Trevor Hogg profiles the career of legendary American filmmaker Martin Scorsese in the second of a five-part feature… read part one here.
“It’s true that some films will involve me more than others,” admitted American filmmaker Martin Scorsese. “It’s also true that I might have never made Taxi Driver  were it not for the success of Alice [Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, 1974]. The question of commercialism is a source of worry. Must one make a choice, must it be a matter of either setting your sights on winning an Academy Award and becoming a millionaire, or making only the movies you want to make and starving to death?” The $1.3 million production about a lonely New York City taxi driver (Robert De Niro), who has an unrequited romantic attachment with political campaign volunteer (Cybill Shepherd) and becomes a vengeful angel for a child prostitute (Jodie Foster), potently harnessed the sense of public disillusionment fueled by the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. “I had to make that movie. Not so much because of the social statement it makes, but because of its feeling about things, including things I don’t like to admit to myself.” A veteran of a number of failed marriages, the director could relate to the emotional turmoil endured by Travis Bickle (De Niro). “I know the feeling of rejection that Travis feels, of not being able to make relationships survive.”
“The best way is to start with a character and then put him through scenes, through conflicts, that illustrate your theme,” instructed Martin Scorsese. “When Travis [De Niro] falls in love with a woman, he can’t admit he wants to make love to her… The movie deals with sexual repression, so there’s a lot of talk but no sex, lovemaking, no nudity. If the audience saw nudity, it would work like a release valve and the tension that’s been building up would be dissolved. The valve in Taxi Driver is not released until Travis finally lets loose and starts shooting.” One of the most famous scenes in cinema was the result of a creative collaboration between the director and his leading man. “I did improvise him talking in the mirror: ‘Are you talking to me?’ It was in the script that he was looking at himself in the mirror, doing this thing with the guns, and I told Bob, ‘He’s got to say something. He’s got to talk to himself.’ We just started playing with it and that’s what came out.” Jodie Foster (The Silence of the Lambs), who was 12 years old at the time of filming, was impressed with the ability of Scorsese to bring out the best in his cast members. “There’s a big difference between someone who performs with you and somebody who asks you to perform for them,” stated Foster. “He is there. Marty gets behind your eyes.”
Despite Columbia executives’ disdain for having to enduring the expense of on-location principle photography, Martin Scorsese insisted on shooting Robert De Niro (Stardust) talking to Cybill Shepherd (The Last Picture Show) in an actual coffee shop. “I placed them by a window so you can see all of Columbus Circle, the cars, the whole city,” explained the filmmaker. “New York City is a character in the movie.” Scorsese was left emotionally drained from his constant battles with the Hollywood studio. “That night, I went through a number of crises and made a lot of phone calls. I said to a friend, ‘That’s it. If they don’t like the way I’m going to make the picture, then I won’t make the picture.’ That’s when you realize that you really have to love something enough to kill it.” His devotion to the story came at a great personal cost to the native of Flushing, New York. “For me it was just the beginning of going into an abyss for about two years and coming out barely alive. It was a few weeks after Taxi Driver that I started playing with drugs.” Cast along with De Niro, Shepherd and Foster in the drama which grossed $28 million domestically are Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs), Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein), Albert Brooks (Lost in America), Leonard Harris (Hero at Large) and Martin Scorsese. At the Academy Awards, Taxi Driver contended for Best Picture, Best Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Jodie Foster), and Best Original Score; while the BAFTAs lauded it with Best Supporting Actress (Foster), Best Newcomer (Foster), and the Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music as well as nominations for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Editing. The Golden Globes nominated Taxi Driver for Best Actor – Drama (De Niro) and Best Screenplay; it also won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Robert De Niro was presented with the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor, Paul Schrader received a Writers Guild of America Award nomination Best Original Screenplay – Drama, and Bernard Herrmann contended at the Grammy Awards for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture. Commenting on the enduring acclaim for the film which was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1994, Martin Scorsese remarked, “I was in China in 1984 and a young man from Mongolia talked to me at length about Taxi Driver, about the loneliness. That’s why the film seems to be something that people keep watching over and over. It’s not the shoot-’em out ending.”
“It’s about the decline of big bands and a couple, a saxophonist and a girl singer in a band, who try to make a go of it but they have no money; they break up and get back together after making it,” explained Martin Scorsese of his ill-fated 1940s musical New York, New York (1977) which stars Liza Minnelli (The Oh in Ohio), Robert De Niro, Lionel Stander (Once Upon a Time in the West), Barry Primus (Absence of Malice), Mary Kay Place (Being John Malkovich), Georgie Auld, George Memmoli (Rocky), and Dick Miller (The Terminator). “In the picture, I tried to fuse whatever was a fantasy – the movies I grew up with as a kid – with the reality that I experienced myself.” The creative decision of the director caused the production budget to balloon to $14 million. “It became a little bigger than we thought because of this concept I had of doing the picture in the old style, which is sound stages and back lots.” Though the title suggests otherwise, the entire principle photography took place in Los Angeles. “14 weeks became twenty-two weeks mainly because of the fact that it was a musical. Irwin Winkler, Bob Chartoff and I had never done a musical before so we underscheduled the picture mistakenly.”
Earl Mac Rauch spent two years composing the original script. “Whenever we would ask for a change of two or three pages, he would bring twelve pages in and they were terrific,” recalled Martin Scorsese. “A whole new direction, whole new character things. He is a good writer and what happened was it became unmanageable in terms of making a shooting script.” The director turned to his veteran collaborator for help. “We needed structure. So Mardrik Martin of Mean Streets came in…. He wrote some scenes, some key dialogue.” Martin worked with Scorsese’s wife at the time Julia Cameron to reinvent the screenplay. “I reshot a couple of things at the end, because up until that point, I had been so close to the subject matter, [and] the characters that I couldn’t see how they should end as characters.” A test screening of New York, New York, resulted in sequences being cut from the picture. “The biggest thing was the Happy Endings production number. A lot of people felt it overbalanced the picture. It was 11 minutes long. The movie was a commercial disappointment, earning $16 million domestically. The BAFTAs nominated New York, New York for Best Costume Design and Best Soundtrack; while at the Golden Globes it contended for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy, Best Actor – Musical or Comedy (Robert De Niro), Best Actress – Musical or Comedy (Liza Minnelli), and Best Original Song. The Santi Jordi Awards presented Robert De Niro with the trophy for Best Performance in a Foreign Film. Scorsese was given the opportunity to restore some of the sequences removed in order to achieve a 2 hour and 45 minute theatrical runtime. “The entire Happy Endings number, along with all the other scenes we liked, are in the television version, which is three to three-and-one-half hours [long].”
“I shot the whole thing incognito,” confessed Martin Scorsese of his documentary rock-concert film, The Last Waltz (1978), which was filmed at San Francisco’s Winterland in the fall of 1976. I was suppose to be resting, taking time off between shooting and editing New York. It was all very secret. Irwin Winkler [New York, New York’s producer] didn’t know I’d done it until it was over and then, when he found out, he was furious.” The director conceived the project chronically the last live performance of The Band as an opera; he borrowed the set of La Traviata from the San Francisco Opera. Scorsese sat down with his cinematographer Michael Chapman to discuss the colour lighting changes required to emphasize the content of each musical moment. Permission was obtained to dig into the floor of the Winterland to construct a tower that would enable Martin Scorsese to film wide angle shots. The resourceful moviemaker employed crab dollies in places on the stage which would not obscure the view of audience members. “We went in thinking, we’d document the Band’s last concert and maybe we’ll get something, maybe we won’t. Then when footage came back and we looked at it on the KEM, I just said, ‘Wow. This is fantastic. We’ve got a movie.’”
Additional footage was filmed. Scorsese interspersed three studio shot numbers into the production which enabled him to experiment with pyrotechnics and interview members of the group. Film editor Jan Roblee suggested placing the footage of the last song Don’t Do It at the beginning of the film thereby turning the concert into a flashback. “I had the feeling that the movie audience could become more involved with the concert if we concentrated on the stage. Besides, after Woodstock , who wants to see the audience anymore?” Appearing on stage with Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson are Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Neil Young, The Staples, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, and Ron Wood. “The movie was therapy. It was the only thing that held me together,” confided Martin Scorsese whose marriage to writer Julia Cameron fell apart after the birth of their daughter. New York, New York was a box office failure, and he was replaced by Gower Champion as the director of the struggling stage sequel to his musical starring Liza Minnelli called The Act. “There was a lot of high living. At first, you felt like you could make five films at once. Then you wound up spending four days in bed every week because you were exhausted and your body couldn’t take it.” In and out of hospital suffering asthma attacks, Scorsese ended up in hospital with internal bleeding on Labour Day 1978. “Marty got a doctor who conveyed the message that he either alter his life or he was going to die,” revealed musician Robbie Robertson who roomed with the filmmaker. “We knew we had to change trains. Our lives were way too rich. The cholesterol level was unimaginable.”
American Boy: A Profile of: Steven Prince (1978) is a documentary Martin Scorsese produced about an ex-drug addict and road manager for Neil Diamond who portrayed a gun dealer in Taxi Driver. As Steve Prince talks about his family, the filmmaker intersperses home movie clips shot during Prince’s childhood. Some of the stories told have served as cinematic inspiration for the likes of Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) and Richard Linklater (Waking Life). During the opening credits, Time Fades Away by Neil Young is played. A sequel was released called American Prince (2009) which was helmed by Tommy Pallotta.
“I remember having read the book in California when I was finishing Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” recalled Martin Scorsese of the autobiography written by boxer Jake La Motta which was brought to his attention by Robert De Niro. “I also remember a long conversation with Bobby during a night in my office at Warner Bros.. Honestly, it wasn’t like a bolt of lightning. No matter what anyone claimed later, I didn’t even notice Jake’s opening line, ‘When my memories come back to me, I have the feeling that I’m watching an old film in black and white.’ My reasons for shooting in black and white have nothing to do with this quotation.” Contemplating his reasoning for not shooting in colour, the director stated, “Our memories of boxing from the 40s are in black and white, like the newsreels and photographs of that time.” Scorsese explained further, “The final reason was that several films on boxing were in preparation: The Champ , Rocky II , The Main Event , [and] Matilda . I wanted Raging Bull  to be very different visually and to evoke the admirable photography of James Wong Howe in Sweet Smell of Success .”
“Mardik did two and half years of research and interviews,” said Martin Scorsese. “He took off in all directions, and he even spent a year writing a play about Jake. The more eye witness accounts he got, the more things got mixed up.” The story became overly ambitious. “The script was way too long. Everything was there, Jake’s childhood, his father, the prison and even his testimony before the Kefauver Commission in New York – but I didn’t want to hear anything about any boxing matches!” A new structure had to be found so Scorsese recruited Paul Schrader to rewrite the script. “Schrader had the idea of opening with the speech on the stage and linking that to Jake’s first defeat, in Cleveland. An unjust and inexplicable defeat…The essential thing was for the audience to sympathize with Jake right away.” Concerned about making the main character unlikable, Scorsese decided to tone down the domestic violence. “Schrader had kept the scene in which Jake knocks out his first wife during a party and, thinking she’s dead, imagines different ways to get rid of the body…There was also a scene where his wife climbs up on the fender of his car to keep him from starting it. This violence came too early. I was happy with just the table overturned and a couple of swear words.”
“Here’s a man who is methodically destroying himself, who is pulling others down with him, who falls into the deepest hole – and who pulls himself up again,” stated Martin Scorsese in regards to what attracted him to produce the biopic. A major difference between the autobiography and the film is that the characters of Peter Savage and Jake’s brother Joey are combined into one character. Cast in the $18 million production are Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci (My Cousin Vinny), Cathy Moriarty (Casper), Frank Vincent (The Crew), Nicholas Colosanto (Family Plot), Mario Gallo (King Kong), Frank Adonis (Wall Street), Joseph Bono (Analyze That), Frank Topham, and Martin Scorsese. “The first match is the only one in which we used the reactions of the audience,” said the director as to how he constructed the boxing scenes. “The last meeting with Robinson is completely abstract. There are wide angle and foggy shots because at this stage no one is worrying about the punches which landed so well. The ring is twice as big as it was in reality. It’s not a matter of literally translating what Jakes sees and hears, but to present what the match means for him, all the while respecting as much as possible, the historical truth.” Scorsese carried on to say, “With the exception of the match against Dauthille, where we were outside the ropes, I was in the ring the whole time with the camera, just as attentive to the physical reality of the punches and the panting as I was to the psychological dimension of the encounter.” The choice not to film the movie in colour caused the filmmaker to improvise. “I had to use a lot of blood because we were shooting in black and white, but that’s just secondary. The real violence is inside.”
The first flashback being setoff with Jake La Motta practicing to That’s Entertainment was an act of serendipity. “We found it by accident one night at the editing table, when I was in despair about not being able to connect Jake’s bloated face of the 60s with his young face of the 40s,” recalled Martin Scorsese. “Two tracks accidentally overlapped and bang! The sound connected the two eras.” The principle photography went over budget with ten weeks of shooting fight scenes that in the end amounted to nine minutes of screen time. “I went through a serious crisis. I didn’t want to do the film any longer. ..Physically, I was also in terrible shape. I spent four days in the hospital hovering between life and death. I was lucky I survived.” Grossing $23 million domestically, Scorsese dedicated the film to his former NYU professor Haig Manoogian. “When I took his first course in the 60s…he gave me the energy to become a filmmaker.” Raging Bull won two Oscars for Best Actor (Robert De Niro) and Best Editing; it also contended for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Joe Pesci), Best Supporting Actress (Cathy Moriarty), Best Cinematography, Best Director, and Best Sound. At the BAFTAs, the boxing biopic was rewarded with Best Editing and Most Outstanding Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (Pesci) while competing for Best Actor (De Niro), and Most Outstanding Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (Moriarty). The Golden Globes honoured Robert De Niro with Best Actor – Drama as well as handing out nominations for Best Director, Best Picture – Drama, Best Supporting Actor (Pesci) and Best Supporting Actress (Moriarty). The New York Film Critics Circle Awards presented Robert De Niro with Best Actor and Joe Pesci with Best Supporting Actor. Martin Scorsese received a Directors Guild of America Award nomination and film editor Thelma Schoonmaker won the Eddie for Best Edited Feature Film from the American Cinema Editors. In 1990, Raging Bull was inducted into the National Film Registry.
Unwanted notoriety came to Martin Scorsese in 1981 when John Hinckley tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in an attempt to impressed actress Jodie Foster; he had been obsessed with her since seeing Taxi Driver. Fearing a violent public reaction to the revelation, the director attended the Academy Awards surrounded by undercover FBI agents. Interestingly, the next picture by Scorsese was about a struggling comedian who resorts to extreme measures in order to gain public attention.
The King of Comedy (1982) stars Robert De Niro as novice comedian Rupert Pupkin who kidnaps a famous talk show host played by Jerry Lewis (The Nutty Professor) in an attempt to get himself on television. “I can identify with Pupkin,” remarked Martin Scorsese who utilized static shots throughout the picture in an effort to simplify things. “It’s the same way I made my first pictures with no money and with the constant rejection – going back and going back until finally, somehow, you get a lucky break.” The moviemaker understands the destructive drive of the character. “I wanted to look at what it’s like to want something so badly you’d kill for it. By kill I don’t mean kill physically, but you can kill the spirit, you can kill relationships, you can kill everything else around you in your life.” Performing in the $20 million production with De Niro and Lewis are Sandra Bernhard (Hudson Hawk), Diahnne Abbott (Love Streams), and Shelley Hack (Annie Hall). The drama with the movie poster tagline “It’s no laughing matter.” grossed $3 million domestically. “A close friend of mine told me two months before the film was finished, ‘The buzz is bad.’ I hate that. When the buzz is bad, people don’t want to be associated with the picture. You feel totally abandoned. I must say, that was painful. Because the film came out and died in four weeks.” At the BAFTAs, The King of Comedy won Best Original Screenplay and contended for Best Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Supporting Actor (Jerry Lewis); it also received a Palme d’Or nomination at the Cannes Film Festival. The London Critics Circle Film Awards presented the movie with the ALFS Award for Film of the Year while the National Society of Film Critics Awards lauded Sandra Bernhard with Best Supporting Actress.
Breaking his streak of films with Robert De Niro as his leading man, Martin Scorsese selected Griffin Dunne (My Girl) to play the main character in After Hours (1985). The dark comedy follows Paul Hackett (Dunne) who experiences a series of misadventures and dangers while making his way home in New York City. The randomness of the events that occur in the movie that also stars Rosanna Arquette (The Whole Nine Yards), Verna Bloom (High Plains Drifter), Terri Garr (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), John Heard (The Pelican Brief), and Linda Fiorentino (The Last Seduction) is inspired by reality. “Violence has always been a pretty scary thing for me, but I’m fascinated by it, especially by the aimlessness of it,” remarked Scorsese. “It’s always erupting when you don’t expect it, particularly in a city like New York. You’re sitting in a restaurant, eating and suddenly a car crashes through the window and you’re dead. That’s happened several times in New York.” Made on a budget of $4.5 million, After Hours earned $11 million domestically. Rosanna Arquette was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the BAFTAs and Griffin Dunne contended for Best Actor – Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes. The Independent Spirit Awards lauded After Hours with Best Director and Best Feature as well as nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Female Lead (Arquette), and Best Screenplay. Success was found at the Cannes Film Festival where Martin Scorsese won Best Director and the film competed for the Palme d’Or. Complicating matters was a plagiarism lawsuit filed by radio artist Joe Frank who claimed portions of his NPR Playhouse monologue were used in the plot and dialogue of the movie. Never given official credit, Frank received a lucrative financial settlement.
Collaborating with colleague Steven Spielberg (War Horse), Martin Scorsese produced an episode of the NBC anthology television series Amazing Stories called Mirror, Mirror (1986). Sam Waterston (The Killing Fields) portrays an arrogant horror novelist who is pursued by a misshapen face which he can only see when looking at reflective surfaces. Performing with Waterston are Helen Shaver (Desert Hearts), Dick Cavett (Frequency), Tim Robbins (Bull Durham), Harry Northup (Bad Girls), Dana Gladstone (The Presidio) and Valerie Grear (Girls Just Want to Have Fun).
Attempting to try something creatively different, Martin Scorsese elected to helm a cinematic project featuring a Hollywood legend and a box office star.
Continue to part three.
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.