Today, nobody thinks twice about film school as a path to directing, but Jay Cocks remembers a time when the very idea of teaching such a trade seemed preposterous, even risible. Back in those days, Cocks was working as a reporter for Time magazine, where his editor assigned him to look into the phenomenon, a hunt that led him to a motor-mouthed movie buff — and recent NYU grad — named Martin Scorsese.
“We immediately became friends because of the holy communion of movies,” Cocks says. “I found in him someone who loved movies even more than I did and had seen even more than I had — and I thought I’d seen a lot.”
Scorsese’s career-long editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, was similarly impressed when she met the director a few years earlier. She had responded to an ad in the paper for a six-week summer course at NYU, where Scorsese was putting the finishing touches on his first short, “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?”
“I wasn’t even on his film, but someone had butchered his negative, and they needed someone who knew something about negative cutting to help him fix it,” she says.
After graduating, Scorsese and Schoonmaker cemented their friendship working on the Oscar-winning documentary “Woodstock” and other projects with former NYU classmates Michael Wadleigh and John Binder.
“Marty had already been watching the films of the masters that went before him on television from a very young age, so he was incredibly knowledgeable and able to express his thoughts about filmmaking and what he hoped to do as a director,” says Schoonmaker, who credits Scorsese with teaching her everything she knows about editing. “He’s such a great teacher because what he does is excites you and makes you want to run out and watch movies.”
It was the late ’60s — an exciting time to be living in New York City for hungry young film fans. Every week seemed to bring fresh offerings from the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and the French New Wave, and the young cineastes spent their evenings between the New Yorker and the Thalia moviehouses on Gotham’s Upper West Side devouring the latest offerings.
Cocks remembers Scorsese tagging along for nearly all the press screenings he attended. “Marty can find something positive in almost any movie,” the former film critic says. “His incredible eye and generosity of spirit toward almost any filmmaker really moderated my Time-magazine wise-guy instincts. There are a lot of movies that got the benefit of Marty’s input to me, movies that I might have dismissed or had little patience for.”
Because Scorsese had started to make movies and Cocks wanted to write them, “we connived to get the rights to a book called Time Out of Joint’ by a then-unheard-of science-fiction writer named Philip K. Dick, and we would sit in my office at Time and cook up scenes,” he recalls. “All the ones that Marty and I hook up with seem to be decades in the making,” says Cocks, who is currently adapting Shusaku Endo’s “Silence,” about a Jesuit missionary in 17th-century Japan, for the director.
In 1971, Scorsese moved to California to work on “Medicine Ball Caravan.” Cocks introduced him to John Cassavetes, who admired Scorsese’s feature debut “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” and, after seeing his Roger Corman-produced exploitation pic “Boxcar Bertha,” advised the young talent to make more personal films — encouragement that catalyzed his semiautobiographical breakthrough, “Mean Streets.”
While living in Los Angeles, Scorsese continued to gorge on classic cinema. “Back at LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), when he was going there a lot, he was starting to see films that were fading and turning pink, and he was very upset about it, so he began asking questions,” explains Schoonmaker, whose non-union status prevented her from collaborating with Scorsese again until “Raging Bull.”
By that time, Scorsese had become so passionate about the need for film preservation that he used the “Raging Bull” publicity tour to speak all over the world about the urgent need to salvage disintegrating films. As Scorsese’s star rose, he leveraged his profile to champion the helmers who came before, whether that meant establishing the Film Foundation to salvage endangered classics or tracking down and meeting with the filmmakers who had personally inspired him.
In the mid-’70s, Scorsese traveled to England to find Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, helping to restore their standing — not to mention their films, culminating in the 2009 Cannes bow of three-strip Technicolor classic “The Red Shoes.” He even introduced Schoonmaker to Powell, whom she married.
As it happens, the matchmaker was also present for Cocks’ first date with future wife Verna Bloom. “We went to a movie, naturally,” Cocks says. “It was a Susan Sontag movie called ‘Duet for Cannibals.’ Two out of three of us fell asleep in the movie. Guess which of the three remained awake.”
What: L.A. County Museum of Art CEO Michael Govan hosts a chat with Martin Scorsese
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Bing Theater, LACMA