Back in the late ’70s, Martin Scorsese wasn’t sure he was going to reach the age of 40.
On the surface, this filmmaker’s life seemed charmed. Every serious actor wanted to work with him; “Taxi Driver” had won the Palme d’Or at Cannes; he had even accepted an Oscar, for Ellen Burstyn, whom he had directed in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”
But life in L.A. and his frenetic working habits were taking their toll on the New York transplant. The Southland climate exacerbated his asthma, while drug abuse and his outsized ego had distorted his judgment. He broke the first rule of filmmaking on “New York, New York”: he’d commenced production without a finished script. And the improvisational methods that had worked so well on films like “Alice” and “Mean Streets” were taken to extremes on the lavish musical, which stretched from an 11-week shoot to 20.
And yet, even at the peak of exhaustion and excess, his talent shone through. “The Last Waltz,” which Scorsese took on even while “New York, New York” was still filming, is arguably the greatest concert movie — after “Woodstock,” on which he served as assistant director. And “Raging Bull,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “GoodFellas” and “The Age of Innocence” had yet to be made.
Today, Scorsese is considered American cinema’s elder statesman. He’s more articulate about the medium than any living filmmaker, as his “A Personal Journey” and “My Voyage to Italy” attest.
In the fight for film preservation and artists’ rights, his name is the first on people’s lips. For these reasons and others, he might even be considered the poster boy for the Directors Guild of America, which is honoring him with its Lifetime Achievement Award. It’s his 12th career kudo, dating back to one he received from the American Cinematheque in 1991.
It’s not inconceivable that he’d start taking these things for granted by now. But for a man who seems to take bigger risks with each film he makes, he finds the recognition “encouraging” — from the DGA especially.
“For me it’s very, very important because it comes from the directors and the people who work on the films with you,” he says. “And also, I feel very close to the DGA in terms of the Film Foundation, preserving films, fighting for artists rights. I think it all comes together and I think that is why it’s special.”
Older and wiser
No longer the enfant terrible of American directors, Scorsese has mellowed. That’s not to say that he doesn’t thrive on chaos, or that his films are any less intense. His $100 million-plus “Gangs of New York,” originally slated for a holiday release in 2001, was mired in controversy during its epic shoot at Cinecitta Studios.
The reviews have been mixed, and the violence on the screen more palpable then ever. But his well-publicized battles with Miramax topper Harvey Weinstein have brought the creative community squarely on his side. Cinema’s misunderstood filmmaker has become the sentimental favorite in the mad race for Oscar glory, in which Scorsese has never basked.
Even Women in Film recently saluted the filmmaker, not exactly known for his sensitive treatment of the feminine psyche.
He’s wiser and calmer, as generous in his praise of younger filmmakers as he’s been with his heroes, like Elia Kazan and John Cassavetes; this from a man who was as responsible for the last great period of American filmmaking — the ’70s — as any living filmmaker.
“I feel there is a sort of renaissance in American cinema at the moment,” he offers. “Directors like Alexander Payne, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze — they are unique and original voices who are making films that have something to say. They are talking about the human condition. And the last time we saw that in America really was in the ’70s.”
Scorsese’s filmmaking has matured, too. The hyperactive camera movement and whiz-bang editing that characterized films like “GoodFellas,” “Casino,” “The Color of Money” and “Raging Bull” are largely absent from “Gangs of New York,” the more to absorb the period tableaus created by production designer Dante Ferretti and inspired by painters like Bruegel, Hogarth and Frans Hals.
“I really wanted to see the people in the context of where they lived,” Scorsese says. “The more I saw the light and the texture of the costumes and their faces, I didn’t feel I had to move the camera as much as I normally would.”
With its epic scope and its focus on Gotham as a bubbling cauldron of warring factions, it would seem that “Gangs” is a culmination of all the themes Scorsese has explored in the wiseguy movies that he set in his hometown.
“If it is a culmination,” he says, “it couldn’t have been made without making the other movies. This is more something I had to do to complete those films, in a way.”
When it’s offered that Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher appears an amalgamation of all the great Warner Bros. gangster anti-heroes — Cagney’s Cody Jarrett, Edward G. Robinson’s Johnny Rocco, Bogart’s Roy “Mad Dog” Earl — Scorsese says it was a conscious decision to make the character larger than life.
“He would have to be, so that people knew that when somebody got their head broken by Bill the Butcher, he would have to show everyone that he did it. Don’t forget that there was no TV, video, radio or any other way of communication other than, as Bill said, ‘through fearsome acts.’ ”
Despite the increasing scale of his projects — the next is “Aviator,” with “Gangs” star Leonardo Di Caprio as Howard Hughes — Scorsese, with nary a blockbuster to his credit, still works like an independent filmmaker working within the studio system. He points to Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,” “East of Eden,” “A Face in the Crowd” and “America, America” as the models for what he’s been trying to do all along.
“I was influenced by his mixing of extraordinary internal, emotional and psychological depth with what looks to be a very controlled and rigorous Hollywood film,” he says. “For me, you have to take from the masters. You make it your own if you can, and sometimes even though you are trying to make it like them, it comes out your own way.”