He’s smaller than you would think. His large infamous spectacles magnify his eyes guarded by wildly unkempt eyebrows, conveying wisdom rather than conforming to a caricature as the quintessential dictatorial film director. He sinks snugly into the grand wooden chair, and manages to command the vast room of the Examination Hall in his own unique way. He sits comfortably asserted, giving off the impression that he prefers to listen, rather than pontificate. The violence, swearing and debauchery of which define a great proportion of his most revered work, is slightly at odds with the juxtaposition of the astute, docile man at the top of the room. That this gentle soul from the New York borough of Queens, has been heralded as a master visionary, an exemplary voice in the film world it’s no wonder his career has spanned over five decades. No wonder De Niro, Keitel, Pesci and DiCaprio keep coming back for more. Martin Scorsese is the personification of his craft – a graceful, nimble storyteller.
After a brief customary photo call in front of the Campanile in Front Square with Provost Patrick Prendergast, the venue of choice is the Examination Hall. Hundreds of eager fans gawk back at the doors with a steady mix of anticipation and reverence. Scorsese shuffles into the room, wide-eyed and appreciative of those in attendance. Although swimming in accolades from many institutions such as the Golden Globes, AFI, and the Cannes Film Festival, The Academy has consistently overlooked Scorsese’s directorial skills, choosing instead to lay the acclaim at the feet of his actors. It was Boston-based drama The Departed in 2008 which finally clinched that long-overdue Academy Award for Scorsese. The ensemble cast, its swirling, wonderfully-crafted narrative structure pins together all of his strengths in one, unbreakable fabric. When questioned on how this plot-driven film came to being, Scorsese noted the absence of such works in his repertoire. It was not so much an aversion to plots, but instead a fascination with character which had occupied him for so long. He notes how the plot for The Departed was lost at many points throughout production, finding difficulty in this narrative structure. ‘Eventually, I lost track of the plot,’ he concedes, before reeling it back in. While he grappled with plot, the studio rejected Scorsese’s insistence that a main character be killed off in an unexpected twist. ‘The studio said he had to have him live so that they can do the franchise.. And I said, what franchise?’ While he notes the kindly, gentlemanship of the studio heads, he admitted that their opposing approaches made for a challenging push to end the film the way he intended to shoot it.
“What I reacted to was the tone of it.. fatalism.”
Scorsese remains perpetually perplexed at their purpose, when pushed to explain his opinion on Hollywood’s obsession with sequels. Firmly, he reasons that sequels simply do not agree with him as a person. His dismissal stems from the realisation he had, when it became clear that his personal life would suffer, should he infuse a character or story with undue longevity, ‘I live with it. I’m in it – until its finished. And then I never want to see it again.’ He notes the subtle difference between the position of actors and directors, in that Robert De Niro can return home for the evening and simply rid himself of his character. Scorsese finds difficulty in emotionally letting go of the material because ultimately, it is his vision and inner workings which drive his films.
Inevitably, the conversation stumbles on Taxi Driver. Its been forty-one years since Taxi Driver stunned audiences the world over, Travis Bickle’s self imposed exile in his bright, lucid yellow Manhattan cab remains a marker for the deeply flawed protagonist. Insidiously and quite subtly, Bickle descends into insanity, guarded only by De Niro’s charming surface interactions. He deftly exemplifies the ease of which a deeply troubled and tortured individual can survive in the world unbeknownst to those around him. Scorsese comments on the parallels between the surrounding climate in which this film was conceived, with the current political landscape. He maintains that Bickle’s impulses are instinctual, derived from the universal sentiment of being an outsider, ‘that sense of isolation, and the outcast. We all identified with those aspects in adolescence. But I think it goes much deeper.. much deeper. Ultimately, its God’s Lonely Man. Which is what we all are.’ The difference with Bickle however, is that he acts on his urges outwardly. De Niro masterfully toes the line between the charming facade, intent on saving an underage prostitute and the true, malicious intentions to selfishly deploy harm in favour of his own warped perception of the Greater Good. While Scorsese revels in discussing one of his most revered works, he touches on the poignancy and the truth it reveals in our society, which tragically is still of relevance today. He likens Bickles crippling sense of isolation to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and how society and the Administration at the time were effectively ‘creating thousands and thousands of Travis Bickle’s.’
Known for his lifelong collaborative actor relationships, Scorsese emphasizes the need for developing an environment for trust to manifest. His admiration for actors stems from his storytelling parents and his early introduction to the films of Elia Kazan. Over the course of his talk, Scorsese makes numerous references to the inimitable Kazan, citing his influence as monumental to his own works. He explains how De Niro’s acting method is sensitive to the most minute changes of which Scorsese must be adept at dealing with. Over time through collaborations on films such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, they developed an intimate rapport whereby they would drop ideas in the midst of filming to a point where it became ‘don’t tell me, show me. I’ll shoot it.’ He notes how trust developed out of their process and ‘it became a situation where we’re talking and it became more conversation, or interplay. Really a matter of life going on, rather than that sense of a scene simply beginning.’
Goodfellas, the unequivocally timeless mobster film is briefly mentioned. Scorsese hit the nail on the head, creating a pitch perfect film in the process. From the stellar cast (Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino) to the musical accompaniments, its a dream. In contrast to Taxi Driver, with its original jazz score, Goodfellas personalised score is the range of eclectic music tastes peppered throughout the film. Fine-tuned to fit scenes and sequences, the music is transcendent. Most distinguished of all perhaps is the sequence documenting the fate of numerous murders, punctuated by Ray Liotta’s qualified narration all set against the beauty of Layla by Derek and the Domino’s. It shouldn’t work but it does, images profoundly resonate. For Scorsese, its not a case of throwing all the mud at the wall and seeing what sticks, he knows what will stick.
“My ear goes to the North-East of America. It’s a dialect I’m most comfortable with.”
Speaking to a roomful of the next generation, Scorsese touched on what it meant to him to be such an acclaimed talent and influencer. It was in the 1990’s when he began to get a sense of the younger generation of filmmakers, maintaining that it is what propels him onwards. Like a true visionary however, he angles the conversation towards the future. Scorsese reveals his fascination with new film enhancement technology such as 3D and Virtual Reality. While inklings of an audience panacea may prevail if these technologies catch on, he caveats their usage in the future, ‘How is that presented to an audience? What does that mean for the narrative?’ He pushes that sentiment back on the audience, ‘well that’s for you, not for me.’
During the final moments of the Q&A, Scorsese is questioned on the effect of celebrity culture on the quality and artistry of films. He pauses for a moment before conceding, ‘Sure, it’s the cart before the horse. There’s a great danger to it.’ He credits his collaborator, Robert De Niro with pinpointing the nature of fame when he noticed a wealth of people craving what seemed to encircle him. Scorsese references his film, The King of Comedy which is based on the danger fame creates and likens the emergence of celebrity culture to a ‘monster that keeps being fed.’ As if wanting to hammer down his beliefs to the wall, he emphasizes the need to focus on the work, the tangible element, with fame only as the byproduct, ‘I’ve seen it happen. It just burns and burns until it burns out. It’s the work that matters.’ Of course, he notes how there are elements of attractiveness in that sphere but he maintains that at the end of the day someone must be there in the editing room, doing the work, ‘believe me, one party’s as good as the next.’
Scorsese thanks the audience and on the back of a rapturous applause he departs. As luck would have it, just this morning it was announced that streaming service, Netflix would bear the brunt of the estimated $100 million dollar budget to produce and distribute The Irishman, Scorsese’s next passion project which has spent years in production hell. All going well, The Irishman will succeed in reuniting the dream team of De Niro, Pesci, Keitel and Al Pacino. At the age of 74, Scorsese is as passionate and dedicated to his craft as ever. For him, it’s all about the work.