Conversations with Scorsese, a book-length interview with director Martin Scorsese by longtime Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel, is akin to eavesdropping on a fascinating discussion between the two smartest people in the room.
And when it comes to movies, it doesn't get brainier and more passionate than Scorsese and Schickel.
Their love of the medium spills out in this nearly 400-page Q&A, as they swerve in and out of the director's brilliant, uncompromising career, as well as his life, peppered with enough movie history and references to fuel a film group's discussion for a year or more.
Rather than being a dense, thickly written discourse by film geeks for film geeks, there's a breezy, accessible air to their late-night conversations, conducted mainly in an apartment in New York's Waldorf Towers where Scorsese and his family were staying while his home was being remodeled.
Scorsese grew up in a rough Italian neighborhood of New York, which would serve as the template and inspiration for mob films like Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino.
He was an outsider -- a theme that channels covertly through many of his films -- a sickly asthmatic child, whose weekend rituals included going to the movies with his father, which fostered and nurtured his lifelong love of film.
"You're taken on a trip, you're taken on a journey," the 69-year-old tells Schickel. "The posters outside sell you dreams, you know. And you go in there, and the dream is real, almost. And then if you're sharing these very strong emotions with your father, who you don't really talk to very much, this became the main line of communication between us."
The book zips ahead in the next few chapters to explore the director's early days as a student filmmaker, as well as Scorsese's thoughts on old Hollywood and a long-lost style of movie making, he and Schickel swapping classic and forgotten films as well as directors.
Then we get to the heart of the book, one that will undoubtedly interest most readers: Scorsese's films. The book starts with his first New York University student film, What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place like This?, made in 1963, and concludes with 2010's Shutter Island, and all of his feature films in between.
This is where the conversation between critic and filmmaker turns most interesting, as Scorsese, peerless among American directors for his ability to blend art and commerce, dishes on the background and behind-the-scenes production of his movies, the techniques and inspirations he draws upon (few filmmakers, if any, have the breadth of knowledge and history of film as does Scorsese), and his feelings about each work. Like many filmmakers, painters, and musicians, Scorsese remains unconvinced of the artistic success of many of his works. He's especially hard on himself concerning those films with limited acceptance by audiences and critics, of which there are surprisingly many.
Of particular interest is the 1988 movie, The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese had obsessed over making the film for years; it would be his attempt at a modern remaking of American biblical epics such as The Greatest Story Ever Told. The director says he considers such movies as beautiful "pageants … but they had nothing really to do with our lives." He wanted to change that with Last Temptation, a film that featured a self-doubting and even fearful Jesus. The director says he wasn't prepared for the backlash among many Christian groups that followed.
"I expected some controversy," Scorsese says. "But I expected it to be intelligent. I expected discussion and dialogue."
"Not in America, pal," Schickel replies, and later asks "So all that came as a considerable shock to you?"
"Very much so. By the time I appeared on Nightline on TV, where I was supposed to confront our critics, I had thrown the towel in. I couldn't fight them anymore. I was just satisfied that the picture had been made."
In fact, Scorsese lost money on that project, and it wasn't until 1991's Cape Fear that he made it back. It was the same for 2002's Gangs of New York, which proved to be a money pit that 2006's The Departed bailed him out of. The latter film also rewarded Scorsese with his long-deserved Best Director Oscar.
But even production on The Departed proved arduous and uncomfortable, as Scorsese dealt with pressure from the studio to make a hit. The experience left him ready to leave Big Studio Hollywood and its needs to make profits for smaller and gutsier independent cinema.
"The thing is, I don't know if it's worth going through the process again," he says. "Because, ultimately, the marketplace for big-budget films means there will be less experimentation in them. It's the old story. Now, even more so.
"At my age, having gone through what I have, I don't know whether it's worth it anymore."
Fortunately for us, Scorsese has yet to retreat from making the kinds of movies that attract audiences and critics alike. It's a career worth celebrating. And certainly worth talking about.
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