Martin Scorsese joined Stephen Colbert for a Montclair Film Festival celebration of the director’s work in which they discussed their shared Catholicism and “the glamour of evil” — as well as Scorsese’s long partnerships with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, culminating in Killers of the Flower Moon.
Colbert, who serves on the advisory board of Montclair Film, sat across from the director on a vast stage at Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center that was lushly decorated with signifiers of Scorsese’s career, including a yellow cab like the one in 1976 Taxi Driver and boxing gloves signed by fighter Jake LaMotta, who Robert De Niro played in Scorsese’s 1980 Raging Bull.
Colbert started by asking Scorsese to name his first “gateway drug” to film, and the director recalled how, when he was an asthmatic kid growing up in New York City’s Little Italy in the 1940s, there wasn’t much his mother could do with him. So when he was about five, she took him to the Western Duel in the Sun, which, he said, had been “condemned by the church.”
“It was too sexy,” Scorsese explained, on account of the passionate chemistry between its stars, Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck. But Scorsese said his mother, Catherine, believed she could justify seeing it with a sick child.
Colbert noted that Scorsese’s latest, Killers of the Flower Moon, was also a Western, and Scorsese agreed after some comical reluctance.
“It’s kind of a Western,” Scorsese said.
“It’s a Western,” said Colbert.
“It’s a Western,” agreed Scorsese.
“Takes place in the West. Guys in cowboy hats,” said Colbert.
Scorsese later explained, “It’s a Western, but they have cars,” which made it feel more accessible to him.
“To me the 1920s is like 30 years ago,” he said. “It’s like how young people now think of the ’90s.”
The cars are significant to explaining the dynamics in the film, about members of the Osage tribe who strike it rich because of oil found on their land. Because women control the rights to the money, white men rush to take advantage of them, by marrying them to take control of their wealth, deception, and murder.
In the film, for example, a white car dealer tells an Osage customer that if her new car gets a flat tire, she should come back to him to buy a whole new car. Scorsese also used the example of white hucksters who would try to charge the Osage more and more for a simple glass of water.
Scorsese returned to the idea as he and Colbert discussed the idea of evil, and original sin.
“What is human nature?” Scorsese asked. “Is everyone capable of charging the Osage $50 for a glass of water?”
Colbert opened the sin discussion by nothing that he and Scorsese were both raised Catholic.
“Still trying,” said Colbert.
“Yeah, me too,” said Scorsese.”
Colbert asked Scorsese if he believes sin is real.
“Yeah, I think so,” Scorsese replied, going into his glass of water analogy.
He said Killers of the Flower Moon explores sin in terms of complicity. He notes that in the film, the white people who try to rob and ultimately kill the Osage claim to love them and their culture.
He said descendants of the Osage and the white men who exploited them told him, “it’s not about villains and victims. We were all friends.”
He said a descendent of white man Ernest Burkhart, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film, and his Osage wife, Mollie Burkhart, played by Lily Gladstone, told him: “You have to remember one thing. Ernest and Mollie were in love.”
That doesn’t mean Ernest treated his wife well, as the film shows. Under the tutelage of William Hale (Robert DeNiro), Ernest nearly kills Mollie.
Scorsese says the relationship is a metaphor for the relationship between European Americans and Native Americans: “It has to do with love, trust, and the most intimate relationship, and betrayal.”
Stephen Colbert and Martin Scorsese on ‘The Glamour of Evil’
Colbert noted the wide differences in Scorsese’s films — from Mean Streets to Goodfellas to King of Comedy to Last Temptation of Christ to Goodfellas to Age of Innocence to The Departed Silence to Killers of the Flower Moon — asked what makes a Martin Scorsese film a Martin Scorsese film.
“They’re a little more on the darker side, and also the humor,” Scorsese said. He noted that some audiences don’t care for it, recalling an early screening of Goodfellas in which some in the audience were appalled by the knifing-in-the-trunk scene. Scorsese says the knifing didn’t seem to bad to him because he knew the blade was retractable.
Colbert joked that there should have been a disclaimer: “Hi, I’m Martin Scorsese. The knives are fake.”
But soon Scorsese returned to the idea of darkness.
“I guess where I come from, I knew a lot of people who were actually very decent people who lived bad lives.”
Colbert noted that Catholics are asked to reject “the glamour of evil,” and noted that the glamorization of evil seems to come up often in Scorsese’s films, including in the fashion of Goodfellas — Scorsese discussed at length the chic “lock collars” worn by Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, and the other actors in the film as they commit heinous crimes.
“Evil is glamorous and it is something that can be enjoyable,” Scorsese said. “”You may not think it’s evil at the time.”
He also talked about the importance of forgiveness, and how we conduct ourselves in one-on-one relationships.
“I think it’s in our nature to forgive,” he said, though he agreed when Colbert asked if sin is easy and forgiveness is hard.
Scorsese also talked about his relationship with his Robert De Niro, with whom he has made 10 films, noting that he used to see him around the neighborhood when they were both about 16.
“Probably he’s the only one in the business who knows who I am and where I come from,” Scorsese said.
He said his relationship with De Niro was built on trust. When they first worked together, on 1973’s Mean Streets, he said, it was common for a studio to take final cut away from a director and give it to the star.
“Bobby would never do that,” Scorsese said.
He also said they had enough trust that De Niro could just act something out for him, instead of explaining it — as he did in the “You talkin’ to me?” scene in Taxi Driver.
He recalled falling into a deep depression and nearly dying after the failure of their film New York, New York. De Niro came to visit him in the hospital, and began pressing him to make Raging Bull — in part to help him recover.
Scorsese, not a sports fan, wasn’t interested in the boxing aspect — but came to realize it was about Jake LaMotta’s personal struggle.
“It was more a story about his character being self-destructive and somehow resurrected out of that,” he said. “Bob knew it before me.”
He said that he and De Niro, standing alongside a pool at the Cannes Film Festival a few months ago, took a moment to reflect.
He recalled that the often taciturn actor turned to him, and said: “Would you believe — 50 years?”
He also recalled how he first learned of DiCaprio when Robert DeNiro, who first worked with the-then teenage actor in 1993’s This Boy’s Life, recommended him.
He first worked with DiCaprio in 2002’s The Gangs of New York, a film that he says still feels a little unfinished. Growing up near where the Civil War-era film takes place, he always felt that he had more stories to pack in.
“I couldn’t pull it together to tell one story,” he says. “I wanted to go on and on and on.”
Later, he worked with DiCaprio in The Aviator. At one point, he and editor Thelma Schoonmaker noticed that in one scene where DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes has his head bandaged, a tear was forming in his eye.
Scorsese remembered his delighted response: “He’s acting with one eye!”
He said that in Killers of the Flower Moon, DeNiro’s William Hale serves as a powerful father figure to DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart.
“Bob in this film, he’s king. Ernest has got to buckle down to him,” Scorsese said. “It reflected almost a little bit the first film they did together, This Boy’s Life.”
He also recalled an ad-lib DiCaprio did with Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon. At one point, she calls him something to him in Osage that he doesn’t understand, and he quips, “must be Indian for ‘handsome devil.'”
“She starts laughing, for real,” Scorsese said. “And that’s the basis of their relationship for the whole movie.”
Killers of the Flower Moon is now in theaters. The Montclair Film Festival continues through Sunday.
Main image: Stephen Colbert and Martin Scorsese, courtesy of Montclair Film.