Comfortable State of Anxiety: An Interview with Martin Scorsese

MM: And you’ve been doing exactly that for the past few weeks on Gangs, right?

MS: Yeah, because I’m always seeing other things—it’s like a giant sculpture. You keep chipping away and chipping away. Kundun was that way, but that was more like a painting than a sculpture. And it had to be a whole different mood, tone and style, or should I say “pace.” You had to give yourself to the movie and give yourself to a trance state. I wanted to put the audience in a trance and experience something of a religious nature, even if you’re not a religious person. But the trick there—which I realized as I was editing—was the juxtaposition of images and scenes dealing with non-action being the action. Therefore it was emotional, but not emotion, that was heavily expressed. It had to do with texture and color and mood. It was like a piece of music.

MM: But these are things you always think about, are they not?

MS: Not necessarily. Each film is different. Kundun was interesting because that really made itself evident. I’d say ‘Oh, we’re going with a different color here.’ But no, we had to juxtapose a lot of different scenes. Because there were three different Dalai Lamas. The story line was very simple. Basically, at some point the Chinese come in…

We ended up shifting scenes around in the editing and I pulled two weeks of shooting at night. We dropped it all. And maybe some people don’t think the film was successful, or whatever. But it’s a certain kind of film. As I say, you’ve gotta give yourself to it. In a case like that, where I become satisfied with the film is ultimately in what the film dictates. You don’t know that until you get into each picture.

MM: Hearing you talk about the editing reminds me to ask about crew. You’ve been working with Thelma Schoonmaker forever, but how do you choose other key crew? You’ve worked with several different cinematographers, for instance.

MS: To an extent it’s personality. Or else I’ll find someone I think is right. With the screenwriters—in the case of Jay Cocks, for instance, we’ve been the closest of friends for 30 years. So you work with a writer on a particular thing. In many cases it starts from an idea I had and it’s developed over a period of years.

Or, in a case like Taxi Driver, it was written by Paul Schrader and was totally his creation. In a case like that, a writer like that, he does what he does. You don’t go in and say… The script was suggested to me by Brian De Palma, and I finally did the picture. But only after Mean Streets was I able to get it. Having De Niro in it, too, helped get us the money.

In some cases [Schrader] and I would get together over the years when we’ve had projects together. He’d write something, it may get made, may not get made, with me as director. And on the other hand, when I read Bringing Out the Dead, I thought the only person who could write the screenplay would be Paul. So I gave it to him, he loved it and he wrote it. So I do try to combine—

Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro © 1976, renewed 2004 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver

The door opens and Lois Smith cuts us off. I’m barely warmed up and it’s over? I feel like singing “Atlantis.” Six pages of questions remain unanswered. I plead for another five minutes. She says “Well, you wanted to get that photograph of Marty standing by the window. We can’t do that, then.” ‘I’d rather you give me the five minutes,’ I say. She hesitates, then nods her stay of execution…

MS: So anyway, that’s a serendipity thing. And Jay Cocks with The Age of Innocence—he gave me the book originally. Even Gangs of New York. When we say we’ve been wanting to make this for 25 years, it’s really a film of this time, this setting, this period of American history, that we wanted to make for the past 25 years. It’s not necessarily [this film]—you know what I’m saying? It has evolved over time. So I find that there are certain writers that are more to my sensibility. Nick Pileggi is another one. It’s the person who’s best for the project.

MM: What’s the most enjoyable part of the process for you? Three words or less.

MS: [laughs] Well, the editing is where it really comes alive in another way for me.

MM: The least?

MS: The shooting.

MM: Really?

MS: Yeah, because there are too many questions. And sometimes questions distract. I mean, the nature of directing is questions. But the person asking the questions doesn’t know if they’re going to distract me or not. Only I’ll know that when I get the question. And so there’s that state of anxiety. I’m comfortable being in a state of anxiety that way. I don’t like to have anxiety about other things. Like will the actors do this? Will that happen? Will it rain? We can’t match, you know…

MM: Are there any moviemakers working today who inspire you as Cassavetes did early on?

MS: In the past I would’ve said, ‘Oh, I don’t catch up with modern filmmaking.’ But that’s not true anymore. I’ve actually been seeing a lot of modern films in the past few years. There’s a lot of Iranian films I like. And the younger American directors—Wes Anderson’s films, I really like. Chris Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, Linklater. When I see films by these guys, and I’m not mentioning all the names I want to mention, I feel like I’m not wasting my time. This film means something to me. I’m also learning how to tell a story with pictures. In some cases, I can never do what they do because they’re of this modern world, I’m not. I’m from the past.

MM: They might differ with you on that… What are the three films every film student should know backwards and forwards?

MS: The problem now is all these “10 best” lists. When they did the “10 best” in 1956, they only had 50 years of film to draw from. Now you’ve got 100 years. I think you should do the 10 best from like 1900 to 1960, and then make another list from 1960 to 2010. I’m always going to be talking about films that affected me when I first saw them. Films like Citizen Kane, obviously. What I learned there was the nature of directorial expression, as opposed to the seamless films of John Ford and William Wyler, let’s say.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t just as moved and shocked by some John Ford pictures. I was shocked at Midway. But it was a seamless way of directing. It was a classical style. Welles came in and showed you where the camera was.
He showed what you could do with the camera. And not just camera tricks, but how it expresses personality. And how it expresses power.

It’s really about expressionism, I guess, in the cinema. Welles and Gregg Toland came in and turned everything upside down. So that’s when I became aware of what a director could do for the first time. Up to that point it was just classical style for me, and I didn’t know if I could ever do something like that. But when I saw Welles, mixed with Shadows by Cassavetes, where the characters are way up front and it’s about relationships, it’s about improvisation.

It’s about a certain reality between people that is so honest, so truthful, that it’s very difficult to watch. Now combine those and that’s what I was thinking. And then the lush cinema of John Ford with The Searchers, or… and when I say lush I saw it originally in Vista Vision. Big difference. And then there was Pressburger and The Red Shoes, the use of color expressionism, the madness of being devoted to art and film and the outrageousness of his take on visual storytelling in that film.

MM: As we finish out the second year of the new millennium, are you at all optimistic about the progress of film preservation?

MS: I’m a little more optimistic. The studios have been doing a pretty good job over the past 10 years. Pretty good. The problem is more films have been saved over the past decade, but if we’re lucky we might save from 10 to 20 percent of what’s been made since 1980. I mean, more than half of all American films before 1950 are gone already. More than 70 percent of silent films are gone. So more people are aware of it, but I think what we still have to do is instill in the younger generation the same kind of awareness. Once you make the film and it’s out there, what happens to it?

MM: You’ve said something very interesting on that topic. You see the studios as the—

MS: —custodians. Yes, like the stewardship of the old robber barons. Andrew Carnegie still built Carnegie Hall, but in America now the money stays with them. They don’t give back to the public anymore, and it’s just greed. [The studios] have a responsibility with these films. Whether it’s from what I understand is a very interesting new film like Blue Crush, to Soderbergh’s films to Oliver Stone’s films to Anderson’s films… the studios have a public trust. We put that trust in their hands and they fumbled. And they’ll do it again. Why? Because when a studio head comes in, he isn’t hired for film preservation. He has to make money. At each studio there should be an ongoing process of preservation.

MM: You write in your companion volume to your Journey through American Movies [doc] that movies “answer an ancient quest for a common unconscious. They fulfill a spiritual need people have to share a common memory.” Since cinema is now by far our most popular art form, what else do you think sets it apart?

MS: It’s an art form coming out of technology, and the technology has created a medium in which you can use elements of all the other art forms. When I talk about cutting Kundun I say it’s like painting, but it’s also like music. I wish I could compose music; I wish I could play music. But I think I get as close as possible with the editing of a film. Over the years music has actually become as important an influence on me as film. There’s no doubt about it. Painting, movement, dance, sculpture—it’s all cinema.

MM: You take the composition of many film images from painting, don’t you?

MS: Oh, yes. This whole picture, Gangs of New York, is influenced by Rembrandt and Dutch painting. And the still lifes of Frans Hals. And Bruegel, too.

MM: I wish we had time to explore that. But more importantly, I have to ask you about one of the most erotic images in cinema: your shot of Rosanna Arquette’s foot in Life Lessons.

MS: [laughing] Oh yeah! With the iris, we were like Freud. That comes right out of Dostoevsky’s mistress’ diary. He says “I want to kiss your foot,” and she pulls her foot away.

MM: So how do you construct your erotic images? What place does eroticism have in your films?

MS: It has to be what’s inside me. I’ve been criticized before for not making more films that deal with male-female relationships. I just deal with worlds I know, and often they’re worlds controlled by men. When I have had the opportunity to do that, I’ve found it rather difficult to express, erotically, what I think is attractive. In Casino there’s a lot of eroticism, but it’s really about power. Sex is nothing—they can have sex any time they want. And it’s brutal. The eroticism is all about power and greed. Which means it’s not a story about Vegas, it’s about what we are. It’s a story about America and capitalist thinking. How much is enough? How much must we have before we’re satiated?

MM: That brings us back to the role women play… 

Lois comes back in. “This is really it, the final final,” she says. ‘Okay, okay,’ I say.

MS: I’ve dealt with worlds where usually the action is with men. Like Goodfellas, or Gangs of New York. We were able to get a female character in Gangs, Cameron Diaz’s character.

MM: From Alice to Casino, though, you’ve always chosen strong women characters.

MS: Yes, the women are strong, active characters.

Lois (LS) interrupts. “We gotta go NOW.”

MM: Are my photographers still here?

LS: I think they’re hovering.

MM: One shot?

LS: No. Absolutely not. We’re already late.

MS: I’m so sorry. My editor’s here, and…

MM: Too bad. It would really look great to have a shot of you with the street in the background.

LS: No, there’s just no time.

MM: We can literally get this shot in 30 seconds…

LS: I’m sorry.

MS: Well, what time is it? Let me go see Thelma, and your guys can do it in one second.

LS: Aaaaaaall right. Alright.

MM: Thanks, Lois.

The women are strong and active, yes. But in Martin Scorsese’s world, the men have the final say. MM

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