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DiCaprio gets stranded on Shutter Island

Leonardo DiCaprio is looking and sounding a bit helpless this morning, and it’s not his fault.

He’s anxious to talk about “Shutter Island”, the eerie new thriller which marks his fourth outing with director Martin Scorsese, but he has this problem. A big problem.

A reporter has just complimented him for bringing clarity to his complex performance as a troubled young U.S. Marshal plunged into an unfathomable mystery on a spooky island off the Massachusetts coast. But as the DiCaprio struggles to talk about how he created that performance, he suddenly breaks off.

“It’s very difficult for me to publicize this film,” he says apologetically.

It’s not that he doesn’t want to be here, in this hotel ballroom, discussing an excruciatingly difficult acting assignment and the rich creative rewards it brought him. It’s the nature of the material which dictates caution.

Leonardo Dicaprio and Mark Ruffalo
Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo star in “Shutter Island”

This film adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s labyrinthine novel coils and uncoils in various unexpected directions and reaches a shocker of a climax. DiCaprio’s difficulty is simple. He doesn’t want to give anything away because of “the sheer nature of what goes on in the movie.” He must choose his words carefully.

He’s wearing a loose blue pullover and dark slacks. His hair is unfashionably slicked back. DiCaprio is now 35, but there’s still an element of the eternal schoolboy in his demeanour. He can still look like the kid from “Titanic” – a factor which prompted some critics to complain recently that he seemed too young to be believable as a thirtysomething husband coping with a collapsing marriage in “Revolutionary Road“.

He continues to fight that image and one of his allies in that battle is Scorsese who considers DiCaprio perhaps the finest young actor of his generation. The two have now worked together four times – “Gangs Of New York”, “ The Departed“, “The Aviator” (in which DiCaprio delivered a riveting portrayal of Howard Hughes) and now “Shutter Island”, which opens Feb. 19.

Laeta Kalogridis’s screenplay for this new film intrigued DiCaprio. For him, it evoked “some of the great detective genres of the past” – indeed, at Scorsese’s bidding the actor revisited classic thrillers like “Vertigo” and “Out Of The Past” – but it soon became clear that other elements were at play as well.

“At first glance, it was very much a genre thriller piece with twists and turns that worked on lots of different layers. But … once we started to unravel who this man was and his past and what he was going through and the nature of what was going on at Shutter Island, it took us to places that there’s no way we could have foreseen.”

Paramount had originally planned to release Shutter Island in the fall, and some critics who saw the film early believe that had the release date not been changed, DiCaprio would have been the actor to beat in this winter’s Oscar sweepstakes. Set in 1954, we first meet DiCaprio, an obsessive U.S. Marshal, en route with his new partner (Mark Ruffalo) to a hospital for the criminally insane, located on an isolated island, to investigate the disappearance of a dangerous multiple murderess from a locked room.

The story, which unfolds solely through the eyes of DiCaprio’s cop, exudes an atmosphere that suggests nothing is quite what it seems, especially given the enigmatic conduct of the institution’s head, played by Ben Kingsley. His criminal investigation, which covers four increasingly ominous days and climaxes in the midst of a Force 5 hurricane, keeps turning up new mysteries and spawning new fears. DiCaprio’s character, emotionally ravaged by the tragedies in his life, finds his investigation is forcing him to confront his own personal demons.

DiCaprio says everyone involved with the production – including Scorsese and the cast – were driven into unexpected, new territory in making this film.

“It got darker and darker and more emotionally intense than we ever expected,” he says. “And that, I think, was the real surprise for us in making this movie.”

Scenes which seemed straightforward in the script assumed new shapes and dimensions once actors started working on them. DiCaprio found himself approaching such scenes with caution: ” … until you’re actually there doing them, there’s really no way to understand it.”

For DiCaprio this was the “best type of movie” to do. “I think we were all surprised at the end of the day. We felt surprised at the depth of the material. It is a thriller in a lot of ways – you know with a surprise ending – and very much of a genre piece, but at the end of the day, it is what Martin Scorsese does best, and that is portraying something about humanity and human nature and who we are as people. That’s what makes it different from being a normal genre piece – to me anyway.”

Shutter Island” is very much a reflection of its era. Cold War paranoia, the traumatic aftermath of the Second World War atrocities, conspiracy theories, the treatment of the mentally ill – all these facets add to the film’s texture. DiCaprio believes the project had an unexpected psychological impact on everyone. He certainly won’t easily forget the experience of actually filming in an abandoned mental hospital or what he heard from mental illness consultants who were on hand as resource people.

“Mental illness … we were around it every day. We were around the dilapidated walls of an old mental institution. We actually had somebody there guiding us through the history of mental illness – the past ways of treating it, the different ways of treating it. There was a tremendous amount of research done on the entrapments of mental illness and the suffering that people needed to go through.”

And always, there was the challenge of his own emotionally troubled character.

“It was like a giant jig-saw puzzle, the more we started to unearth and peel back the onion of who this guy was and what happened to him in the past and to try to understand why he would be so obsessed with this particular case.”

And again, he emphasizes that once everyone was deeply involved in filming, the challenges didn’t become easier.

“We realized we had to push certain boundaries that we didn’t think we needed to, and there were a few weeks there that I have to say were some of the most hard-core filming experiences I’ve ever had.

“It was like reliving trauma in a way. It was pretty intense. I don’t say that stuff very often because – you know – it always sounds superficial when you talk about it in reference to moviemaking … but it really went to places that, in unearthing who this man was, I didn’t think it would get to.”

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