"Paradise" is Martin Scorsese's one-word description of Long Island.
At least, that's the impression he formed as a child growing up in Manhattan's crowded Little Italy neighborhood during the 1940s and '50s. "Anything with trees was amazing," Scorsese says. "People with a house? Amazing."
The director's latest movie, "The Wolf of Wall Street," is set largely on Long Island, which clearly served as paradise for Queens-born protagonist Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Belfort, a financial criminal whose memoir inspired the movie, established himself on Long Island as a way to both flaunt and hide his wealth. He lived in a mansion in well-appointed Old Brookville, while his brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, conducted its fraudulent business far from Wall Street in the village of Lake Success.
For nearly a decade, Belfort and his high-earning staffers -- including Lawrence-born Danny Porush, played by Jonah Hill as a fictionalized character named Donnie Azoff -- managed to spend like Marie Antoinette and party like Caligula. In 1998, Belfort was indicted on charges of securities fraud and money laundering, and he eventually spent 22 months in prison.
"These weren't the fat cats that were destroying our economy," DiCaprio says. "These were the street urchins, the guys from the underworld who were trying to create a little island and emulate Gordon Gekko. They were trying to be the guys who were robbing our country of billions and billions of dollars."
As it happens, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is the second DiCaprio-led movie this year to paint a picture of outsize wealth on Long Island. The first was "The Great Gatsby," an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1927 novel. The similarities between the two protagonists are striking: Both were humbly born, self-made men whose ill-gotten riches could purchase just about anything, though not respectability. Just as Gatsby never quite cracked the blue-blood social circles of fictional East Egg, Belfort never joined the real Brookville Country Club.
"Long Island is the aspirational place," says Terence Winter ("The Sopranos," "Boardwalk Empire"), the screenwriter of "The Wolf of Wall Street," who grew up in Brooklyn. "You wanted to say: 'Oh, I've made it, I moved out to Long Island and I have a beautiful home.' And certainly where Jordan lived was above and beyond."
In "The Great Gatsby," Australia stood in for Long Island's North Shore, with help from green screens and computer-generated imagery, but "The Wolf of Wall Street" was shot in several Long Island locations.
The wild party at Belfort's beach house, where he meets his future wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie), was filmed in Sands Point; their outdoor wedding was filmed partly in Bayville. A private horse farm in the Upper Brookville area provides a glamorous backdrop for Belfort's agonizing discussions about his impending doom. As for Belfort's mansion, it turned out that the real one "wasn't as grand" as the filmmakers hoped, says producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff. Scorsese ended up using a different house nearby, she says.
Scorsese says he declined to meet Belfort, partly to avoid being influenced by a man known for his powers of persuasion. The theme of the movie is "contempt -- the intentional taking advantage of other people," Scorsese says. "That's human nature, in a way. I just think that that's the only thing that has seemed important now for the past 30 years."