Nov 26, 2011

INTERVIEW: Martin Scorsese

'There were times during the shooting of his new movie, Hugo, a $170-million dollar blockbuster set in 1920s Paris, when Martin Scorsese would return home, his head aching with the logistics of shooting in 3-D, exhausted by his insanely accelerated schedule, to find his 12-year-old daughter wanted to have a conversation about armadillos.

“The child doesn’t know what’s going on, you’re exhausted,” he remembers. “She goes ‘look at this I need you to see this — is that a horse to you, or is at armadillo?’ There was a time when I would have walked right by. But now you say, ‘waidaminute, waidaminute, are you trying to tell me that’s an armadillo? Because that’s not an armadillo. That is an anteater’. ‘No its not.’ Suddenly there’s a hole in the world that you’ve gotta fill.” His voice lowers to an imploring whisper. “‘But look I gotta get to sleep, honey, I gotta get to sleep. I’m going to go into the room upstairs, there’s a little room, I’m going go to lock myself in, I want you to be quiet.” ‘Oh I’ll be quiet….’ Because I’ve got to get up tomorrow morning at 5 O’Clock….’ This is my life.”

He laughs — a rocket of a laugh that fills the room, and doubles him over. You half expect him to slap his knee. Scorsese’s hair is snowy white these days, lending him the air of someone lit by a higher calling — maybe the priesthood, for which he once trained, or the cinema that turned out to be his true religion. Alongside Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg, he is one of the handful of movie directors who are not just household names, but household faces, his wraparound grin, thick, caterpillar eyebrows and thick horn-rims making up an instantly recognizable trademark which signifies “film director” as surely as Hitchcock’s protuberant silhouette once did.These days, one reaches him through a chain of sotto voce female assistants, well-versed in the art of shepherding the maestro with the minimum of fuss or interruption. “Do you think you could come and stand outside the door,” one of them calls my cell-phone to ask me, in a whisper. Don’t knock. And don’t call. We’ll come get you.”

Finally you get to the man himself. Small, at 5ft 3, he brims with undiminished vigor, standing on the earth staunchly, like a boxer in the ring, barrel-chested, unrockable — the better position from which to launch those glorious riffs of his. Scorsese is, like his mobsters, an overpowering talker, a ferocious monologist whose rapid, rat-tat-tat speech patterns were once compared by New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane to those of a “preacher caught between the pulpit and the gents.” Any hint of shyness is limited to his posture when it is your turn to ask a question: head down, arms crossed, staring into his lap, as if your words were incoming missiles, whose intent can only be divined by an act of feral concentration. I caught him a few days off his 69th birthday, recently released from the editing suite where he has been beavering away to get Hugo finished in time for its Thanksgiving release.

“He was the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” says Hugo’s producer, Graham King, who has worked with the director on Gangs of New York, The Aviator and the Oscar-winning The Departed. “He had new toys to play with. He saw a whole new way of filmmaking. He would come on set and you would hear that great laugh rippling through the train station. He was loving it, loving the process — the hair, the make up — loved having two kids as leads. They were so naïve as to who he was. Leo di Caprio, Mark Wahlburg, Nicholson, Damon, Day Lewis, they know who he is and act accordingly. These kids didn’t know and didn’t really care. ‘Hey Marty, what did you do last night? What did you have for dinner?’ Leonardo Di Caprio does not come onto set and ask Martin Scorsese that.”

Was that why he made it? The chance to slip his own post-Oscar coronation and enjoy a King-Lear-with-flowers-in-his-hair moment? Hugo doesn’t just represent a departure, I tell him. It detonates the entire airport. Scorsese looses another rocket. “Thank you, thank, you. The story itself was a joy….. wait, that sounds…. It was…..pleasant, the story, in a sense, it was…. Exciting. I enjoyed the cleverness of it,” he says, his hesitations perhaps suggestive of a man unused to having his cinematic fate held in the palms of 8-year-olds. “I used to like that W C Fields line about never working with animals or kids,” he says, before proceeding to tell me a story about the fluffy white bijon frise bought him by his fourth wife, producer Barbara de Fina, the moral of which appears to be: the Sentimental Education of Martin Scorsese.

“I was really against it for the first four days. It was everywhere, it was not housebroken. You know, I left the lower east side, where nothing was housebroken. The whole place was not housebroken, I’m outta there. By the fourth or fifth day the way the dog was looking at me, I guess it was sentimental. There was something about the dog that expected something from me. Attention and help of some kind. What does she expect me to do? Does she want this? I do something. No. What about this? Yes! That was it! Isn’t that interesting. I’ve communicated with this dog. And I fell madly in love with her. I put Zoe in The Age of Innocence, my mothers holding her in Goodfellas, she was on my lap while I was directing a lot of the scenes in Goodfellas. Poor dog became a nervous wreck because of all the shouting and gunshots.”

This is so wonderfully entertaining in the classic Scorsese-wiseguy manner — one thinks, in particular, of Joe Pesci’s cod art-crit session in Goodfellas (“one dog goes one way, the other dog goes the other way, and this guy's sayin', ’whaddaya want from me?’) — that it takes me a few seconds to realise Scorsese has ducked my question. I ask him again why he made the film.

“The kids,” he says. “At a late age, I’ve been living with a child almost every day for the past 12 years. It changes things. It was different from when I had my other daughters. I was much younger, you had the future ahead of you. Now it’s different. So now I’m seeing the future through the eyes of my child. She is perceiving the world around her: ‘what does that mean? What is this? Who’s that? I believe this, I don’t believe that…’ All this goes on, you talk and talk and talk and before you know it you’re living with this, your dealing with it every day — animals or different stickers, or laminated tings that you can see in 3-D, or the museum she went to that day.”

Scorsese two other daughters, Catherine, by his first wife whom he met while still a NYU film student in the mid-sixties, and Domenica, by his second wife, journalist Julia Cameron whom he married in 1975 after she interviewed him for Rolling Stone. Both daughters are now grown up — he recently attended Catherine’s wedding in Chicago — but it his fifth marriage, to book editor Helen Morris, whom he met while filming Kundun, that has lasted the longest, and this third pass at fatherhood seems to have had the deepest impact. Together with two West Highland terriers named Flora and Desmond, the family share a brownstone townhouse on the Upper East Side, filled with wall-to-wall bookshelves, wooden Laurel & Hardy figurines, and a Stratocaster belonging to the Robbie Robertson from The Band. “I’ve seen the change in him,” says King. “When you have kids at an older time eat life, it means more than when you’re 30. That has a lot to do with this. No question.”

For all Scorsese’s frank bafflement at Hollywood cliché — “what’s a fish-out-of-water?” he is said to have remarked, upon turning down the chance to direct Beverley Hills Cop — his career breaks down into a classic three-act, rise-fall-comeback structure. First we have his bullet-like trajectory from the lower east side to Hollywood, making films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull: personal, incendiary, hair-trigger works performing root-canal on the director’s obsessions, seeming to fly centrifugally from his own cratered psyche. Scorsese had a famously loose temper — he was a phone thrower and wall smasher. His office had the phone guy on constant call, so frequently did he rip it from the wall. On one occasion, he was yelling down the phone at his producer, threw the phone and broke it, went down the elevator, put a dime in a pay phone, and continued to yell at his producer from the street.

“His first words when he woke up were always fuck-fuck-fuck fuck-fuck,” recalls Isabella Rossellini, who met the director at the height of his fame, after winning the Palme D’Or for Taxi Driver, and married him in 1979. “I think he used rage as his gasoline to get out of bed and confront the world. If he wasn’t a fighter wanting to fight I think he would have felt overwhelmed — because he’s very small and constantly asthmatic, with his oxygen masks and tanks. I think he needed that rage. Friends would say ‘oh calm down don’t be angry.’ But I saw it more like an engine, a little car, catching in the morning. BBRRRRMMM. BBRRRMMM.”

These were the days of coronation and excess — of forcing 150 extras to stand around waiting while Scorsese spoke to his therapist from trailer on set of New York, New York; of dispatching a private jet from the 1978 Cannes film festival to score some coke in Paris. Things finally came crashing down on Labor day of that year, when, succumbed to a mixture of bad coke, asthma and high altitude at the Telluride film festival, Scorsese was admitted to hospital, weighing just 109 pounds, bleeding internally, his platelet count down to zero.

“It was very frightening,” says Rossellini. “Marty was very sick. I wasn’t sure I was going to see him alive again.” While recuperating in hospital in New York, Scorsese was visited by Robert de Niro, who held in his hand a battered copy of the script for Raging Bull, his pet project about the methodical self-destruction of boxer Jake La Motta. Scorsese didn’t want anything to do with it.

“I didn’t know anything about boxing,” remembers Scorsese. “But Bob came to me in hospital, and said ‘come on what is it you want to do? Do you want to die, is that it? Don’t you want to live to see your daughter grow up and get married? Are you gonna be one of those directors who makes a couple of good movies and then its over for them?' He said ‘you could really make this picture.’ I found myself saying okay. Ultimately, finally, when I was down and out, I realized yes I should do this movie. Going down in flames meant that if it was going to go down, let it go down. I didn’t care anymore, I just knew this was the last thing to say. If I could say anything, this was the last chance to do it.”

It was Raging Bull’s failure to secure an Academy Award for best film or director — Scorsese lost out to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People — that set the pattern for Oscar shut-outs for years to come and set the stage for his second act: this time as long-suffering saint of American cinema, crucified by the suits and studio bean-counters, cast out into the wilderness, unable to raise the cash to make dream projects like The Last Temptation of Christ, putting himself through career rehab on pictures like The Color of Money, the budget for which didn’t even stretch to a phone for the director. Cruise and Newman both got phones — not Scorsese.

“The last studio movie I made in Hollywood, The King of Comedy, was considered ‘the flop of the year.’ No-one would come near me. I tried to get Last Temptation made. That was cancelled. So it’s time to go home. I came back to New York and made independent films. I was like a wounded person trying to get back in shape. I tried a few pictures to see if I could just be a pro. I don’t mean that as false modesty. A pro is a very important, professional person. They can be depended on. They can work.”

When I put it to him that these leans years were arguably the best thing that ever happened to him — toning him up for the glories of Goodfellas, quite possibly his best film — he agrees. “I am American, so I have to work within the system, whether it’s studio or independent.” He has little time, these days, he says, for the old battle-lines between the artists and the suits, and readily admits to a financial motive for making movies. “I do have to pay for the school, for the kid. And some clothes And I don’t really know any other way,” he says. “I was doing this Q and A with Jim Cameron in LA the other day. Maybe a film that costs a lot of money like I’m doing…. could be a good film. That could happen… That could happen…. Maybe a film that cost no money, is not good does not stand the test of time….. That could also happen.”

He says this warily, as if half expecting the ground to give out beneath his feet. His third act is a balancing act, a tightly-fought compromise between the lures of commerce and the demands of his artistic conscience, between his work-life and the recent outbreak of domestic tranquility. When I ask him what it was about his marriage and fatherhood, this time around, that made it stick, he thinks for a long time before replying.

“We all became older, some of us our friends are gone now. At that time we were learning from each other and it was new and it was fresh and as time moved on we all changed. What can we learn from each other now. What do you learn from a party? Besides what do you go to a party for. Do you need that? At a certain point, you leave. I enjoy the company of people but these days, we are pretty much closed off. It’s the wasting of time, putting that time into work, finding the time that’s more rewarding with people you love, people who love you.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise. Martin Scorsese, the mobster king, poet laureate of addled loners, smalltime hoods and spiritual misfits everywhere, just wants to love and be loved, like the rest of us. His Oscar win for The Departed, after decades shut out in the cold, clearly meant a lot to him. “Everyone teases me ‘Scorsese did not expect the Oscar.’ I did not. I was just tying to continue working. Because the real success and satisfaction was having made these movies without having major box office without having academy awards. That was the thing.”

Did it have anything to do with Hugo, which is to say his newfound desire to take on the mantle of Entertainer-in-Chief? “It may have. Whether its Shutter Island or Hugo or Living in the Material World [his George Harrison documentary] in the end they’re all responses to that. I do like making Hollywood narrative cinema, the kind that I grew up on, so I’ll always be drawn there but I don’t have the time any more. I try. I try to find that something that you’re burning to say.”

His mention of time is revealing. There are clocks ticking throughout Hugo, which, together with Shutter Island, another haunted house, cobwebbed with memories and bent on bringing the dead to life, marks the decisive arrival of Scorsese’s late period, a Prospero-like summary of confabulation and magic. I ask him if he ever thinks about the amount of time has left — the number of films he still has in him.

“That’s really what it is now, the only consideration really, the amount of time I have left,” he says, detailing three possible future projects: another delve into the criminal underworld with De Niro, an HBO series about the business of rock’n’roll with Mick Jagger and, most promising of all, Silence, an adaptation of a Shusaku Endo novel about two Jesuit priests, to be played by Daniel Day Lewis and Benicio Del Toro, attempting to spread the gospel in 17th century Japan.

“There are some technical, legal issues we’re working out but literally it’s imminent. I’m watching my Blackberry,” he says. “It’s always the material. Are you attracted to the material at all? Can you find a way to saying something that sit your heart or your mind? All I can do it try and put as much as myself into it I as I can — give it the attention, the love, the anger, the patience, the humor, the drama, all the craziness that goes into the making of a picture until the very, very end. I've gotta do that."

He glances at his blackberry, lying on the table next to him, as if willing it to ring."
— my interview with Martin Scorsese in The Times


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