Scorsese’s Screening Room: Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio share the films that have fed their many collaborations

Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island (2010), The Aviator (2004) and The Departed (2006).
Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island (2010), The Aviator (2004) and The Departed (2006).

From Montgomery Clift morality plays to Kubrick masterpieces, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio recall the hard-boiled noir and fast-talkin’ film influences that have fed the six features they’ve made together so far. Plus: Leo introduces Marty to Miyazaki.

Marty, you’ve always had this amazing process for the actors when you do a movie. You have these screenings and the entire cast and crew is invited. What’s so beneficial for us as actors is sometimes it’s for the overall tone of the movie, but sometimes it’s just for one scene.

—⁠Leonardo DiCaprio

“I was asked what films I introduced to you, but considering you’ve seen every film ever made up until 1980, it’s pretty hard to say.” Those are actor-producer Leonardo DiCaprio’s shrewd opening words to writer, director and Letterboxd member Martin Scorsese, as they meet to share with Letterboxd their memories of some of the films they’ve recommended to one another over the years.

The one exception? Scorsese had a Hayao Miyazaki blindspot, it turns out. DiCaprio reveals that he introduced Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke to the man who has directed him in six features thus far. (Given Scorsese’s Shark Tale vocal acting bonafides, perhaps he is well-placed for a role in the English dub of the next Miyazaki picture? We are firm optimists when it comes to the Studio Ghibli legend’s future projects, given that just two years separate Scorsese and Miyazaki in age, and Marty already has his next film on the go.)

With this rare instance of an actor teaching his director about a cinematic great taken care of, DiCaprio quickly pivots, detailing how, going into each new project, Scorsese hosts cast and crew screenings of important pictures that are very much front-of-mind. “Marty, you’ve always had this amazing process for the actors when you do a movie,” DiCaprio says. “You have these screenings and the entire cast and crew is invited. What’s so beneficial for us as actors is sometimes it’s for the overall tone of the movie, but sometimes it’s just for one scene.”

Whether it’s merely a moment, a behavioral approach, or a single performance that influences a whole production, the pair take us inside the screening room for insights into the pictures that have helped shape the details of their half-dozen distinctive features together.

Spoiler warning: plot conclusions for several of Scorsese and DiCaprio’s collaborations are discussed.


Gangs of New York: creation and candlelight

Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese on the set of Gangs of New York (2002). — Photographer… Mario Tursi
Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese on the set of Gangs of New York (2002). Photographer… Mario Tursi

It’s tough to recall a time when Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio weren’t known as one of the great director-actor duos of cinema, but it was the year 2002 when this moving-image history was set in stone. Gangs of New York, a long-in-the-works passion project of Scorsese’s based on Herbert Asbury’s novel, presented the star as Amsterdam Vallon, the Irish-American son of a father murdered at the hands of Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis).

Set in the 1860s as Vallon attempts to avenge his father’s death, DiCaprio recalls that Scorsese showed them Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in preparation. “Blown away,” the actor remarks that it was the first time he had ever seen Kubrick’s eighteenth-century drama, telling Scorsese, “I remember you talking about how Kubrick essentially had to make his own lenses to capture the candlelight in that movie.” While that film helped shape an entire aesthetic, it was a quintessential Howard Hawks screwball comedy that determined the wordplay among actors in DiCaprio’s next film with Scorsese.


The Aviator: verbal rhythm and visual trickery

Martin Scorsese, Cate Blanchett and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of The Aviator. — Photographer… Brigitte Lacombe
Martin Scorsese, Cate Blanchett and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of The Aviator. Photographer… Brigitte Lacombe

Hawks’ smash-hit 1940 film His Girl Friday, set at a newspaper and adapted from the Broadway comedy The Front Page, was instrumental in Scorsese helping his cast understand how he wanted to conduct one specific scene in 2004’s The Aviator, the director’s biopic of multi-industry titan, Howard Hughes. Reportedly wanting to beat the record of fastest film dialogue—then held by the 1931 adaptation of The Front Page—Hawks encouraged his cast to improvise aggressively and directed his sound recordist to use whatever means necessary to pick up the lines.

“One of the greatest things about [His Girl Friday] is the speed of the language,” Scorsese remarks. “Some of that was in the original, too, in The Front Page on stage and in the film version, but not as rhythmic and as musical as Cary Grant and Ros Russell playing with each other. The speed of the picture is only equaled by the movie Baby Face… and maybe GoodFellas.”

“It was hard for us as actors to understand the concept of what you were saying for that dinner scene,” DiCaprio replies, referring to the scene in which Hughes is taken by actress Katharine Hepburn (an Oscar-winning Cate Blanchett) to dinner at her family’s estate, where his OCD and antisocial behaviors are put under the microscope by this flamboyant and overwhelming collection of personalities. “There was so much overlapping dialogue and really intelligent jokes and quips. You wanted us to watch that whole movie, the entire cast, just so we could understand that you wanted us to overlap everything that we said. Everything had to be at a lightning pace.”

In DiCaprio’s memory, The Aviator was the film for which Scorsese screened the highest number of reference films out of any of their times working together. The actor recalls that this helped to emphasize Scorsese’s unique process in guiding the look of The Aviator across the distinct visual palettes of cinema in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s—a bold approach that helped earn editor Thelma Schoonmaker and cinematographer Robert Richardson Oscars for their work. With Howard Hughes having been a director himself, it’s no surprise to learn that Scorsese played some of his films as well. “I remember all our screenings of [Hughes’s] Hell’s Angels,” DiCaprio reflects. “All those insane World War I planes going through the clouds; his obsessions with being able to show perspective and realizing that there were no clouds in the background to show where these planes were flying or what was happening.”

The Aviator features a specific sequence in which Hughes has this realization and orders his entire crew back to set to shoot the death-defying flight sequences all over again. Ever the masterful conversationalist and storyteller, Scorsese takes this moment to share an anecdote about how this visual trickery follows him through in his daily life, even as recently as on a location scouting mission for Killers of the Flower Moon.

“They put me in an SUV of some kind. I’m sitting in the front and they said ‘We’re going to this ranch’. Hughes Ranch. We were driving and driving and driving and driving along a road… I mean, we’re going off for like 40 minutes. I look around, there’s still nothing. I said, ‘Why are we going so slowly?’ We’re going so slow. I looked at the speedometer, we’re doing 75 miles an hour.” The director lets out a hearty laugh and continues, “The reason why it appeared so slow is that there was nothing going by. It was all flat prairie. Hence, the airplanes against the clouds. I fell for it in Oklahoma! I still didn’t get it.”


The Departed: trust is a rare commodity

Scorsese and DiCaprio prop up the bar on the set of The Departed. — Photographer… Andrew Cooper
Scorsese and DiCaprio prop up the bar on the set of The Departed. Photographer… Andrew Cooper

While each of the half-dozen Scorsese-DiCaprio films feel distinct from one another, there is a word that pulls together their next two works: paranoia. Ashes and Diamonds, a searing 1958 war drama from Andrzej Wajda, was the key touchstone for The Departed, the 2006 crime saga that finally earned the director the long-elusive Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. “Ashes and Diamonds was so powerful when I saw it,” Scorsese tells his leading man. “Here’s this guy who’s stuck, [and] your character in The Departed is stuck in this shooting war that he didn’t plan on. He’s getting shot at. He doesn’t know why he’s there. All we know is that ultimately he’s trying to find out what’s right in this world with no morality of any kind. It’s ground zero.”

Zbigniew Cybulski’s performance in Ashes and Diamonds was a particularly important influence on DiCaprio’s portrayal of South Boston undercover police officer William “Billy” Costigan, Jr. The “European James Dean”, as Scorsese calls him, was a crucial touchpoint for DiCaprio, who says “You were very specific about wanting me to see that performance and the idea of [him] dealing with this moral conundrum of trying to figure out what’s right. The constant anxiety and internal tension that the lead character feels in that movie. I remember that was a big influence on me when making The Departed and playing Billy Costigan.”

“So powerful.” Martin Scorsese on Ashes and Diamonds (1958)
“So powerful.” Martin Scorsese on Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

“He’s doomed from the beginning,” Scorsese explains of both Costigan and of Cybulski’s young soldier character in Ashes and Diamonds. “There’s something very beautiful about it. Because at least he finds that life for those few moments, you know?” Scorsese posits that, if it weren’t for Cybulski’s untimely death, the popular Polish actor would have been known on the level of Marcello Mastroianni. He died, aged 39, when he slipped trying to jump onto a moving train, having just farewelled his friend Marlene Dietrich.


Shutter Island: in love with a ghost

DiCaprio and Scorsese on the set of Shutter Island.  — Photographer… Andrew Cooper
DiCaprio and Scorsese on the set of Shutter Island Photographer… Andrew Cooper

Shutter Island, Scorsese’s 2010 super-sized throwback noir, was primarily inspired by three greats from the genre: 1944’s Laura from director Otto Preminger, Jacques Tournier’s masterful 1947 picture Out of the Past and Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire, from the same year. DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a federal marshal who arrives at a hospital for the criminally insane to investigate a disappearance while grieving the loss of his wife (Michelle Williams).

Laura had a lot to do with the nature of the detective,” says Scorsese. “I noticed, being around a lot of policemen and inspectors when we were doing The Departed, that they walk in a room and they look at the room differently. They checked everything out, they checked out all the people. That’s what Dana Andrews does in [Laura]. He just slides through it all, he just looks. And everybody’s suspect. There was this attitude of a guy who’s seen it all, who’s been beaten down, and what happens? He falls in love with a ghost. It reminds me very much of Shutter.” He cuts himself off with another bemused laugh, this time a slightly self-effacing one, as he emphasizes, “I mean, Laura’s a masterpiece. I’m talking about where we were aiming,” as if to ward off anyone who would criticize him for putting the two films on the same level. (Fact-check: Laura has a respectable 4.0-out-of-five-star rating on Letterboxd; Shutter Island has a higher 4.1.)

Det. Lt. Marc McPherson (Dana Andrews) interrogates love interest Laura (Gene Tierney). 
Det. Lt. Marc McPherson (Dana Andrews) interrogates love interest Laura (Gene Tierney). 

Out of the Past and Crossfire, the other two Shutter Island inspirations, provide any film lover with a brilliant Robert Mitchum double feature. Mitchum is one of cinema’s greats, embodying the hard-nosed brutality you find in the best noirs. He plays the kind of bone-crunching brute who has his own twisted moral code, with such electric screen presence that you still end up rooting for him. The trick in the portrayal, for DiCaprio, is something he thinks can be unlocked in multiple viewings of Shutter Island. He explains, “I remember actually watching those movies and realizing [in Shutter Island] I am sort of somebody that’s trying to be one of those tough, hardened noir detectives. But to watch it a second time, you realize it’s all a farce and everybody’s actors around him. So you realize he’s doing a one-man show, so to speak, and all the guards are bored and they’re going along with some ridiculous high-school play.”

For Scorsese, it’s the ambiguity of the character that still fascinates him. “That’s the thing with your Shutter character, is that how much of this story is real? Did he really kill his wife? I guess so. To this day, I’m not quite sure. I thought that was the beauty of trying to make that film, where we kept the audience untethered. People tend to want a neatly wound-up story. But what if life is not like that? What if we can make a work of art—good, bad or indifferent—that doesn’t reflect that? That reflects the ambiguity and the uncertainty? So, at the end he says, you know what, I’m going to the lighthouse. Sometimes it’s easier just to forget.”


The Wolf of Wall Street: force and plunder

2024 awards contenders Margot Robbie, Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese on the set of 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street.  — Photographer… Louise Schwartzkoff 
2024 awards contenders Margot Robbie, Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese on the set of 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street Photographer… Louise Schwartzkoff 

For The Wolf of Wall Street, the film that introduced Barbie producer and star Margot Robbie to the world, DiCaprio quickly cites Scarface (the 1932 Howard Hawks version) as a crucial reference for the 2013 treatise on American greed and vanity. Scorsese echoes that thematic tissue in his “Companion Films” list on Letterboxd, where he lines up Sweet Smell of Success with Wolf, writing, “Pure lust for greed and power assumes an endless variety of forms. Here, we’re in the cutthroat world of show business and big media, crossing paths with politics. Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster’s characters speak only the language of force and plunder—that’s all they know. There’s nothing else. As in our picture.”


Killers of the Flower Moon: what we inherit

DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, Scorsese and Robert DeNiro on set for Killers of the Flower Moon.  — Photographer… Melinda Sue Gordon
DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, Scorsese and Robert DeNiro on set for Killers of the Flower Moon Photographer… Melinda Sue Gordon

Finally, the “pure lust for greed and power” shows another of its insidious forms in the pair’s most recent feature, the soul-shaking Killers of the Flower Moon. One actor rose above all others to inform DiCaprio’s portrayal of Ernest Burkhart. “We were highly influenced by Montgomery Clift’s work,” DiCaprio explains, noting that “we had an original storyline that was kind of set for Killers, but I think the key for me and you was seeing A Place in the Sun.” George Stevens’ 1951 film “was such a twisted, bizarre relationship that had to do with the corruption of the American dream and what lengths Montgomery Clift will go to have a different life for himself.”

Scorsese agrees, adding “The Heiress was really the one”. The relationship between DiCaprio’s Burkhart and Lily Gladstone’s Mollie was heavily influenced by the dynamic of Clift’s social climber and Olivia de Havilland’s character in that 1949 William Wyler picture. DiCaprio describes that pairing as “the template” in exploring “how much we wanted to understand that Ernest was complicit in all this, how much we wanted to reveal to the audience… all culminating in that final sequence with her and I at the end where she finally gets it and she walks out.”

Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) shines a light on her husband’s intentions in The Heiress (1949).
Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) shines a light on her husband’s intentions in The Heiress (1949).

The question of whether or not Ernest really ever loved Mollie is one that has dominated plenty of discourse cycles since Flower Moon’s release, and it seems to be one that the film’s creators grappled with as well. “A lot of the stories that we heard from the Osage was that this is probably one of the most twisted relationships they’ve ever come across,” DiCaprio explains of talks they had in the process of making the film, “but they kept insisting he did love her. He got a life sentence for her. At the end of the day, it’s not a form of love that you and I are possibly familiar with.”

Scorsese follows that train of thought, echoing, “No, but human nature is so complex. Under those circumstances, in that world, at that time, people are capable of this. Are we capable of it in the same circumstances?”

Bringing it all back to filmmaking, the director tells his muse: “That’s why I kept the camera on you for that single shot of you on the witness stand. We could see you, and we could see everything you do. You do love her, and you’re admitting to killing her family. You’re saying, ‘I couldn’t help it. I was stuck. It was my uncle. I had to do it. I didn’t think it was going to get this far. Please forgive me.’ It’s all there on your face without saying it, which is quite beautiful. Then ultimately she does give you the answer. She just gets up and goes.”


Killers of the Flower Moon’ is streaming now on AppleTV+. 

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