with the maestro
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.
“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.