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Martin Scorsese Interview

Director Martin Scorsese’s CV includes classics Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Raging Bill. Recently in London to talk about his latest film, Shutter Island, Scorsese joined stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Gerard Butler to speak about Hitchcock, creating unsettling scenes and what it’s like being called America’s greatest living director.

What was the real motivation for doing this: the emotional and psychological subject matter? Or the chance to mix up genres and ideas from the golden age of Hollywood gothic horrors and psycho-dramas?
Martin Scorsese (MS): Ultimately I think it’s really both, and in that order. The first element that I connected with was the emotion. Sorry, that’s how it goes. I felt very empathetic for the characters, sympathetic for the characters, overwhelmed by the nature of the story of this character. It’s a hard film to talk about because I don’t want to give anything away, but that, along with the vocabulary of cinema’s past and gothic literature, that, to me, opened the door and was really enticing. I don’t know how else to tell the story except to utilise that vocabulary: the rain, the darkness, the mansions, the framing etc.

Does the fact that you’re always hailed as America’s greatest living director put pressure on you?
MS: All I can do is do the best work I can. I need to work, I like to work – although I complain about it, but I do like it – and I do need to make the best film I can. I can’t think in – how does one put it? – in terms of awards. It’s nice when the films are recognised, but when you’re in the thick of all that, you just try to get through it and make something of it that allows you years from now to say, ‘Yes, I directed that film’ and be happy with it. And so you try your best.

Sometimes you go in with one thing, with one desire and come out with something else. In the case of The Aviator it was to create a spectacle, but by about the second or third week of shooting you just want to literally survive it. Because don’t forget, I also go through the editing process as well, and when the film is released I have to talk about it. So I take it very seriously.

The film is unsettling and the score is obviously a key element of that. How complete is your vision of the final film before you start shooting and how much do you rely on the input of others?
MS: The tone of the picture and the atmosphere was in my head and in my blood in a way once I’d decided to make the picture. I had to find my way through that to choose, select, emphasise certain visual elements and sound. Ultimately that’s when I call in collaborators. Bob Richardson on camera, Dante Ferretti on production design. I’d show them references, many different types of pictures. There might be one shot in them that I want to discuss with them. It’s a constant process of pulling together all the influences.

I think for me, the key image is the boat coming through the fog at the beginning. It’s something I imagined; I think it’s interesting, it’s breaking through the mystery, or maybe it’s not, maybe it stays in the fog. Where is he at the beginning of the film, who is he? But I think that Richardson and Dante were remarkable. The existing place that we had, Medfield, was an abandoned hospital for the criminally insane, the creation of the island as it changed in the mind of the character also came to rely on collaboration with the special visual effects. And then ultimately there’s Thelma Schoonmaker, who keeps me focussed during the editing of the picture.

Robbie Robertson was the other one I called upon for the music. As much as admire film scores and you know how much I collect film score, but I’ve always imagined films with my own scores, because I don’t come from that world. How could I make up my own score on a film like this where it isn’t necessarily made up of popular music from radio or the period; it isn’t necessarily classical music. What if it’s modern symphonic music? And so Robbie Robertson came up with this idea of modern symphonic and so I thought, let’s at least try it as an experiment and so he started sending me CDs. By the second batch, I started to fit it in. And then reworked all the music and mixed it in different ways. Even the fog horns, they’re all brass. It’s something by Ingrid Marshal called Fog Tropes. It’s not a sound effect. It’s a piece of music. It sounds like the humpback whales.

Can you say a little about the influence of Vertigo and is Hitchcock’s working relationship with James Stewart similar to the one you have with Leo?
MS: Vertigo is probably my favourite Hitchcock film and probably one of my favourite films of all time. I saw it on its first release in VistaVision, projected in VistaVision, at the Capitol Theatre in New York. That moment when the nun comes up in end is just an extraordinary shot. The entire film, even though I didn’t fully understand it when I was 15, it’s a film I kept revisiting.

And it was of course taken out of distribution at the time. It was only shown in LACMA in LA in the mid ‘70s, and everybody flocked to it: Brian De Palma, Spielberg, all of us went to see this Hitchcock retrospective. It was the only way we could see it, except on TV, cut up, but it’s one of those icons I live with and by. When ever it’s on I watch it. I have a beautiful 35mm cut of it, that’s just beginning to go vinegar but you can still screen it. I helped support the restoration.

The musical score is very important. John Williams has put on concerts of it. I introduced them and to sit on the stage and be enveloped by the love theme from Vertigo is just an experience. To be taken into that vortex and this dreamscape of this obsession is just something that is the very basis of cinema and life. I don’t know… Stewart’s performance in that film is an ultimate performance, as he’s realising in the last 15 minutes of the film what’s really going on, that gesture of his when he loses her a second time is just an extraordinary thing. I didn’t have to see the film again.

It’s a beautiful film and that’s a very nice thing to say about the Jimmy Stewart performance, because it’s a beautiful performance throughout. And it’s an interesting performance as well. I don’t really know where I am when I watch the film. I can’t tell you exactly where the centre of the film is. I sort of let it take me every time. I only realised when I last watched it that she writes him a letter and explains the whole thing. I was shooting at the time. She explains everything in the letter and I’ve seen the film hundreds of times. So if a film surprises you or an actor does something that you think is new, I find it inseparable from what I do.

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Content updated: 21/11/2018 22:06

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