Martin Scorsese explains his “Killers of the Flower Moon ”cameo

Martin Scorsese explains his “Killers of the Flower Moon ”cameo

The director says he “didn’t know” how to direct an actor in that final radio scene. So, he chose to play the part himself.

Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon is a sprawling epic, packed with betrayal, greed, and shockingly true events. But one of the film’s most powerful moments comes at the very end of its three-and-a-half-hour runtime.

Adapted from David Grann’s book, the film chronicles the Osage Reign of Terror in 1920s Oklahoma, when a group of white settlers targeted and systematically murdered wealthy Osage people in an attempt to steal their valuable oil headrights. Scorsese weaves a tale that’s part crime epic, part haunting marital drama, following Osage woman Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and white man Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) as they fall in love and marry, only for Ernest to betray her as he conspires with his powerful uncle William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro).

The film itself is an unflinching look at American greed and violence, but in its final moments, the tone shifts. (Mild spoilers ahead.) After Hale and Burkhart are arrested, Killers of the Flower Moon jumps forward in time, and we see a group of all-white actors recording a radio play, a dramatized retelling of the Osage murders. Accompanied by jaunty sound effects and a gleeful crowd, the actors reframe the murders as a joyous triumph for the FBI, a Lucky Strike-sponsored adventure about white heroes riding to the rescue. It’s a simplified and sanitized retelling that bears absolutely no resemblance to the gutting drama audiences just watched.

Paramount Pictures Lily Gladstone and Martin Scorsese on the set of 'Killers of the Flower Moon'
Paramount Pictures Lily Gladstone and Martin Scorsese on the set of 'Killers of the Flower Moon'

On stage, the actors explain what happened to Ernest and Hale after their arrests — and then, the tone changes again. Scorsese himself steps out for a cameo, breaking the fourth wall to recount what happened to Mollie Burkhart. In a somber but clear voice, he recounts how Mollie divorced Ernest after the arrest, and she died only a few years later, succumbing to diabetes in 1937. Her obituary made no mention of the murders.

Speaking to EW, Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth explain that the final scene evolved over time, but they wanted Killers of the Flower Moon to end on a nontraditional note. During the years-long writing process, they found themselves grappling with how past adaptations had depicted the murders — repackaging pain and trauma as popcorn amusement.

“One of the things we were discussing was the fact that for God’s sake, after everything, it becomes entertainment,” Scorsese explains. “And you can say, well, this film becomes entertainment too, in which case then we have to take the responsibility. We hope that it’s entertainment with some depth and enrichment that maybe can approach some kind of truth.”

Originally, Scorsese and Roth imagined an entirely different ending for Killers of the Flower Moon, closing not with a radio play but a Hollywood film shoot. In 1959, Jimmy Stewart starred in Mervyn LeRoy’s film The FBI Story, which chronicles some of the FBI’s most notorious cases. That film is essentially patriotic propaganda, with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover appearing as himself. (Scorsese notes that the real Tom White, the FBI agent played by Jesse Plemons, also appears in a small walk-on role.) The Oklahoma murders are briefly mentioned, but The FBI Story doesn’t dwell on them — and it pays little attention to the actual Osage victims.

<p>Everett</p> Jimmy Stewart and Murray Hamilton in 'The FBI Story'


Jimmy Stewart and Murray Hamilton in 'The FBI Story'

“It’s a series of the greatest hits of the FBI,” Scorsese explains. “It’s in beautiful Technicolor and actually has some very well-done scenes, but there is a section on the Osage murders that is reviled by the Native American community. It’s a travesty.”

In their initial drafts, Roth and Scorsese considered ending Killers of the Flower Moon with the filming of a movie like The FBI Story. But as their script shifted to focus more on Mollie and Ernest and less on the FBI, they pivoted to the radio drama instead.

“I remember that I used to listen to radio when I was a kid because it was before TV,” Scorsese says. “You’d hear Gang Busters and Inner Sanctum. There were some of those shows that were sponsored by the FBI, in effect. So when we found that, I said, ‘Okay, if we can’t have a movie, what if we do it as a radio show?’”

“We didn’t want to just do chyrons, like, ‘So-and-so lived for 20 more years,’” Roth adds. “So, this was a real godsend.”

Roth wrote the film’s final tribute to Mollie Burkhart, assuming that Scorsese would find an actor to read those last lines. Instead, the director himself volunteered to read it, breaking the fourth wall and lending the entire film a reflective, self-aware quality. Scorsese is no stranger to making cameos in his own films, but he says his Flower Moon appearance was mostly born out of necessity.

“I didn’t know how to direct it,” Scorsese admits of those final lines. “I couldn’t ask an actor to do it, so I said, ‘Let me try. It’s one shot, and if it doesn’t work, I think I know what I could tell an actor to do.’”

“I didn’t know Marty had done it,” Roth adds. “I was watching the movie, and I said, ‘What the hell?’ But I was so moved by it. There’s an iconography to it, and it’s Marty recognizing that we’re telling a story, and this is our burden of the story. I almost started crying because I was just so moved by it. I thought Marty was wonderful.”

Even on the day he filmed his cameo, Scorsese reasoned that if it didn’t work, he could always reshoot the scene later with another actor. He was joined on set that day by his own family, including his wife, daughter, and granddaughter. As he stepped up to the microphone, he says, he found himself reflecting on the friends he made in Oklahoma and the time he spent visiting the graves of real-life Osage murder victims.

“As I was repeating it, I’m thinking about the lineup of the graves of the mother, the sisters, the father, and the little girl,” he explains. “I said it. I did it. And finally everybody froze and said, ‘That may be it. Maybe it’s okay. Just go with that, rather than ending it in a conventional way.’”

Killers of the Flower Moon is in theaters now.

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