The Wolf of Wall Street, the hotly-anticipated new movie by Martin Scorsese — which opens Christmas Day — is essentially spoiler-proof. The central plot, based (or “based” depending on whom you believe) on real events, is already public knowledge. It was big news in the late ’90s, and the subject of a best-selling memoir with the same title. The story goes something like this: A guy named Jordan Belfort ran a crooked penny-stock brokerage firm in Long Island, where he personally profited a few hundred million before getting arrested in 1998 for securities fraud and money laundering.
But the real fun of Wolf of Wall Street, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, is in the details, which can’t be ruined no matter how much you didn’t want to know in advance. I could tell you all about the movie’s weirder moments: the midget tossing and the chimp on roller skates and the army of prostitutes entertaining stoned brokers on a cross-continental flight. I could give you a line-by-line reading of the entire script, and you’d still be in for something special when you finally get around to watching the finished product. Some things have to be seen on the big screen to truly be appreciated. The Wolf of Wall Street is one of those things.
I called Terence Winter, the screenwriter responsible for the first Martin Scorsese movie ever to feature an orgy hosted by a gay butler. He also created Boardwalk Empire and wrote for The Sopranos, but when your new movie includes a scene with DiCaprio getting a hot candle shoved up his ass, it’s hard to talk about anything else. Merry Christmas, everyone!
Wolf of Wall Street is opening on Christmas Day. Is this part of Hollywood’s war against Christmas?
You know, I hadn’t really thought about it, but I guess it is. I can’t think of a better explanation, so that must be it.
It’s kind of the antithesis of the Christmas story. Every character in this film is like the anti-Baby Jesus.
They really are.
There are many more douchebags in this story.
Well, Jesus came across a few douchebags in his life. But he was all about forgiveness, and that’s the real message of this film.
Forgive the douchebags, they know not what they do?
Exactly. It’s about forgiveness and bringing families together. These brokers were like one big family. If nothing else, the movie’s got lots of cocaine and hookers. And that’s really the true meaning of Christmas.
When you write about people who, on the surface, seem utterly reprehensible, do you end up liking them by the time you’ve finished a draft?
I like Jordan very much. The thing is, when you paint somebody in all of their colors, they’re never all bad or all good. Even the worst person has humanity in there somewhere. And Jordan is actually a very likable person.
You’ve met him?
Oh yeah, many times. I first met him back in 2007, and we spent a lot of time together. He’s an enormously likable, charming, funny guy. That’s what allowed him to be so successful when he was perpetrating some of his scams.
Do you think deep down he’s an okay guy?
I don’t think he set out to be a master criminal. He was an ambitious kid from Queens who wanted to be rich, and little by little he kept crossing lines that he’d draw for himself in the sand. Throw lots of Quaaludes and rationalization into that mix, and you’re going to end up going down the rabbit hole.
Did you ever catch a glimmer of the old Jordan, the fast-talking con man?
A big part of Jordan is his incredible gift of oratory. That’s how he was able to do what he did. So I asked him if he had any of his old speeches, the ones he gave to the brokers at [his firm] Stratton Oakmont, but nothing existed. So I got this idea. I asked him, if I can fill up a conference room at CAA with assistants and agents, would you recreate one of those sales speeches? There was some trepidation at first. He hadn’t done it in 10 years.
But he eventually said yes?
He did, and it was amazing, It was a hot summer day in 2007, and all he asked for was a dry-erase board. That’s all he needed. It was like watching a master magician at work. He came in and the room was packed, and within two minutes he’d transformed into the Wolf of Wolf Street again.
Did his speech involve any midget tossing?
There were some short assistants at CAA, but nobody who’d classify as a midget. And none of them were tossed, sadly.
Have you ever seen a midget tossing firsthand?
Not up close. I’ve certainly seen pictures of it and heard about it. But I’ve never witnessed it in real life. It wasn’t any part of the Wall Street I experienced in the ’80s.
You had a job on Wall Street?
I did, yeah. I was in the equity-trading department at Merrill Lynch. I was there in 1987 when the market crashed. We were literally a quarter mile away from Jordan, who was working at L.F. Rothschild at the time. The Wall Street world I knew was very tame by comparison. There was no midget tossing, no chimps on roller skates, no sex in the hallways.
Is there any chance Jordan was lying?
About which part?
All of it. Some of it. Does it matter?
I felt the same way for a while. When I read the book, I couldn’t believe the guy who wrote it was still alive. How could a person possibly survive this? And then you meet Jordan, and he’s so healthy and tan, it’s just so unfair. I assumed he must’ve been embellishing. But then I did some research, and I talked to the FBI agent who arrested him, who had been tracking Jordan for ten years. And he told me, “It’s all true. Every single thing in his memoir, every insane coincidence and over-the-top perk, it all happened.”
Danny Porush, who co-founded Stratton Oakmont with Jordan, says it’s horseshit. He called the book “a distant relative of the truth, and the film is a distant relative of the book.” Do you think he’s lying, or does he have a different memory of what happened?
It’s hard to say. I’ve never met Danny, but I can certainly understand why somebody would want to distance themselves from this sort of behavior. But it’s funny, some of the people I talked to, and even Jordan, said just the opposite. They thought the reality was much weirder than what was in the book.
[Laughs] It kinda is.
Why would he want us to believe that wasn’t true?
I really don’t know. Who among us wouldn’t wish we’d been involved in something like that?
If somebody claimed publicly that I’d duct-taped stacks of cash to boobs, even if it didn’t happen, I’d say, “Yep. Guilty as charged.”
I just don’t get it.
In his defense, the Donnie Azoff character is really an amalgam of a couple different people. It’s not meant to be a depiction of Danny Porush. He’s just one aspect of this character.
For a movie like this, does the truth ultimately matter?
Well, it isn’t like Lincoln, where you have some responsibility to get the history right. This is a looser version of real events.
As long as it’s entertaining, who cares if it’s factually accurate?
And remember, this is a movie about a con man, told from his perspective. Jordan is talking directly to you. You are being sold the Jordan Belfort story by Jordan Belfort, and he is a very unreliable narrator. That’s very much by design.
We shouldn’t believe our own eyes?
Not really. You, the audience, are the victims of this tale. You listen, you get sucked in, you go along with Jordan when everything’s fun and funny. But then it gets really dark at the end, and it’s not funny anymore, and you’re like, “Oh fk. This is some really despicable behavior.” You’re like one of the people on the telephone, who the brokers have been calling and lying to.
Is there any difference for you between writing about stockbrokers and mobsters? Are they essentially the same degree of evil?
It depends on which side of the fence you’re on. If you lose your house and your life savings to a broker, you’d probably throw them in the same category as the worst gangsters in history. Everybody’s definition of carnage and evil is different.
What about for you personally?
I try not to judge. As a writer, I’ve tried to avoid strong opinions about morality. You just want to present things as they are and let the viewer come to their own conclusion. But I guess for me personally, none of it sounds all that good. When I was writing for The Sopranos, people used to say, “Oh, you’re glorifying this lifestyle. You’re making it look glamorous.” But that never made sense to me. Nothing about Tony Soprano’s life was glamorous. He was never somebody I wanted to be. His life was terrible. He couldn’t trust anybody, any one of his friends could’ve put a bullet in his head, and his wife and kids hated him. I’d rather be the guy with the well-paying job who came home and could relax because nobody’s trying to kill him.
Who would you be more afraid to meet in a dark alley, Bernie Madoff or Gyp Rosetti?
Well, Gyp is dead.
Hey, hey, hey! Spoiler alert, man!
Sorry. Well, all things being equal… I could probably take Bernie Madoff.
I say “probably.” I don’t know if I really could. But I’d have a better shot with him than Gyp. Like a lot of these mobsters, Gyp is a barrel of laughs until you inadvertently say the wrong thing. Then it gets really dark really quickly. Madoff is a longer problem.
Is it fair to say you’re a fan of corruption? As a writer, I mean, not on a personal level.
Yeah, it’s fascinating. Any abhorrent behavior is more interesting to me. I’m always amazed when somebody asks me, “Why don’t you write something about nice people?” Because nice people are boring, that’s why.
People seriously ask you that?
It’s happened, yeah.
Because that makes sense. How about a TV show about a sweet, law-abiding guy who just wants to stay out of trouble?
Right, right. Oh, he’s a college professor and we’ll do an episode where he gets his 401k and he’s really responsible and pays his life insurance policy and he’s a good guy and doesn’t cheat on his wife. Who the fk wants to watch that guy? I’d much rather watch somebody who isn’t responsible, who makes all the wrong decisions and hangs out with the wrong people. That’s more satisfying. We may live like saints, but when it comes to our fantasy life, everybody’s got a little larceny in their soul.
If you were asked to write a romantic comedy, could you pull it off?
I probably could. It’d be like relying on my skills as a carpenter. I know what a bookcase is supposed to look like, so give me the right tools and I could fake it. And by the same token, I could use my skills as a writer to construct something that might reasonably look like a satisfying romantic comedy. You just deconstruct the formula.
But would you enjoy the process?
I don’t have a passion to do something like that, no. I’ve had ideas for romantic comedies, but it would be a much more darkly comic version than what usually sells tickets.
You’d make the rom-com where everybody is murdered at the end?
[Laughs] I would love that.
Would there be any chimps in roller skates?
He would be the romantic lead. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s the darkly comic thing. Actually, you remember that show from the ’70s, Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp?
Oh yeah. The chimp detective with the terrible lip-syncing?
I loved that show. He had a partner or something named Mata Hairi, who was a female spy. She was another chimp in a blonde wig. That would be a great idea for a romantic comedy.
Two chimps dressed up like humans pretending to be dating?
I’d pay to see that movie.
Maybe Scorsese would direct it.
No, I’m guessing it’d be a pass. [Laughs]
You’ve worked with him a few times, first on Boardwalk Empire and now this. Is he exactly as cool as we imagine?
He’s everything I hoped he would be. He’s the reason I started doing this in the first place. I saw Taxi Driver when I was 15 and it blew my mind. And now working with him, it’s just unbelievable. I’m still waiting for the alarm to go off and I’ll wake up and realize I’m late for my job at the delicatessen in Brooklyn.
What was it like meeting him for the first time? Did you pee yourself a little?
I came close. He invited me to dinner at his house, and I was like a girl going to the prom. I was all like “What should I wear?” and “What wine should I bring?” I got to his place fifteen minutes early, so I walked around the block a half-dozen times, because I didn’t want to be too late or too early. You know what I mean?
Oh yeah. I’ve done that.
You don’t want to seem too eager, like I’m waiting outside his door for the right moment to knock.
But you don’t want to wait too long, because then it’ll look like you don’t care.
Right! It’s a science.
You were totally over-thinking it.
It was a ridiculous level of nervousness And he’s such a funny, cool New York guy, who happens to be one of the gods of cinema. He’s the greatest living director we have.
No pressure there for a dinner conversation.
I’m not the first person to make this observation, but making Marty laugh is the best thing in the universe. During that first dinner we had together, he’d just had dental surgery, and the very first thing he ever said to me was, “Please don’t make me laugh.” I was like fk, this meeting’s already in the toilet. But I did it anyway.
You made him laugh?
I couldn’t help myself. And he was so cool about it. He forgave me.
There’s no organic segue for this, so I’m just going to come out and ask. There’s a candle scene in Wolf of Wall Street.
Oh yeah. The candle scene.
It apparently wasn’t in your script?
That was an oversight on my part. There’s a scene in the book where Jordan is making excuses to Naomi about what he did last night, and he’s like “I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” and then he remembers, oh yeah, I was with a hooker named Venice. When I was writing it, I forgot that in the book that scene begins with a candle up his ass.
The hooker apparently shoves a candle up there to help Jordan get an erection.
Yeah, right. I just cut straight to Jordan and Venice doing S&M or whatever it was. But then during the shoot, [co-star] Margot Robbie was talking to Leo on the day they were supposed to shoot that scene, and she said, “You know, in the book, Jordan had a candle up his ass.” And Leo was like, “Well that’s interesting.”
Interesting is a good word for it.
Leo goes and mentions this to Marty. And Marty was like, “Well, what do you think about that?” And Leo said, “Well.” And then Marty said, “Well.”
That’s hilarious. Nobody wanted to be the first person to suggest the obvious.
So Leo finally says, “Fine. Get the candle.” I wasn’t there for it, but my hat’s off to him. Talk about commitment.
That’s a real actor right there.
Maybe that’s the Christmas connection you were looking for.
That’s what makes this a Christmas movie?
It’s a red candle. That makes it kind of Christmas-y.
It’s not the holiday season until you have the ritual lighting of the candle in Leo DiCaprio’s ass.
That sounds more like Hanukkah.
It does. Which is already over.
So you’re saying we opened on the wrong date?
I think so.
[Sighs] Crap. Okay, I have to make some calls.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)