Following a screening of The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, New York City’s Archbishop Paul Moore Jr. sent a copy of Shûsaku Endô’s 1966 novel Silence to Martin Scorsese. The novel followed two Portuguese Jesuit priests who journey to Japan in 1639 to find their mentor, who has committed apostasy, and wind up encountering persecution. Scorsese was struck by the book’s themes of sacrifice, and how it dealt with the essence of Christianity. Trying to mount the film proved an uphill battle that lasted close to three decades. Here the producers recount that the Taiwanese monsoons weren’t necessarily the most challenging part of this $40 million production.
Take us back to the early beginnings of this passion project
Emma Tillinger Koskoff: Silence went through many financiers over the years, changing hands with many legal melees. Vittorio Cecchi Gori was an early investor. We went through many different budget levels and it wasn’t going to get made unless the budget made sense. Marty got to a place where he said, “Look, tell me how much money I have, and I’ll make it for that price.” Graham King had it for a long time and spent a lot of money on it. He settled for a very fair price with us to buy the rights back.
Irwin Winkler: I was visiting Marty on the London set of Hugo and asked him what happened to Silence, that adaptation he was working on with Jay Cocks. He said, “I still have it, why don’t we make it together?” The principals including myself, Emma, Marty, and the actors—we all had to defer our fees upfront. It was the only way we could proceed.
One immediate objective was to find a place where we could shoot it that was actually financeable. We considered Vancouver, but it would have been expensive to bring the actors over from Japan. Taiwan satisfied as a great location. The labor cost was reasonable next to most western countries—and certainly compared to Japan—and they had a local crew that was very capable.
Randall Emmett: Roughly four years ago, I received a phone call from my agent, Ari Emanuel, and he asked me if I was interested in making a Martin Scorsese movie. Hearing this, I was like a 12-year-old kid in a candy shop.
Then the real work began. I immediately spoke with Emma about the budget I could raise. Fast forward six months, Ari calls me again and says that they’ll reduce the budget. I flew out to New York and had a quick meeting with Irwin, who I worked with on Home of the Brave. He took me upstairs to Emma and Marty. I groveled and begged to do whatever it took to be a producer to stand side-by-side with them.
I had no idea what I was getting into, and how complicated the rights were. I worked with Emma and Irwin and it took me a year of doing the chain of title rights, clearing them and going back to Cecchi Gori and Graham King.
I told Marty and Rick Yorn that we had to go to Cannes. Marty needed to come and sell the movie. Having Marty in Cannes talking to buyers would be life-changing to them and it would make this project real for them. Marty got excited. We sold the rights in the open market and raised $21 million on international before it went to Cannes. We hired Stuart Ford to be our sales agent, and we didn’t have a cast or a distributor at that point.
We spent tons of time on the budget, there was a line producer in my office with Emma. We knew we were going to shoot in Taiwan. We lost our equity investor weeks before filming. Gastón Pavlovich and his group suggested coming in for a bigger piece of equity. Production lasted roughly for four months, with three months of pre-production.
After the adversity Marty encountered with certain Christian groups with The Last Temptation of Christ, there has to be a sense of relief that finally Silence is connecting with them.
Koskoff: We screened to hundreds of Jesuits in Rome and they were beside themselves. Marty also had a private meeting with Pope Francis. We screened to—knock on wood—good reactions with the church. Father James Martin helped us with everything, from getting Andrew Garfield through the spiritual exercises of the Jesuits, to making sure the masses were handled under the right terms. Marty subscribes to America magazine and he had a feeling that [its editor-at-large] Father James Martin would be a good person and advisor based on the articles he wrote.
What was the most challenging Martin Scorsese film to mount?
Winkler: Raging Bull. United Artists hated it. In a meeting with Marty, myself and Robert De Niro, the two heads of UA at the time said to Bob they wouldn’t do a movie about a cockroach like Jake LaMotta. Nonetheless, we were able to get the movie made. They were desperate for another Rocky. And we asked them, “Why would we do another movie with you if you don’t do this one?”
The physical aspects of this movie were definitely more challenging than Raging Bull and Goodfellas. We had to reinvent 1640 Japan rather than the Lower East Side of New York.