with the mae­stro

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

story? He must have been a sen­si­tive child.

“I guess I must have been,” he chor­tles. “But it’s a won­der­ful film.”

I am happy to re­port that he comes across as a very nice man. Neat and trim in a grey suit – “MS” mono­grammed be­neath his shirt pocket – he lis­tens more care­fully than any­body in his po­si­tion needs to and laughs heartily when you try to be funny. Mind you, of that gen­er­a­tion of movie brats (most movie pen­sion­ers now), he al­ways came across as the least pre­cious. Se­ri­ously asth­matic, some­what shy de­spite his ver­bosity, Scors­ese was never as flam­boy­ant as the mas­sive Cop­pola or as assertive as the noisy Brian De Palma.

None­the­less, he did seem very much part of a gang. With the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, he must have gained some un­der­stand­ing as to why that gen­er­a­tion made such a dif­fer­ence. Was it to do with their at­tend­ing film school? Or in­flu­ence of the French New Wave? Were they just hopped-up on 1960s goof­balls?

“Well, we all felt we had some­thing to say with our films,” he says. “Maybe I am say­ing the same thing over and over again. If I am, I don’t know I am. I try not to. The things I make films about are the things that in­ter­est me.” But there must have been some­thing in the air that en­er­gised th­ese old chums.

“In a sense. It was fi­nally the demise of the old stu­dio sys­tem and we all had an ex­traor­di­nary amount of am­bi­tion. We all had such en­ergy.

“Lu­cas, Spiel­berg, De Palma, Cop­pola: the en­ergy lev­els were so high you couldn’t stay in the same room as us. It was all en­joy­able, though. We were dif­fi­cult no doubt, but we were also al­ways help­ing one an­other with each other’s films – un­til ev­ery­thing changed in the late 1970s.”

The story has been told so of­ten that it has cal­ci­fied into a kind of leg­end. Af­ter trans­form­ing Hol­ly­wood with risky films such as Cop­pola’s The God­fa­ther, William Fried­kin’s The Ex­or­cist and Scors­ese’s own Taxi Driver, the movie brats were even­tu­ally reigned in by the rise of the block­buster. Ge­orge Lu­cas and Steven Spiel­berg – con­tem­po­raries and friends of Scors­ese – gave the stu­dios the means to re­gain con­trol.

“Since the 1980s, Hol­ly­wood has de­vel­oped a new stu­dio sys­tem,” Scors­ese agrees. “It’s all to do with the block­buster.”

Is that a bad thing? “Yes, I think in terms of per­sonal ex­pres­sion it is. Now, peo­ple for­get al­ways that there were big-bud­geted films made even in the 1940s. What con­cerns me is that there are fewer huge pic­tures that take chances. Maybe, you take a risk with $50 mil­lion. When you make a film for $250 mil­lion, what risks are you go­ing to take? I mean, re­ally.”

Scors­ese knows the value of money. Raised as a work­ing class kid in the ten­e­ments of New York’s Lit­tle Italy – his par­ents worked in the gar­ment district – he re­mem­bers see­ing hood­lums do “ter­ri­ble things” in the lo­cale’s darker al­ley­ways. Ob­sessed with movies from an early age, he en­joyed snip­ping pho­to­graphs from mag­a­zines and (he still feels guilty about this) li­brary books to com­pose elab­o­rately an­no­tated scrap­books.

Yet be­fore he en­tered New York Uni­ver­sity’s film school, he fa­mously dal­lied with the idea of be­com­ing a priest. Ref­er­ences to the Catholic faith still lit­ter his films and his con­ver­sa­tion. He hasn’t es­caped yet.

“I don’t think I have much choice,” he says with a full-throated cackle.

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“That’s the re­li­gion I know. That’s the re­li­gion I was formed with. Yes, it still seems to come through the ma­te­rial. We are all hu­man be­ings.

“What’s hu­man na­ture? I have al­ways been looking ul­ti­mately to ad­dress that part of our­selves that em­braces re­li­gion – that em­braces the spir­i­tual. What can one do to be pu­ri­fied, to get a pure line right into the soul for tran­scen­dence? Can re­li­gion help that? Ob­vi­ously to some ex­tent. Maybe you have to re­ject re­li­gion to find that.”

If you were search­ing for a phrase that sum­marised Scors­ese’s quest, then “What can one do to be pu­ri­fied?” will do as well as any. “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the street” was the curt, ap­pro­pri­ate tagline for Mean Streets (1973), his first ma­jor film. Taxi Driver, re­leased three years later, found Robert De Niro wash­ing his (and our) sins away with a gal­lon of ten­e­ment blood. Atone­ment, sac­ri­fice and ab­so­lu­tion spill out of his films like vis­cera from a jagged wound.

Glanc­ing at that odd list of films, one, once again, mar­vels at the di­rec­tor’s abil­ity to stay be­hind the cam­era. There have been many catas­tro­phes. Gangs of New York ran hugely over bud­get and, it is said, was edited to the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of vo­cal rows be­tween Scors­ese and pro­ducer Har­vey We­in­stein. The Last Temp­ta­tion of Christ took about a decade to fi­nally stum­ble con­tro­ver­sially onto screen. No­body on earth – I mean no­body – went to see Kun­dun, but Scors­ese has al­ways

More un­rea­son­able when work­ing with Har­vey We­in­stein?

“Some­what, some­what. Ha ha ha! But that’s only be­cause Har­vey is a film-maker, not just a busi­ness­man. The We­in­steins un­der­stand movies. ‘We don’t have enough money to fin­ish, so what are we go­ing to do. Let’s try and deal with what we have.’ They grasp those ques­tions. Look, the other day I was in Rome, where we made Gangs, and I thought: if things had gone dif­fer­ently, we could still be shoot­ing this film now. It could have gone on for­ever.”

Scors­ese seems to have en­tered a calmer space of late. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, deep into a near-fa­tal co­caine habit and hob­bled by con­gen­i­tal ill-health, he poured out his anx­i­eties through bit­ter, bril­liant films such as Rag­ing Bull and The King of Com­edy. Over the past eight years, fol­low­ing the trauma of Gangs of New York, he has eased his way into slicker, more main­stream dra­mas such as The Avi­a­tor, The De­parted and, now, Shut­ter Is­land. Marty’s new muse, star of his last four films, has been the cheru­bic Leonardo DiCaprio.

“With him, I see a young man with the abil­ity to take his ma­tur­ing and utilise it,” he says. “He chan­nels his per­sonal life and his de­vel­op­ment as a young man into his creative life. I can ask 1,000 ques­tions of Leo and he will come up with 1,010 an­swers. He is deadly se­ri­ous.”

We are bound to won­der about the con­trast be­tween DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. Hav­ing worked to­gether on six oc­ca­sions, De Niro and Scors­ese are still viewed as one of cin­ema’s great dou­ble acts. Yet, re­mem­ber­ing all those sto­ries about De Niro’s im­mer­sion in The Method, one imag­ines he might not al­ways have been the most af­fa­ble per­son on the set.

“Bob is al­ways af­fa­ble to me,” he says. “We get along very well. Both meth­ods – Bob’s and Leo’s — are very deep. Part of the dif­fer­ence is, I am 35 years older than Leo. Bob and I have the same con­tacts – we can fin­ish each other’s sen­tences. When other peo­ple are around, they can barely un­der­stand what we are say­ing as a re­sult.”

Scors­ese goes on to con­firm that, in a year or two, he and De Niro will re­unite for a film about the twi­light years of a re­gret­ful hit­man. Be­fore that there will be a biopic (cast­ing still un­der wraps) of Frank Si­na­tra and a doc­u­men­tary on Ge­orge Har­ri­son.

Then what? Hol­ly­wood is such a weird place th­ese days. What with all this 3-D rub­bish and . . .

“Oh I love 3-D,” he says to my sur­prise. “I re­mem­ber I was 10 or 11 when it first came round and we were so ex­cited. I re­mem­ber Dial M for Mur­der. It wasn’t one of Hitch­cock’s best, but it showed that you could make a se­ri­ous film in that medium. Look at the very early days of cin­ema, and the ini­tial im­pulse was for sound, colour, widescreen and 3-D. There are early ex­am­ples of them all.”

So might we see Si­na­tra in 3-D? “You have to find a way for the medium to make sense. I may not be able to do it. But my daugh­ter’s gen­er­a­tion might.”

At which point, he rolls back his shoul­der and pre­pares to launch into a spec­u­la­tive his­tory of cin­ema’s next cen­tury. Sadly for us both, the busy, chatty 20 min­utes are up. Small man. Big, big per­son­al­ity.

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