Martin Scorsese: His direction home

Martin Scorsese now only wants to make films that are labours of love, like his Dylan documentary. He talks to Kaleem Aftab
Click to follow

Martin Scorsese is feeling his age. He told me this several times during the week-long Inter- national Marrakesh Film Festival. However, when Catherine Deneuve presented him with a lifetime achievement award, and compared his dedication to cinema to that of François Truffaut, she rounded off her speech by arguing that, at 63, he was probably still too young to be receiving such an honour.

It has been 37 years since Scorsese - or Marty, as he still likes to be known - made his first feature film, Who's That Knocking at My Door. Since then, he's made 19 feature films and a dozen documentaries, and has been a pivotal figure in ensuring the preservation and restoration of countless classic works.

Most of his films are being shown in this city at the foot of the Atlas mountains as part of a retrospective, yet Scorsese makes it clear that it was his ties to the country had brought him to the Marrakesh festival. "I made two labours of love here, The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. Morocco made these two films possible for me at very difficult times in my life."

These times have seen Scorsese married as many times as he's had Oscar nominations. The tally now is five each, although his current marriage to Helen Morris, the mother of his third child, is the only one of these bonds that has not ended in tears.

Sitting in the restaurant at the Mamounia hotel, Scorsese makes it clear that personal happiness must now, perhaps for the first time, take priority. "When I was younger and had the energy, I tried to make a film for myself and a film for others. I could say, 'Let's make something like Cape Fear,' which was an attempt to rethink film noir in the trends of America in the early Nineties and see if I could do certain sequences on film. I don't know how much longer I can do that.

"I don't know if I have the patience any more to do a film in a sense for them [Hollywood], and to find myself in a film for them. Because you need energy every day to get on set and want to find yourself there. Thus it is very hard to take assignments."

The Departed, shot in Boston, wrapped recently. It's an American adaptation of the Hong Kong trilogy Infernal Affairs, in one movie. Unusually, Scorsese was unaware of the original films when he read William Monohan's script. The action has been moved to modern Chicago and the gangsters are Irish-American.

This time, Scorsese reveals, it was not Hollywood or Miramax he felt obliged to make the movie for, but Leonardo DiCaprio, the star of his last two fictional films, Gangs of New York and The Aviator. The director explains: "This being our third film together, Leo wanted to make a film where he could be a tougher character who emanated from the streets, and for it be set in the modern era. In fact, The Departed is the first modern-day film I've done in 20 years. I don't even know how people dress any more. I dress sort of like my father, tie and shoes. Today, people wear sneakers, they wear these clothes with hoods and stuff that I don't know."

Age has become an issue for Scorsese. Raised a Catholic and wanting to be a priest in his youth, he has always fought an inner struggle against his own mortality. It is a theme in most of his films. Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets, who struggles to escape the bonds of his religion, is a depiction of Scorsese growing up in Little Italy.

The most telling moment I witnessed in Marrakesh wasn't something Scorsese said; it was his embarrassment at having to take a breath using his inhaler. As quickly as he popped it out, he tried to hide the inhaler behind the blue blazer he was wearing. It came off as an attempt to disguise his own weakness.

Age plays heavily on his mind, and it's clearly been discussed in the Scorsese household. "I agree that 63 is not so old, and that is what my wife says. But it is like they say here, 'God willing, one should not tempt fate.' One is breathing one minute and then the next, who knows what's going to happen? To make it to 63, the interest now is to go even deeper into yourself, to know yourself more, and know what you are capable of.

"There is still this good and bad in me, but I want to know: what are we capable of as human beings? Down to the essential question: is our nature to be good or bad?"

That's a question Scorsese often brings to the screen. Part of the New Hollywood group of directors, he looked on at close quarters as his friend Francis Ford Coppola took most of the critical acclaim in the Seventies before George Lucas and Steven Spielberg changed American film for ever with Star Wars and Jaws. Peter Biskind, in his book on this golden period of American film, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, paints Scorsese as the unlucky one, with a temper as short as his 5ft 3in frame. The inner demon would surface and he'd smash phones, have raging public arguments with girlfriends and look on jealously as his masterpieces Raging Bull and Taxi Driver struggled on release to get good notices and did poorly at the box office. Scorsese still curses Pauline Kael for her criticism of Raging Bull, in which she lamented: "What is he trying to do? Be the 'Saint of Cinema'?"

Scorsese has always been the outsider struggling for acceptance. He clearly sees this as a hang-up from his childhood. It's a running gag that at some stage not far into a conversation or speech, he'll gesticulate madly as he brings the topic round to his childhood in the tough Italian-dominated Lower East Side area of Manhattan. In his house, there were no books; his working-class parents, on whom he was later to turn his camera in the documentary Italianamerican, would simply let the young Marty pass his time in front of a TV. In front of this small black-and-white screen, his love affair with cinema began.

In Marrakesh, he kept to form by mentioning his youth at the award ceremony; at the dinner given by the Crown Prince, sitting with Dame Judi Dench and Abbas Kiarostami; at a masterclass for Moroccan film-makers; and as he tries to hide his inhaler. At least now he's added colour to the tale: "At the age of five, I was watching Italian neo-realist films like The Bicycle Thief, Paisan and Open City." Of course, Bicycle Thief was not made until Scorsese was six and none of these films were on US television until the 1950s, when Scorsese was in his teens. But these are the films whose framed posters were on the wall when I interviewed Scorsese in his New York office a year ago.

Neo-realism's simple, direct depiction of lower-class life had a profound effect on Scorsese's work. But by the time he came to Morocco for the first time to film The Last Temptation of Christ, he was almost a broken man. He'd had three failed marriages, was seen as washed-up by critics and was being mauled for wanting to take an alternative look at the life and death of Jesus. He received an Oscar nomination - and then came the return to the gangster genre with GoodFellas, and he was suddenly hip again.

That gave him the zest to take on several personal projects in a range of genres: Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Casino and another religious epic, this time on Buddhism, Kundun. His reputation slipped backward, culminating in a critical mauling for Bringing Out the Dead. By then, Scorsese had begun his "one film for you, one for me" policy - a move backed by the Weinsteins at Miramax.

"About 15 years ago, I felt there was still room for the kind of movie I liked to make with characters I like to deal with. What they call, in Hollywood now, 'the darker side'. But I think there is less room for me and these films now, because the amount of money is now so much that they need to make a movie and when you spend that much money it limits the risk-taking. I like to take risks, and as you get older you want to conserve energy and for the type of film I want to do, it might not be worth trying to get everything on screen, exactly the way that I want to get it on screen."

From now on, he'd like only to do labours of love, and he'll cut corners to make the budget work rather than fight it out - films like the Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home.

"I was blessed with this footage that Jeff Rosen had acquired over 25 years," Scorsese says. "In particular was this interview with Dylan that Rosen did over a period of four days - that was 10 hours of footage. I've known Dylan on and off for years. I was never hip enough to hang out with him, and it was this interview that got me interested - not so much what he was saying, but his eyes; there was something going on in the expression on his face.

"The narrative is about the artist in his times, and to recreate the context of the Sixties and Seventies for young people today. I think that so many young people, particularly in America, have become bored with, and don't understand, the power of the time.

"At the end of the movie, so many people who lived though that era were in tears, saying that it was sad to see what we lost. The only rule I was given was that we could do Dylan up until 1966 when he had the -motorcycle crash, and it ends with the interesting question of whether the artist should continue to serve society as a political figure."

Scorsese is currently working on scripts for three features and, he adds, he still wants to make a documentary on British cinema. The project he most wants to get off the ground is an adaptation of Shusaku Endo's novel Silence. There's also a Theodore Roosevelt biopic - he's reading the script for that while he's in Marrakesh - and an adaptation of William Kennedy's Roscoe.

All those seem to be fairly ambitious and high-cost period films, so he'll have his work cut out to keep costs down. When this is pointed out, he signs off with a smile, saying: "I hope to make small films, but there is something about that screen that lures me to bigger projects."