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For Leonard DiCaprio, Scorsese's 'The Departed' was one film to kill for

Terry Lawson
Detroit Free Press (MCT)

His career ambitions were pretty much fulfilled, says Leonardo DiCaprio, when Martin Scorsese called him to talk about playing Howard Hughes in 2004's "The Aviator."

"After we finished `Gangs of New York,' I thought, `OK, I've worked with the best there is and I came out of it OK.'" So when Scorsese called him about doing his next film, "I felt -- I don't know, validated isn't really the word maybe -- but good, you know. It was like we had something together. But was there something more I wanted to do? Yeah.

"Listen, I loved making those movies, and I think they'll stand the test of the time. But I'm like any other actor. I would have killed to make a great gangster movie with Martin Scorsese."

No blood sacrifice proved necessary. According to DiCaprio, he and the director each received the script for "The Departed," a Grand Guignol gangster drama written by William Monahan, and both were knocked out.

"It was classic Scorsese stuff, cops and criminals and the thin line that divides them, but it was also very different than any of the gangster movies he had made before," says DiCaprio, 31. "He never makes the same movie twice. He's very conscious of that. And he'd never made this movie before, and that excited him. And when he's excited, you get excited, you know what I mean?"

"The Departed" is a remake of a classic cops and robbers movie, but it just happens to be one few people have seen. "Infernal Affairs" was the most popular film released in Hong Kong in 2002, and by the time it was released in major cities in the United States in 2004, it had spawned a prequel and a sequel.

The plotline is irresistible. Two police cadets from the same class take very different routes to success: One gets kicked out of the academy and becomes right-hand man in a gang led by a ruthless killer. The other rises to the top of the police force. What neither knows is that the gang member is an informant for the cops, and the cop is in the employ of the gangster as a mole. Eventually, both sides realizes there's a rat in their midst, and the race is on to find him before their true identities can be revealed.

"I thought `Infernal Affairs' was a great movie, but what really excited me was what Marty would do with that set-up," says DiCaprio. "Because I knew he would put all his own stuff in there."

Which he most certainly did: With Catholic church bells pealing in the background, Scorsese set the story in South Boston, where seriously dangerous gang boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) has groomed -- some might say seduced -- a local kid since childhood to become a state policeman. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) eventually rises to the top of the Special Investigation Unit, where the boss (Alec Baldwin) is determined to bring down Costello.

Meanwhile, angry Billy Costigan (DiCaprio), child of a mother born to Boston society and a blue-collar father who wanted nothing to do with the mob, is secretly recruited by gang task-force leaders (Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg) and sent to insinuate himself in Costello's gang and gain his confidence.

In Scorsese's version, the only link between the two informers is a police psychiatrist played by Vera Famiga.

"These two guys are just two sides of the same coin," says DiCaprio. "They've never met each other, but they know each other."

Damon claims that he and DiCaprio flipped a coin to see who would play which character; DiCaprio won't confirm that, but graciously concedes Damon "would have been great as Billy."

"One thing that really helped was having these Boston guys, Matt and Mark, around. They both really understood that culture and helped keep it authentic. I spent a lot of time in Boston before we started shooting, getting to know people, knocking around, and it's really a place unto itself," DiCaprio says. "Not like any other city I've spent time in."

Scorsese has said he was thrilled when Nicholson accepted the role of Costello; the two giants of American film had never worked together. But in the past decade, Nicholson's acting style has become more and more exaggerated, and rumors from the set said the script had to be altered to accommodate Nicholson's conception of his character. Without giving too much away, let's just say the devil he played in "The Witches of Eastwick" has duller horns than Costello, and that Nicholson makes Al Pacino's Tony Montana in "Scarface" seem rational.

DiCaprio, who shares the most scenes with Nicholson, says that when he did his first scenes with him, his focus was on "maintaining a similar level of intensity. I mean, Jack is Jack, the Jack. He doesn't go out there much, but when he does, he brings it all. I had to be prepared, you know, because I knew what would be coming at me. No, I wasn't scared. Let's say I had to stay on my toes."

At least most of the time; on a couple of occasions, Nicholson sprang a few cameras-rolling surprises on his co stars, one of which has become legendary -- and made the final cut of the film.

Though "The Departed" has been seen only by a few critics and test audiences, there has been an outpouring of praise for the film that Scorsese hasn't enjoyed -- if you exclude last year's Bob Dylan documentary "No Direction Home" -- since 1990's "GoodFellas." There was no such consensus on the historical epics "Gangs of New York" or "The Aviator," though both were nominated for best picture awards, with Scorsese nominated for best director.

Said to have been embarrassed when neither he nor the films won Oscars despite elaborate campaigns mounted by the studios, Scorsese has apparently asked that "The Departed" not be positioned as an Oscar contender. Scorsese is undoubtedly also aware that genre films -- "The Godfather" and its sequel aside -- rarely register with Academy voters. "GoodFellas" was nominated in six categories, including director and best picture, but it won only one, for supporting actor Joe Pesci.

"I'm not campaigning, and I understand and appreciate Marty's feelings on this subject. All he wants to do is make the best movies he can make and hope people like them. But I will say this right now," says DiCaprio. "There is no living director in the United States or anywhere else who deserves an Academy Award more than Martin Scorsese. That's all there is to that."

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