Understanding Scorsese: A Martin Scorsese Profile (Part 1)

Trevor Hogg profiles the career of legendary American filmmaker Martin Scorsese in the first of a five part feature…

Martin Scorsese“Marty never gave me much trouble,” stated Charlie Scorsese of his famous filmmaking son. “Marty and his friends used to drink my liquor and fill empty bottles with water and Kayro syrup, but they were good boys. Marty was sickly, though, and couldn’t keep up with the other boys. That’s how the thing with the movies got started.” The elder Scorsese, who earned a living as a clothes presser in the New York City garment district, served as an early cinematic influence for the Academy Award-winning director. “Having asthma,” recalled Martin Scorsese, “I was often taken to movies because they didn’t know what else to do with me.” As for his lack of athletic prowess, Scorsese remarked, “On my block, people took games seriously. If a kid dropped a ball they could get very mad. I wasn’t good at sports; they became anathema to me.” The native of Flushing, New York was not the only one in his family who was drawn to films. “I’d be sitting and watching something on television. My uncles would be in the room. My mother would be there. One of my uncles would say, ‘That would never happen that way.’…They would work out their own versions of the film noir we were watching, and they were actually much better.”

Another strong childhood influence on the young Martin Scorsese was the Catholic Church. “I went into the seminary after grade school, but they threw me out at the end of my first year for roughhousing during prayers. They thought I was a thug.” Scorsese continued to dream about becoming a priest until he came across the film department at New York University. “I was bitten and the whole vocation thing shifted.” The NYU undergraduate had fallen under the spell of the charismatic Professor Haig Manoogian. “When I heard him lecture, all the passion I had for the seminary school was somehow transfused over. I said, ‘I want to be talked about in that way, because my appreciation of the people he’s talking about is so strong.’ I knew I was a director. Other people didn’t know, though.” Long-time collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker was immediately impressed with the talent of her classmate. “It was so clear that he had such strong filmic ideas,” explained the three-time Oscar-winning film editor. “His student film It’s Not Just You, Murray! [1964] was a comic look at gangsters and it was filled with wit and was so clever. Right away, you said, ‘Wow! That’s a filmmaker.’ You were immediately in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing. Which was what my husband [filmmaker Michael Powell] used to say about Marty’s films; he could relax and enjoy them because there was somebody steering the ship.”

Who's That Knocking at My DoorUpon graduating as a NYU film major, Martin Scorsese worked as a news editor at CBS, in particular on Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign; he also shot commercials, served as a supervising editor on Woodstock (1970) and edited the rock ‘n’ roll documentary Medicine Ball Caravan (1971). Scorsese had not abandoned his ambition of making a feature film; the project evolved into three different versions: Who’s That Knocking on My Door? (1965), Bring on the Dancing Girls (1967) and I Call First (1970). “The first year, 1965, I cast it,” said the director. “We did all the scenes with the young boys and we had a young lady playing the part of the girl. But later on we came up to an hour and ten minutes and there was no confrontation. The young girl was always seen in flashbacks and asides. It was all between the boys. So you never understood what was happening with the Harvey Keitel [The Piano] character and the girl [Zina Bethune]. The conflict was being in love with a girl who is an outsider, loving her so much that you respect her and you won’t make love to her. Then he finds out she’s not a virgin and he can’t accept it.” Keitel was impressed with the man behind the camera. “One of Marty’s best qualities as a director is the way he deals with actors. Marty lets actors bring their own humanity – their eccentricities, their humour, their compassion – to a role.”

Martin Scorsese is proud of the scene where J.R. (Keitel) makes love to Zina Bethume (Sunrise at Campobello) on his mother’s bed. “It’s a very authentic moment and I love it that at the end of the sequence they are framed only from the back. I had the feeling that if the audience identified with them at that instant, they would identify with them all the way to the end.” In order to secure a distribution deal, the rookie director had to insert a particular sequence. “I had to have a nude scene in it,” revealed Scorsese. “I had Harvey Keitel fly over to Amsterdam. We got a bunch of girls and did this crazy nude scene which was incredible.” The $35,000 project had a habit of being renamed. “Who’s That Knocking? had opened in L.A. under the title J.R.. It kept changing titles because the theatre distributor didn’t like the title… It got good reviews and Roger Corman went to see it.” The legendary B-movie producer was impressed enough to ask Martin Scorsese to do a sequel to Bloody Mama (1970); nine months later Corman called and gave him the script.

Boxcar Bertha“Roger’s films make money because of the speed and the economy with which they are shot,” observed Martin Scorsese. “You learn what’s essential to a scene, and how to get it quickly shot. Roger came down to Arkansas, marched onto the set, made an angry face, stirred up the crew and got them to work a little harder. We shot Boxcar Bertha [1972] in twenty-four days for $650,000 and it made a profit. I got $5,000.” The Great Depression-era tale stars Barbara Hershey (Black Swan) as the title character and David Carradine (Bound for Glory) as a union leader; the two lovers seek revenge against a railroad company by robbing trains. The story is loosely based on the fictionalize autobiography of the radical and transient Bertha Thompson. “In Boxcar Bertha, Barry Primus [Righteous Kill] is trying to pull a fast one with the cards so he’s smiling sleazily, the camera is kind of sleazy, sliding against the edge of the table,” explained the director. “What I was looking for was to give a psychologically unstable feeling to the audience with those characters at those moments.” The struggling director was given a piece of unexpected advice after a private screening of the movie. “I was scheduled to do one more picture for Roger Corman, I Escaped from Devil’s Island [1973]. We were going to shoot in Costa Rica… I showed a two and a half hour rough cut of Boxcar Bertha to a bunch of friends – Carradine, all the people in the picture, Roger Corman and [John] Cassavetes. Cassavetes [Rosemary’s Baby] took me aside the next day and spoke to me for three hours. He said, ‘Don’t do any more exploitation pictures. Do something better.’” When Scorsese told John Cassevetes that he only had one script, Cassavetes encouraged him to rewrite the story.

Mean Streets“I wrote the outline first and then brought it to Mardik [Martin], who used to write all my shorts with me at NYU,” stated Martin Scorsese as to the origins of the project called Season of the Witch. “Mardik worked out the structure for me and I worked out the characters and the incidents. Then we took the script around for years and we could never get it done.” Heeding the advice given to him by John Cassevetes, Scorsese reworked the film with Martin. “The whole idea was to make a story of a modern saint, a saint in his own society but his society happens to be gangsters.” The crime drama that stars Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro (Heat), David Proval (The Shawshank Redemption), Amy Robinson (Julie & Julia), Richard Romanus (The Assassin), Cesare Danova (Tender Is the Night), Harry Northup (The Silence of the Lambs), and David Carradine was subsequently renamed. “Mean Streets [1973] shows that organized crime is similar to big government. They’re both machines. In Sicilian culture, we learned never to expect much from the government, having been trod upon by one government or another for some two thousand years. That is why the family is the unit we always look to for strength.” Elements of the story were drawn from actual events. “One night some of the neighbourhood guys went in [a bar called Foxy’s Corner] with the Johnny Boy character and his older brother; they got into a fight. They tried to settle an argument. That’s exactly and literally what happened in the film.”

Though the tale takes place in the city of the director’s birth, the majority of the principle photography took place elsewhere. “We only shot six days in New York,” revealed Martin Scorsese. “When De Niro’s shooting his gun off the roof, the roof is in New York because you can see the Empire State Building, but the window is in Los Angeles. When David Carradine gets shot in the bar, the guy falling in the street is actually in New York – that was a double – we shot that first. We blocked out his face just right so that he falls and hits the car…The rest of the scene was shot in Los Angeles.” The $670,000 production, which screened at the 1973 New York Film Festival, turned out to be a grueling affair. “It was done in twenty-seven days,” said Scorsese. “I kept pushing the limits of the budget and drove everybody crazy. But that was the only thing we could do because the more we got down, the more fun we had and the more we realized the atmosphere we wanted to get.” For their writing efforts, Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin received a Writers Guild of America nomination for Best Original Screenplay – Drama. Robert De Niro won Best Performance in a Foreign Film at the Sant Jordi Awards as well as Best Supporting actor at the National Society of Film Critics Awards. Mean Streets was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1997. Responding to the movie being compared to The Godfather (1972), the filmmaker replied, “We weren’t trying to do the same thing at all. Francis Coppola made an epic Hollywood picture, an old-fashion movie in the good sense like Gone with the Wind [1939], only better.”

ItalianamericanWith the release of Italianamerican (1974), which saw Martin Scorsese interview his parents about their family life in New York and Sicily, the director established himself as a documentary filmmaker. “The film came about through a series called The Storm of Strangers, done by the National Endowment Fund of Humanities,” explained Scorsese. “They were doing one on the Greeks, the Jews, Armenians [and other ethnic groups]. It was for bicentennial T V, 1976. They all had to be a half hour long.” At the premier of the project, Charles Scorsese was not in attendance. “My father didn’t go see the picture at the Lincoln Center at the New York Film Festival because he had a hard time watching Mean Streets; he went through all the palpitations of it’s your movie up there and 2,000 people are seeing it for the first time. He got the same feeling.” Catherine Scorsese had no qualms about attending the event with her son; she embraced her newfound celebrity status by throwing kisses and signing autographs.

Alice was more rehearsed and improvisational than Mean Streets had been,” stated Martin Scorsese when comparing the making of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) to its cinematic predecessor. “The reason was – Ellen [Burstyn] asked me to do the picture for her.” Burstyn got the script about a would-be nightclub singer who pursues her dream upon becoming a widower from producer David Susskind; taking the advice of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola she approached Scorsese. “Some people have said that Alice is a movie about women’s liberation, but I think that’s the wrong emphasis. It’s about human liberation,” declared Scorsese. “Bea, Lelia Goldoni, is in reality Ellen Burstyn’s best friend so that scene where they say goodbye is all from reality. That’s important. That’s why I like that scene. Dianne Ladd had the same relationship with Ellen over a period of ten years as you see in the picture. So I played on what they knew.” Cast along with the trio of Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream), Goldoni (Shadows), and Ladd (Chinatown) are Kris Kristofferson (Blade), Harvey Keitel, Alfred Lutter (The Bad News Bears), Jodie Foster (Panic Room), and Billy Green Bush (Five Easy Pieces).

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore“It’s nice when you have six hours, like in Scenes from a Marriage [1973], when you can get different aspects of these people,” reflected Martin Scorsese. “But it was a little too ambitious to try to come up with a film in which you had four or five different relationships going on with eight characters.” Working with film editor Marcia Lucas (American Graffiti), the director made significant alterations to the story to achieve a manageable theatrical runtime of 112 minutes. “The first cut of Alice was 3 hours and 16 minutes. There was so much character stuff thrown out; it was a real pity.” The camerawork added to the atmosphere of the movie. “I was trying to capture a number of characters who were really very much in a state of confusion and never really settling. So the camera is always shifting and moving around… When it does stop, they are usually scenes of stability, like in the bathroom scene between Ellen Burstyn and Diane Ladd.” Being a Hollywood studio production, Martin Scorsese had to appease Warner Bros. executives. “We tried to work truthfully as possible within the conventions of the genre. And within the conventions was the studio chief telling me, ‘Give it a happy ending!’ I said, ‘All right.’ But the last line is the kid saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’” Alice Doesn’t’ Live Here Anymore grossed $19 million domestically and at the Oscars the drama won Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn) and contended for Best Supporting Actress (Diane Ladd) and Best Original Screenplay. The BAFTAs awarded Ellen Burstyn with Best Actress and Diane Ladd for Best Supporting Actress and scriptwriter Robert Getchell for Best Screenplay; not to be left out, Martin Scorsese received a Best Director nomination. Ellen Burstyn and Diane Ladd repeated their BAFTAs success at the Golden Globes and Robert Getchell was honoured with a Best Original Screeplay nomination from the Writers Guild of America. At the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, Scorsese contended for the Palme d’Or.

Collaborating with screenwriter Paul Schrader (Affliction) and actor Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese produced a film which would define their careers.

Continue to part two.

For more on the director be sure to visit the Martin Scorsese Fansite and ScorseseFilms.com, along with the BFI documentary A Personal Journey with Scorsese Through American Movies.

Short Film Showcase – What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?
Short Film Showcase – The Big Shave

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

  • Anonymous

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    Wow, wonderful article. Actually I read it twice. I like the featured movies here in your blog.

  • http://www.furiouscinema.com/ Pete R

    Excellent article! Scorsese is one of my favorite directors!

  • Anonymous

    I am glad that you mentioned Harry Northup in &quot;Mean Streets.&quot; He was in many early Scorsese films. <br />Harry is such an authentic actor. I loved him as<br />Doughboy in &quot;Taxi Driver.&quot;

  • http://www.walkingdeadtvseries.com/ Walking Dead

    Amazing article. AMC has been playing Taxi Driver so I&#39;ve been on a Scorsese kick lately.

  • http://www.walkingdeadtvseries.com/ Walking Dead

    Amazing article. AMC has been playing Taxi Driver so I&#39;ve been on a Scorsese kick lately.

  • Anonymous

    I am glad that you mentioned Harry Northup in &quot;Mean Streets.&quot; He was in many early Scorsese films. <br>Harry is such an authentic actor. I loved him as<br>Doughboy in &quot;Taxi Driver.&quot;