Martin Scorsese on The Age of Innocence

In our February 1994 issue, Scorsese spoke to lan Christie about his love of genre, his passion for ritual and his Eisenstein-like approach to editing.

10 November 2022

By Ian Christie

The Age of Innocence (1993)
Sight and Sound

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This feature first appeared in the February 1994 issue of Sight and Sound

“’England’ means tea shops, lager louts and sun-drenched cathedral closes,” according to Terry Eagleton in a recent piece on the artifice of the national idiom. Its potency, however, is undeniable, even in unlikely quarters. A tea shop hard by a cathedral close (York Minister, in fact) was part of the setting which helped Martin Scorsese to decide in January 1987 to film Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a passionately restrained tale, ironic and nostalgic in equal measure, an acerbic ‘survivor’s memoir’ of belle époque New York. The lager louts might have seemed a more likely subject for Scorsese, but this is to underestimate the most ambitious and unpredictable film-maker at work in the United States today.

I was travelling with Scorsese to ask the questions for what was to become Scorsese on Scorsese. While I didn’t notice that he was reading Edith Wharton on the long train journeys, he still vividly remembers finishing The Age of Innocence and thinks it was this experience – the picturesque winter landscape outside coupled with the pastness which Britain represents for an American – that helped him decide on what seems to many a bizarre choice for a film-maker still identified with the lowlife exploits of Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle and Jake La Motta.

For Scorsese, his fans’ oft-repeated plea that he should make another Mean Streets or confine himself to the American hard-boiled genre is as mystifying as it is infuriating. His understanding of cinema is based on a respect for the idea of genre and on an appreciation of its niceties in countless local instances: not just a great gangster film or costume piece, but one made there, at this point in the national tradition, using those resources. It can sound to the uninitiated like a crazy scrambling of cinema history, but I think that for Scorsese the whole point is the poignancy of knowing that we are now irrevocably on the far side of classical filmmaking. However gifted a director is today, he or she can only be a Mannerist, condemned, like the artists who followed the High Renaissance, to echo and embellish the great unselfconscious works of the past.

Martin Scorsese during the filming of The Age of Innocence (1993)

And so for Scorsese, how he engages with tradition isn’t just movie buffery: it is a vital creative issue. Collecting films, ensuring they are preserved by studios and archives, contacting and discreetly helping the ‘great directors’ (Fellini, Kazan, Kurosawa, Powell), working with collaborators who belong to traditions he admires (Freddie Francis, Michael Ballhaus, Boris Leven, Saul Bass , Elmer Bernstein) – all these are part of the process of finding a place for himself in a post-classical era. Frederic Jameson thinks of Godard’s recent work as “a survivor’s modernism”. Scorsese’s ambition is wider: he wants to make the past – both historic and cinematic – fully visible in the present, a country we can visit and marvel at.

Set in New York in the 1870s, The Age of Innocence tells the story of Newland Archer, who is engaged to May Weiland, of the powerful Mingott family. A ‘disgraced’ member of May’s family, Countess Ellen Olenska, returns from a disastrous marriage in Europe and is snubbed by New York society. Archer asks the powerful Van der Luyden family to host a dinner for the Countess to counter her exclusion. Archer falls in love with Ellen, but stifling social pressures prevent him from consummating their relationship and he is torn between his passion for the Countess and his life with May.

Ian Christie: You said that the atmosphere of England, where you finished reading ‘The Age of Innocence’, helped you to decide to do it.

Martin Scorsese: There was something about the timing of reading the book at that point in my life, after a long struggle to get The Last Temptation of Christ made, and having always wanted to make a romantic piece. There was also the popularity of A Room with a View and pictures like it, which seemed to make working in this style possible. But I think finishing the book while travelling around England and Scotland  – I seem to remember a big snowstorm – had a lot to do with it. Then it was a matter of cleaning up my creative life so that I could do it.

GoodFellas was being written in 1987 and when I was in England that was going to be my next film, but then we were able to slip in The Last Temptation. For the next two years I was mulling The Age of Innocence over in my head and scriptwriter Jay Cocks – who had given me the book in the first place – would come over once or twice a week, and we would discuss how to make it different from the usual theatre-bound film versions of novels.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

It is surprising to hear that you were influenced by Merchant-Ivory films. Maybe you see these differently from the way we – or at least I – see them?

I only became aware of this attitude when I spoke to a British journalist while we were editing The Age of Innocence. He said something like, “In England we think these films are easy.” Well, it’s not at all easy to make this kind of film in America, especially since we no longer have studios that have all the props and sets. In fact, we were able to find most of our interiors in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, but the neighbourhoods that used to surround them are completely gone. It’s tragic. In the Merchant-Ivory films and in Polanski’s Tess, England looks all of a piece. These films take you out of today and put you very securely in a world that looks more civilised – at least if you had enough money. And they really give you a sense of a world where it took a day to travel from one town to the next.

The foreigner’s eye. Polanski shot Tess in France and Merchant and Ivory, foreigners both, have created an England that seems more real, certainly more attractive, than the real thing. In any case, as Terry Eagleton has pointed out, the great English writers of the twentieth century weren’t English at all: ”They were a Pole, two or three Americans and a clutch of Irishmen.” Englishness seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

I like the beautiful detail in a lot of the Merchant-Ivory films that use English settings. One wide shot says it all. When Jim Ivory shoots a period room, the eye is there. Perhaps it’s more in his cultural make-up to understand the decor, so that when he places the camera, it’s right for that room, you really see the room and all its detail. I feel more comfortable placing a camera in an Italian restaurant, or a church or club, or a Lower East Side tenement. I was lucky that in the novel all those details about decor and dress and food are there.

You quote in your book that accompanies the film a sentence from the novel: ”They all lived in a hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.“ Is this why you paid so much attention to period detail in the film – and why you’re irritated by all the talk about “obsessive attention to detail”, as if this comes from you?

Yes, it’s all in the book. What seems to be description is in fact a clear picture of that culture, built up block by block – through every plate and glass and piece of silverware, all the sofas and what’s on them. All this wealth of detail creates a wall around Newland Archer, and the longer he stays there, with these things becoming commonplace, the harder it will be for him to move out of that society.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Edith Wharton published the book in 1920, recalling a society that no longer existed after the war. Did you feel that you were showing Americans a period which most of them did not know existed?

Of course. And it was even more sumptuous than we show. I felt the film had to show a modern audience the blocks they put around Newland and people like him. But there’s also an irony and a sarcasm in the presentation of that lifestyle – both in the way I tried to do it and in the way Wharton did it in the book. The decor had to become a character for me.

Jay Cocks showed the film to an audience of Wharton specialists which included R. E. B. Lewis, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. And he told me that their reaction was extraordinary, because every time a dinner service was shown or when Mrs Mingott selected the silver plate, they laughed. They knew what the presentation of that particular piece meant. So when the Van der Luydens create a dinner for Countess Olenska, they are making a statement and daring people to go against them.

In the book there’s a fantastic build-up to that dinner that tells you just how important the Van der Luydens are and how everyone in New York society acknowledges their status.

I tried to convey that by the attention given to the dinner itself – the centrepiece, the Roman punch – which is like having a triple high mass for a funeral rather than a regular low mass. They are saying, “Not only will we defend you, but we are going to do so on the highest level. If anyone has a problem with that, they are going to have to answer to us.”

Just like in GoodFellas…

Exactly. It’s a matter of “You have a problem with that? Then you have a problem with me and let’s settle it right now.” Or in this case, “Oh very well. We’re going to have to bring out the Crown Derby, aren’t we?” I remember in The Razor’s Edge, when Gene Tierney throws a plate at Herbert Marshall, he says, “My goodness, the Crown Derby.”

It’s the heavy artillery.

Absolutely. And the Wharton specialists loved it because they understood better than other people what those signals meant. It was important for me that real goodfellas would like GoodFellas and say that it was accurate – and they did. With The Age of Innocence, I think that even if ordinary people don’t understand fully the significance of the different pieces of china, they will at least see that a lot of pomp and circumstance goes into certain sequences. And as it’s not done by me, but by the characters, they get some understanding of the ritual.

Such occasions are the most official way they can sign someone on and make them credible in that society. For instance, when Ellen Olenska arrives late at the party given for her, it’s not important to her. Next day Newland says, “You know all New York laid themselves at your feet last night.” And she answers, “Yes, it was a wonderful party.” The audience has to understand that this wasn’t just a party, lady! Newland is in effect saying, “I’m getting married to your family, and we have agreed to take on the disgrace of your separation from your husband and we are going to do it with a stiff upper lip. So you really should know what we are doing for you by putting on a party.”

There is something about social and professional ritual that fascinates you, whatever the setting or period. But now you seem to feel happier about moving away from your own experience.

One of the lines that led me to make The Age of Innocence was my interest in doing different kinds of genre film. I mean, there’s a major part of me that says, “Let’s do a Western”, but it’s not that easy. I have to find what’s important for me in order to feel comfortable enough to wallow in the malting of a film. So although this film deals with New York’s ‘aristocracy’ and a period of New York history that has been neglected, and although it deals with codes and ritual, and with love that’s not unrequited but unconsummated – which pretty much covers all the themes I usually deal with – when I read it, I didn’t say, “Oh, good – all those themes are here.” I was just hit by the impact of the sequence near the end where Newland tries finally to tell his wife May he’d like to leave and by her response.

It all came together in that scene, and I loved the way I was led by Wharton down the path of Newland’s point of view, in which he underestimated all the women, and how he wound up checkmated by them, and how his wife becomes the strongest of them all. I find that admirable. Even though I may not agree with May totally, I like the growth of her character from a young girl to the person who takes control. You see how important her role is in the second opera house scene, which is the first time May has worn her wedding dress since the wedding. We see her seated between her mother and Mrs Van der Luyden – they have passed on the responsibility for continuing their lifestyle to her.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Ironically there seems to be more of you – your own desires and frustrations – in this movie than in some of your other films, even though it comes fully formed from Wharton and is set in such an apparently remote and artificial milieu.

There is. Sometimes when you fall in love you can’t see what other people see. You become as passionate and obsessive as Newland, who can’t see what’s going on around him. That’s the theme of Taxi Driver and of Mean Streets – it’s a situation I’ve found myself in at times, and I’ve found the way it plays out so wonderful. But then Wharton goes beyond that and makes a case for a life that’s not exactly well spent, but a life that happens to him. Newland has his children, then he finds out that his wife knew all along about his love for Ellen and even told his son about it. Basically he is what they call in America a stand-up guy – a man of principles who would not abandon his wife and children. When he really wanted something most, he gave it up because of his kid .

That’s very interesting to me – I don’t know if I could do the same. But I do know that there are a lot of people, even today, who would: it’s about making a decision in life and sticking to it, malting do with what you have. And then, of course, during the conclusion you realise that a generation has gone by. The children don’t react in the same way; the First World War is looming ahead and they can’t understand why everybody was angry. I don’t say it’s a happy ending, but it’s a realistic and beautiful one.

I think there was a strong emotional reaction at the screening I attended. It was at the Odeon Marble Arch, our biggest screen, and the sensory impact of the film was extraordinary.

That’s great, because the emotional intensity is very important to me. What kept me going as I was reading the book was what a writer friend of mine called “the sweet romantic pain” of the situation, where Newland and Ellen can’t consummate their relationship. A touch of the hand has to suffice for months; the anticipation of a two-hour ride to a train station is so sweet, it’s almost overwhelming. That was the real reason I wanted to make the film – the idea of that passion which involved such restraint.

Shooting the ballroom sequence in The Age of Innocence

A friend and colleague, John Gillett, told me that he thinks this carriage scene is one of the finest he has seen for a long time  – and he hates GoodFellas! I think the films are very close: they both try to be truthful to the milieu in which they’re set and to make you feel the emotion, the allure, the danger as something almost palpable.

Like drowning in it. Actually there are elements of Rossellini in there, especially La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV, because that’s where I discovered that the more detail you see, the better you know the people. Other films do that too, but Rossellini did it in a bolder way. In Louis XIV, he ties up the entire story in the presentation of a meal. In The Age of Innocence we have eight meals, and they are all different in order to make different dramatic points. But although The Age of Innocence may look lavish, the editing, the angles, the dissolves and the length of the images were all worked out way in advance to give the impression of extravagance. In fact, it only cost $32-34 million, and some of the most complicated things, like the beginning of the ball sequence, took only three-quarters of a day. But it was important to achieve the effect of a saturation of detail.

The Age of Innocence is a very literary film – deliberately so. But it’s not theatrical, except where you bring in theatre and opera as part of the period texture and a dramatic counterpoint to the unspoken story being acted out among the characters.

One of the films that made a strong impression on me as a child was Wyler’s The Heiress, which, though it’s based on Henry James’ novel Washington Square, was actually taken from a play. I’ve seen it since and it holds up well, but it is theatrical. The acting is extraordinary – Ralph Richardson, Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Miriam Hopkins – but it’s still in three acts: the conflicts are all played out in traditional dramaturgy; characters talk in a room and confront each other, all in dialogue. There is no narration, no montages, no flashbacks or flashes forward and no visual interpolations such as letters.

I’m trying to get away from this three act approach. Over the last ten years, I’ve found everyone in Hollywood saying: “The script is good, but we need a new Act Two”, or “Act Three just isn’t there.” Finally I said to a bunch of students : “Why are we using the term ‘acts’ when the damn thing is a movie?” I like theatre, but theatre is theatre and movies are movies. They should be separate. We should talk about sequences – and there are usually at least five or six sequences rather than three acts – which are broken up into sections and scenes. When I screened a few films for Elia Kazan back in 1992 and we discussed them afterwards, I found that he too was trying to get away from conventional theatrical dramaturgy in East of Eden and Wild River – neither of which, incidentally, he’d seen since he made them!

I certainly tried to find a different structure for GoodFellas, though that was more like a documentary on a lifestyle. For The Age of Innocence I wanted to find a way of making something literary – and you know how America is cowed by the tyranny of the word – also filmic. I also wanted a massive use of voiceover because I wanted to give the audience the impression I had while reading the book.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

The experience of watching a film is often closer to reading that to watching a play. The Age of Innocence made me think of Max Ophuls – the most literary and even theatrical of film-makers, but also the most filmic. It’s about creating and manipulating the spectator’s point of view, in time through voiceover and in space through those devastating camera movements.

I adore Ophuls and we looked at the new print of Lola Montes. But for me, the major Ophuls film was Letter from an Unknown Woman. By a happy accident it seemed to be on television practically every afternoon when I was a child – that’s the wonderful thing about Ophuls having made four American films – so when I was at home sick from school there would be Letter from an Unknown Woman. I couldn’t tell at the time about camera moves, but I loved the romance and tragedy of it.

I thought that the way you move the camera so deliberately and eloquently in The Age of Innocence is like the way Ophuls tracks and cranes, as if you’ve entered into the characters’ emotions and memory.

That’s what I was hoping. I’ll never forget the arrival of the piano up the staircase in Letter from an Unknown Woman. And then the depiction of a whole life in miniature and the sense of romance in the sequence where Louis Jourdan takes Joan Fontaine to the fairground train ride, and the fake backgrounds just slide past them. Ophuls created a world that was unique. Even though I’d seen other films set in Vienna at the turn of the century, they didn’t have the grace and truth that Ophuls had in that film, which stood repeated viewing. I used to have a still on my wall in Hollywood of Louis Jourdan at the end, when he decides to go to the duel – that wonderful shot of him at the desk as he’s reading the letter.

You have worked with a wide range of collaborators during your career: perhaps only De Niro and Thelma Schoonmaker recur regularly. But even as personnel come and go according to the demands of each film, there is a sense of family about your method of working and a closeness with fellow-creators that you clearly seem to seek. Thelma Schoonmaker has always insisted that the Academy Award she got for the editing of Raging Bull really belongs to you too, since you planned all the incredible distinctions and distortions in that film. I’ve seen the de luxe new editing suite you have, and I wonder how you work together in it?

That’s where the whole creative process happens. I sit in that chair behind her and we have worked out a system of red lights and buzzers to communicate with. It’s set up for the way we like to work. Although I’m not in the editors’ union, I did make my living as an editor for a while in the 70s, and I feel that working on the script and editing are my strong points, as opposed to understanding camera movement and lighting. I love editing. I love what you can do with a film, where you can cut and not cut. It’s Eisenstein really.

The way I work now is that I lay out the editing pattern, and pretty much all the time I decide where to cut and what not to cut. But what Thelma does is to focus on the characters in the film. She’ll say, “Maybe we’re losing some aspect of so-and-so here. Maybe we should change this performance of this one reading because it might indicate that she’s not as sympathetic towards him and we want the audience to realise it at this point.”

There’s a lot of that kind of editing in The Age of Innocence. And in Raging Bull some scenes were written but there were also improvisations within the writing. So we would have ten good takes of Joe Pesci and 12 good takes of De Niro, and we would keep switching them around. “Why don’t we use Take 4 again of Joe, because I think we lost something there,” she would say. Or, “We lost something on De Niro there so maybe we should try Take 8 again.” It has more to do with the spiritual quality of what’s happening with the people in the film that she is able to perceive and help balance out for me.

The actual cutting – well, there’s pure Eisenstein stuff in The Age of Innocence, like when the wife gets up and walks over to him, and you see three cuts of her rising. That’s something I can imagine in my head, draw the pictures, and say, “Do this one here, that one there.” Then Thelma puts it together and I ask her what she thinks, and often she’ll suggest changes.

It took a little longer to edit The Age of Innocence, mainly because of the dialogue scenes – trying to work out how long a pause should be. But because there is such an appetite for stories about our business and I had taken between nine and ten months – working with only one editor! – they painted this picture of me as someone “obsessed with detail”. But editing is the most important original element of the film-making process, so why short-change it? It’s a sorry state of affairs when just doing my job properly is described as “obsessive”.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Many people will be surprised to hear that you don’t consider yourself a camera and lighting expert when your images are among the most precise and purposeful in contemporary cinema. Since you started working more or less regularly with the German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, a former colleague of Fassbinder, there has been more tracking and an increased tendency towards formal overhead and big close-up shots, functioning like tableaux and still-lifes. You seem to enjoy creating special ‘mimetic’ shots that encode an emotion or a vital plot point – like the famous experiments in variable camera speed for ‘Raging Bull’. One such in The Age of Innocence is the opera-glass scan across the Met audience which reveals Countess Olenska to one of Newland’s circle, the supercilious Larry Lefferts.

It’s such an important move that I felt that just putting a binocular masking over it wasn’t enough. Also, it didn’t duplicate what you would actually see if you were looking through opera glasses — not that everything has to be literal. But I wanted to give it more of an edge and make it more important when you finally see Ellen slipping into the box, so Michael and I devised a kind of stop-action photography where we took just one frame at a time and panned. Then we realised that this was going to be too fast, so we decided to print each frame three times. However, this was still too choppy for me, so just when we were finishing negative cutting I finally decided to dissolve between each set of three frames. It took quite a lot of work, going back to the lab countless times – as Thelma can tell you.

Rock and classic American pop have played such a memorable part in your films from the start that you’re not usually associated with the ‘symphonic’ tradition of Hollywood music – unlike De Palma and Spielberg. But using Bernard Herrmann for Taxi Driver was a deliberate homage – and after two collaborations with Elmer Bernstein it looks as though you have now been able to sign up fully to a tradition you admire. Cape Fear had Bernstein reworking Herrmann’s music for the original film, of course, and Bernstein also did the score for The Age of Innocence.

Using Bernstein is a matter of embracing the Hollywood tradition, and The Age of Innocence is the closest to a traditional Hollywood score I have ever worked with. I could have gone classical and scored the picture with period music in the way I had used popular music before, but I wanted to go the other way. It wasn’t so much nostalgia for the sound of all those romantic films as a remembrance of the skill and artistry that used to be available – and still is with someone of Bernstein’s stature.

Another link with the Hollywood past is Saul Bass, creator of a range of now classic title sequences which became indelibly linked with the image of the films they prefaced.

For me Bass is one of the key figures in American movies. His title sequences don’t just capture the spirit of the movie you are about to see – in some cases they are better than the movie itself! He created a style and energy that give you a lift, prepare you for the picture and make you want to see what is going to happen over the next two hours. And they don’t feel separate from the movie, they really seem part of it.

I didn’t know that he was still working until I saw The War of the Roses with his credit at the end. I thought the titles for that were simple and interesting. At the time I was having a problem putting in the word Goodfellas where I wanted it, because it was incorporated in the action. When he slams down the trunk and says “I want to be a gangster”, the lettering never seemed quite right. So I said, “The only man who can really work this out is a guy named Saul Bass.” He did – and then we kept him on to do Cape Fear.

How did you actually work with Bass and his wife Elaine on ‘The Age of Innocence?

We just sent them a tape of the first 40 minutes that were edited. The opera sequence made it very clear in his mind what he wanted to do: opening on flowers and keeping text (which is from a book of etiquette of that period) superimposed over the images. And it was their idea to cut to the Faust overture.

Working with Bernstein, Bass, and with Freddie Francis as cinematographer on Cape Fear isn’t only because you admire these great names from the past – it’s more like making a bridge between your own work and the period in which they gained their reputation.

Exactly. Very often today you hear the phrase that someone has “been round the block a lot” if they are over 70. My view is that maybe we should listen to what they have to say because they have more experience to bring to what we need. When I first worked with Saul and Elaine Bass on GoodFellas I saw right away that they hadn’t lost any of what they had.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

You are currently making a documentary about the history of American cinema for the BFi/Channel4 series ‘100 Years of Cinema’. And of course you have been an active campaigner for film preservation and have a personal collection of an enviable scale and eclecticism. From my own recent viewing of very early American films, I realised that there is a near quotation in The Age of Innocence when, in one of the rare exteriors, we see a striking image of a crowded street full of men clutching their hats against the wind.

Yes, that comes from one of the films I saw through the Library of Congress. It’s a 1903 film called At the Foot of the Flatiron, and it shows all those people bunched up on the sidewalk because no one wanted to walk on the street. This was a place that was always windy – before the rest of the skyscrapers were built the wind could blow right across the island. I also saw What Happened on 23rd Street and a lot of other early New York films. And what about that documentary from the first decade of the century you have in the BFI’s Early Russian Cinema anthology – The Fish Factory in Astrakan? Those glimpses at the camera are really something.

What Happened on 23rd Street – where the woman’s skirt is blown up as she walks over a subway ventilation grid – is a forerunner of the famous gag from ‘The Seven Year Itch’ with Marilyn Monroe. And the Flatiron intersection was also popular as a good place to see the wind reveal women’s ankles.

How do you see your new role as a practical cinema historian and cheerleader for the centenary?

We don’t have the luxury of the 13-hour Kevin Brownlow-David Gill Hollywood series  – which I think is quintessential – so this is just one aspect of a journey that I could take through American movies. It’s like a little museum: I say we’ll stop at this display and another display, then maybe we’ll pass up two others and go on to that one later. But it’s difficult because there are so many things to show. For instance, I can’t let this clip from Force of Evil play, because I have to keep it moving and make the points I want to make. The programme is subtitled ‘A personal journey through the movies’, and I’m trying to direct it towards an audience of younger filmmakers and students who may not be aware of certain kinds of pictures or of trends in American movies that interest me a great deal.

You are obviously getting a lot out of the process. It seems like a real outlet for all the enthusiasm and knowledge you have accumulated.

Absolutely. I hope that we can go on to do one on French and one on Italian cinema, just for America, and perhaps one on Britain too. These might actually be easier because there isn’t the same pressure to cover everything.

Do you have any hopes for the centenary of cinema being a major cultural event, or do you think it will just be of interest to movie buffs?

I think it’s going to be something very special – the only problem is that the Americans, the French and the British can’t agree on which year! Nor can they agree on who invented it – which shouldn’t even be in discussion since it’s so obvious that it was a simultaneous invention, although Edison did try to take all the credit. Now it’s clear that the Lumieres and Friese-Greene and others were important too. I’m still hoping that Cinememoire will do something major to celebrate the centennial.

And speaking of cultural difference, just tell all those people that The Age of Innocence is really not so extravagant. It’s not as easy for Americans to make a film like that with real locations as it is for you here in England.

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