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How Martin Scorsese Will Save Filmmaking From Extinction — Exclusive Interview

From his upcoming Netflix production to an effort to preserve African films, Scorsese is on a crusade to keep the medium vital and relevant.

Director Martin Scorsese'Silence' film premiere, Los Angeles, USA - 05 Jan 2017

Martin Scorsese at the premiere of “Silence” in 2016

Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

These days, Scorsese has a newfound devotion to younger directors. His Emerging Filmmaker Fund — a joint venture with Brazilian producer Rodrigo Teixeira — recently launched its first project, the neorealist “A Cambria,” from Italian-American director Jonas Carpignano. The film, which follows the fragmented lives of a Romani community in Calabria, premiered at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight and landed distribution with IFC Films.

After Scorsese showed some admiration for Carpignano’s outline, the 33-year-old filmmaker sent Scorsese a letter outlining their shared admiration for Italian neorealism classics, including “Paisan” and “Shoeshine.” When Scorsese signed on as a producer, he watched a rough cut and provided detailed feedback. “We spoke a lot about the rhythm of the film as it goes from living in their world to where the more loosely plotted structure comes in,” Carpignano said. “As we shaved scenes from either side, he was really invaluable. It was epically surreal to me.”

For Scorsese, on the other hand, “it was quite a movie,” he said. Notably, Scorsese chose a non-commercial project focused on marginalized characters for his fund. (In an effort outside of his film fund, he’ll produce Josh and Benny Safdies’ followup to their Cannes hit “Good Time,” the Jonah Hill vehicle “Uncut Gems,” which takes place in Manhattan’s Diamond District.)

He’s constantly looking to cast a wider net with the Emerging Film Fund, which is designed to support first- and second-time filmmakers around the world. By reading scripts and advising these directors, he hopes to help them work around the limitations of the industry. “It takes time and energy to combat the overcommercialization of films that have dominated, to have more voices or at least support new voices,” he said. “In the case of [‘A Cambria’] and a couple of others… it just happens to be that I meet them, they have an idea, and I try to support this kind of filmmaking.”

“Pather Panchali”

It also points to Scorsese’s longstanding ambition to seek out diverse stories. His name is synonymous with big-screen movie experiences, but his relationship to the medium actually began with television, when he saw Indian auteur Satyajit Ray’s 1955 rural drama “Pather Panchali” in his parents’ Lower East Side apartment.

“It wasn’t the best way to see films, but that’s where they were,” Scorsese said. “I had seen Italian films up to that point, but we were Italian-American. You see ‘Paisan,’ ‘Open City,’ and everybody’s talking the same language around me, so this is part of who we were. I saw films through the eyes of the British, the eyes of the Americans… but here, it was through the eyes of the people who were hanging out in the background in the other films.”

That led him to discover a range of international cinema, from Japanese masters such as Mizoguchi and Kurosawa to the French New Wave. “I had no aversion to subtitles,” he said. “All of a sudden, there was a wave of film.”

These days, as distributors grow wary of releasing foreign language films to markets afraid of anything unfamiliar, Scorsese’s more engaged than ever in spreading the gospel about international cinema. “We see narrative a certain way, but we have to remember what Godard said — that the film should have a beginning, middle, and end, but not necessarily in that order,” he said. “So you see a different grammar, a different way of thinking, and yet still the humanity is there. Our common hearts are there.”

He added that the spread of film history has practical ramifications for American cinema as well. “Without Fellini or Kurosawa, you wouldn’t have Spielberg… or Terry Malick,” he said. “You just wouldn’t, because of the input and inspiration and germination of foreign cultures in America. This is a multicultured country, so that means we should see more of other cultures.”

As Scorsese spoke, his white eyebrows would jump up and down to accentuate his words, and he punctuated his lengthy responses with hints of a smile. “We’ve lost some of that — those special films that could be controversial or at least stir up thinking that stays with you, that’s deeper, longer and you can revisit later,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing that has to be supported, because otherwise, it’ll be wiped up.”

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