Playboy - January 2003
Interview with Martin Corsese

 

 

Birth of the Mob

by Michael Fleming

 

Martin Scorsese has been one of America's most celebrated directors for 30 years. He's stayed on the fringe of the Hollywood system, avoiding the temptation to make blockbuster films in favor of smaller, personal statements that have won him a loyal following. Now, the director is ready to supersize his artistic vision. For 25 years, Scorsese had a dream project--Gangs of New York. It's the ultimate mobster story--familiar turf for the man who gave us Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino--focusing on the birth of organized crime in New York. Set in the 1860s, Gangs tells the tale of a city fought over by battle-scarred gangs with names like the Plug Uglies. Scorsese uses this historical backdrop to tell the fictional story of Amsterdam, an Irish street tough (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) bent on avenging his gang-leader father's murder by ruthless rival Bill the Butcher (played by Daniel Day-Lewis). To make a film of such epic proportions, Scorsese had to leave behind the world of small-budget films and join with Miramax Studios for a $90 million budget. It wasn't an easy transition. The director engaged in a public struggle with Miramax head Harvey Weinstein over delays, running time and costs. The violent subject matter--much darker than most big-budget films--added to the problems, especially when Miramax decided to postpone the film's opening by a year after the September 11 attack, fearing audiences weren't ready for a New York wracked by violence. Scorsese is used to battled, and he isn't about to let his 25-year obsession hit the screens without a spirited defense.

 

PLAYBOY: Your clashes with Miramax and Harvey Weinstein were big enough to warrant a front-page New York Times article. How bad was it?

SCORSESE: Maybe this says something about The New York Times, but the picture was locked two days before that story appeared. George Lucas called me the day after it ran. He said, "Marty, they're saying it's a big movie, you needed more money and scheduling, the producer and the studio said you couldn't have it. Then you work it all out. How is that different from every other movie?"

PLAYBOY: Why has this film taken so long?

SCORSESE: People have gotten impatient with me over the years about Gangs, but it took me time to sort through it. The motor of the movie was always a young man avenging his father's death. I was more interested in using revenge to focus on the development of a young boy into a man. I wanted to complicate that emotionally. His father was a great figure of the Irish gangs, killed ritualistically by his rival, Bill the Butcher. Bill is such a feared presence in the community that it would be important that Amsterdam avenge his father where everyone would see it. So he has to get close to him and become almost like a son.

PLAYBOY: Do you see yourself in any of your characters?

SCORSESE: The Bill character is so out there. In part, it's about Bill getting older. It's like me sitting here, tell you that at the age of 59, I don't listen to new music or rush out to see the new film everyone is talking about. I prefer not to hear anything about a film, I just don't like all the hype.

PLAYBOY: But Gangs is a big-budget film, and you can't sell a big-budget film without hype.

SCORSESE: There is just too much talk. Everybody knows everything about these movies. I want to be surprised. I wouldn't want to know that Gangswas shot in Rome. The rationale is that they are selling the picture, but you know the real reason? They've got all this junk time to fill on cable and satellite TV. There is nothing of any substance and so there are all these secrets being give to the viewer, even though you'd enjoy the picture more if you didn't know what was going to happen. The title Gangs of New York conveys where it is, but when the picture opens, you don't see the title and I don't say it's in New York until after 15 minutes into the film. I try to convey the impression it could be medieval England, some postapocalyptic world, you don't know. Then, a shot that rises from the ground and goes all the way up into the air, looking down on the geography as it says, "New York City, 1846." That'll get a big laugh from New Yorkers, particularly after the violent sequence that preceded it. But that surprise is all gone now, because there is so much airtime that has to be filled, and you don't want it going to other films. So you reveal all your secrets.

PLAYBOY: Do you still go to the movies?

SCORSESE: I'm getting older, and I feel older. I don't really know how to go about it. Buy a ticket, wait in line? I don't feel the need to.

PLAYBOY: Don't you need to remain in tune with audiences?

SCORSESE: I don't know if I want to be in tune with an audience going to a blockbuster. I go to one of these multiplexes in Los Angeles if they're playing certain independent films. But I have stopped going in New York for quite a few years. A lot of the theaters I felt comfortable in are gone. I watch movies in my screening room and distributors are kind enough to lend a print they're not using. But I mostly watch older, foreign films.

PLAYBOY: Why was there so much focus on the problems around Gangs if it was part of the usual give-and-take?

SCORSESE: I can tell you why. Harvey is good with the media. He likes it. It's part of who he is. But Harvey's enthusiasm feeds the media and sets expectations. He said the picture is coming out on Christmas 2001. He really wanted that I really tried. But the first responsibility you have is to make the best possible movie you can. The media have fixated on the film because he has spoken about it a lot. He announced it a number of time. I haven't.

PLAYBOY: This seems to be a new experience for you.

SCORSESE: What he was saying in public, other studio people in my other movies told me privately. The reality is, this was no worse than Goodfellas, which was not made on an epic scale. I finished shooting August 23, 1989--I'll never forget it, because I had Akira Kurosawa waiting for me to play Van Gogh in his movie Dreams. I was 15 days late on my movie, but nobody in the media was monitoring Goodfellas. This 80-year-old man I admired, Kurosawa, had finished Dreams and he was waiting for me. I'll never forget the anxiety I felt finishing that film, which Warner Bros. then released in October 1990. Proportionately, it's the same as Gangs of New York, because after September 11 happened, we postponed our opening a full year.

PLAYBOY: You decided that the depiction of anarchy in New York City, even in the 19th century, was inappropriate two months after the World Trade Center attack?

SCORSESE: Harvey and I didn't feel that it was right, so we slowed down. The only difference between Gangs and Goodfellas is that with Gangs, all the conversations you have with the studio, producers, agents or managers that used to be private are now public. Imagine that in a marriage. But it's Harvey's personality, he knows how to work the media, and if he says put it out at Christmas, fine. I have no idea when to release a movie. A couple of time I had direct input in how to release a film and what the PR campaign should be. It worked out terribly. I ruined Mean Streets.

PLAYBOY: How?

SCORSESE: We got good reviews at the New York Film Festival in 1973, and Warner Bros. wanted to play it in one theater in New York, then open it here and there. But because the review were so good, I thought we should follow the pattern of Five Easy Pieces, a previous festival hit. Open it in five cities, one theater each, immediately. I pressed for that, they did it. And nobody went to see it. It needed nurturing. They got it in New York and Los Angeles, but they weren't amused in Texas. Then when Taxi Driver came along, I thought of it as a labor of love nobody was going to see. We'd had problems with censorship, the studio got mad at me because they'd been threatened with an X rating. I loved this Belgian artist and wanted him to make a painting that would be the poster for Taxi Driver. It was beautiful and I loved it. The studio made a B-movie poster, just black and white, Bob De Niro walking up Eighth Avenue, a porn theater behind him and it said, "In every city, there's one." I hated that poster, but it was the one that sold the picture. So it behooves me to listen to people who know about marketing. If Harvey wanted to open Gangs of New York on the moon during the vernal equinox, or time it with a celebration of the birth of Apollo, it would be OK with me.

PLAYBOY: Usually the directors of big-budget movies make piles of money. Is it true you gave back your money?

SCORSESE: Well, Leo and I did put money into the picture. I gave back most of my salary, which I'd never done before.

PLAYBOY: Will you make money if the film is a hit?

SCORSESE: I'm not even thinking of that. The die is cast. It was in my mind only to get the best possible picture on the screen. I hope to start another picture in February, so let's put the word out right now. I am ready to work, who wants to hire me? I'd like to be paid this time. I'm not asking a lot, I'd just like to be paid. I've stood in economic danger a little too long. I didn't really get much of a salary on The Last Temptation of Christ or After Hours. For a while, I was talking about steady television producing. I tried, but I'm more interested in making documentaries about film that might though some young actors, writers and directors who didn't know about De Sica's Bicycle Theif or Ermanno Olmi's The Fiances.

PLAYBOY: There's no money in documentaries. Sounds like you're on your way to becoming a nonprofit organization.

SCORSESE: You're telling me. But I want to do what's right. I don't care about the money at this point, only enough so that I can live. I have a little family. I've always been that way.

PLAYBOY: Why did you settle on DiCaprio as the linchpin for Gangs?

SCORSESE: De Niro had told me about him, after working with him on This Boy's Life. Bob doesn't mention many names, so when he does, it registers. Then, Titanic and he was fine in what that was, a phenomenon. The DiCaprio I was thinking of was from What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, This Boy's Life, Total Eclipse. And if Titanic helped the bankability that I needed on Gangs, then fine.

PLAYBOY: How important is bankability?

SCORSESE: It is interesting. When I tried to do The Last Temptation of Christ, it was suggested to me that certain actors who were bankable in Europe could get the money to make the movie. I didn't do it because the actors mentioned didn't feel right to me. Leo was different. I remembered what Bob had told me and my reaction to his performances. Bankability came after that.

PLAYBOY: You coaxed Daniel Day-Lewis out of semi-retirement to play Bill the Butcher. It seems the kind of role you usually had De Niro play.

SCORSESE: Maybe I was thinking that way at one point, years ago. Bob De Niro and I still associate together constantly. We did our important work together in the Seventies, from Taxi Driver to Raging Bull. Following The King of Comedy, everything changed. He started to make different kinds of stories and films. The industry changed, too. Directors had been given giant bugets for their own personal statements, and that all stopped.

PLAYBOY: That happened around the time of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, which almost bankrupted a studio. Have you seen the power shift from auteurs to stars?

SCORSESE: It was a horrible thing for me and guys like Mike Cimino. It's all gone now and a lot of people who were involved then are gone. But in the case of Cimino, it was also the critics who helped destroy the cinema of the director, the way they attacked Heaven's Gate. The honeymoon was over.

PLAYBOY: Now the tide is moving in the opposite direction. Studios are less interested in giving big bucks to actors to make derivative blockbusters.

SCORSESE: That may be a good thing. Maybe it can come back the other way. Take some of these young directors, like Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Chris Nolan, Peter Jackson and Baz Luhrmann. Maybe this group can bring it back. I hope they can get their budgets and use them wisely. Because some of us didn't.

PLAYBOY: Is that why you and De Niro haven't done a picture since Casino?

SCORSESE: We had explored a lot of who we were. He went off and made his other movies and I had to find my way. We check in with each other, I value his opinion. I've had him read scripts for me, he gives me scripts to read. Cape Fear is a good example of a thing I didn't think I would want to do, which Bob and Steven Spielberg pushed me to do. I've got him to do Casino, but by that point we were ready to do different things. We're still like family. I just went to his 59th birthday party. There was Harvey Keitel and his wife, Chris Walken, Chazz Palminteri, all these kids running around, birthday cakes--it was an extraordinary family reunion.

PLAYBOY: How do you explain your creative partnership with De Niro?

SCORSESE: Maybe Bob was an emotional or psychological double. We never really dissected or analyzed it. We didn't need to with Taxi Driver--we considered Paul Schrader's script sancrosanct. New York, New York, we explored a lot of things, to the point of hysteria. Looking back, I don't think that was the right way to go about it, but at the time I didn't know the right way. And I couldn't have made Raging Bull or The King of Comedy or Goodfellas without having gone through that process. Raging Bull was generated by De Niro and I didn't want anything to do with it because I'm not a sports person. I found that character on my own terms and though we never expressed it, we knew there was a total emotional and psychological compatibility. I look back now, and realize he is me in the movie. I'm sure Bob feels it's him. Mean Streets was different, that was a character we both knew from the neighborhood. Back then, the person I did feel was an alter ego for me was Harvey Keitel, whom I met in 1965. With Harvey, Bob and me, there's something very close. I don't know how to deal with it, I don't know what it is. It's very emotional.

PLAYBOY: Were you at all surprised that De Niro found a second and more lucrative career as a comic actor in films like Analyze This?

SCORSESE: Oh, no. I think he always had a great sense of humor.

PLAYBOY: Daniel Day-Lewis had basically give up acting when you brought him back to play a villain in Gangs. How did you lure him back?

SCORSESE: It was a combination of me, Harvey and Leo. Daniel and I had developed an interesting relationship making The Age of Innocence. That film was all undercurrent. They barely moved their faces, but I had to have him betray his emotion in ways that would remain classy in that world. He showed it. Frame by frame, an eyebrow raised here, another subtlety there. The undercurrent of his emotional conflict was so powerful that it was quite a good experience.

PLAYBOY: This role is exactly the opposite of that.

SCORSESE: He is way out there on this one. If he's displeased, he will tell you, or you will see it in his eyes. Or his eye, because he only has one that works. I told him about the project, but I wasn't going to push Daniel to do anything. We met two or three days, had dinners with Leo and Harvey. Whatever he was feeling about filmmaking itself or his past work, it seemed he wasn't getting what he wanted out of it creatively.

PLAYBOY: He's a hard-core Method actor who stays in character until a film wraps. Playing a barely controlled psychopath must have been tougher for him than an actor who lets go after each take.

SCORSESE: Some people, that's the only way they know how to do it. So it has to be spent wisely, not thrown away. We made him feel we really wanted him. The last day, I was showing him some stills from this research book we had. I was turning the pages, and just happened on one with an engraving of Bill "the Butcher" Poole, 1856. It was done for his death after he was killed by an Irishman. He looked just like Daniel would have, if he had a handlebar mustache. I said, look at this. He still wanted to think about it. I think he had to ask his wife. He gets so into a role that it affects the people around him. He had a little boy at the time, and just had another baby. People told me that he stays in the character. Once he became Bill, he stayed Bill, on camera and off. He'd speak with Bill's accent, discuss things in Bill's tone and from Bill's point of view.

PLAYBOY: Bill is serious and deadly in the script. Did you have to give Daniel as Bill a wide berth?

SCORSESE: No, he had a good sense of humor. It may be hard for an actor working that way to sustain a rage presented a certain way, with some decorum and inner strength. You'll see that in one particular scene with Daniel and John C. Reilly. They're alone in a bar. You can see the containment of the rage and anger and how it comes out. And how, with humor he pulls it back in. But the humor itself is dangerous. For a person to live in that frame of mind, day and night, that's pretty taxing.

PLAYBOY: Many people credit you with taking screen violence to new levels with movies like Casino.

SCORSESE: But the violence I do in my pictures is not pretty, and it is usually based on reality. I think the last work I could have on violence, what I really think about it, is the ending of Casino, where Joe Pesci and his brother are killed with baseball bats in the cornfield. That was based on a real story and signified the end of a lifestyle of excessive behavior, greed, gangsters. What worries me more is the sanitizing of the violence. You have to go further with each blockbuster. If there's one car being crashed, the you have to go three, then 10, then hundreds. Then whole cities come down. How far are you going to go before the audience is satisfied? I'm an ancient-history buff, I love to read about civilizations rising, and why they fall. When the Roman Empire couldn't sustain its economic expansion, they put the games in the Colosseum as big PR. People couldn't go out of Rome, so they brought in all these exotic animals and captives. Saying, "We're so big we could get this ostrich from North Africa, and we can get 1000 of them and kill them all in one day." That glorification of excess is dangerous.

PLAYBOY: When you did a Playboy Interview in 1991, you seemed to be a self-tortured guy. As you near 60, has that changed?

SCORSESE: That was after Cape Fear. I'm still a pain in the neck to myself, I really am. But I appreciate certain gifts, like the ability to make movies I wanted to make that weren't box-office blockbusters. Each film is a struggle. I can't complain. In my personal life, I have a wife and a new child and that has mellowed me. I look back at other big changes in my life. The passing of my parents in 1993 and 1997. My problems are my own and they have to do with whether or not I can do something of value. I don't want to just go to work, though as I've told you, I have to. But I'm not like those great old Hollywood directors who would get a job and go make a pirate film, then a musical.

PLAYBOY: Was Gangs of New York your hardest struggle?

SCORSESE: That had to be The Last Temptation of Christ. We had little budget, and it was by far the worst shoot you could think of. There are a couple of pretty good scenes and the actors were great, but I'm still not satisfied because I don't even feel like I completed that film, honestly. We had to release it a couple of months early because of the controversy and never color-corrected it properly.

PLAYBOY: You have mined your own Catholic guilt in films from Mean Streets to Last Temptation. As someone who nearly became a priest, how do you think Catolics reconcile the pedophilia scandals?

SCORSESE: That's a tough one, but remember, priests are human beings, too. One has to be careful and not reflect too much on the idea of what church is. We're finding that as many priests as had problems, the majority try to help. There was one who came to my parish at 21 who changed out lives and opened our minds to the rest of the world. He said, "You don't have to live like this, this ghettoized thinking of a Sicilian American community. There's a world out there." The priests who fell in the current situation fell badly. But the real problem is the institution. The anger you have is toward the institution that covered it up. The American Catholic Church's image was Bing Crosby in Going My Way. To have that image shattered, it destroys part of our innocence. That's enough now. America has got to grow up. When you have a man-made institution, there's going to be corruption. The conflict is your gullibility in wanting to believe. What really counts is action, and in the places I've seen, the actions have been pretty good. But as an institution, the cover-up is horrible and has to do with politics within the institution itself. The scandal is horrible, but the Vatican and the whole church are going to have to change because of it.

Thanks a lot to Arnzilla and Shaolin !

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