Criticism of who gets to make these films and who has the resources to see them is something that Scorsese well understands. He told DiCaprio of his love for Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen as the genesis of his restoration projects, noting what Cissé told him during the process: “He pointed out that we need to start restoring the films that they made themselves about themselves, not whites coming in and making films and many of them are already gone. He said, ‘If we don’t restore that, the future Africans will never know who they are.’”

Scorsese has led the restoration of more than 950 films in his career. His World Cinema Project highlights the necessity of restoration to document a country’s past as depicted by people from those places—in the hopes of instilling a curiosity to make locally made films a part of their culture again.

In my previous report on his CinemaCon appearance, Scorsese talks about how the work of a legend is to inspire and amplify future legends—and this could also apply to Killers of the Flower Moon. There is white savior overlap here but, if done well, it would be a remarkable expression of allyship—especially if the runtime and month-long October theater commitment ahead of an Apple TV+ streaming release pay off, paving the way for more extensive storytelling, by those to whom the stories also belong.

William Hale (Robert De Niro) and Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Killers of the Flower Moon.
William Hale (Robert De Niro) and Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Killers of the Flower Moon.

The brief footage that I saw at CinemaCon looks and sounds necessary. The snippets we were shown was actually quite different from the first teaser to drop online, including dialogue and more of the tribe itself. It is heartening to hear the vast input from the Osage Nation all the way to the end of filming. The re-shaping of the story to rest on a personal betrayal within a larger conspiracy feels like a deeper and more unsettling canvas than the original framing of the FBI investigation. It certainly fits within Scorsese’s character studies of middle men and schemers and the families they betray.

In a year where films about products are being endlessly churned out as narrative fodder—Air, Barbie, Tetris, BlackBerry, Gran Turismo, and what next?—looking backward in discomfort feels necessary. Killers of the Flower Moon promises that. Indignation at our nation’s history or indignation at the film not doing enough to amplify the indigenous presence—likely a mix of both —will be the next part of this film’s journey, as it should.

And Scorsese and DiCaprio will be listening: they continue to regard Killers of the Flower Moon as a living document. Its journey does not end on May 20 at Cannes, six years after the first 200-guest dinner with the Osage Nation. As any great filmmaker knows, the day the audience gets their first look is only the beginning of the conversation.

Killers of the Flower Moon’ premieres at Festival de Cannes on May 20. The film opens in select theaters on October 6 and on wider release on October 20, before streaming on Apple TV+ at a date to be announced.


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