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  • Dave Itzkoff

With the wisdom of age

Even the immortal Martin Scorsese contemplates death. But the legendary filmmaker’s advanced years haven’t softened his passion, his artistic touch, or his willingness to take a stand, writes Dave Itzkoff.
Martin Scorsese - Photographer Philip Montgomery, New york times
Martin Scorsese - Photographer Philip Montgomery, New york times

Martin Scorsese is the most alive in his work he’s been in a long time, brimming with renewed passion for filmmaking and invigorated by the reception that has greeted his latest gangland magnum opus, The Irishman. And he wants to talk about death. Not the deaths in his movies or anyone else’s.


“You just have to let go, especially at this vantage point of age,” he says. The 77-year-old director is stretched out in a comfortable chair in the living room of his Manhattan townhouse, a seat he will rise from several times this afternoon, whenever a whimsical mood strikes him during a spirited conversation about mortality and its inevitability.


Scorsese is talking about setting aside his expectations for The Irishman. But he also means relinquishing physical possessions: “The point is to get rid of everything now,” he says, in his trademark mile-a-minute clip. “You’ve got to figure out who gets what or not.” And the last step in this process is to let go of existence itself, as we all must. “Often, death is sudden,” he continues.



“If you’re given the grace to continue working, then you’d better figure out something that needs telling.” He found that inspiration in The Irishman, his mammoth dramatisation of the life of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a mob enforcer who claimed to have killed Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). It was not an angst-free undertaking for Scorsese – his movies never are – as he struggled with the idea of making another film set in the world of organised crime and was hesitant about pursuing the project with Netflix instead of a traditional studio. But what compelled him to abide these uncertainties was a story that went well past the scope of Goodfellas or Casino, to the waning days of Sheeran’s life, when he is left alone to contemplate the morality of his deeds.


“It’s all about the final days. It’s the last act,” Scorsese says, in words he knows will resonate beyond the framework of the film.


NOT DONE YET

He may occasionally talk like someone with nothing left to lose, when he is candidly holding forth on comic-book movies, the treatment of women in his films or what he feels is his tenuous place in the current film industry.

But Scorsese remains deeply invested in his career. His latest film could easily provide a fitting coda after more than half a century, but he has no intention of stopping here. What motivates him now, he says, is not fear of death but acceptance that it happens to everyone, an understanding that provides him with perspective. “As they say in my movie, ‘It’s what it is.’ You’ve got to embrace it.” Like the man himself, Scorsese’s home is a monument to moviemaking.


Aside from the stately fireplace portrait of Gouverneur Morris, a US Founding Father and ancestor of the director’s wife, television producer Helen Morris, the most prominent decorations surrounding him are oversize posters for beloved films by Jean Cocteau and Jean Renoir, including three for Renoir’s The Grand Illusion in this room alone. Across the hallway is the dining room, where he had edited portions of The Irishman, Silence and The Wolf of Wall Street.


Scorsese is perpetually reliving this history, telling tales of revelling in Citizen Kane when he watched a butchered TV broadcast of it years ago or being awe-struck when his hero and mentor John Cassavetes received what seemed like the princely budget of $1 million to make Husbands, his 1970 comedy-drama about men in midlife crisis, for Columbia Pictures. Being a big movie fan is no guarantee you’ll be a great moviemaker.


But Leonardo DiCaprio, who has starred in five of Scorsese’s features, says the director’s cinephilia never causes him to lose sight of what his performers need. “He’s learned as much as he can about the history of his art form and he’s brought that into his filmmaking process,” DiCaprio says. “But he’s always focused on what the actor gives, and that one-on-one dynamic. Plot to him is secondary. His focus is finding the heart of the story through the actors he works with.”


AMID PRIESTS AND HOODLUMS

Scorsese has equally vivid memories of growing up in Little Italy, where his formative influences included his parents, his Catholic priests and the local hoodlums who would inspire films like Mean Streets.


If his past movies tended to glamorise criminals and the violence they perpetrate, Scorsese says, “Well, it is glamorous and attractive, is it not? It’s glamorous at first if you’re young and stupid, which a lot of people are. I was.” His youth was also an initiation into the culture of death: serving as an altar boy for requiem masses at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral (Dies irae was my favourite song,” he says), helping a friend deliver floral arrangements to funeral services.

Scorsese struggled with the idea of making another film set in the world of organised crime and was hesitant about pursuing the project with Netflix instead of a traditional studio.

As a teenager, he lost two friends in close succession – one died of cancer, another in an accident – and one of the burials, at a graveyard near a factory, left a lasting impression on him. “I said, ‘This is what it comes to?’ ” Scorsese recalls. “To squeeze us into a little plot of land in Queens somewhere, against this ugly, destructive backdrop? It was a shock and an awakening – to what, I’m not sure, but a change.”


A LONG DEPARTURE

An eye for macabre details and an unflinching willingness to depict them have served Scorsese well, but somewhere around the making of his Vegas mob saga Casino (1995) – particularly the scene in which Joe Pesci’s character is beaten to death and buried in a cornfield – the director began to wonder if he had pushed this skill set to its limit. “I said, ‘I can’t go any further with it,’ ” he recounts.


Over the next two decades, he largely avoided crime-drama projects. (An exception was The Departed, for which he finally won an Academy Award.) But whatever the subject matter, Scorsese says he felt drained by these films, usually near the end, when he found himself butting heads with studio executives who wanted the running times shortened.


“The last two weeks of editing and mixing The Aviator,” a coproduction that involved Warner Bros. and Miramax, among others, “I had left the business from the stress. I said if this is the way you have to make films, then I’m not going to do it anymore.” He did not quit, of course, but he has increasingly turned to independent financiers to back his projects, believing that he and the studio system had become mortal enemies. “It’s like being in a bunker and you’re firing out in all directions,” he says.


“You begin to realise you’re not speaking the same language anymore, so you can’t make pictures anymore.” When De Niro approached him with the source material for The Irishman, in the midst of work on another potential Paramount film they would ultimately walk away from, Scorsese did not necessarily see it as an opportunity to make a grand pronouncement on his body of work or the mafia milieu. “I saw it as a danger,” he says, fearing that it would be dismissed as yet another mob drama on his CV.



‘EVERYBODY HAS TO RECKON’

The only reason to do the film would be to address ideas he hadn’t previously confronted. “Is it going to be enriching?” he asked himself. “Are we going to learn about the invisible, the afterlife? No, we’re not.” But the film could say something about “the process of living and existence, through the work we could do – you could depict it, the actors could live in it”. And he could not resist the story of criminals whose lengthy lives become a curse that burns their misdeeds into their souls.


He quotes a lyric from the Bruce Springsteen song Jungleland: “They wind up wounded, not even dead,” Scorsese says. “And that’s even worse, in a way.” The Irishman, he says, is neither a repudiation of his previous crime dramas nor an expression of regret for how he’d depicted their swaggering characters. “I don’t think it’s regret,” he says. “This is different. Here, it’s the dead end, and everybody has to reckon at the end. If they’re given the time. And that’s where we’re headed.”


The movie took more than a decade to make, and as its cast grew to include Harvey Keitel, Pesci and Pacino (who had never worked with Scorsese), the director could feel the stakes getting higher. That anxiety was also palpable for collaborators like Steven Zaillian, the movie’s screenwriter, who strove not to duplicate other Scorsese films. “It’s very hard to get all his movies out of your head and not write a scene that’s reminiscent of another scene – ‘Oh, oh, that’s what I did in Goodfellas or that’s what I did in Casino,” Zaillian says.


But such pressures led to innovations, like the captions that appear throughout The Irishman, describing how various criminals eventually met their fates. Pacino, though a newcomer to Scorsese’s process, says he developed an easy shorthand with the director and found him unafraid to express his opinion, in his own unique manner. After one take, Pacino recalls, “I have a memory of Marty looking at the scene on a computer and sticking his head out of the tent that he was in, as if to say, ‘What the [expletive] are you doing?’ He didn’t actually say those words, but it felt like it. And I got the message.”



Martin Scorsese - Photographer Philip Montgomery, New york times
Martin Scorsese - Photographer Philip Montgomery, New york times

With a laugh, Pacino adds that he welcomed such indications that a director was invested in his performance. “Actors like that,” he explains. “You think, ‘I’m glad you’re seeing me and I’m glad you’re evaluating what I’m doing.’ It’s saying we’re not alone here.” De Niro, who has starred in nine Scorsese features, says the director’s openness to experimentation and discovery in the moment has been constant during their collaboration, dating to Mean Streets (1973).


“If he feels that something’s not within the parameters, that it’s too out there, he might say no, or he might even say, ‘Try, let’s see,’ ” says De Niro, who is also an Irishman producer. “He can always cut it out. That gives you freedom to try things and it makes everybody comfortable.” De Niro also says he and Scorsese shared a kind of fatalism – the expectation that any time their work is celebrated, a barrage of rejection will swiftly follow, even for The Irishman, which has been widely acclaimed, collecting 10 Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director.


“You’re waiting for it. What’s the bad?” De Niro says. “What’s the downside? What’s going to happen? The other shoe to drop. You’re saying, ‘Yeah, this is great, but let’s not all get too excited.’ ”


EVOLVING – AND FIGHTING

In ways both subtle and substantial, Scorsese sees the world changing and becoming less familiar to him. He gratefully accepted a deal with Netflix, which covered the reported $160 million budget for the film. But the bargain meant that after the movie received a limited theatrical release, it would be shown on the company’s streaming platform.


Jessica Lange’s Leigh and Juliette Lewis’s Danielle in Cape Fear, and Sharon Stone’s Ginger in Casino, among others. Koskoff also notes that Scorsese has supported female directors by helping produce films like Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir. “I could go on and on and on,” she says. “He’s not making Lady Bird but it’s not like he’s opposed to that.” Scorsese is circumspect when asked about movies from the last year that he has enjoyed, pleading modesty and the fact that he still needs to watch many films, though he does say he has seen and likes Bong Joon-ho’s dark satire Parasite.


And he is well aware that Joker, the hit comic-book thriller, contains many homages to his own work – he passed on an offer to help produce it, though Koskoff worked on the movie – but does not seem to be in a hurry to view it. “I saw clips of it,” Scorsese says of Joker. “I know it. So it’s like, why do I need to? I get it. It’s fine.” Despite his aversions, Scorsese is going back to the Hollywood studios for his next movie, Killers of the Flower Moon, which is adapted from David Grann’s nonfiction book about the murders of Osage Indians in 1920s Oklahoma. Paramount will finance the film. Scorsese has other aspirations that have nothing to do with moviemaking.


“I would love to just take a year and read,” he says. “Listen to music when it’s needed. Be with some friends. Because we’re all going. Friends are dying. Family’s going.” One impediment, he admits, is a disposition that compels him to tell stories in the medium he knows best. “I’ll read a book or I’ll meet a person and I’ll say, ‘Ah! I’m going to make a film on this,’” he explains. “Over the years, I’ve been able to do it. Now it’s narrowing way down.” There’s the other boundary – you know, death. But just because it’s unknowable and non-negotiable doesn’t mean it isn’t worth contending with every day.


“The problem is, time is limited and energy is so limited – the mind, also, of course,” he says. “Thankfully, the curiosity doesn’t end.” That means some viewers are watching the three-and-a-half-hour movie incrementally, instead of in one sitting, as its director would prefer. But Scorsese says he’d rather the film be available somewhere, in some form, than nowhere. “Even if it’s going to be shown on a street corner, maybe someday it’ll be shown in a theatre as part of a retrospective,” he says.


“I really thought that.” Netflix reports that more than 26.4 million people watched The Irishman in its first week on the site, but the realm of smartphones, tablets and streaming is largely invisible to Scorsese. Sarcastically describing his day-to-day reality, he says, “I go out, they put me in a car, they take me somewhere, they take me out, put me back on a table, take me in. I go in a room, somebody talks to me, I say yes. I come home and try to get in this door without the dogs going crazy.” He is capable of evolving: In his fifth marriage (he and Morris wed in 1999), this former one-man tempest recast himself as a homebody and family man.


They have a daughter, Francesca, and he has two daughters, Cathy and Domenica, from his first two marriages. But you know Scorsese is still no wallflower if you’ve followed his recent remarks against Marvel movies, which he says are “not cinema” and closer to “theme parks” in an October interview with Empire magazine. That prompted Robert A. Iger, the chief executive of the Walt Disney Co. (which owns Marvel) to tell Time magazine Scorsese’s remarks were “nasty” and “not fair to the people who are making the movies”, adding that he is seeking a meeting with the director.


Scorsese tells me he had reached out to Iger several months earlier, on behalf of his nonprofit Film Foundation, which is seeking to restore and preserve movies in the 20th Century Fox library, which Disney now owns. “Then all this came up,” Scorsese says with a chuckle. “So, we’ll have a lot to talk about.”



THE REPRESENTATION ISSUE

Scorsese’s depiction of female characters in The Irishman has been another source of controversy. Critics and others say they are not fully realised and exist only to react to the male characters; as their prime example, these critics often point to Anna Paquin’s role as the adult incarnation of Sheeran’s daughter Peggy, who has almost no dialogue.


The director argues that Paquin’s character – whose wordless rejection of the ageing Frank devastates him – is in no way diminished by her silence. As Scorsese explains, “Don’t go for the surface. The surface says, ‘I’m going to say something and there’s going to be two or three big scenes between me and my father.’ She doesn’t need to. She saw what he did. She knows what he’s capable of.”


Scorsese says he is aware of the wider debate about the representation of women in his films, acknowledging that The Irishman is a “more sequestered” movie but not solely representative of his body of work. Emma Tillinger Koskoff, who is president of production at Scorsese’s Sikelia Productions and has made films with him for more than a decade, vehemently rejects the notion that Scorsese has overlooked women.


“It’s silly,” she says, adding that Scorsese “is responsible for some of the greatest female characters in cinema history.” She cites Ellen Burstyn’s title role in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Lorraine Bracco’s Karen in Goodfellas,

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