Martin Scorsese Curated
American film director
CURATED BY :
What’s your opinion about resurrecting actors digitally after they’ve passed on? Like Star Wars brought back Peter Cushing.
Well, when you’re talking about Star Wars, that’s another universe. Anything’s allowed. But if you took, I don’t know, Spencer Tracy and put him in something… I don’t know about that. Because what is the basis of the emotion of the actor if you’re creating it all by computer? You may have aspects and data from the actor from other projects they did. [But with The Irishman], we have the actor. I help with the performance when I select it in editing. We have to re-work the performance with all the data, but that data is still them, now, for the most part. If you were to take Clark Gable or Brando or Olivier, or stars from the Golden Age, that might be different and strange. But then, who’s to say cinema is one thing? It’s certainly many different things and right now we’re in a great period of evolution.
What place in your heart does the cinema of 40s hold?
How were your films in 70s inspired by 40s films?
What place do you think films has with the future of technology?
I do think, with the advent of digital, there’s good hope that the storytelling impulse will always be there. I don’t know what the technique will be, or what the format will be — whether it’ll be a one-inch screen on your wrist — I don’t know. But young people think differently than the way we thought when we saw films on the big screen. It’s very exciting, and in a sense there’s no more excuses for not being able to take your passion, if you have it, to create something with a visual aesthetic.
What is the breakdown of creative control and the structure of responsibilities given to your team in films?
Do you consider editing to be a tool to truly express your vision?
How do you deal with obstacles which across the way of your filmmaking process?
What purpose does the world of cinema hold in your life?
What is your take on violence in film?
What is the importance of learning cinematic language for the younger generation?
Do you feel the importance of visual literacy also have a place in history?
How do you think once can gain visual literacy?
How did you fall in love with visual literacy when you were young?
Is it true that DeNiro rode a cab to practice for his role in Taxi Driver?
Yeah. I drove with him several nights. He got a strange feeling when he was hacking. He was totally anonymous. People would say anything, do anything in the backseat - it was like he didn't exist. Finally a guy gets in, a former actor, who recognizes his name on the license. "Jesus," he says, "last year you won the Oscar and now you're driving a cab again." DeNiro said he was only doing research.
How did you shoot the final violent shooting scene in Taxi Driver?
We shot those in slow motion. In 48 frames to the second, which is twice the ordinary 24 frames - and, of course, if You shoot it twice as fast and project it at the regular speed, it comes out half as fast... The slow motion and DeNiro's arms...we wanted him to look almost like a monster, a robot, King Kong coming to save Fay Wray. Another thing: All of the close-ups of DeNiro where he isn't talking were shot 48 frames to the second - to draw out and exaggerate his reactions. What an actor, to look so great up against a technique like that! I shot all those shots myself, to see for myself what kind of reaction we were getting.
What was your opinion on the recently released movie 'Joker'?
I’m fascinated by the fact that it’s influenced by King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. Especially King of Comedy, because I always point out that the only place that King of Comedy was appreciated was Britain. But I didn’t want to get involved with it.
How key was the cast in The Irishman?
Bob and I had tried for many years to come up with a project. This one actually started about 35 years ago with the idea of the remake of The Bad and the Beautiful and the sequel Two Weeks in Another Town. Somehow we exhausted that. And so when Bob came across this story and gave it to me, he said: “You know, this is an amazing part for Joe, if he wants to do it.” And also for Al Pacino – and I never worked with Al all these years, you know? We just knew that they were right for it. And then we looked at each other and realised we were meant for this somehow. It’s not necessarily a culmination, but a sense of contemplation of where we are, near the end of our lives.
Why do you think the audience connected to Irishman on such a level?
I honestly can’t give you an intelligent answer. The making of it was, in a way, fateful. We were blessed with financial and creative support from Netflix and it seemed to just flow once it got started. I don’t know how to accurately express the atmosphere, because people think: “Oh, it’s just old friends getting together and hanging out.” It wasn’t really that way at all. It was something that we simply had to do. And I never expected it to be received this way. You know, we’re at the end of our lives and we just do the best we can. And if it hits a chord, and if people embrace it – that’s wonderful. Also, because of the Netflix situation, we were able to experiment more – narrative style, visual style, length. In a sense, the revolution is such that we don’t know where these films are being seen. Is there one place for a film to be seen now? You know, I grew up when there was only one place to see a film. And then there arrived a little 12in or 16in black-and-white TV, and that’s where I saw things such as the early David Lean films, The Third Man, Citizen Kane with commercials and the March of Time sequence edited out. Seeing them in the theatre was amazing, it was the main venue, so to speak, but you had the ancillary. I guess it’s a long, roundabout way of saying that it just seemed to be natural and I followed my instincts in terms of style and length. And that was before we got to the detail of the CGI, which I call the evolution of makeup. That was extraordinarily experimental, too. We did not know if it was going to work, so we felt our way through it.
You and your work have become virtually synonymous with the idea of integrity. Do you find that inhibiting?
No, I feel really good about it. I feel gratified that people feel that the work is — I don’t know what words you want to use — personal or uncompromising. No matter what happens, though, there are compromises. You can say, “Yes, I’m going to make The Last Temptation of Christ. Give me $7 million, and I can do it.” But it’s compromised at $7 million. I would have liked certain angles. I would have liked extra days for shooting. Okay, that’s artistic compromise, and people may say that what the film has to say is not compromised. But one has to realize it’s scary, because you have to keep a balance. You want to get films made that express what you have to say, but it’s a very delicate balance. I would like the chance to try exactly what I’m doing now with Cape Fear, for example — to do a great thriller and to give the audience what they expect from a thriller but also to have those elements which make my pictures somewhat different. I will try. I tried in Color of Money. I don’t know if it was totally successful there.
How did you come about with the legendary mirror scene in Taxi Driver?
We improvised the mirror scene. That’s true. I did improvise him talking in the mirror: “Are you talking to me?” It was in the script that he was doing this thing with the guns and looking at himself, and I told Bob he’s got to say something. He’s got to talk to himself. We didn’t know what. We started playing with it, and that’s what came out.
What is your opinions on some of your films which didn't do as well? Like After Hours, The Color of Money, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore?
On one level they were all hard work, learning experiences. With, let’s say, Ellen Burstyn in Alice, I needed to do something that was a major studio film for a certain amount of money and to prove that I can direct women. It was as simple as that. After Hours was trying to learn again, after The Last Temptation of Christ was pulled away, to make a film quicker. And The Color of Money was trying to do a real Hollywood picture, with movie stars like Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. But each one was a lesson. And Cape Fear, to a certain extent, will be that way too. Although in Cape Fear, I got Bob De Niro. It becomes something else.
You've gone on to say that Raging Bull and Mean streets are your personal favorites. Why not Taxi Driver?
Taxi Driver really is Paul Schrader’s. We interpreted it. Paul Schrader gave the script to me because he saw Mean Streets and liked Bob in it and liked me as a director. We — meaning Bob and myself — both had the same feelings about Travis, the way he was written, the way Paul had it. It was as if we all felt the same thing, like a little club between the three of us. Paul Schrader and myself had a certain affinity about religion and life, death and guilt and sex. Paul and I are very close on that sort of thing. But I must say the original concept is all his. I’m not being falsely modest — another guy can come along and say he merely interpreted it and ruin it. But you’ve got to understand that the original idea came from him. And I think when they say, “Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver,” that’s something that can be very painful to Paul. It’s really his.
Which of your movies mean the most to you?
Well, Mean Streets is always a favorite of mine because of the music and because it was the story of myself and my friends. It was the movie that people originally took notice of. It’s kind of a favorite, but I certainly couldn’t watch it. It’s too personal. I like certain elements of Raging Bull; I like the starkness of it and the wild fight scenes, the subjective fight scenes, as if you were in the ring yourself, being hit. Frank Warner’s sound effects are just so wonderful. I like the look of a lot of it. And I love Bob and Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty. And Frank Vincent. I love the performances. Nick Colasanto. It was just wonderful.
You used Kamikaze filmmaking as a term to describe the making of Raging Bull. What does that mean?
What I meant was that I threw everything I knew into it, and if it meant the end of my career, then it would have to be the end of my career.
You often speak about your background, but the life you’ve been living for the past two decades is very different from the world you came from. Do you ever feel a conflict about dramatizing people and a place that you yourself have left behind?
Because you left it behind doesn’t mean that you don’t have it. It’s what you come from. You have an affinity to it, and very often you have a love of it, too. I can’t exist there now; I don’t belong there anymore. But I can damn well try to make sure that when I use it in a film like GoodFellas, I make it as truthfully as possible. What’s wrong with that? A lot of what I learned about life came from there.
What was your ideology behind Mean Streets?
That’s the whole story of Mean Streets. I wanted to make an anthropological study: It was about myself and my friends. I figured even if it was on a shelf some years later, people would take it and see that’s what Italian Americans — not the godfather, not big bosses — lived like on the everyday scale. This is what they really talked like and looked like and what they did. This was the lifestyle.
You grew up in New York’s Little Italy section, which is right next to Greenwich Village. But in your movies it’s as if that other world hardly existed. Why is that?
On the Lower East Side we didn’t have the influx of other cultures, that very important bohemian culture. That there was another world — we didn’t know that. I never went to the Village until I enrolled at New York University in 1960; I had one foot in the university and the other foot in the world of Mean Streets. From 1950 to 1960, for ten years, I never ventured past Broadway and Houston Street. I remember a friend of mine — I was about nine years old — his mother took us to the Village to see the little houses and flowers. It was like a wonderland. It was a very different culture. I was used to wonderful stuff, too, on Elizabeth Street: five grocery stores, three butcher shops, all on one block. Two barbershops on one block. Barrels of olives. Growing up down there was like being in a Sicilian village.
You often speak of your movies in spiritual terms, but there’s a brutal physicality about so many of them. How do you square that?
It’s just the struggle, that’s all. The struggle to stay alive and even to want to stay alive. Just this corporal thing we’re encased in and the limitation of it and how your spirit tries to spring out of it, fly away from it. And you can’t. You can try. People say you can do it through poetry; you can do it through the work you do. Thought. But you still feel imprisoned. So the body is what you deal with, and it’s a struggle to keep that body alive.
You’ve said that it’s not until Jake is alone in his cell in Raging Bull that he faces his real enemy: himself. What is your take on that?
Totally. That’s the one he’s been paranoid about all along. It gets to be so crazy; if his brother and Tommy Como and Salvy and Vickie did everything he thought they did, he can only do one of two things: Kill them all or just let it go. If you let it go, it’s not the end of the world. But no, no, he’s got to battle it out in the ring. He’s got to battle it out at home. He’s got to battle it everywhere until finally everybody else has disappeared, and he’s dealing with himself. And ultimately…ultimately, it’s you.
What interests you about such immoral characters which exist in the majority of your filmography?
There are a thousand answers to that. It’s good drama. You see part of yourself. I like to chart a character like that, see how far they go before they self-destruct. It’s interesting how it starts to turn against them after a while, whether it’s shooting people in the street or arguing in the home, in the kitchen or the bedroom. How after a while the breaking point comes when everything just explodes, and they’re left alone.
What led you to make Goodfellas?
I read a review of Wiseguy when I was directing The Color of Money, and it said something about this character Henry Hill having access to many different levels of organized crime because he was somewhat of an outsider. He looked a little nicer. He was able to be a better frontman and speak a little better. I thought that was interesting, because you could get a cross section of the layers of organized crime — from his point of view, of course. So I got the book, started reading it and was fascinated by the narrative ability of it.
What did you mean by your statement that Hitchcock films are your generation's franchise films in contrast to the superhero franchise that exists today?
Every new Hitchcock picture was an event. To be in a packed house in one of the old theaters watching “Rear Window” was an extraordinary experience: It was an event created by the chemistry between the audience and the picture itself, and it was electrifying. And in a way, certain Hitchcock films were also like theme parks. I’m thinking of “Strangers on a Train,” in which the climax takes place on a merry-go-round at a real amusement park, and “Psycho,” which I saw at a midnight show on its opening day, an experience I will never forget. People went to be surprised and thrilled, and they weren’t disappointed. Sixty or 70 years later, we’re still watching those pictures and marveling at them. But is it the thrills and the shocks that we keep going back to? I don’t think so. The set pieces in “North by Northwest” are stunning, but they would be nothing more than a succession of dynamic and elegant compositions and cuts without the painful emotions at the center of the story or the absolute lostness of Cary Grant’s character.
What did you mean when you said that Marvel movies are not cinema?
When I was in England in early October, I gave an interview to Empire magazine. I was asked a question about Marvel movies. I answered it. I said that I’ve tried to watch a few of them and that they’re not for me, that they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life, and that in the end, I don’t think they’re cinema. Some people seem to have seized on the last part of my answer as insulting, or as evidence of hatred for Marvel on my part. If anyone is intent on characterizing my words in that light, there’s nothing I can do to stand in the way. Many franchise films are made by people of considerable talent and artistry. You can see it on the screen. The fact that the films themselves don’t interest me is a matter of personal taste and temperament. I know that if I were younger, if I’d come of age at a later time, I might have been excited by these pictures and maybe even wanted to make one myself. But I grew up when I did and I developed a sense of movies — of what they were and what they could be — that was as far from the Marvel universe as we on Earth are from Alpha Centauri.
Recently Tarantino released an extended version of Hateful Eight on Netflix, do you have any interest in releasing any of your classics in a long-form on the streaming service now that you’re working together?
No, no, no, no, no! The director’s cut is the film that’s released — unless it’s been taken away from the director by the financiers and the studio. The director has made their decisions based on the process they were going through at the time. There could be money issues, there could be somebody that dies while making the picture, the studio changes heads and the next person hates it. Sometimes a director says, “I wish I could go back and put it all back together.” All these things happen … But I do think once the die is cast, you have to go with it and say, “That’s the movie I made under those circumstances.”
You talk about how a traditional studio impacts things. With Goodfellas, the film reportedly received the worst test screening reaction in Warner Bros history. What was your honest reaction to that?
It was an angry reaction. It became very difficult. It was a constant battle until a few weeks before release … The movie terrified Warner Bros. executives at the time. You show it in front of a big audience to see what works or maybe what’s confusing. Just see what the audience can tolerate or not. Like, we noticed in the opening scene when Joe Pesci’s character took out the knife people started laughing, they were outraged. When he stabbed Billy Batts in the trunk, after the first two stabs, people started leaving. And then he did it a third time and more people left. And then I asked my editor Thelma Schoonmaker, “How many more we got left?” And she says: “Seven.” So okay. We didn’t need them leaving this soon, okay? We see the knife, we get it. Another thing was the scene with my mother in the kitchen chatting with Pesci and De Niro. They said, “It’s way too long, Marty, it’s gotta go, it’s gotta go.” Then they read these preview screening cards. People hated the picture, but the thing everybody liked was the scene with my mother. So we kept that! That’s why I thank those screenings.
The Goodfellas “I’m funny how” scene was heavily improvised by Pesci. Was there anything particularly memorable in The Irishmanthat was improvised by the actors?
Yes, a great deal of stuff based on a very solid script. It’s really how Bob and Al play off each other. If the script has [De Niro’s Frank Sheeran warning Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa] “I’m telling you that you have to stop now, that this is it, it’s the bottom line.” And Al’s next line is, “Oh, don’t tell me that.” How does Al get to “Don’t tell me that”? He could throw two or three lines in. He could take a long pause. What I’m getting at is around the dialogue as written they were able to play off each other and add or take away within the structure of the scene — and it was all truthful.
When you have De Niro and Pacino together in a scene is there something that’s unique about what is going on in that room from your standpoint?
First of all, there’s no “action” or “cut” — we just go. De Niro and I know each other for so long, we knew each other even when we were 16 years old. Al I’ve wanted to work with a number of times, but I’ve known him since [The Godfather director] Francis Coppola introduced me to him in 1970 when Francis told my mother about him. Francis wanted to put him in The Godfather but the studio was against it because he hadn’t acted in a movie yet. Even though Al and I haven’t worked together, we feel like we have — it’s the same circle. He’s wonderful to be around and respectful and appreciative. And Bob and Al have known each other for so long even though they only acted together in one [major] film, Heat — which was wonderful. It’s like, there are no problems there. Bob will tell me, “Oh, Al is great, you’ll see.” And I’ll say, “What do you mean?” And he just says “Al is great, he’s great...”
So personally, what excites you most about The Irishman?
Having gotten to make the film. The picture was very difficult to get made the past 10 years, and for many different reasons. But I really felt that De Niro and I had one more picture to make at least. Robert read Charles Brandt’s book [I Heard You Paint Houses] when he was doing [the 2006 drama] The Good Shepard. He gave it to me. I saw he was connected with the character and we’ve been wanting to make something together since Casino. I realized he really cares about the character, and that it’s something that could be moving. So I figured we’d take the trip. It took a while. It’s very special that we got it made. And I feel at this point in my life, it’s something that I feel the value of — if not for me, for Bob, Al, and Joe — a lot of people involved in it. And the fact people have reacted so strongly is really [pauses] I don’t know if I have the words to express the thanks. What’s special about it is that everything in our hearts was put into it at this stage of our lives.
Your New York Times editorial urged studios to take more risks. What is your take on that?
The emphasis on one-dimensional characters limits the audience, limits them as people. I think it started when cable news channels began carrying little banners at the bottom of the screen saying what film won the weekend; suddenly movies became about how much money a film made at the box office. You need people to come to a movie theater, I totally get it. But somehow things shifted and I think we’re shortchanging future generations. You have a responsibility to service the audience in a way that can engage them and enrich their lives. When you take artistic risks, it elevates the soul of the viewer.
What’s the most difficult part of filmmaking?
The most torturous stage is shooting. It’s physically difficult. I don’t like it when it’s too hot! As for cold, I don’t know where to begin, but heat is the worst — and mosquitos. They all come to me.
Al Pacino said you provide a valuable safety net for actors. How do you do that?
There is guidance on the set, but mostly it’s in preparing and in the casting. For example, I wanted Anna Paquin to play Peggy. She has maybe one line, but I knew she could make it work; with the look in her eyes and the body language, she tells so much. I do preparation with the actors, but part of the enjoyment is seeing what they bring. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great men and women.
“Irishman” is like a 50-year history of the U.S. and the world. What would be your opinion on that?
Yes, and how those events affected us. That was one of most difficult aspects to express in the film. Steve Zaillian and I talked about it, and I said these things have to be part of the story, almost like music in the background that rises and then recedes. These momentous events are occurring and they seem to have no effect on the story, and yet the story and the characters’ behavior reflect them.
The Irishman addresses guilt, personal responsibility, our own mortality. Were those tough to live with during the filmmaking?
That was the main reason to do the film. We need to think of those things, as human beings and as a society. In the 21st century, we shy away from it. Why not embrace it? You engage with mortality. And it’s not only death, but the question of whether there is meaning in life. Many people think there is no meaning. Well, if there isn’t, then you need to give it meaning.
“The Irishman” may seem like familiar territory for you, but it’s radically different from your other movies about the mob. Did you see it as risky?
Sure. Once I was given financial support from Netflix, there was no reason to restrict ourselves in terms of experimenting. I’ve been making films for 45 years, so why not explore? We kept pushing to see what we could learn about narrative, character, themes, the philosophical aspects of the story. Give it your all because who knows, this could be the last film you make.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve done making a movie?
Pretty much everything. I find when I make a movie that I never realise what is really involved. When we were shooting Raging Bull me and my producer would say, “This is crazy! How did we get here?” But if we thought that at the beginning, we never would’ve started.
What was it like growing up in the 1950s in New York?
I was around the working classes, not people who read books. The conservative working class, they had gone through the Great Depression and World War II and then there was quite an economic boom. The cars were getting bigger and more importantly the fins on the car were getting bigger. On the Lower East Side the only guys who had big things were wise guys. I mean, in New York if you’re working class you don’t have a car. In the city you use the subway or you use the bus.
Did your father take you to the cinema?
There was a bond between my father and I with those early films that I saw in the late 1940s and early ’50s until I started going to the films by myself. The only place I could really find a sense of entertainment that was not sports, fighting, running, laughing, going to the country, or seeing animals was in the movie theater.
Do you allow your daughter to see your movies yet? And when do you think you will?
No, no. My wife and I talk about it a lot. Kundun I’d like to show first, but it’s not necessarily the style even… Or Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, even The Color of Money maybe. But she’d have to see The Hustler first, which is a better picture, and I don’t necessarily want that. But still, The Hustler you have to be sophisticated to a certain extent, older than 13 or 14. So I don’t know, it’ll be interesting to see.
Are you getting more emotional as you age?
I’ve always been emotional. It’s genuine sentiment I hope. You know, it’s just a matter of growing older and seeing people around you being born and dying. And having a child at a late age is different from when my first two daughters were born when I was in my 20s and 30s; it’s a different perspective. It’s time to think of the end, like in my George Harrison picture. Being a Roman Catholic it’s always been time to think of the end for me.
You've said that it's very important for youngsters to watch old movies. Why is that?
I feel we must always, always expose the younger generation to the films of the past, that’s the best possible circumstance. Otherwise culture, everything will be forgotten. We’ll only be dealing with animated films and, you know, giant communal experiences that are surface films – you look at them once and – bang! – it’s gone. That would be horrible.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of cinema?
It’s a very exciting time because it’s all-new, everything is off the board. It’s no longer the cinema of the 20th century. I guess we’ll call it cinema, but films will be made for these small screens.