7 things we learned from Martin Scorsese: ‘I drew my own little films on paper – in different aspect ratios’

Highlights from the night that Marty came to town for a very rare personal appearance.

23 February 2017

By Matthew Thrift

Martin Scorsese © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

Amid an electrically charged atmosphere, Martin Scorsese took to the stage at BFI Southbank on 22 February, making a rare personal appearance for a wide-ranging, 90-minute conversation with Sight & Sound editor Nick James. Speaking to a packed auditorium, Marty’s appearance – the culmination of our two-month celebration of the great man’s movies – proved a very hot ticket indeed. Fortunately, BBC camera crews were on hand to capture the event, so those who missed out on a ticket will be able to catch up with it on 4 March on BBC2.

In the meantime, here are a few highlights from the legend himself.

On finding his voice

The school I was in was Washington Square College, which at that time was part of NYU. The film course was just one part of three or four years of liberal arts. It was a professor called Haig Manoogian who really believed in me, believed in the energy I had. It’s really about inspiration. He can’t teach you how to make a movie. He could force you and push you, cajole and complain, disagree about anything, whether it’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) or The Third Man (1949).

You go back and forth until eventually he says: “You see, that’s what I mean. You took that shot, which was shot for some other scene, that came from some other place, and you’re now using it in a new place because you understood the value of the shot. The shot is and of itself its own thing.”

Martin Scorsese
Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

On formative films

The first films I saw were in theatres. I was diagnosed with asthma at age three, and they couldn’t do anything with me, so they took me to the movie theatre.

Duel in the Sun (1946) was the first I remember seeing. My mother took me to see it because, she said, “he likes westerns”, but it was really because it was condemned by the church. It was terrifying. The vibrancy of the colour, the music, the intensity of the kind of baroque, erotic behaviour. It’s so strange. I was six, I guess. Those open, vast spaces that King Vidor shot in, and others shot in, were just extraordinary.

Duel in the Sun (1946)

From then on, it was all the Hitchcock films. We started watching television in 1950-51, and the key films then were British films, the Alexander Korda films. I noticed a name on films that I liked, that kept coming up, and that was John Ford. The first one was Wagon Master (1950). I remember seeing that in the theatre and never having experienced anything like it. I began to see a number of his films on television, culminating in the actual release of The Searchers in VistaVision in 1956.

Some stand up better than others. Some are childhood memories. As a friend recently said, you can respect them now, but they aren’t as powerful as they were. In the case of Powell and Pressburger, I’d choose The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) over The Red Shoes (1948). If The Red Shoes is on television, I’ll watch it, but if I had a choice, I’d watch Blimp.

On antiheroes

I remember being taken by the darker elements of Sunset Blvd. (1950), say. Kirk Douglas’s performances in Champion (1949) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952); Robert Ryan in Caught (1949), which I saw on its first release and was very strange to see at eight years old; Brando, of course, in On the Waterfront (1954). That changed everything for me. It was like a documentary, seeing the kind of people who were around me. It just wasn’t much of a stretch for me. Coming off of seeing the Italian neorealist films, seeing Shadows (1959) – [I thought] why not explore that?

Raging Bull (1980)

I know basically good people who do bad things; it’s simple. Can you put yourself in a place of judgment? You can, but then you get caught out short. Then you gotta deal with yourself. You find a way to become comfortable with yourself, or you start punishing yourself if you can’t. I tried that at the end of Raging Bull (1980) – when he’s doing the On the Waterfront speech – when he finally becomes merciful with himself… It doesn’t mean those violent tendencies aren’t there any more; he just deals with them differently.

On art

The key thing for me originally was drawing and painting; I wanted to go that way. I drew my own little films on paper – in different aspect ratios! Composition: what do you leave in the frame and what do you leave out of the frame? It wasn’t so much training, I just found I had to do it.

I didn’t really understand anything about cameras. I guess I approached storytelling through composition and editing. Not lighting – I don’t understand lighting. I didn’t understand it because I didn’t see lighting. I grew up in the tenements. Daytime was daytime, night-time was night-time. I didn’t know where the light was coming from, I didn’t understand the movement of the sun. I mean, I understood it scientifically.

Even by the time we did Silence (2016), I felt I understood something, but I’m not Michael Powell, who could look at the sun and know exactly what time it was. So I stopped pretending that I could, or trying to understand F-stops…

Martin Scorsese with Sight & Sound editor Nick James
Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

On improvising with actors

It starts with character, the role in the story, in the film. And, of course, the script that accompanies that. Does the script allow, and does the world that those characters are in allow, a kind of overlapping sense of freedom in dialogue? If it does, how far can we take it per scene so that it doesn’t throw us off the tracks?

The Departed (2006) became very interesting in terms of where we went with improvisation and rewrites, as opposed to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), which went even further, but we were able to contain in rehearsals, before I shot. The Departed just kept growing. I was trying to make something come alive that perhaps I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, in terms of the thing that attracted me greatly to the story in the first place, which was the plot. I found that I had trouble interpreting the plot visually and verbally. So I pushed character.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

With Bob on Taxi Driver (1976), the “Are you talkin’ to me?” was the last week of shooting. By that point I felt comfortable enough… It’s about trust. He’d say something like “I have an idea,” and, because I liked it, later he’d do it again. I’d say: “Don’t tell me, show me, I’m gonna shoot it.” 95% of the time I thought there was something that was terrific.

With Leo it’s a similar thing. There’s a 30-year difference, but he’s not afraid. On Wolf of Wall Street, I’d be dragging myself to locations, but I’d see him, Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie jumping around, and I’d be like: “OK, let’s go.” I knew I’d get something special. It’s good when people want to be there. It’s good to be around people you like or you love. You can’t always be, in which case you try to do the best job you can, and hope there’s an element of trust. If not, you hope there’s enough footage that you can shape it.

On the origins of the Film Foundation

What happened was that we were trying to run prints of films that we admired – myself and other filmmakers in California. We’d try to screen something like The Leopard (1963), and nothing existed. It’d be 16mm and magenta. I called Fox and they’d say: “We just didn’t have room for the print.”

Films like the Michael Powells hadn’t been restored or reconstructed. A Matter of Life and Death (1946) was shown in edited versions. Peeping Tom (1960) hadn’t been seen; we saw it in black and white. Then there was one guy who had a print and it was like a meeting of the underground: “He’s gonna show it, tomorrow night.” It became that sort of thing, where a few people were invited and we’d go.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

There was a realisation of how we lived our lives alongside and within these films: they weren’t just movies, they became part of who you are, of how you saw life and experience emotions. Whether it’s L’avventura (1960) or Singin’ in the Rain (1952), we realised that no one was taking care of them.

It was pre-video and all the vaults were being sold, and myself and Steve Spielberg had the same problem: by 1979 we began to realise that all films that were made in colour – at a point at which all films had to be made in colour – were being made at a time when the colour technique was at its weakest. Because it was cheaper, they had to make all these prints. Which meant that in the right circumstances you could lose the colour of a print and maybe the negative in six months.

It was about respect for the value of the library. It’s why George Lucas shot Star Wars (1977) as if it had already faded. Blacks, whites and pinks. We were all very conscious of it. With New York, New York (1977) I wanted the old Technicolor look, knowing that within a year all the prints would be gone.

On Al Pacino and The Irishman

Al [Pacino] and I’ve been trying to do a picture with each other since 1971. He was introduced to us by Francis Coppola at my mother and father’s apartment. He came over to eat some food and was telling my mother and father about who should play The Godfather. She liked the idea of Brando. She also wanted to put Richard Conte in the film. He said [to my mother]: “I have a friend I want to play the son, Michael. He hasn’t done a film before, the studio doesn’t want him, but he’s really good – he looks just like your son; his name is Al Pacino.” That night he took us to see a show that Al was in called Rats, and I met him that night.

Martin Scorsese
Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

I’m looking forward to it. Each film is a separate journey, a separate universe that you go into. Me and Bob haven’t worked together for 20 years. We did a sort of commercial last year, but that’s about it.

How can we approach it? It’s a similar world to GoodFellas (1990) or Casino (1995), but in a very different way. I have to find out about the style. You don’t change style just to change style, but one doesn’t want to be atrophied. So, what does it mean to go back into that world? The story is quite strong. The original title is I Heard You Paint Houses, and that might be the one.

This event was recorded by BBC Arts, and a version will be broadcast on BBC2 on Saturday 4 March 2017 at 10pm.

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