Martin Scorsese on India, Deciding to Become a Priest & More

On Martin Scorsese's birthday, a chat with the filmmaker about his movies, inspirations & more.

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Martin Scorsese celebrates his birthday on 17 November.
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Twenty-five feature films and 16 full-length documentaries-old, one of America’s most revered film auteurs, Martin Scorsese, turns 78 on Tuesday, 17 November.

Tireless as ever he has also announced his next feature, Killers of the Orange Moon, with Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. The film will be set against the backdrop of the killings of the Red Indian tribe, circa 1920, an era which witnessed the emergence of the FBI. The project sees Scorsese’s shift from Netflix (producers of his multiple-Oscar-nominated The Irishman) to a collaboration between Apple and Paramount Studio.

Martin Scorsese at The Irishman premiere in London.
Martin Scorsese at The Irishman premiere in London.

Of all the American film directors, it is Martin Scorsese who has dwelt consistently on the angst, the anxiety and the aspirations secreted within all of us. Taxi Driver (1976), in fact, figures on most of the BEST TOP TEN FILMS of all-time. Unlike most of his peers, he evolved into a master raconteur, opening up lives through his screen protagonists. He has indulged in special effects sizzle or and far-out fantasy fizzle but only occasionally.

Rather, the auteur has focused on the people of the New York streets most often, on crooks and psychos, on gangsters and housewives seeking an identity of their own.

While his contemporaries Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have excelled at techno-flashers, Scorsese has elected to narrate stories culled from reality by large, and therein lies his success.

Reared in a neighbourhood of New York's downbeat Little Italy (where Italian immigrants still attempt to integrate into the mainstream American life), the filmmaker has periodically returned to his home turf.

I lucked out once. I collared him for an exclusive interview during a two-day halt in Delhi. He was there to seek permission from the External Affairs Ministry to film Kundun (1997) – on the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, the exiled political and spiritual leader of Tibet. The permission was denied. It was eventually shot in Morocco plus a monastery in New York, and released in 1997.

He was at the ministry’s office, when I collared him for an interview. Initially he was hesitant, raising his eyebrows to say, “What if the ministry guys have objections?” Fortuitously, I was accompanied by one of them, who green-lit the conversation. Excerpts from the interview:

What are your impressions on your first visit to India?

Martin Scorsese: I have never ever experienced such a change. The first reaction was, of course, that this is all quite wonderful and remarkable. In the course of my drive from Jammu to Dharamshala, I caught glimpses of village life: people appear to be so resilient and strong, quite unlike the way of life you see in the US, where it's hurry-hurry-hurry-make-a-quick-buck.

Of course, I've been somewhat familiar with images of India, thanks to the films of Satyajit Ray and Jean Renoir's The River. But this was the first time I was seeing the great Indian spirit of humanism, patience and acceptance upfront, and not through a camera lens.

Actually, I do feel quite concerned about the American way of life. The desperation in some people's eyes is amazing! In fact, I made Casino because I wanted to show what has become of Las Vegas. Thousands of people go to the west coast -- to California -- to make it big. When they can't, they go off to Las Vegas, jam a coin in a slot machine and hope that their lives will change overnight. Unfortunately, it doesn't. They keep chasing false dreams for the rest of their lives; it's a no-win gamble.

The tradition of looking within yourself in India is something that we Americans could use. There is the ongoing danger of becoming one big theme-park. Las Vegas is a park where even children can throw dice. You can't give these habits -- like drinking and smoking -- a moral sanction for children. It's up to them to make a choice when they grow up.

Do you keep returning to New York's Little Italy because you were faced with moral dilemmas there in your growing years?

Martin Scorsese: In a sense, yes. Little Italy is like a small village in Sicily transplanted to New York. The inhabitants pay no attention to the local politics or the local police force. They've had their own way of handling family disputes and gang warfare. But the third generation is changing a bit...I belong to the second generation.

Was your interest in filmmaking sparked by your environment?

Martin Scorsese: At first I was interested in priesthood -- right till the age of 15. I nearly became a priest! But I didn't do well in seminary studies, Latin and all of that. I wondered whether I should join the New York Film School and maybe go back to the seminary later. I wasn't sure whether I wanted to get married or not. I didn't return once I'd gone through the experience of seeing some great films at the Film School in 1963. I saw Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre Sa Vie and Mepris, and Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim, Don't Shoot the Piano Player and The Soft Skin. And I was converted to cinema.

Does that mean that cinema became your God?

Martin Scorsese: Yes. It was presumptuous of me to even think that I could combine the two. To an extent Mean Streets (1973) did succeed in achieving such a combination: it showed the dilemma of leading a Christian life. It's like a jungle with its own code of ethics, an ethics based on violence. For better or worse, that's the Sicilian tradition. I've gone back to the mean streets time and again. You can find loud and clear echoes of the tradition in Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Taken together, they play themselves out as a moral fable. And the three of them are based on true stories...stories of excess, sin and punishment.

You've often been criticised for showing excessive scenes of violence.

Martin Scorsese: I know, I know. But I make movies, not a way of life. Corporations are into corrupting our lives. I have merely shown the power, the carnage and brutality behind the scenes. If there's a murder, you can't show it in just one single blow. It's relentless, like the incessant beating of a rat till it can't breathe anymore.

You were part of the vanguard which spearheaded the New American cinema in the 1970s. Where has the rebellious spirit of the Movie Brats gone?

Martin Scorsese: The movies were director-oriented in the '70s, like they were in the golden age of Hollywood in the '40s and the '50s. With our movies we were being heard, we were saying what we believed in firmly. Then 1980 happened. Within a week, United Artists released Raging Bull and Heaven's Gate. Michael Cimino's film had some extraordinary, beautiful sequences. But it had run over budget. Heaven's Gate closed after one night because of a bad review from New York Times' critic Vincent Canby. The film was re-edited by the studio. That was the end of the director as a power factor.

After that you had to be a producer-cum-director. You had to be Steven Spielberg, whose E.T. cost $10 million and grossed $300 million. You couldn't be a Coppola, Robert Altman or Scorsese. Altman couldn't make a film for nearly ten years. And I had to start all over again with After Hours (1985) which was small-budget compared to the normal Hollywood standards. Europe embraced the film, in America it did well. The Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) ignored it though it had wonderful performances and a great script.

How come you veered towards a costume period drama with The Age of Innocence (1993)?

Martin Scorsese: Simply because I'd dreamt of making that film for a long, long time. I wanted to be a professional director -- someone who would show up on the set and do his job, whether it was a romance or a western. I tried to branch out. On the surface, it may have seemed different from my kind of films. But I'd tackled the subject -- love that remains unconsummated -- before in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and one of my early black-and-white films, Who's That Knocking at My Door? (1968). With The Age of Innocence, I wanted to explore the concept of love with the actors; instead of letting their feelings out I wanted them to hold back. Which is why Michelle Pfeiffer appeared so controlled. There's a smile on her face but there is turbulence within her. It was a difficult film. It is always far more difficult to picturize emotions than events which have a cause-and-effect logic. Love, I've always felt, knows no logic.

You've worked with obvious love and regard with Robert De Niro. How did you extract such marvellous performances from him?

Martin Scorsese: (Laughs) I would say that he extracted marvellous work from me. We've done so many films together. It has been said that I use him as my alter ego. Maybe. But I do know that we're so close that quite often he completes a sentence that I have started. We have a strict private code between us -- no one is admitted to the sets, not even the press when we're doing the major scenes.

And the best time for us to interact and exchange ideas is during the mornings, before the shoot begins. We talk a lot in his trailer -- about movies in general, about costume designs or even the food we had last night. Bobby works helluva lot on the costumes, even jewellery if he has to wear some. He's always involved a lot in pre-production. He doesn't mind spending hours, days, weeks, months to work out his character systematically. I know I couldn't have made some of my best films without him -- Raging Bull is unthinkable without Bobby.

Were you upset when your musical, New York New York (1978), bombed at the cash counters?

Martin Scorsese: I'm afraid it had vast problems. Mainly, it just didn't have a tight enough script. Moreover, just two weeks before, Star Wars had been released and it ate up just about every movie in sight. I'd tried to make a John Cassavetes kind of film, topping it with the look of a vintage Hollywood musical. It told the story of two creative people in love.

Like A Star is Born?

Martin Scorsese: Yes. I just love the good old Hollywood movies. The other day, I saw Love Me or Leave Me starring Doris Day and James Cagney.It was terrific. Doris Day was superb, her performance in this film and Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much have been vastly underrated.

But didn't she suffer from being stereotyped as the prissy American virgin?

Martin Scorsese: I know, but not in these films. She even acted with Ronald Reagan in a strange movie called Storm Morning which was about the Klu Klux Klan. She may have been sweet and virginal in Young at Heart, with Frank Sinatra, but what a dramatic performance. It keeps resonating in my memory.

You've done the odd cameo role. Do you enjoy acting?

Martin Scorsese: The only reason I acted in Taxi Driver was because the young man who was supposed to do the role was injured in an accident. It was in my fate to act. I tell Bobby to flag down the meter and he extended the scene. He made me go into the entire business of putting the meter down and while doing that, I had to keep talking to him. That's when I understood acting.

I played Vincent Van Gogh in an episode of Dreams simply because Akira Kurosawa wanted me to do it. I was in the throes of completing Goodfellas then. I had to shoot for a few extra days, I was nervous as hell. Kurosawa was waiting, so I finally rushed to the location and it went off all right.

Obviously, given my height (5’feet 3”) I can't do roles that require gymnastics or heavy physicality. I don't mind sitting and talking my head off. Which is why I thoroughly enjoyed acting in Robert Redford's Quiz Show.

Which of your films are closest to you?

Martin Scorsese: I like Mean Streets even though it has a few rough edges. I would say Raging Bull and The Age of Innocence are the ones which are closest to me. But it's a personal quirk of mine never to see my films. I find the business of going through the entire gamut of emotions all over again far too taxing.

Was it essential to do a remake of Cape Fear when the original in black-and-white still stands up to the test of time?

Martin Scorsese: It's like this. I know I can't make a western like My Darling Clementine or Red River. The most I can do to recapture the spirit of the western genre is to show two characters meeting up in a desert, almost as if they were poised for a gunfight. Coming specifically to Cape Fear, the prospect of reworking the psychological make-up of the characters in the original film fascinated me. In fact, I would say there were quite a few changes. The characters of the husband, wife and daughter who are terrorised were, I hope, remarkably different.

Were you truly satisfied with The Color of Money?

Martin Scorsese: Hmm, well, it was an example of working for a studio. I wanted to see if I could carry out a job responsibly. The King of Comedy hadn't made money, it had gone over budget. For nearly four years, I was trying to get back to the beat, to prove I wasn't a spendthrift. I would be given money only because of the viability of a project and the stars I could get.

Isn't Quentin Tarantino now experiencing a similar dilemma? What's your take on Quentin Tarantino?

Martin Scorsese: I love the way he constructs his scripts, which seem to be influenced considerably by the style of the French film-maker Jean-Pierre Melville.

What kind of cinema do we need today?

Martin Scorsese: We need a personal cinema, we need writers and directors who have something to say. Far too many films in America are trying to fit into some other mould. The movies have become so commercial that they're squeezing out the personality of the film-maker. What you get is awfully artificial, it isn't genuine. To an extent, independent film-makers have stuck to their principles. Money doesn't matter to them, cinema does. Like Matthew Harrison who made The Rhythm Thief with only $35,000 or Alison Anders who made Gas Food and Lodging and then Grace of My Heart, an all-woman picture.

Do you ever feel `squeezed'?

Martin Scorsese: Absolutely. The closest I've come to this situation was with Casino, a film after my heart but which had to fit into the commercial mould. But as it turned out, it recovered its expenses more from the European and Asian markets than from the U. S. I must admit that I was disappointed when Sharon Stone didn't win the Best Actress Oscar for her performance. It was the first time she had attempted such an emotionally demanding role. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci weren't even nominated...I suppose it was felt that they've done such roles before. But if you ask me, Bobby was amazing. On the editing table, I couldn't believe what I saw -- Bobby's face was a minefield of expressions, it was like watching life itself.

Tell me, how did you field the religious controversy that erupted over your The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)?

Martin Scorsese: Right off, I was flabbergasted. My purpose wasn't to insult anyone's faith. Catholics are certainly meant to be more open to discussion and debate than the fundamentalists. That's why I was surprised that the protest by a small percentage of American Catholics was so vehement. As a result, the film had to be rushed into release before it was actually completed.

Whether I make a good, bad or indifferent film, I have always been serious about religion. My film was a religious exploration, an interpretation, and not a denunciation as it was made out to be. Let’s hope your ministry understands that. I’m not here to criticise but to tell a story which is worth telling.

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