EXCLUSIVE: Oscar conversations around town bring differing opinions about what might win in an exceptional year for auteur cinema. It was surprising how many people add: boy would it be nice to see Martin Scorsese get an Oscar for his final mob epic, The Irishman. Sure he won for The Departed, but he got robbed on Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Casino, those epics with Robert De Niro.
Scorsese shared with Deadline moments from those film collaborations with De Niro. Most know the hardship this film went through after De Niro and Scorsese decided to scrap a Paramount greenlit adaptation of the Don Winslow novel The Winter of Frankie Machine to instead make the film about union leader/hitman Frank Sheeran’s deathbed regret over crimes that included the murder of his best friend, Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa. The Irishman allowed Scorsese and De Niro to focus on the regret and guilt that few mobsters in his earlier films conveyed.
Martin Scorsese Makes Apple First-Look Film & Television Deal For His Sikelia Productions Banner
Because it spanned decades, no studio would step up for the de-aging technology that pushed its budget to $160 million, until Netflix embraced it. What is surprising here is how much of a struggle Scorsese and De Niro encountered on every movie they made together.
DEADLINE: A documentary on fellow New York director Sidney Lumet traced how his filmmaking path was forged by watching soldiers pull a young girl onto a train to sexually abuse her, and when it was clear he might not survive an attempt to stop it, he did nothing. The guilt pressed Lumet to make movies about men who summon the courage to stand up for what is right no matter the cost, like in 12 Angry Men. I watched your films, from Silence to Mean Streets and wondered; what events in your own life informed the depictions of guilt, faith, and cowardice of the imperfect male characters in these films? Like the interpreter in Silence who asks for confession to forgive his latest betrayal, knowing full well he’s going to do it again the next time he needs to save his own skin. All this began with the relationship between Harvey Keitel and De Niro’s characters in Mean Streets.
MARTIN SCORSESE: But that character in Silence, he’s really going to try not to [repeat the sin.] That’s a difference. He says, I will pray to be stronger. I promise I’ll be stronger. It’s his condition. It’s the human condition and that’s such a complicated question. There are so many things I saw growing up…grown men in a male dominated world. There were good, hardworking, decent guys but there were many people around who had money in the street, as they say, and who were involved in real street corner underworld activity. Just thugs, but a lot of those thugs I basically knew as people first. I was eight years old.
Some were nice, some weren’t. The ones who weren’t, you didn’t hang around. You’d get away from them. But I didn’t see much of a difference between them and a man who was running the grocery store, who didn’t want the kids in front of the grocery store. These guys were dressed better, but they were in front of a store that seemed to be serving coffee all the time but only to them. I didn’t get it. We didn’t make noise in front of them; there were other places you could make noise. We knew to do that in those other places.
I saw men who were humiliated in their lives in that social context and I saw them break. My father would try to deal with some of it, he was a peacemaker. It built this whole thing about my brother’s keeper in me. His younger brother, the black sheep in the family, I grew up right next to him in two apartments so he kind of half raised me. But he was quite a tough and crazy guy.
DEADLINE: Like the character De Niro played in Mean Streets?
SCORSESE: Exactly that. It took me years to realize Mean Streets was more about my father and him than myself and my old friends because my father was constantly making sure he wasn’t going to get killed, or beat up. He seemed to be constantly trying to find him. Then, making sure his wife went up to see him in jail. Then a couple other people whom I saw that he was close to behaved like that [and turned it around] and then still tried to regain their dignity in the streets, and found they could not. They still walked with their heads high as people would spit at them as they went by. My father would stand by them too. I wondered how you balance that, how you live a life like that. I don’t know. I mean there’s two different things going on here I guess, and one is the compassion and the sense of responsibility for your brother and the other is trying to change and do better. Even if your uncles are failing again when they come out of a scrape, or out of prison. They try again, get a job, but then fall again and go back in. I saw it play out. My father didn’t go to church or any of that. He didn’t have to. This was what it was all about.
DEADLINE: Your observation of this world of guilt ridden Catholic Italian men informs most every movie you’ve made, including Mean Streets and The Irishman.
SCORSESE: And of course, it is evident in my own life too. There’s so many things that I wish I would have done differently but if I did them differently, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.
DEADLINE: Mean Streets reflected many of the friends you grew up with, finding their way into that life. You play the character who perpetrates the most violent act in the film, shooting De Niro’s Johnny Boy, when he welches on a debt. What kept you from heading down that wrong path, for real?
SCORSESE: Oh, how should I put it? One has to be composed of those elements that would make you utilize your strength. Brutality, cruelty, domination. I considered myself unable to be athletic, to be a person who could use their strength.
DEADLINE: You suffered from extreme asthma as a child…
SCORSESE: So how does one exist or cope with what’s around them in another way, which is also maybe even more difficult, when it has to do more with moral courage rather than physical courage? A lot of that comes from my father. Granted, today it would be considered rather old fashioned thinking, but it was the middle of the 20th century and he was born on Elizabeth Street in the tenements, basically a Sicilian mentality and American because he was born in America.
The one priest who was a mentor to us in his early 20s, he pointed out elements…moral issues of the moment, dealing in our own lives. What’s the right thing to do? What’s the moral choice? Can you always do it? You can try.
For a long time I read about those who were canonized as saints and I said to that priest, they’re not human, they couldn’t be. But he corrected me and said the whole point is that they were human, with failings and conflict. Somehow, their lives were exemplary as examples of how to live good lives. That’s very Judeo-Christian thinking and you go further and further, questioning and questioning. What’s the point of morality if there is nothing beyond this life? What’s the point of right or wrong and is there really such a thing when it can be changed by circumstances? Killing is categorically wrong, yet if you’re in a war, you kill. And then you come home, if you’re able to, and you’re expected to be civilized. I just didn’t get it, I didn’t understand it. So it became about moral courage. I don’t know if I have it, but I know that I’m constantly reading about it and constantly seeing what decisions people made in the past, historical figures, creative artists, friends. Given the circumstances, what she or he was able to do or she or he decided and the consequences. So these things are really always very important to me. The idea is it’s not necessarily the one who wins, who beats you up. The one who wins is the one who survives and lives to tell the story and learn from it or even give example of how others can learn from it. In my own characters, there’s a sense of competition and fighting. Definitely there is a fighting mentality. There’s different ways to fight. The problem is what is a good person and can you be a good person.
DEADLINE: Your intertwined relationship with De Niro started with Mean Streets. What did you observe that made him right to play the wild and reckless Johnny Boy? At what point did you see he might become the great actor of his generation?
SCORSESE: I saw it during the shooting of Mean Streets, particularly when he insisted on improvising a scene between him and Harvey Keitel, which we shot the last day. He does an improvisation about why he couldn’t pay Michael the money. The way he behaved, and how he pulled all these different references out of the air, based on a lot of people we knew together. He used their nicknames even.
What connected us initially was, we kind of knew each other when we were 16 years old, lost track of each other. And then in 1970, ’71 met again. He was acting for Brian De Palma. I had just done the best I could with this film Who’s That Knocking At My Door. Then I planned to do Mean Streets, and he got the people, and the tone and flavor and temperature of it. He knew just how to stand, what hat to wear. He just knew it all, basically and there was complete confidence in what he was doing. By the time we worked together on Taxi Driver, I knew that it was something extraordinarily special. The key element here with De Niro is, we never really conversed articulately about what we felt about life, or morality. In all the movies that explored that, I don’t think it ever came up in conversation with us. It never came up ever, even now, but there was a point with Bob over the years that I felt confident that as best he could, he would want to make the moral choice as a person and as an actor, as best he could.
People are human beings, what can I say? We all go off the rails. Maybe some don’t if they’re lucky, but most do. There was extraordinary unspoken trust between us that was tested a number of times, but primarily it all came together, finally in Raging Bull, and then another excursion out into the very, very far edge with The King of Comedy, which was rejected hands down by everybody except the English, in 1983. It was reviled, except for a couple of good reviews in America. A lot was expected by that point with the combination of De Niro/Scorsese, because of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull. So then they see King of Comedy…maybe it was the wrong audience.
With Bob and me, maybe it’s an interest in the same flawed characters, not that we’d sit down and say, let’s get a flawed character who’s torn apart by moral conflict. No. It was always about an interesting story and we just gravitated towards those kinds of characters. Except maybe not Cape Fear. Cape Fear is an excursion into a kind of thriller. People said, oh it’s a B film. It wasn’t meant to be a B film, though it was based on a B film, yes. A B film in 1945 to 1963 is very different from the B film of today even. There are no B films today.
But we gravitated towards those characters and pushed the limits, and he has never been afraid to go to those limits. Or beyond the limits, and we could explore how much an audience would take. How did I know what audience I’m making the picture for? I do know there are people out there who respond to and identify with these pictures. Even the ones I made without De Niro. In my dreams, I thought it’d be wonderful if it was a mass audience and it would be the biggest grossing film of all time and it would get every [prize]. But it’s not going to happen. It didn’t happen. So you do what you do and you learn to live with that. I’m very happy to have found a collaborator like him. We’ve been very lucky over the years and also it turned out people change over 20 or 30 years. Yeah. We changed, and then came back together and I would call that a highly fortuitous situation.
DEADLINE: You mentioned that your relationship was tested a few times. Was there one in particular that you could disclose?
SCORSESE: Oh, I meant different kinds of pictures like King of Comedy and New York, New York, where we experimented and pushed our own limits. In some cases, we were very satisfied. Other cases, ah, I should have done it another way. These are the things where, a person could see a film 20 years after it’s made. And they don’t know anything about how it was made or what choices they were to make and what the options are, and they accept it for what it is without any baggage. Whenever I think about a film of mine, there’s baggage, whether it’s Mean Streets or The Aviator or any of these films. I remember the time I made them. I remember the choices and the options and the reasons why and why not and sometimes those feelings are not pleasant but that has to do with the environment, the circumstances, and who I was at the time. Very often, it was the studio and running times and restricted violence. It becomes a thing where…some things, I just don’t need to go back.
DEADLINE: I once interviewed John Woo, who told me he dreamed of being the hero, but was kind of slight in frame and physical stature. So he found the personification of his fantasy self in Chow Yun-Fat, the tall, handsome star of his great Hong Kong action movies. Was there any of that for you with making De Niro the fulcrum for these highly personal movies you made?
SCORSESE: No. Not in a physical way. I just found that he was able to go into the underworld of the mind and the heart and soul. He was able to take that journey into the inferno, or purgatory. Taking it down into the levels of the inferno. He was able to go there, and I sure am going to go there, try this or that. I want to go there with him. I push further. So we were both like an expeditionary force into the underworld.
DEADLINE: I watched Mean Streets for the first time in years, and felt the way we did when we listened to early albums of bands and could trace their path to where they became great. You both were experimenting with all the things that would make your future collaborations so electric. How does that movie play back for you?
SCORSESE: I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and watched it from beginning to end again.
SCORSESE: It is too hard. It’s too close. I like it a lot but there are so many things I know that I didn’t get. There are so many things that bring back memories of people who are gone and a time in my life…it was a good time in my life, finally getting to make that film. How it was received at the New York Festival…that was a great time. There are things in it that I wish I could have done in a different way, but this was the nature of the making of this film. You had to do it with what you had. There are elements of it that are…it was so truthful in a sense and honest that it’s difficult for me to watch. It was also made for a time when nothing else like it existed. In other words, all that existed was the work. It wasn’t an issue of politics, like now. All that existed was the work. Any issues which might be offensive or difficult to deal with, they weren’t addressed. It didn’t matter. We just had to deal with the truth of what the story was and the characters and today it’s a little hard to imagine a film like that being made now. I don’t think it could be made now.
DEADLINE: You moved from that film to Taxi Driver. What was the biggest challenge getting the studio to agree to finance that film?
SCORSESE: Well, they were very concerned about the script. They didn’t like the story. They just didn’t like it. That’s Paul Schrader’s script. It was Michael and Julia Phillips who were able to get it mounted, based upon a combination of De Niro and myself. After they saw the only rough cut screening I had of Mean Streets in Los Angeles for friends. At Max Nosseck’s screening room on Sunset Boulevard. That was it. One screening. It was for the actors. Harvey Keitel was there. Jennifer Salt, David Carradine, Barbara Hershey, I think Bob was there. It was packed. I remember I screened it for John Cassavetes, but I forget whether he was at that screening. From the moment Michael and Julia saw it, they decided they would get [Taxi Driver] made with De Niro and me.
DEADLINE: The backers might have had reservations, but so much seems universally relevant. Travis comes back from Vietnam, lonely and so socially awkward, he takes Cybill Shepherd’s campaign worker character to a porn theater on their only date. So fascinating, the idea that he hits this crossroad and only by circumstance didn’t become the reviled assassin of a presidential candidate and instead channeled his rage to become this tabloid hero who saves the child prostitute. What about that movie and De Niro’s Travis Bickle character was the strongest pull for you and made it something you and Bob had to make?
SCORSESE: It was the way he explored the feelings of being the outcast, God’s lonely man, the extraordinary loneliness and detachment from everyone around him. That in a sense allowed us to pour all our empathy into that. We didn’t even try to do that, it was just there and we just responded to it. We never talked about it. Schrader could talk about it, give you every aspect, every possible conceptual and religious implication. The avenging angel, the one who will come and wipe away all of the sins of the Earth. My foundations are very much in Roman Catholicism and Schrader is not. But the element of guilt, loneliness, the element of the moral war that one is at one’s self and the frustration that causes him to cross the line. A lot of people may feel that way, but they don’t do what he did. The irony of the whole thing is that he becomes a hero.
DEADLINE: When we see how close he was to going the other way. Watching now, you can just smell the stink of New York City back then, a hot summer when there was a garbage strike in a city near bankruptcy and 42nd Street the seediest place…
SCORSESE: The film depicted all that.
DEADLINE: What was the biggest challenge of shooting that movie amidst the detritus of the city, something you couldn’t even recreate today if you tried to build it on a soundstage?
SCORSESE: No, you couldn’t recreate it today. In fact, some of the people in the background, are just there. After a while, I sometimes didn’t know who my extras were, honestly. Especially on 13th Street and off of Third Avenue. I’m telling you, it was a tough area. Bottles are being thrown down at you. A lot of people shoot in tough areas, and every shoot isn’t easy, believe me. Some are extraordinarily hard. Silence is probably the hardest I’ve ever done. And Taxi Driver was so hard, so difficult. But it was a mission. We were on a mission, and we were getting the work done every day, pushing and pushing. The energy of that really propelled us, knowing and believing that we were on this mission to tell this story. We really believed in it. The city itself just added to that. That summer was extraordinary. The heat and the violence. You could just taste the violence in the air. That’s also me and where I came from and that sort of thing I’m always attune to, the danger. I just am. I never go to Central Park, daylight, I couldn’t care less. A couple of times I had to go to the zoo for my kids and things like that but that’s it. I don’t need to go there. They say, oh, it’s ridiculous. But I don’t care if it’s safe or not. I’m not going in.
DEADLINE: It’s not interesting, without the danger?
SCORSESE: No. It all feels dangerous. It may not be dangerous but why try? Why push it?
DEADLINE: The first of many indelible scenes you had with De Niro is the ‘You talking to me?’ scene. What goes into the construction of a scene like that, and does it all occur to you in the moment this could be a classic moment?
SCORSESE: No, that just happened. It was an improvisation, based on what was written in the script. He was rehearsing with that device he had created up his sleeve with the gun. I felt, he should say something to himself, in the mirror while he’s doing this. He should act it out. I think Bob called Paul and asked him what he thinks he should say. I also know that the scene was squeezed into the last week of shooting, and we were five days over schedule, and the studio was very angry at the rushes, and and they were angry at us, particularly that it was five days over schedule. So 40 days was becoming 45 days, and they were really angry and we squeezed this in.
There was no video assist or anything. I’m sitting in front of him at his feet on the floor and he’s looking into the camera where the mirror would be. We carved out an hour. Then it became an hour-and-a-half, an hour and 45 minutes. Our assistant director was really becoming frantic because we were going behind schedule for the day by doing that. I had to beg him and say just give me another few minutes. This is really good. This is going to be good. Let’s do it one more time. Then Bob got into that rhythm of repetition. What if you’re approached and the person says something? You would say, if you’re ready to fight, if you’re a fighter, if you’re a commando…you turn around and you’d answer back. They provoke you, and you answer back.
And next thing you know there’s violence. It’s just a fantasy and he acts it out. He came up with that. I kept saying do it again, do it again. This is great.
DEADLINE: On those great screen moments with De Niro, whether it’s Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Goodfellas, how much discussion do you have with Bob? Do you just trust him and let turn him loose?
SCORSESE: It depends on the moment, and which you are referring to. Sometimes it’s a lot of talk but not necessarily directly about the scene itself. It’s about state of mind, or something personal and we’d talk about things that remind me of something that happened to myself or somebody that I know. And we discussed that aspect of it, all the different moral angles, or just the emotional, psychological state of the person that I’m describing. What made him or her behave that way? And we would say something like that happened to me a while back. I mean a lot of people do this. I never was trained in an acting course. I just responded to the Elia Kazan films and John Cassavetes’ films. I just go by ear.
DEADLINE: A moment on New York, New York. From what I read it sounds like you kind of had a tough personal time on that movie, which was not successful. Was there a big lesson that you learned there?
SCORSESE: There were several lessons. When I finally came out of it, and wound up doing Raging Bull, I put all of it into Raging Bull really. I tried experimenting a different way of working, opening up the script incessantly and working on set without having a plan. But that’s not the whole film, only certain aspects of it. Other scenes were well planned out, rehearsed. Some were improvised but then written up into actual dialogue from the improvisations, based on audio tapes. So we had it going, but immersing yourself into this emotional state between these two characters was very, very close to me and it was very, very hard to find my way so that I could step back and look at it. This is on me and nothing about the actors who are amazing in it, all of it, the production design, all of that sort of thing. But ultimately, after it was over and the film was not received…I didn’t know if I could ever make another film. I didn’t know if I could ever find the enthusiasm or the inspiration again to go on a set or a location.
I just didn’t know. What do I want to say? How do I want to say it? What kind of saved me at the time was working on The Last Waltz. That saved me, somewhat. But even after that, I felt what I wanted to do was two films, Gangs of New York and Last Temptation of Christ. Both scripts really weren’t ready and Bob kept wanting me to make Raging Bull, Raging Bull, Raging Bull. And I didn’t want to do it. Until ultimately I went through that process and I wound up waking up one day and realizing, you’ve done it all. Meaning you’ve taken all the roads, there’s no place else to go. [Bob] knows you, and you know this Raging Bull character. You know Jake LaMotta, not the actual Jake but what Bob was thinking of. His connection to the Jake LaMotta character was clear and I realized, let’s embrace it. Don’t run away from it. Then Paul Schrader came in and then with finished writing the script and it became the clearest thing. And then I thought that was the end and I said I’m never really going to make another feature unless it’s Gangs or Last Temptation. But it was…do you have anything else to say and if you do, can you say it? What’s the style? Who are you? All of this was while I was doing New York, New York.
DEADLINE: It sounds like a lot of turmoil. When I watched Raging Bull again, you could just feel this brooding, palpable male rage and jealousy. In the ring, but especially out of the ring.
SCORSESE: It’s more important out of the ring. The ring is just a metaphor. It’s life.
DEADLINE: Lamotta seemed like a guy who never had a happy moment in his whole life. What did you see in him that would make him palatable to be the central character in a whole film?
SCORSESE: We didn’t know. We didn’t care. I don’t mean to be arrogant, but what I believed was that Bob saw something. And as I watched Bob work it out I felt that De Niro has an innate charm or ability for an audience to identify even with the most brutal characters. I should say empathize. There’s something about him. Look at Taxi Driver. There’s something about his presence or visage, the way he looks, his reactions. There’s something about him that the audience embraces. And I felt that that would be…how to put it I felt safe there. The issue was, how far could we go with a character like that? We didn’t have any restraints really.
DEADLINE: Joe Pesci means so means so much to that movie. Lamotta was toxic and jealous toward his wife (Cathy Moriarty), but Joe’s role as Lamotta’s brother humanized the fighter and ultimately Lamotta pushed him away in a jealous rage. After that, Pesci became one of your main guys. How did you find him and did you have any idea he would become so important to the movie collaborations with you and Bob?
SCORSESE: No, not really. I didn’t have any idea. We saw him in this low-budget film called The Death Collector. We liked him and we met him and realized that he understood an authenticity of that world and the people in that world. Just reading lines or improvising some lines, it just seemed like it was the most natural choice.
DEADLINE: And then later on he would prove himself to be just a scary guy in a lot of movies. Who knew?
SCORSESE: Goodfellas and Casino.
DEADLINE: You said The King of Comedy was roundly rejected. Watch it now, and you see the seeds of what Todd Phillips did in Joker, and the insecurity and desire to be noticed just seems timeless. What is the impact of the rejection you received at the time?
SCORSESE: The time was different. The atmosphere was different. United Artists had collapsed. Raging Bull opened 10 days before Heaven’s Gate. They were both United Artists films. The auteur cinema, and I’m using auteur in a way that today might be used negatively. I mean the kind of movies that were made from ’69 to ’76 and again in ’79. And then, in the ‘80s, they were gone. You had the big spectacular films. You had the special effects pictures. You also had a whole different world, and we were I guess considered, to a certain extent…why put the money there when you could put a certain amount of money in another type of picture that could make an infinite amount more money and everybody goes to see these things.
These other pictures, they just cause all these problems and people behave badly and this is what they were saying. The New York Times had one review of Heaven’s Gate, the one night and it closed that day. It attacked that whole way of filmmaking in a sense. So when we were able to get King of Comedy made, partially independently Regency Films was involved with it and 20th Century Fox. By the time we made that film and the risk that that took, the combination of De Niro/Scorsese, this was not a film that was dealing with the worlds of Raging Bull or Taxi Driver or Mean Streets. It was totally different. You put that out in 1983, look at the other films that were there at that time. We were out of step and we’re out of time. We’re in the wrong time. The New York Times gave it a very good review. Time Magazine, Newsweek, there was even something pretty good in the LA Times I recall. But it didn’t help at all. Also, the studio head had changed at Fox and the film was not bringing people into the theater. And it closed in about a week-and-a-half, maybe two weeks. That was it. At the end of the year on Entertainment Tonight I think it was, on New Year’s Eve it said, “and now the flop of the year!” And the curtain opened on a poster of The King of Comedy.
DEADLINE: What does that do to your confidence?
SCORSESE: Well, it was gone. We were all gone. Then Schrader had written drafts of Last Temptation of Christ, and we were ready to go into that. That took another nine months and that was canceled for whatever reasons. There are many good reasons, many bad reasons, but it went down. By that point, you stopped. It was dead stop. Time to go home. Time to start all over again. You’re out of time and out-of-place. You’re out of place, it’s over. So you have to either stop, or figure out what you want to do. You figure out what kind of pictures you want to make. Could you survive making television? Could you survive, me at that time, a different kind of TV? Could you survive doing extremely low budget? Could you survive working in a studio situation where actors…everything had to be discussed and figured out. If you wanted to continue making films you had to figure out where you fit, and if you fit…you could fit in several places and one of them was a studio.
I was getting many scripts. Witness, Beverly Hills Cop, there were a lot. But I didn’t want to make those. Then you choose your course. It’s a harder course. Ultimately, I got back on track in 1987, ’88 finishing up Last Temptation, which then led to New York Stories and ultimately Goodfellas, which sort of got me back on track. But all through the ’80s I was in a diaspora trying to find a way back, into what would be considered the industry. But more importantly trying to find my way as a filmmaker because I’d exhausted certain things. I was going in another way.
DEADLINE: Take Goodfellas, and those classic moments. Was the tracking shot in the bowels of the Copacabana improvised?
SCORSESE: No. It’s in the script. It’s there on the page but not as one shot. I said, I’ll do it one shot.
DEADLINE: Was that difficult to do and did you feel you had something when you looked at the dailies?
SCORSESE: Oh, yeah. We were pretty pleased. Michael Ballhaus and my assistant Joe Reidy, they worked it all out with the steady cam person. I’d be waiting and looking and literally worked it out in one day at the Copacabana. In fact, there was even another scene shot that day. It was two scenes shot that day.
DEADLINE: So it was a good day. Whenever I think of that movie, I think of the shot when the kids walk up to the pink Cadillac and you see the murdered couple in that car Jimmy the Gent yelled at them for buying after the Lufthansa heist, with the price tag still on the window. Layla just makes it so compelling. Where did that idea come from?
SCORSESE: I listen to music and the music brings up these camera moves in my head, and mood and tone. Ideas come to scenes and somehow the scenes find themselves into the movies that I make. I knew Goodfellas had to have a special soundtrack, so I was ready, having used a lot of this kind of music in Mean Streets and some of it in Raging Bull. I knew that it was time to really make a definitive attempt at pulling together the music of my life. I play music all the time and that actual track, that was the first day of shooting tracking around the pink Cadillac and we played the music on set, played it back so the camera movement is just right. That was also the day that we learned that Sergio Leone died. It was sad. De Niro was very close with him. He wasn’t there yet, didn’t come in until two weeks into shooting.
DEADLINE: Since this is about you and Bob really, there were a few more movies you could have done together. You wanted him to play Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ?
SCORSESE: No, that’s not true. Not really. That was a myth that’s been started. Everyone else involved with it, their producers and the studio asked me to talk to Bob about doing it. Out of respect for everyone, including Bob, we did have a conversation but I knew that was not his kind of role. He did tell me, listen, if you have trouble getting it made, I’ll do it for you. But it was a different time. But primarily, I was going off on my own and the studio and my producers said could you please talk to Bob about it. I said, okay.
DEADLINE: Jack Nicholson was great in The Departed, but I could easily have imagined Bob in that movie. Was that a possibility for him?
SCORSESE: It was a possibility, yes. But he was ready to do his own movie The Good Shepherd, and he didn’t want to be distracted. That’s a different kind of situation. Once we got into it, you’re getting into a Celtic area here. You’re getting into Matt Damon, who comes from Boston. You have Leo, who is half Italian but he could look more Celtic. You can’t have…it wouldn’t be right I think. It would just seem more natural to have a Celt for Francis Costello, as opposed to a New York ethnic actor. They were all excellent, it’s just that it seemed like the right time and place and over the years I’d always wanted to work with Jack Nicholson so this was a real special situation.
DEADLINE: So you had Frankie Machine and Bob came to you and said I read this book I Heard You Paint Houses. And he talked you into Raging Bull. You’ve told me how hard it has been for you guys to get movies to green light stage. How did he persuade you to punt a greenlit film at Paramount.
SCORSESE: Well, we’d been trying for years to make another film. One of the reasons why we didn’t just do one part in Departed or something else, it all seemed rather we’d done it. We had done it before. So you’re talking now that we had been trying to work on a picture together since 1995 after Casino. We always checked in with each other. What are you doing? What about this? What about that? Okay. Well, I had this thought, but I’d rather wait until we get something. So we were always working on certain scripts. Ultimately, as we’re getting older we realized we had to make one more picture.
We settled on this hitman story, but it was superficial and I tried to find more in it that would give us something to play with, and I just couldn’t. Eric Roth, who was working on Good Shepherd with Bob, gave him this book as research for a hitman story. Bob came to me and he said, I just read this book and I don’t know what to do because this may be more what we’re looking for. Quite honestly, he just became very emotional about it as he started to describe the story. So I saw something that when I talked about earlier the business of what makes you want to go back into the ring and fight, this is what I saw.
DEADLINE: You once told me when we did an interview for The Wolf of Wall Street you and Leonardo DiCaprio took some abuse for out of control stockbroker Jordan Belfort not really paying a high price for his misdeeds. Your earlier mob movies featured unrepentant characters, many of whom died. Now you had Sheeran, the rare guy living to old age, who has lost his daughters, basically everything he had and looks back with guilt and regret. How much of that convinced you this was the fitting conclusion to those series of movies that you did?
SCORSESE: I think it was important. The initial impact was the emotional reaction I saw from Bob and then when I delved into it, I saw where it could go. I did not know if I could do it. But we felt strongly enough about this character and about the emotional impact between the two of us at that point that we could tell Brad Grey at Paramount that we wanted to change our minds and start a new script and a new project. He gave us the grace to do that. I was able to get Steve Zaillian in. He found a way to it, and we worked together closely. I can’t tell you if reading the book or after reading it and talking to Bob again, when I knew I had to take it to the very end.
Other people maybe would have taken it to the disappearance of Hoffa and that was it, but that’s not as interesting to me as the aftermath. It’s the consequences of a life. That was the idea. And that’s where we connected. We never said that, we just both felt it. I said, I think we’ve got to go into the hospital. He said, yeah. We’ve got to show Fat Tony getting sick and we’ve got to show Russell old, and that kind of thing. We just went that way. We’ve got to show that the nurse is talking to you. We’ve got to show when the priest comes in and talks to you. And on and on like this and we said, yeah, let’s do it. We got to show that you got all your pills mixed up, and walking down the hospital corridors and looking in each room to see where my father is or my wife. You don’t know the room usually even if you go day by day. You get a little lost. And you glimpse the ends of the lives of other people, and the suffering. You keep glimpsing this as you go. This is what it is in life now and so that’s the movie.
DEADLINE: Not Goodfellas glamorous.
SCORSESE: No. But it doesn’t need it. I think it has something else. You could tell me what the glamour is…
DEADLINE: I would say the accountability. I love that invention where you introduce new characters, and froze them with the caption helpfully telling us what violent act caused their death and when it happened. I thought that was so brilliant.
SCORSESE: Yeah, why not get right to it! He’s a great person, right here. He really is a charming gentleman, but he got killed by a nail bomb, under his porch. [Laughs]. I mean it’s not funny…
DEADLINE: A little bit? It made me laugh, each time…
SCORSESE: This is the reality of this world. This guy is shot three times in the head, but I thought he was such a big deal. Yes, he was. He was a big deal.
DEADLINE: Not anymore.
SCORSESE: This is the price they pay.
DEADLINE: Was there an emotional moment in making The Irishman with your old mates after two decades, a treasured moment you can share?
SCORSESE: Well, for the most part, it was an arduous film to make, for many different reasons. But I think in an odd way, it was like practically everyone was comfortable and grateful for the time we had to visit with each other. Grateful for that time. Sometimes it was really difficult; people were tired and that sort of thing but there was nothing but respect and consideration for each other. And warmth in terms of company. I got to tell you, it was quite an experience and it was all very hard.
SCORSESE: It was a marathon sometimes during the days and nights and with the special CGI and three cameras and three lenses on each camera and all that. But it really was people appreciating each other’s company. It was quite unique, including everybody…Joe and Al [Pacino] and Bob and Stephanie [Kurtzuba] and Kathrine Narducci and Welker White and then there was Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale. I mean everybody somehow they had a look in their eyes that something special was happening. I’m not saying it was going to be a great film. We didn’t know. We just kept doing it.
DEADLINE: I think back, for instance in Raging Bull and the shape Bob got himself into and Cape Fear where he was just as ripped as could be and made such compelling visuals doing his pushups and everything else. You mention being tired. I guess this movie kind of shows us we all get older.
SCORSESE: Yes, we do. The key there was just measuring out the energy. Just being aware of each other in terms of energy and how to utilize it in front of a lens without pushing or even if they wanted to push I’d say, no, no, we’ve got to wait, that sort of thing. Myself and my producer and my AD and my DP would say I think we better wait. Let’s break for tonight and tomorrow and we can do this later. In other words, they always had the energy to go further, but I knew that they’d be more comfortable and we’d get even better results I thought if we just let them get a little rest.
DEADLINE: The de-aging technology is very interesting but I’m sure there was probably an element of you saying wait a minute, you took all the wrinkles out of someone’s face but that person is not moving like a 28-year-old. His gait is more of somebody who’s in his 60s.
SCORSESE: The gait is another issue. The face and hands is something else. The gait in many cases, people said Al’s Jimmy Hoffa had to have more outgoing energy. But Frank and certainly Russell, they don’t move fast. They don’t have to move fast. They never did. I never saw people like that move fast, unless they were really younger, even as teenagers. They don’t move fast. And that’s not me trying to defend any kind of criticism. It’s just that it didn’t seem that they needed to. I mean there were some scenes…Bob always talks about a scene where he was supposedly racing down a staircase. Our technical advisor for posture and physical stamina would go over to him and say you need to be more energetic going down those stairs and he was able to do it.
To me, it didn’t seem that it was ultimately that necessarily particularly because what he was about to do. I think the scene we’re talking about, he’s about to get in the car and blow up the laundry, supposedly blow up the laundry. I don’t think he would rush out like a teenager. When he’s coming down the stairs in his house, maybe he doesn’t want his family to hear he’s going out. There were all these elements to be considered. He has to go about his work methodically and slowly. So he comes down the stairs maybe not according to the age that he’s supposed to be in the film. What is that age anyway at that point? Was anybody keeping track?
DEADLINE: You’ve described all these classics and it is still difficult to comprehend how many people said no to you.
SCORSESE: Always no.
DEADLINE: This was the same thing. Brad Grey passed away, and Paramount didn’t make The Irishman. I know there was the presales talk at Cannes one year. How gratifying was it when Netflix stepped up and let you make this movie the way you wanted to make it?
SCORSESE: It was a lifesaver, no doubt about it. Brad did try towards the end, but he just couldn’t meet the cost, particularly of the CGI and we really appreciated that. When Netflix came up and said, we’ll finance it all. Of course, the trade-off is that it only plays in theaters for a few weeks. The option was you either play it in theaters a few weeks and stream it, or you don’t make the movie.
DEADLINE: So you swallow the idea this extraordinary film will mostly been seen by people in their homes. But dammit, you got to make it just the way you and Bob envisioned it.
SCORSESE: I hope they see it in theaters. It’d be nice. But I had a certain sense of freedom putting the picture together and feeling that it had a kind of enjoyment and that maybe the picture could play for several different venues. Watching it all at once in a theater, watching it all at once at home, or five or 10 minutes at a time and then stopping it and then going back an hour later and re-watching a scene. Maybe it has another kind of viewing life to it. I don’t know. It was an experiment, but I did know in order to make the film the trade-off was that it would show in theaters for a short time. But it played almost four weeks, which was great.
DEADLINE: And in the Belasco Theater on Broadway.
SCORSESE: That was very nice.
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