In February, one of cinema’s greatest ever directors, Hollywood legend Martin Scorsese, arrived in Dublin to receive Trinity College’s prestigious gold medal award. Paul Nolan was on-hand for Scorsese’s public interview, during which studio battles, the future of cinema, Taxi Driver, Leonardo Di Caprio, the Rolling Stones, and the director’s eagerly awaited upcoming reunion with Robert De Niro, The Irishman, were all on the conversational agenda.
There was a huge turnout in Trinity College for the appearance of the legendary Martin Scorsese, who received the Philosophical Society’s gold medal award from Provost Patrick Prendergast. From the vantage of point of the upstairs balcony in the hall where Scorsese’s interview with Phil president Matthew Nuding was to take place, it was obvious there was a major star on campus.
Looking out the window behind us, a huge crowd had gathered to see Scorsese receive the medal outside, and the director was duly illuminated by a small galaxy of flashbulbs as he shook hands with Prendergast and other members of faculty. A swarm of people followed the director – who was accompanied by his wife and daughter – as he made his way over to us, past the crowd queuing outside for a glimpse and finally into the hallway, where he was greeted with a standing ovation.
For me personally, it was a huge thrill to be in the presence of the master, who sits alongside the late great Stanley Kubrick as my favourite ever film director. A fan ever since I saw Goodfellas aged 16 – the comedic mob drama is a strong contender for my favourite ever movie – I subsequently became a major fan of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King Of Comedy, Casino, The Departed and several other of Scorsese’s most notable works. In recent times, I was knocked out by the brilliant The Wolf Of Wall Street, the director’s movie about notorious white collar criminal Jordan Belfort, which again utilised Scorsese’s distinctive mix of intense drama and uproarious comedy.
This year, it’s also a decade since I interviewed Scorsese regular Frank Vincent about the conclusion of The Sopranos (in which he played Tony’s nemesis Phil Leotardo), a show which drew much of its stylistic DNA – and several of its cast members, including Vincent – from Goodfellas. Notably small in stature, the silver-haired, bespectacled Scorsese has always been an excellent interviewee and this occasion proved no different.
He offers a considered, illuminating answer to each question put to him over the course of the hour-plus interview, often adding a humorous flourish in those familiar, fast-paced Lower East Side tones. Nuding commenced by asking Scorsese about why his movies traditionally tend to be more character than plot driven.
“I do love films with plot, I love watching them,” said Scorsese. “But for the longest time, I couldn’t do it myself. The big thing about films with plot is that there’s an obstacle every few seconds – there’s something the characters have to overcome. What I found over the years was that, in the execution of my films, I was never as interested in the plot elements as I was in the characters.
“What you find in the editing is that the characters actually create the plot. For example, when you look at Mean Streets, it’s a semi-autobiographical film, made in ’72 or ’73. But it takes place in ’62 or ’63 really, up until the time of the Kennedy assassination. It was about characters living in what was a special time, an optimistic time you might say.
“Then you move onto the next picture I made, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and it’s about the Ellen Burstyn character, and her relationship Kris Kristofferson. And with Taxi Driver, of course, it’s all about Travis Bickle. Those movies are all about characters, and there was no plot as such. I found that the characters drove the story – and it was story more than plot.”
Scorsese eventually tried his hand at plot in his brilliant 2006 mob drama The Departed – a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs – in which Bostonian Irish mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) recruits Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) as a mole inside the local police force, only for the latter to end up pursued by undercover detective Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Although the movie ultimately became one of Scorsese’s biggest ever critical and commercial hits, it was far from a straightforward creative venture, as he explained.
“Eventually it got to the point where I really tried to do a plot in The Departed,” he recalled. “And I got totally confused! (Laughs) People had to keep reminding me of different aspects – like, ‘He’s given them the envelope already.’ I’m going, ‘He definitely gave them the envelope?’ They’re saying, ‘Yes – he absolutely did!’
“But interestingly, what eventually happened with The Departed was that I decided to make an expression against big budget productions. I’d just come off Gangs Of New York, which had been an obsession for many years. And I’d also come off The Aviator, which was a Hollywood spectacle, but it also had an undercurrent of darkness with the character of Howard Hughes. It was also an exploration of an American idea that there was nowhere else to go on land at that point – we had to go into the sky. Hughes was a Croesus-like figure, in a way.
“Although I did enjoy doing them, I was so shaken by the experience of doing those two movies together that I wanted to do something simpler. And I mean that in the sense of just being able to pick up the camera and go, and not having to get tied up in planning incredibly elaborate set-pieces. Also, I think what I reacted to in story of The Departed was the tone of fatalism.”
However, as the movie went on, Scorsese found that his interest in the characters began to conflict with his original ambition of making a plot-driven movie.
“In terms of the plot, you had the underpinning of the informer,” he said, “and of course there were scenes and elements that I would always have been associated with. Certainly, I grew up in an area where informing was a cardinal sin. But when you put all that together, really I just became obsessed with this story, and kept adding scenes and characters. Eventually I lost track of the plot! Of course, I went back and read the script to refamiliarise myself (laughs).”
As well as confronting him with tough creative decisions Scorsese’s evolving view of The Departed also brought him into conflict with the studio financing the movie, Warner Bros.
“If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that Matt Damon’s character gets shot,” he noted. “And that was one of the reasons why I wanted to do it; that ending was something you would never have expected. But when I go talk to the studio about the film, immediately they’re saying to me, ‘Well, how can the character live?’ Because they want to do the franchise! They’re looking at it with a view to making three or four movies.
“That was the first of a series of battles I had with the studio on that movie. As kindly and gentlemanly as they were in their approach, it was very draining. In fact, it proved so wearing that I eventually said, ‘I can’t make movies like this anymore.’ Because I was expending all of this energy dealing with questions, suggestions, concerns etc. There were even issues around morality; some of them were upset that Vera Farmiga’s character has affairs with both the Matt Damon and Leonardo Di Caprio characters.”
So tiring was the experience that the director ultimately had to reevaluate his approach to movie-making.
“I was asking myself, how can I make movies in an industry – which is really what it is in America now – that needs a certain kind of product,” he reflected. “I’ve been doing this for 45 years now and I’ve gone through all these different eras of Hollywood. I’ve always been very lucky that I’ve been able to find some people in the studios and in the independent sector who’ve been able to back me. But really I found making The Departed that I wasn’t able to do it anymore – I just didn’t have the energy to fight those battles constantly.
“Especially as I was getting older, that was something I needed to be aware of. But ultimately what I found on that movie was that even with a project where the plot was ostensibly front and centre, it really did become about the characters for me once again. I was extremely upset by the time we finished editing the film – it was a real struggle. The first time myself and (Scorsese’s long-time editor) Thelma Schoonmaker sat down to edit the movie, it took about four months, because she doesn’t edit anything without me.
“Then when we looked at that cut we said, ‘Close the doors, don’t answer the phone, let’s get back to work… Nobody’s seen it, but we have to rethink the whole picture.’ As Thelma said, there was this tension in it between character and plot, and the balance wasn’t right.”
Getting a satisfactory edit proved to be quite the undertaking.
“It took us six weeks to fix it,” said Scorsese, “and then we finally showed it to other people. Not the studio, but just a group of people we knew. They liked it very much. What eventually happened was that Warner Bros. came around to our way of seeing the film, and they allowed us to shoot another few days. So we inserted those bits in and we said, let’s go preview the film.
“We showed it to an audience in Chicago and luckily, it was an amazing experience – it was the best experience with a cold audience we’ve ever had. The cards came back with a 95% approval rating and people were really excited. But then the studio executives came in and they looked like they’d just come from a wake! Really, I think with The Departed, they were just going for one thing and I was going for something else…
“Anyway, after that, my next project was a concert film about the Rolling Stones, Shine A Light, which was about the joy of performance; it was a celebration of music. That was nearly 10 years ago now, and ever since I’ve been picking and choosing my projects carefully.”
For Scorsese, taking on a project clearly means a serious level of commitment, with an obsessive attention to detail – an approach which can take a substantial toll.
“When I do these pictures, I live with the characters and the story, and then when they’re finished, I don’t see them again!” he said. “I mean, occasionally if one of them is on TV, I’ll have a look, but actually, it’s only over the past 10 years that I’ve watched my old movies a bit more… I invest a lot emotionally and psychologically in these films, and over the years, a few of them have got bound up in my personal life.
There’s probably a few I’m not that keen to watch because they remind me of a difficult time I was going through. That’s the thing – whether it’s Jack Nicholson in The Departed, Leonardo Di Caprio playing Howard Hughes or Robert De Niro playing Jake LaMotta, they finish and move on, but I have to live with the material a bit more.”
In terms of his movies’ lasting impact, Scorsese noted that they do seem to have stood the test of time.
“Like I say, sometimes if I was going through a difficult time while making a film, I’d rather not see it,” he mused. “It might be a good film! People will tell me it’s good… But certainly, if I made something in 1978 and young people now are seeing and getting something from it, that suggests it has some staying power.”
Nuding then asked Scorsese about the making of Taxi Driver, and how he felt the movie resonated in the contemporary political climate.
“Well, Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver and Paul’s from the Midwest,” said the director. “I’ve never been there – well, only once, to Ohio. I don’t really know what it’s like. Also, Paul is Calvinist and I’m Roman Catholic. My religious background is very much informed by a mid-20th century New York upbringing, and a neighbourhood filled with Italian and Irish families. But Paul has that Calvinist sensibility, so sometimes we would come at things from two very different perspectives… Anyway, it was Brian De Palma who gave me the script for Taxi Driver and said, why don’t you do it?
“Eventually, it was suggested to me that I do it with De Niro. The way Travis acts out this violent fantasy in the film was so disturbing to people… But that was a time when a personal film like that could get made; it couldn’t get made now. It was a movie where Schrader’s feelings about Travis, and De Niro’s feelings about himself, came through very strongly. We were all really in sync, creatively. It was about a sense of alienation and isolation, and also of the outcast. We all really identified with the character.
“I’ve heard some people say it’s about a sense of adolescent malaise, but I think it goes much deeper. With Schrader’s literary background, Taxi Driver was very influenced by Sartre’s Nausea, and Notes From The Underground by Dostoyevsky. Also, An Assassin’s Diary by Arthur Bremen, who was the would-be assassin of Governor George Wallace. Ultimately, the film is about God’s lonely man, which we all are. He reacts outward, but for other people it’s a much more internal journey.”
Scorsese noted that the film’s themes are worryingly relevant in today’s world.
“I’ve seen a lot of America’s modern political evolution,” he said. “I’m thinking back as far as Kennedy, who for young people was a very inspirational figure… But once the attacks occurred on September 11, I knew that because of our administration, this was going to be a neverending scenario. Then later, when you read about the reaction in the Middle East, and the thousands cheering bin Laden – as well the unravelling of the attempted democratisation of the region – for me, it seems like we’ve created thousands and thousands of Travis Bickles. So in that sense, sadly and tragically, Taxi Driver continues to have a terrible resonance.”
Scorsese also discussed his lifelong love of movies and his fascination with acting.
“I’ve always loved acting,” he enthused. “Both my parents had a background in it, and in a lot of ways, I learned about the craft from watching them tell stories in our Lower East Side tenement. And that was tied directly to the way we saw our community represented in films like On The Waterfront. Early on in my career, I worked a lot with people who I’d grown up with in New York, but at the same time, I was watching a lot of classic Hollywood films. So I had a wide appreciation of acting styles. Quite early on, I knew from a certain turn of phrase, or the way something was said with a particular rhythm, what style an actor was working in. I had an appreciation of that and I was fascinated by it.”
The director then spoke about Robert De Niro, with whom he has one of the most celebrated director-actor relationships in the history of cinema.
“Working with De Niro, he had an extraordinary sensitivity,” said Scorsese. “He knew that if you say a word at the wrong time, even if it’s the right word, that it’ll ruin it. He had that feel for when to come in and when to hold back. Having done Mean Streets together, we got to know each other very well on Taxi Driver. We came to trust each other very much and on the last week of shooting, we got some great stuff done, including the mirror scene. By that point, we had that ease where he if had an idea, he’d tell me and we’d shoot it.
“As well as Bob, there are certain other actors over the years who I’ve developed that kind of relationship with: Paul Sorvino, Joe Pesci, Tom Cruise, Paul Newman, Ellen Burstyn… It was like a conversation, sometimes literally. When we did the mirror scene in Taxi Driver, for example, I was behind the camera talking back to Bob.”
In later years, of course, Scorsese has had a similar working relationship with Leonardo Di Caprio, with whom he has worked on Gangs Of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island and The Wolf Of Wall Street.
“Obviously with Bob, we struck up a relationship in the ’70s and we understood each other,” he reflected. “Then in the ’90s, out of the blue, he calls me and says, ‘I’m doing a film called This Boy’s Life with a kid called Leonardo DiCaprio, and he’s incredibly talented’. I was very surprised, because that was something he never did – he never, ever recommended actors to me. In fact, I would have to ask him about different people.
“So when he said that, obviously I had to pay attention to Leo. I kept track of him over the years, and then when it came time to do Gangs Of New York, Leo came onboard – and that helped get it made. Our working relationship developed from there.”
Scorsese also touched on the future of cinema, noting that he was recently shown a demonstration of 3D technology in Taipei. It included a short film called The Last Survivor, which – via a virtual reality headset – immersed the viewer in the world of a man journeying to Auschwitz, ending with a harrowing stop at the gates, where family members are separated.
He concluded the interview – during which he also mentioned his admiration of Sean O’Casey – by discussing his eagerly awaited reunion with DeNiro, entitled The Irishman, recently given the green light by Netflix.
“DeNiro and I had been talking about working together for a long time,” said Scorsese. “I’m also 75, so it’s time. It’s a crime picture, but it’s very much from the perspective of a character who is also in his seventies, looking back. We’re doing it with Netflix, which is a new form of film distribution. We tried a long-form style of storytelling with Vinyl, the HBO series I made with Mick Jagger – we’d been developing that on and off since 1996.
“Ultimately, it didn’t really work out, we only got one series – I think HBO might have expected something different. But we’re doing The Irishman with Netflix and we’ll see how it works out.”
And with that, Scorsese departed to another ovation. With a phenomenal body of work already to his name, the director still remains one of the most essential voices in cinema. He is truly one of the all-time greats.