Always leading with integrity and respect, director Martin Scorsese and film crew immersed themselves among the Osage Nation community while filming, “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
The film, based on David Grann’s best-selling book of the same name, goes into the lives of an Osage woman named Mollie Kyle Burkhart, and her white husband, Ernest Burkhart, living through the Reign of Terror in the 1920s. Murder, death and sorrow surrounds them as the plot unfolds.
One of the film’s Indigenous actors, Tatanka Means (Navajo, Oglala Lakota and Omaha Nations), who plays FBI undercover agent John Wren in the film, said filmmakers need to take note. He said the way Scorsese spent time with the Osage community, hearing their side and navigating their culture with multiple Osage consultants, should be a template for filmmakers moving forward on how to make a film when it involves an Indigenous community.
The Osage News sat down with the legendary filmmaker for an exclusive interview at his hotel in Cannes, France, following the world premiere of “Killers of the Flower Moon” that was received with a 9-minute standing ovation.
We spoke about the film’s importance, Lily Gladstone’s performance, the late Johnny Williams and the divisions of the Earth and Sky People.
Warning, spoilers ahead.
Osage News: Why was this film necessary and important to make?
Martin Scorsese: I was attracted to the story itself, which of course I knew very little about, I had heard about it a long time ago, and for me at this stage in my life I’ve been fascinated by Indigenous people and I have been learning over the years because I grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s and the Indigenous people were represented certain ways in film. Just by the attempt in the early ‘50s that tried to make a change. “Devil’s Doorway,” Anthony Mann’s film, “Broken Arrow,” a beautifully looking film, “Drum Beat,” “Apache” and others.
In any case, Native Americans were the heroes although they were played by whites. But, it changed the point of view. When they gave me the book, I felt that the juxtaposition of the words “Killers” and “Flower Moon,” there’s something there.I said there’s something tragic, and powerful, and beautiful. I said “Let’s explore this.”
I was fascinated too by how the FBI, at that time the Bureau of Investigation came in, I was interested in their background. How J. Edgar Hoover tried to, well, he did, made a name for himself and the bureau with this case. I did understand that it was a career move. (laughs)
ON: Yeah, I don’t know that there was any real concern there.
Scorsese: No, he would have looked bad, he had to go settle it. But, he was not the J. Edgar Hoover he became 20 years later, but they did get in there and I became fascinated by all the characters. Particularly this John Joseph Mathews. I read some of his stuff and he really values the values of the Osage. The values to me were really fascinating and as I got older, as I become older, they become values I learn to respect and try to respect and appreciate more in life, having gone through 80 years of life now. I find I was very much attracted to that.
We tried to compose a script that was structured on the book by David Grann. People usually say and that he really did a good job on this book. And there were so many facets, so many as we got further and further into research on this book. Texas Rangers and this and that. Leo DiCaprio was going to play it, Tom White, and Eric Roth and I were trying to find a way in to Tom White.
The problem I ran into, and it was purely a stylistic one at first, it was really a police procedural.
I tried my best, but I couldn’t see myself directing it. Because, quite honestly, the minute you see anybody playing Bill Hale and you add that anybody is Bob De Niro, you know it’s him.
Scorsese: The moment you see him. You know he’s the guy behind most of these things. The moment you see him …
ON: The story’s over.
Scorsese: The story’s over! You’re going to watch the police go from person to person, and who’s hiding but they all are. We were saying, “It isn’t who did it, who didn’t do it?” is the issue. Then it becomes about complicity in our whole world as human beings. It becomes complicity in genocide. Because you don’t want to get in trouble or you’re gonna be half way or he (Ernest Burkhart) does what his uncle tells him to do.
Burkhart: “All I did was go tell John Ramsey to go talk to Acey Kirby … I had nothing to do with the bombing.”
ON: Yeah, “I didn’t do it.”
Scorsese: (laughs)So, I mean, do we have the strength if we were so tested in our lives to resist this kind of living just to be quiet. You could take it all the way to the World War in the 1930s and 40s and people who were complicit in subtle ways, and not so subtle we know, but even in very subtle ways and made it out. So, for me, that was interesting.
I think what happens is we went down to Pawhuska and I met Chief Standing Bear and his wife Julie and Chad Renfro and Addie Roanhorse and we had a long talk and they had us go around and see some things. For me this was a very interesting thing, very interesting world because I’ve never seen space like that, and wild horses and so I was fascinated by it. We then went back, I believe a second time and the Grayhorse community gave us a very big dinner.
ON: Yes, I was there, I’m from Grayhorse.
Scorsese: Okay, so you know, that night was the one. That’s what did it, when they got up and spoke, all of them. I think Brandy Lemon got up and she spoke and talked about Ernest and Mollie and I realized because I was wondering, this guy had done this.
And how far was he complicit? As a weak man, let’s say, did he feel “Well, I’ll just do this one time. It’s going to go away, they’re not gonna ask me to do it anymore or ask again. They tell him that, and they really tell him, and he’s just scared. I’m not making excuses for him …
ON: No, he’s the patsy.
Scorsese: He really is. But, what is that love between the two of them? I can’t say we can answer that, I’m just saying … she has so much trust in him.
ON: It’s taken me a long time to believe, as an Osage woman, that he actually loved her … but I think he did.
Scorsese: I think he did.
ON: Just from the transcripts.
Scorsese: That’s what I found, from the transcripts.
ON: When he goes to the witness stand, he turns and testifies against his uncle.
Scorsese: I think he did and he’s so sorry for what he did. He thinks at the end he’s going to get away with it with her, and I think at the end what he wanted the most and the story and the way we did it, was … I think what he wanted most after all that was her and she couldn’t take anymore. She knew then and she just got up and walks away.
ON: He wanted his family back.
Scorsese: He wanted his family. And what happens? He goes back and lives in Fairfax!
ON: He goes back and lives in Fairfax and hangs around. My dad even saw him when he was young and he was in the pool hall.
Scorsese: In the pool hall, that’s in the research. I didn’t have it in the film but I wanted to do it, but he said, “Mr. Burkhart” and he said “Yes.” He said, “What’s your occupation?” and he says, “I don’t have any.” He says, “So what do you do?” He says, “I’m in the pool hall.” (laughs) And he says, “So how do you live?” and he says, “My wife is rich.” (laughs) He’s the pool hall, knockin people over, robbin people, foolin around with the girls, having a great time, I mean, c’mon? (laughs)
So, Brandy gets up and mentions “Silence,” the film we made and I thought, she understands something. And then Marvin Stepson says something and others got up and spoke. And I suddenly saw, this is interesting, this goes much deeper than just a bunch of guys manipulating and killing people and getting people drunk on bad liquor. This is worse than anything you can think of, I’m like “this is wild.”
Leo came to it himself. We had a 200-page script of the wildest, kind of FBI, Texas Rangers, everybody coming in. All the elements coming in on how they got Blackie Thompson and Dick Gregg and all these guys and I’m like, “This seems to be all about the cowboys … so, what happened with the Osage?”
Immediately when I saw the book and I saw the script, and I saw the name of the title I said, “If we deal with any Indigenous people we have to be very respectful, and you gotta deal with them in a cool way, a really cool way. You gotta be straight on with them, you can’t mess around with them in any way.”
I knew that it had to be this way. I knew we had to go deal with this and find out who they are as best I can, and deal with them straight, as best as possible. And that’s what we did, and Leo was turning around saying, “I don’t know … playing Tom White.” And I said, “I know, I know, playing Tom White …”
Tom White, good man. Meaning that he really believed in what he was doing. I mean, may not have gotten along with Hoover and that sort of thing, he really believed in what he was doing. And his father was an important man, a warden and he grew up in a prison. In any event, Leo, after reading the long version that we had of the script, he came to me and goes, “Where’s the heart of this movie? Where’s the heart, where’s the emotion?”
I said, “the emotion’s with Mollie and Ernest” and we don’t have that, we simply don’t have it. And not only that, Ernest, being the squiggly guy that he must have been, nothing’s written about him. The only stuff we had was in the research. And with people remembering a few things, but everything’s written on Hale, things are written on Mollie, things are written on everybody else. He got out of that too, it was like walking in between the rain drops.
How do we make a character of this? I said, “Well Leo, if you wanna do this, you’re absolutely right, cause I’ve taken this to the point where it’s just another movie that I’ve seen.” I said, “Now we take this script, and we rip it inside out and we go. And, I don’t know how we’re gonna do it, but we’re gonna find it.”
So that’s the story of it basically and we started working on it. Eric (Roth) and I, and Leo … a couple of other friends came in and Covid hit. Then everything stopped, but I kept working on the script, and working on it. And then, you know, we lost about a year and a half. I’m still aching from that, but you know, no earning, you know, everything hit, everything hit and we’re all looking at each other. And I’m like, “Okay, this is the picture we’re gonna make, this is the one.” But we hadn’t finished the script. (laughs)
But we knew we were on the right track. Our everyday was, “Does he really know what he’s doing?” Every day, Leo and I and Lily, and De Niro too. And they’re in there saying, “I think this, and I think that.” We started shaping him to what you see finally in the film.
Lily Gladstone was the foundation of everything, we moved everything around her. We’d just ask her questions and she’d have a certain look and we’d be like, “Okay.” But Leo, with all the people he got to speak to and never let one word go without a continual discussion of what Ernest really felt in that moment – our character of Ernest that we got to create you know. For all I know, Ernest, I don’t know, it’s terrible to speak of people who are not here and who we don’t know, but I think he loved her. He was just a weak guy.
ON: I think he had a conscience at the end.
Scorsese: He does. He’s the one that goes to jail for the longest time. Hale gets out through the Truman administration. Through the Pendergast Machine that made Truman, it’s interesting. I also read David Grann, there were Osages at Hale’s funeral.
I must tell you from the heart, we really tried, thread by thread to layer these things in. Sometimes we didn’t know what they were, but we felt it. We felt it, everybody around me, and still to make a good picture. To make something people would want to see, that they would be entertained by, and also maybe they’ll think about it later.
I was so immersed in it and the shooting of it, and then the editing. The actors go on to other movies … I live with this thing. And we edited it in my house and my wife upstairs and my dogs running around. I mean, we lived with it. I don’t give it to a person to edit and then walk away.
ON: How does that change your life? Living with it?
Scorsese: Yeah, it does, it does. Myself and my editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, we just get rather emotional about it. Especially when something started clicking in the editing room in certain ways. And, trying to wrangle the story because it’s big. There are smaller components at times, but that’s my thing, I like to go off in the margin and come back in the story.
We loved being there and the problem was for me of course, and I didn’t realize … we started shooting in the spring and we went on into summer. The summer’s hot, that was the only thing that got me.
ON: Yes, it was a hot set.
Scorsese: Adam Somner, my AD, who’s English kept telling me “It’s bloody hot, get in there, don’t come out of the trailer!” (laughs) They were trying to protect me. They got me a beautiful cowboy hat and they got me these things and … I just couldn’t, I was dying it was so hot.
ON: No, it was brutal. There were extras dropping left and right.
Scorsese: No, there were these guys in three-piece suits, and the guys with the blankets.
ON: In the wool.
Scorsese: The blankets worked out and I would want one design there and the other there. I was moving the blankets around. C’mon, give me some color for God’s sakes. (laughs)
It was funny, some of the ladies. It was a really hot day, and I was sitting on the porch, and we were doing the wedding scene, and another scene where Tantoo (Cardinal) dies and she has the vision.
At that point, one of those ladies that was walking by she goes, “Uncle Marty, now, you’re drinking that water?!” And I said, “Yes I am ma’am!” (laughs) “I’m drinking it!” and she goes, “You keep drinking that water uncle Marty!” (laughs)
ON: That ancestor scene, it caught me off guard because you know, we’ve never been portrayed on screen. Our stories have never made it like that, it’s like you recreated our lives and to see that … that was such a beautiful scene.
Scorsese: You know what I thought, I read so much about (Osages). I read Mathews (John Joseph Mathews) a lot, and some of the other books are much more academic, it’s hard to understand, you know the center of the village and the north and the south, you know what I’m saying?
ON: (laughs) Yes, I do.
Scorsese: I get to the point where the elders come and take you home. And so originally in the script, she’s dying in the bed, and we had them hovering. But then I said, “No, no, no. They take her out on the porch and then they take her away from the house.” And that was it, and then they said, “No, no, Lizzie died in the arbor.” So, I said okay, in the arbor, and suddenly it was so beautiful outdoors and when that guy is painted red, and you see the mother and father, and you hear those birds, and it was a cool day, it wasn’t that hot. It was stunning. And then, when he takes her away, and they walk away, I let it run. I was just sitting there thinking, that’s the way to go. If my mom and dad come and take me.
ON: That’s how we all want to go. That’s how I’ve been told my whole life is we’ll come for you. Even my mother says, don’t worry, I’ll come for you, you’ll be fine.
Scorsese: The crew was stunned.
ON: I want to talk to you about Lily Gladstone, because a lot of our community, with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, people, a lot of us have had trauma, growing up where we’re at, in our rural areas, on our reservations, and her wailing was so spot on …
Scorsese: Gut wrenching. I don’t know where that came from. From the depths of all the sorrows of the ages. Just ripped out of her. When he opens up the door and finds her down the stairs, and we just froze. Leo and I and the crew. The baby stops crying, if you notice.
But when she reacted that way, it’s like the wail that goes through the centuries. It’s extraordinary what she did. Leo’s face too, you see Leo react, and that was off camera. And then when it came to shoot him, he was still shaken from it. And when he looks at her, he does a beautiful thing there too. Because she looks at him and he goes (shakes his head no). He just shook his head a little bit.
ON: We all knew. You could have heard a pin drop in the theater.
Scorsese: Well, the thing there is that I designed the shot originally, it was like they were in the house and he was going to come into the house, his point of view, and she was holding the kids and it was going to go into her, and he looks and then she cries. And I’m looking outside and I’m like, “They blew up this house, she’s not going to be standing in the living room? Where is she going to be?” So, we’re all discussing this with the crew and someone says, “The tornado cellar!” And I thought yes! So, we go through the whole house and somebody opens the door and of course my cameraman is going (covers face).
ON: (laughs) How are we going to film this?
Scorsese: Oh my God. The crew was going like, “No, we can do it!” (laughs) Another guy would have said, “Can we do it tomorrow?” Because then they can light everything a certain way. But he said he could do it just as the door opens and I said “Perfect!”
And then, we started shooting and the baby was crying, and I was like whoa, this is the movie. I’m so glad you … because that was the moment.
ON: Are there any scenes you wish could have made it in?
Scorsese: Well, there was a scene where Lily and Chris Cote, who was doing the Osage language lessons. He told her a story about the Coyote and the Whirlwind, and we had a beautiful scene and she was blowing smoke into the little boy’s ear and there was the little girl and she’s telling the story. Of course, he’s the coyote and she’s the whirlwind. It gave her the idea and she came up with calling him Coyote.
But, they improvised that scene in the car. I mean, part of it was written like that but she improvised that she was going to call him Sho.Me.Caus.E (Coyote). So she calls him Sho.Me.Caus.E and she won’t tell him what it means, so he says that must be “Handsome Devil” in Osage and she starts laughing. (laughs) One take, it’s all one take and we didn’t do any cuts and they got their relationship right there. When she came up with Sho.Me.Caus.E and he says it’s “Handsome Devil” in Osage, we’re dying laughing.
ON: There is one person I wish could’ve came (to Cannes), and that’s the late Johnny Williams.
Scorsese: Oh please, I know. He was a lifesaver, really. I’m so sad, geez, I mean, he really was something. Because also he would know, and he would tell me, Marianne Bower who was our connection, and he would say someone’s arguing about this or that and he could maneuver and navigate it and say, “Well, that may not be as important for what you need.” And also, we didn’t want it to be stuffy, you know what I mean, everything has to be this way and that, we wanted everything to be lived in. So, he was a God send. He really was, a great guy.
ON: Is there anything you would like to say to the Osage people?
Scorsese: Well, I mean, I take this film as an offering to the Osage people and from our hearts. For them and to all Indigenous people. It is time to … I think Dante (Biss-Grayson), the artist, said, “It’s time for the bandages to be ripped off, it’s time for healing.” If we can, it’s time for healing now.