Flexing his giant, prickly black eyebrows furiously as he talks, Martin Scorsese remembers where it started. He was a sickly eight-year-old boy in a cinema on 14th Street in New York. He was watching The Red Shoes, a movie about obsession, of living for your art, dying for it if you had to. He got it, all right, and he’s never looked back.
After 67 years, Scorsese still loves movies like life itself; loves making them, loves thinking about them, loves talking about them. He’s a walking encyclopedia of cinema: more than a century of titles, years, quotes, stars and stories all there on instant recall. While fellow movie-brats Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma have faded since they dazzled in the ‘New Hollywood’ of the Seventies, Scorsese just kept burning brighter. But, after nominations for Raging Bull, The Last Temptation Of Christ, GoodFellas, Gangs Of New York and The Aviator, he finally captured that elusive Best Director Oscar for gangster thriller The Departed. That was four years ago. Mystery-thriller Shutter Island has come and gone since then, not to mention Boardwalk Empire and his highly anticipated upcoming Sinatra project. There’s a lot to talk about. Scorsese stands up, stretches to his full 5’4”, then sits down again. Those eyebrows waggle again. “Go right ahead...” he says.
Did you feel you were owed a Best Director Oscar?
I don’t think... they felt like I deserved it... which is something that... what can you say? It’s good to have people recognise your work. Because for a lot of older filmmakers, that never happened. So I’m very thankful for that.
Has winning the Oscar changed you?
No, it’s hasn’t. It hasn’t at all. You just do the best you can. Make a picture you feel you’re connected to. Which means you can work on it for two years, every day, and then open it, discuss it, stand by it, take the criticism, or not. And go on to another one, if you can.
Leonardo DiCaprio has taken over from Robert De Niro as your favourite leading man. Which actors would you love to work with next?
Johnny Depp is one. I like him. He’s unique. I don’t know how he does it. George Clooney. Brad Pitt is interesting. And Tobey Maguire. There’s a lot of good people.
Are you talking to any of them right now? Maybe about the Sinatra project?
Not right now, no. And we’re still working on the Sinatra script. It’s very hard because here is a man who changed the entire image of the Italian-American. And that’s just one thing. Along with his political work, civil rights, the Mob...
Which of your previous films could you compare it to? GoodFellas? The Aviator?
That’s a good point. I was hoping it would be a combination of the two. Yeah, because in structure I’d like it to be more like GoodFellas. But like The Aviator, it only deals with certain times in his life. We can’t go through the greatest hits of Sinatra’s life. We tried this already. Just can’t do it. So the other way to go is to have three or four different Sinatras. Younger. Older. Middle-aged. Very old. You cut back and forth in time – and you do it through the music. See what I’m saying? So that’s what we’re trying for. It’s very tricky [laughs].
Do you miss the Hollywood of the Seventies?
Yes, of course. We were able to make certain kinds of films with almost no limitation. But what’s happened now is that it’s become a new studio system and that has to do with the blockbuster. Paul Schrader [screenwriter of Scorsese movies Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation Of Christ and Bringing Out The Dead] was saying it to me a couple of months ago. We had dinner, he says, “You know, we took cinema seriously.” We’re afraid that for the younger people today, cinema is just something to be seen for an hour or two, a lot of noise and forgotten about. If blockbusters overbalance the marketplace, we’re going to lose something culturally. That’s very dangerous.
What did it feel like to be a young director back then?
In that period between the studio system and the real ‘New Hollywood’, we had almost like a... not a carte blanche... certain ‘personal visions’, whatever you want to call them, it sounds pretentious. But individual filmmakers – Robert Altman, Brian De Palma, all of us – we were able to make films with almost no limitation.
Are you saying that you don’t have the creative freedom you want nowadays?
How can I put it? This way. When you spend... When a lot of money is spent – not that you spend it – but when a lot of money is given to a film, you have that obligation, responsibility, to deal with it.
Even when you’re Martin Scorsese?
You’re always on the line, doesn’t matter who you are. Well, for me, you’re always on the line. Fighting, fighting, fighting to get the film made that you want made. And if you go cheaper, you might have more of a stand. And that’s what I’m hoping to do.
But haven’t you tended to make big films with big stars and big budgets?
Yeah, but they didn’t start out as big. Well, I mean, Gangs Of New York was. That’s no doubt. I’m talking about the past eight years. The Aviator, OK, that too. But when I did The Departed and Shutter Island, [they] are [both] below the average cost of a Hollywood film.
Do you think you’ll ever go back to your roots and shoot a low-budget, down-and-dirty street movie?
Absolutely. I’m dying to. And there are two projects that I have in mind that way.
Can you say what they are?
Mmm... not really. But the desire to do that is there.
Do you think you’ll ever make a 3D film?
I would like to. I’m very excited by 3D. I was always excited by 3D. I was 10 years old when the first 3D wave occurred in 1953. Why should we be limited? I mean, I’m seeing you and the space is real. Time isn’t real. Time is abstract. Space is real.
What kind of film would it be?
It’s you sitting in a chair talking [laughs]. It should become as natural as that. But if the camera move is going to be a 3D effect, it has to be for dramatic purposes – not just throwing spears at the audience. And that, maybe I can’t do that. Maybe my daughter’s generation – she’s 10 now – can think that way.
Can we ask you some questions about New York?
Try, I don’t know much about the city. From my house, they put me in a car and I go to the editing room. I don’t see much of it except a few blocks. I don’t know anything else. I see some people go by in the street sometimes. But I’ve always been there. I was born there, I was raised there, so... OK, let’s see how we get on.
What’s your favourite film based in New York?
Oh my. That’s a good question. I guess, Sweet Smell Of Success. It’s like Burt Lancaster saying, “I love this dirty town.” Remember? The dialogue they came up with, I don’t know how they did it. But it’s the city I grew up in. Sweet Smell Of Success has got the spirit of the city.
What’s your favourite place to go in New York?
Um... It’s a good question. Because I have a family, we stay home. So, if we go out, where do we go out? It’s interesting... There’s a very nice Italian restaurant on Madison Avenue called Sette Mezzo. We like to go there.
What should we order?
Um... The veal Parmesan is excellent. Yeah, yeah, yeah, but it’s quite large.
How large are we talking?
You’re a big guy, you can handle it. And any of the pastas are wonderful. You can have any pasta you want, basically. It’s a small place and it has a nice window on the outside. I like to go there, it’s a family place.
What are you reading right now?
What am I reading? I’m finishing The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. It’s four novels and I had read them years ago. I was recently in Egypt so I took them with me again. A book by Naguib Mahfouz, Egyptian writer. A book called The Death Of Comedy by Erich Segal.
Is this for fun or for potential movie adaptations?
Fun. Fun. I try to do them for fun. And then the problem is, other books and research materials get in the way. I’m not a very fast reader. And so I get taken away, you know? And then there’s researching the books. I’ll be reading The Death Of Comedy – about Aristophanes and Euripides and Menander [Greek dramatists] – and there’s references in that. So I go to the references there. And that takes a while.
You seem like a workaholic. What do you do at the weekend?
I’m not a workaholic, I think, er... I have a lot of projects that are going on so it’s very busy. But on a Saturday, I do some editing on one of the projects. And then for two hours or so, I look at a film in my screening room. Usually an older film.
What about when you’re not making or watching films?
Well, I think after that, it’s getting home, having dinner with family. We have two dogs. Two highland terriers. Desmond is the male. Desmond’s five. And Flora is only a year old. And Flora is a like wild puppy, I love her, she loves me. Desmond is so possessive and difficult. He has a problem with me. He has to be in control. So you can imagine this other puppy running around him all the time.
Desmond’s not keen on that?
No, he’s not keen on that at all. It’s like being in the middle of a Tom & Jerry cartoon. The dogs are chasing each other. The kid is jumping up and down. And I like quiet. At first, you’re complaining. And then you see there’s no sense in complaining. This is it: this is life.