Based on Jordan Belfort’s memoirs, Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film, The Wolf of Wall Street, depicts the unlikely rise and dramatic fall of the Long Island-born stockbroker. The film, which divided critics and audiences, was a financial success and received five Academy Awards nominations, including nods for the film, Scorsese and lead Leonardo DiCaprio. Here are 10 facts you should know about this raucous film:
Belfort’s inspiration to write the book 'The Wolf of Wall Street' came from an unlikely place
Following his arrest for stock-market manipulation, Belfort pled guilty, and in exchange for his cooperation with an ongoing FBI investigation, was sentenced to 22 months in prison. In 2004, Belfort arrived at Taft Correctional Institution, a low-security federal prison in California, where his cubemate was actor, comedian and marijuana rights activist Tommy Chong, who was serving a nine-month stint for selling drug paraphernalia.
The two men bonded, exchanging stories about their outsized pre-prison lives. Chong, who was writing a book of his own, encouraged Belfort to take a stab at capturing his life story. According to Chong, Belfort’s first tried his hand at fiction, unsuccessfully. As he told MacLean’s, “You’ve got to write those stories you’ve been telling me at night. Your real life is much more exciting than any kind of imaginary story you could come up with.” Belfort was also inspired by Tom Wolfe’s satirical novel of 1980s excess, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which he discovered in the prison library. Belfort and Chong remained friends after their time in prison.
The trip from page to screen was rocky — and 'The Wolf of Wall Street' was almost a very different film
Following his release, a broke Belfort redoubled his efforts, receiving an advance from Random House for more than $1 million for his manuscript. Hollywood quickly came calling, with stars like Brad Pitt and Mark Wahlberg eyeing the part. Among those most interested was DiCaprio, who brought director Scorsese on board, for what would be their fifth collaboration. But after a deal with Warner Brothers fell through, the film was in limbo, and director Ridley Scott was briefly attached.
In 2010, an independent production company, Red Granite Pictures, bought the film rights, and casting got underway. For the role of Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s co-founder, a number of actors were considered, before Jonah Hill convinced DiCaprio and Scorsese that he should audition for the role — the first time he’d had to audition in years. Actresses Blake Lively, Amber Heard and others were reportedly considered for the role of Belfort’s second wife before Australian newcomer Margot Robbie was cast. Alan Arkin reportedly passed on the role of Max Belfort, Jordan’s father, which went to Rob Reiner. And the role of Robbie’s on-screen aunt, eventually played by former Bond Girl and Absolutely Fabulous actress Joanna Lumley, was originally offered to Julie Andrews, who turned it down due to the after-effects of ankle surgery.
One of the most well-known scenes wasn’t in the script
Early on in the film, DiCaprio has lunch with a successful stockbroker named Mark Hanna. While Hanna was a real figure, his unusual behavior during the meeting didn’t happen. Matthew McConaughey’s rhythmic beating of his chest and humming was actually an acting technique he used before filming to get himself ready for a scene. As he told Graham Norton, “That's something I'll do…to relax myself, get my voice to drop. I've been doing it for a while, but it's just something I do.” DiCaprio noticed it during rehearsals and suggested to Scorsese that they film it, later saying that it helped set the tone for the movie.
The names of the real-life people who inspired the film were changed for the big screen
While Hanna’s real name made it into the film, others didn’t. Belfort’s first wife was named Denise, not Teresa. And his second wife’s name was Nadine, not Naomi (although Belfort did nickname her The Duchess and named his yacht after her). FBI Special Agent Gregory Coleman, who spent more than half a decade investigating Belfort and his company, became Patrick Denham in the film. The real name of Belfort’s friend and Stratton Oakmont co-founder was Danny Porush. Belfort used his name in his book, but after Porush threatened to sue the film’s producers, they changed it to Donnie Azoff.
The real-life “Donnie” disputes some of the film’s depiction of events
Porush admitted that many of the film’s most outlandish events actually occurred, including Belfort sinking his yacht in Italy and nearly crashing his helicopter on his lawn. It’s also true that Porush ate the goldfish of a broker with disappointing results and that the company paid a secretary $10,000 to shave her head. And Porush actually was friends with shoe designer Steve Madden, who, along with Belfort and Porush, wound up going to jail for his role in the securities fraud surrounding the stock offering of his eponymous company.
But he took issue with some of the other moments depicted in both Belfort’s memoir and the film. According to Porush, nobody ever referred to Belfort as the “Wolf” of Wall Street, Belfort instead gave himself the nickname for the book. And Porush denies that employees abused the little people the company hired by throwing them as shown in the film.
Belfort has a cameo in the movie
During the years-long delay in production of the movie, Belfort acted as an advisor for DiCaprio. He estimated that he spent hundreds of hours with the actor, walking him through both the details of his financial schemes and how to portray the physical and mental effects of the drugs Belfort consumed on a regular basis. As DiCaprio told The Wall Street Journal, Belfort was “incredibly open about his life, especially the most embarrassing parts. I interviewed him incessantly and tried to pull out every detail I possibly could. We incorporated a lot of other stories that weren't even in the book into the movie."
Despite his years of work with DiCaprio, Belfort didn’t meet Scorsese until near the end of filming, when Belfort had a small role in the film’s final scene. He’s the man who introduces DiCaprio’s Belfort at a seminar in Australia where Belfort’s a featured motivational speaker.
The characters’ rampant drug use is a key part of the film but showing that descent came at a cost
For the infamous Quaalude scene, where an impaired DiCaprio tries to drive his car, it was the actor who came up with the idea to open the car’s door with his feet. After several attempts at getting the tricky physical shot, DiCaprio injured his neck and had to wear a brace for several days. And all that cocaine? It was crushed vitamin B. The cast snorted so much of it during production that Hill developed bronchitis and wound up being briefly hospitalized.
The film was banned in several countries
Thanks to its depictions of drug use, sex and an almost record-breaking level of profanity, it’s perhaps not surprising that the film rattled overseas censors. In fact, Scorsese had to cut several scenes in the U.S. version to avoid receiving an NC-17 rating. Additional cuts were made before its release in India and Lebanon, while the United Arab Emirates initially cut 45 of the film’s 180 minutes. Singapore officials limited its distribution, and the film was banned entirely in Malaysia and Nepal. Despite this, it was Scorsese’s highest-grossing film to date, netting $392 million worldwide.
Scorsese and DiCaprio received criticism for the film’s portrayal
Critics and audiences were divided in their reactions to the film. Some, including law enforcement officials who had worked on Belfort’s case and those who had been victims of his fraud, were angered by what they considered to be the film’s glorification of both Belfort’s debauched life and the crimes that funded it. Especially since the film opened just a few years after the 2007-2008 financial crisis, caused in large part by unscrupulous Wall Street actions. Others defended the film, saying that it played like a morality tale, with Belfort getting his just deserts and going to jail. DiCaprio defended the film, noting, “I wanted to make an unapologetic film on the subject matter that didn’t give any false sense of empathy for the character, but that instead was an analysis of man gone awry.”
The film has been ensnared in a number of legal cases
Before filming even began, the Department of Justice sought an injunction against Belfort’s publisher and DiCaprio’s production company, only relenting when Belfort agreed to pay 50 percent of his earnings as part of his deal to pay $100 million in restitution to his victims. In 2018, federal prosecutors accused Belfort of reneging on his restitution deal, claiming he still owed more than $90 million — despite pocketing millions as a motivational speaker thanks to the film’s success.
Red Granite, the film’s producers, were implicated in a scheme that saw billions siphoned from a Malaysian development fund — including the money used to finance the film. Producer Riza Aziz was indicted, and the case led to the downfall of the government of his stepfather, Malaysia’s prime minister. In 2020, Belfort filed a lawsuit that accused Red Granite of fraud, alleging that he’d been unaware of the illegal source of the film’s funding, and asking to be released from his contract with the company, which owns the rights to both The Wolf of Wall Street and Belfort’s second book.