Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ opens across U.S.
Powerful Osage drama already generating Oscar buzz, praise for authenticity
Spellbinding, heartbreaking and exhaustingly researched, director Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating epic look into the mass murders of the Osage over oil rights in the 1920s opened Oct. 20 in wide release across the United States.
Even getting the story to the big screen was not without drama — requiring a rewrite of the entire script, a change in the lead role from hero to villain for one of the movie’s biggest stars, recreation of a 100-year-old town, the hiring of dozens of Osage extras, a pandemic shut down, and finally a premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in France to rave reviews and a nine-minute standing ovation.
Is it worth the hype? The 3.5 hour, $200 million answer is yes.
This is a director at the top of his game who humbly realized the story he originally meant to tell — about the white savior FBI coming into town to find the killers and clean up the murders — wasn’t the story he wanted to tell.
“After a certain point, I realized I was making a movie about all the white guys,” Scorsese said in an interview with Deadline. “Meaning I was taking the approach from the outside in, which concerned me.”
By then, Scorsese had already signed on for the film, an adaptation of David Grann’s national bestseller about the Osage Reign of Terror, and had brought in actor Leonardo DiCaprio, with whom he had worked in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Shutter Island” and “The Departed.”
DiCaprio was originally set to play an FBI agent, but just before filming began in Spring 2021, Scorsese decided to change the focus of the film away from the detectives and on to the true story of an interracial couple, Mollie and Ernest Burkhardt.
DiCaprio instead played Ernest, who is brought to Osage territory by his scheming rancher uncle, William Hale, played pitch-perfect by Robert DeNiro. Ernest marries Osage member Mollie, played by Lily Gladstone, to get her oil head rights, but falls in love and has several children with her.
That complicates his murderous intent, and keeps her in denial for years, even though during their courtship she slyly tells her sister, “Coyote wants money.”
It’s only during his trial for his involvement with other murders that she realizes the devastating truth. Coyote wanted money enough to kill her and her community for it.
One of the remarkable things about the film is in the details of the sets, costuming, language and ceremonies.
For that, Marianne Bower, producer, researcher, and lead historian for director Scorsese’s Sikelia Productions, stepped in. Bower and the production team traveled to Pawhuska, Oklahoma, where the film was shot, to meet with the Osage Nation.
“Going into it, we knew we would have to have people working with us who were of that culture,” Bower told ICT. “I start my work once a draft of a script is in pretty good space. Marty and the writer Eric Roth got a sense of the kind of the information that they were still looking for, and a lot of it was just related to Osage life, Osage customs and so on.”
Bower went to Oklahoma for the first time, collecting as much research in the area as she could from museums, archives, libraries, and the Oklahoma History Center and Cowboy Museum. She needed textiles and room designs and clothing that would have been worn at various events and ceremonies by the characters.
“The other aspect of that trip also was to meet with consultants on Osage life, which includes language, costumes, and dwelling structure,” Bower said. “One of the first things Marty said was ‘We need to show how people move, how people behave. We need to include Osage people so that we know if people are behaving and saying things that would be appropriate for an Osage person.’”
John Williams, a senior advisor for Osage Chief Standing Bear, played an important role as a cultural consultant for the film, she said.
“I could just sit with him and chat over aspects of the script or scenes and he could help explain to me the customs, what meaning was behind them, certain funeral aspects or the baby-naming ceremonies, so that I really could understand those things,” she said.
Bower says the pandemic shutdown, which delayed filming at one point, helped her timewise, as she spent it collecting material and meeting people as the script kept developing. Through the National Archives and the Tribal Council meeting notes, she got actual transcripts of what happened in meetings and trials.
“That is just such rich material,” she said, of the transcripts, “for the actors as well as Marty and the writers, because you’re hearing people speak in their own voices, which can be very rare for something that takes place 100 years ago.”
Unusual visuals such as Mollie wearing a red-and-gold British military coat at her wedding were authentic, as Bower found out the tribe had gotten the coats through early trade and liked them so much they incorporated them into ceremonies.
Bower and Scorsese were invited to a formal meal with the Osage, who showed up in traditional tribal clothing and served a traditional meal.
“They got up and spoke and expressed their concern, told some stories of their own relatives as it relates to the story,” she said. “But at the end of the evening, after we had shared a meal and heard from them, they got up and they started giving us gifts. It was just very moving.”
Chad Renfro, an Osage architect/designer who works with the tribe, was asked to be the chief designated media ambassador for the film.
“I was trying to work with Hollywood when I heard about the film being made and invited Imperative Entertainment here,” Renfro told ICT. “A deal was made, and I was named ambassador. I began working with the producers as a consultant on our language and our culture. A lot of the work that I did was behind the scenes, just keeping everybody connected to the community as much as we could and making sure that if there were any questions or anything that anybody needed, I was there to make that happen.”
He said the filmmakers listened and learned.
“They raised the bar really high for that film going forward,” Renfro said. “I don’t think it will be the historical case, where they took one consultant or two consultants and went off somewhere else to film. We had a very large part. We were given a lot of room to make sure that we were there to see that happen.”
The film has already drawn rave reviews and is generating Oscar buzz as a possible contender for a Best Picture Oscar.
Actress Gladstone, Blackfeet, is getting international recognition as a rising star who could get an Oscar nomination. DiCaprio and DeNiro, too, put in stellar performances, as does Tantoo Cardinal, Cree-Métis, who plays Lizzie Q, the matriarch of Mollie’s family.