February 23, 2024

The “Killers of the Flower Moon” that is gearing up to open in theaters nationwide is far different from the “Killers of the Flower Moon” that director Martin Scorsese first attempted to bring to the big screen. Originally, Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth planned to more faithfully adapt David Grann’s 2017 book of the same name and wrote a script from the perspective of the FBI agents who investigated a string of murders among the Osage Nation in the 1920s. Scorsese recently told BFI’s Sight & Sound magazine that this first script “was going to take four-and-a-half hours just to read it.”

“Our script was over two hundred pages,” he also confirmed to The New Yorker about the original “Flower Moon” screenplay. “One night we had a big reading: myself and Leo [Dicpario] and Eric [Roth] and my daughter, a number of people. The first two hours, we were moving along. The second two hours, boy, is this getting a little long in the tooth, as they say. It was just getting to be—we really ran out of energy in the story, and I wanted to tell more and more of the story, and I wanted to do more digressions, to go off in tangents, so to speak, what seem like tangents, but are not.”

For Scorsese, his first attempt at writing “Flower Moon” faltered because it was a standard procedural where FBI agents are trying to solve a murder. It didn’t work because the answer was fairly obvious.

“These guys come in from Washington, and the moment they get off that train, the moment they enter that town, you look around and you see Bob De Niro, you see so-and-so—’I know who did it,’” Scorsese told The New Yorker. “The audience is way ahead of us. I said, ‘It’s, like, we’re going to watch two and a half hours of these guys trying to find things.’ That’s a police procedural. In the book, it works; in the book, it works. But a police procedural, for me, I’ll watch it, but I can’t do it. I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to do the plot. I don’t know where to put the pen. And so I said, ‘What the hell are we going to do here?’ So we tried and tried and tried.

In this first stab at “Flower Moon,” Leonardo DiCaprio was to play the lead FBI agent Tom White. Scorsese said in a recent interview with The Irish Times that it was DiCaprio who approached him after two years of trying to crack the procedural approach with a request to change the script’s POV.

“Myself and Eric Roth talked about telling the story from the point of view of the bureau agents coming in to investigate,” Scorsese said. “After two years of working on the script, Leo came to me and asked, ‘Where is the heart of this story?’ I had had meetings and dinners with the Osage, and I thought, ‘Well, there’s the story.’ The real story, we felt, was not necessarily coming from the outside, with the bureau, but rather from the inside, from Oklahoma.”

Scorsese and Roth went to work overhauling script so that the film now was centered from inside the Osage community and not from the white guys coming in from the outside. DiCaprio would play Ernest Burkhart, a World War I veteran who is pulled into his uncle’s greedy plot to rob the Osage Nation of its wealth. Ernest’s loyalty is tested after he marries an Osage woman named Mollie (Lily Gladstone). With DiCaprio playing the new lead role, Jesse Plemons stepped in to play Tom White, now a supporting role.

“‘Rewrite’ is the wrong word,” Scorsese told The New Yorker about what went down. “We had fun with that because we were always finding new things, because somebody would go by and say something, or [the producer] Marianne Bower would find out a great deal. She was our connection with all the people. She’d work with the different departments, different Osage technical advisers for different departments, and, well, ‘So-and-so said this and so-and-so said that.’ ‘That’s interesting. What is that?’ ‘Well, you know what they normally do: the youngest member of the family walks over the coffin of the eldest who died.’ Well, that’s got to be, it’s got to be. We have to do it.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” opens in theaters Oct. 20 from Apple and Paramount.

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