Martin Scorsese talks 'Mean Streets,' 'Taxi Driver' and rediscovering that childlike spark with 'Hugo'

Posted by · 9:26 am · January 31st, 2012

SANTA BARBARA – Last night the big tributes wrapped up here at the Santa Barbara fest with the presentation of the American Riviera Award to “Hugo” director Martin Scorsese. Leonard Maltin conducted the on-stage interview, which got started nearly a half hour late and still blew past the usual two-hour time frame as a captivated, capacity audience at the Arlington Theatre never budged and delighted in hearing the director’s tales of 50 years at work in the film industry.

Scorsese reflected first on the severity of awards season these days, which he said is “very arduous, in a way. But it’s a very high class problem to have.” Even the process of opening a film is much different, he noted, thinking back on his work in the early 1970s. “When the film opened, there was really no red carpet unless it was ‘Cleopatra’ or ‘Ben-Hur,'” he said. “We’d go in on a Sunday to see if anyone was in line to see the movie, then we’d go get Chinese food or whatever and that was it.”

Maltin asked the obvious genesis query, wondering about that seminal moment when Scorsese not only knew that he wanted to be a fillmmaker, but that doing so was even possible. And it was seeing John Cassavetes’ “Shadows” that did it. “It had raw emotion, but was also Bohemian,” Scorsese said. “There were no more excuses. It became a different style and quality.”

The early 1960s saw a number of short films from the director that brought some attention and really invigorated his spirit for the form. “There was something fascinating about an image that moved,” he said, “and the impulse to tell a story and reach out to an audience.”

Then it was on to the specific moments we all remember, of which there are many. Beginning with 1973’s “Mean Streets,” Scorsese revealed that most of the movie was shot in Los Angeles, which is stunning for such a centerpiece of New York cinema. After working with Roger Corman for a while, he had connections to make the film for roughly $650,000 if he could fake a lot of it in LA, and so he did. “When he shoots a gun at the Empire State Building it hits a window in Los Angeles,” Scorsese said. But, Maltin returned, that’s the illusion of movie making. The audience will believe what you show them.

The clip presented was the iconic introduction of Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy to the tune of The Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash.” The song choice, the slow motion, the dark red contrast of the scenery, it was all scripted that way. And in the following sequence, a banter back and forth between De Niro and Harvey Keitel about Johnny Boy’s debts, was largely improved by De Niro. The actor came up with a number of stories the character could tell in order to weasel around his responsibilities. Keitel then reacted to those and acted off of them. That was also the last day of shooting on the film. Scorsese summed it all up thusly: “It was a wonderful experience because I didn’t get fired.”

The “greatest hits” stuff was unavoidable, as things moved along with stuff from “Taxi Driver” and “Goodfellas.” On the former, Scorsese noted that a clash of cultural considerations made it all the more interesting. “Paul Schrader was a Calvinist,” he said of the “Taxi Driver” screenwriter. “He saw his first movie when he was 18 because they were forbidden. And my culture was Roman Catholic, so there was a lot of tension in the interpretation of this very lean script. There were flourishes he probably didn’t like that were more Baroque.” But that was the style that Scorsese gravitated toward, Fellinian grandiosity as opposed to Bressonian reserve.

On the choice of Bernard Herrmann to compose the original score for the film, Scorsese said he knew he needed it because the main character, Travis Bickle, didn’t listen to music. And the only person he thought could do it was Herrmann, who had left Hollywood and wasn’t really working much anymore. This, of course, was lost on naive New York-based filmmakers out of that loop, but Scorsese sought him out and offered a number of humorous impressions of a grumpy fixture of the Golden Age.

“I don’t do movies about cabbies,” Herrmann original grumbled to the young director. Scorsese also told a funny story about Steven Spielberg being giddy about meeting the famed composer, and that when he did, after offering the obligatory “I’m a huge fan of your work,” Herrmann shot back with, “Why do you always work with Johnny Williams, then?”

As fate would have it, on the final day of recording the “Taxi Driver” score, Herrmann went home and passed away. But Scorsese is forever grateful for his invaluable contribution to the film.

Regarding “Raging Bull,” Scorsese said the choice to shoot on black and white was almost one of practicality (and very much of a piece with his knowledge of the technology of film), due to a bit of an in-between period for color stock. By that point, every film had to be made in color (once considered a choice for “less-serious” films). But Scorsese was realizing that the color printing stock wasn’t as strong in the wake of Technicolor discontinuing its prints. “The color has to mean something,” he said. “It’s a very important element. And it was on a stock that, within five years, would go pink or magenta.”

For “Goodfellas,” the steadicam shot of Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco entering the Copacabana through the kitchen was shown, which Maltin marveled over as a particularly impressive shot of its time. “I knew it had to be one shot,” Scorsese said. “This is the height of his life. You start in the streets and enter all these back alleys before going into Valhalla. It’s like being royalty. It had to unfold, in a way, into the palace.” Interestingly enough, the same steadicam operator who executed that shot did the steadicam work on “Hugo,” too.

There were just so many stories. Like the time Thelma Schoonmaker visited a Times Square theater playing “Raging Bull” to discover that the sound was dialed down incredibly low because the theater owner didn’t like its interpretation of Italian Americans. Or another instance from the same movie when she visited another theater and saw a pile of film on the floor, about which the projectionist said, “Boy, you’re lucky, someone had spliced all this color film in there” (regarding the handful of willful stylistic color sequences in the film). It was like a campfire chat about the specifics of some of America’s most enduring cinematic works and it could fill a lot of column inches.

The clips were all curated by Scorsese, and there was a current of image alteration going on, it seemed. Indeed, I hear he originally felt the opening reel of the evening showcased too much violence. And he chose a number of scenes from his work as a documentary filmmaker for the program, including a hilarious bit featuring his parents in “Italianamerican.”

There was the full Muddy Waters segment of the concert film “The Last Waltz,” which we’re lucky to have as the filmmakers were told not to record him. Thankfully cameraman Laszlo Kovacs didn’t know. The film, which featued the final performance of The Band, was originally meant to be something for posterity, as Scorsese thought there would be value to it archivally. It wasn’t until they saw the results of the 35mm shoot that it was clear there was a movie there.

He also talked about how “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan” was ultimately about the musician being attacked over the years, whether by the folk generation or politically or being forced to be the voice of a generation, and it all boiled down to a single question for the filmmaker: “Do you have to do what people expect of you in art?”

One was reminded of the evolution of Scorsese throughout the evening, though, all of it building to talk about this year’s “Hugo.” The film was meant to be something his young daughter could finally see, but it was also very much about getting back to the child inside, that energized artist who still loves the feeling of pencil to paper when he’s drawing out storyboards to visualize his films. “You get back to the original impulse,” he said. “You have to have that spark.”

His perceptions on films started to shift around this time, as well, largely because he’s been able to view them through the very different prism of a child’s wonder. Frank Capra, for instance, is a big hit with his young daughter (he has two older children from a previous relationship). He himself never thought much of “It Happened One Night,” he said, admitting that it might be a bit sacrilegious to say. But when he viewed it on a 35mm print with his daughter recently, he found it to be a masterpiece.

And so “Hugo” was about reconciling that inner child with the way he communicates his stories to an audience, and it’s very clear the experience has been a cathartic one.

Sir Ben Kingsley was on hand to present the American Riviera Award, and his speech was of course highly quotable. “My dear Marty,” he said, “we happy few hundred will never be in the same room with you again, all of us. This is a very special night.” He then closed by noting, “The very greatest of my peers owe some of their most indelible moments on screen to you.”

If it isn’t obvious from all of that attempted distillation, it was a full and hearty evening, and a nice send-off for my coverage of the 27th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Next weekend will bring a few other events, including the Virtuosos panel, but I’m back to Los Angeles this afternoon. It’s been another successful program, though, with a great many Oscar nominees included, all of them aiming to push toward that most coveted of film awards as phase two of the season forges ahead.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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