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Marrakech Q&A: Martin Scorsese The Desire To Make Films, Suggests He Only Has A Few Left & Hopes ‘Silence’ Is Next

by Jessica Kiang
December 9, 2013 1:08 PM
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Over the weekend at the Marrakech Film Festival, as a final treat before the red carpet got rolled up for another year, 2013 Jury President Martin Scorsese did a brief Q&A at the local film school, to which he is apparently a returning guest. Scorsese has filmed twice in the area ("The Last Temptation of Christ" and "Kundun" both made extensive use of the arid desertland around the nearby Ouarzazarte studios) and so has filmmaking ties to the region that led to the students referring to him, endearingly, as their "godfather."

In answer to the diverse questions that came in from the largely student audience, Scorsese may have made frequent reference to his advancing years, but especially considering the 71-year-old was at the end of a long ten days viewing and adjudicating the competition films, he was, as ever, gracious and chatty about his life in film, past, present and future. Here are the highlights of that talk.

The script for "Mean Streets" just came out of him, as a compulsion, but he doesn't consider himself a writer.
In the case of 'Mean Streets,' this was a film that came out of my own life and that script, over the period of 6 years, right around the time I was in film school. I don’t think it was a matter of 'writing a script.' It was something else… I had to do it. I didn’t know any other way to do it other than to make a movie. And apparently you have to write it first. 

And since then I’ve been very lucky to have scripts that I worked on a as a film director, that in many cases were like a perfect script. Like Paul Schrader’s 'Taxi Driver.' And later from good collaborators like Nicholas Pileggi, Jay Cocks and my actors. So it isn’t a matter that I sit down and go to a room and write for a year. It’s more complex and I don’t have that discipline of a writer, I just don’t have it. I usually have a subject matter and work with a writer if I initiate [the project].

He hopes his more personal projects have changed him.
Well, I hope that they would. In fact, in 'Mean Streets,' the man who shoots De Niro at the end is me. And it’s based on myself and my friends and a more complicated reading is [it’s about] my father and his brother. It turns out a few years later I realized that. And that [scene] was the night of my 30th birthday, so I thought it would exorcise the demons from me, but it didn’t.

"’s almost like going to training camp, you have to keep exercising to retain the desire [to make films] because everything is set up for you to lose that desire."

Scorsese draws a line from 'Last Temptation' to "Kundun" to "Living in the Material World" as being about spirituality and faith, and hopes to continue that thread with "Silence."
In terms of "The Last Temptation of Christ" [the issue of faith] was…complex. It was again a passionate process. Religion is one thing, but spirituality, the interest in it, the drive and obsession towards it has always been there for me. I wanted to be a priest at one point—it didn’t work out—and this desire, this obsession to make that film had to come with the exploration of the mystery of faith. But in the process of making the film, I found the mystery only deepened and I was only on the surface. And so that’s only continued over the years leading to "Kundun," and a film I made on George Harrison ("Living In The Material World") and a film I hope to make next, "Silence." I’m just obsessed with this search for a spiritual core in life. And I’m sorry to have to talk in that way about these films but that is what they are about. I don’t know how else to discuss it other than to make a film about it.

The biggest challenge to a long career is retaining the desire to make films
There’s no one that can prepare you. Depending on the economics, it’s almost like going to training camp, you have to keep exercising to retain the desire [to make films] because everything is set up for you to lose that desire, it’s just too hard.

For many young people trying to make films, it’s good to work with whomever you can, in whatever capacity you can. In my day you did it for no money, we didn’t get paid, you just did it, if you could get it [the financing]. Others may need to be alone, to work on a story for three years. And with the technology today is the ability to somehow, with yourself, and friends, put a film together. But the main thing is to always to protect that spark of energy, because it’s just physically difficult and then it becomes emotionally difficult so you have to protect that [desire and drive].

This is not to cloak it in the cliche of “pursuing your dreams”—a dream is a dream—but it can be done, particularly with the technology of today. But in order to do it, you have to forget how difficult it is. What I mean is, there’s a story about Stanley Kubrick and he's with Jan Harland his producer on "Eyes Wide Shut." Basically, it is a small scale film and Jan Harlan said Stanley had the “director’s disease.” I said, what was that? He said, “Well, I showed him the the production schedule of "Eyes Wide Shut" and it was an 89 day shoot. And Stanley said, “Oh, I can do it in 70.” And of course, it took a year. But you really think you can do it in 70 and suddenly, you’re in this and there’s no way out, but to finish.

On working with De Niro
The reality is De Niro, in 1959 or 1960, he was in the neighborhood, the streets that I was on. We knew each other. We weren’t friends then, but he’s the only one alive working in cinema, in this business, who knows who I am and where I come from. That’s it. He’ll just look at me and… We know. Now, we’re older, much older. We were able to work together on a series of films where we mined some very deep emotions and psychological issues. It wasn’t always pleasant. It was all based on trust.

There was no pretension in him in that way because we dealt with what we knew, we were attracted to the same stories, the same characters, the same risks. It wasn’t the issue of De Niro going, "Marty, we should do 'A Midsummer’s Night Dream' next or we should do 'Richard The III,'” (which I like). But that’s not what we do. We are from here and this is what we know. We never even had to say that [to each other], we would just gravitate to these stories. We knew we were barbarians in that sense.

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  • ART | January 21, 2014 1:15 PMReply

    "There is obligation as you get older, you have family." Is he saying that he doesn't have the "desire to experiment" because he needs to put money on his family's table? Still at 71? After the success of HBO's Boardwalk Empire and a string of 100+million movies under his belt? That's depressing.

  • Irf | December 11, 2013 12:02 PMReply

    There is a real problem with the unreal veneration Martin Scorsese receives. The man has made some of the most brilliant movies in American cinema, but he's also made a lot of mediocre entries. Not everything Scorsese touches turns to gold.

    The Scorsese film output of the 21st century has been his most unexciting period. The Gangs of New York was his last brutal examination of social conditions, though, it marked the beginning of him making movies that mainly appeal to Academy board members. His films have gotten expensive and bloated, lacking the rawness of themes and techniques he was able to tap into even up until Bringing Out the Dead.

    Scorsese is an old guy now, and his work seems more stately than powerful. The Aviator was pretty bland (plus it was a Michel Mann leftover) and The Departed was a bloated, Americanised version of classic Hong Kong cop thrillers.

    Scorsese's next two features are straight up Academy Awards-baiting pictures. Silence and The Irishman seem like films he's making to make the Baby Boomer generation happy. Scorsese cannot be experimental because he can't do those kinds of pictures as an old man. Your politics and drive simply congeals.

  • Smyth E. Alan | December 16, 2013 3:29 PM

    A lot of Scorsese's 'veneration' nowadays also comes from his position as an Elder Statesman of Cinema. With his knowledge, and his work with the Film Foundation to restore/re-release films, he has been an invaluable ambassador for the art.

    And I disagree with some of the comments here: yes, since 'Goodfellas' he's largely directed with a detached hand but that run has also produced some damn fine films. Not too many directors age with this quality of a run at the end of their canon.

  • Helluva | December 14, 2013 8:47 PM

    I agree. Besides "Age of Innocence," my favorite Scorcese films are ones he's made with Paul Schrader's input: "Raging Bull" "Taxi Driver" "Bringing Out The Dead" and "Last Temptation" I loved "Goodfellas" went it came out, but it doesn't hold up for me as well now. Martin & Leo just don't strike me as a particularly good match as collaborators.

  • TRAVIS BICKLE | December 14, 2013 5:35 PM

    i agree
    he is the meryl streep of directors

  • Jørgen P | December 9, 2013 3:26 PMReply

    DeNiro = Raging Bull (he's mentioned it in interviews) & New York, New York or King of Comedy (both are noted for creating rifts between Scorsese & DeNiro)
    Newman = Color of Money
    DiCaprio = Wolf of Wall Street (Leo is producing it and earlier in the process had a different director)

  • JOE PESCI | December 14, 2013 5:37 PM

    DiCaprio = the aviator
    scorsese is afraid to fly so leo tore the front (title) page off the script

  • CB | December 9, 2013 4:42 PM

    Ridley Scott was approached for The Wolf of Wall Street.

  • RRA | December 9, 2013 2:53 PMReply

    He said he did CAPE FEAR to repay Universal for backing LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Could that be one?

  • HOWARD HUGHES | December 14, 2013 5:38 PM

    scorsese was handed cape fear by spielberg

    he knew it would be a hit so then
    marty could have more power in hollywood

  • Roark | December 9, 2013 2:52 PMReply

    I would imagine he's talking about Gangs of New York and Hugo, where he faced huge budgetary pressure from the studios/financiers (he had a falling out with Graham King over Hugo's massive budget overruns) and, especially in GONY's case, famously butted heads with Harvey Weinstein over running time, among other things. The Aviator, The Departed and Shutter Island all, from the outside, seemed like relatively painless productions.

  • HENRY HiLL | December 14, 2013 5:41 PM

    Scorsese wanted deniro in The Departed
    but he was too busy working on the good shepherd

    imagine that ?

    deniro and liotta instead of nicholson and wahlberg :)

  • Ugh | December 10, 2013 3:37 PM

    Most likely he's referring to THE DEPARTED & SHUTTER ISLAND.
    GANGS was his passion project & he fought to make that happen for years. It's his baby.
    THE AVIATOR he's also spoken about highly because he got to recreate early Hollywood.
    HUGO was his light hearted fun ode to cinema.

    THE DEPARTED though was a job for hire. There's very little passion in the project & it's the closest Scorsese has ever come to being a 9-to-5 filmmaker. He's never really talked about The Departed in that fair of light. It was fun but nothing more.

    SHUTTER ISLAND - He's pretty open in Schickel's book "Scorsese On Scorsese" that SI surrounded such bleak, unpleasant & depressing subject matter that he was absolutely depressed for most of the production.

  • James | December 9, 2013 3:11 PM

    I can't imagine he's referring to GONY. He talks of movies he "agreed at first" but later "tried to get out" of. GONY was his passion project for something like two decades. I wouldn't think he ever tried to get out of it, no matter how difficult it was. Also, by trying to get out, I think he means trying to leave before having to make the film, not finding things tense once they got into production. I'm more inclined to agree with Pcchongor below.

  • CB | December 9, 2013 2:45 PMReply

    The King of Comedy, Casino and The Irishman?

  • STAFF SERGEANT DIGNAM | December 14, 2013 5:45 PM

    he did the aviator for dicaprio
    he did raging bull for deniro
    he did color of money for newman
    he refused to do the fighter for wahlberg

  • PcChongor | December 9, 2013 2:02 PMReply

    "The Departed" and "Shutter Island."

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