The Director's Chair Interviews
Martin Scorsese interviewed
The following interview is a combination of three interviews conducted with Martin Scorsese for the BBC in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Martin, you are often criticised for being morally bankrupt as a filmmaker in the sense that many of your movies deal with evil men and defenceless women and that you are obsessed with violence. Do you recognise any of that in your movies?
Yeh, that comes up a great deal whenever people mention a Martin Scorsese film. People talk about the violence, but if you look at the films that I've made, the world's that we are depicting in these pictures, Mean Streets for example; they're very very violent. The rules are enforced by the violence of that society. Even with Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore which is about a different area, there is a scene where Ellen Burstyn's character is beaten up by her husband. [Harvey Keitel] Now that's a scene in which violence is shown negatively, it's shown that she doesn't want to be with a person like that and surrounded by violence, so she leaves town.
Then Taxi Driver, you're dealing with, again, a very violent milieu and then Raging Bull, here's a man who's life and his job in life is to go into a ring and hit people and get hit and then he comes home and he expresses himself in the same way. He expresses himself through violence. And so, I think because violence figures so prominently in these worlds that I depict, I guess the question is why am I attracted to these worlds?
Why are you attracted to these worlds?
Well, the action and conflicts that bring the characters together in these worlds is of a very explosive nature, it is very dramatic and it has that movement, life on the edge. Everything is almost a life and death decision, even though, literal death isn't always the subject, often it is a matter of spiritual death. And that's what attracts me to these worlds and these characters.
But I am always attracted to that because of the nature of conflict and the nature of drama, and I come from an area where, growing up, this was all around me and these were the impressions that I got. I saw a great deal of violence, I saw a great deal of emotional and psychological violence, spiritual violence that way. A thing like that leaves an impression on you, it doesn't leave you.
How much of your work is autobiographical in that sense?
Well, Mean Streets was, to a certain extent. Although we combined characters and I never did things like sign these loans because my father would never have allowed me to do such a thing. But I knew all these guys and many of them are still very close friends.
Would you go so far as to say that there is something of you in say the character of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver?
Yeh, there's something about parts of myself that are there, certain underground things that I wouldn't want to discuss and which somehow are better to express on film. A lot of the stuff that goes on in his mind is the unspoken stuff that I feel.
What was the motivation behind New York New York?
Well, first of all I had in mind to re-capture the way the old films were made. In other words, when I went to see films in the 40s, during my formative years in terms of watching films; I saw what was supposed to be New York city on film. However, in actuality what I was seeing was a back lot. Everything was fake; the streets were too clean, the curbs were too high, it had to be California.
But in a sense it was New York to me, it was almost more real than the New York that I lived in was. I would walk out into the streets or into the theatres and that was often more surrealistic to me than what I saw on the screen. So with New York New York, I wanted to blend what seemed more real to me at that time, with a kind of reality that I know in terms of characters and relationships.
Were there any specific musicals or big bands from the 40s that you wanted to re-capture in New York New York?
Well no, but there are combinations of things. In other words, in these musicals, you always had some big night club where it just so happened that Tommy Dawson was playing or Lenny Goodman was playing. And in a sense the opening night club in my movie is like an amalgamation of all these strange night clubs that were built on sound stages at RKO and MGM. I took all that and rolled it into one, and then expanded it a little bit more. And in sense it was supposed to be bigger.
It's a very old fashioned looking film?
Oh yeh, it's my homage to Anchors Aweigh, On The Town and all of these wonderful movies that meant so much to me in my formative years. In that sense, we went in for a very period style of shooting. We did a lot of Mid shots and Close Ups, which was something, that these pictures went in a lot for at the time. There's also no nudity and no four letter words. I wanted it to be true to the period in that sense.
What did you want to say in the film?
What I was really trying to concentrate on was mainly the story, the characters and the relationship between De Niro and Liza Minnelli. I wanted to look at the break down in the relationship, in terms of the success and the failure and how she has success in her career. You know, she comes across as a very open hearted, good person and he comes across as a total villain which, if you look very closely, is actually not the case. There are all shades of grey in there.
It's a bit of an old Hollywood cliché in that sense isn't it? The whole idea of success and failure in show business and careers breaking up love affairs and family life. Do you think that there's more to the film than cliché?
Well it is a cliché, but it's also very true. The film is very personal in that way, for me. It's hard to balance career and family and marriage and whatever. And it all gets to the point where you just don't know how to handle it and that's what happens to the Robert De Niro character.
Did you enjoy shooting New York New York?
Let me tell you; this film was shot in twenty two weeks which was too long for me. I don't particularly care for the shooting process; I like to get into the editing as soon as possible.
But you like improvising with actors which is part of the shooting process
Yeh, that's part of the enjoyment of the shooting process, otherwise it gets a bit boring. I mean the whole reason why I'm not particularly fond of shooting is obvious to anyone who has actually shot a film. It's not like there is anything especially fresh about a shoot. You come in, day after day and shoot something that you have already planned on paper. Improvising with my actors just adds a bit of interest to something that would otherwise be unbearable.
That's one of the reasons why I like working with Bobby De Niro so much. He'll come onto the set and he'll build the character as he goes along. He's not afraid to take chances, he's extremely inventive and if a character that he's playing looks ugly then he looks ugly and Bobby's not afraid of that. He has courage which I like.
After some personal problems, you came storming back to form in 1980 with Raging Bull? Is it true that Robert De Niro had to talk you into making it and that the final key was that saw something of yourself in the character of Jake La Motta, in terms of his destructiveness?
Yeh, I think what it was, was that I sort of had a late adolescence. I wanted to be a priest and then I cut myself off. It's a very interesting thing, because if you wanna be a priest and you're actually studying in the priesthood and then also when you're with your friends and you're in Mean Streets, literally in that environment, then you go back to church again and you go back and forth, from the street to the church, from the street to the church, it kind of creates a dichotomy that is kind of difficult.
So in that sense, I think that I was still kind of acting out my adolescence and trying to find a way to survive in this world, and I found Hollywood of course and that was as difficult as being on the streets of the Lower East Side of New York. The only difference is that instead of guns there are contracts and the knifes are in the back instead of in the chest.
So I think that it was a period when I acted up a great deal and I found that destructive behaviour was really something that almost did me in and some of the people around me too. And that's when I began to understand what the character of Jake La Motta was all about and I think that's what attracted Bob De Niro to it too. It took me about two and a half years to finally come out of that, I think it was about 1977-78, I began to realise that I could approach the material from a personal level.
Did you say that Raging Bull was going to be the last film that you would ever make?
I did, yeh. But , I think that just came out of a childish reaction to being rejected. Mean Streets, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver were very well received and then New York New York wasn't and I couldn't take the rejection of it. So I said let me make Raging Bull, let me make it really tough, full out front and it will probably be the last picture that I make in America. I was thinking of going to Italy and making documentaries.
Which of your films are you most proud?
I like Last Temptation of Christ, I like looking at that sometimes because I just love the subject matter and I love what they did in it, the actors and the music, that sort of thing.
You said that you wanted to make that film because you wanted to get to know Jesus better.
That's right. But it's not necessarily the getting to know. It's more the learning to live by the message of Jesus that I was interested in. That's what I got to know and that's the real conflict and the really difficult part of it, you know. Can you live by the message? And if you can't. can you accept the failure without punishing yourself by doing stupid things like drugs or whatever. Can you just come to rely finally on yourself and come to terms with yourself?
In 1991, you made Goodfellas which was a return to the gangster genre for you, after quite a long break. Why did you decide to do Goodfellas?
Well the reason why I liked Nick Pileggi's book (Wise Guy) and the whole key to making the picture, as I wanted to make it, was the idea that we were not going to do a picture about mobsters and gangsters; it's a picture about people, oh and by the way, they just happen to make there living out of being gangsters, you know what I mean? So 'people' was really what the film was all about; their day by day lives, their clothes, their food.
The other thing is that that whole lifestyle was kind of where I came from you know. I don't mean that I was a gangster, I mean look at me! What I mean is that I knew things about that world that most movie directors didn't. I knew the kinds of people that populated the world of Goodfellas, I knew the feel of it so it was an interesting challenge to replicate that world on screen.
You mentioned food there. Food seems a key part of the Goodfellas lifestyle. Why was that important to you in the film?
Yeh, there is a great deal of food in the film, tonnes of it in fact, cause the whole thing is a ritual. It's a symbol of the order of life in their world, especially in jail. Next to money, food is probably the most important thing in an Italian American's life. I wanted to show that.
Music is also an important part of Goodfellas, as indeed it is in all of your movies. Why is this?
I've just always loved music. I can't read music, I don't play it, but it's just a wonderful thing to me. It can carry an entire film, you know? It was a psychological level of importance, in terms of assisting the image in order to re-enforce a point across to the viewer. It can also help a film to cut better. Music is important on so many levels.
In a picture like Goodfellas where I've used mainly pre-recorded music, it's usually thought of way before hand. Some of the music in Goodfellas has been in my head for years. For example the scene where Ray Liotta's character is drug running and he's high on Cocaine, I used The Who and also music from the film Performance, to create the vortex of paranioa. Now that music, for that sort of scene had been in my head for years, and that just happened to be the first instance in which it seemed right to use it. With Goodfellas, I started by listing maybe sixty five or seventy songs and I choose out of that. I'II take a section of music for a certain period in time. So you've got the 60s, 70s and 80s in Goodfellas, so the music moves right across all of these decades. It assists in the chronology of time in the movie. You've got Benny Goodman to Opera to Acid rock to rock of today.
Music does lots of things when I use it. Sometimes it points out something, as in the paranoia of Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, or other times it just takes off for a while. Like in Mean Steets when Harvey Keitel's character is drunk and he just roams about for a while in his bar and we go with him. Why not just listen to the song for a while and then let the movie continue after that?
Your next project after Goodfellas was of course Cape Fear which is a re-make of the Robert Mitchum film. But you've said that you don't like remakes. Why did you do this one?
I think really that what happened in this situation was a combination of the elements involved. It was a matter of timing, a matter of being in the right place with the right people, at the right time. I avoided, for almost a year, any serious talk about the picture because it was a remake and besides that fact, it is a certain type of story which relies mainly on plot. And some unkind criticism used the phrase 'pulp material'. And of course there's a snobism about that and of course there's also a reverse snobism because if you treat 'pulp material' and you try and elevate it, then your not being true to that material.
So it's a very dangerous area to play around with because on one level, with some critics, if you're doing 'pulp material' then they say your slumming and this is what some people have said about me doing this picture. The others say that it's not true to the 'pulp material' because it changes the characters and gives a different psychological insight and tries to do too much. So you're damned if you do and damned if you don't on a certain level.
The project had been worked on for a number of years for Steve Spielberg to direct and it was really more his style; the type of film that Steve likes to do and, I should say is really very good at doing. The family in the film was a very happy family and the whole thing became more like a fable where the family represents good and Max is bad. So I read that script and I didn't like it for exactly that reason. I thought, the family is just so nice, you know, I just didn't believe it! So finally Steve said, "Marti, if you don't like it, then you can change it."
And of course, you changed it quite a lot. Do the changes that you made, particularly with the family, represent changes that have taken place in American society between the Gregory Peck family of the 1961 Cape Fear and the Nick Nolte family of your version?
That's a very good question because people use this term 'disfunctional family' as if it had just been invented. Well, you know 'disfunctional families' have been around since the beginning of time, I mean Adam and Eve, they had problems or Cain and Abel, I mean that was a mess! But seriously, you know, I wanted the characters to be a little more tested in my version of Cape Fear; almost as if it were God testing the modern family and the modern man.
The film caused a lot of controversy because of the verbal seduction scene in the school with Robert De Niro and Juliette Lewis, and of course that rape scene. Where did that all come from originally and why did you do it?
Well, when I first saw the script that Steve gave to me, one of the things that I knew I wanted to change right away was the seduction scene. I mean in the original, when Robert Mitchum chases the girl around the school, that scene is a wonderful cliff hanger, but it's not the sort of thing that I could direct. The way that I wanted to do it, was I wanted him to seduce her. In other words the violence should be done spiritually to the young girl, emotionally and psychologically, but purely in the sense that Max uses her as the wedge to finally break the family because of the trust that is lacking between the three family members. He uses her to weaken the very foundation of the family which is based on trust and love.
With the rape scene, which is the other thing that a lot of people have complained about, the reason why we wanted to show it so brutally in that way, was to be as honest about it as possible. I mean media today is so strong, now I mean that doesn't mean that I'm blaming our media. It's just the reality of our modern society; you go into any hotel room around the world and you get CNN, and you realise that the reality is so much worse than anything fiction portrays. So we just wanted to be honest in this film and that was part of the process.
One of the things that we discovered when we were doing the research with Nick Nolte and Illeana Douglas, the young woman who played the rape victim, we came across what they call depositions from trials of what this man was accused of and they called it 'aggravated sexual battery' Now that's a very polite phrase! Now the film, is an example of what he really does because we took that literally from one deposition of one young woman.
Robert De Niro is known for his method acting, but these tattoos are not real, are they?
No, no! He didn't do that! But he talked about tattoos because he did a lot of research; video tapes of rapists and serial killers that he listened to their interviews and he looked at some stills of men in prison and he discovered that tattoos are a way of expressing yourself in prison and so he felt that he should be covered with tattoos and so that's what we did. It took a long time to decide which ones!
You've made eight pictures with De Niro, including this one. What is the fascination with him?
Well, we just know exactly what we both want. We have a connection. We've worked so long that we seem to have gotten into this system where we can try to help each other, in terms of what we want in a piece. For example with him in Cape Fear, his body building. He was forty nine when this picture was made, a few months younger than me, but his body is in great shape. He worked out three or four months in advance of the picture and he was in good shape.
But then when we went into actual shooting, we did two things. One, he stayed in his regiment, which was getting up at three or four in the morning and work out for three hours and THEN go to work.
The other thing is that he had to build up various parts of his body, bit by bit throughout the shoot, so that by the end, he had built himself up to the perfect pitch that he wanted. But this is so important because the impact of his body often says more than his dialogue, it's like a lethal weapon.
You've said that your life is cinema and movies. Do you really feel that?
Well yeh, I say that because it simplifies matters. Religion and the whole concept of the actual practice of Christian ethics in modern society is a theme that I'm always attracted to and is something that goes through my mind and my heart every day. It's a constant part of my life. But you know its also a way of simplifying things because one does not always want to talk about your personal life to journalists or television, so it's also a way deflecting things. That's all it is kid, movies and religion, thank you!
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