Martin Scorsese revisited some of his most iconic films Saturday in a master class at Brown U, reflecting with Paramount prexy John Lesher on his signature style, the spirit of improvisation with Robert De Niro, some of his early studio encounters and his efforts to preserve film history.
The line for Scorsese’s master class, part of Brown’s seventh-anniversary Ivy Film Festival, snaked a thick S over the university’s manicured lawns, with many attendees filing in from an earlier campus screening of Scorsese’s Rolling Stones doc “Shine a Light.”
Lesher (Scorsese’s former agent for “The Aviator” and “The Departed”) served as moderator, introducing his “film teacher and film god,” as the crowd rose, cheering.
The following is an edited excerpt of their discussion:
To illustrate the filmmaker’s use of improvisation, Lesher played a clip from 1973’s “Mean Streets” with Robert De Niro’s monologue of excuses to Harvey Keitel.
Scorsese: De Niro understood the nature of the character he was playing. We rehearsed the scene with improvisation, but when we were shooting, I forgot my notes, so De Niro went with it from memory. It’s like jazz riffs the way they go back and forth. The idea of letting it play out I got from Cassavetes and John Ford films. We shot it in two hours with two cameras; I edited it myself. It was a six-minute scene people told me to cut to two. Cassavetes said don’t cut a frame. That’s the scene that sold it to Warner Bros. People walked in and out, ordering lunch, until that scene.
Scorsese: I tried to make one picture where I just showed up on set without knowing what to do, just improvise.
Lesher: How did that work out?
Scorsese: It didn’t.
Currently lensing “Shutter Island,” the filmmaker has plans to do docs about British cinema, Elia Kazan and George Harrison.
Scorsese: Documentaries give me a sense of freedom, of breaking away from narrative structure and conventional dramaturgy. … Godard said every movie should have a beginning, middle and an end — but not necessarily in that order. Documentary frees me. We can jump cut, cut to black, put a title up, who cares?
A clip rolls from 1990’s “Goodfellas” with De Niro at the bar while “Sunshine of Your Love” plays.
Scorsese: I knew I had to shoot that scene in slow motion. De Niro did something with his eyes, he gave a look. … “Why do I have to share the money, why should I share with anybody, let’s kill ‘em all.” I heard that song in my head. I had the music worked out in advance, but I said let’s try Clapton’s guitar here, and we synced it to his look and let it roll out.
Lesher: What about the use of freeze frame?
Scorsese: I was trying to play with the grammar. It would be wonderful to find a new way to tell a story, the grammar of a film. I don’t know if I can; maybe it’s not for me.
Next a clip from 1976’s “Taxi Driver” with De Niro prepping for a killing spree.
Scorsese: I couldn’t see myself using a traditional score. The music I heard growing up … was the soundtrack for the film, and the character had to be turned on to that music. Travis Bickle didn’t listen to music — perfect reason to bring in a score. First time I worked with an original score.
Brian De Palma had given Scorsese the script, but Columbia TriStar execs rejected him until they saw “Mean Streets.”
Scorsese: The budget was low, about $1 million and two. Schrader’s script was so good we rarely improvised, except for De Niro came up with that business of “Are you talking to me.” Myself and De Niro, we simply felt a kinship; we empathized with Travis … but what makes a person cross a line? We’re doing a film now of doctors who deal with people who are criminally insane for 20 years. I don’t know if I have that kind of compassion.
I didn’t think “Taxi Driver” was going to be a big hit. Next I was going to make a musical, “New York, New York,” and it was supposed to be a big hit. Whenever I try to make a movie for a certain market, I don’t know how to do it.
Up next, a clip from 2002’s “Gangs of New York”
Scorsese: I admire a lot of Kubrick’s films. He almost has the person as if they’re looking right in the lense … it doesn’t let you off the hook, and there’s no music in there to let you off the hook.
Lesher: We’re going to move onto action in your movies.
Scorsese: What, this has all been boring? Studios, they all want action. “Where’s the action, Marty?”
A clip from 1980’s “Raging Bull,” where De Niro’s Jake LaMotta finally loses.
Scorsese: I got this idea for long lenses, all coordinated to the choreography of the boxing moves. We had VHS then. I could watch the fight first. I translated the punches to bars of music; the actual beating, where he’s on the ropes and there’s an extraordinary bunch of images, I based it on the shower scene in “Psycho.” From one shot to 33 based on the shower scene. Just the one flurry of images took 10 days; the rest of the fight took another five days.
I talked to Norman Mailer, said I was gonna do LaMotta’s story but without the boxing scenes. Mailer said you gotta do the boxing scenes. I saw Mailer a few years after the movie came out; he said he didn’t like the boxing scenes.
Wrapping up the day, Scorsese spoke of his crusade for film preservation.
Scorsese: I have boxes of films, a cardboard box that says “Citizen Kane” sits in the corner. The insurance companies would only insure the celluloid and the reel, so “Citizen Kane” is worth $20. It’s certainly not going to last unless we take extraordinary measures.
Scorsese then took a few aud questions:
… about working with actors.
Scorsese: I usually say to an actor, let me see … you never know where you’re gonna go, you have to be totally wrong before you’re right.
… and working with the Stones.
Scorsese: It’s a matter of holding a shot. You open up your left eye and see something else… but have the guts to hold on what you frame and go with it. Feel the music. If you don’t like that kind of music, you shouldn’t be shooting it.
After the lecture, the crowd filed out, bubbling over what they’d seen and heard. For Scorsese, it was back to “Shutter Island.”