Martin Scorsese always wanted to make a Western, arguably the defining American artform. With Killers of the Flower Moon, he got his chance to chronicle the way the country has been moulded from violence and prejudice, writes Adrian Pennington.
“I loved many of the westerns I saw when I was growing up and I still do love them,” the director explains in the production notes. “I responded to the pictures built around the traditional myths of the western, the myths of the culture, more than the psychological westerns. Those films nourished me as a filmmaker, but they also inspired me to go deeper into the real history.”
Based on the 2017 non-fiction book by David Grann and written for the screen by Scorsese and Eric Roth, the historical crime drama is set in 1920s Oklahoma and centres on the murders of members of the Osage Nation, the midwestern Native American tribe that became wealthy after the discovery of oil on their land at the end of the 19th century.
Read more IBC2023 Video – all sessions
The series of brutal crimes, revealed by the then-fledgling FBI to have been a conspiracy by several local white residents led by William Hale (played by Robert De Niro), became known as the Reign of Terror.
BTS: Killers Of The Flower Moon - The Osage Nation
Funded by Apple Studios with a budget of $200m, preliminary plans for production took shape while the screenplay was in development. One decision was to shoot the film on location in Oklahoma on the Osage reservation, in the very towns and communities where the Reign of Terror played out a century earlier.
Another principal was to enlist the full cooperation of the Osage Nation itself to make the film. Scorsese and his team travelled to the Osage reservation in spring 2019 to scout locations and to meet the Osage community as a first step.
A conversation was arranged between Scorsese and Geoffrey Standing Bear, the Osage Nation’s Principal Chief. “I told him my concerns,” said Chief Standing Bear. “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 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.”
Executive producer Marianne Bower connected with Osage consultants and the community at large becoming the point person between Scorsese, his creative and production teams, and the Osage. This opened the way for an ongoing dialogue on research, cultural and historical matters that continued throughout production and then post-production.
BTS: Killers Of The Flower Moon – Covid Delays
Locations were being scouted, sets were under construction and casting was moving forward when COVID-19 struck. Activity screeched to a halt and plans for filming were temporarily suspended. It was during this enforced hiatus that Scorsese fine-tuned the story of Ernest and Mollie (Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone) and reworked sections of the script.
A new start date was set for spring 2021. Work came back to life with renewed vigour and continued apace on three parallel tracks: the production team returned to Oklahoma’s Osage County to finalise locations; construction resumed on sets; and the casting process took up where it left off.
A central principle emerged. Whenever possible, Osage characters in Killers would be played by an Osage actor, and if that were not feasible (as in the case of Gladstone), every Osage role would be filled by a Native American. They include casting actors William Belleau as Henry Roan, and Tatanka Means as Native American federal agent John Wren.
BTS: Killers Of The Flower Moon - Casting
The casting team held an open call throughout Oklahoma with the result that several Osage actors were cast in key roles: Yancey Red Corn makes his film debut as the Osage Chief Bonnicastle; Everett Waller plays Paul Red Eagle and Talee Redcorn is the Osage leader. In all, more than 44 roles were filled by Osage actors, not including the hundreds who worked as background players.
In pre-production Scorsese talked with representative Osage Elders about the film’s structure, which would feature a prologue based on the opening section of ‘A Pipe for February,’ a novel by the Osage writer Charles H. Red Corn that depicts a sacred ritual.
Scorsese explained that this sequence would be intercut with newsreel footage showing how white culture viewed the Osage at the time when its oil wealth skyrocketed. He stressed that the film would make it clear that there was a much wider system of killing Osage for their money and property than the one William Hale had orchestrated.
Efforts to include the Osage people in the filmmaking process didn’t end there. Working with the state’s Film and Television Commission, the production began hiring Osage artisans and craftspeople to work in the various departments of the film.
The artist Addie Roanhorse was brought on to assist with production design, and the Osage cultural consultant Julie O’Keefe became an indispensable addition to the wardrobe department. Osage elder John Williams became the Osage cultural consultant. Vann Bighorse, director of the Osage Nation Language program, was also tapped to work, overseeing the translation and use of the Osage language in the film, assigning Janis Carpenter, Christopher Coté and Braxton Redeagle, teachers of the Osage language, to coach the cast in the native tongue spoken throughout the drama. Brandy Lemon, Osage Nation congresswoman, became the community consultant.
The challenge for production designer Jack Fisk would be difficult: telling the story on Osage land, either by repurposing existing structures or building them from scratch. So much of Fairfax, the original town, had been modernised or run down. A 1920s period piece would require vast open expanses, capturing the lushness of Osage territory. There were also several homes and offices that needed to be dressed.
BTS: Killers Of The Flower Moon – The Old Freight Station
“The Osage Nation had recently bought a square mile of land just off Main Street in Pawhuska, where the old freight station stood,” Fisk recalled. “They were going to clear it out and turn the space into a parks and recreation area. We asked them to delay their plans. We saw that the expanse worked perfectly for our purposes, so we obtained permission to build our train station there, bringing in twelve hundred feet of track and a real locomotive. It was the perfect spot.”
Fisk went about finding locations for Osage homes and marketplaces. Nearby Pawhuska served as a persuasive Fairfax. “The final touch to the Kihekah Avenue reconstruction was to cover the street with dirt,” Fisk said. “That unified the set, made it more western and somehow brought it to life.”
With all the effort involved, it was reasonable to ask, why not film in Fairfax itself, a half hour away? Fisk explained: “Fairfax has been decimated over the years, a case of natural destruction, tornadoes, a faltering economy, the passage of time. Lots of the buildings were condemned. The roofs were rotten. There were very few storefronts that we could work in safely, as opposed to those in Pawhuska.”
BTS: Killers Of The Flower Moon – Wranglers and Mechanics
To depict the period’s mix of Old West and more modern cultures, the production needed horses and a wrangler but also a fleet of 100 vintage vehicles, with four mechanics to maintain them. A period steam train was brought into the state and track laid leading to a station set that was used for a week.
Scorsese’s choice to shoot on film meant that footage had to be sent to a lab in Los Angeles every night. And every day the production had to deal with the heat and humidity of a southern summer, not to mention occasional lightning and the threat of tornadoes, Oklahoma being part of North America’s Tornado Alley.
“This film is Marty’s western,” Fisk added. “It’s a true story about our early existence. We were still forming as a nation. It’s a film about greed and love. You’re going over a period of time, and you’re seeing characters change and develop. I think it will transport people into another world that is really a part of all of us.”
Read more Best of Behind the Scenes