Killers of the Flower Moon: Adapting a True Life Screenplay

This week, we’re going to look at Killers of the Flower Moon, by Martin Scorcese and Eric Roth.

We’re going to talk about the art of adaptation: How to adapt a book or a true life story (or in this case both) into a feature film or TV series.

We’re going to look at how to develop your “take” on a book or true life story and the many hard decisions you have to make in adapting a prior work. 

When you’re adapting material– whether it’s a dream, an idea, a poem, a song, a show, a board game, a haunted house, a piece of IP, a novel, a play– regardless of what you’re adapting, it’s not just a process of taking what is and translating it onto the screen. It’s actually the art of saying, What pieces of this am I going to hold on to? What decisions am I going to make around it? 

As you’ll see in our script analysis of Killers of the Flower Moon, you cannot adapt the whole book. You cannot adapt the whole true story into a screenplay. 

So you have to look at each part really closely. And that leads to thousands of decisions, which taken together are called your take on the material.

So let’s say you’re Martin Scorsese and you find a book like Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

Or let’s say you are called in for a meeting with a producer who wants you to adapt something for them.

They’re not just looking for you to say, “OK, this is the book and this is what we’re going to make.”

They’re looking for your take. They’re looking for the you in it. 

They’re looking for, How are you going to approach it and what decisions are you going to make? 

And that means making really bold choices, sometimes even making choices that depart in some way from the source material, so that you can look at the aspects of the story that matter to you most deeply. 

And of course, this is what Martin Scorsese and Eric Roth have done in Killers of the Flower Moon.

SPOILER WARNING: There are going to be some spoilers, especially as we get deeper into the podcast transcript (I’ll warn you when we get there), but we’re going to start with a broader discussion about the book, the history, and the development of the screenplay, that will discuss some elements, but won’t ruin the movie for you…

David Grann’s nonfiction book Killers of the Flower Moon is primarily a whodunnit. And this is the obvious take on this material. 

You have this tribe of Native Americans, the Osage, and like most Native Americans, they were driven off their land to the crappiest possible place that anyone could find for them — a reservation in Oklahoma where nothing could grow.

Scorcese opens Killers of the Flower Moon with a ceremony of mourning. And then, it seems, fate intervenes. Oil is found on the reservation. We see this explosion of oil out of the ground and these Native men are splattered in oil. 

And even though it’s a joyful moment, it’s shot almost like blood is splattering them. It’s like a premonition. It’s a Martin Scorsese movie, we know it’s going to get dark, but at this moment, for the characters, it’s pure joy. They are dancing in celebration of the oil. 

And then we are told, and this is true, the Osage people at this time became the richest people per capita in the world. In 1923 alone, the tribe made $30 million (over $500 million in today’s money.)

So this is the world we’re entering. But of course, we don’t stay on this joyride. 

Here’s what actually happened in history– which we’re going to learn through remarkably efficient screenwriting as the story of Killers of the Flower Moon.

(We’ll talk about why such efficient screenwriters wrote a three and a half hour screenplay later!)

First, the whites decide that many of the Osage are “incompetent” to manage their own money. Federal laws are passed that require most Osage people to have a guardian—usually a white man—to allocate their money. This system means the Osage are not in control of their own finances and can be further exploited.

And as if that’s not bad enough, a weird thing starts to happen. 

The Osage start to die. 

Some die by apparent suicide. Some die by some strange, unnamed wasting illness. Some die in explosions. All told, about 60 people die, (although Grann believes the true number may be in the hundreds).

So what’s author David Grann’s take on the story in his book Killers of the Flower Moon? It’s laid out in the subtitle: “The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” 

Grann’s book is told from the perspective of Tom White, an investigator with J. Edgar Hoover’s brand new Bureau of Investigation, played in the movie by Jesse Plemons. 

In Grann’s book, we read how White put the pieces together to solve the mystery of the Osage murders. It’s a giant whodunnit. 

And that’s a pretty sexy idea, right? A giant, historical true-life whodunnit? Why are these rich Native Americans dying? Who is responsible? It’s a really brilliant hook. 

And Grann shows how this whodunnit led to Hoover’s expansion of the FBI to such a powerful institution. Grann’s take brings to life an important piece of American history that most of us had no idea about.

In early drafts of the screenplay for Killers of the Flower Moon, this was the same hook that Martin Scorsese and Eric Roth and Leonardo DiCaprio were developing. 

In fact, Leo was originally going to play Tom White, the FBI agent. 

It’s so interesting, and so valuable, to realize that even the greatest of the greatest of the greatest of the great still have to go through the same crazy development process that you do. 

It’s not a linear orderly trek. It’s a journey of discovery. 

Scorsese and Roth think they have a really clear take on this material: We’re going to focus on the whodunnit, and that’s sexy, and it’s a clear genre, and it’s exciting. And we’re going to tell this untold story of this horror.

But at some point, Martin Scorsese realizes, Uh-oh. We’re only telling the story of the white guys. We’re not telling the story that needs to be told.

And he changes his take.

This leads to a complete rewrite of the screenplay. 

Leonardo DiCaprio goes from playing Bureau of Investigations agent Tom White to playing Ernest Burkhart, a white war veteran who married a wealthy Osage woman, Mollie Kyle. 

So Martin Scorsese decides to build the movie not around the whodunnit, not around the obvious hook, not around the obvious take, but around a really messed-up relationship between Ernest and Mollie…

Spoilers ahead…

Scorsese decides to build his movie around the really messed-up relationship between Ernest Buckhart, a man who claims to love his wife Mollie, who believes he loves his wife– and who is also responsible for murdering, one by one, every member of her family — and (in the film) even of poisoning the wife he “loves.”

In Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorcese is interested in looking deeply at the kind of person who can do all of these horrible things and still say “I love my wife…”  and actually believe it! 

That’s Martin Scorcese’s take.

Ernest’s wife is an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, played by Lily Gladstone. She’s been deemed, like many of the Osage, incompetent so she can’t manage her own affairs. 

Mollie is in love with her husband. Towards the end of the story, she even stands by him through the weight of all these accusations– until he actually confesses to what he’s done. That’s true.

During his research, Martin Scorcese interviewed one of Mollie’s grandchildren, Margie Burkhart. And his take comes out of a surprising revelation that happened when Margie told Scorsese (I’m paraphrasing here), “You need to understand, Ernest Burkhart loved my grandmother.  Ernest loved Mollie and Mollie loved Ernest.” 

DiCaprio also interviewed Margie and her husband. “He wondered how somebody could love someone and murder the rest of the family. It was hard for him to wrap his head around it,” Margie said in an interview. “I told him that Ernest was so under the influence of his uncle, he would have done anything asked of him.”

So that became the take. How can someone who believes they love somebody do such horrible things? For greed? For money? For pure weakness of character?

And this is a familiar Martin Scorsese question. He has spent his career forcing you to look at evil, forcing you to look at the kind of evil that you don’t want to believe exists, forcing you to look at the kind of evil that you want to say, No, no, no, it’s not like that. 

And that’s what this Killers of the Flower Moon is doing. It’s saying, Here, look at this! 

And keep looking. And keep looking. For 3 hrs and 26 minutes.

In pursuit of that experience for their audience, Scorcese and Roth make some really interesting choices. 

The first was to undermine the book’s flashy hook and give away the “who” of the whodunnit at the very beginning!

We are watching these images of these incredibly wealthy Osage people (which look like they could be actual footage of the time). It feels like a celebration, a little paradise we never imagined existed! 

We get to feel like those dancing Osage must have felt in the opening sequence.

How is this possible? How did I not know about this? How did this heaven exist?

And then, we get these jarring cuts to these dead Osage people, to their bodies.

At first, we don’t necessarily know what’s happening, but it looks a little fishy: 

We see body after body: “Never investigated, never investigated, never investigated.” 

And then we actually see a woman gunned down by a white man. He puts the gun in her hand, and the supertitle tells us: “death by suicide.” 

And suddenly, we realize, Oh, white men are killing these people. 

The cards a writer would normally keep hidden in a whodunnit are played right at the beginning of Killers of the Flower Moon. There’s no mystery to uncover, no tantalizing clues. White men are killing Osage people. 

Scorcese takes the same approach when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Ernest Burkhart, shows up in town. Rather than building an entertaining mystery for the audience, he puts all the nefarious plans right out in front of us…

Ernest is back from the war. He meets his uncle, William “King” Hale, played by Robert De Niro. And he’s asked a couple of questions. “Do you like women? Do you like Osage women? Why don’t you take a job driving?” 

Ernest meets Mollie and becomes her driver. And, bang! We’re told exactly what’s going to happen. “Why don’t you marry her so that the money starts to flow in the right direction?” Hale says (paraphrased).

And now, we know the whole picture. The mystery solution is exposed from the beginning:

William Hale is some kind of mastermind who’s marrying off Osage women to white men. He’s positioned himself as a guardian, as a caretaker, as a supporter of the Osage, as a part of their community. But he’s secretly undermining them because he wants the headrights to the oil. He wants the money, and the money can only be passed through inheritance. So he’s inviting Ernest to get married. 

And Ernest does exactly what Hale suggests. He meets Mollie, and he seduces Mollie, and they connect.

The interesting thing is that Ernest really falls in love with Mollie. Or at least really seems to think he’s in love, even though he’s doing it for some selfish reasons because, as he says, he really loves money.

So we’re in this really crazy world where everything that’s supposed to happen in the genre is being purposely undermined by the writers. 

Killers of the Flower Moon is the opposite of Chinatown. It’s the opposite of the traditional noir whodunnit, where you’re trying to figure out who’s on what side and what’s really happening, and we as the audience have the entertainment of piecing it together. 

Rather than following the whodunnit genre rules by building an increasingly complicated puzzle for the audience (and protagonist) to unravel, Killers of the Flower Moon just keeps making things clearer and clearer. 

William Hale starts telling Ernest to kill people. And Ernest starts doing it.

And we start watching it.

For three and a half hours, we’re told exactly what’s going to happen and we watch it happen, with very few surprises.

We don’t even get the usual obstacles that most movies are built around. 

Ernest Burkhart is no Walter White. He’s not a complicated antihero, dealing with every kind of horrific obstacle, constantly feeling like his life is at risk and breaking bad in relation to reasonable pressure that allows us to understand where he’s coming from.

Sure, there are some things that go wrong: A bullet to the back of the head when it should have been to the front. A scheme to make a little insurance money that goes wrong and ends up costing them one of the criminals who’s going to pull off a crime for them. 

Sure things go wrong—but it’s not the traditional genre stuff. 

For the most part, things go right for Ernest, and things go right for William Hale.

For the most part, their plan works.

For three and a half hours.

And while Killers of the Flower Moon is visually stunning, you can see that Martin Scorsese and Eric Roth are actually sacrificing some of the traditional drama and excitement that would be much more fun for the audience— in order to focus your eye on one really specific thing.

This is what’s so important about your take.

When you know what you’re building, you’re going to have to make hard choices in order to build it.

You’re going to have to make choices that some people question.

You’re going to have to make choices that some people disagree with.

You’re going to have to make choices that sometimes depart from the traditional rules of how to make a movie. 

Every tool that you have as a screenwriter is only valuable in relation to what you are building. 

Screenwriting is not a formula. Adaptation is not a formula.

Rather, it’s a series of extremely challenging choices and trade-offs that you must grapple with as a writer, in service of your take on the material.

Had the screenplay for Killers of the Flower Moon been written by a new writer, and not by luminaries like Martin Scorcese and Eric Roth, a well-meaning coverage reader would likely suggest, “Hey, why not make this this a whodunnit? That would be so much more entertaining for the audience.” 

Similarly, another writer who’s read the book might easily wonder, “Hey, why not make it more like the book? That worked, and it was a really wonderful whodunnit.” 

But that’s not what Martin Scorsese is interested in.

Martin Scorsese is interested in the “love” story.

Martin Scorcese is interested in stripping away all the entertainment value, in taking away all the secondary structure by which you could have enjoyed trying to puzzle the story together, maybe it was this guy, maybe it was that guy, maybe it was those guys…

Martin Scorsese is interested in forcing you instead to stare evil in the face, interminably. Murder… after murder… after murder…

In forcing you to sit through the sheer horror of the redundancy of it all…

In pushing the relationship, building the “love” story, building those moments of actual connection and tenderness and love…

In allowing you to fall in love with Mollie the way Ernest has. Probably even more…

So you can stare evil in the face and think, But he couldn’t. But how could he? But really? But even that? Even that? And for what? For money? To please your uncle?

In a way, the screenplay for Killers of the Flower Moon is built a little bit more like Fargo than like Chinatown.

It is built to make you stare this evil in the face. And even the length, the slowness, even the predictability of it, heightens that hook. 

Because every time Ernest kills somebody else (or to be more accurate, hires somebody to kill somebody else) you think, oh my God, again? And again? And again?

And by structuring the movie this way, Martin Scorsese and Eric Roth force you to look at the enormity of the betrayal of the Osage people and of the Native Americans in this country in general. 

He forces you to stare that evil, that betrayal, in the face. 

He uses this little piece to tell the story of the whole. This little piece of a people— some who trusted, some who distrusted, but all who found themselves without a choice– who are betrayed … and betrayed … and betrayed … and betrayed … and then betrayed again.

All of this is woven in Scorsese and Roth’s adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon into the through-line of this relationship between Ernest and Mollie. 

And one of the ways that they do this so effectively is not through the literal truth but rather through a piece of fiction.

In the book, as far as we know, it is not Ernest who is poisoning his wife.

In the book, it is the doctors who are poisoning Mollie through her insulin medicine. Mollie, like many of the Osage, is diabetic because of the sugar that’s come into her community from the white culture. She’s diabetic, and insulin is still very rare. 

And William Hale, playing the role of the savior, has come in to say, “Hey, I’m going to help you. I can give you this thing that nobody else can give you that is going to save your life.” 

And Mollie already doesn’t trust William, and she doesn’t trust the doctors.

But she trusts her husband.

And he loves her. And desperate to save her life, he begs her to take the insulin.

And she does.

In the movie adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon, it’s Ernest, not the doctors, who injects Mollie with the life-saving insulin. Until one day, he’s told to add a little something else…

And this grows structurally out of another fiction.

In the true story, the Bureau of Investigation launches an investigation into the Osage murders without Mollie ever going to Washington. Although the Osage did reach out to Washington for help, Mollie was not a part of that.

Part of this is just good screenwriting. You have a Native American lead, about whom you have much less historical record. You want to build around her, and even though she’s primarily victimized, even though she primarily does not have control over her own life, you don’t want her to be portrayed purely as a victim in your story. 

You want her to feel like a character. Like a real, multidimensional person. So you need to feel there’s movement, like she is moving her own story forward through the force of her own will, even as these terrible things happen to her. 

You need to turn her into an active character. 

I want to be clear. Whenever you’re adapting a historical story or any other true story, you have to be able to look yourself in the eye and know that you are living up to your own ethics. 

In writing a screenplay adaptation, your job is not to “make stuff up.” But sometimes it is your job to use fiction to tell the truth.

So in this case, Mollie has an internal desire to save her family, to save her people. And that gets externalized into a dramatic, external action that’s rooted in the real facts but is actually fiction. 

In the movie, Mollie, close to death from poison, risks everything to go to Washington to beg for help.

Her choice becomes the catalyst that brings Jesse Plemons’ character, Tom White, and the Bureau of Investigation to Oklahoma to solve these murders. 

It’s fiction, but it’s an externalization of a truth. 

Scorcese and Roth use this fiction to take an internal problem and turn it into an external one.

They also use it structurally to put pressure on William Hale. And to put pressure on Ernest.

And it forces another fictional decision, which is also an externalization of the truth and is vital to understanding the structure of Ernest’s journey in Killers of the Flower Moon.

Even though he might not have been the one to literally inject Mollie with the poison in the true story, or in the book, internally, emotionally, metaphorically, Ernest Burkhart is poisoning Mollie. 

He is poisoning her family. He is poisoning her community.

He is poison.

In the real story, he didn’t administer the shots even as he killed off everybody she loved. In this story, the metaphorical poison is turned into actual poison. The internal choice is externalized into action. 

Scorcese and Roth do this to show the enormity of Ernest’s betrayal, in order to codify it visually in the audience’s mind.

So William Hale gives Ernest a little bit of poison through the doctors. We don’t know for sure at this point that it’s poison. Ernest doesn’t know for sure at this point that it’s poison. He just knows it’s a vial.

But like us, he has some pretty strong suspicions. 

Ernest is told, (paraphrased) “Just mix a little bit of this in with her insulin, make sure you get the proportions right. It’ll calm her down.”

And here’s a very interesting choice made with Ernest’s character.

Ernest is not very bright.

Ernest is greedy. Ernest is selfish. Ernest has charm. But Ernest is not very bright.

And he wants to believe his uncle, even though he (kind of) knows.

There’s a problem he and his Uncle Hale are trying to solve (stemming from the fictionalized choice to have Mollie go to Washington).

They can’t have Mollie going around and getting the Bureau of Investigation involved. They can’t have her going to Washington again and messing up all their plans.

All this money is supposed to flow to Ernest because every time one of the Osage dies, the money flows to Mollie. And Mollie is sick.

And when Mollie dies, the money will go to Ernest.

So there’s this giant funnel. And Hale and Ernest cannot have Mollie stirring up the pot. 

So Hale tells Ernest a lie about the poison… it’s just to calm her down a little.

And Ernest repeats the same lie to himself, knowing it’s a lie but also wanting to believe it’s the truth.

Ernest is dumb enough that we’re not sure how much he believes. And like us, he doesn’t really want to look at or believe in the full evil of his uncle– or of himself.

He mixes in the poison, and he starts to poison Mollie. And she starts to get sicker and sicker and sicker and sicker.

She is trusting him and he is poisoning her. 

Though fictional, by externalizing Ernest’s betrayal of Mollie structurally in this way, Killers of the Flower Moon extends that central metaphor for the larger betrayal of an entire civilization by another.

You’re going to look that kind of evil in the face. You’re going to look at this man who believes he loves this woman. And you’re going to watch him poison her.

And just in case that doesn’t do it, here’s another fictionalized scene to push you even further towards Scorcese’s take. 

There is a moment where Ernest starts to suspect that she’s dying because of him. 

He mixes half of the vial of poison into his own whiskey and drinks it.

And he gets so sick, lying slumped in his chair. 

We think for a moment, Now he’s going to stop. Now he knows what it feels like. Now he knows without a doubt. Now even the lie that he’s been telling himself, that he’s always suspected was a lie, now even that lie is busted.

And then we watch him, still in that state of being sick, inject her once again with the poison.

Martin Scorsese and Eric Roth are forcing you to look evil in the eye.

They are not staying 100% true to the literal facts of the case. They are not staying true to the structure of the book they are adapting. 

Instead, they’re pulling this one element out of the true story– the relationship between Ernest and Mollie– and dramatizing it with the full intensity of their creative powers. 

They’re building around that relationship as much as they can. And then they’re deepening around it, pushing those elements even further. Using external fiction to dramatize internal truth.

Are the fictional choices Scorsese and Roth made on Killers of the Flower Moon the right way to adapt a true story?

That’s a question that each writer needs to answer for themselves and for their specific project. 

Whenever you are adapting, there are always going to be internal truths that you need to externalize, because so much of what happens in real life happens in our heads.

Similarly, so much of what happens in real life happens over so much time, we need to create fictional scenes in order for the truth to become clear within the constraints of a feature length film (even if it’s a 3hr 26 minute feature like Killers of the Flower Moon).

So when you have a take on a piece, you also have to think, What am I saying and what do I believe? Am I telling a lie, or am I telling an emotional truth? Am I telling a lie or am I telling a metaphor that externalizes something true?

You have to remember that your storytelling is going to become the history that people believe.

When people think about what happened to the Osage, they are not going to be thinking about all the articles that were written. They probably are not even going to be thinking about David Grann’s book. 

They’re going to be thinking about the Martin Scorcese movie, Killers of the Flower Moon.

So you have to think about that when you’re writing your script. 

Are the fictional choices you’re making delivering something so valuable that they tell a story in a more true way? Or are they just fiction?

And if they are just fiction, you have to really ask yourself, Am I going to be able to look at myself in the mirror when this is over?

But if they are allowing you to tell the truth in a truer way, then they just might be serving you.

The same thing is true with your take. 

There is no doubt that Martin Scorsese and Eric Roth could have told a more exciting and enjoyable story for their audience by making different choices. But that would have undermined what they’re actually trying to say as writers. 

The goal of Killers of the Flower Moon is not to entertain the audience nor to allow them to distance themselves emotionally by unraveling the mystery with their intellect. It’s to bludgeon them with the evil that they don’t want to look at.

Which is why the screenplay and the movie keep on going, in all their horror and redundancy… 

Here’s what happens next…

There is a huge explosion. Two people are killed this time— a white man and his Native wife. They’re both killed in this huge explosion.

And up until this moment, we’ve really been seeing William Hale as the bad guy. He’s a bad apple in a pretty nice community. Nobody else seems to know what’s happening. 

We have some white men who are clearly marrying Osage women for the money, but they don’t seem to see the bigger picture of what’s really going on. Only William Hale knows. 

So this huge explosion happens. Ernest has arranged for yet another one of Mollie’s sisters and her white husband to be killed so that once again the money will flow back towards Mollie and through Mollie to him.

But as they stand outside the smoldering ruins, there is a moment when another white man looks at William Hale and says, “You’re announcing yourself too much, William.”

In that moment, you realize that the evil that you think you’ve been looking at is not even the full evil.

That’s the moment where you realize that it is so much worse. 

This is not just William Hale and a couple of corrupt doctors. You realize that everybody knows.

So we have this structure, we have this length, and it’s used to bludgeon you, over and over, with the evil you don’t want to look at.

And let me be clear. The movie’s too long if you’re a new writer. You don’t get away with that. Martin Scorsese can.

But even for Martin Scorsese, it has to be that long for a reason.

It is built this way to force you to keep looking evil in the eye. To look at it, to be immersed in it. You are deprived of the things that allow you to distance yourself by having a good time, by trying to solve the puzzle in your head. Even by being surprised by what happens and who does what. 

All that is stripped away. You don’t get to have a good time watching this movie.

Instead, you’re going to watch something evil get more and more and more evil, something as bad as you can imagine, that gets worse and worse and worse, right out in the open.

By the time the movie is over, Ernest is going to be standing in a room filled with white people, all of whom know what really happened. And they’re all saying, Don’t do this. Don’t send your poor uncle to prison for the rest of his life. He can protect you, don’t do this.

And you start to realize it’s even worse than you thought.

This meeting is yet another fiction used to tell the truth in the adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon.

As far as we know from the book, that meeting with all those white people didn’t actually happen. 

It is true that William Hale’s lawyer, when Ernest was going to testify, did claim to represent Ernest, and did flip him to the side of the defense.

But that scene with all those white people gathered around, that scene is invented. 

You can see that this scene was invented not to tell a fiction but to tell a truth: this was not just one bad guy, one bad apple. 

The idea that this was just Robert De Niro’s character, William Hale, that’s actually the red herring.

It’s not just the King. It is all of his subjects as well. All these white people who seem to be living at peace with this other group. 

They all know what’s actually going on.

Remember, Killers of the Flower Moon is told through the love story. When you find your hook, when you find your take, you have to follow it. 

So we need to build out this love story.

How do Scorsese and Roth do it? 

We have been watching Ernest poison his wife. And shortly before everything starts to fall apart, there is a moment where William Hale tells Ernest, (paraphrased) “You need to sign this.” It’s a contract that on Ernest’s death gives all his money to the King.

And Ernest doesn’t want to sign it. He’s afraid to sign it. Because he’s seen his uncle kill both white men and Osage. And he can’t help but wonder if his uncle would kill him too.

Hale tells Ernest that his brother Byron signed the same contract. But it’s really clear Byron did not sign. It’s really clear that Hale is lying. Ernest knows he is signing his death warrant.

And he signs it. 

This is such an interesting move. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it’s such an interesting move structurally.

Do you see how that complicates this love story? It forces you to look at the banality, the stupidity of evil. 

In a way, Ernest is just a follower, who’s going to do what he’s told. In a way, he’s going to sign his own death warrant in the same way he’s going to sign Mollie’s. Because he just can’t stand up for what’s right. Because he just can’t stand up to something that is so obviously wrong, even if that means his death. Because his trust is in all the wrong places.

And because he doesn’t know how to love anybody.

Not even himself.

Similarly, there’s a fictional scene in Killers of the Flower Moon that takes place in prison. 

This scene is not in the book. It didn’t happen. It’s not real.

But we have a story about Ernest being pulled between two different sides. He was going to testify against his uncle, because his uncle is going to kill him, because it’s the only way to save himself, because he’s been trapped by a cop – the Jesse Plemons character – who’s smarter than he is, who’s also manipulating him.

And now Ernest has flipped, and he is going to defend his Uncle William Hale. He’s going to claim everything he previously said about his uncle’s plan was a lie. 

Ernest loses his immunity and is thrown into prison– conveniently, for drama’s sake, in a cage right across from his uncle.

And just when it seems things can’t get worse, he’s going to have to process the fact that his child has died. (That’s true). 

And out of that grief will grow this final (fictional) confrontation between the two in prison.

This confrontation is going to lead to Ernest flipping again. (Which is true, he did.) 

But that confrontation didn’t happen. The confrontation is an externalization of the internal problem.

It’s a complication of the question he’s been wrestling with, Can I believe this man? Does this man care about me? Does this man love me? 

Ernest is being manipulated by both sides. 

Hale tells him and keeps telling him, (paraphrased) “You can’t trust the Bureau guys. They are going to throw you in jail, just like they did to me. You can’t trust them. They’re manipulating you.”

Guess what? He’s right. Even after Ernest flips back and convicts his uncle, they are going to put him back in jail and prosecute him for the murders.

Everybody is manipulating Ernest because he does not have the ability to do what is right. He does not have the backbone to do what is right.

The structure of Killers of the Flower Moon culminates (of course) through Ernest’s relationship with Mollie. 

Mollie has still stood by Ernest (both in the movie and the true story) through all of this. Until in court, Ernest confesses to murdering everybody she’s ever loved.

And Scorcese and Roth construct another fictional scene that grows out of all of this fiction around the poisoning. 

The poisoning is real. And probably even Ernest knowing about it might be real. 

But they’re taking the knowing or the suspecting or the wondering, and they’re turning it into action.

This ends up being the culminating scene between Ernest and Mollie. 

Mollie says, “Even in your confession, you didn’t share everything.” (Paraphrased.) 

And he says, “No, no, I did.” (Paraphrased.)

She asks him, “What were you giving me with the insulin?” (Paraphrased.) 

And he lies to her. He doesn’t tell her the truth.

And that’s the moment that she decides to divorce him. 

It’s true that Mollie did divorce Ernest. She stood with him through all of this until he confessed, and then she divorced him and married another man, just like the movie tells you. All of that is true.

But do you see how all of the internal feelings in their relationship, Ernest’s love–is it love? Is it fear? Is it just manipulation? Is it something complicated in between? Is it just an inability to stand up for himself? For Mollie, is it love?how all these things are dramatized by externalizing the internal feelings, by creating fictions around the truth, by creating fictions that are intended to amplify the truth.

With your own writing, once again, I can’t tell you what is true and what is not true. But I can tell you this – If you write something that’s not true for you, you will regret it.

Because someday it’s going to be on the screen. And it’s going to be the story.

Some critics are critical of Killers of the Flower Moon for its departure from the truth. Others for its length and its undermining of its own entertainment value. 

But others, myself included, think that the choices Scorsese and Roth made, even though they took away from some of the entertainment value, actually tell the bigger story of what happened to the Osage, of what happened to the Native people of this country.

The choice to tell the story of betrayal in the name of love.

The choice to show the pure horror of a man who still believes he loves his wife, even after he has taken everything from her.

Those choices are actually the choices that tell that story in the most truthful way.

I hope that you enjoyed this podcast. If you are getting a lot out of it and it’s helping your writing, come and study with us. We have a free online class every Thursday night, foundation classes in screenwriting and TV writing, a Master Class for those of you who want a grad school education at the tiniest fraction of the cost, and a a wonderful ProTrack mentorship program that will pair you one on one with a professional writer, who will read every page you write and mentor you through your entire career at less than you would pay for a single semester of grad school.

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