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Quality Time With Martin Scorsese

Quality Time With Martin Scorsese

Imagine spending two and a half hours talking to Martin Scorsese! The Santa Barbara International Film Festival gave me that gift on Monday night, and the evening-long tribute at the historic Arlington Theatre was everything I hoped it would be. My only frustration was not having even more time so we could cover all of Scorsese’s films and go off on as many tangents as we pleased.

I warned the audience that it wouldn’t be a short program, invoking the words of Casper Gutman (played by Sydney Greenstreet) in The Maltese Falcon: “I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.” We both made a conscious effort to edit ourselves as the program went on, but the sold-out crowd never seemed impatient as Scorsese rattled off anecdotes, observations, imitations, and jokes.

This was my first interview of any substance with the director, though we’ve met on a number of occasions. It’s always fun for me because we seem to speak the same language. (When I greeted him backstage, in the midst of a small crush of people, I said, “Immediate seating in the mezzanine” and without missing a beat he shot back, “Remember that scene in It’s In the Bag?” As it happens, I do know that 1945 Fred Allen comedy, which has a running gag about being shunted from one aisle of a movie palace to another. Don’t ever try topping Scorsese when it comes to movie knowledge.) Later, onstage, when he spoke about some of his early moviegoing experiences, he picked up on my recollection of the mantra that kids of our generation all remember: “This is where we came in” and proceeded to explain. Apparently, every family acquired the habit of walking into movie theaters in the middle of a show, unconcerned about when the show began. They’d arrive in the middle of a picture, sit through the rest of it and possibly a second feature until they realized they’d reached the point where they started and announce, “This is where we came in.” Astonishing but true.

The Festival’s Dana Morrow prepared a compelling opening montage, but the film clips that punctuated and drove the evening were selected by Scorsese himself. What he chose, given the time restraints, and what he left out, says a great deal. Most of the seminal films from the early part of his career were here: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, along with a well-chosen scene from Hugo, screened in 3-D. But he put a great emphasis on documentaries, beginning with ItalianAmerican, featuring his irrepressible parents, and continuing with The Last Waltz (featuring Muddy Waters) and No Direction Home, his Bob Dylan opus. We were supposed to screen an excerpt from his Fran Lebowitz film, Public Speaking, and a scene from Shutter Island, but ran out of time. (At the end of the show, Hugo and Shutter Island costar Ben Kingsley presented Scorsese with the Festival’s American Riviera Award and made a beautifully eloquent speech.)

Our conversation was, of necessity, propelled by the lineup of film clips, so we didn’t get to talk about such notable films as The Last Temptation of Christ and The King of Comedy or underrated ones like Bringing Out the Dead. Perhaps someday I’ll get to do part two of our q&a.

I asked him when he realized that he would be able to make a living as a filmmaker, and he deflected the question, unwilling to characterize his work in that fashion. For him, this was a calling (my word, not his). As a young man all he cared about was getting the opportunity to make films; money had nothing to do with it. I gather he still feels the same way. I don’t doubt that he enjoys living comfortably with his family, but he remains, above all, a creative spirit. It’s the art that matters most.

This is why he chose so many of his documentaries for the tribute: these films are highly personal and close to his heart. It’s where he finds refuge from the enormous responsibility of making big, expensive, complicated feature films—dealing with schedules, egos, and budgets. During the four-year period he was working on the Dylan documentary someone asked when it would be released. He replied, “There is no release date. We’re still trying to find the story.” (The producers of his Hollywood movies aren’t happy that he often edits his documentaries at the same time the features are shooting, but having those alternative projects are a release, not a burden, for him.)

When he talks about his early years there is a special light in his eyes, whether it’s recalling how he felt after seeing John Cassavetes’ Shadows or taking pride in the fact that when they shot the “You talkin’ to me?” scene in Taxi Driver, under pressure to finish up the picture, he left in the natural street sounds and even an airplane flying overhead, because they were real. When I told him how astonished I was when I first learned that Mean Streets—the quintessential New York movie—was filmed mostly in Los Angeles, he explained how that came about, and how he blended a week’s worth of New York shots with the balance of the film’s West Coast production. (Robert De Niro fires a gun on a rooftop in Manhattan and breaks a window in Hollywood, etc.)

I asked him if it was true that when he screened John Ford’s The Searchers for his class at NYU, he showed up in cowboy garb. It is true, but he explained that it was 1969-70, and he was a latecomer to cowboy boots and jeans (“I didn’t own a pair until I was 18. I’m Italian; we wear slacks.”). He also confessed that he was the only guy who wore cufflinks when he went to shoot Woodstock—and lost one there.

So many questions, so little time. By now most fans know that his daughter Francesca, who’s about to turn 12, was one of the key motivators for him making Hugo, the first of his movies she could actually see, and doing it in 3-D. He credits having a child later in life with putting him back in touch with his ability to play, and use his imagination, as kids do so naturally. Now that she’s older, he enjoys screening vintage films for her and her friends (from Cyrano de Bergerac to It Happened One Night), although he admits that most of the time he’s not watching the films so much as watching the girls. Spoken like a true parent…who just happens to be one of the world’s greatest filmmakers and movie lovers.

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