Martin Scorsese: You talkin’ to me?

A fascinating new book captures Martin Scorsese in conversation – and reveals an addiction to film that stretches back to the director’s early childhood

An audience with Scorsese isn't like a typical junket interview with a big-name American director. That is made very clear in Michael Henry Wilson's new book, Scorsese on Scorsese. This features a series of discussions that Wilson has had with Scorsese about his films, from 1974 right up to the present day. Their encounters are confessional, therapeutic, invariably littered with references to other movies and often highly technical. Wilson (who co-wrote Scorsese's masterful documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and is now working with him on his new doc about British cinema) is reverential towards his subject, but also very probing. The metaphors used here are often about illness, addiction and transcendence: a strange mix of the biblical and the psychoanalytical. "Film is a disease... as with heroin, the antidote to film is more film," Scorsese once observed, quoting his fellow director Frank Capra. He is clearly contaminated with this disease. Wilson is fascinated by his symptoms.

The book is very lavishly illustrated with family photos and images of Scorsese and his young buck friends from Little Italy in New York, where he grew up uncertain as to whether he was going to be a gangster or a priest. There are stills, storyboards and images of heavily annotated pages of his screenplays. One full-page illustration underlines the obsessive cinephilia that characterised Scorsese, even as a child. It is an intricately drawn and calligraphed set of images for The Eternal City, an imaginary widescreen epic that Scorsese dreamed of making as an 11-year-old. "A fictitious story of Royalty in Ancient Rome" is how he characterises it. The storyboard images are very carefully drawn and coloured in. It is striking that he has given himself a bigger credit as producer-director than any of the stars (who include Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Virginia Mayo and Alec Guinness.)

What leaps out from every interview over a 35-year span is Scorsese's driven quality: that obsessiveness that almost killed him as a young film-maker.

"Do you know what Fellini said to me... when I was at death's door and had to go into the hospital?" he confides to Wilson in an interview from the late 1970s. "Carry on, my friend! Be crazy! Kill yourself! Work till it kills you!"

Although he reined himself in and got over his morbidly romantic idea that he should drive himself to death through his work, the Scorsese talking in the latter part of the book about Boardwalk Empire is still the same febrile presence who Wilson and his colleague Michel Ciment first met in Paris in 1974, when they came to interview him about Boxcar Bertha and Mean Streets for Positif. At the time, he was in bed, struck down by an asthma attack. "With etched features reminiscent of an El Greco painting, he is an extraordinarily sensitive livewire," they wrote of the then young and largely unknown director. "He laughs often, like a child, in an effort to conceal his underlying anxiety. How can we fail to be won over and inspired by his consuming passion?"

Scorsese doesn't "do" small talk or gossip, but plenty of familiar names pass through these pages and some of the anecdotes can't help but have a comic feel.

 

Scorsese on Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver

Bobby really understood the character. He was Travis. A piece of scenery could collapse behind him and he would react the way Travis would. He had become Travis. I had complete confidence in him. That went back to our collaboration on Mean Streets. We feel many things the same way. We understand each other perfectly. We don't need words to work together. The communication between us is like a form of sign language. His contribution to Taxi Driver was crucial. I think he succeeded in moving audiences, in eliciting their empathy. Thanks to him, we are able to identify with this character that might have been a monster.

How did he prepare for the role?

For example, he drove a cab for two weeks. He had just won an Oscar [Best Supporting Actor] for The Godfather Part II. One evening, an actor got into his cab and recognized him. The guy, who couldn't believe his eyes, exclaimed, "Do you have to drive a cab? Are times as bad as that? Hasn't the Oscar helped you?" One night, I got into Bobby's cab myself; I sat up front, next to him. We drove up and down 8th Avenue, a bad neighborhood. The impression I had was that anything could happen. You have no control over what could happen. Your life doesn't belong to you anymore. That was exactly what the character had to feel. Believe me, anyone who drives a cab in New York at night will be like Travis sooner or later.

 

Scorsese on his initial doubts about making Raging Bull

[Paul] Schrader told me, "You pulled Mean Streets from your guts. Do it again, but this time limit yourself to two or three characters. You won't be able to handle four." After that I went through a serious crisis. I no longer wanted to make the film; I didn't want to make any film at all. Physically, I was in terrible shape. I spent four days in the hospital hovering between life and death. I was lucky, I survived and the crisis passed. My suicidal period was over. Bobby came to see me. We talked heart to heart. Wanting to kill yourself with work, dreaming of a tragic death – there comes a point when you have to stop talking nonsense, even if you can't help it. We were talking about ourselves, but suddenly I really understood the character. When Bobby asked me point-blank, "Do you want us to make this film?" I answered yes. It had become clear. Jake had experienced before me what I had just gone through. In our different ways, we had both been through it: the Catholic heritage, the sense of guilt, and the hope for redemption. Above all, it's about learning to accept oneself. That's what I understood the moment when, without really knowing what I was saying, I answered yes. When I got out of the hospital, we left for Saint Martin, an island in the Caribbean where there was no cinema or television, to get away from it all. Now we were on the same wavelength; we were speaking the same language. We wrote a hundred-page script in ten days. On the last page I added a quotation from St. John's Gospel, the exchange between Nicodemus and Christ. Jesus tells the high priest that one must be "born from on high", born from the Holy Spirit, to enter the Kingdom of God. I wasn't planning to use it in that form, but I was determined to give everyone reading the script a clear understanding of what it meant to me.

 

Scorsese on the influence of George Stevens's footage of the concentration camps on Shutter Island

Imagine being a soldier and discovering what he did in those camps: the guilt emanating from the worst century in recorded history! You know, he never made another comedy after World War II. We studied his footage, which is unimaginable, beyond disturbing, but we couldn't incorporate it. We had to re-create it because the flashbacks take place in the mind of Teddy or Andrew. It had to be stylized, blanketed with ice and snow. We used the same color process, Kodachrome, but digitally. All the dreams were shot in Kodachrome. That's why the wallpaper in our interiors has such garish colors.

Extracts taken from 'Scorsese on Scorsese' by Michael Henry Wilson (Phaidon). Order for £40 (rrp £45, free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600030

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit