Scorsese And Ebert In Speak In Ohio
by Steven Bognar
Martin Scorsese told stories, joked, gave advice and held 300 Midwestern
film students rapt for 90 minutes. Scorsese, in Columbus to receive the
prestigious Wexner Prize from the Wexner Center for the Arts, spoke from
an overstuffed black leather chair as Roger Ebert, acting as moderator
and interviewer, sat to his side.
The event, purportedly top secret to keep the crowd small, offered film
students from Wright State University, Antioch College, Ohio State
University and Ohio University, as well as area high school students, a
chance to see and hear the much revered figure of American film.
The Wexner Prize, established in 1991, is awarded annually to a living
artist whose career has been one of constant exploration and innovation.
The artist selected for the award, according to the Wexner Center, “will
have made a lasting impact on his or her field and consistently
challenged convention while upholding the highest standards of artistic
quality and integrity.” The prize, given by the Wexner Center for the
Arts at Ohio State University, consists of a $50,000 and a commemorative
sculpture by Jim Dine. Past recipients include Yvonne Rainer, John
Cage, Merce Cunningham and Peter Brook.
The talk eased from a state of awe and reticence to a lively, informal
conversation, due mainly to Ebert and Scorsese’s playful banter with
each other and the students. The talk began, to the delight of the
youthful crowd, with an admonition to all faculty members present to
keep quiet. “We ask that you refrain from asking any questions. Todays
event is for the students.” One young woman introduced herself as the
daughter of Burl Charity, a fighter during the 1950’s who went 10 rounds
with Jake LaMotta. She asked Scorsese why he did not put her father’s
fight with LaMotta in “Raging Bull“. Scorsese and the crowd laughed, and he
apoligized, explaining how each fight in the film had to mark a turning
point in the plot.
Ebert worked the room skillfully, occasionally turning an inarticulate
question from a stammering film student into a launching pad for
Scorsese’s stories. His long, specific descriptions of “Tobacco Road“,
“The Small Back Room” and “Shanghai Gesture” left some of the students a bit bewildered. As the 90 minute talk progressed, the humor accelerated.
Scorsese turned red and chuckled uncontrollably as he told the story of
his mother yelling downstairs to Robert DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin in “King
Of Comedy“, asking Rupert who he was talking to. DeNiro couldn’t keep a
straight face, turning away from the camera during takes, struggling not
to laugh. “It was one of two times Bob lost it. The other was with Don
Rickles on “Casino“.
Scorsese offered much advice to the aspiring filmmakers. He emphasized
planning — knowing your shots and storyboarding. On improvising, he
said “In certain films you can improvise a lot, but you have to know the
structure of the scene. Where it’s going.” Ebert quickly added that
most improvising doesn’t occur when the camera is rolling, but shortly
before. On planning “The Last Temptation Of Christ“, Scorsese simply said
“You get into the middle of the desert, you better know what the hell
you’re going to do.”
Ebert brought up his and Scorsese’s age, pointing out that most people
in the audience weren’t even born when “Mean Streets” came out. The two
talked about getting older, and Scorsese spoke eloquently about two rare
filmmakers who worked until very near their death, Buñuel and Huston.
Toward the end of the talk, one student described how he had so many
ideas, and wasn’t sure which to do, asking if it ever happens to
Scorsese? The filmmaker replied with a simple warning about delay.
“You gotta watch out, because if you give yourself too many excuses,
you’ll never get it done.”
On Friday, February 28, Scorsese received the Wexner Prize at a noon
luncheon. In attendence were longtime Scorsese-producer Barbara De
Fina, Roger Ebert and “Age Of Innocence” screenwriter and Time film critic
That evening, Scorsese and Ebert repeated their on-stage chat to a loud,
fawning audience of 2500 at Mershon Auditorium on the OSU campus. 35mm
clips from “Mean Streets”, “Taxi Driver“, “The Last Waltz“, “Raging Bull”, “The
Last Temptation Of Christ” and “Goodfellas” unspooled as Scorsese went into
exacting detail on the challenges of each shoot. With refreshing
candor, he criticized the final crane shot of “Taxi Driver” as too long,
admitting that he had been caught up in the excitement of having a crane
Scorsese critiqued “Last Temptation” as still too long, the editing
process having ended prematurely in order to release the film early in
the face of mounting controversy. He described the immense challenge of
the “Last Temptation” shoot. The cruxifiction scene, 70 camera set ups,
was shot in 2 days. The longest set-up took 40 minutes, for the shot in
which the camera goes dutch as Willem Dafoe’s Christ looks skyward and
shouts “Father, why have you forsaken me?” DP Michael Ballhaus had to
hand-hold the 35mm camera to pull off the dutch tilt, making it
impossible to look through the viewfinder.
Scorsese described the famous steadicam shot from “Goodfellas”, as the
camera follows Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco into the Copacabana Club,
through the kitchen and out to the front of the club’s floor. The shot
took six hours to rough-in the lighting and bit-player action. By the
fifteenth take, Scorsese joked, he noticed the extras in the restaurant
were exhausted. He didn’t understand, since all they had to do was
sit. The A.D. informed him that these same extras were acting as the
crowd outside the Copacabana. During each take, while the camera wound
through the kitchen, the extras would race inside the club to remove
coats, take their seats, light cigarettes and look relaxed by the time
the camera reached the floor.
With an easy rapport, Scorsese and Ebert bantered and showed clips for
nearly three hours, running over the scheduled time. When it ended, the
crowd didn’t quite raise cigarette lighters, but stood and applauded
loudly. Scorsese and Ebert took bemused bows, then disappeared
backstage. Afterwards, the young audience filed out, buzzing with energy
and a sense of real possibility.
[Steven Bognar makes independent films in the Midwest. His last film,
“Personal Belongings“, screened in 1996 at Sundance, South by Southwest,
the Gen Art Film Festival, among others. The film recently won Best
Documentary at CINEQUEST/San Jose Film Festival, and is currently
touring with Alex Rivera’s “Papa Papa“.]