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Martin Scorsese on ‘The Irishman’: Netflix Is ‘Taking Risks’

Martin Scorsese tackled a range of subjects during a discussion on stage at the Marrakech Intl. Film Festival Sunday, including the contribution to cinema of streamers like Netflix, the backers of his latest movie, “The Irishman,” starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.

Scorsese is viewed as one of the godfathers of the Marrakech Film Festival, having attended on three previous occasions, including as jury president in 2013. During the fest’s 17th edition, he hosted the career tribute to De Niro on Saturday evening and on Sunday participated in a conversation with Moroccan helmers Laila Marrakchi (“Rock the Casbah”) and Faouzi Bensaidi (“Volubilis”).

As Bensaidi mentioned at the start of the conversation, Scorsese has been a direct inspiration for many Moroccan filmmakers, because of the way that his characters and stories resonate with Moroccans.

Scorsese said that he still watches many films, but now mainly at home, saying that he misses the audience experience. “The cinema of the past hundred years has gone,” he said. “It’s changed. That’s why Marrakech is so important. It upholds the value of cinema as an art form.”

He was optimistic about opportunities for independent filmmakers and talked about Netflix. “People such as Netflix are taking risks. ‘The Irishman’ is a risky film. No one else wanted to fund the pic for five to seven years. And of course we’re all getting older. Netflix took the risk.”

Nonetheless Scorsese expressed concern about how in the digital universe everything is termed “content.” In particular he lamented the loss of the eco-system associated with cinema, such as the demise of film criticism, which has been reduced to short tweets and the attribution of ratings in the form of stars.

He suggested that the previous power of film criticism could be a double-edged sword, citing the example of Vincent Canby’s review of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” in the New York Times in 1980. This led to the film being pulled from screens the next day, he said, and forced auteur filmmakers into effective exile from the studio system, which he added only truly ended when Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1989.

“Soderbergh’s film began a resurrection. These days young independent filmmakers can get their films made. But the theaters are closing. Young people have to reinvent everything.”

Scorsese talked about the classic American and Italian films that inspired him to become a filmmaker and dedicated considerable time to talk about the spiritual dimension of cinema.

The conversation included screening of an excerpt from his film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which raised considerable polemic at the time, and which Scorsese revealed he had never seen again since the film’s initial screening.

Scorsese referred to the influence of Elia Kazan’s films “On the Waterfront” and “East of Eden,” and said that he believed method acting was partly influenced by technological advances, with new microphones able to capture whispering dialogue.

“I went to see ‘On the Waterfront’ with my brother, and for the first time we saw people on screen that we knew in real life. It didn’t look like acting. The core story in Kazan’s film features two brothers and then there’s a betrayal.” He then quipped: “That’s basically the same movie I’ve been making over the last 45 years.”

Scorsese suggested that Stanislavski’s method acting system was linked to the spiritual exercise advocated by St. Francis Xavier of the Jesuits – using meditation to re-experience certain moments, such as when Jesus was crucified. He said that when filming “Silence,” lead actor Andrew Garfield succeeded in tapping into this tradition.

He also talked about other actors who have used method acting to metamorphize into their characters, which he said was sometimes a bit intimidating, for example working with Daniel Day Lewis on “Gangs of New York” as “Bill the Butcher” – “We had to be very careful at that time” – or with De Niro on “Raging Bull” – “That was really him. I began to deal with him as Jake.”

Scorsese suggested that society is not only facing a period of great technological evolution but also major change in terms of culture and civilization.

“Beliefs have to be refreshed and rethought. That doesn’t mean you reject rituals. Ritual is very important. It creates a communal bond between people. For example, praying together (…) You’re talking to a regular Catholic who has done a lot of struggling. I may not be a practicing Catholic, but most of my films are about ritual (…) If you’re interested in continuing the human species you have to address core issues such as nurturing love, compassion and understanding other people. Because we now have the power to wipe out mankind. Essentially I keep coming back to these subjects.”

Scorsese said that films can make things sacred and are intimately linked to aspects such as ritual, protocol and respect.

“The process of making a movie is sacred. For example when the sound engineer records what’s called the ‘wild track’ to get the ambient sound. We all have to stand there in silence for around two minutes. Everyone is in the room. Inevitably they all start meditating. That’s enough. It’s a sacred moment.”

Finally, the helmer talked about how music is central to the conception of many of his films, citing the example of how he structured “Casino” around Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” which is used in the car bomb scene.

“They were given paradise,” he concluded. “But being human, they were kicked out.”

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