Over the weekend at the Marrakech Film Festival, as a final treat before the red carpet got rolled up for another year, 2013 Jury President Martin Scorsese did a brief Q&A at the local film school, to which he is apparently a returning guest. Scorsese has filmed twice in the area (“The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Kundun” both made extensive use of the arid desertland around the nearby Ouarzazarte studios) and so has filmmaking ties to the region that led to the students referring to him, endearingly, as their “godfather.”
In answer to the diverse questions that came in from the largely student audience, Scorsese may have made frequent reference to his advancing years, but especially considering the 71-year-old was at the end of a long ten days viewing and adjudicating the competition films, he was, as ever, gracious and chatty about his life in film, past, present and future. Here are the highlights of that talk.
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The script for “Mean Streets” just came out of him, as a compulsion, but he doesn’t consider himself a writer.
In the case of ‘Mean Streets,’ this was a film that came out of my own life and that script, over the period of 6 years, right around the time I was in film school. I don’t think it was a matter of ‘writing a script.’ It was something else… I had to do it. I didn’t know any other way to do it other than to make a movie. And apparently you have to write it first.
And since then I’ve been very lucky to have scripts that I worked on a as a film director, that in many cases were like a perfect script. Like Paul Schrader’s ‘Taxi Driver.’ And later from good collaborators like Nicholas Pileggi, Jay Cocks and my actors. So it isn’t a matter that I sit down and go to a room and write for a year. It’s more complex and I don’t have that discipline of a writer, I just don’t have it. I usually have a subject matter and work with a writer if I initiate [the project].
He hopes his more personal projects have changed him.
Well, I hope that they would. In fact, in ‘Mean Streets,’ the man who shoots De Niro at the end is me. And it’s based on myself and my friends and a more complicated reading is [it’s about] my father and his brother. It turns out a few years later I realized that. And that [scene] was the night of my 30th birthday, so I thought it would exorcise the demons from me, but it didn’t.
Scorsese draws a line from ‘Last Temptation’ to “Kundun” to “Living in the Material World” as being about spirituality and faith, and hopes to continue that thread with “Silence.”
In terms of “The Last Temptation of Christ” [the issue of faith] was…complex. It was again a passionate process. Religion is one thing, but spirituality, the interest in it, the drive and obsession towards it has always been there for me. I wanted to be a priest at one point—it didn’t work out—and this desire, this obsession to make that film had to come with the exploration of the mystery of faith. But in the process of making the film, I found the mystery only deepened and I was only on the surface. And so that’s only continued over the years leading to “Kundun,” and a film I made on George Harrison (“Living In The Material World“) and a film I hope to make next, “Silence.“ I’m just obsessed with this search for a spiritual core in life. And I’m sorry to have to talk in that way about these films but that is what they are about. I don’t know how else to discuss it other than to make a film about it.
The biggest challenge to a long career is retaining the desire to make films
There’s no one that can prepare you. Depending on the economics, it’s almost like going to training camp, you have to keep exercising to retain the desire [to make films] because everything is set up for you to lose that desire, it’s just too hard.
For many young people trying to make films, it’s good to work with whomever you can, in whatever capacity you can. In my day you did it for no money, we didn’t get paid, you just did it, if you could get it [the financing]. Others may need to be alone, to work on a story for three years. And with the technology today is the ability to somehow, with yourself, and friends, put a film together. But the main thing is to always to protect that spark of energy, because it’s just physically difficult and then it becomes emotionally difficult so you have to protect that [desire and drive].
This is not to cloak it in the cliche of “pursuing your dreams”—a dream is a dream—but it can be done, particularly with the technology of today. But in order to do it, you have to forget how difficult it is. What I mean is, there’s a story about Stanley Kubrick and he’s with Jan Harland his producer on “Eyes Wide Shut.” Basically, it is a small scale film and Jan Harlan said Stanley had the “director’s disease.” I said, what was that? He said, “Well, I showed him the the production schedule of “Eyes Wide Shut” and it was an 89 day shoot. And Stanley said, “Oh, I can do it in 70.” And of course, it took a year. But you really think you can do it in 70 and suddenly, you’re in this and there’s no way out, but to finish.
On working with De Niro
The reality is De Niro, in 1959 or 1960, he was in the neighborhood, the streets that I was on. We knew each other. We weren’t friends then, but he’s the only one alive working in cinema, in this business, who knows who I am and where I come from. That’s it. He’ll just look at me and… We know. Now, we’re older, much older. We were able to work together on a series of films where we mined some very deep emotions and psychological issues. It wasn’t always pleasant. It was all based on trust.
There was no pretension in him in that way because we dealt with what we knew, we were attracted to the same stories, the same characters, the same risks. It wasn’t the issue of De Niro going, “Marty, we should do ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream‘ next or we should do ‘Richard The III,’” (which I like). But that’s not what we do. We are from here and this is what we know. We never even had to say that [to each other], we would just gravitate to these stories. We knew we were barbarians in that sense.
The bad language in “Raging Bull” has nothing on “Wolf of Wall Street”
“Raging Bull,” when that opened, it got some good reviews, but there was a wonderful article in the esteemed great American newspaper the New York Times and it was quite funny because the language in “Raging Bull” is quite terrible. The language, the attitude, the cursing. The article was, “What Happened To Language?” and they quoted some of the worst lines. So we destroyed the language. The main pull quote was from the scene where De Niro threatens to kill his neighbor’s dog. The language is very tough in that film, but not as bad as “Wolf Of Wall Street,” my new film. Much worse, muuuch worse. I mean, they’re making money.
Working with DiCaprio has inspired Scorsese to keep going
With Leonardo DiCaprio it’s different, I’m 30 years older than him. De Niro introduced me to Leo, by saying to me, “I’m working with this young boy and you should work with him one day,” and I found that Leo liked the movies we made in the past and he has the same sensibilities, similar interests. He has great courage and a fearlessness in the work. He’s not afraid to go to certain emotional places [or tackle] psychological issues.
And it’s a tricky thing with Leo because he became a major box office star with “Titanic.” When I did “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator,” people kept asking me, “is he an actor?” I said yes. I saw “What’s Eating Gilbert’s Grape,” the film he did with De Niro, “This Boy’s Life” before “Titanic.” So there’s a stigma there which people still refer to. But we found that he regenerated my enthusiasm for making films. Mainly because as you get older it gets physically difficult and also the business especially — the financial issues. You’re responsible for a lot of money, if you get it. It’s all pressure, but can you do it? His enthusiasm and excitement really kept me going, for another five pictures now.
Scorsese seems to feel he may not have a huge number of films left to make and feels his time for experimentation is passed.
Desire? Yes, I have the desire to make many films, but as of now I’m 71 and there’s only a couple more left if I get to make them. I miss the time when I had the desire to experiment and try different kinds of films, I miss that time, but that’s done, it’s over. There is obligation as you get older, you have family. I’ve been very lucky in the last 10 years or so, to have found projects that combine the desire, the subject matter—from “The Aviator” to now—with, as best I can, fulfilling the obligation to my family and the financiers.
Sometimes, though the obligation has outweighed the desire, and Scorsese has felt “trapped” by the making of a film.
It’s a complex question, so to clarify more, there’s a number of projects I’ve made over the years, that I’ve been persuaded by the actor, two of them for Robert De Niro, Paul Newman, and DiCaprio. So I have to find if I can take my time and put my energy and passion into what they like or are drawn to, and luckily in many cases it has worked out. And for me ultimately, I have to have the final say, the final cut.
Now there is one other thing, over the past few years now I’ve been trapped in a couple of films. Where because I agreed at first, I found that the circumstances—whether they were financial, executive situations at studios or physical difficulties—I tried to get out, but I couldn’t, and I had to make the movie. And then it was a matter of making something really special. I really have to find a way to stay really in there and stay interested and find something special. That happened a couple of times in the last 10 years.
Care to speculate on which projects he was referring to there? In any case, “The Wolf of Wall Street” arrives on Christmas Day, and you can be sure we’ll be talking a lot more about the film world’s very own Santa Claus, Martin Scorsese, in the days and weeks to come. –with Rodrigo Perez