Martin Scorsese directs Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in The Departed.
Occasionally, inveterate film fan Martin Scorsese gets truly inspired by someone else’s cinematic work. He now brings us The Departed, an English language version of the high octane 2002 Hong Kong action film Infernal Affairs.
At a recent New York City press conference, Scorsese said he was only convinced he could tackle the tale of two informers (Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio) working at cross-purposes for the police and a fearsome mob boss (Jack Nicholson) after he read the script. Bill Monahan’s screenplay cleverly transposes the Hong Kong drama to the Irish-American community of the writer’s native Boston.
The scene-stealer in the film is, of course, Nicholson for his portrayal of a demented, sex-obsessed mob boss, reportedly inspired in part by real-life South Boston tough guy James “Whitey” Bulger. Imagine Joe Pesci's Goodfellas henchman, but with an exaggerated sense of debauchery – sunglasses and all - thrown in. Nicholson’s co-stars and directors talk about some of his unusual techniques.
Q: What was it like working with Jack Nicholson playing a sexually depraved character?
Matt Damon: We have a lot of Jack stories. Jack had been working with Leo [DiCaprio] for about a week, and I had the week off. Monday would be my first day working with Jack, and we were going to shoot a scene in a movie theater. It's Sunday night and I'm looking over the script and I get a phone call. “Hi, Matt? It’s Marty. The director.” I love that he always says “Marty the Director.” I said, “Yeah, I know who you are.”
Marty said, “A funny thing has happened. Jack had some [new] ideas for your scene tomorrow.” And Marty goes, “Ok, uh – ok, I’ll just get to it: Jack's going to wear [a big prop] under his overcoat tomorrow!” And so I thought, “Uh, ok. So I'll see you at 7 am?”
So we went in for the scene the next day and rehearsed it, and Jack said, “Here's the deal: I'm gonna come in, I'm gonna sit there, in the overcoat, and I'm gonna pull out this big [thing] and we're all gonna laugh.” And I thought, “That's a really good way to get into the scene.” Jack really brought this incredible new element, this new obscene layer to that character. But in a way it felt authentic. It felt, like, you know, these guys really would sublimate sex into violence and violence into sex.
Leonardo DiCaprio: I think a lot of movie fans have been waiting for Jack to join up with Martin Scorsese and play a gangster. And when Jack came on board, I knew there would be a number of different scenes where I had no idea what was going to happen. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life as actor.
For one particular scene, Jack didn't feel that he was intimidating enough and so he spoke to Marty about it. I remember coming into the scene and the prop guy told me, “Be careful, he's got a fire extinguisher, a gun, some matches, and a bottle of whiskey under the table.”
I think we all knew that Jack would grab the reins with this character and let him be free form. Every day we were ready for him when we walked onto the set. Jack’s scenes could be altered and shifted into a completely different direction. These were some of the most intense moments of the film for me. There were some memories that I will never forget.
Q: Have Scorsese films become more Irish in recent years?
Martin Scorsese: I've always felt a close affinity with the Irish, particularly coming out of the same area of New York City. Although by the time the Italians had moved in, by the 1920's-30's, most of the Irish had moved out of that neighborhood. It goes back to Gangs of New York, [which features] stories about the way the Irish helped create New York and America.
Q: How did you prepare for your roles in the film?
DiCaprio: That form of immediate violence is not really familiar to me. But as an actor, if you can't draw upon anything in your real life, you go meet people that have done these sorts of things. Part of the process for me was going to Boston. I had never spent any time there. I went there to learn about the Boston subculture and to meet some of the real people who were around during the late '80s, sort of “The Whitey Era.”
Boston 's a really interesting place, because everyone knows each other's business. We shot a lot of the film in New York, and some of it in Boston. It was very important to meet some of the real characters and get to know them and hear some of their stories. We had a great technical advisor named Tom Duffy, who was there throughout the entire filmmaking process. He knew the entire history of Boston and what the streets were like, the police. He gave us unbelievable advice.
Damon: I had a real advantage because I'm from Boston, so I didn't have to learn an accent or do anything like that. But I did need to learn more about the subculture of the (Massachusetts) State Police, as all I knew of the State Police was from the times that I got pulled over for speeding on the Pike. It was great to get in there and really see what these guys do. Any time you get access like that, it's really the most amazing part of this job of acting.
Once you get on a film set, the clock is ticking. Every minute costs a lot of money. But with research, you can go at your own pace, so I spent a lot of time with these guys just sucking it in. One time, I was able to go along on a raid on a crack house. They brought twice as many cops as they usually do for one of those raids, and I was in the back of the line, with my bulletproof vest on, standing there thinking, “what am I doing here?” I didn't go in until they cleared the house, but I got to see them do it.
The guys who were really in the crack house with me that night are actually in The Departed, standing by me in a shot in the film. In all of Marty’s films, there’s an authenticity that you just can't fake. It's because he uses a lot of real people. And because his actors have access to these real people – and they’re able to get as much understanding of the people that they're playing. Ultimately, it's a giant magic trick.
Q: What was your inspiration for the last shot of the film?
Scorsese: I've worked on that last shot a lot. First and foremost, on an entertainment level, the final shot is there as a reference to the old gangster genre films. At the end of Howard Hawks’ Scarface, George Raft is shot in the street under a flashing electric sign that reads “The World is Yours.” I think of the end of Little Caesar in the same way. And the end of White Heat, it’s [James Cagney crying,] “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”
As The Departed develops, there’s a sense of paranoia and betrayal. One person never knows who the other person is. Or what the other person is doing. Or if you can believe anybody. It kind of reflects the America that we know now, post-September 11th. And so all those elements are in there.
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