Killers of the Flower Moon is “a story of complicity, silent complicity in certain cases, sin by omission”, Martin Scorsese said about his new movie at a recent global press conference. The revered 80-year-old director was replying to questions about his filmmaking approach, his attempt to accurately reflect Native American culture and his collaboration with the actors in the production.
The film has been adapted from American writer David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. The movie will be released in Indian theatres on October 27. It will be streamed later on Apple TV+.
Grann’s celebrated non-fiction book revisits a series of murders in Oklahoma in the 1920s among the Osage, a prominent Native American tribe. A group of white settlers plotted to rob the Osage of the wealth they were earning from the recent discovery of oil in the region. The conspiracy included marrying Osage women and killing them.
Scorsese’s adaptation stars Lily Gladstone as Osage heiress Mollie Burkhart, Leonardo DiCaprio as her husband Ernest Burkhart, Robert De Niro as key conspirator William Hale, and Jesse Plemons as Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Tom White. It was written along with Eric Roth.
Early reviews following a Cannes Film Festival premiere singled out Gladstone (who has previously starred in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women and First Cow) for praise.
“ [Casting director] Ellen Lewis showed her to me in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women,” Scorsese said about Gladstone. “After the pandemic was calming down, we met on Zoom. I was very impressed by her presence, the intelligence and the emotion that’s there on her face – you feel it, you know that there’s something working behind the eyes. Also her activism, which wasn’t overtaking the art.”
In the first important scene filmed with Gladstone and DiCaprio, Mollie is having dinner with Ernest. “She’s questioning him, a little bit of an interrogation – you begin to see the connection between the two,” Scorsese recalled. “When she says, coyote wants money, he says, that’s right, I love money. So she knows what she’s getting into. That’s the way the script was ultimately created, by these moments.”
In another scene, Ernest is driving Mollie in a taxi. Scorsese recalled the rapport between the actors: “He say something about, I want to see who’s going to be in this horse race. She answers in Osage, he says, what did you say, then she answers in Osage again. He says, I don’t know what that was, but it must have been Indian for handsome devil. That’s an improv and you see her laugh for real.”
The love story is at the heart of the adaptation, Scorsese pointed out. “The David Grann book is excellent, but it also has the subtitle ‘The Birth of the FBI’,” he said. “We took the story as far as we could take, but we kept balancing it with the Osage. It kept getting bigger and bigger and more diffused. This was supplemented by the times that we went out to Oklahoma and met with the Osage. They were naturally cautious. I had to explain to them that I was trying to deal with them as honestly and truthfully as possible.”
Scorsese was keen on reflecting Osage culture in ways that were “respectful and not hagiographic”. The terrible crimes committed against the Osage, the manner in which their trust was violated, the ruthlessness with which lives were wiped out – the collective impact of these events is still being felt, he pointed out.
“It [the film] doesn’t lean into [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau and the noble Indian, but something more truthful that can have authenticity and dignity,” Scorsese added. “What I didn’t understand from the first couple of meetings is that this was an ongoing situation. The families of the people are still there. A lot of them pointed that the European Americans were good friends. People didn’t believe at the time that they could be capable of such things. What is that about us as human beings that allows for us to be so compartmentalised in a way? Also, Ernest loved Mollie and Mollie loved Ernest too – it was a love story. So the script shifted that way.”
The film was shot in Oklahoma, which Scorsese, a life-long New Yorker, initially perceived as “beautiful” and “idyllic” but also “sinister”.
“Those prairies are quite something and they open your mind and your heart,” he said. “But when you’re in a place like this, you don’t see people for miles. You have the law but the law is working for you if you’re smart enough. What I wanted to do was capture the very nature of the virus, the cancer that creates this sense of a kind of easy-going genocide.”
The movie reunites Scorsese with Robert De Niro, whom he has directed in 10 features, from Mean Streets (1973) to The Irishman (2019), and Leonardo DiCaprio, whom Scorsese first cast in Gangs of New York (2002).
“In the case of Robert De Niro, we were teenagers together – he’s the only one who really knows where I come from,” Scorsese observed. “We had a real testing ground in the 1970s where we tried everything and we found that we trusted each other. That’s a big deal because very often if an actor has a lot of power – and he had a lot of power at that time – he can take over your picture. With him, I never felt that. There was freedom, there was experimenting. Also, he’s not afraid of anything.”
About DiCaprio, who has starred in some of Scorsese’s most commercially viable films, including The Departed (2006) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Scorsese said: “There’s a trust. And even if we can’t get it right away, we know we’ll come up with something. While doing The Wolf of Wall Street, he came up with wonderful stuff that was outrageous. I pushed him, and he pushed me and I pushed him more and we suddenly went wild. He has a good energy too on the set.”