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Letter From Cannes: Martin Scorsese Talks ‘Flower Moon’ Changes, Reception – ‘I Hope It Makes a Difference’

It’s finally stopped raining in Cannes and master filmmaker Martin Scorsese is sitting, smiling, on a divan at the Gray d’Albion hotel, where he and his cast from “Killers of the Flower Moon” are enjoying a brief celebratory breath after the film’s emotional reception on Saturday night.

There’s a line of journalists who all want to know everything. How. When. Why. And how the movie made all of us feel.

The man is 80 years old and still in the prime of his powers, as is evident both from the grin on his face and the avalanche of positive reviews for the three-and-a-half-hour film. (Eighty could be the new 60; Harrison Ford – also 80 – showed up earlier in the festival with the energy of a man half his age. By the way, Robert De Niro – the villain of the piece – is 79. Scorsese’s editor Thelma Schoonmaker – also present at this party – is 83. Just sayin’.)

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Scorsese, always talkative, wants to talk – and there’s so much to say. The story of “Flower Moon” is a forgotten chapter in American history, another tragedy in the long string of tragedies to befall indigenous people in this country. By the 1920s, the Osage of Oklahoma were exceedingly wealthy due to their ownership of oil-rich land. But they began to be murdered mysteriously in what became known as a “Reign of Terror” from 1921 to 1926. (Really, was it so mysterious?) In a racist system where Native Americans had no power to enforce the law, there was no hope for solving or stopping these crimes aimed at stealing their land and the oil wealth that lay beneath them. Finally, the federal government stepped in to investigate via agents sent by J. Edgar Hoover, and eventually, arrests and prosecutions took place.

But not before some 60 wealthy, full-blood Osage Native Americans were killed.

Initially, the script focused on the FBI solving the crimes. During COVID, Scorsese turned the script around to focus on the Osage instead.

“The original script had more of the white guys – I mean the FBI guys – in it,” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Aren’t we making a film about the Osage?’ The thing about it is the Texas Rangers are incredible, I had those stories all worked out. But I’ve seen this.”

“Otherwise it would just be a group of predators coming down on a block of people you don’t know anything about. (I said) ‘Why don’t we go with the people?’’”

What made him make the change in focus, I asked. “We exhausted the script-writing process,” he said, referring to his work with screenwriter Eric Roth. “Leo (DiCaprio) looked at me and said, ‘Where’s the emotion? Where’s the heart? I said, ‘It’s with the Osage, so let’s do that.’ Then he said, ‘What if I play the other guy?’”

And that’s how DiCaprio came to play the venal, weak Ernest Burkhart, husband of wealthy Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone). And not the heroic FBI agent that was eventually played by Jesse Plemons.

Earlier in the day, an Osage leader had sent out a tweet thanking Scorsese for making a film that put the Osage at the center of this story, and for restoring their history.

I asked the director about that.

“I’m beyond honored,” he said. “I wish my parents were around to experience this – they were with me for most of my career. I hope it makes a difference. I hope this goes out there to make people think about the systematic idea of, basically, genocide. That’s really what it is. Why such a thing happens. The superiority of people over others. The superiority of one culture over another.”

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Lurking nearby are several of the Native American actors who play key members of the Osage Nation. William Belleau, a Canadian from a tribe near Vancouver who only has 1,000 members left in his clan; he plays Henry Roan, one of the wealthy Osage murdered in the 1920s. Also, Tatanka Means, with long braids down his back, who plays FBI agent John Wren in the film. He’s Navajo, from New Mexico, he said.

A little further back was DiCaprio, chatting about the intensity of the Oklahoma shoot in 2021 and the impact the film may have in restoring this forgotten history. Gladstone, his co-star, stood nearby, fielding glowing comments about her performance.

Scorsese surveyed the scene with something like pride.

“We had meetings and dinners with the Osage, it begins with a speech and a prayer,” he said. “It was extremely moving… They have a value that is beautiful. It’s like the Tibetans. People were concerned at the time (of ‘Kundun’ in 1997) – ‘You’re just interested in Kundun and the Dalai Lama because you’re chasing absurd ideas of Shangri La.’ No. I thought if you’re going to change a government – do you have to destroy the spirituality of another culture that you may learn from?”

He paused. “We have to open up and embrace.”

“Killers of the Flower Moon” will be released exclusively in select theaters on Oct. 6 and wide on Oct. 20 before streaming globally on Apple TV+.

Check out TheWrap’s Cannes magazine here and all of our Cannes 2023 coverage here.