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Killers of the Flower Moon writer on Martin Scorsese’s adaptation: ‘Faithful to the book? It’s faithful to the history’

Journalist and author David Grann speaks to Charlotte O’Sullivan about Scorsese’s adaptation of his non-fiction book ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’, the film’s ‘great rewrite’ to focus less on ‘the white guys’, and ‘The Wager’ – the second of his books that Scorsese will be turning into a film

Thursday 19 October 2023 06:30 BST
‘I want ‘em all to get Oscars’: Lily Gladstone and Martin Scorsese on the set of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’
‘I want ‘em all to get Oscars’: Lily Gladstone and Martin Scorsese on the set of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ (Apple Studios)

Come at me!” says David Grann, American writer of the 2017 non-fiction bestseller, Killers of the Flower Moon. Grann is Zooming in from London while on the road and sitting in what looks like a shack. He’s not at all grand, and happy to address the issue of the “great rewrite”.

Essentially, while adapting Grann’s book for the big screen, Martin Scorsese realised he was making a movie “about all the white guys”. So he changed tack. Instead of lionising the FBI agents solving the killings of an Indigenous community in 1920s Oklahoma, Scorsese’s acclaimed film concentrates on the Osage Nation themselves. In particular, the vivacious but doomed family of Mollie Burkhart, played with devastating intelligence by an Oscar-tipped Lily Gladstone.

It would be an understatement to say Grann welcomed the change of plan. “To me, Mollie Burkhart was always the heart and soul of the book,” he says. The big-whigs at Apple – the studio behind the film – rang Grann with the news. He adopts a laconic drawl: “They said, ‘Now we’re thinking about doing it this way.’ And I was like…” He mimics himself hyperventilating with joy. “‘Yes, oh yes! Definitely do that!’”

Grann says, more than once, that he’s never seen “the first script”. The 56-year-old has been a staff writer for The New Yorker for two decades; used to swerving the litigious, he’s keen not to misspeak or be misquoted. But you can hear the passion in his voice when he says, “I certainly hope the first script isn’t conflated with my book”. He’s aware that, in some quarters, that’s already happened (“To be honest, I feel a lot of people don’t remember what’s in the book!”)

Just to be clear, Grann is not a fan of white saviour tropes: Scorsese’s “new” angle is the very angle taken by Grann, back in 2017. The New York-based author dealt with the FBI’s investigation in the second part of his book. “From what I’ve read, the first script was just doing the second part of the book and that would have misrepresented the book… The rewrite has made the movie much more faithful to the book.” Grann tuts, annoyed with himself. “I mean, faithful to the book doesn’t really matter. The movie’s faithful to the history.”

For those not familiar with that history, the discovery of oil, on “rocky, sterile” land owned by the Osage nation, unleashed a spate of horrific crimes perpetrated by racist whites against the suddenly wealthy Native Americans. Mollie loses her mother, Lizzie, and three sisters, Minnie, Anna and Rita, in suspicious circumstances. Grief-stricken and traumatised, Molly clings to her white husband, Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio), with whom she has three children. Eventually, an FBI investigation suggests the person orchestrating the murders could be Ernest’s uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro). Mollie refuses to believe Ernest would collude in a plan to destroy her entire family. Get ready to shudder: her trust is misplaced.

Grann hasn’t met De Niro (“he wasn’t on set when I visited”). But he spent time with Gladstone and DiCaprio and was impressed by their determination to understand these characters. The plan had been for DiCaprio to play Tom White, the man leading the FBI investigation.

I think it’s really important to have a title that’s rooted in Osage tradition. I’m glad they didn’t go for some pulpy crime thing, something really cheesy like, I don’t know, ‘Blood on the Prairie’

“DiCaprio called me and said, ‘I’m thinking of playing Burkhart instead of White’,” Grann recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh, if I were you, I would!’ Because Ernest Burkhart is one of the more complicated but critical figures. He wasn’t a sociopath. All the letters and interviews I did clearly indicate he had genuine feelings for Mollie. And yet, as you see in the film, he increasingly becomes complicit in these murders. As was often said, with regard to Nazi Germany, crimes on this kind of scale require ‘willing executioners’. What Ernest did – it was so deeply, sickly, intimate. It was the ultimate betrayal… there were no boundaries that weren’t crossed. That’s what DiCaprio gets, the contradictions in people. It’s some of the best acting I’ve seen him, or anybody, do.”

Grann adds, “And there couldn’t be a better representation of who Mollie Burkhart was than Lily. She reminds me of a silent movie actress. She lets these expressions just move across her face. To me, acting is like this foreign, weird mystery, I just don’t know how they do it. De Niro is extraordinary, too, so effective at capturing that perverse psychology that Hale really did have.”

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If the three actors get nominated for Oscars, who would he most like to win? Grann lets out a roar. “I want ’em all to get Oscars. I think they’re all worthy. And I don’t say that as someone who wrote the book, I’m being honest with you”. He has another little chuckle. “I can’t choose between them, but I would say that Lily Gladstone hasn’t been in as many movies as De Niro and DiCaprio and I think everyone will know her name after this film.”

Grann is delighted that Scorsese kept the book’s title, which is taken from a line in a 2009 poem written by Osage member, Elise Paschen (a poem told from Mollie Burkhart’s point of view). “I was really glad about that. The poem’s so beautiful and I think it’s really important to have a title that’s rooted in Osage tradition. I’m glad they didn’t go for some pulpy crime thing, something really cheesy like, I don’t know, ‘Blood on the Prairie’.”

Adapter and adaptee: Martin Scorsese and David Grann at the Cannes Film Festival in May (Shutterstock)

The biggest difference between the movie and the book, says Grann, is that the movie, because it hones in on Mollie and Ernest, can only hint at the wider conspiracy at work in the state. Grann explains the third part of his book was about a “culture of killing”, which went way beyond Hale, a “much deeper, darker conspiracy”, that the FBI’s young chief, J Edgar Hoover, chose to ignore. Grann says, “The movie does a pretty good job of suggesting what was going on… But films, by their nature, have a tighter narrative lens.”

Nor is the film able to show how this grim history reverberates into the present. Grann spent a lot of time with Mollie’s granddaughter, Margie. “She showed me a photo of her dad and her aunt, standing next to a man. You can’t see the man’s head and I had to ask, ‘Was this Ernest?’ And Margie said, ‘Yeah, my father ripped off his head.’ That photo told me everything. Here was a boy with an innocent photo of himself with his dad. At a certain point, he realised who his dad was and had to remove that face, so he wouldn’t have to look at his father... Another time, Margie took me to the graveyard and showed me all her relatives who’d been murdered and said, ‘I had to grow up without cousins’”. Grann’s head has dropped. He’s choked up.

Killers of the Flower Moon is pretty long as it is (almost three and a half hours). If Scorsese had covered everything, the weak-bladdered would be totally screwed. Grann says, with total conviction, “Scorsese did a masterful job. I could not be happier with the way this all worked out.”

Trust is at the heart of the film. And Grann, in case you can’t tell, trusts Scorsese. When the 80-year-old director and DiCaprio asked if they could option the rights to Grann’s newest non-fiction thriller, The Wager, Grann didn’t hesitate. “When they expressed interest – and their people expressed interest – it was the easiest decision I’ve ever made.”

‘It’s some of the best acting I’ve seen him or anybody, do’: Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ (Apple Studios)

The Wager is set in the 18th century and concerns a disastrous sailing expedition in which a group of British men mutiny against their captain. He is an inflexible fellow named Cheap, famous for shooting one of his men in cold blood. When various groups from the mission make it back to England, including Cheap and a few of his loyal supporters, Britain’s elite does everything it can to cover up the scandal.

Grann thinks DiCaprio would make an incredible Captain Cheap. Leaping up in his seat, Grann all but hollers, “I don’t know anything about the script yet! This is just from me! I don’t know if DiCaprio has someone in mind. He could play anybody. He would be a great Bulkeley [the resourceful, eloquent Royal Navy gunner who became the sailors’ de facto leader]... but he would be an unbelievable Cheap!”

And what is it about Scorsese that’s so special? Grann has a habit of rubbing his head when in serious mode. He’s rubbing it now. “The actors who play the members of the Osage Tribal Council [in Killers of the Flower Moon] are real Osage men. I’m talking about Everett Waller and Yancey Red Corn. I’m not 100 per cent sure of this, but I’ve been told that when they were auditioning for their parts, they improvised their speeches. They basically channelled what they’d heard from their relatives and just unleashed their sense of betrayal and anger towards the white authorities. Scorsese thought it was so powerful that he said, ‘Let’s put that in the film.’ That’s what makes Scorsese such a great filmmaker. He listens.”

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is in cinemas from 20 October

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