With Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese on board, The Wolf of Wall Street might seem like the kind of movie that could not not get made. But the truth is, the film was on life support when producers Joey McFarland and Riza Aziz came on board to help revive it almost five years ago. We caught up with the duo at yesterday's Academy Awards nominees luncheon to talk about the unlikely way Matthew McConaughey's memorable scene with DiCaprio unfolded on the set, their take on the real Jordan Belfort's debauchery and bravery, and why they're glad the film has its (very vocal) critics.
POPSUGAR: For any producers, working with Martin Scorcese and Leonardo DiCaprio must be a dream come true. How did this project originate?
McFarland: It was originally was set up at Warner Brothers and had Leo and Marty attached. It died in the studio system, and upon that death was an opportunity for my partner Riza and I to go and purchase the book rights to actually The Wolf of Wall Street and the sequel to the book, Catching the Wolf of Wall Street, from Jordan Belfort himself. So we met with Jordan over the course of six months to a year talking about taking over the project. He was a little apprehensive because the movie kind of laid on the shelf for a couple of years and he really didn't want to see that happen again. Ultimately, he entrusted us with his life story and we circled back to Warner Brothers and were able to extract the screenplay that was written by Terry Winters. Upon getting the screenplay, we then went to Leo and Marty, got the team back together, and we were off to the races. All of that took quite a number of years.
Aziz: It's funny it takes a movie like this four years to get made, but talking to other people in the room just now, they said well, four years is actually a discount! It sometimes takes 10 years to get movies made. [Four years] feels like a long period, but it's really a blip.
PS: What is the real Jordan Belfort like as a person? What's your sense of who he is now versus who he was then?
McFarland: I guess I think the best word to describe Jordan would be transparent. In order for us to bring this movie to life and show this world, it was a microscopic look into his past. And for that we're really thankful, because he worked for a number of years, really, with Leonardo on getting the character right. But not only that, he shared with us the most debaucherous and hedonistic — [what] a lot of us would feel are embarrassing details — about himself. So as a person today, I think transparent is the best way to describe him. He looks at this movie and this time of his life as a segment that's over. He has moved on to a better path, so to speak.
Aziz: It takes a lot of courage to be that candid, as well. If I was in his position, I would take a lot of convincing to get where he's at, so you have to respect that candidness.
PS: This movie shows a different side of Leonardo DiCaprio, one that audiences haven't really seen before. Physical comedy from Leonardo DiCaprio is not what you expect.
Aziz: Who would have thought?
McFarland: It's a complex character that I think Leo really magnet-ed towards, and it was a cautionary tale of greed, and it was very important for him to tell. So really, it gave him the chance to have a lot of fun. He drew inspiration from so many different things, especially Jordan. And it just gave him a chance to have a lot of fun with his mentor, his father, his brother in the industry. We shot this movie in NY where Marty lives and where Leo lives half the year, so it was just a good, organic fit for everyone.
Aziz: I think what attracted Leo to this role as well [was that] it's so multilayered and so complex. All the things you see on screen with the drug sequences and the yachts — it's what makes him human.
McFarland: You're talking about two of our industry's leaders, and they have so much trust in one another, they're not afraid to take risks. So they really push each other to go for it. When Riza and I took this project over, we knew right out of the gate we were not going to water it down. We were going to push these guys to really push the envelope. We didn't realize they would go as far as they did [laughs] but thank God they did, because that's what we have today, and we couldn't be more proud of it.
PS: How do you feel, then, about some of the criticism of the film? Some people took a moral stance against the way certain things in the movie were portrayed.
Aziz: It's our job as filmmakers to portray the world and the characters as authentic and leave our audience to debate it and ultimately judge what they feel they take from the movie. If you start to preach or introduce some kind of moral ending to the story, you're not being authentic anymore. You can't whitewash the story. You can't pull any punches. I think Marty had this really great quote: "They can't expect me to be polite in my filmmaking when these characters are so impolite." I really take that to heart.
McFarland: Yeah, I think the reality is the people that didn't like our film or didn't like certain things, it wasn't for them. And that's okay. We like to provoke conversations in our films. We like a lot of controversy. We embrace it. We think it's healthy. When people are leaving a film and they're debating and talking about things, that's a good thing.
PS: There was a fascinating Vanity Fair piece about that head-shaving scene in the office, which really happened. Did you know from the start that you'd need to find a woman willing to really go through with this?
McFarland: Her brother's a really close friend of ours. The real story: Jordan was known for doing these crazy, crazy things in the office, and it was his way of kind of being the Pied Piper and getting this army of young brokers excited. He wanted everyone in his office to live beyond their means, as fast as possible, so when you came in the next day, you had to work. You had to be on the phone. The more money you made, the more money you spent, the more money they had. And it just kept the ferris wheel going, as Matthew McConaughey would say.
Aziz: It's kind of sad, that scene, as well, seeing this character get her head shaved for $10,000. She's meant to be happy for getting that much money, but all you see on her face is this: "Oh my god, I can't believe what I just did."
PS: Much has been made of this acting exercise of Matthew McConaughey's that translated to the screen in his major scene.
McFarland: It's really funny. The character is Mark Hannah, and Riza and I — this was one of our favorite characters in the entire story. We looked at him as kind of like a Darth Vader, if you will. A guy that brought Jordan to the dark side of Wall Street. So when we met with Terry, Marty, and Leo, it was really important to us that we built this character up enough that it would attract a really great actor that would really punch our audience in the face. That would really just set the tone that this was just going to be a wild ride. And ultimately, it was Matthew. Matthew has his chant, his sort of exercise to keep him focused that he would do in between takes.
Aziz: To regulate his breathing sometimes.
McFarland: It was something he just does. From what I understand, he does it not just on our film, but in everything he does. So I have to take my hat off to Marty and Leo, because as they cut the first take and Matthew gets into his chant, you see Leo kind of focus in, and he signals Marty, and it turned into what it is. But that's just what it's like working with Marty and Leo. They're not afraid to take risks. They're not afraid of improvisation. They trust one another. They push others to just go for it. We were on set, and we're watching this unfold. We were so confused, and we were laughing.
Aziz: I had the script, and I was showing [McFarland]. "What's going on? It's not in the script!"
McFarland: And to give credit to Matthew, what was on the page was heightened to a whole new level without the chant. The chant was kind of the cherry on top. Like I said, that's just Marty and Leo. They bring that out in people. It's a trust thing. They're so collaborative, they're so inclusive, it's like a family. And when you put all these great artists and turn a camera on, you kind of never really know what you're going to get, and it's great.
Aziz: I think that scene also changed that movie in many ways because many people had that perception of The Wolf of Wall Street being another Wall Street drama, being heavy. But within the first 10 minutes, you have that scene with Matthew and Leo. You know you're not in for a drama.
McFarland: Plus, you have Leo bring that chant back later in the movie, full circle, to a whole army of young people. So that battle cry of sending not one broker into the world but a thousand . . . it's amazing.