MM: But then you wouldn’t be an “auteur” either, right? Not that it probably matters from where you sit right now, but isn’t a signature style the essence of what that word means?
MS: Well, the thing about it is “auteur” really just means that I don’t “go to work.” I do what I want to do. That’s all it really is, I think. And if what you want to do has some appeal to the studios and some appeal to the popular audience, that’s pretty good. But what’s interesting is I don’t have the humility of a good, strong, old-fashioned Hollywood director who could say “I’m doing a musical next week. After that I’m doing a pirate picture. After that I’m doing three gangster films.” Or even be content with being saddled with one style of filmmaking. Not saddled, but at the studios they thought certain directors were only good for, say, Joan Crawford type films. Tearjerkers, romances. Others were really happy with westerns or action pictures—worlds that were mainly about men. For example, the types of films Douglas Sirk or Howard Hawks or John Ford made. I admired them. They gave me a lot of inspiration. But at the same time I got inspiration from Italian Neorealist films.
I was about five, six or seven years old when they started leaving a very strong impression on me. So I’m sort of in between the two and I kind of bounce back and forth. Sometimes I wish I could’ve been a real Hollywood director of the old school. At the same time I feel totally satisfied with a combination of that, and in telling stories or touching a chord in people that stylistically is inspired by Italian filmmaking of the ’40s and ’50s. Some French, Japanese, Polish and English, too. Given a choice, that’s what I tend to gravitate toward. As much as I’m tempted to say ‘Ah, I’d love to do a musical, I’d love to do this or that….’
MM: But you’ve done that. You’ve “genre-jumped” with the best of them.
MS: Yes, I genre-jumped with New York, New York. But what I tried to do is revise the genre. Which apparently I wasn’t able to. A lot of people felt that wasn’t such an interesting revision. As opposed to what you have with the brilliance of a Baz Luhrmann, who really has revised the musical genre.
MM: Will you do your great western someday?
MS: I think this is it. Gangs of New York. I don’t know if it’s great, but it’s a western. An eastern western. It’s a cross between a western and a gangster film, in a way.
MM: An eastern western. I like that.
MS: [laughs] Yeah, and by the way, I only came to that realization a few weeks ago. I was looking through the scenes and I thought—this is literally it! [laughs] I mean, it has all the elements of the traditional western—the difference is wide open spaces. This is New York, this movie, and the people are all pushed together, living on top of each other. Here, if people weren’t getting along, they still had to live closer than you and I are sitting right now. Down the Five Points [the neighborhood where Gangs takes place, named for the points created by the intersection of Park, Worth and Baxter Streets—ed.] particularly, where 40,000 people of different religions and races lived together.
MM: You had a huge cast in Gangs. I have a couple of question about acting and directing actors.
MS: Go ahead, go ahead.
MM: First—no one directs character actors like you do. How do you consistently pull brilliant performances from the secondary players in your films?
MS: I don’t know. In some cases they’re non-actors. Like my mother, and some of the people in Goodfellas… I mean, on the street you have to be a good actor.
MM: Is it too simplistic to say you first choose people who are completely at ease with other people?
MS: No, that’s it. Very much so. And also, in a case like Goodfellas or Casino, you pick people who understand that world. So if something happens, they can go with it. They intrinsically know their position in that world. They know that if they’re in a room with someone of higher status in their group and I want them to go with what happens in the improv, they don’t suddenly cross a line and lose who they’re supposed to be. Because they are that person, in a way. In other cases, like with Cape Fear or Age of Innocence, you simply have wonderful actors you can depend on.
MM: We were watching Taxi Driver again the other night and my friend said about your performance “God, he’s really good.” You were very natural. Your parents were always very natural, too.
MS: Yes, yes they were!
MM: You never had any formal training as an actor, did you? How did you get your parents to be so at ease on camera?
MS: They never took me seriously, in that sense. They thought ‘It’s just Marty. If our son wants us to go there, we’d better do it.’ And they treated Bob De Niro that way, too. You can see it in King of Comedy. My mother’s voice is off-camera. She’s De Niro’s mother.
MM: And of course in Goodfellas, too.
MS: Yes, in Goodfellas, you could really see it! We just put two cameras down… I also learned to tell stories the way my mother told stories. The way my father told stories was slightly different. He had a darker, more dramatic aspect. My mother had the sense of humor. He had a sense of humor, too, but it was more ironic. Hers was just about the futility of being human, in a way. His was darker, more Sicilian, more medieval. He had an extreme moral code. There was right and there was wrong and that was it. You could negotiate with him, but once something was done it was done. And this made a great impression on me when I was young, because we lived in an apartment about the size of this room. So my storytelling ability came from the two of them, and the connection they had with movies. My father would take me to movies a lot. And a lot of what I couldn’t say to him was expressed in the emotion we both felt watching a certain movie. And as we got older, thankfully, I was able to talk with him.
There are so many people who regret never really being able to speak to their father and mother before they die. Well, luckily, I was able to express some feelings… But I do know that my mother and her side of the family had a very interesting sense of humor. A great way of telling stories.
MM: So you were very natural… naturally.
MS: [laughs] But I could only do me. And also, I didn’t really intend to do that part in Taxi Driver. My friend was supposed to play it, George Memmoli, who is now dead. You know him, he was the very heavy guy in Mean Streets. He was supposed to be the guy in the back seat, but he had suffered a terrible accident on a low-budget film and it eventually killed him. That’s why these kids shooting these low-budget movies have to watch out. They try to do tricks and stunts and don’t have the right people. They think nothing will happen because they’re young. Don’t do it!
So anyway, I jumped in to do that part because it was the last two weeks of shooting, we’d gone through a very extreme casting process and we’d used everyone. I did the best I could. I got an acting lesson from De Niro. He was helping me with it. When I said ‘put the flag down,’ he turned around and said “make me.” So I gave him all the reasons why he had to put the flag down. ‘Because I’m the passenger, etc.’ He rarely looked at me, and he wasn’t reacting, so I had to keep going. I had to push him, and that was great.
MM: Other moviemakers talk about what a poet you are when it comes to combining music and imagery. What’s your process for choosing the right music? There are so many examples. In Goodfellas, when Billy Batts is beaten in the Suite Night Bar, the event that “sinks” our three goodfellas, you chose Donovan’s Atlantis.
MS: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. “Way down below the ocean…”
MM: And in Alice you used a favorite of mine, the Dolly Parton song, “I Will Always Love You.”
MS: Oh, yeah. I love that, too. I heard it and just loved the way Dolly Parton sang… that was the month that song came out. And Paul Schrader was a big admirer, still is, of country-western music. I liked country music because my mother liked it. She listened to it on Saturdays. That’s the odd thing. We were Sicilian-Americans, but being in New York, we were exposed to different kinds of music. You could see opera, all different kinds of things. And on the radio, Saturday mornings, she would put country-western music on. I’d hear Hank Williams, all those guys.
MM: So you watch a scene you’ve shot and come up with these great musical choices. How do you do it?
MS: The thing is, in most cases the songs, or the pieces of music, like “Intermezzo,” the Cavalleria Rusticana music in Raging Bull, are in my head for years.
MM: You’re always looking for a place to put them?
MS: In a way. But the songs, either the lyrics or the instrumental aspects of the song or the tones of the voices, like Hank Williams’ voice (I still haven’t been able to use a Hank Williams song in a picture), they create a feeling in me, a mood, a tone. And sometimes camera movement and images, too, that may be of a time and place. They won’t be right for every film. But if ever there was a film, let’s say, that had a bar scene, and it took place in 1950, and it needed a certain kind of music, I might say here’s my chance to use this song I’ve always wanted to use… But is it right for the scene? That becomes a whole other thing, see—is it right for the scene? Now in some cases, some of the scenes are done and once the music is put into the film, as with Goodfellas and Casino, it’s exactly in the places I imagined those songs to be. Then there are holes in the picture. So I start to fill those gaps in a very simple way. I go to the period of time that that scene is taking place—1962 or ’63, let’s say. I’ll check all the popular music from ’63 back to ’55 and figure anything like that can be heard. Then I narrow it down to a few songs I like. And within that I make further choices, particularly based on the lyrics at that point. I don’t want the lyrics to hit too literally on the nature of the picture.
MM: Do you feel like you’re still learning?
MS: Oh yeah, even more so now.
MM: How do you mean, more so? Is directing a “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know” kind of thing?
MS: Exactly, yeah. Cinema has a way of humbling you. I was just looking at a film by a British director, Thorold Dickinson. He did a movie called Queen of Spades, based on the Alexander Pushkin short story. He said when you get down to trimming a half-foot here and there from a film—when you trim milliseconds—that’s when you get to know the true nature of cinema. And it’s true. It’s frame-by-frame, perf-by-perf. And by the way, that’s some of the roughest cutting you’ll ever do, because there’s always a little more.