With an arsenal of international awards and nominations to show for it, Scorsese’s career has spread with remarkable endurance overthe last five decades and left an indelible mark on the art, technique and dynamic of film-making. When asked whether he remembers the first movie which made a true impression and evoked his passion for film Scorsese replied that it must have happened when he was 4 or 5 years old. Scorsese was born in 1942 to working-class Italian-American parents who were employed in the Garment District of New York. He spoke of how both were very protective of him in his youth because of his asthmatic ill-health and in the film-makers own words their job was to ensure he “didn’t run or laugh.” As compensation Scorsese was frequently taken to the New York picture houses and thus experienced the full force of cinema’s Golden Age from early childhood.
“There’s a magic or a special state of fantasy that if one allows themselves to, they may be taken to when you experience a film. For me in my childhood that was through the use of colour.”
Throughout the interview Scorsese traced this most beautiful and powerful relationship with colour and violence which certainly helps us comprehend his understanding of aesthetic and the visual composition of many of his movies. Scorsese goes on to describe the trailer which became his first lasting impression of a moving image: Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger against an extraordinary blue-green sky. When Scorsese’s father Luciano asked him “Do you know what a Trigger is?” the child replied, “Isn’t it something to do with a gun.”
“No, it’s the name of a horse.”
The first movie to have the same profound effect upon Scorsese was the 1946 Western, Duel in the Sun which he described as a traumatic and disturbing experience.
“I mean I enjoyed it, I liked it but it was a very disturbing film, I remember being frightened by the shoot-out at the end between Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck but I guess that explains most of what I’ve done most of my life.”
After a short-lived plan to pursue a seminary education, Scorsese started at the Film School of New York University where his love affair with film was nurtured and nourished during his major. Here he discovered the influence of foreign films from Les Enfants du Paradis to his first experience of Japanese cinema, Ugetsu. The combined offerings of the late 50s from the Italian and French New Waves as well as New British Cinema weighed heavily upon his imagination whilst the techniques that had begun to emerge in New American Cinema were fuelling the idea that a studio wasn’t necessary to make a certain type of narrative film. The fledgling film-maker commented on his ignorance of the collapsing Hollywood system and the war between the studios and that looming and terrible enemy Television alongside his constant urge to see things in pictures and to design his own. He spoke of borrowing and begging favours in order to acquire the equipment and time so that he and his friends might make their own films too.
“Films are like intergalactic travel! You feel there’s no way of doing them when you come from this world within a world within a world called Manhattan!”
Starting out as a student film-maker Scorsese described the process as a learning curve. To him film-making is a formula comprising of the outside influences and inspirations upon you pulled together through equipment, learning how to mount a picture on your own plus your own self-expression.
“It’d be nice to direct any genre but it has to come from you, from your experience of life.”
NYU saw the birth of a number of award-winning short films for Scorsese, beginning with Vesuvius VI in 1959, a mini epic set in Ancient Rome and including the controversial short The Big Shave which depicts a young man who obsessively slides a razor across his face to the point where he slits his own throat. University is where Scorsese first began to make his connections and establish relationships with those influential people who would shape his film career, with editor Thelma Schoonmaker and the notorious Harvey Keitel amongst them.
Along came the 1970s and Scorsese brought us Taxi Driver, The Last Waltz and what is considered to be his breakthrough picture, Mean Streets which succeeded in launching Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel into infamy. Scorsese describes being a director as if it were a time trial and detailed the stress and limitations which are laid upon a film-maker before the camera even begins to roll like a game of cat and mouse. In fact the director likened the persuasion techniques and smooth-talking necessary to coerce almost any production team into one more day of filming to the charismatic, fast-paced chatter Johnny Boy uses to (De Niro) influence Charlie (Keitel) in Mean Streets. We could not help but giggle with him as he illuminated the hectic pace and ridiculous demands he has met behind the scenes during his earlier films as the order of priority became as follows: first you find a camera, then you call the actor and then if you’re lucky you find a place to shoot and that’s only if the actor still wants to perform!
“Harvey Keitel was a court stenographer and he’d tell me ‘I have a life! Leave me alone! It’s been three years now!’ It might be easier now with digital video, but then again, nothing’s easy. ”
Scorsese has played an impressively versatile part in the last 50 years of cinema but not only as a prolific director, editor and producer of narrative cinema, he is also an award winning documentary-maker. BAFTA-nominated No Direction Home: Bob Dylan provides a perfect example of Scorsese’s creative flexibility as he applies aesthetic and form to musical narrative, music being an art form which he holds in the highest regard.
“I would have loved to have made music because it’s the purest form I think, because it comes from your very spirit.”
In 1980 Raging Bull charged the silver screen and was nominated for a host of Academy awards but as it turns out, Scorsese is not a fan of boxing at all, he greatly dislikes the sport. The ring in the film was stretched to two or three times the normal size to accommodate the fight sequences and Scorsese admitted that the only way he could approach it was through music.
“When I looked at the black and white footage of the sparring I said the only way to do this is if you’re inside the ring, from the point of view of the fighter and you don’t know what round it is and you see what it sounds like to you….I broke up the fight scenes into moves so that the blocking during the fight became bars of music.”
After 1982 everything changed in Hollywood and beyond but Scorsese adapted like he always does.
“We’d been closed down and I thought, well I’ve got to learn how to do it again…”
And do it again he did, more than once. Goodfellas stormed the BAFTA awards in 1990 winning Best Film, Best Direction and Best Adapted Screenplay which paved the way for the spine-chilling thriller Cape Fear, another exhilarating crime drama Casino and the gritty historical spectacle Gangs of New York. Scorsese’s ability to draw from his surroundings and survive the relentless transformations of film, technology and reception must have something to do with his finger resting on the audience’s pulse.
“When I’ve looked at film over the years I’ve been very open to the enthusiastic suggestions of others because it’s very difficult to describe how inspiration meets you or where it comes from.”
Long before the Simpsons’ character Moe Syzlak made intertextual reference to Travis Bickle in his bedroom mirror did Scorsese well and truly establish an enduring and unique standing within the industry through his evocative visual sense which was supported by numerous distinctive and full-bodied characters. Scorsese was keen to emphasize that his role as a film-maker and director is to protect his actors from anything outside of their characters and scenes, to nurture their abilities and promote improvisation in order to achieve those defining movie moments that we’ve all come to recognize him for. Those addictive scenes we anticipate above all others before turning to our friends and demanding in our best De Niro sneers, ‘Are you talkin’ to me?’ For instance the iconic ‘Funny how?’ sequence in Goodfellas
was based upon Joe Pesci’s own experiences which really does make the mind reel! Scorsese’s eye for durable talent and his and De Niro’s legendary and rewarding film relationship are mirrored by his modern big-budget collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio who has starred in four of his feature films including The Departed which won Scorsese an Oscar for Best Director in 2006, the sumptuous Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator and the recently acclaimed Shutter Island where the director deftly depicts the violent layers between dream and reality.
Scorsese is currently working on a number of projects including his first 3D feature film which generally reinforces the idea that here is a film-maker who refuses to sit still and let the world move on without him. Hugo Cabret is a magical mystery inspired by the life of the dynamic film-maker Georges Méliès and is currently in post-production and eagerly anticipated this year. Scorsese’s obvious passion for film in all its diverse and wonderful
forms is something of a delight to witness for us at HeyUGuys. Many people presume the industry is filled with jaded and indifferent film-makers and they may be right but to see a pioneer such as Scorsese describe film-making in such vivid and beautiful terms and with a most unexpected sense of modesty and open-mindedness… Well, it doesn’t half make a film nerd feel good.
“I am able to express myself for better or for worse in visual images in narrative cinema, that’s what I do. I wish I could play a musical instrument, I wish I could write and compose music, I wish I could paint…that might be extraordinary but that isn’t what I do.”
I would like to offer BAFTA my gratitude for an evening of unparalleled stimulation and a special thank you to Alfred Dunhill for sponsoring the event. HeyUGuys wish Scorsese our greatest admiration and most eager anticipation for his upcoming projects this year and beyond. We’d wish him luck but as you can see, Scorsese simply sounds like an immortal.