“It’s human nature to want to be successful, to make it over the club that won’t have you,” says four-time Emmy-winning writer-producer Terence Winter when asked how he can tell stories of crooked politicians and gangsters that don’t send viewers reaching for the remote.
He and Mad Men mastermind Matthew Weiner cut their teeth writing episodes of David Chase’s mob drama The Sopranos, and Winter has experienced acclaim of his own for being the showrunner for the 1920s, Atlantic City-set political series Boardwalk Empire. He has also adapted stock swindler Jordan Belfort’s vivid best-sellingmemoir The Wolf of Wall Street for star Leonardo DiCaprio and director Martin Scorsese. The film opened Christmas Day.
Winter says, “I look at Jordan myself, and I think it’s there but by the grace of God … I’d be really curious to see if anybody would be able to honestly say, ‘I would never have done anything like that.’
“If you’re ambitious, and you’re rationalizing this behavior, and you’re living in a country and a society that encourages behavior in this sense because, let’s face it, for us in America, people who are suc-cessful and who have money and who live in a big house, we don’t ask a lot of questions about how they got there. They’re just universally admired. Look at the Kardashians. I don’t even know what these people do. They’re international stars because they’re stars.
“It’s always fascinating to see what people do take away from these things, ” he adds. “ It’s the same thing with gangster movies. Some people watch The Sopranos and GoodFellas and say, ‘You’re glorifying that lifestyle’ or ‘I want to be like that guy.’ And I look at it, and like, wow! When I look at Tony Soprano, I don’t really see a person that looks very happy to me. I see a guy who’s in therapy who’s passing out from anxiety attacks. Any one of his best friends could put a bullet in his head.”EYE WITNESS
Winter comes to The Wolf of Wall Street with a unique qualification. The book and the film recount Black Monday, Oct. 19, 1987, when stock prices around the world plummeted rapidly.
“I was actually on thefloor of Merrill Lynch trading floor the day the Stock Market crashed in 1987. I was 26, roughly the same age as the real Jordan who was working across town for L.F. Rothschild, which was another very legitimate firm,” he recalls now. Whereas Belfort was working as a “connector” between brokers and customers, Winter was a law student working in Merrill’s legal department.
“That day it felt like being on the deck of the Titanic. I was just watching a sea of brokers panicking and screaming into telephones. There was just an air of desperation that was just palpable. Looking at the numbers just plummeting as the day wore on, you just knew this was an incredibly horrible day. The fear was nobody knew where it was going to end. Thank God trading stopped at 4 p.m. Nobody knew what was going to happen the next day when themarket opened.”
Winter is also careful to explain that the debauchery that Belfort gleefully describes in the book and the film at his firm Stratton Oakmont was distinct from what happens in conventional Wall Street firms. In fact, the real “Wolf of Wall Street” wasn’t based there at all.
“Jordan’s version of Wall Street actually took place onLong Island. … It was sort of his own kingdom. So his version of that was much more wild and full of debauchery. The Merrill Lynches and the Goldman Sachses of the world, these are publicly traded, very conservative companies. The excesses I witnessed there was more the obscene salaries these guys got, the bonuses, the custom-made suits, the cars and the trips to the Hamptons, all these things. So it wasn’t like the drugs, sex and insanity that went on in Jordan’s place,” Winter says. “Obviously, there’s enough bad behavior going on on Wall Street that it almost tanked the entire world economy. It might not be strippers and marching bands, but something’s going on.”
MAKING IT FOR MARTY
While The Wolf of Wall Street deals with white-collar crime (Belfort went to prison for money laundering and “pump and dump” schemes), Winter says that he was best able to tell Belfort’s story by employing the style of Scorsese’s Oscar-winning gangster movie GoodFellas, with its voice-over, jump cuts and breaking of the fourth wall.
“One of the things that was pretty clear to me from reading the book was that Jordan’s voice was so unique and hisway of telling the story was so funny. He’d make these asides, these comments that didn’t necessarily lend itself to dialogue. He would describe the various phases of being high, the different types of hookers,” Winter says. ” “So early on talking to Marty [Scorsese], I said, ‘Would you object to me writing this in voice-over?’ He said, ‘No, actually, let’s write this as a companion piece to GoodFellas. Let’s sort of make sort of a virtue of that.’
“The audience is meant to be the person on the other end of the phone. We very consciously never showed the people on the other end of the phone who were getting screwed, but you the audience are there. You’ve very charmed and entertained by Leo and Jonah [Hill] and all this stuff that’s going on. Every once in a while, you’d hit a little road bump in the movie where we’d sort of jar you,and you’d sort of go, ‘What the hell just happened?’” he says.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Belfort now delivers motivational speeches on wealth creation, which are well attended.
“By the end of the movie, you see that sea of hopeful faces in New Zealand, or wherever they are, and they’re wanting to be Jordan Belfort.They don’t care that he went to jail and that he hurt people. They just want to learn how to do what he did, and it sort of comes full circle. It’s sort of almost we learn nothing, and we just want to continue to be that way and have those things.”
HAPPY WITH UNHAPPY ENDINGS
Winter may be unique in that he has experienced commercial and critical success by avoiding neat happy endings in his movies and TV shows. From one episode to the next of Boardwalk Empire, viewers never know whether Enoch “Nucky” Thompson’s (played by Steve Buscemi) reign of Prohibition era Atlantic City will continue, or even whether it should. After all, Nucky has ties with gangsters and is ruthlessly running the Republican machine in the city and the state of New Jersey. It’s a far cry from the day when an audience could relax knowing the cops of Dragnet or Adam-12 were keeping Los Angeles safe.
“There is a certain way of telling stories that is not the network TV model, which is to reassure you that everything is OK. We caught the criminal, and here’s the answer, and it will explain everything, and you should go and buy the products we’re selling on our TV station,” Winter says.
“Very often the feel you get from cable shows is that things are not good, and that you should be very worried about the way things are leading and that we didn’t catch the murderer. And worse yet, the murderer got away. We know who he is, but we couldn’t put him in jail, and he’s still out there and might be coming after you! That’s a really disconcerting thing for people, but from my perspective, it’s infinitely more entertaining.”
MovieStyle, Pages 29 on 12/27/2013
Print Headline: ‘Felt like being on the deck of the Titanic,’ The Wolf of Wall Street writer says