Director still passionate about protecting film history

Martin Scorsese recently spoke with Variety’s Christy Grosz about his passion for film preservation and why it’s a vital issue for Hollywood.

Grosz: You used to be one of the few people sounding the alarm for film preservation. Has that changed? What do people in the film industry need to do to ensure that we don’t continue to lose films to history?

Scorsese: We need to remember that the loss of over 75% of silent cinema to deterioration isn’t just a matter of rhetoric or propaganda – that’s for real. We need to remember that films are being lost all the time, and that we only find out that they’re lost after the fact: They don’t explode, they just quietly deteriorate. We need to remember, as I said before, that the work is constant and not at all glamorous. For every success story like the discovery and restoration of the John Ford silent picture “Upstream,” there are thousands of other pictures that need to be located, or properly restored, or preserved, or all of the above. In short, we need to remember, period. And we need to act, without waiting for someone else to do it.

CG: Many of your films are about obsessed men, from “Raging Bull” through “Shutter Island.” Do Hugo’s obsessions fit in with that?

MS: Sure. In “Hugo,” there are two obsessions: Hugo’s and Melies’. Hugo is obsessed with solving the mystery and uncovering the secret, and Melies is obsessed with burying the past and maintaining the secret, and that is born of another obsession: the obsession of cinema and the shame of being cast away and forgotten.

CG: You helped revitalize audience interest in the films of Michael Powell, whose trajectory could be compared in certain aspects to Melies’ in “Hugo.” How much of you is in “Hugo?”

MS: You never really know how much of yourself you’ve put into a character. Or at least I don’t. You just make the movie, and then other people tell you. Obviously there are exceptions. I’ve made pictures that are more explicitly autobiographical, but I find it interesting when people see parallels with my life in the films I make. The parallels with Hugo himself seem obvious, particularly in relation to my friendship with Michael and my involvement with film history. But ultimately, it’s much more mysterious than that. And the truth is that I see aspects of myself in many of the characters.

CG: A lot of people in Hollywood think they know a lot about film history. What is the aspect of it that most people don’t know but that they need to know?

MS: That it always has to be reclaimed, retaught; that the battle is never over. People imagine there’s an end point, but there really isn’t. Why? Because we live in an economically driven world, and from a strictly economic standpoint, restoring and preserving old movies is not a top priority. If you’re thinking in terms of morality and culture, that’s another matter entirely. But it takes a lot of effort to steer the conversation in that direction, and the effort is constant, because it’s always going to veer back toward the bottom line. Right now, the battle has to be waged on new fronts. For instance, the repertory cinema circuit is in serious trouble. There are fewer and fewer prints. Some of the companies are reluctant to make DCPs (digital cinema packages) due to the cost, and many of the theaters can’t afford DCP projection systems. And then, of course, there is always a new generation of kids who don’t know and who are interested in movies but who have no idea who Lubitsch or Hawks or Satyajit Ray are. And each new generation is a little more distant from the beginnings of cinema, from the heyday of the Hollywood studios, from Italian neorealism and the French new wave, and now from the ’90s, when the consciousness of film preservation had really taken hold.

CG: You’ve said you made “Hugo” for your daughter. Did this experience make you want to do more family films or did it make you want to do something entirely different?

MS: Ultimately, there are only projects that interest me and projects that don’t. That’s it. Now, I’ve come across some projects that I find very exciting and that I can imagine someone else doing a beautiful job with, but they don’t interest me. In the case of “Hugo,” yes, it was a family picture, but that was secondary. It sparked something in me, and I found myself driven to make it.

CG: Some filmmakers think 3D is good for every film, but Steven Spielberg says it has to be used selectively. Where are you on this issue?

MS: I agree with Steven. I had always been interested in 3D, and I thought it made sense for “Hugo.” Generally, whenever there’s a new technological development, there’s a corresponding sense of excitement. The same thing happened with the introduction of three-strip Technicolor and CinemaScope and Dolby. And then everyone remembers it’s only a means, not an end. Real 3D is beautiful, but it’s just one choice, one tool among many, and you only want to use it if it’s the right tool.

CG: Do you have any desire to do “Silence” or “Sinatra” in 3D?

MS: Yes. I’m considering the possibility.

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