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December 10th, 2010

 

INTERVIEW: Leonardo DiCaprio on ‘Inception’ and ‘Shutter Island’
parallels and a shifting industry landscape

by Kristopher Tapley

 

Leonardo DiCaprio was very aware of the similarities between “Shutter Island” and “Inception” when he was considering starring in the latter. The idea of a man haunted by his past and living in an alternate reality, these are themes that interest him, in particular because he enjoys playing characters which are in some ways unreliable protagonists (to play on the “unreliable narrator” literary device).

“There’s nothing obvious,” he says. “It forces you to sit with the other characters and be deceitful to yourself and to the people around you. No line is taken for what it is. You can never read a line with either of these characters and say to yourself, ‘He means exactly what he says.’ There’s a hidden agenda there. Both of these characters are lost in the labyrinth of their own mind and living an alternate life completely that they hadn’t come to terms with. And how one lies to oneself is interesting, too, with both of these guys.”

He of course had to give it all some thought when Christopher Nolan presented him with the dense screenplay for “Inception.” But as soon as he sat down with the director, he realized the two films were going to be executed in vastly different ways.

“The themes were there,” he says. “And I had to very specifically not repeat myself, even though there were some obvious things of seeing my haunted, dead wife in both movies. They had to have their own sort of individuality.”

While noting that Scorsese and Nolan are quite different in their execution, the actor points out that they are similar in how they handle actors. Nolan, he notes, wants every actor to be as natural as possible and really puts his performers in charge of their characters.

“He makes you feel like you have complete ownership of it,” he says. “He’s a great combination of somebody that conceptually can pull off incredible narratives that are so intricate and so wound in the fabric of his mind, yet there are no bad performances in his movies. We spent months, he an I, sitting in a room together talking about this guy and who he was and what haunted him and how we were going to give that emotional experience to an audience amongst this insane world that he created, and he did that with each one of the actors that he worked with, too. It’s a lot in the pre-production process.”

Pre-production intensity was also something he remembers being told about Scorsese prior to first working with him on “Gangs of New York.” While asking early on about the director and specifically his collaborations with Robert De Niro, people kept telling him it was all in the preparation.

“There’s so much discussion about what they’re going to do,” he says, “and Marty has his shot list and he draws out his storyboards and he discusses his influence from film, the genre, what he wants to put up on screen. But performance-wise, in the editing room, I’ve discovered it’s really where you go as an actor that dictates the movie that he wants to do.

“I think ['Shutter Island'] took on its own life after a while because we didn’t really realize how emotionally heavy this story of Teddy was and how impactful that last sort of sequence is and how you really understand that this is a very dark, damaged man who’s been through so much that he wants to just sort of cut himself off from society. He can’t deal with it anymore.”

Conversely, DiCaprio’s character in “Inception,” Cobb, is a man who desperately wants to re-embrace his life and what’s left of his family after tragedy struck his wife, Mal (played by Marion Cotillard). That might have been one of the keys in triggering a unique depiction of a similarly damaged persona. But he was mostly taken by the fact that Nolan had toiled away on the idea for as long as he had.

“That is something he’s been deliberating about for 10 years,” he says. “And it has taken on so many different shapes and forms but has so much to do with visuals in his head that you need to sort of unlock, waves crashing over and buildings disintegrating and the movement of the world. To unlock a lot of that stuff, you need the Chris Nolan narrative experience to understand what you’re doing along with the script. I needed to sit down with him and say, ‘Okay, let’s specifically talk about what this means and what your vision of it is.’

“He’s so cerebral it’s unbelievable. He’ll talk about bleeding into a fabric for ‘Insomnia’ and how that was this haunting image that kept coming to him for that film and images in ‘Inception,’ it’s hard to understand unless you get the one-on-one face time with him. I spent a lot of time with Chris shaping what that was and what specifically the character in ‘Inception’ was haunted by, and how he dealt with it, as opposed to how Teddy dealt with it [in 'Shutter Island'].”

An industry in flux

As an actor with movie star status and a certain amount of bankability, and given the projects he has chosen over the years, one would think DiCaprio must feel a responsibility to drive creativity ahead of simple commercial prospects. And for his part, he tries, but he’ll more quickly admit that it just happens that his interests are generally more aligned with ideas that push creative boundaries.

Back at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre Q&A, he tells the audience, largely consisting of actors, that he decided early on in his career that there was a certain serious path he wanted to take as an actor, and after his big break in “This Boy’s Life,” that path really began with “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” But he concedes film is a director’s medium and that, as a result, and by design, actors are very much in the hands of filmmakers.

“I knew that ‘Inception’ was going to be something unique, but at the same time, there was really no way of telling how the film would actually turn out,” he says. “I only knew that Chris Nolan was a pretty phenomenal filmmaker, so when you’re going to bet on something, you bet on the filmmaker and what you think that they can ultimately do with that material. I said to myself, ‘This guy is a visionary.’ He really is, and I love hearing that 10 years of thought went into that. When you hear that you just feel like there’s a lot of things about this movie that I haven’t thought of and maybe I don’t understand immediately. It takes further investigation.”

Like anyone else in the business, however, he has sensed a real shift in the industry over the last few years. The middle ground of serious filmmaking has almost disappeared entirely. And “The Aviator,” he says, with it’s $90-100 million budget, probably couldn’t be made today. The same goes for “Gangs of New York.”

“I’ve seen a huge transition,” he says. “And I don’t know whether it’s the recession that has clicked studios into saying–they use that as an excuse to be able to say, ‘Look, we’re going to hedge our bets here and do $150 million tent pole films one after the other, and then we’ll some small ones, we’ll do the small serious one.’ But the whole middle ground of serious sort of interesting character studies I don’t see at all. They’re independent movies, which is cool, I love independent movies, but it’d be interesting to have that other color on the palette, to be something that combines both things.”

Challenged on this with the notion that, as a movie star with box office cachet, he certainly isn’t in a helpless position, he’s quick to remind that he’s run into trouble financing the kinds of films that interest him along the way, too.

“Look, I’ve had movies that I’ve wanted to do, even after the success of ‘Inception’ this year, that they don’t want to make,” he says. “We’ve had to hunt down financing for things. Two of them have fallen apart. I’m somebody that’s made some money making movies and made money for the studios and for all intents and purposes the stuff I do has been relatively bankable, but the appetite for films that I feel like are intense character studies or are taking chances that are more than $20-30 million in budget, I see disappearing.

“I’m only saying that because it’s a fact, and from personal experience. It’s a different time period in movie making now, and that’s what I’ve tried to do, not to make stuff that’s commercial and interesting at the same time, but some of the films I’ve wanted to do have been that. I’m doing J. Edgar Hoover’s story next and that’s going to be a relatively low budget film. We got it made thanks to Clint [Eastwood] and his reputation, but I hope to see the resurgence of that kind of stuff getting financed again because I like to see the range of films out there being made.”

At times he says he’d like to try his hand at directing and be fully in control of the creative process, but he still has a big appetite for playing different characters and pushing himself as an actor. Maybe later in life he’ll try it out, but for now, it’s not really a major desire.

“It’s a lot of work,” he says, “and I love working, but I don’t know if I’d want to take on something of great magnitude. I’d want to try something small first.”

“I hear his voice in my head all the time.”

“It’s an interesting ending for a movie like this,” DiCaprio says, switching gears back to “Shutter Island.” “What’s been interesting is watching the whole marketing process and the trailers and it really being sold as a genre piece, which comes with a certain expectation I think about what kind of a movie it was or was going to be, but at the end of the day, when you sit through this whole experience, it becomes this character study. You’re sitting with a man and everything sort of dissolves away and here’s this one guy, this tragic figure that has now come to terms with the horrific events that happened in his life and is trying to be a man again for the first time and pick up the pieces and say, ‘What is the right choice for me? Because obviously I can’t deal with reality.’”

He says he’s heard of the film’s denouement proving somewhat confusing to some, which he’s actually okay with, because he always loves when there’s a little bit of confusion. He references other films from the Scorsese canon. “Is he still in his mom’s basement doing his shtick at the end of ‘King of Comedy,’” he ponders. “Is he really a hero in the end of ‘Taxi Driver?’” Which further helps to crystallize his interest in “Inception” as well, for that matter.

The first thing Nolan said to DiCaprio was that the final image was meant to leave audience members to their own interpretation. A top, holding considerable narrative and thematic significance by that time, would be spinning on a table and, just as it might fall, the director wanted the image to cut to black. “The audience has to sit there and say to themselves, ‘What’s reality and what’s not,’” he says. “That kind of stuff, it’s exciting when done right.”

After four features and in the midst of a still developing professional relationship, Scorsese says he senses DiCaprio’s development as an actor each and every time out.

“I think there’s a richness in the shadings and the emotional psychological levels,” he says in a telephone interview. “It’s not an easy thing to say. What I mean by that is I’m not saying it lightly. There is a richness there. There is a development. And he is still evolving as a person. We’ve kind of gotten used to working with each other in a way. And if I ask for something, we can find it, I think. In other words, the expectations are filled. I must say surprisingly, in a good way. Sometimes I’m watching a take or watching his behavior in a certain scene, an expression on his face, the tone of his voice, it’s something that’s quite moving at times.”

And DiCaprio, naturally, seems to revere Scorsese not only as a talented collaborator but as a mentor. “I hear his voice in my head all the time,” he says.

History and imagination

Next up for DiCaprio will be the aforementioned J. Edgar Hoover biopic “J. Edgar,” directed by Clint Eastwood. Also in the cards is an adaptation of the Erik Larson novel “The Devil in the White City,” which tells the story of the H.H. Holmes murders at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. He admits an attraction to historical dramas in such a vein. In addition to the work he’s already done in that capacity, he nearly starred in an Alexander the Great biopic with Baz Luhrmann at the helm once upon a time. And he’s hopeful he can light a fire under a long-dormant Theodore Roosevelt biopic with Scorsese.

“Putting these eras and these different times in human history up on screen and letting an audience immerse themselves in that environment, if done well and done with integrity, there’s nothing like it to me,” he says. “I just get into it. It’s like going to college or something.”

He humorously adds that he himself never went to college. Who has the time when your career is taking off at such a young age? But “Shutter Island” and “Inception” proved to be rewarding territory in different ways this year. It was a chance to rely on imagination, he says, and the results yielded two of the most dynamic studio productions of the year.

But for now, the actor forges ahead, looking, as always, for the right balance of ingenuity, commercialism and art to keep him interested…while of course weathering the usual storm of admirers. It comes with the territory. Lucky for him, the coast is clear as he exits the room and hustles off into the night.

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