The name Martin Scorsese has become synonymous with great filmmaking. Ask any actor what director they dream of working with, and the name that pops up time and again is Scorsese—no first name necessary. In a career spanning more than 30 years, there isn't a genre he hasn't tackled: gritty dramas (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), gangster films (Goodfellas), musicals (New York, New York), documentaries (The Last Waltz). He's even proven himself an adept comedian, helming After Hours and The King of Comedy and poking fun at himself on such shows as HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm and Saturday Night Live—on which he gamely re-enacted the famous "Are you talking to me?" scene from Taxi Driver for Chris Farley.
One thing immediately apparent upon meeting Martin Scorsese is that he loves his job. He still gets excited talking about movies, not just his own. He delivers passionate speeches about Sam Peckinpah and Orson Welles in that famous rat-a-tat-tat delivery and talks about characters in movies as though they were old friends. He addresses even the most sensitive topics with dead-on bluntness and laughs frequently and boisterously when discussing his successes or his failures.
Scorsese is ensconced in a room at the Hotel Bel-Air to discuss his latest release, the epic drama Gangs of New York, a film he wanted to make for more than 20 years—a movie in which he literally and metaphorically depicts the destruction of his beloved New York City during the 1863 draft riots. As with most Scorsese films, it's a love-it-or-hate-it affair, but even those with reservations about the picture's historical accuracy or Leonardo DiCaprio's Irish accent acknowledge the power of Scorsese's storytelling.
Back Stage West: We waited a long time to see Gangs of New York, after it was pushed back from release last year. But that's nothing compared to the years you spent trying to bring it to the screen.
Martin Scorsese: Yeah, it took a long time for me to do and then a lot of time in the editing room. It was one of those films where you sort of finish writing it in the editing room.
BSW: Does that happen often with your movies?
Scorsese: Not with Taxi Driver. That was pretty clearly laid out. Not Age of Innocence, not Raging Bull. But with Casino, we basically rewrote the whole thing in the editing room. Quite a few of them are like that: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, New York, New York, King of Comedy. And After Hours, my God, that went on forever. We went back and shot an extra week at the end, we tried new endings. We tested different audiences with different endings because of the strange nature of the comedy in it. With Last Temptation of Christ, I still don't feel like I've finished. I could still be in the editing room. To this day, I feel I should have cut another 10 minutes out of it.
BSW: There's a rumor going around that there's a "director's cut" of Gangs of New York and that you weren't totally happy with the cut Miramax released.
Scorsese: Yeah, I heard that. Apparently a videotape got out of one of the versions. Here's what happens: I'll screen a cut of a film for "friends"—and I say friends in quotes because you never really know, and it's gotten to the point where very few people come see the film. Thelma [Schoonmaker, Scorsese's longtime editor] debriefs them, and we write up their comments and go over them. This is different from a public preview, which is even tougher. I'm very methodical; I'm very fastidious about every note ever written about a film. Even if it's on a napkin, I keep it. And I date it. It's obsessive. I have Post-Its all over the house, and in the morning I collect them and I have dates on them so I know what ideas came first. It tracks my original thought and keeps me in line. When it came to Gangs, there were 18 different cuts of the film. The 18th is the one you see in the theatre, and that's what I've got to live with.
BSW: So the rumors of your fights with Miramax head Harvey Weinstein are greatly exaggerated?
Scorsese: The two of us have known each other for years, but we're both hot-tempered. There was a lot of money at stake, and we're both big personalities. We went through a lot together. I'll disagree, I'll argue. He'll disagree, he'll argue. Then we'll both agree and laugh. It goes on back and forth, it's constant. But, and I stress this, a part of choosing to make the film was knowing that ultimately Harvey was the man to get it made. We all knew going in what the dynamic was. This is the nature of the business. We have to find a way to work together. The reality is that this is a film I wanted to make for 30 years and I could still be shooting. At some point the studio has to come in and say, "Um, Marty, you've shot the entire script now. Why are you still here? When do you think it's going to be finished?" It's the name of the game. You try to get as much as you can.
There's this story going around that Harvey said, "Cut, cut, cut." Well, yes, the studio always says, "Cut, cut, cut." Harvey says it louder. The editing process really became like creating a giant sculpture, where we were constantly chipping away and shaping. The reality is, there's nothing that I shaved away that I feel in any way was any great filmmaking or added layers to the story that we didn't already know through implication.
BSW: Do you get final cut on your films?
Scorsese: Yeah, to a certain degree. The issue is this: I've always had final cut, ever since Raging Bull. But they'll only give up to a certain length. The length they give me isn't bad. The problem is that you have to fight for that extra footage, and you do. Like with Last Temptation of Christ, I think they gave me two hours and 10 minutes, and I turned in two hours and 46 minutes. You know, not every film is edited by the studio. But over the past 12 years now, with the wonderful advancement of DVDs, the technical aspects are beginning to outweigh the content of the film. You make a movie and start talking about how this is going to be great for the DVD. It's not the same movie; a DVD is different. There's this thing now called the director's cut. And I'm sorry, but when it reaches the screen, the nature of the people you chose to work with, the situations—whether it was raining, whether the actor was sick—that's the director's cut. Unless you shot an extra hour of sequences that built on the story and you really wanted them in and the studio said no—like something done to Orson Welles in A Touch of Evil—that's different. That's restored footage. That's restoring the director's original intent.
BSW: You mentioned preview audiences being tough.
Scorsese: We had terrible previews for Goodfellas. People got up and stormed out, they were so angry. The only scene people liked was the scene with my mother. And the studio kept telling me I had to cut it down. They said: "We know it's your mother, but it's too long." I showed them the comment cards and I kept saying, "Look, it's the only thing they like."
BSW: How involved do you get in the casting of your movies? Do you rely on the same casting director for all your pictures?
Scorsese: I've worked with Ellen Lewis on every film since Goodfellas. She's great and she knows what I like. She knows the balance I like of non-actors to actors and how I like to mix them together. Something happens with non-actors. They're from the world that you're making the film about, and it helps the actors to a certain extent to just relax with them and take on their demeanor. In Age of Innocence, the dinner party scenes feature a lot of non-actors, which was good for me. I was depicting a different kind of world than what I normally do, so I had to make sure I was being accurate, not just portraying what I thought was right because I'd seen it in old movies.
BSW: Is it challenging to work with non-actors?
Scorsese: No, because they bring a great sense of camaraderie that really helps, particularly in films like Goodfellas and Casino. And to a certain extent, we're all actors. I've seen undercover cops who act for their lives, but they get in front of a camera and they freeze. I tell them, "What are you worried about? You've been shot four times and this is only a camera." Sometimes we don't even tell them we're running the camera, because they just can't relax and forget it's there.
BSW: I would think working with you would be intimidating for anyone, even experienced actors.
Scorsese: No, no. Most of them know me, and if an actor is nervous about meeting me for the first time, within five minutes of talking to me they forget about it. I like to have enjoyment on the set; it's a place for laughter and excitement. That doesn't mean that I enjoy the shooting process, it doesn't mean that I don't have confrontations. Though they're usually off set, in private offices, with my production people and producers. But you calm down and come out and do the work and try to put the actors at ease.
BSW: But surely you're aware of your reputation and how actors feel about you. Does it ever become a burden being Martin Scorsese, like you feel actors would never dare to disagree with you?
Scorsese: I like the actors to come in and try ideas and give me something more than I thought. Everyone on Gangs did that, especially Leo. The emotional impact of his reaction shots is amazing. I mean, acting is reacting. Robert De Niro told me years ago when he and Leo were doing This Boy's Life that I should watch this kid. And he never tells me that, unless I specifically ask about someone. This he volunteered. So I've been watching him, even before he blew up with Titanic. And his bankability because of Titanic helped get this film made. He's got a brilliant future. He's young and he's got range—just look at his two films this year.
BSW: Speaking of your Gangs stars, how did you get Daniel Day-Lewis to come out of retirement for this film?
Scorsese: I just talked to him with Leo and Harvey Weinstein. Harvey has a relationship with him from My Left Foot. So Harvey would call and taunt him: "Daniel, please don't do this film. I want the part. I'm going to play Bill the Butcher. So do me a favor and just stay in Ireland." He finally came over and listened and agreed to it. We have a good personal relationship; we see things in a similar way and feel comfortable with each other.
BSW: I recall reading an interview years ago where either you said or the reporter implied that winning an Oscar did matter to you, even though you're not supposed to admit it. Was that true, and does it still matter?
Scorsese: I think it matters in terms of my ego, there's no doubt about that. But winning the Palme d'Or in Cannes mattered a great deal, too, and when I won it for Taxi Driver, I went the wrong way, and I became overly confident. I was testing myself in the wrong direction, but I had to go there to find out it was wrong. I came back out the other side alive. But the recognition was part of that arrogance. Well, I'd always been arrogant, but the attention turned it into obsession. So in a way I think I'm lucky to have not won an Oscar at the time. One has to be careful because the nature of the business is to change fast. Fred Zinnemann swept the Oscars twice for From Here to Eternity and A Man for All Seasons, and then began production of his dream project, and it was cancelled. After that he made a couple of good movies but never at that same level. You can't become complacent.
BSW: You've tackled just about every genre, even documentaries and musicals. How do you continue to challenge yourself?
Scorsese: Keeping it fresh is hard. You do it with the actors and the subject matter you choose. For example, I did Age of Innocence and Kundun, which were unlike anything I'd tackled before. Both were far more internal, which is sort of different from today's culture. Kundun in particular—it's not traditional Western dramaturgy. That was a real challenge for me—finding ways to tell that story.
BSW: You also act quite a bit, from small parts in your own films to your recent appearance on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Do all directors secretly want to be actors?
Scorsese: With Curb Your Enthusiasm, they came to me and asked me to do it. It's intimidating to act. I like at times to be put on the spot, to remind myself of what actors have to go through in front of the lens. People would tell me I was blinking too much, and I was like, "There's a giant light in my face blinding me, and you're telling me not to blink? What's wrong with you?"
BSW: Speaking of your spot on Curb Your Enthusiasm, you had a great joke about living in Los Angeles—
Scorsese: "I lived in L.A. for twelve years. Then they asked me to leave." I love the idea that the Hollywood community gathered together and showed up on my doorstep and said, "Hi, we represent the L.A. community. Please leave."
BSW: Well, this is our Welcome to L.A. issue, and even though you're the quintessential New Yorker, this was your home for a while. What did you like about it?
Scorsese: I lived here for 12 years. People don't realize how much of Raging Bull was actually done here in L.A., including all the sound design. When I moved here, in the '70s, people had to come to L.A. to make films. There were a lot of New Yorkers here, so I felt very comfortable. I loved it here at the time; I'm a big fan of Westerns, and I loved the scenery and wearing cowboy shirts. But the industry changed, and my parents and daughters were back in New York, so I went home.
BSW: Do you have any parting advice for actors or directors?
Scorsese: The thing to keep in mind through all the discouragement is that you simply have to continue. It's like in The Red Shoes, when Anton Walbrook asks Moira Shearer, "Why do you want to dance?" and she says, "Why do you want to live?" BSW