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Scorsese and De Niro Discuss Music, Leo, and a Letter from Malick

Scorsese showed how music shapes his visual design and revealed a letter Terrence Malick wrote him after seeing “Silence.”

Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese. Actor Robert De Niro, left, and director Martin Scorsese attend "Tribeca Talks - Director Series - Martin Scorsese with Robert De Niro" during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival at the Beacon Theatre, in New York2019 Tribeca Film Festival - "Tribeca Talks - Director Series - Martin Scorsese with Robert De Niro", New York, USA - 28 Apr 2019

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival

Brent N Clarke/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The celebrated director-actor duo Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro have been familiar faces on stage at the Tribeca Film Festival De Niro co-founded 18 years ago. Yet it is rare to have the two on the same stage talking about their work like they did yesterday for 90 minutes in front of a packed Beacon Theater crowd.

Officially, it was De Niro interviewing Scorsese, but with Marty curating most of the half dozen clips that were screened it was very much the director framing the conversation and it was clear he had music on his mind. Early in the conversation, Scorsese screened back-to-back clips of Emmylou Harris and The Band performing “Evangeline” from his 1978 concert film “The Last Waltz” and a boxing scene from “Raging Bull” to highlight the role music plays in shaping his work.

Scorsese started by breaking down how the entire concert performance was done in six carefully planned shots. His concept of the lateral (“never curved”) camera movement was dictated by music itself and how he wanted the viewer to see and experience the performance. It was painstakingly detailed work, but something that flowed naturally from Scorsese because of how the song made him feel. It was a sharp contrast to how the director struggled with the boxing scenes.

“When it came time to do ‘Raging Bull’ I had been resisting it for awhile, a few years actually, because I didn’t understand boxing really,” said Scorsese, who as an asthmatic kid never played sports growing up. De Niro chimed in, “You would tell me go [practice] boxing, whatever, and I’ll come watch you and take video of it.”

One day Scorsese went to a gym on 14th street, where De Niro performed all nine of the film’s boxing scenes.

“I sat there and I suddenly realized it’s overwhelming. We can’t shoot this, I have to design it all,” said Scorsese, recalling his reaction to watching De Niro boxing. “We’ll design it based on your choreography, but still this has to be ‘The WIld Bunch,’ this has to be [Sam] Peckinpah, in terms of the choreography of the camera and the physicality of the choreography combined.”

Scorsese said the key breakthrough was approaching the visual design in similar fashion to what he did filming the “Evangeline” performance. “What I did was take the cues, the natural progression was how the music moved me, and how if you had four lefts and one right [punching combination], that was two bars of music,” said Scorsese. “And so what I did in ‘Last Waltz’ was applied to the boxing sequences.”

The one clip it appeared De Niro had pulled for the afternoon conversation was the Quaaludes scene in “Wolf of Wall Street,” a Scorsese movie that featured the younger actor who in some ways replaced him as Scorsese’s regular leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio. After a glitch playing the clip, Scorsese revealed DiCaprio was in the audience and told the story of how he first became aware of the young actor.

“Twenty some odd years ago, you [De Niro] were doing a film ‘This Boy’s Life’ and you said, ‘There’s this kid, Leo DiCaprio, he’s really good, you gotta work with him sometime,'” recalled Scorsese. “And you don’t usually say that.”

De Niro also wanted to discuss “Silence,” a movie he had heard his friend and collaborator talk about for years and wondered if it would ever get made. Delays, Scorsese admitted, were a product of his own struggle with the evolving nature of his own faith.

“For in terms of that faith I was instilled with as a kid, that changes,” said Scorsese. “You get older, you go from the 60s, everything is open, there’s all this stuff going on, you start to question everything. And ultimately it’s been a long kind of struggle, I’m not finished of course, a struggle toward a mature faith, whatever that is. And this film, ‘Silence,’ is one that took me a long time to pull together.”

Scorsese later tried to put a finer point on it saying it was a struggle toward the essence of faith. “What is faith?,” said Scorsese. “Terry Malick wrote me a letter when he saw the picture, and he said, ‘What does Christ want from us?’ That’s interesting.”

While details of the much anticipated next collaboration between Scorsese and De Niro, Netflix big-budget gangster film “The Irishman,” was kept to a minimum, the director did reveal some of the ideas he was working out in “Silence” had spilled over into “The Irishman.” He also noted that, similar to how he used part of the the score from Jean Luc Godard’s “Contempt” in his 1995 film “Casino,” he was using the score from another film in “The Irishman.”

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