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Exclusive Interview: Terence Winter on The Wolf of Wall Street

Screenwriter Terence Winter reveals how Martin Scorsese develops screenplays and what really happened to Matthew McConaughey’s character and all the Quaaludes.

The Wolf of Wall Street Leonardo DiCaprio

About sixty seconds after my interview with Terence Winter, who wrote the screenplay for The Wolf of Wall Street, I slapped myself. And I was right to do so. Because I suddenly realized that I am the kind of guy who, when he finds out that somebody he's talking knows Mick Jagger personally, tells him to send a message to Mick Jagger that goes, "You were awesome in Freejack."

Worse yet… Terence Winter actually said he would deliver the message. So, somewhere out there in the world, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow (hell, maybe yesterday), Mick Jagger is being told that some stranger that he's never met thought he was awesome in Freejack. Which he was! I love that movie, but of all the messages I could get to tell Mick Jagger by proxy, THAT is the one I chose. THAT is what I thought was important for him to know. And that is why I slapped myself. In fact, I think I might do it again now.

In any case, it was still very informative talking to Terence Winter, who knows a lot more about the stock market and Quaaludes than I probably ever will. We talked about how Martin Scorsese develops a screenplay, what (if anything) is missing from the fabled, original four-hour cut of The Wolf of Wall Street, how the hilarious scene of Leonardio DiCaprio failing to climb down stairs nearly endangered his infant child, and what really happened to Matthew McConaughey's character, Mark Hanna, after he disappears from the movie in the first act.
 

CraveOnline: You must be feeling great. It’s a been a long time coming, this movie.

Terence Winter: Yeah, for a while there I thought it wasn’t going to happen. Then I’d run into Leo over the years, he kept telling me, “I’m making this movie. I’m telling you, I’m making it. I’m making it.” Here, I thought he was being polite but he was actually serious. [Laughs.] We made it.
 

Tell me about the moment that you knew it was finally going down.

I guess it was getting in a room with Marty and Leo again, a couple of years ago, where we starting going through the script, and Marty saying, “Yeah, I’m really excited about this.” I think Marty, once he commits, he really commits fully. I remember walking of that meeting thinking, “Wow, this is really happening.”
 

What sort of notes does Martin Scorsese give on a script?

A lot of it is about pacing and clarity. Marty very much likes to understand exactly what’s happening, which sounds pretty obvious, but in a lot of films and TV shows it’s not. As an audience member, and he looks at it I think from the perspective of an audience member, [he asks] “Do I understand what is happening and what’s being said? Can I follow what’s happening?” I think a lot of it is in that regard.

He also is willing to try a lot of new things, certainly in the script phase. We’d talk about something, he’d go, “Well, why don’t we go off and write it and see how it works. If it works, great, if it doesn’t work we’ll go back to they way we had it. But let’s just try what happens, and see if there’s some magic here if we combine these two thoughts, or these two scenes together. Let’s go off and try it.” Trial and error.
 

Was the script very different after you worked with Martin Scorsese on it?

No, it’s actually very, very close to the early drafts. I think if you go back and read my first draft a lot of it is intact. Certainly the overall arc of the story and a lot of the scenes themselves are very close to the original draft. I think as we got closer into the actual production of the movie, there were certain things that needed to be truncated due to schedule, and there were a couple of scenes that got combined, a couple of characters that were an amalgam of three different characters that became one. Things like that. But for the most part it’s very faithful to the original version.
 

How long was the original draft?

I think the very first draft was about 128 pages. The last draft that I can recall was 147, maybe.
 

Really? It’s a rather long movie and there’s rumors that there’s a four-hour cut out there somewhere.

There is, yeah, but you know a good example is the scene where Leo goes from the country club payphone to the car. In script page time, that’s maybe a page-and-a-half of script time. In the film it’s seven minutes probably, so I can see how it ballooned up from where it was. There were long pauses and long looks. The boat sequence, for example, too. In terms of describing that boat sinking, a page of writing ends up being minutes long. So it can balloon from there.