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Killers Of The Flower Moon: Why Leonardo DiCaprio Changed Roles During Production

It's been a long and circuitous road to "Killers of the Flower Moon" ever since the film rights to David Grann's book were sold in 2016. Initially, Martin Scorsese and Eric Roth's script hewed closely to the book, positioning the 1920s murder of wealthy Osage people as a sort of crime procedural.

The angle wasn't gelling for either Scorsese or executive producer Leonardo DiCaprio. "It just didn't get to the heart of the Osage," DiCaprio told Deadline. "It felt too much like an investigation into detective work," said the actor, who was originally slated to play FBI agent Tom White. White is a prominent figure in Grann's book, and his story is fairly cut and dried. "We tried to do more research, hoping to go deeper on Tom White. Does he have difficulties? Maybe he's drinking?" Scorsese recalled. "I finally said, 'What are we making? A film about Tom White, who comes in and saves everybody?'"

The film began to coalesce once DiCaprio took on the role of Ernest Burkhart, the nephew of William Hale (Robert De Niro). "Marty and Leo's idea to focus on the relationship between Bill and Ernest made sense to me," De Niro added. "They wanted to focus more on that dynamic instead of Tom White coming in and saving the day."

Leonardo DiCaprio suggested focusing on Ernest and Mollie's love story

For Martin Scorsese, focusing on Tom White was structurally trite. Why encroach upon the procedural genre when there are so many good ones on television, the director posited to Deadline. It's also well worn territory, given the Western genre's fiction on the white male hero.

It was DiCaprio who suggested focusing on the morally complex Ernest and his marriage to Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman. "The love story [changed everything]," Scorsese admitted. "I said, 'How do we do the love story?' We couldn't figure it out. And then Leo said, 'What if I play Ernest?'"

Moreover, Ernest — with his relative anonymity compared to Hale or White — offered more space for Scorsese and Roth to imagine new narrative possibilities. "I realized, because there is the least amount of research on Ernest, that we could do anything," Scorsese continued. "If we did that, we'd take the script and turn it inside out, make it from the ground level out, rather than coming in from the outside. I said, "Let's put ourselves in the mindset of the people who did this."

Of course, Tom White is still a major presence in "Killers of the Flower Moon," just in a different capacity, and with a different actor to boot; Jesse Plemons joined the cast to replace DiCaprio in the role.