Optioning the rights to Grann’s manuscript Killers: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI of the Flower Moon in 2016 before publication, Leonardo DiCaprio’s team brought the project to director Martin Scorsese for a potential sixth collaboration after such triumphs as Gangs of New York, The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street. “When I read David Grann’s book, I immediately started seeing it — the people, the setting, the action — and knew I had to make it into a movie,” Scorsese says.
Killers of the Flower Moon is an epic Western crime saga, where real love crosses paths with unspeakable betrayal. It is directed by Academy Award winner Martin Scorsese from a screenplay by Eric Roth and Martin Scorsese, based on David Grann’s best-selling book.
“It was definitely a revelation,” says actor Leonardo DiCaprio of Grann’s book, noting the proximity of events to the two-day 1921 Tulsa race massacre, another horrific incident of white-on-minority violence that occurred less than 30 minutes away. (Sadly, it’s taken a century for both injustices to become widely known.) “Whereas the Tulsa massacre was an outright carpet bombing of an entire community of African Americans, this was much more Machiavellian and lasted many years. There are still repercussions of it to this day.”
But Scorsese was, at that time, deep in the editing phase of his long-gestating passion project, the spiritual epic “Silence,” plus he had the massive production of “The Irishman” already on deck. He wouldn’t be able to sit down with screenwriter Eric Roth until January 2017, when they would begin working in earnest.
The director remembers being intrigued by Grann’s title, and by the possibility, suggested by executive producer Rick Yorn (Scorsese and DiCaprio’s representative), that this could finally be his “western.” Scorsese is effusive in his love of the genre, cherished since boyhood.
“I always wanted to make a western, but I never did,” he offers. “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. 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.”
At the turn of the 20th century, oil brought a fortune to the Osage Nation, who became some of the richest people in the world overnight. The wealth of these Native Americans immediately attracted white interlopers, who manipulated, extorted, and stole as much Osage money as they could before resorting to murder. Based on a true story and told through the improbable romance of Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone).
An author and investigative journalist of wide acclaim, New Yorker staff writer David Grann illuminates forgotten histories with deep research and lucidity.
His 2009 breakthrough book, “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon,” about missing British explorer Percy Fawcett, became a bestseller, then a 2016 film by director James Gray. In his shorter pieces, Grann has chronicled the Aryan Brotherhood, felonious politician James Traficant, charming career criminal Forrest Tucker, and a legendary giant squid (along with its dogged hunter).
Grann’s 2017 masterpiece, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” is the rarest of things: 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.
After oil was discovered on Osage land in 1894, the tribe became fantastically wealthy, retaining the mineral rights and leasing its fields to developers. Hungry speculators swarmed into the territory. Exploitation ran high, not only in crime-riddled boomtowns but under the authorization of the U.S government, which implemented a crooked, baldly racist system of “guardianship” whereby Native American fortunes were managed by (white) custodians skimming millions in profits.
Worse, during the so-called Reign of Terror in the early 1920s, dozens of Osage were murdered under mysterious circumstances — including slow poisoning — so that their lucrative “headrights” (including shares of oil rights) could be inherited by interlopers marrying into families for ulterior motives. In 1923, the FBI initiated an investigation at the request of the Osage, resulting in one of the bureau’s earliest homicide cases. But the damage had already been done.
Injustice In The Heartland
“Killers of the Flower Moon,” based on a shameful episode in American history, wouldn’t fit the traditional mold. Scorsese and Roth’s adaptation of “Killers of the Flower Moon” started out with a different hero: Thomas Bruce White Sr., the heroic Texas Ranger and FBI agent who solved the Osage murder case.
“I wanted to explore it,” Scorsese recalls, “to start working with Eric and see what kind of a movie we could make. But what that meant was that, 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.”
Credit, then, is owed to Scorsese, Roth and DiCaprio for eventually realizing 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.”
Scorsese worried that the role of White would be too limiting for DiCaprio. An early informal read of the screenplay draft — the characters voiced by Roth, DiCaprio, Scorsese’s daughter, a few other handy people — clarified their instinct to make a change.
“I don’t mean to denigrate the police procedural,” the director says, “but after this reading, a week later, Leo came to me and he said, ‘Where’s the heart of this thing?’”
DiCaprio remembers their roadblock in similar terms. “It took a long time to perfect,” he says, “for Eric, Marty and me to gain the Osage perspective and not make it just an FBI story of investigation. You would read the book and realize it works beautifully, but we ran the risk of telling yet another white-savior story about an FBI agent who comes in and saves the day. It could have fallen into that really easily. David Grann was always very forthright in saying, ‘Look, if you’re going to do a movie about this, it’s important to understand the Osage role in all of this.’”
The work took years, all the principles juggling other commitments in tandem: DiCaprio shifted to Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Roth plunged into the streamlining of Denis Villeneuve’s epic two-part “Dune,” and Scorsese wrangled the logistics of “The Irishman.”
But a solution eventually presented itself. It came directly from the court transcripts and Grann’s 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, who’s 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, the 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 whodunnit.”
For Scorsese, situating the drama as a story of personal betrayal was a 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.”
Scorsese found clues in the court transcripts. “You have a transcript of Ernest being deposed,” says the director, “and he gives his name, says he has no job, says — I’m paraphrasing — ‘I stay in the pool room.’ Now I grew up with people who stayed in the pool room. Take a young guy who likes to dress up. Every now and then, he robs people, fools around with other women. I think we can build on that character – a weak character. He can’t confront or he won’t confront his uncle, those around him.”
Script-wise, the floodgates had opened. Scorsese realized they had the hard part licked. “I knew we’d get something,” he says. “We’re on track now, I feel it, because the heart is there: Ernest and Mollie. Who Ernest is, we’ll create. We’ll find out based on what people tell us, people who knew him.”
Finding Killers: Principal Casting
Challenged and motivated by the role of Ernest Burkhart, DiCaprio committed himself to finding a footing for the character. “He assimilated himself into the Osage culture and became very much a chameleon,” the actor says of Burkhart. “We had a lot of meetings with members of the Osage community and they were incredibly helpful. We had some great advisers — that was a deep dive.”
Whenever possible, DiCaprio sought firsthand perspectives, sometimes from actual descendants and relatives of his character. Even so, he found himself approaching one of the most complex and conflicted acting jobs of his career. Burkhart arrives in Oklahoma wounded from the war, unable to perform heavy labor, and something of a dupe, naively dangled as bait by his uncle to the single Mollie. After he becomes complicit in the conspiracy, he still feels his love is genuine.
Quickly, both DiCaprio and Scorsese found themselves resonating with Native American actress Lily Gladstone, who was, at the time, coming off her quietly captivating breakout performance as Jamie, a lonely rancher in Kelly Reichardt’s Montana-set “Certain Women.”
Years before we actually shot it, my initial worry was that Mollie was going to be a tertiary character,” the actress recalls. “And that kind of broke my heart because you can’t tell this story without going into who the Osage people were, how they were so exploited. But both Marty and Leo weren’t interested in telling that story. Bless Leo for wanting to play — as he’s so gifted at doing — the duality in one character. And Marty’s so interested in that. That’s what happens when you grow up Catholic, trust me. The entire notion of good and evil resting inside of you. It’s drilled in pretty early.”
The actress identifies Catholicism as a key to her understanding of Mollie, who was reportedly devout. It was also a much-discussed subject during her early conversations with Scorsese. Intriguingly, Gladstone says her first contact with the filmmaker’s work was 1997’s “Kundun.” “There are a lot of parallels you can draw between American Indians and disenfranchised, displaced Tibetans,” she says.
DiCaprio remembers Gladstone as being drawn to Mollie’s inner conflicts, particularly the character’s sense of self-destruction, even when she’s flirting with Ernest. “She brought so much depth and awareness to Mollie that wasn’t there before,” he says. “She’s skeptical of Ernest, and she brings up the idea of the coyote, the trickster. Her calling me out and saying ‘Coyote wants money’ — she was such an incredibly open and courageous partner. Even though she’s not Osage, Lily immersed herself in that culture. We really looked to her as a beacon in the storytelling as well. She was definitely a muse to the both of us, Marty and myself, in making this movie.”
Speaking of muses and longtime collaborators, “Killers of the Flower Moon” marks Scorsese’s tenth feature with Robert De Niro, here cast as Ernest’s cattle-farming uncle, William “King” Hale, the chief architect of the Reign of Terror. Though ultimately convicted of murder, Hale is a mass of contradictions: an extortionist and intimidator but also someone who truly believes himself to be a friend to the Osage, the “most beautiful people in the world,” he calls them.
For DiCaprio, reuniting with De Niro thirty years after “This Boy’s Life,” the circumstances are humbling. “The first film I got to do, which started my career, was because of De Niro. He chose me for that role and, ironically, it was an abusive stepfather, not unlike Hale. Here I was, getting to work with Bob again, and “Killers” was almost an evolution of the same dynamic, weirdly. We must have had ten meetings about how that relationship ends. We kept stripping it away to the truth of who these people were.”
While the role of FBI agent Tom White had changed, the part still gave Oscar nominee Jesse Plemons a chance to shine. White is content to listen and take notes while his prey snares itself in a trap of its own devising.
Plemons explains, “The challenge was to accept: Okay, I have this ridiculously upstanding symbol of morality and justice that I’m playing, and I’m trying to also make him human.” He says his scenes with De Niro were their own form of nourishment. “It was so much fun working with someone like him. There were subtle changes each time, and that’s how I like to work. There’s a lot that’s happening beneath the surface that’s not being said.”
Listening To The Land: Osage Participation And Blessing
Cultural collision has been a theme running through Scorsese’s remarkable body of work, and it lies at the core of “Killers of the Flower Moon.” With its screenplay still in development, preliminary plans for production took shape as several crucial decisions were made.
Scorsese and his team traveled to the Osage reservation in the spring of 2019 to scout locations and to meet directly with the Osage community as a first step in the making of the film. A conversation was arranged between Scorsese and Geoffrey Standing Bear, the Osage Nation’s Principal Chief. A deep connection was made.
“It was a great two-and-a-half hours,” says Chief Standing Bear. “I told him my concerns. I didn’t want the Osage shown as just a bunch of bodies lying around. We were hoping the history and culture would be accurately represented in his movie. Mr. Scorsese was so respectful in the way he and his people came to us. And he pointed out some of the movies he had made, in particular ‘Silence,’ in which the cultures of Christian missionaries and 17th-century Japan were presented in a serious and respectful manner, and that was so encouraging.”
After the meeting, the Gray Horse Osage community hosted a dinner for Scorsese and his filmmaking team, a significant occasion at which over a hundred tribal members attended, many speaking about family members murdered during the Reign of Terror. As Osage Nation Congress member Brandy Lemon (later, the liaison between the Osage community and the film) recalls, “Mr. Scorsese went around and shook the hand of every single Osage who had attended.”
Director, Screenwriter, Producer
Martin Scorsese is an Academy Award-winning director and one of the most influential filmmakers working today. He has directed critically acclaimed, award-winning films including Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Shutter Island, Hugo and Silence. His 2006 film The Departed won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Scorsese an Oscar for Best Director. He also directed The Wolf of Wall Street and The Irishman, both of which received Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Picture. His latest feature, Killers of the Flower Moon, will make its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It will be released exclusively in theaters worldwide October 2023 before streaming globally on Apple TV+.
Scorsese has directed numerous documentaries, including the Peabody Award-winning No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, Elia Kazan: A Letter to Elia, Italianamerican, The Last Waltz, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies, Il Mio Viaggio in Italia, Public Speaking, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, and the Emmy-nominated docuseries Pretend It’s a City, featuring Fran Lebowitz. Scorsese received Emmy Awards for Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming and Outstanding Nonfiction Special for his documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World. Additionally, Scorsese co-directed The 50 Year Argument in 2014 with his longtime documentary editor David Tedeschi, and executive produced the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, winning an Emmy and DGA Award for directing the pilot episode. Scorsese and Tedeschi premiered their latest documentary, Personality Crisis: One Night Only, at the 2022 New York Film Festival. About David Johansen, the lead singer and songwriter of punk’s legendary New York Dolls, the documentary premiered on Showtime in April 2023.
Scorsese is the founder and chair of the Film Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and protection of motion-picture history. The Film Foundation recently launched the Restoration Screening Room, a new virtual theater showcasing a broad array of restored classic and independent films, documentaries and silents from around the world.
Eric Roth has been nominated five times for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, for the films Forrest Gump, The Insider, Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and A Star Is Born. He won for Forrest Gump.
Among Roth’s many credits are The Onion Field, Wolfen, The Postman, The Horse Whisperer, Ali, The Good Shepherd, Lucky You, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Ellis and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.
His television credits include The Heights, Jane’s House, House of Cards, Berlin Station, The Alienist and The Alienist: Angel of Darkness.
In 2020, he produced David Fincher’s Mank.