Trevor Hogg profiles the career of legendary American filmmaker Martin Scorsese in the fourth of a five part feature... read parts one, two and three.
“The first newspaper article Nick Pileggi showed me was about the police covering a domestic fight on a Las Vegas lawn one Sunday morning,” explained American filmmaker Martin Scorsese regarding the origins of Casino (1995). “In the article it slowly began to unravel, this incredible ten-year adventure that all these people were having, culminating in this husband and wife arguing on their lawn, with her smashing his car, the police arriving, and the FBI taking pictures.” Pileggi served as the co-screenwriter for the cinematic adaptation of his book about Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), a top gambling handicapper, who is sent by the Mob to manage the day-to-day operations of a Las Vegas casino. “The Tangiers is fictional but there were four – the Stardust, the Fremont, the Frontier and the Marina – which the Rothstein character controlled. We just made them one giant hotel and combined all the elements. Where else could a great handicapper become the most important man in the city, with total control? We tried to show how far his control ran, even over the kitchen and the food.”
Other changes were made to the story which is based on the life of Frank Rosenthal. “In the very first script we started with the scene of them fighting on the lawn. Then we realized that it was too detailed and didn’t create enough dramatic satisfaction at the end of the picture. So Nick and I figured we would start with the car exploding; he goes up into the air and you see him in slow motion, flying over the flames – like a soul about to take a dive into hell.” The director added, “I show it three times, in different ways. Finally, the third time, we see it the real way. That was how he remembered it. The actual fellow this is based on told me he saw flames coming out of the air conditioning unit first, and he didn’t know what it could be. Then he looked down and saw his arm on his fire; he thought of his kids. The door wasn’t properly locked, so he rolled out and was grabbed by two Secret Service men who happened to be casing the joint because of Ronald Reagan’s visit the following week. They pulled him aside and it was only when the car went up that he realized it was intentional.”
“There’s something interesting about voiceover: it lets you in on the secret thoughts of the characters, or the secret observations of an omniscient viewer,” stated Martin Scorsese. Cast in the crime drama which grossed $116 million worldwide are Robert De Niro (Flawless), Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct), Joe Pesci (The Good Shepherd), James Woods (Salvador), Don Rickles (Kelly’s Heroes), Alan King (The Bonfire of the Vanities), Kevin Pollak (The Usual Suspects), and Dick Smothers (Speed Zone!). “It is the most harrowing kind of editing you can do because you’re never sure of the structure and you’re not following a dramatic thread. There’s story, but no plot,” observed the native of Flushing, New York. “Ultimately, it’s a tragedy. It’s the frailty of a being human. I wanted to push audiences’ emotional empathy with certain types of characters who are normally considered villains.” Sharon Stone received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and won Best Actress – Drama at the Golden Globes where Martin Scorsese contended for Best Director. Long-time Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker was nominated for an Eddie by the American Cinema Editors.
“I started to get interested in him in 1989, when he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Before that I didn’t hear anything about Tibet,” stated Martin Scorsese of when he became interested in the Dali Lama. Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial) introduced Scorsese to the exiled religious leader and helped develop Kundun (1997). “I read the script and I liked its simplicity, the childlike nature of it, that it wasn’t a treatise on Buddhism, or a historical epic in the usual sense,” said the director. “What you really dealt with was a young man – his spiritual upbringing, and this incredible responsibility which he inherits and how he deals with it on the basis of nonviolence.” Summarizing the big screen tale, Scorsese remarked, “It’s a very straightforward story of the finding of the Dalai Lama as a young child, in Amdo province in Tibet. It takes you through the maturing of the boy until he was a young man of 18, when he had to make decisions which he knew would be dealing with – literally – the life and death of his own country. What interested me was the story of a man, or a boy, who lives in a society which is totally based on the spirit and finally, crashing into the twentieth century, they find themselves face to face with a society which is one of the most anti-spiritual ever formed, the Marxist government of the Chinese communists.” Cast in the $28 million production which earned $6 million domestically are Tenzi Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzi, Tenzin Yeshi Paichang, Tencho Gyalpo, Robert Lin, Tsewang Migyur Khangsar, and Geshi Yeshi Gyatso. Kundun contended for Best Art Director & Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score at the Oscars. The biopic also received nominations for Best Original Score at the Golden Globes and Best Foreign Film by the Australian Film Institute, while winning Best Cinematography at the National Society of Film Critics Awards.
The American Film Institute presented Martin Scorsese with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997, however, the filmmaker was hardly resting on his laurels in 1999; he released two projects. Il mio viaggio in Italia (1999) is a two-part documentary narrated by Scorsese; it celebrates the Italian films from Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni which had a major creative impact on him as a moviemaker. The other was a feature film that reunited him with a veteran creative partner.
Bringing Out the Dead (1999) stars Nicolas Cage (The Rock) as a burned out New York City emergency room paramedic. Regarding his reason for collaborating with Paul Schrader (Blue Collar) on the cinematic adaptation of the book by Joe Connelly, Martin Scorsese stated, “He has an understanding of the material…He has a line into suffering and redemption and what it means to forgive yourself.” The moviemaker turned out to be right about Schrader. “He responded to it right away because of what the character of Frank Pierce [Cage] is going through. He is an emergency room paramedic who is going through battle fatigue and he is really wondering if he is making any difference at all. He goes into one corner and saves a drug dealer who may be responsible for hundreds of deaths, and goes into another corner and because of a freak accident loses a 12 year old homeless kid. So he is thinking at this point in his life, ‘Is there any pattern to this?’” Scorsese was fascinated by the main character. “What is interesting about Frank, and this is what Paul caught on to, is that he loves the job because he brings people back to life, which makes him feel like God. And he has to learn in this movie that he is not God. That’s what we thought was so interesting about it. He takes on the suffering of everybody, he puts it on his own shoulders and can’t get through it now. In the end they tell him that no one asked him to suffer.”
Producing the $55 million drama which grossed $17 million domestically was a grueling affair. “The film took 75 nights to shoot. 45 of the nights were in the streets,” revealed Martin Scorsese who had another problem. “What almost held me back a little bit was that it was another New York story. How do you shoot an ambulance at night in New York? I’ve shot a lot of scenes at night in New York. What different way can I find to do these scenes? The first night I went out with a real ambulance. I figured it out – the hallucinatory aspect of it. You’re sitting in the front, the spinners going, the rock’n’roll is playing, cabs are attacking you. Suddenly you realize you think you see things that aren’t there and if you stay there long enough it’s quite an experience.” The director was pleased with the performance of Nicolas Cage. “I love his expressive face and the nature of his acting.” Performing along with Cage are John Goodman (The Big Lebowski), Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction), Tom Sizemore (Black Hawk Down), Patricia Arquette (Ed Wood) and Marc Anthony (Man on Fire). “It’s like delegating caring,” observed Scorsese. “We delegate caring to the paramedics. We delegate caring to the nurses or hospitals but we can’t do that. We have to stay in touch with these feelings. I am not saying that we should all run after ambulances. I’m saying there has to be that line of humanity between us and the city and people are suffering in the city.”
In response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, British musician Paul McCartney orchestrated a celebrity benefit concert at Madison Square Gardens. The event was documented in an Emmy-nominated television special called The Concert for New York City (2001) with Martin Scorsese contributing a short film called The Neighborhood.
“When you’re a director, there are some movies that you want to make,” explained Martin Scorsese. “There are other movies that you have to make. I made Gangs of New York  because I had to. I became fascinated with the world of Manhattan’s Five Points when I first heard the legends as a child. And in 1970, while staying at a friend’s house on Long Island, I came across Herbert Asbury’s book The Gangs of New York. Lured by its title, I picked up the book and read it in one sitting. The stories of the gangs with such wonderful names as Dead Rabbits and Plug Uglies and the way they operated – and gangsters like Bill The Butcher or Monk Eastman – fascinated me. Add to this the Civil War erupting and the ensuing New York Draft Riots of 1863 and I had a great subject for a movie.” The project became a labour of love. “I started to imagine characters, to compose shots and sequences in my head. My friend Jay Cocks started working on the script. And in 1977, with producer Alberto Grimaldi, we took out an ad in Variety announcing the movie. Getting it made proved more difficult. Large sets would have to be built, since nothing of this part of New York of the 1850s and 1860s exists today. It would be a costly venture. Finessing the script was just as daunting. We had to create a personal story and convey the importance of all the different factors – political, economic and ethnic – that together made New York a powder keg ready to explode.”
“I felt that the movie had to be an epic, like the films I’d loved as a child,” revealed Martin Scorsese. “We decided to go with a traditional conflict – revenge – and created the characters as variations of the hero, the villain and the girl.” The director felt that the villain was not complex enough so he had Jay Cocks make Bill “The Butcher” Cutting the surrogate father to the hero, Amsterdam Vallon. In 1999, his former agent Michael Ovitz approached Scorsese about reviving Gangs of New York and suggested his client should play the part of Amsterdam. The filmmaker accepted the casting suggestion which led him to work with a new acting muse – Leonardo DiCaprio (Inception). Performing with DiCaprio in the $100 million production are Daniel Day-Lewis (The Last of the Mohicans), Cameron Diaz (Knight and Day), Liam Neeson (Unknown), Jim Broadbent (Another Year), Henry Thomas (Legends of the Fall), Brendan Gleeson (The Guard), and John C. Reilly (Cedar Rapids). An orphan (DiCaprio) seeks to avenge the murder of his father by secretly becoming the ward of the gang leader (Day-Lewis) who killed him. The massive sets were built at the legendary Italian studio Cinecitta; they consisted of 1 ½ miles of mid-19th century lower Manhattan, which included the port of New York and two life-sized movable ship hulls.
Grossing $194 million worldwide, the 19th century period drama received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Art Direction & Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Song, Best Picture, Best Sound and Best Original Screenplay. At the BAFTAs, Gangs of New York won Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and contended for the Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music, Best Special Visual Effects, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Film, Best Make Up & Hair, Best Production Design, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound, and the David Lean Award for Direction; the Golden Globes lauded it Best Director and Best Original Song while handing out nominations for Best Picture – Drama, Best Actor – Drama (Daniel Day-Lewis), and Best Supporting Actress (Cameron Diaz). The American Cinema Editors honoured Thelma Schoonmaker with an Eddie Award, whereas Scorsese received a Directors Guild of America Award nomination. Daniel Day-Lewis won Outstanding Performance for a Male Actor in a Leading Role at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, while the Writers Guild of America nominated the screenwriting trio of Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan for Best Original Screenplay. The film received a Producers Guild of America Award nomination.
Collaborating with six other filmmakers which included Clint Eastwood (Pale Rider), Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire), and Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), Martin Scorsese helmed an episode of the seven-part PBS documentary series The Blues (2003) which traces the history of the musical genre. Scorsese’s contribution titled Feel Like Going Home has him traveling with musician Corey Harris through Mississippi and on to West Africa. Featured in the 90-minute production are performances by Willie King, Taj Mahal, Otha Turner, and Ali Farka Toure as well as rare archival footage of Son House, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker. A year later a TV documentary was commission by American Express and The History Channel. In Lady by the Sea: The Statue of Liberty (2004), the director examines the historical impact of the iconic landmark and her relevancy in Post-September 11th America.
“Warren Beatty and Stephen Spielberg had wanted for many years to make a [Howard] Hughes picture,” stated Martin Scorsese as to how he became involved with The Aviator (2004). “And I said, ‘Where do you start and where do you end? I wouldn't know where to begin.’ And so I thought it was more or less their territory until I read the script by John Logan [Gladiator]. I saw the first scene of this mother washing a boy in the bath and she's dealing with cholera and quarantine, and the next sequence is this young guy shooting a movie out in the desert and I thought, ‘Now is he going to go through the whole life of Howard Hughes?’ But he didn't.” Contemplating what attracted him to the screenplay, the director remarked, “Ultimately, what I really liked was the way the story developed into a struggle between him, the government and Pan Am. I thought that was interesting. I think it has a lot of resonance for today, particularly the investigation committee smearing people.” The story became a history lesson for Scorsese. “I hadn’t known anything about Pan Am and Juan Trippe. When I read it I thought that almost can’t be. He won his point in the Senate. He stormed out of the place and people actually applauded. This is true. I didn’t know that. It was true. Also that he flew the Hercules. I didn’t quite understand what a feat, what an accomplishment that really was until I read the script and then went back and did research. It was making a point, a point of honor, that the plane was airworthy. That was it. It may not have flown long but it got up in the air. And it’s the way we fly today.”
“Often people have tried to define him in biographies,” observed Leonardo DiCaprio who plays the reclusive billionaire in the $110 million biopic. “No one seems to be able to categorize him. He was one of the most complicated men of the last century. And so I got this book, brought it to Michael Mann [The Insider], and John Logan came onboard and really came up with the concept of saying, “You can do ten different movies about Howard Hughes. Let’s focus on his younger years. Let’s watch his initial descent into madness but meanwhile, have the backdrop of early Hollywood, these daring pioneers in the world of aviation that were like astronauts that went out and risked their lives to further the cause of aviation.” DiCaprio added that Hughes was “the first American billionaire who had all the resources in the world but was somehow unable to find any sense of peace or happiness. It’s that great see-saw act that goes on in the movie.” In the end what compelled him to great success proved to be his tragic flaw. “He was so obsessive about everything he’d gotten involved with, whether it be planes or women or the films that he made. And that is the direct result of his OCD [Obsessive Compulsion Disorder].”
The Aviator stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett (Heaven), Alan Alda (What Women Want), Alex Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October), Kate Beckinsale (Whiteout), and John C. Reilly. Martin Scorsese had no reservations about DiCaprio being attached to the project. “The lankiness, the tallness, the frame itself, I felt that he did remind me of the young Howard Hughes,” said the director who was equally impressed with his female cast. “Kate Beckinsale, when you first see her on the screen, trying to decide what name she should give TWA Airlines, she's absolutely gorgeous… You have that sense of Ava Gardner there. The scene where she hits him with the ashtray is based on a fight between the two of them. She wouldn't take anything from him.” As for the second Cate who performs in the picture, Scorsese stated, “She just had it: the gestures, the lines, and the look to be Katharine Hepburn.” There was some creative license taken when cinematically depicting the life of Howard Hughes. “There are a couple of things in this movie that weren’t exactly what really happened,” revealed Leonardo DiCaprio. “For example, Howard Hughes never did the thing with buying the photos of Katharine Hepburn, of her and Spencer Tracy. Instead the intention was the same: he bought her The Philadelphia Story which she ended up doing on stage, and inevitably [it] got her an Academy Award after they broke up. The intention was still there. He still loved her, he still cared about her as a person, and still did something like that for her.” Not everything went smoothly on the film set. Leonardo DiCaprio recalled the scene where he speaks through a bedroom door to Cate Blanchett, trying to convince her he is still sane, “We did take after take, and I just wasn’t getting it. Then Marty pulls me aside and says, ‘I’ve got to quit acting and just see through the eyes of the character that I’m playing. That I love this woman.’ And I got it…Marty isn’t trying to be a hard-ass. He’s trying to get you to forget that you’re acting.”
The collaboration between the two men paid off as The Aviator grossed $214 million worldwide; it won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction & Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, and Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett), while it received nominations for Best Director, Best Sound Mixing, Best Picture, Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Alan Alda), and Best Original Screenplay. At the BAFTAs, the biopic won Best Film, Best Make Up & Hair, Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett), and Best Production Design; it competed for Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music, Best Special Visual Effects, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Alan Alda), Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound, and the David Lean Award for Direction. The Golden Globes presented the historical tale with Best Picture – Drama, and Best Actor – Drama (Leonardo DiCaprio) and handed out nominations for Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett), and Best Screenplay. The Screen Actors Guild Awards lauded Cate Blanchett with Outstanding Performance for a Female Actor in a Supporting Role plus nominated The Aviator for Outstanding Performance for a Cast in a Motion Picture and Leonardo DiCaprio for Outstanding Performance for a Male Actor in a Leading Role. American Cinema Editors presented an Eddie Award to Thelma Schoonmaker, and Martin Scorsese received a Directors Guild of America Award nomination. The Writers Guild of America nominated John Logan for Best Original Screenplay and the film itself won a Producers Guild of America Award. Interestingly, like Howard Hughes, Scorsese has his own phobia – a fear of flying. “Every time I get on an airplane I know I’m not really an atheist. ‘Oh, God, dear God,’ I say the minute the plane takes off. ‘I’m sorry for all my sins, please don’t let this plane crash.’ And I keep praying out loud until the plane lands.”
Aired as part of American Masters on PBS and Arena on BBC Two, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005) is a four-hour documentary produced by Martin Scorsese. The Peabody Award-winning television program chronicles the life and artistic development of the legendary “song and dance man” from his historical British concerts to his controversial decision to forsake his acoustic guitar for an electric one. Scorsese received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Direction for Nonfiction Programming and was made an honoury president of the Vienna Film museum.
Despite the accolades there was one award that continued to elude the veteran moviemaker. Would his luck ever change? The answer was to be provided with his next film, a remake of an acclaimed Hong Kong thriller trilogy.
Continue to part five.
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.
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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.