The Departed was one of the most self-indulgently violent thrillers of 2006 With a star-studded cast featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, and Jack Nicholson, the Martin Scorsese mob movie held no prisoners. Its success was largely down to William Monohan’s expertly balanced script. But according to Damon, Nicholson wasn’t content being given the coolest lines page after page; he wanted to take his character, Frank Costello, to an even darker place.
Reflecting on the film during the WTF podcast with Marc Maron, Damon recalled how the pair bonded over their shared love of writing. Matt, let’s not forget, wrote the screenplay for Good Will Hunting with Ben Affleck. During the first rehearsal of The Departed, Nicholson also confessed that he “‘never would have made it this far if I wasn’t a great f***ing writer.'”
Damon began to understand exactly what Nicholson meant when The Shining actor began making edits to the Departed script. “The scene was one-eighth of a page,” Damon recalled. “It said, ‘Costello executes a man kneeling in the marsh.’ That’s all it said,” Damon went on to add that most actors would have been relieved for such a small scene in what is a long film. Not Nicholson.
“Jack was so excited and said [to me], ‘Wait until you hear what I did,'” Damon continued. “He goes, ‘Well, it was an eighth of a page,’ and he goes, ‘I’ve seen that before, so what I did is I made it a woman … and I put Ray [Winston] in the scene with me.’ He goes, ‘We’re gonna keep in this same shot, I’m not gonna add any time or money to the schedule. But I shoot her in the back of the head, and she falls over. Now, you could end the scene there, but if you keep the camera rolling, I turn to Ray and I say, ‘Geez, she fell funny.’ Now, that’s a very sinister line. It suggests that I’ve done this before. There’s a way that people fall.'”
Sinister indeed, but it gets worse: “‘Now you could end the scene there,'” Damon remembered Nicholson telling him, “‘but if you keep the camera rolling, Ray reveals an axe that he’s holding behind his back. He’s gonna chop her up. So Ray starts to step forward. Now you could end the scene there, but if you leave the camera rolling, I say, ‘Wait, I think I wanna f— her again.’ Now that’s a very sinister line.'”
Damon was clearly pretty stunned: “I’m like, ‘Jesus,'” he said. But Nicholson had more to add. “‘You could end the scene there, but if you keep the camera rolling, Ray gives me a look and after a long pause, I go, ‘Ahhhhh!’ Like I’ve got him,'” Nicholson told Damon. “‘Now, you could keep the camera rolling, Ray says to me, ‘Francis, you really ought to see somebody.'”
According to Matt, Nicholson’s edits added around a minute to the production time and didn’t cost Scorsese any more money. While some of his suggestions were deemed a little too twisted by the director, his execution of the woman, the line about her falling funny, and Ray Winstone’s “You really ought to see somebody” line all made the final cut. Blimey, with that kind of imagination, it’s no wonder Leonardo Dicaprio confessed to being terrified of Nicholson while they were shooting scenes together.