Martin Scorsese has always been in love with Westerns, a genre he’s adored since he was a kid. Those ‘40s and ‘50s films not only nourished him as a filmmaker, but inspired him to dive deeper into the real history. In many ways, The Killers of the Flower Moon is Scorsese’s take on a story that’s perhaps one of his strongest, most powerfully resonant films in his career – and an important one.
When Scorsese read David Grann’s 2017 bestselling book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, he was immediately intrigued. The book detailed the tragedy of the sinister, systematic killings of the members of the Osage Nation in early 1920s Oklahoma, when they had grown wealthy after oil was struck on their land. The 80-year-old filmmaker, who co-wrote and directed the film, reckons this was a story of “pure greed and exploitation that played out on an epic canvas, and at the heart of it was a deeply mysterious love story.”
“I started to see the whole picture as I was reading the book. I was drawn to the people, to the world they inhabited, to the thin line between friendship and love on the one hand and extortion and murder on the other. I was also drawn to the idea of making a picture on a grand Western canvas,” reads the director’s statement.
From 2017 to 2020, while the filmmaker worked on the script alongside co-writer Eric Roth, he was also filming The Irishman. For the first few years, the script had a completely different lens — Tom White, the Texas Ranger and FBI agent who solved the Osage murder case, was the focus of the story with DiCaprio slated to play him. It quite certainly centred white men, which the filmmaker soon realized — as did DiCaprio, who asked: ‘Where’s the heart of this thing?’ Then, they pivoted the plot.
Now, the heart of the story is built on the fabric of a romance between World War I veteran Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), a rich Osage woman with oil rights on her land. When members of her family mysteriously start dying, her anguish and trauma are heightened. The film, which opens in theatres Friday and later on Apple TV+, also stars Robert De Niro in a brilliant turn as Ernest’s sly, ambitious uncle Bill Hale. White became a supporting character played by Jesse Plemons.
In a recent press Q & A, the Oscar winner recalled his meeting with Margie Burkhart, a relative of Ernest Burkhart, who said to him, “‘One has to remember that Ernest loved Mollie, and Mollie loved Ernest. It’s a love story.’ And so, ultimately, the script shifted that way. And that’s when Leo decided to play Ernest instead of Tom White.”
They realized that instead of approaching it from the outside in, with the FBI coming in and solving the whodunnit, they had to shift the perspective on who didn’t do it. “It’s a story of complicity. It’s a story of sin by omission. Silent complicity, in certain cases. That’s what afforded us the opportunity to open the picture up and start from the inside out,” Scorsese said.
“What I wanted to capture, ultimately, was the very nature of the virus or the cancer that creates this sense of a kind of easygoing genocide. And that’s why we went with the story with Mollie and Ernest, because that’s the basis of the love. Love is the basis of trust. So, there’s betrayal that way, that deep — and we know for a fact that it was that way in our story.”
This was a smart move as the foundation of the film rests on love, trust, and betrayal. Scorsese feels he’s always drawn to these themes. The filmmaker, who has long cemented his status as a visionary, explores the humanity of the characters alongside the corruption and violence – as he always has with his previous entries. His film is both gritty and gripping, using a palette of fine camerawork and colours to tell a tragically true crime story.
The film could have very easily felt political or like a history lesson, but the cast keeps the characters grounded, particularly Lily Gladstone, who gives a phenomenal turn as Mollie. Her performance is restrained and quietly compelling. She is, no doubt, a highlight of the film and will indeed get an Oscar nod, alongside DiCaprio, De Niro and Scorsese.
The New York-born director was also “very impressed by her presence, the intelligence and the emotion that’s there in her face. But you see it, you feel it… it’s all working behind the eyes. You could see it happening. Also her activism wasn’t overtaking the art. The art was in the activist.”
He knew they needed her to help them tell the story of the Osage women. “We would always check with her and work with her on the script. There were scenes that were added, scenes rewritten constantly.”
The chemistry between DiCaprio, 48, and Gladstone, 37, is intimate and palpable. Scorsese recalled his favourite scene with the two: When Ernest drives Mollie in the taxi, and he says, “I want to see who’s gonna be in this horse race,” and she answers in Osage. He goes, “What did you say?” and she says it in Osage again. And he quipped, “Well, I don’t know what that was, but it must have been Indian for handsome devil.” The filmmaker shared that it was DiCaprio doing improv with that line and Gladstone laughed for real, as would Mollie. “So in that moment, you have the actual relationship, it’s actually between the two actors. So these were the moments we felt very comfortable with her.”
The Killers of the Flower Moon sees Scorsese reuniting with his two longtime collaborators: De Niro and DiCaprio, who both play brilliantly opposite each other as uncle and nephew. They feed off of each other, elevating the scene and one would expect no less from actors of their caliber.
Scorsese feels an easy rapport with De Niro, who he described as “the only one who really knows where I come from, the people I knew, some of them still alive. I know his friends, his old friends, and we had a real testing ground in the ’70s, where we tried everything and we found that we trusted each other. It’s all about trust and love. 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, an actor could take over your picture. Studio gets angry with you, the actor comes in and takes it over. With him, I never felt that. There was freedom, there was experimenting and I wasn’t afraid to do something. I just did it.”
It was De Niro, 80, who recommended DiCaprio to Scorsese back in the day. They had worked together on the 1993 film This Boy’s Life, and that’s when the Godfather star said, ‘You should work with this kid sometime.’ According to Scorsese, “It was just casual. But within a line, a recommendation at that time, I think in the early ’90s, is not casual. He said it casually, but he rarely said that. He rarely gave recommendations.”
The Killers of the Flower Moon marks the sixth collaboration between Scorsese and DiCaprio – after successful entries like Gangs of New York, The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Over their numerous collaborations, the duo got to know each other. The Titanic actor would approach the director and recommend records by Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald. Scorsese laughed as he recalled this, “I grew up with it. He’s not bringing me anything new, but he likes it….. And that’s very interesting to me, to be open that way to older parts of our culture, newer parts of our culture, of course. And the curiosity that he has about other people and other cultures, and there’s trust. And even if we can’t get it right away, we know we’ll come up with something.”
He continued, “Particularly doing Wolf of Wall Street, by the way. He came up with wonderful stuff that was outrageous and so I pushed him. He pushed me, then I pushed him more, then he pushed me, and suddenly [laugh] everything was wild. It’s really quite something and he had a good energy too on the set.”
When it came to authenticity and making sure the Osage community was accurately represented, Scorsese wanted to approach it as honestly and truthfully as possible, avoiding the trap of the cliche of Indian victims, or the drunken Indian.
“I’m fascinated by how do you really deal with that culture in a way that is respectful, and also is not hagiographic? It doesn’t fall into Rousseau like the noble native, that sort of thing, none of that, but how truthful we can be and still have authenticity, and respect, dignity and deal with the truth honestly, as best we can.”
The filmmaker met with Osage Principal Chief Standing Bear and his group: Julie and Addie Roanhorse, and Chad Renfro. They were naturally cautious about a white filmmaker telling their story that’s violent and traumatic. “What I didn’t really understand the first couple of meetings was that this is an ongoing story out in Oklahoma. In other words, these are things that really weren’t talked about in the generation I was talking to,” said Scorsese.
In reaching out to the Osage, Scorsese learned their history, culture and tradition; listened to their stories and their concerns. A few days before the formal start of shooting, members of the Osage Nation and the cast and crew gathered on a hilltop outside Bartlesville, Oklahoma, for a land blessing to mark the start of filming.
Chief Standing Bear said at the land blessing, “The respect that Mr. Scorsese and his team have displayed toward us is more than we hoped for. Such sensitivity is welcome and is a continuation of the respect David Grann showed us.”
With Osage being spoken in the film, they had Osage language teachers on set – Gladstone, DiCaprio and De Niro learned the language. Scorsese said: “De Niro really fell in love with it, and wanted to do more scenes in Osage. But I suggested that maybe it’s too much for him. But [laugh] he just liked the sound of it.”
The Killers of the Flower Moon opens in theatres today ahead of its debut on Apple TV+