After two decades of false starts and near misses, the director can now look forward to shooting his long-gestating adaptation of Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo’s novel next summer.
The project, which also will feature Ken Watanabe, is sure to catch the attention of international distributors at the upcoming Cannes market, which marks a new experience for the director, who has headed the Cannes jury and presented four movies in competition.
Sinking into a sofa in his midtown Manhattan office on a recent morning, Scorsese reflected on the planned pic, which he holds particularly dear to his heart. The subject matter — the very roots of religious faith — has long fascinated him, from his childhood aspiration to the priesthood to his controversial screen adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ “The Last Temptation of Christ,” released in 1988.
“It’s something that has always been part of my life,” he says. “It’s difficult for people to understand who are not part of that world that I grew up in, which was Roman Catholicism in New York City in the 1950s. I was impressed enough to try to become part of that world, and realized at the age of 15 or 16 that it was much tougher, much more complicated than I thought … in terms of vocation.”
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Garfield will star as Father Rodrigues, a 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit who travels to Japan with a fellow priest amid rumors that Rodrigues’ mentor has abandoned the Church. It is a moment of religious persecution in the Asian nation, with Christians forced to practice their faith clandestinely. Watanabe will portray the priests’ interpreter, alongside a Japanese cast that includes Issei Ogata (who played Emperor Hirohito in Alexander Sokurov’s “The Sun”). As with “Temptation of Christ” and his 1997 Dalai Lama biopic “Kundun,” a box office dud, the commercial prospects for Scorsese’s latest passion project are challenging.
Scorsese admits that the mostly Japanese-language production is meant for a smaller audience than his hits “Shutter Island,” “The Departed” and “The Aviator,” but suggests, “Then again, it’s a thriller. Thriller meaning they are undercover,” he says. “I’m interested in this, whether it’s undercover priests or undercover cops.”
Location scouting is still under way for the production, which is being co-financed by Emmett/Furla Films and Belgian producer Paul Breuls’ Corsan Films. Scorsese hints that a veteran collaborator, singer-songwriter Robbie Robertson, may come onboard for the soundtrack.
“He and I started talking about this a year and a half ago, before I started ‘Wolf,’ about ideas for certain kinds of sounds,” said Scorsese, who is busy editing his latest film “The Wolf of Wall Street,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
The helmer first read Endo’s novel 25 years ago, when Archbishop Paul Moore sent it to him following a screening of “Last Temptation of Christ” held for New York religious readers. He recalls being struck by the book’s “complex simplicity,” and its sense of “cutting away all the trappings, cutting away the dogma, cutting away everything and dealing with the very essence of … you could say Christianity, you could say Jesus.” Added the director: “It seems to have been a great idea, but can it be implemented? And if it is, it seems that it has to be on an individual level, in how one behaves, in how one treats other people in one’s own lives.” (Curiously, Scorsese, a voracious cinephile, admits he never saw the 1971 Japanese film version of “Silence,” directed by nonagenarian Masahiro Shinoda.)
Almost immediately after reading the book, Scorsese began working on an adaptation with frequent screenwriting partner Jay Cocks, but other projects interrupted the process, and the script wasn’t completed until 1996. By then, Scorsese observes, “the landscape of Hollywood had changed.”
His most recent picture at the time, “Casino,” had performed solidly at the box office ($116 million worldwide), and was made with the full support of its studio backer, Universal Pictures. “But ultimately, when the film was released, it was clear that it no longer pays for studios that are owned by major corporations to make a $50-$60 million profit on a movie,” Scorsese said. “They want to make more. So that was the end of that kind of picture for me.”
In the two decades since, Scorsese, like many of his generational colleagues (Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin), has depended largely on independent financing, much of it from longtime patron Graham King, who produced/and or co-financed “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator,” “The Departed” and “Hugo.” King has a stake in “Silence,” which he helped shepherd since 2001, but his ultimate involvement in the production is uncertain. “It’s an issue of what makes sense at that time,” said Scorsese, whose frequent collaborator Emma Koskoff (a producer on “Wolf of Wall Street” and executive producer on “Hugo”) will produce “Silence,” along with Irwin Winkler, Randall Emmett, George Furla, Vittorio Cecchi Gori and Barbara De Fina.
Asked whether he has any hesitation making a film about Catholicism at a moment when the Catholic Church has been making its most unflattering headlines since the reformation, Scorsese said: “Not at all. Certainly, it’s a religious subject, but the mystery that I’m talking about, Rodrigues’ conflict with himself, and the essence of Christianity — which is something I believe in strongly — is timeless, and has to do with who we are as human beings.”