An inside look at the story of Jordan Belfort and the making of the movie, with Hollywood filmmakers Terence Winter, Riza Aziz and Joey McFarland
By Jon Shakill
When you put one of the biggest actors in the world together with one of the most iconic directors and filmmakers of all time, what do you get? Well, first you get a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Martin Scorsese. Second what you get is a team that has come together to make “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator,” “The Departed,” “Shutter Island,” and now “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
When you add to this mix screenwriter and filmmaker Terence Winter, who has won enough Emmy and Writer’s Guild awards to fill the mantelpiece at home and the credenza at work, what you get is the foundation for which epic films are built on. Add in several dashes of Jonah Hill, prominently garnish with Matthew McConaughey, and now you’re really in business.
According to the executive producers from Red Granite Pictures, Joey McFarland and Riza Aziz, “This is the type of film that viewers have wanted from Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio for a long, long time. We’re going to get a look at these guys in a way we’ve never seen them work together. It’s an uncompromising look into a story that we think is very important.”
If those ingredients aren’t enough to knock your socks off, all you need to do is add in a slice of reality. Based on the true story of the infamous penny-stock broker Jordan Belfort, “The Wolf of Wall Street” was adapted from the autobiographical books of the same name written by Belfort. Not just another movie about Wall Street, the story focuses on the personal tale of a young man reaching the highest level of success, and succumbing to the temptations around him.
According to screenwriter Terence Winter “[Belfort] was a young guy who came into money and then fell into a lifestyle of drugs, sex, power, adulation — anything that a human being could become addicted to, Jordan was craving it. He had this incredible out-of-control wild lifestyle, which was ultimately hilarious and horrific at the same time. It is sort of a cautionary tale for everybody.”
“Pump and Dump”
Belfort’s story started when he became a legitimate, well-trained stockbroker in October 1987. On his first day on the job, the stock market crashed. Not being one to easily give-up, he applied his skills to selling penny-stocks. Although penny-stocks are usually junk, at the time they were offering brokers a 50% commission for selling them.
Belfort figured out a way to sell these high-commission stocks to wealthy people, and in the process made a fortune. The people buying the stocks however, did not.
Once Belfort figured out the formula for making money in penny-stocks, he had hundreds of 20 year-old guys and girls dropping out of college to come work for him. At the age of 25, Belfort was raking in upward of $40-$50 million a year. He could have easily retired at age 26.
Different than previous movies about greed on Wall Street, Winter points out that, “It’s not a very linear — beginning — middle — end type of story about Wall Street. It is essentially about the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, and in telling that story is about the bigger picture as to where we are today as a society. What our values are as a country, what we consider as valuable, what qualities and positions do people aspire to, and what price are they willing to pay to get there?”
When I asked Executive Producers McFarland and Aziz how this movie compares to “Wall Street” and the infamous character of Gordon Gekko, they pointed out that “It would be impossible not to compare them. But the reality is that those movies were more based around the story of the scam, or making the money and the actual financial system. Our movie is based on the human being, and the story of Jordan Belfort. This movie takes you on a very personal journey of the debaucheries of a sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll crazed ride of an individual.”
McFarland and Aziz continue, “This is a movie that Scorsese fans have been waiting for him to do. It goes back to “Goodfellas” and “Casino” -— where you’re seeing some unsavory characters doing some unsavory things, but you also want to be with them for three hours, because it’s a peek behind the curtain of what’s going on. The characters are fun to watch.”
Telling an Incredible Tale
Terence Winter, the screenwriter for the film, is one of the giants in Hollywood film and TV making from a behind-the-scenes standpoint. Among his credits, he was an Emmy Award-winning executive producer and writer for “The Sopranos,” writer of the film “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” and is the creator of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, that he executive produces alongside Martin Scorsese, Mark Wahlberg and others.
So how did Winter get involved with “The Wolf of Wall Street” as screenwriter? As Winter points out, “The book by Jordan Belfort was sent to me by a producer, Alexandra Milchan. I read it in one sitting only broken up by a couple hours of sleep — I truly could not put it down. It’s just an absolutely hilarious and fascinating visual. I could see the movie in my head as I was reading.” When he heard that Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio were teaming up to make the movie, he jumped onboard right away.
Winter’s job was to take “The Wolf of Wall Street” book written by Belfort and shape it into a screenplay. “The book itself is really dense, it’s huge,” Winter says, “The movie itself is three hours long, and if we had filmed everything in the book, it would’ve probably been 18 hours long.” Given the length of the story, Winter was tasked with distilling it into a coherent narrative, and then taking the narrative and turning it into screenplay form. All while retaining the fun and compelling nature of the story. “I think we succeeded in that,” says Winter, “Then Marty and Leo took it into another stratosphere.”
The screenplay did not only come from the books written by Belfort, but it came also from Jordan Belfort himself. Winter had lunch and several dinners with Belfort prior to writing the screenplay, and even had lunch with Belfort’s ex-wife and dinner with his parents. Winter spoke to the FBI agent who arrested Belfort and also people who used to work for him. Leaving no stone unturned, Winter did location scouting of the places where Belfort grew up and lived, in order to fully soak up his world.
“Jordan was extremely forthcoming. He really was — no pun intended — an open book. He went into great detail about anything I asked him and was completely honest about his life and the things he had done, and also how he felt about it,” says Winter.
Winter essentially became a journalist and a biographer, doing the work of investigating Belfort’s history and also asking the infamous broker all the questions he could. Then a bright idea struck the prodigious screenwriter: Why not have Belfort actually re-create one of his extraordinary motivational sales speeches? Belfort was known for giving these rousing motivational speeches to his sales staff twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon,
to get everyone fired-up to make calls.
As Winter explains: “That’s when I got the idea to get a bunch of young assistants and young agents from the Creative Artists Agency together in a room, and bring Jordan in to actually give one of his speeches. Jordan was reluctant at first, but eventually he warmed up to the idea. So on a warm summer day back in 2007, Jordan came into the office. He expressed at first that he was nervous and hadn’t given a speech like this in 10 years, but within five minutes he was on fire. And so I got to see the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ in action, and he was incredible. That actually became the basis for some of the big speeches that I wrote into the movie.”
As we continue our behind the scenes look at the making of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” I also speak with the production company that financed and backed the film. The executives behind the company Red Granite Pictures, who served as producers for the film, are Founder, Chairman and CEO, Riza Aziz and Vice Chairman and Co-Founder, Joey McFarland.
As an independent company based in L.A., Red Granite Pictures is a film production, finance and international sales company. Having produced the hit romantic comedy “Friends with Kids,” they have also recently begun production on “Dumb and Dumber To” which is slated to release in November, 2014. That of course, is in addition to having wrapped up work on “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
For those of us who are not experts in the field of filmmaking, what exactly do producers do? Well, as McFarland informs us, in addition to bringing all the financing together, “Riza and I acquired the underlying rights and story rights from Jordan Belfort, to develop the shooting script with Marty, Leo, and Terry [Winter]. We helped to prep all the pre-production, then we worked on the set every single day during filming. After we wrapped the picture we left Marty alone with the editor to do their thing, and we focused on the marketing and distribution of the picture. We all worked together and we were involved in every aspect of this film. Riza Aziz and Joey McFarland worked with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio every day during the making of the movie, including developing the shooting script.
“It was a very cool thing for us, working with these guys [Scorsese and DiCaprio] that have such a history together. They’re like father and son, and best friends at the same time. They have so much trust in one-an- other and the collaborations between them are just amazing. They bounce ideas off of one-another constantly and they really push each other to go further,” says McFarland.
Scorsese kept an open-door policy with the production team, allowing them to share their ideas and create a very collaborative environment.
“It was a very collaborative process. Being new to working with Marty and Leo together was a bit intimidating at first, but from day one they were very engaging to work with. For us as producers, we’d like to think that we provided them with a sandbox to play around in, and to push as many boundaries as they could with the film. As filmmakers we like to push the edge ourselves when selecting which movies to make,” says Aziz. “The Wolf of Wall Street” has all the right ingredients in place to become one of the epics of the genre. Hilarious yet horrifying, unbelievable yet based on reality, with the power of the best film- makers in the world recounting the tale. I guess that only time will tell.
Timeout with Terence Winter, Screenwriter
Jon Shakill: What do you think it is that has allowed you to be successful in Hollywood, and put you in a position to write this screenplay?
Terence Winter: Well, I have a very strong work ethic. I came to writing in my late 20s — I had been an attorney for a couple years before that. So I approach this business like a business. I knew that I had to really work hard and work diligently, and be on a schedule to get things done. I am an artist and a writer, but this is a business so things need to be done on-time and on-schedule.There’s a great deal of money involved, so you have to approach it like any other field. You have to give it your complete focus and attention, and you also have to learn the craft of writing. When I set about doing this early on, I really sat down and taught myself how to be a writer. I had a lot of good work habits coming into it, and all of that really helped to serve me in my career moving along.
I think also, you do need a certain amount of talent. I have to assume that I have a little bit of that, but without the other stuff it wouldn’t work. It’s important to have everything. You can be the most talented person in the world, but if you can’t get it together enough to get things done and have people read your work — nobody is going to come and ring your doorbell and ask to read your script. You have to figure out how to get yourself out there.
Jon Shakill: So what made you go from the law profession into the Hollywood filmmaking business as a writer?
Terence Winter: I was just miserable with what I was doing. I never had a real passion for being a lawyer. I just wanted to be successful. It was the worst motivation for choosing a career — I mean I had no interest in the law particularly. I just thought it would make me sound very important, with a diploma written in Latin, and I would have a secretary and an office, and some shroud of legitimacy.
I didn’t really count on the idea that I was going to be absolutely miserable doing it, and I was. That’s when I knew that I would never be really good at it. I knew that I could be great at something if I found the thing that I was really passionate about. I was passionate about movies and TV shows, so it really got to the point in my late 20s, where I decided that I was going to pursue this with everything I have. So I quit my job, moved to L.A., and started writing.
Jon Shakill: What about your personal lifestyle, what do you like to drink?
Terence Winter: I love wine and bourbon. Even though I don’t smoke cigars, I’m definitely a wine drinker — I don’t think I have dinner without wine. Dinner without wine, is just food [laughs]. Wine is a big part of my life in that sense, it just enhances everything. My close friend Philip di Belardino is an executive for the wine company Banfi and he originally got me into wine.
Jon Shakill: What is your favorite wine and bourbon?
Terence Winter: I like any of the Banfi wines. Banfi Summus is my red of choice, I also like Sauvignon Blanc. As for bourbon, I will usually drink Basil Hayden.
Jon Shakill: Do you have anything planned for your next project yet?
Terence Winter : We’re starting season five of Boardwalk Empire with the writing starting toward the end of January. There’s another project that Martin Scorsese and I are partnered up on with HBO, which is set in the world of rock music in the early 1970s in New York. So we’re really excited about that project. And I’m looking for my next feature film project, whatever that might be.