Finding inspiration: Martin Scorsese fulfills cinematic goal with 'Killers of the Flower Moon'

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Jan. 20—Over the course of his storied career as a director, Martin Scorsese always wanted to make a western.

But he never did.

Until he came across David Grann's 2017 masterpiece, "Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI."

It was a distinctly American story of crime and racism that speaks both to a nation's past and to its future.

Set mainly in the 1920s during the twilight of the Old West, it's a chronicle of land-grabbing and the dawn of a justice force with its own inherent problems.

"I loved many of the westerns I saw when I was growing up and I still do love them — that includes the Roy Rogers films, which were basically made for children, and the more complex films that came in the late '40s and '50s," Scorsese says. "I responded to the pictures built around the traditional myths of the western, the myths of the culture, more than the psychological westerns. But the point of knowing film history is never to perpetuate or repeat, but to be inspired and evolve. Those films nourished me as a filmmaker, but they also inspired me to go deeper into the real history."

Scorsese's "Killers of the Flower Moon" was released in October and is available to stream on Apple TV.

"Killers of the Flower Moon" is an epic western crime saga, where real love crosses paths with unspeakable betrayal. Based on a true story and told through the improbable romance of Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), "Killers of the Flower Moon" tracks the suspicious murders of members of the Osage Nation, who became some of the richest people in the world overnight after oil was discovered underneath their land.

Based on a shameful episode in American history, the film, wouldn't fit the traditional mold, though it took some time for Scorsese and Eric Roth to find the right lens through which to tell such an important story.

They initially thought the film might unfold through the eyes of Thomas Bruce White Sr., the heroic Texas Ranger and FBI agent who solved the Osage murder case.

"I wanted to explore it, to start working with Eric and see what kind of a movie we could make," Scorsese recalls. "From 2017 to 2020, while we were shooting 'The Irishman,' we went through every aspect of that story from the point of view of the FBI and Tom White's character, including some aspects of the history of the Texas Rangers. It all hinged on Tom White. We came at the story from every possible angle, with Tom White as the main character."

But Scorsese, Roth and Leonardo DiCaprio ultimately realized that a pivot was needed.

"Why are we making a film about Tom White that's really about the Osage?" the director remembers wondering. "In effect, what you have is: He gets off a train, we see his boots, we tilt up, there he is in his Stetson hat. Walks into town and he doesn't say a word. And we've seen that before. I don't mean to denigrate the police procedural but after a reading, a week later, Leo came to me and he said, 'Where's the heart of this thing?' "

Eventually, a solution presented itself, and it came directly from the court transcripts that Grann cited in his retelling of the Osage murder trial itself, dramatically shaped by Roth.

On the stand was Ernest Burkhart, a shifty World War I veteran who found work in the oil fields of Fairfax, Oklahoma.

Burkhart was testifying to his participation in a criminal conspiracy devised by his uncle: a plot that had him marrying into a wealthy Osage family, becoming complicit in murdering off his wife's sisters, brother-in-law, cousin and even her mother, all with the goal of inheriting her headrights. Mollie, his wife, was next.

"That was the emotional moment for us," DiCaprio recalls, "so complex, so dark, so fascinating from a character perspective, how these two people stayed together even after this trial. Eventually, they separated. But what Marty does so well is bring a humanity to conflicted, not-so-savory characters. That's what needed to be the focus of the movie, not an outsider's investigation into whodunit."

For Scorsese, situating the drama as a story of personal betrayal was the doorway he needed to walk through to make "Killers of the Flower Moon" his own.

"Ernest and Mollie were the key," he says. "It's all based on trust and love, and we see that being compromised and betrayed. And what's the motivating factor? Always wanting more: more land, more money. I'm drawn to this subject for whatever reason. It may go back to the roots of my culture, where I come from."