“We are the killers, and we have to understand that”: Martin Scorsese on Killers of the Flower Moon

Scorsese discusses the long genesis of Killers of the Flower Moon, his epic tale of the systematic exploitation and murder of members of the Native American Osage community by white Oklahomans in the 1920s.

17 October 2023

By Philip Horne

Sight and Sound
Martin Scorsese
Mark Mann/August


When I made my way to a midtown-Manhattan hotel on a warm Sunday in August to interview Martin Scorsese, I was not sure what to expect. I knew he was recovering from painful dental surgery and I was grateful he had agreed to meet at all.

His last film, The Irishman (2019), the epic story of Mafia hitman Frank Sheeran, based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, was undeniably a major achievement, not just in its trailblazing and remarkably successful exercise in CGI ‘youthification’ for veterans Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. The great daring of a master informed its extreme subtlety, low-key grim humour, bravura stylistic experimentation and passages of slow-burn threat; and it brought together different sides of Scorsese. Though it had its own centre of gravity, in its journey to a final preoccupation with the fate of the soul it could be described as GoodFellas (1990) turning into Silence (2016).

Despite its artistic vigour, and powerful build-up to the killing of Jimmy Hoffa, The Irishman’s final confrontation of inevitable human mortality (as opposed to murder and violence) gave it an inevitably valedictory feeling. That hadn’t been Scorsese’s mood, though, when I interviewed him for Sight and Sound on its release. He was as full of projects as ever, and already launched on Killers of the Flower Moon, based on David Grann’s bestselling true-crime book, about the abuse and mass-murder of Native Americans in the 1920s, during what was known as the Reign of Terror, to star Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Lily Gladstone, who is of Blackfeet heritage.

But the pandemic, with all its tragic losses and upheavals for the film business, stalled the shooting in Oklahoma and imposed strict Covid protocols. And once it had been shot, in the extreme heat of summer, the editing was – as ever with Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker – a protracted process. Scorsese’s 80th birthday came and went in 2022 without the film being released.

So it was a cause for celebration when in May 2023 this troubling, revelatory story appeared with great success at Cannes (where Scorsese had won the Palme d’Or for Taxi Driver in 1976, and Best Director for the neglected After Hours in 1986). The reviews largely hailed the film as a masterpiece – for its grand vision and movement, for its design by Jack Fisk and propulsive music by the late Robbie Robertson, for its deft innovations in narrative structure and technique – and for its timeliness in dealing with the primary American genocide, that of Native Americans.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Shot in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and during the consequent rise in intensity of Black Lives Matter, the film tackles another aspect of what critical race theory calls ‘white supremacy’, the systematic exploitation, embezzlement and elimination of the Osage – linking it indeed to the shocking Tulsa race massacre of 1921 (it figures in a newsreel within the film) in which an emerging Black middle class, geographically close to Osage County, was brutally crushed in a concerted racial attack (the authorities were complicit). When a house is blown up in Killers we hear the cry, “It’s just like Tulsa!”

Whereas Grann’s excellent book partly deals with the birth of the FBI, whose
precursor the Bureau of Investigation investigates the crimes (though only after the Osage have paid the federal government $20,000), Scorsese and his co-writer Eric Roth (who had done an original draft) radically rewrote the script after meeting the Osage.

The new version steers clear of the police procedural and the white saviour narrative it implies (indeed the heroic lead investigator played by Jesse Plemons is called Tom White); the story demanded a much more imaginative approach, a revolutionary departure from the bland episode it was allotted in the J. Edgar Hoover-approved The FBI Story (Mervyn LeRoy, 1959). Scorsese, DiCaprio, De Niro and Gladstone shifted the focus to a psychologically intensive exploration of the interracial love and marriage, and treachery, between Ernest (DiCaprio) and Mollie (Gladstone), and the complexities of the murderous patronage of Ernest’s uncle Bill Hale (De Niro). This was courageous: Paramount regretfully withdrew its support. Happily, Apple stepped in to fund the film. (Having now seen the result, Paramount has re-engaged, to handle a six-week theatrical release before the film goes to streaming.)

Killers enters territory that is sensitive in all sorts of ways. Radheyan Simonpillai in the Toronto Globe and Mail, reflecting Canada’s more challenging interrogation of white culture’s narratives, has described Scorsese as “a settler filmmaker… telling a story about Indigenous people that is not necessarily his to tell”, and as arriving in Osage with an “extractive dynamic” – only then to report that “the responses toward Scorsese’s self-implicating take on the broken trust between Indigenous communities and settler populations from Osage Nation have been overwhelmingly positive and joyous”.

From the planning stage Scorsese and his team, especially executive producer Marianne Bower, worked closely with the Osage community and encouraged their creative input. Part of the active effort of the Osage to revive their traditions after what they regard as generational trauma has been teaching the Osage language, to adults and children; and DiCaprio and De Niro both learned the language for the film – there are numerous scenes in Osage, most subtitled but a few not. Listening to the Osage, too, has shaped scenes – one anecdote inspired the beautiful courtship scene near the start when Mollie makes Ernest sit quietly and listen to a thunderstorm. The eloquent tragic speech by a chief in a tribal gathering was improvised at Scorsese’s invitation by an elder; and many details came out of working with the Osage, and respect for their religion.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

The film’s great, striking performances have been widely praised – those by De Niro as Hale, patriarch and self-appointed friend of the Osage; by DiCaprio as Hale’s deeply flawed nephew Ernest Burkhart, an embodiment of human weakness and doubleness; and by the relative newcomer Gladstone, luminously impressive as Ernest’s loving Osage wife. The deep, tainted love between the two is the film’s core. Gladstone has stirringly endorsed Scorsese: “Who else is going to challenge people to challenge their own complicity and white supremacy on such a platform except for this man here?”

With its 1920s setting, Killers of the Flower Moon is a western with a difference. The frontier is closed, the West has been ‘won’; Native Americans have been allotted miserable sections of the continent they once had a free run of; one group, the Osage, relocated to Oklahoma, have had the luck of immense oil strikes on the otherwise unpromising territory they have bought from the US government (retaining communal mineral rights, ‘headrights’, to the reservation lands). The oil makes these people with little experience of money immensely, unexpectedly rich. (For the modern ramifications of the case, listen to Bloomberg’s 2022 In Trust podcast, by Rachel Adams-Heard.)

For many whites, this means a new goldrush: this part of the West must be ‘won’ again. The vultures, coyotes and wolves descend. When the naive Ernest arrives in Fairfax, Oklahoma, a damaged veteran of the Great War, his uncle Bill gives him as a primer a children’s book, ‘Lilly’s Wild Tales Among the Indians’ (beautifully concocted by Scorsese and Bower). Scorsese himself came up with the caption to one illustration, which asks, “Can you find the wolves in this picture?” In this story of a genocidal conspiracy, in which the guileless Osage are manipulated, corrupted, adopted, married, befriended, overcharged, intoxicated, cheated, bullied and murdered, that’s horribly easy.

As Scorsese reveals in the interview that follows, his deep interest in this subject goes far back in his career, not just to his childhood obsession with westerns  but, more personally, to a painful, awkward visit to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the period between Mean Streets (1973) and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), for a film project in relation to Dee Brown’s 1970 book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. That visit brought home to him the miserable conditions under which Native Americans lived.

The intensity of Killers is profoundly felt, and its complexities result from a passionately open exploration of the values of non-white cultures, and their less alienated connection to nature, that continues Scorsese’s imaginative risk-taking in Kundun (1997) and Silence, with their Tibetan and Japanese casts. At the same time, the film burns with moral indignation at the sinister genocidal conspiracy in which white Oklahoman society is nearly all complicit. As is made movingly apparent by Scorsese’s appearance in person in coda, recreating a 1940s FBI-sponsored radio show, in which we hear him react to a death with quiet emotion.

Scorsese and I met in the suite he uses to work on scripts. Though tired, he was generous and animated in his answers to my questions in a discussion that ranged widely and lasted three hours.

Martin Scorsese on the set of Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Philip Horne: How did your involvement in the project come about, and what drew you to it?

Martin Scorsese: Originally, I was in the Bel-Air Hotel in Los Angeles, for something about The Irishman… [my manager] Rick Yorn was with me and told me about this project. I’m not sure if he gave me Eric Roth’s first draft or if he gave me David Grann’s book. I was intrigued by the title and by the subject matter. The word ‘western’ was bandied about. Although I don’t necessarily believe that that was my main interest in the subject matter, I was tempted by that, I’ve always been. And there was something about the nature of the beauty of the “flower moon” and the “killers”. It reminds me of the evanescence of life in Japan. Taking a moment and then disappearing and slipping back into wherever it is that we came from… When I started reading it, I was fascinated by the Oklahoma background…

So I’m reading Killers and I’m saying to myself, “That’s interesting, because this actually takes place in the 1920s.” The more I got into it, the more I became fascinated by the stories of the Texas Rangers and, primarily, then, the culture of the Osage Nation, and I decided to try to pursue it. And Eric Roth and I got together; I think it was January 2017. It was the first day that Trump was in office and he did all these executive orders. We were sitting there watching, and then we were working.

At one point, we were talking about doing Killers first and Irishman after, but De Niro looked at me and he said, “Marty, as it is, we have to do the de-aging. Wait another two years, it’s going to be even worse in terms of intensity and complexity.” And he was right, so I said, “Let’s go in and do it. Bang.” And we went in like an army and made that film, and in that process, during the pre-production and the post of Irish, is when a lot of the writing [of Killers] occurred.

Already when we met in November 2019 about The Irishman, you were rewriting the original Killers script, and rethinking it. What made you realise you needed to rewrite it?

So from ’17 to ’20, almost two and a half years. Eric and I are working and working on the script… David Grann’s book is fascinating. It’s a page-turner in that way, so we went from that perspective. But what we found was that… I became sidetracked by figures of the American West, not necessarily the Osage, and primarily it was told from the point of view of the people [in the Bureau of Investigation] who came into the situation and then had to determine who was doing what. There’s a term for it, ‘police procedural’ films. I like watching them, and I was trying to make it interesting for me to actually create, to go into a room and work on it.

I then realised it wasn’t a matter of who did it, because the minute you see these characters on screen, you’re going to know who did it. It’s a matter of who didn’t do it. DiCaprio was going to play Tom White, and Tom White is based on a very interesting character, an extraordinary man. His father was the warden of a prison. He grew up in a prison, and what he saw was extraordinary, beyond the pale. And he was a good man. Was it going to be a film about Bureau of Investigation agent Tom White, who was secretly… what? We couldn’t find any… negative aspects of his life at all. I think the only thing, when he got frustrated, they said he went out bird shooting. That’s it. Shooting birds. I said, “Interesting, one shot.” I said, “That’s enough.” Now what?

And so we tried. And the other element was that if Leo’s going to be in the movie… And sometimes over the years with Leo or other actors, we work up to a point and then we say, “Well, it looks like we’re not going to be able to make this because we can’t find the way in.” So I was looking for a way to see if Leo could find his journey in the character, otherwise I would have to shoot him – this has to do with Leo as Tom White – coming into town, starting on the boots, tilting up, he’s got a Stetson and he walks into town, doesn’t say a word, because he didn’t: he spoke very, very… laconic. Terse… but gentle. And I know Leo… I would have to keep controlling that. Then I said, “Well, that just reminds me of a western that I can’t make.” We tried to make it more complex, but we found that we’re doing all this work on the law enforcement, the white guys, and the story was happening to the Osage, and so we can only take it up to a certain point.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Also, I said, “Well, if you have Robert De Niro as… [Bill Hale]. First of all, no matter who plays Bill Hale, you know it’s him [who was behind it all]. From the moment you see him. The audience is always ahead of you. She’s the key; Mollie is the key. All right. If Mollie’s the key and we know it’s him, is it the story between them….?” Because that was very much in the book, too, about how much she trusted Bill Hale, you know, aside from Ernest.

So at one point we came to this place and we had a big reading of the script, with Eric Roth and Leo, and some of the people from the office. It was interesting, we got halfway through and we realised, ultimately, it was going to take four-and-a-half hours just to read it. It was now the middle of 2019, maybe. And so a week later, Leo came to me and said, “Where’s the heart of this story?” Because we were trying to get the script under control. And, by the way, Paramount Pictures loved the [existing] script, and they were willing to give us everything to make that script, but I didn’t feel right about it… And Leo said, “Where’s the heart…?” and I immediately said, “Well, Ernest and Mollie.”

Part of that was, I’d learned a lot from going to Oklahoma, where I’d not only met Chief Standing Bear and his wife and everyone in Pawhuska [the capital of the Osage Nation], and Chad Renfro [the Osage Nation’s ambassador to the film], and Addie Roanhorse, who’s the great-granddaughter of Henry Roan [an Osage neighbour who was befriended and murdered by Bill Hale]. I also began to become aware of the sensitivity of the situation: I had to be very careful. I said to everybody, “You’re going to be very careful with the Osage Nation. Don’t think you’re going to make something that is not going to address it in not only an authentic, but a truthful way…”

I think we had two trips to the Oklahoma Territory. The group from Gray Horse decided to give us a major dinner, 250 people, and to talk to us. And at that dinner a number of people got up and spoke… [Pause] It was very moving, and I felt comfortable. I said, “The story’s here.” But they were all afraid: “Look at the movies this man has made! It’s all going to be violent, it’s going to be the cliché of the Native Americans, drunk and crazy… You know, look what he does!” But a woman got up, Brandy Lemon, who later became our community consultant, and she said, “But I saw this movie Silence.” And she felt heartened by that and liked it very much. A lot of them are still Roman Catholic. But then she pointed out, and Chad Renfro had told us this, too: “You’re putting words in Mollie’s mouth. She’s not quoted pretty much anywhere. So you have to be careful.” And they said also, “We don’t want to be depicted as victims,” so that’s a whole other issue. So now it’s really getting interesting. When Margie Burkhart [Mollie and Ernest’s granddaughter] then got up and said, “You have to remember, Ernest and Mollie loved each other,” I said, “That’s it! That’s the story. They loved each other. Now, he’s under the influence of his uncle, I understand that. I get it…”

That stayed with me, and so when Leo came to me and said, “Where’s the heart?” I said, “Well it’s obviously with the two of them.” And so he looked at me and he said, “Don’t throw anything at me, but I think I should play Ernest!” [Laughs] And I said, “All right. If we are going to make it, we’re going to take the script and just turn it inside-out – and guess what? The least-written-about character anywhere is Ernest, which means we have an open slate.” Ernest was a kind of question mark, yet the reality is that she stayed with him until after the trial, until after he was convicted. Then she left. So, “All we know is that he loved her.”

Now, did he? Did he not? And if he did, when did he know, and what did he know? That became our journey, but not just in the scripting; to, I’d say the last day of shooting, every scene was analysed and reworked and rewritten constantly.

Martin Scorsese on the set of Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Paramount were originally going to fund the film, weren’t they? What was their view of this radical change?

So we had gotten an attempt at a first draft of the new version before Covid and I gave it to Paramount. It was in Los Angeles and it was face to face. My friend Jim Gianopulos [chairman and chief executive officer of Paramount Pictures until September 2021] was going to give us the money to make the other [original] script. Finally… when they read it, we had two meetings. He goes, “I’m sorry Marty, it isn’t there. We can’t go ahead with this.” I said, “It’s not there now, but we’re going to get there.” But I don’t blame them.

And so we lost our financing; and had no script… I was working and working on the script, but finally… maybe around the same time Apple came into the picture, Paramount came back in, for distribution.

So what interested you about the relationship of Ernest and Mollie?

It was really about how this love story develops, about what love is, and a weak person like Leo’s character Ernest, like Kichijiro in Silence, what did he think? That it was going to go away? That’s why I have De Niro at one point say, “Don’t you just tell me you expect a miracle like in days of old. You read your Bible? They don’t happen any more. Don’t expect that this is going to go away.” Because that’s what he’s hoping. Ernest is hoping maybe his uncle will lighten up, at a certain point, Mollie’s going to be fine… I found that a great part of the love story is that he had something in him, Ernest Burkhart, that admired and felt comfortable with the Osage culture. There was some decency there. But for whatever reasons, the weakness of character is interesting to me. And so he’s weak, and he’s dangerous, but there’s still love there. And that’s kind of disturbing but, at the same time, it’s human. It’s what we are. And so that’s what I pursued with Leo, and with Lily, who was very instrumental.

Lily Gladstone is a revelation. You said that she was cast reasonably early in the process. Had you seen her in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women [2016]?

Yeah, that’s what it was. Our casting director Ellen Lewis said, “I think I have a person for you.” But I said, “No, we’ve got to get all Osage.” But I saw a clip from Certain Women and I thought she was extraordinary. Then I saw the whole film. I liked the film. I like a lot of what Kelly Reichardt does. I loved First Cow [2019]. And so then I got to meet Lily. I think it was all on Zoom; and I saw her intelligence, her confidence and her strength… If she takes a position she holds it, whether it’s a character or off-camera, and she has reason for it.

Martin Scorsese with Lily Gladstone on the set of Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

I suppose Mollie could have seemed excessively passive and believing and credulous and so on…

See, this is one of the things we learned from a lot of them, that they were kind of guileless… Things stick in my mind. They’re telling us, “One of our women marries a white man. He’s now a member of the family. Even if he does wrong, we’ll defend him.” Now that’s a paraphrase. But they’re very open and there was a trusting to their nature, which was betrayed, which was taken advantage of. This is my feeling from what I picked up there, and how I made the movie, because I lived with this movie for years. I think they meant it.

Part of the power of Mollie is that she seems also wise and kind of suspicious – it’s as if she’s choosing to take this risk.

She’s taking the risk because deep down, she can’t face the fact that he would… first, he would hurt her family, and in the worst-case scenario, if he did, that he would hurt her. And then, he’s a charming guy.

Were the actors involved in the writing? The language in the film has a rich, unexpected, often comic texture…

Once I got out to Oklahoma, it was just myself, Leo and Lily, rewriting in a way. We were working in rehearsal based on what Eric and I had come up with, and a few friends I had asked opinions from. And on what Eric left me, and gave me whenever I needed, the research, because in that were the [court] transcripts. And many scenes in the film are directly from them. Like when Ernest goes to this guy Ramsey, and says, “He wants you to do some guy in.” I forget the phrase. And he goes, “I don’t do that kind of thing.” He goes, “It’s an Indian.” And Ramsey goes, “Well, that’s different.” Also, later, Ramsey, when he says, “So this is all on my neck? Get your pencils.” Pencils, not pens. OK!

And you got a lot from working with the Osage?

Mainly it was hanging out with the Osage, it was really being with them every day. And I became fascinated, just immersed myself in the culture. It was a complicated process, more than usual. Different from Irishman. Yes, there was improvisation in Irishman, but I know that world fairly well. Maybe not highly, on that level, but I know the behaviour – I know it more like a Mean Streets [1973] and GoodFellas [1990] level, a street-corner level. And so in terms of the nature of behaviour, being in Oklahoma is a big difference. It also is a very different mindset. And I felt that we should be very careful not to judge in a way in which we’re culturally foreign. And you had to try to place yourself into that mindset of those people in terms of what they did to the Osage, and what we did to all of the Indigenous peoples everywhere – which, I mean, obviously, is a disaster.

So you cast Osage where possible?

We had open calls, working with [casting director] Ellen Lewis. And then worked with Rene Haynes [a casting director specialising in Indigenous actors]. And we weeded down those groups. Then the people we knew, Addie Roanhorse, Yancey Red Corn, Everett Waller, Talee Redcorn and Margaret Shannon-Sisk among others, we knew we’d give them parts. And by the way, we could not get all of them Osage. Because there’s only a very few full-blood Osage left. In some cases, obviously, some could handle more than others. Yancey Red Corn played Chief Bonnicastle and Everett Waller played his assistant chief. He’s the one sitting in the roundhouse, who goes into a monologue… which was from him. And he says it for all Indigenous people everywhere. It was because I told him, “Give me something.”… I said, “This scene is too expositional.”…

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

So. At one point, I needed a reaction shot of some of the Osage. And I said to Everett, because I knew he was a man who would speak, a very formidable man, “I need reactions. I wonder if you could say something to them off-camera.” And as he was speaking, all of a sudden De Niro came out and said, “Are you listening?”… I’m listening and I’m realising, “That’s fantastic!” He just started going off, to get reactions… I said, “All right, let’s shoot.” Set up two Arris, two cameras. And the way he laid it out, it was so beautiful. You know, “Riding over our dead babies…” and ending with, “We never asked for the good life. The good life. We just asked for life. That’s all. Life.” And then, “Thank you, chief.” [Laughs] I said, “Well, that’s it. That’s the picture. That’s the movie!”

One of the most potent scenes in the film is where Ernest first has dinner with Mollie, and it rains and she makes him just sit and pay attention. It’s so strong and touching, and makes us feel the possibilities of their love.

That came out of a discussion with William Pipestem, a lawyer. He was very adamant, very strong about what we were going to do in the film: “You don’t understand about our culture, you have to be very careful.” He was giving different examples about growing up. It wasn’t even a conversation, it was an encounter. And he, in a very civil way, pointed out that we’re different. For example, “When I was a kid, my grandmother, we were running around playing, there’s a big storm. She’d tell us, stop, sit down. Storm is powerful. Let the storm take us and wait until it goes.” And I wrote it down. I said, “That’s going to be in the scene.” That’s how the picture was finally put together. Meeting people, talking, adding, changing. Whether they were talking at us, complaining about us, or whether they were talking for us, I was using whatever I could that struck me. And I always felt that: sit there and let the storm, the power of the storm, of Wakonda [the great creative force for the Osage], of God, wash over us. It’s great, I think.

And I suppose it anticipates the final credits, where you give us the sounds of nature again, as you did in Silence.

Yeah. But that’s what it is. The music comes from there. It always did. That’s how music originated, from imitating animals and the sounds of insects. And so you get the goat singers, you get the ancient world, the tragedy, again, from that. And that’s for us to go back to and to find comfort in. I think. Of course, I’m a part of this and I love this [gestures out of the window at mid-town Manhattan], but it’s not the way to live, not the way for human beings to live.

The legalities are quite complex in Killers, but you stick to your motto we discussed on Irishman… “Never explain.”

Yeah. This business of headrights and guardians, I said, “So what?” First, you see a montage of all these Native Americans being killed or dead. And then you cut to her face and she says, “Mollie Kyle, such and such, incompetent.” That’s all you need to know. She seems really OK, nice, beautiful and a decent person, but she’s “incompetent”? What does that mean? Who is this man? Now, do you need to get into all the other things? There were a few people constantly asking, and I really got angry, I said, “Don’t bring that up to me any more.” A headright, I don’t care. The headright is the oil. The oil is money: you have it, I want it. It’s very simple. And you’re guileless to a certain extent. You trust us. Therefore, we’ll take advantage of you. And that’s all there is to it. And if we have to kill you, we will. Because ultimately your way of life is gone anyway. This is the nature of the world… And by the way, we do like you. In fact, a lot of us love you. It’s just that you’re not meant for this world.”

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

So the Osage just got in the way of the white European drive for natural resources…?

They just don’t see life the way we do in the Western culture. And we can learn so much from the other cultures. But the key thing was the oil. The key thing was the money. This is America. We’ve got the lithium, that we need now for all of this. The silver, up until the gold standard, all this sort of thing. So you just blow apart the mountains. You get it. The Romans did it too. Here, you don’t know what to do with that money you’re getting from the oil. And you didn’t do anything to deserve it… you didn’t look for it. You didn’t have the machinery to look for it. And so, there’s that and the issue of the white superiority….

Yes, I was going to ask you, because the term ‘white supremacy’ has arrived fairly recently in the mainstream… It used to be that ‘white supremacist’ referred to a tiny extremist group of…

Of the Ku Klux Klan, for example… And, for example, Pitts Beatty [Mollie’s guardian in the film] is KKK. And when she walks out of his office I even put the mat, which I got from [filmmaker and historian of silent film] Kevin Brownlow. In an interview, he said [silent director] Thomas Ince had… “K.I.G.Y.” – “Klansman, I greet you” – the initials, on doormats, in his building in LA and on the lampposts outside. And people kept saying to me, “Well, can’t you translate?” “No, let it be. This is the atmosphere, of the painting behind him [of a Klansman on a horse].” But I didn’t want it out there. You see him dressed in the hood later, you know? But then, as I shot that, do you recognise it’s Pitts Beatty, as well? Oh God, these narrative things drive me crazy! Anyway, so the white supremacist thing, we always thought, was more purely connected to the concept of the Aryan race and national socialism…

Yeah. But now it’s become more…

Now it’s just that you’re white.

It’s about a kind of complicity and…

Well, we are complicit. But we are. We simply are. So… It’s really about everyone. We’re all the killers. The European white comes in, Western civilisation comes in. We are the killers, and we have to understand that. We have to confront it in ourselves.

So it’s a sort of original sin?

Yes. Yeah. And interestingly, I come from a time where that’s all there was.

You seem to have arrived at a point where you’re horrified by what white culture has done to Native Americans, and to the Osage in particular. Has that been a long process?

I think that they really did continually trust and could not believe that they could be taken advantage of that way. Or if they did, maybe they got so scared too at a certain point. What do you do when a culture of our kind that has been developed a certain way over 2,000 years, maybe more, comes into contact with a people who are so trusting? I was exposed to a very traumatic event, for me, back in ’74, spending a few days at Pine Ridge Reservation, with the Oglala Lakota Sioux, in South Dakota. And I was shocked, to see the conditions and to understand what was going on, and it turned out to be a very difficult experience. I’ve never forgotten it. There was a possibility of me doing something on film, on the story of Wounded Knee [the site of the massacre of more than 250 Lakota people by US Army soldiers in 1890]. But I had just made Mean Streets, and I was not ready for any of this. I didn’t understand it, and I didn’t know how to react. So that didn’t work out. It was a very, very sad situation for me… how I felt about it, and it woke me up, in a different way. Don’t forget, I’m coming out of the civil rights movements in the early 60s, which woke me up from, you know, living in a little community in the Lower East Side where there were no other races…

And so that stayed with me, and I said, “But how can people be suffering in such a way, right here?” And they’re presented in our culture as, “Everything is fine.” In fact, as comic figures. I said, “This isn’t funny”… and I didn’t know what to do.

And then I had some more personal issues, I collapsed and then came out of it with Raging Bull [1980]. But while I was doing that, I had a chance to meet a Native American poet, a prophet of some kind. Raging Bull was a story of, in a sense, being born again, with all the religious implications of that too. This poet, he looked at me and said about my time in the hospital, “You died. Now you’re alive again. Think of us, of this time, whenever you need the power to feel strength or confidence, think of me.” And it’s not supernatural, mystical. There was something that he saw.

And so those two things were in my head for years – in my life, I should say. And I think that’s one of the reasons I stayed with the project. I knew there was something special there about how they viewed life. And I also was, as I say, traumatised by what happened in the mid-70s.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

With that line that Ernest reads in the children’s book, “Can you find the wolves in this picture?”, I guess you were thinking of The Wolf of Wall Street [2013]?

I came up with that line. Well, I got to tell you, the wolves are there. On Wall Street, the wolves are there. In Hollywood, the wolves are there. That’s a very real fact of life. You have to deal with those wolves. And so, yeah, the connection with Wolf of Wall Street just seemed to be, as they say, serendipitous. Wolves and coyotes – we’d hear the coyotes howling at night. It was really scary. [Laughs]

Oh, I did notice that phrase, “the turning of the earth” from Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s The Searchers [1956] being used by De Niro’s character, Bill Hale, in Killers… which I guess was deliberate… [“We’ll find ’em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.”] That echo brings them together in their genocidal mission – though Hale also seems full of conviction when he says things like “The Osage are the finest and most beautiful people on God’s earth”…

Yeah. Thank you! “As sure as the turning of the earth, we’ll find them.” We’ll find them. The nature of Ethan Edwards’ anger, hate and racism is so deep in that film that it’s shocking. It’s a shocking movie. And it was a big influence on all of us. And it is a film that, of course, is difficult… of its time… It has white actors playing the Natives, all of this sort of thing. But the whole idea is fascinating. The big issue in that film, why we watch it repeatedly, and besides the poetry of it, is Ethan Edwards and the depth of his anger and his hatred, which is fascinating. To the point that we’re stunned when they find the buried Native American and they take the rock off him, and he’s just lying there dead. And then suddenly Ethan Edwards, on his horse, twirls his gun and shoots him in the head.

They say, “What’d you do that for, Ethan?” And he says, “For me nothing, but according to his religion, his way…” – I’m paraphrasing – “you don’t have eyes, you can’t go into the happy hunting ground. You wander through the winds forever.” And then it cuts to crazy old Mose played by Hank Worden sitting up there on his haunches, smiling, pointing to his eyes. Who were these people? You don’t just want to kill the person. You want to kill the soul, that they ever existed. This depth of hatred, of racism, is there. And that’s the American story, that movie, in that way. I was 13 years old. That’s the Ford film I saw, and that’s the one that made sense to me. That character makes total sense in post-war America. And what were they trying to tell us with that story, in VistaVision and widescreen and Technicolor? That he’s so full of hate that ultimately he’s got to leave and he can’t be part of the community, because America has to change. And I think that is a good way of looking at it, and a positive way.

There are some visionary moments in Killers. I noticed, for example, that when on that hellish, feverish night when Hale is burning his fields in the distance for the insurance, Mollie tells Ernest, “You’re next.” She says that, and then immediately you cut to that incredible shot in the heat haze of the crucified figure.

[Laughs] Well, thank you! We had Michael Arnold, who was our choreographer on Wolf of Wall Street too… I said, “When Bill Hale burns his fields… I have an image of these demons dancing around the fire, like Walpurgisnacht, the Witches’ Sabbath.” And so I said, “What if we get this fire going, and we take some of these guys and just have them do interesting moves.” We had quite a night of shooting. I did certain things with the lenses, and heat bars, a lot of heat bars.

Martin Scorsese on the set of Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Ernest isn’t the person you would necessarily choose to execute your genocidal plan if you wanted it done efficiently and well, is he? He keeps messing up…

No, but he’s a good man on the inside. He can be manipulated. It’s like in a family of thieves. Suddenly, one of the sons wants to be a policeman. “Oh, this is awful. It’s terrible! But wait a minute, we could take advantage. He gets in, he’s a man on the inside and we could keep him corrupt.” And also Ernest didn’t seem to want to do much more. He just wanted to be left alone and enjoy himself. And he loved her. And he was fooling around with other women, and drinking and stuff. He was having a good time. And she loved him, he loved her, they had children. So he could be controlled. And then, you know, Bill Hale got sloppy… He’s not Cosimo de Medici [a powerful banker, politician and patron of the arts in Renaissance Florence]. He just isn’t.

There’s that nice moment where Beatty says to him…

“You’re pronouncing yourself too much.” A friend of mine gave me that line and I said, “Oh, I love it!” He gets so sloppy, thinks he can get away with anything… But that’s the other thing. You can get away with anything. Look at it now. You have indictments going on for the [possible] next president? You can get away with anything…

Hale never admits anything, does he, even in that late scene where Ernest finally defies him?

No. “I’m sorry to hear that.” I forget who wrote it, but when Ernest says he’ll testify, he says, “That’s a strong choice to take against adversity.” Wow! That’s a great line. Put that in. And so we were working that way. And then, “Oh, there’ll be an outcry for a while. But then people forget. They’re going to go back to work, they’ve got to take care of their families, they’re going to take care of themselves, they’re going to… whatever.” And the harshest thing he could say to him at that point, as he walks away, he says, “I love you, son. I love you. Don’t do this.” Oh, he does threaten him in a beautiful way. And that is the one line where he says, “Don’t do something you’re going to regret for the rest of your life.”

What are you planning now?

I’d like to try and make another picture if I can. I’d like to move on. Well, we’ve come up with a script on Home, Marilynne Robinson’s book. It’s one of the four novels: Gilead, Home, Lila and Jack. [Tár writer-director] Todd Field and I started on Home, and did a version before the writers’ [WGA] strike, with [critic and writer-director] Kent Jones, a year ago. And we’re about to go into another, once the strike is over, a script on Jack. And Gilead, I think Todd might be doing. And so there’s that.

And there’s another couple of projects that Leo and I are talking about [Roosevelt, and The Wager, based on David Grann’s recent book]. But because of the strikes…..it’s completely gone. There’s a series I’m working on as best as possible, trying to get financing.

And there are some projects that still deal with Christianity in different ways. I’m working on an idea… I think I’m finally getting around to what it could be. It’s kind of a film, but it wouldn’t be a straight narrative, it wouldn’t be a documentary, it’d be a combination of things. And I think it may have to go back to Shūsaku Endō [author of the novel Silence] and his Life of Jesus [1973], which I found to be interesting because it takes Jesus as a… figure of thinking, and a question of Jesus from a point of view that’s not Western. And so I’m finding that comfortable in a way. And I’m wondering how I can pull some of my questions over the years and thoughts and attempts together and make it some kind of a film. And so, during this period, I’m working on that myself.

Martin Scorsese on the set of Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Something maybe kind of poetic in a way? We talked before about the experiments in the Rolling Thunder film, and the way they had gone into The Irishman…

Totally. Exactly that. Only more narrative scenes, and characters playing Jesus and that sort of thing. But maybe modern day. I don’t know yet. But we’re getting there. Meaning once the strike is over… The problem is time.

Although Killers, I’ve lived for so long in it, and I kind of like it. I like looking at it. I’m not saying I think it’s good, I’m just saying something like that becomes part of your life. Hopefully people will see it. And there’s something about the length of the movie straight through in the theatre. It’s really interesting. It dragged me in; a number of times, when I had to look at certain technical things, I would have to see the whole film again. I was too tired, but I couldn’t stop watching it. I was surprised. I did with The Irishman too, but it was something else. Or Silence, for example.

Yeah. I mean, The Irishman works in a different way, doesn’t it? Because it has a more episodic structure.

Totally. Yeah.

And so in a way, it’s like binge-watching a miniseries. I mean, it isn’t like that, but it divides up. But this is much more of almost a single movement…

It is a single movement, like a piece of music is what I was trying, where themes would begin and they become richer or more intense as the story goes on. And then you’re stuck in sort of a whirlpool of the story in a sense, it sucked you in.

I feel as if it’s an important film. You were making the film just after the death of George Floyd, with Black Lives Matter becoming such a force… I was wondering about the Tulsa race massacre…

That was definitely Tulsa, George Floyd, all of that… And there was Covid too. And I said, this may be the end, and if I get to do this, I’m going to start all over again. And that happened. There’s no doubt what was happening in this country. And with this story. It’s good that you pointed that out. And I really felt that I was relieved, in the sense that Covid made me focus. With the imminent death. It certainly makes you focus. And if I were to make another film, I would try to start anew, all over again somehow. What that means is that there was a freshness to it, for me. I’m not saying it comes out in the movie. I’m not saying it translates to the audience. I don’t know.

I think it does.

[Pause] I think it does too.

It feels like the culmination of something. You were talking about your experience at Pine Ridge. And then also Kundun, and Silence, working with Indigenous groups. It feels as if there’s something that lots of people are being forced to do because of the fashions or the times or the pressures. But it’s something that you’ve always been doing, and wanting to do, and this was your chance really to do it. And so you’re doing it sincerely.

I am doing it sincerely. And what I mean by not knowing an audience’s reaction, is that I can’t help it. In other words, I don’t know, I got this far and this is what’s happened, and I couldn’t even think of whether it would be accepted any more, the film. I just had to make it. And I had great support with the people around me, like Leo and Lily and De Niro, and all the Osage and Apple too, pushing me, and Rick Yorn and all of them supporting me, and like Thelma [Schoonmaker] and Rodrigo [Prieto, the cinematographer], Adam Somner [the assistant director], so many people that we all felt it. I don’t know, we felt something special. And it has been something that I’ve… [Pause] I don’t know whether one grows out, grows up or grows in, but there has been something that’s happened to me from the making of this picture. I hope it’s – what’s the word? – received in that spirit? That’s all. But at this point, I never thought I’d get to my age making films. So I don’t even know what to say. It’s all I could do is offer this. I hope it’s accepted, I hope people like it. 

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