Martin Scorsese on Chasing ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ To Tell a True Story of American Crime, Greed and Murder

For over fifty years, Martin Scorsese has been one of the dominant figures in American cinema. The great director’s films make up a gritty, ferocious tapestry of our society from the ground up. To look over his body of work is to gaze at a violent chronicle of our country’s underbelly, from the classic gangster epics “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” to the intimate and intense “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.” When Scorsese has ventured into the past, his films sustain his trademark visual energy while saying much about who we are. Think of the anti-immigrant fanatics of “Gangs of New York,” or the vicious aristocrats in “The Age of Innocence.” Scorsese’s latest is “Killers of the Flower Moon,” a sprawling adaptation of David Grann’s acclaimed chronicle of a murder spree that impacted Oklahoma’s Osage Nation in the 1920s. Like the book, the film captures how this tragedy encompasses American history itself. When the Osage struck oil in the land into which they had been cornered, the community found both economic prosperity and racist scrutiny from their white neighbors. 

In the tradition of famous crime stories like “In Cold Blood,” Scorsese focuses his lens on the culprits. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Ernest Burkhart, a pitifully greedy World War I veteran who returns to Osage County to live with his cattle baron uncle, William King Hale (Robert De Niro). When Ernest marries a local Osage woman, Mollie (Lily Gladstone), he appears set for life. Then, various Osage, including Mollie’s relatives, fall mysteriously ill or are found murdered. For Scorsese’s first film set in America’s wide open spaces, at a time when the Old West was gone but shadows remained, this story of dark impulses and avarice is a natural fit for the director. “Well, at first, it was very important for me to make this film,” Scorsese tells Entertainment Voice. “As soon as I saw the book I thought, ‘Well, if you want to be involved with anything that has to do with Indigenous people and Native Americans.’ I had an experience in the ‘70s where I began to become aware of the nature of what their situation was, and still is. I had been blithely unaware of that. I was too young. I was in my 20s. I didn’t know. And it’s taken me years, and I’m fascinated by how do you really deal with that culture in a way that is respectful, and is also not hagiographic? It doesn’t fall into Rousseau and the idea of the noble native, that sort of thing.”

Scorsese set out to do research with his team and what first struck him was the lingering pain and also the impulses to forget within the Osage community when it came to the crimes, described in Grann’s book as a “Reign of Terror” that casts a lasting influence. “These are things that really weren’t talked about in the younger generation I was talking to,” says Scorsese, “It was the generation before them, or their parents I should say, that this happened to. And so, they didn’t talk about it much. And the people involved are still there, meaning the families are still there, the descendants are still there. I learned from having dinners with them. I met Margie Burkhart, a relative of Ernest.” Such meetings revealed to the director the tragic scope of the crimes. “Margie and a number of other people pointed out that you have to understand a lot of the white guys there, a lot of the European-Americans, particularly Bill Hale, they were good friends of the community. And, people just didn’t believe at the time that Bill would be capable of such things. What is that about us as human beings that allows for us to be so compartmentalized in a way?”

“The Osage were naturally cautious,” says Scorsese about meeting with individuals of the Osage Nation to assure them this would not be the typical portrayal of Native American communities. ,“I had to explain to them our idea and deal with them as honestly and truthfully as possible. We weren’t going to fall into old traps. We think of the cliché of victims, or the ‘drunken Indian’ from Westerns. We were going to do away with that and tell the story as straight as possible. What I didn’t really understand until the first couple of meetings was that this is an ongoing situation, an ongoing story out in Oklahoma.” As in his films like “Kundun,” “Silence” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Scorsese decided to do away with an outsider perspective and tell the story from the vantage point of the participants, both Osage and white. “We started reworking the script and it became grittier. Instead of looking from the outside in, coming in and finding out who had done it, you know, when in reality it’s who didn’t do it. It’s a story of complicity. It’s a story of sin by omission. There was a silent complicity in these murder cases.”

For “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Scorsese reunited with regular cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker. They don’t aim for the kinetic jump cuts and inserts of Scorsese’s manic crime dramas, instead they tell the story with a riveting pace within a classic style. Wide shots have the breadth of John Ford and the lighting ranges from sun-kissed richness to cold interiors where murder festers. Scorsese has famously made his home city of New York come alive in his best films. This was a chance to indulge in America’s wide open spaces. “I am a New Yorker. I grew up in the Lower East Side of New York. I’m very urban,” says Scorsese. “Anyway, when I got to Oklahoma, all I can tell you is those prairies are quite something. They open your mind and your heart. They are just beautiful. And, especially, driving on these roads, straight roads through a prairie and you see on both sides of the road wild horses, and bison, and cows. The wild horses are just out to pasture for the rest of their lives. And, it was, like, idyllic. And, so, I said, ‘Where do I put the camera at this point? How much of the sky? How much of the prairie do we show?’” Scorsese, dramatist of men in the shadows, also sensed the darker edge of the terrain. “You have law, but it’s a wide-open territory, so the place, as beautiful as it is, can shift to being very sinister. And 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.”

This film also brings together two actors that have come to define Scorsese’s work. Robert De Niro has embodied the director’s most famous characters, including Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” and Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull.” Leonardo DiCaprio has been the dominant face of the filmmakers’ late body of work. The range is stunning. For Scorsese, DiCaprio has played historical figures such as Howard Hughes in “The Aviator” and riveting fictional, doomed heroes in thrillers like “The Departed.” Of De Niro, Scorsese says, “Well, in the case of Robert De Niro, we were teenagers together, and he’s the only one who really knows where I come from, the people I knew, and that sort of thing. Some of them are still alive. He knows them. 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. It’s what it is.” It was De Niro who introduced Scorsese to DiCaprio. “Year later, he told me he worked with this kid, Leo DiCaprio, a little boy, in ‘This Boy’s Life,’ and he said, ‘You should work with this kid sometime.’ And so years go by, and I’m presented with Leo, with ‘Gangs of New York,’ and we worked together in ‘Gangs.’ He made ‘Gangs’ possible, actually. He loved the pictures I’ve made, and he wanted to explore the same territory.” The veteran master and younger actor, now a pop culture standard himself, still click through shared taste. “We really found out that even though there’s 30 years difference, he has similar sensibilities. He’ll come to me and he’ll say, ‘listen to this record,’ and it’s Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald. I grew up with it. He’s not bringing me anything new, but he likes it.”

“Killers of the Flower Moon” should also be the major breakthrough for Lily Gladstone, who brought to the role a focused talent but also years of being a Native American activist. “I saw her in ‘Certain Women,’ Kelly Reichardt’s film,” says Scorsese. “I thought she was terrific. I was very, very impressed by her presence, the intelligence, and the emotion that’s there in her face. But you see it, you feel it, but it’s very, very — you know that it’s all working, something working behind the eyes. You could see it happening. There was also her activism, which wasn’t overtaking the art. The first big scene we did was one of my favorite scenes, where she has dinner with Ernest alone. And, she’s questioning him, a little bit of an interrogation. What are you doing here? Are you afraid of him? What’s your religion? And, then you begin to see the connection between the two, and when she says, ‘Ha ha ha, Coyote wants money.’ Other moments, she improvised so well and we had a feeling that we needed her. We needed her to help us tell the story of the women there. We would always check with her andwork with her on the script. There were scenes that were added, scenes rewritten constantly.”

An integral part of a Scorsese film has always been the music. From the pioneering use of rock n’ roll going back to his earliest works to stunning collaborations with Peter Gabriel (“The Last Temptation of Christ”) and Phillip Glass (“Kundun”), Scorsese’s cinema is driven by melodies and sounds just as much as by the images. “Killers of the Flower Moon” features a score by Robbie Robertson, who passed this last August, and vintage needle drops. “The way I like to make pictures for the most part, I’ve learned, or not intentionally, but I feel it, is like the pacing of music,” says the director. “And sometimes I play the music back on the set. In the case of ‘Goodfellas,’ Eric Clapton’s ‘Layla,’ for example, was played back as we were doing the camera moves. And, so for me, ultimately, I’m trying to get to the movie being a piece of music. Robbie Robertson here put together some great music. Then I made selections from things like Harry Smith’s anthology of folk music. One particular piece called the ‘Indian War Whoop’ by Hoyt Ming and His Pep Steppers was very, very important. ‘Bulldoze Blues’ by Henry Thomas, which became ‘Going Up The Country’ by Canned Heat. ‘Dark As The Night,’ by Blind Willie Johnson, is used for a scene where Hale is watching a field in flames. All that is then combined with the score Robbie put together to drive it all forward.”

With all of the director’s trademark elements, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a worthy addition to his influential catalog, yet it’s also a universally vital gaze into history rarely discussed. Scorsese’s films look behind the romanticized fantasies of a country’s history. In his last film, the massive “The Irishman,” gangsters, union bosses and crooked politicians move the levers of the state or plan the invasion of Cuba. Here, the genocide against the Indigenous peoples of this nation is embodied in envy over oil wealth. For Scorsese, making the film was a reminder that such history isn’t so distant. “You could do anything, like these crimes, it turns out, a hundred years ago. For me, 1920 is, like, 50 years ago because I was born in ’42. To me the 1920s are the way the ‘90s are now to younger people. So, when they told me, ‘Marty, this is a hundred years ago,’ I keep thinking, ‘What? Are we making a period piece?’”

Killers of the Flower Moon” releases Oct. 20 in theaters nationwide and begins streaming Jan. 12 on Apple TV+.