Written by “Kingdom of Heaven” scribe William Monahan, “The Departed” contains all the vintage Scorsese themes. Jealousy, greed, murder, guilt — it’s all here. But much of it seems to have come together on set, as the director encouraged his actors to improvise, and worked with Monahan to adapt the script as they shot.
In a 2019 conversation with fellow film nerd Quentin Tarantino for the Director’s Guild, the filmmaker explained how he had to shoot four extra days due to the script being constantly amended:
“We were changing it so much in the middle of the film when we were shooting. I kept working with Bill Monahan and everybody rewriting stuff. It got so complicated that, at one point, my continuity person said, ‘Where do you want this new scene [that] just came in?’ I said, ‘Put it in the middle with everything else. I’ll figure it out later.'”
Martin Scorsese’s flexibility seemed to go down well with Jack Nicholson, who embraced the chance to improvise. At one point, he asked the prop master to hide a gun on set just so he could pull it on Leonardo DiCaprio during a tense scene. The legendary actor also got in on the rewriting process, adding his own unique — and downright disturbing — dialogue to scenes, including where he shoots a woman only to remark that she “fell funny.”
Unsurprisingly, in the edit bay, there was an excess of scenes, which made the whole process a challenge. As Scorsese told Tarantino, “Sure enough, in the end, it was like we were wrangling six wild horses, me and [editor] Thelma [Schoonmaker].” Luckily, the pair managed to get a grip on it all and produce a film that would gain the revered director his one and only Oscar win — to date — for best director.