By Simon Schama
It’s just as well that the couch I’m sitting on is plump and hospitable or I might have fallen off it: Martin Scorsese tells me that the real inspiration for the tone and voice of Goodfellas was not Scarface or Public Enemy, but Kind Hearts and Coronets. Oh, right: Alec Guinness in drag, Joe Pesci in murderous hysterics, I see.
But, when you think about it for a minute, the revelation makes perfect sense. The note of black glee in Ray Liotta’s interior monologues (“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”) is not that far away from Dennis Price’s cool plan to murder his way into the landed class that presumes to despise him. They share the smirk of superior knowledge, the contempt for the chumps who do things the regular way.
Mayhem and chuckling are never far apart in either the British postwar comedies or Scorsese’s opera of mischief. Stick a fedora on Price or Alastair Sim, unclip the accent and they could breeze downtown. The wiseguys in Goodfellas spend even more time laughing than killing. Sometimes the uproar is so unhinged that it looks as if De Niro, Liotta and Pesci will dislocate their jaws, like pythons guffawing as they digest a goat.
Just short of his 67th birthday, Scorsese is at the height of his powers, which is saying something. I first met him 12 years ago, when he was guest-editing a number of the Library of Congress magazine, unassumingly called Civilization. He wanted to have a conversation for its pages about the art of historical storytelling in writing and filmmaking. I was flattered, he was inspired. He talked fast and fiery, in great bursts of philosophical and technical passion and seemed to me the definition of inexhaustible. Now, after a long day in the cutting room working on a pilot for Boardwalk Empire, a new HBO television drama series about Prohibition-era Atlantic City starring Steve Buscemi, his conversation is still high octane, the enthusiasms sparks that catch the weighty pack of his idea-loaded imagination.
His new movie, Shutter Island, based on a thriller by Dennis Lehane and scheduled for release early next year, is set in an institution for the criminally insane off the Massachusetts coast, a pile that makes the hotel in The Shining or Motel Bates look like Disneyland. Scorsese built the set around the shell of the old hospital. The gurneys were still there, the stainless steel of the cafeteria giving off a bad glint. “You walked in and you could feel it, the disturbance,” he says.
On screen Ben Kingsley and Leonardo DiCaprio (doing most of his own stunts) stalk and scuttle through the place like cat and rat, and the storm-blasted island turns in a performance of thunderously Calvinist gloom. If there were an Oscar for best acting role by a landscape, Shutter Island would be a shoo-in.
The movie, a crazy quilt of dreams and terrors, was in many ways a tall order. A week into filming, the director realised what he was up against, the fiendishly complicated layering of Lehane’s story asking him to “make three films at the same time”. But the result of his perfectionist head-scratching and the pitch-in ensemble acting is a triumph of what you might call heavy entertainment, but only in the sense that bits of King Lear are too.
Like all his work, Shutter Island is enriched by the director’s encyclopedic memory of the cinema. He doesn’t do ponderous gestures of homage but it’s as though Scorsese has internalised the entire history of the medium, turning himself into a one-man archive on which he can draw for inspiration in whichever genre he happens to be working.
His range is truly astounding. The same director who made the agonised Raging Bull (1980) and the manic, temple-pounding Bringing Out the Dead (1999) also made the exquisitely patient Kundun (1997), the camera letting a small boy come at his own pace to the realisation of what it means to be the Dalai Lama. The guiding light of the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray seemed to be at Scorsese’s shoulder when he dissolved the camera into the chosen boy’s point of view.
So which movies guided him this time? “Oh, for the atmospherics, the way of setting mood, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and Out of the Past,” he says, as if I was bound to know all about the work of the mid 20th-century French director Jacques Tourneur. Caught out like an undergraduate claiming to have “looked” at the assignment, I make a quick hit on YouTube later and there are the Tourneur films, moodily off-kilter, tautly scripted, nagging little shards in the psyche.
This total immersion works curatorially. Scorsese doesn’t just make individual movies, chasing box office and the annual award madness, though he’d be inhuman not to want both. But he has always felt lucky to be able to work in the art to which he’s been addicted since, as a bronchial altar boy in Queens, New York, he sat bewitched in the Saturday morning movie theatre darkness. Or watching on black-and-white television (as I did an ocean away in London) Alexander Korda costume movies like The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) or David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), in which John Mills was scared pipless by Finlay Currie’s Magwitch and Jean Simmons as Estella stomped on our balls even before we had any.
Never taking this good fortune for granted (it was an outrageously long time before The Movies finally returned the favour with an Oscar for best director for The Departed (2006)), Scorsese has done everything he can to look after the memory bank. He has been a major force in the conservation and restoration of decaying and damaged film, devoting special care to films that meant a lot to his own education as student and practitioner. Olivier’s Richard III (1955), he first saw in a black-and-white television broadcast, but it was shot in VistaVision, the fine-grained, wide-screen version of 35mm film developed by Paramount in the 1950s, and he is currently restoring a surviving print.
The artwork that opens that film, an aged parchment that begins: “England, 1485 ... ” sits in his personal treasure trove in New York, along with the red shoes from Michael Powell’s 1948 masterpiece of that name. And, between feature films, he and his long-time friend and editor-collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker, who was married to Powell and whose perfect touch is all over Shutter Island, are putting together a documentary chronicle of the British cinema from the late 1940s to the gritty neo-realist films of the early 1960s: Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Tony Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963).
The work will be unapologetically personal and when I hear him summon up the shade of the Hull-born actor Ian Carmichael (1960’s I’m All Right Jack is a favourite), I am struck all over again by the improbability of the young Scorsese spending time in the world of Lawrentian slag heaps and the two-up-two-downs. For him, the fried eggs and rolled-down nylons, footy in the smoke and puke in the pubs, brought a scuffed-up truth of documentary realism to Ealing, Pinewood and Elstree, much as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio de Sica and Luchino Visconti did for the fantasy world of Italian films. He may be the only director who can invoke Rocco and His Brothers and This Sporting Life in the same sentence, as if it were obvious they were rivers flowing into the same deep sea of social drama.
I have a presumptuous hunch and wonder out loud if the bone-crunching sound track of the rugby league movie, with Richard Harris’s skull smashing against other mangled faces, had any influence on the way Scorsese recorded and shot the boxing devastation of De Niro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull? A pause. Ever tactful, he replies: “Maybe, yes, maybe!”
Naturally generous, Scorsese has agreed to participate in the latest Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, a biennial scheme in which distinguished figures from six artistic disciplines (film, theatre, literature, dance, music and the visual arts) are appointed as mentors to younger artists in order to allow them the chance to learn by experiencing a work in progress. The Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour and the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka are among others sharing their expertise.
Celina Murga, a 36-year-old Argentine with two films already on her resumé, is the director who got to spend precious time, months of it, with Scorsese at work on Shutter Island. He chose her from a shortlist of three, impressed by a film she had made about teenagers doing their thing in a gated community after the parents had gone. “I sat there, and around 25 minutes into it, I realised this was something; that almost casually she had created a world that already seemed to have been there, no starting, no stopping.” A benevolent chuckle, then: “Of course that’s a different sensibility, not the way I work but ... ”
It is exactly because he does things differently, generates the worlds he creates out of the plot, that Scorsese, so open to other ways, picked his lucky protégée. Murga visited the shoot of Shutter Island as often as she wanted and saw the toughest of movie-making challenges bloom into something extraordinary; the actors reaching hard; the director revising and revising again as things went along. Could she talk about particular shots, I ask Scorsese? “Sure, sometimes, to the assistant director.” She was welcomed to the cutting room, to the sound mix and, exceptionally, even to rushes: “not always ... I like to speak freely to Thelma.”
There’s a backstory to this great gift. Murga – and many others, it turns out – are getting the chance that the young Scorsese was himself denied. In the 1960s, as a young film student at the New York University School of the Arts, he badly wanted to get experience first-hand from a master. On one occasion Elia Kazan – whose On the Waterfront (1954) and East of Eden (1955) were just the kind of epics of social pain he revered – was visiting the school. Scorsese, script in hand, made an appointment. He arrived 10 minutes late at the great man’s office. Kazan, his coat on, listened to the young enthusiast, riffled cursorily through the script and wished him luck.
At the time, indies hardly existed in New York, other than John Cassavetes’ company, which produced the groundbreaking Shadows (1959). There was nowhere to go and no one to help a novice through an apprenticeship. Scorsese, without any ill will, thought at that moment: “If ever I was in Kazan’s position, I’d do something to help.”
So, starting with Taxi Driver (1976), he brought novices on to his set, sometimes youngsters with absolutely no experience of filmmaking, and into the crew as apprentices, “so long as they didn’t get in the way of the actors and knew when not to speak up”. Some decided film wasn’t for them but others, like Amy Jones, the director of Love Letters (1983), began their careers this way and went on to make good features and stay in touch. I’d never heard of such a thing, directors famously being ruthless about keeping “outsiders” away from the set. But Scorsese was and is different. He makes outsiders insiders and all he asks is their rapt attentiveness. So, I ask him, which films after Taxi Driver did he open to this kind of apprenticeship? “All of them,” he says. “Anyone else do this kind of thing you know of?” He smiles, shrugs.
Which reminds me again that to spend any time with him is to be in the presence of someone for whom his hard craft is an exacting labour of love. He burns with the anxiety and pleasure of that knowledge like a perpetually glowing coal. And some lucky people get to draw close to the warmth. His 10-year-old daughter Francesca, for example, to whom he is showing the British comedies of the 1950s that still fill him with delight. “Does she get it, the wickedness?” I ask. “Oh, The Ladykillers, she and her friends they all love it. There’s this moment when there’s a fight going on and the little old lady comes in and they stop fighting! They stop!” Scorsese laughs like the connoisseur of mischief that he is – and like the 10-year-old he once was, watching that malarkey unfold for the first time. One thing is for certain; he’s the perpetuum mobile; he doesn’t do stop.
To win tickets to hear Martin Scorsese talk at the BFI in London in December, visit www.ft.com/rolexarts.