Shutter Island - Director Martin Scorses
Academy Award®-winning director Martin Scorsese on the set © Paramount Pictures

Based on the best-selling thriller by Dennis Lehan, Shutter Island tells a story, set in 1954, of the implausible disappearance of a murderess from a locked room in a psychiatric hospital on an isolated island. Enter US Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the mystery. But nothing in this film is exactly as it seems to be.

The first person producer Bradley J Fischer thought of to direct the movie was Martin Scorsese, but following his Oscar win for The Departed, he felt it was a lost cause. He couldn’t have been more wrong – at the time Scorsese was narrating the documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadow, about the driving force behind such 1940s RKO horror classics as Cat People and I Walk with a Zombie. So the thought of taking on a Gothic horror film himself was enticing, as he related at the press conference for the movie in New York.

What was it about Shutter Island that drew you into the project?

Shutter Island - Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio
DetectivesChuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) and Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) © Paramount Pictures

I didn’t know anything about the story and I started reading it at about 10:30 at night and I needed to go to bed because I had to get up early the next day, but I found I could not put the script down and was constantly surprised by the different levels of the story.

This is the type of picture I like to watch, the kind of story I like to read. Over the years, I think I’ve stayed away from certain kinds of pictures that emulate the style that I find nurturing in a way, but these are the kinds of films I go back to and view repeatedly. I’ve always been drawn to this sort of story. What’s interesting to me is how the story keeps changing, and the reality of what’s happening keeps changing, and how up until the very final scene, it’s all about how the truth is perceived.

But more than the way the story is told or the setting, for me, it’s really about what happens to the character of Teddy, which I found to be very moving. That was the emotional connection.

What I loved the most about this film was how it fused many different genres – how did you approach that with editing and score?

Shutter Island - Poster artwork
Poster artwork © Paramount Pictures

I think the trappings of the story, the nature of the situation, the doctor and his hospital, the patients, the island, the storm, the detectives, an escaped patient, automatically brings to mind a certain genre in my mind, certain images that go back several hundred years. And so I had all of this to draw upon, but the issue was ultimately to have them work for our story and our characters, and at the same time refer to other material, other types of films, other genres in the past. In other words, I think the more you see of the past, the more you can draw upon that. But it’s how you process the past, and often times in the picture there are references to certain imagery from certain pictures and certain novels.

But is that literal, it’s a reference to that type of storm, the shot of a mansion at night in a storm creates certain reactions because that’s part of our DNA to a certain extent in film. But what does it mean to our story and what’s the camera angel to use, what’s the use of music there that relates to our story that doesn’t at all refer to the cliché of a genre?

What was the biggest thing that surprised you as you were making this movie?

One of the things that I was so surprised to discover was the love and caring that Dr Cawley had for the patients, and the relationship between the patient and the doctor. At times he seems stern, at times you don’t know what he’s thinking, why he’s saying certain things, why he’s behaving a certain way, is he really telling the truth or not? But ultimately underlying all of this is this very strong relationship of believing in this therapy; that was very interesting to me.

Going into this film what was your process as far as what you had envisioned and how did you go about shooting the scenes and bringing out the best of the characters in the actors?

Shutter Island - Ben Kingsley, Leonardo DiCaprio, director Martin Scorsese and Mark Ruffalo
Ben Kingsley, Leonardo DiCaprio, director Martin Scorsese and Mark Ruffalo on the set © Paramount Pictures

That’s like [asking], ‘How did you make the entire movie?’ In my mind I still haven’t quite finished it. Basically it was from reading Laeta Kalogridis’ script, based on the Lehane’ novel, and from the reaction I had from reading that script as to the world that I imagined as I was reading it, and how it really turned out to be, how it was revealed to be many different realities. Without giving away too much, certainly the levels of the characters, the doctor appears one way, scene four it’s another way, scene ten it’s something else, and it’s something that intrigued me a great deal.

In any event, I think I just tried to approach it from my own reaction to reading the material. I gave myself to the material along with the actors, I didn’t quite know where we would be at any given time, and I think that we discovered this as we went along. It was a process of discovery throughout, and that includes the editing of the picture.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.