In his half century directing films, Martin Scorsese's put his own inimitable spin on just about every genre from musical (New York, New York) to gritty sports movie (Raging Bull) to costume drama (The Age of Innocence). But the cinephile has never touched a full out gothic mystery/thriller like Hitchock's Vertigo or Preminger's Laura until now. With Shutter Island Scorsese digs deep into the classic genre of creepy, atmospheric cinema that he adores and gleefully uses every trick in the psychological playbook to adapt Dennis Lehane's best-seller.
Set in the early '50s when Cold War paranoia was at its peak, the film centers around U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonard DiCaprio) and his brand new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) as they arrive at the infamous Boston Harbor mental institution, Shutter Island, run by Dr. Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley). There ostensibly to investigate the disappearance of a female patient locked up in the institute for murdering her kids, it doesn't take long for Teddy to reveal he has a more personal reason to dig under the skin of the island. With a massive storm bearing down upon them, Teddy's journey quickly devolves into a nightmarish search for truth, vengeance and perhaps, redemption.
Recently Scorsese sat down with his leading men, Dicaprio and Kingsley, and the Shutter Island scribes, novelist Dennis Lehane and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis, to dissect the anatomy of this particularly potent thriller.
Q. What about Shutter Island enticed you to turn it into a film?
Martin Scorsese: It was reading Kalogridis' script based on Lehane's story and the reaction that I had from reading that script, as to the world that I imagined as I was reading it and how it was revealed to be many different realities. The saga that Leo's character goes through intrigued me and the conflict from that. I gave myself to the material, along with the actors, but I didn't quite know where we would be at any given time. I think we discovered this as we went along – it was a process of discovery throughout.
Q. Dennis, where did the initial idea for Shutter Island come from?
Dennis Lehane: I was smoking a lot of pot. (Laughs) No, I was playing around with an idea. I felt we were entering an age of new McCarthyism in 2003 and I was very freaked out about it. So I decided to go back to real McCarthyism and take a look at it, but how do you do that in an interesting way that hasn't been done before? You do it metaphorically at a mental institution where everything is repression and this pressure is pushing down on the brain.
Q. Laeta, the novel is very complicated so what did you focus on in your adaptation?
Laeta Kalogridis: For me the challenge was to recreate the emotion that I had while reading the book, because the book is this incredible ride. The book is also a very interior story and you experience Teddy's very subjective view of what is going on around him. The biggest challenge was to not get lost in how much good material there is in the book, because that's a six or seven hour movie, and to find a way to preserve that sense of discovery and horror that Teddy feels of being trapped in these smaller and smaller boxes as the story goes on.
Q. Did you get feedback from Dennis on your script?
Kalogridis: There was a point in which I had finished the screenplay and we showed it to Dennis and his only criticism was…
Lehane: My only criticism was that it was too faithful, which I think Laeta said was the first time she had ever heard that from a novelist. I just felt that she had really wonderfully fallen for the language but it was a book language. She took prose and put it in the mouths of the actors and I was like, 'Even if you had Ben Kingsley, he couldn't sell this line!' We had a small disagreement about that but it really was a love fest.
Q. Shutter Island is a very layered film, with many opposing motives going on at once. Was that complexity the main draw for you?
Leonardo DiCaprio: I was very intrigued by this screenplay. It was very much a throw back to great detective genres of the past like Vertigo. At first glance it was very much a thriller, genre piece with twists and turns that worked on lots of layers. But there was this discovery for us as we were making the movie once we started to unravel who this man was and his past, what he had been through and the nature of what was going on on Shutter Island. It took us to places we could not have foreseen. It got darker and darker and more emotionally intense than I think we ever expected. That was a big surprise for us making this movie. At first glance, you read something on the page and it seems one way. You have your decisions before you wind up on set about what that scene is supposed to mean but until you are there doing it, there is no way to understand it. In that nature, it was the best kind of movie to do. I think we were all surprised at the end of the day by the depth of the material. This film is being publicized, and is a thriller in a lot of ways. But at the end of the day it is what Martin Scorsese does best and that is portraying something about humanity, and human nature and who we are as people. And that's what makes it different and stand out than just being a normal genre piece.
Ben Kingsley: The miracle of filmmaking is that you make something out of nothing. And then our collective imaginations create something that fills cinemas which I think is extraordinary. [The film] is, in a sense, a love story. Marty directs like a lover. Everything is held together by affection: for his craft, for his actors, his crew, affection for the material and affection for the great journeys of cinema. What you perhaps don't see on the page, even when Leo, Mark and I were reading it together in the hotel room, what did emerge was an extraordinary level of tenderness between the characters. As Leo pointed out, it looks like a thriller but the glue that holds it together is various levels of tenderness for your wife, for your child, for your patient and for your friend. That is an ingredient that you can't rehearse or anticipate and can only be brought to the film by the director.
Q. Teddy Daniels is a very emotionally complex character. Where did you find the clarity to play him?
DiCaprio: The clarity comes from research and specificity as far as creating a portrayal... We were also around the dilapidated walls of an old mental institution and had someone there guiding us through the history of mental illness, and the pathways of treating it. In doing that there was a tremendous amount of research done on the entrapments of mental illness and the suffering people go through. It led me to watch a lot of documentaries and do research on mental illness.
[Teddy] was like a giant jigsaw puzzle. The more we started to unearth and peel back the onion of who this guy was and what happened to him in the past, and trying to truly understand why he would be so obsessed with a specific case, we realized to explain one set of circumstances we needed to go even further with another set of circumstances. For one thing to be believable, then we needed to push another storyline even further. There were a few weeks there that were some of the most hardcore filming experiences I have ever had. It was like reliving trauma in a way. It was pretty intense…and I don't say that stuff very often because it always seems superficial when you are talking about in reference to movie-making, but it really unearthed who this man was that I didn't think it would get to.
Q. There are a lot of allusions to other films and genre styles in Shutter Island. How did you incorporate some of those very visually iconic elements into your film without coming off as derivative?
Scorsese: The nature of the situation – a doctor and his hospital, the island and a storm, two detectives and an escaped patient – automatically brings to mind certain genres and images that go back several hundred years. I had all that to draw upon but the issue was to have them work for our story and characters. The more you see of the past, the more you can draw upon that and the more you can make that the present and the future. It's how you process the past. Often times in the picture there are references to certain imagery from certain pictures and novels; but is that literal? On one hand a reference to that type of mansion shot at night in a storm creates certain reactions because that's part of our DNA in film. But I asked what does it mean to our story and what's the angle that relates to our story that doesn't at all work to the cliché of a genre?
Q. The score is very bold and at times as fraught as any scene you framed. What inspired it?
Scorsese: The music was created by combining sections of different modern classical music whether it's [composers] John Adams, (Gyorgy) Ligeti, or Ingrid Marshall. [Music supervisor] Robbie Robertson (of The Band) would send me this music and I would listen to it then start synching it up to the picture in different places, overlapping and combining to create a tone, mood and atmosphere that I thought would be interesting.
Q. Without spoiling the end, some people feel the conclusion is left on an ambiguous note. Was that a specific choice on your part?
Kalogridis: It's ironic because to me the ending is not ambiguous at all, although a lot of people come out of it feeling that. The final shot was filmed a couple of different ways which added ambiguity that was later removed. The book is its own animal and [the film] ending is somewhat different from the book but for me the spirit of the story took me to a very particular place in my relationship with Teddy as a reader, about who I thought he was. And to me [in the film] that's who I thought he was.
Tara Bennett is the East Coast Editor for SFX Magazine, lead writer for Lost Magazine and a regular contributor to SciFi Magazine, SciFiWire.com, and Newsarama.com. She is also the author of the film books 300: The Art of the Film, The Art of Terminator Salvation and The Making of Terminator Salvation.
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