How the ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ CDs Brought History to Life

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Photo Source: Courtesy Apple TV+

Martin Scorsese’s epic drama “Killers of the Flower Moon” tells the true story of a white conspiracy against the Osage people in 1920s Oklahoma. The filmmaker used David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction book of the same name as his source material. Here, casting directors Ellen Lewis and Rene Haynes, who both have a passion for period pieces, discuss how they tackled this complex material and why thinking outside the box yields the best results. 

How is working with Scorsese different from working with other directors?

Ellen Lewis: He’s very open to ideas. Sometimes, we need people who haven’t acted before. The way that I was taught to cast by Juliet Taylor was to try to be as open as possible, then narrow down those choices for the director; so it’s very collaborative and creative.

Indigenous actor Lily Gladstone’s performance as Mollie Burkhart has garnered critical acclaim. What was the process for casting this central role?

Rene Haynes: When I read the script, I was struck by Mollie being the center [of the story] and yet having very little to say. Lily has always been one of those actors who doesn’t have to say a lot to convey a lot. We were very exhaustive in our research of Indigenous actresses, not just for Mollie but for all of her sisters. At the end of the day, it [was] one of those magical moments [when] the right actor and the right role came together. We couldn’t move on with the rest of our Indigenous casting process until we knew who Mollie was. 

EL: Right, because when you build a cast, you’re starting at the top—particularly when you’re putting together a family. 

Did Scorsese have Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro in mind for the roles of Ernest Burkhart and William Hale, respectively, from the start?

EL: De Niro was always going to be Hale. Leo was possibly going to be playing [FBI agent] Tom White [a role that ultimately went to Jesse Plemons]. But as things progressed, we felt that it would be interesting for him to play [Mollie’s husband] Ernest. It’s a complex role, because [the two] are deeply in love. It’s a very tragic and difficult love story.

Killers of the Flower Moon

Did you hold chemistry reads between the actors?

EL: Yes, Rene and I had both read [with] Lily. We were in the pandemic at this point, so in October of 2020, Marty and I read [on Zoom] with Lily, then with Lily and Leo. 

RH: We didn’t do a lot of combinations and were pretty secure in our choices; but we got the four [women who play sisters] together, and that was the factor that we needed to see, that they were good together. 

EL: Lily, Rene, and I spoke to each of the women [who played Mollie’s sisters] on the phone before [auditions]. We want them to get the part, so we want everybody coming in feeling as comfortable and confident as they can even though they’re still auditioning. You want to give actors as much information as you can so that everybody’s feeling good, whether it’s on Zoom or in person. Actors are nervous, we understand that, so we try to put them at ease.

How did the source material inform your casting decisions?

EL: Marianne Bower, Marty’s archivist and historian, got us home movies from the Osage [people] and the Rotary Club. Tom White is more the focus of [Grann’s] book, and Ernest and Mollie are the focus of the film; so it did somewhat change. 

RH: I’d read the book previous to knowing about the film, because it made a buzz in the Indigenous community. Ellen and I didn’t cast for lookalikes at all. But we had done a big open casting call in Oklahoma only for Indigenous actors, starting [in] Pawhuska, the heart of the Osage nation. 

Do certain faces lend themselves to period pieces?

RH: That is something that actors can be cognizant of when they’re doing their photos. If you always go for a super contemporary look in your photos, [your range] might not come across as much as if you use a neutral [approach]. But I believe everyone, with the right hair and makeup, can fit the era. 

EL: I was very conscious of the period. So many people from the Osage nation are in the film, who the story touched very personally. This is where Zoom was actually very helpful, because I was able to read people from all over the South.

What do you look for when you’re casting?

RH: One of the things I’m always looking for is how actively someone listens, because being present is what’s important. I look at what’s going on in the eyes; I want to believe it’s the first time they’re saying the words. Auditioning is a different muscle than actually acting once you get the job. You have to develop that [skill] in order to practice your art. 

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 28 issue of Backstage Magazine.