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Martin Scorsese: The Rolling Stone Interview

From a self-imposed isolation, the filmmaker reflects on his methods, passions and the American psyche

Martin ScorseseMartin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese

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Martin Scorsese’s apartment sits seventy-five floors above midtown Manhattan and offers an imperial view that encompasses Central Park and the Upper East Side, extending out toward the borough of Queens, where Scorsese was born in 1942. The calming grays and blacks and whites of the living room’s décor combine with the apartment’s Olympian height — so high as to eliminate almost all street noise — to make New York City seem a distant abstraction, a silent movie playing in Martin Scorsese’s picture window. Mean Streets it’s not.

For Mean Streets, you would have to go to the roof and look the other way, behind you, down toward Little Italy, the Italian ghetto on the Lower East Side where Scorsese came of age in the Fifties and Sixties. Scorsese has returned to that neighborhood himself — or at least to a virtually identical neighborhood in the East New York section of Brooklyn — with his new movie, GoodFellas, based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy, the story of the middle-level Irish-Sicilian mobster Henry Hill and his twenty-five-year career in the criminal underworld.

The movie reunites Scorsese with his homeboy, Robert De Niro, for the first time since The King of Comedy, in 1982, and assembles a veritable who’s who of Italian American film stars, including Ray Liotta, who plays Hill, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino. Scorsese himself wrote the screenplay with Pileggi. Grisly, funny, violent and riddled with moral questions posed by matters of loyalty, betrayal and personal honor, GoodFellas also returns Scorsese to the themes that pump at the heart of some of his most urgent films, most notably Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1975) and Raging Bull (1980).

Though the usually dapper Scorsese is casually dressed in jeans and a faded blue shirt, he is anything but relaxed for the interview. He didn’t realize the interview would involve so much time. What about the other things he’d arranged to do? His two daughters, Catherine, 24, and Domenica, 14, will soon be coming by the apartment, where he lives with Barbara De Fina, his fourth wife. He needs to make some phone calls, change some things around, work some things out. After we start to talk, he moves back and forth between a chair that serves as something of a command center — located, as it is, next to a phone and a movie projector and opposite a wall with a pull-down screen on it — and a place closer to me on the white couch.

Scorsese speaks in the style of a born-and-bred New Yorker. He formulates his thoughts out loud, as if they were terrifically important but continually in flux, in need of constant refinement. Asked a question, he starts talking immediately, stops abruptly, starts and stops again and again until he finds his groove. He gestures for punctuation and emphasis, fires off staccato bursts of insight when he’s on a roll, laughs wildly at his own improbable characterizations and verbal excesses. At times, the sheer nervous energy of his intellect propels him out of his seat, and he speaks while standing at his full height — he’s quite short — for a minute or two. He walks over to a cabinet several times for nasal and throat sprays to ease the effects of the asthma that has afflicted him since childhood. He alternately concentrates on me with a nearly frightening intensity and seems to forget I’m there at all.

A filmmaker in a kind of tumultuous internal exile, Scorsese sits edgily poised in splendid isolation over the city that remains one of his most fertile obsessions — and looks to the future with hope and apprehension.

With GoodFellas, you return to the familiar terrain of organized crime. What led you back there?

I read a review of Wiseguy when I was directing The Color of Money, and it said something about this character Henry Hill having access to many different levels of organized crime because he was somewhat of an outsider. He looked a little nicer. He was able to be a better frontman and speak a little better. I thought that was interesting, because you could get a cross section of the layers of organized crime — from his point of view, of course. So I got the book, started reading it and was fascinated by the narrative ability of it.

Henry tells his story in a really distinctive voice in the book, which you exploit well with Ray Liotta’s narration.

Henry’s got a wonderful voice, a wonderful way of expressing the lifestyle. He reminds me of a lot of the people I grew up around. The book had a great sense of humor, too. So I was fascinated when I was reading the book. I said, “This will make a wonderful film.”

One thing GoodFellas makes clear is that the criminal underworld is a world of codes and consequences, in which you don’t get to make many mistakes.

That’s very important. The guys are in business to make money, not to kill people, not to create mayhem. If you make a big mistake, you bring down heat on them, you cause strife between two crime families, somebody has to be eliminated. It’s very simple. Those are the rules. It’s very much like a Hollywood situation where, you know, how many pictures could you make that cost $40 million that lose every dime? You can’t. It’s purely common sense.

It also seems to be a way to achieve a version of the American dream. In GoodFellas, Henry says he’d rather be a wiseguy than president of the United States.

It’s better, because you can do anything you want. You really can do anything you want. And you can take anything you want, because, like Henry says, if they complain, you hit them. It’s more exciting, and the opportunity is endless. And this is the great country for it to happen, too, because the opportunity here is endless, usually.

However, I always quote Joe Pesci, who pointed out that wiseguys have a life cycle — or an enjoyment cycle — of maybe eight or nine years, ten years the most, before they either get killed or go to jail and start that long process of going in and out like a revolving door. I try to give an impression of that in the film when Henry gets to jail and says, “Paulie was there because he was serving time for contempt. Jimmy was in another place. Johnny Dio was there.” I mean, this is like home for them. Then the life begins to wear you down. The first few years are the exuberance of youth. They have a great time — until they start to pay for it. Tommy [DeVito, played by Pesci] starts doing things, just unnecessary outbursts. Look why Jimmy [Conway, played by De Niro] goes to jail — because he beats up some guy down in Florida. It’s a long story in the book; in the film, it’s totally unimportant as to why they’re even there. We did it so quickly to show you how, just as fast as it happened, that’s as fast as he could go to jail for something he forgot he did.

Tommy and Jimmy in GoodFellas are, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, and Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, walking powder kegs. What interests you about characters like that?

There are a thousand answers to that. It’s good drama. You see part of yourself. I like to chart a character like that, see how far they go before they self-destruct. It’s interesting how it starts to turn against them after a while, whether it’s shooting people in the street or arguing in the home, in the kitchen or the bedroom. How after a while the breaking point comes when everything just explodes, and they’re left alone.

You’ve said that it’s not until Jake is alone in his cell in Raging Bull that he faces his real enemy: himself.

 Totally. That’s the one he’s been paranoid about all along. It gets to be so crazy; if his brother and Tommy Como and Salvy and Vickie did everything he thought they did, he can only do one of two things: Kill them all or just let it go. If you let it go, it’s not the end of the world. But no, no, he’s got to battle it out in the ring. He’s got to battle it out at home. He’s got to battle it everywhere until finally everybody else has disappeared, and he’s dealing with himself. And ultimately…ultimately, it’s you.

What is the source of all that violence, of all that paranoia and anger in those characters?

It comes from yourself, doesn’t it? And it comes from what you do for a living. In Jake’s case, he goes out in the morning, and he beats up people; then they beat him up, and he comes home. It’s horrible. It’s life on its most primitive level.

But that doesn’t account for the sexual paranoia.

Well, yeah, I don’t know if it does. I really am not a psychiatrist. It just comes from the fact that the guy is in the ring, and when you’re punching it out, you feel a certain way about yourself. You could take anyone, you see; the ring becomes an allegory of whatever you do in life. You make movies, you’re in the ring each time. Writing music — if you perform it, you’re in the ring. People just living daily life — when you go to work, you’re in the ring. And it’s how you feel about yourself that colors your feelings about everything else around you. If you don’t feel good about yourself, it affects everything you’re doing — your work, the people who love you, your performance with them, your performance in loving, your performance of lovemaking, everything. You begin to chip away at yourself, and you become like a raw wound. And if a man spits across the street, you say he spit at you. And then you’re finished; nobody can make a move. You’ll think, “Why did you look at me that way?” Who’s going to be with you? Who can stay with you?

At the end of GoodFellas, you leave Henry in a more problematic spot than the book itself does. Is there any reason for that?

It’s not about Henry, really; it’s about the lifestyle. It’s about all of them together. Henry’s the one who gives us the in; he opens the door for us, but basically, it’s about all these people. So it’s more a comment on the lifestyle than it is on Henry. I mean, he’s just left out in God knows where, annoyed because he’s not a wiseguy anymore. I was interested in the irony of that. There wasn’t a last paragraph in the book saying, “Now I know what I did. I was a bad guy, and I’m really sorry for it” — none of that. Just, “Gee, I can’t get the right food here.” It’s right in line with when he says as a kid, “I didn’t have to wait in line for bread at the bakery.” I mean, it’s the American way — getting treated special. It’s really a film about that. It’s a film about getting to a position where you don’t have to wait on line to get served in a store.

One of the significant issues in the last year or so has been censorship in the arts. In light of your experiences with Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, how do you feel about what’s been going on?

Obviously, I’m against it. I’m against that shit of any kind. I personally don’t like a lot of the stuff I see; it’s offensive to me — but obviously I’m for freedom of expression. In each generation there are threats to it, and you have to keep battling and fighting. As far as my personal way of dealing with the subject, I can’t let anything tell me, “Don’t do that, it will offend people.” I can’t do that.

On one level, when I’m dealing with a Hollywood film, that means I have to do a certain kind of subject matter that will make a certain amount of money. If I decide to make less money, I can do more risky subjects. So the only criterion on the films I’m willing to take risks on is that it be truthful to what you know to be the reality around you or the reality of the human condition. If you don’t believe in it, why are you making it? You’re going to offend people to make some money? What for? The money doesn’t mean anything. All that matters is the work, what’s up on the screen. I’m not some great person who’s out there undaunted, fighting off all these people. I didn’t think any of this stuff would really cause trouble — let alone Taxi Driver. The Last Temptation, I knew there would be some problems, but that’s a special area for me. I really demand that I get to speak out the way I feel about it, even within the church, the Catholic church. If I’m making a more commercial venture, like The Color of Money, it’s something else. It becomes a different kind of movie, and I think you can see the difference. My new film will be something else. It’s a more mainstream commercial film for Universal Pictures.

What are you doing?

It’s a remake of Cape Fear, the 1962 film directed by J. Lee Thompson, with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck. Bob De Niro wants to do it. You do have a certain responsibility to the audience on a picture like that, because you have certain expectations from the thriller genre, and you work within that framework. It’s like a chess game. You see if you can really be expressive within it. I don’t know if you can. I always have that problem: Loving the old films, I don’t know if I can make them. I mean, New York, New York was obviously revisionist. But with Color of Money, I went half-and-half, and it should have been one way, I think.

New York, New York has a stylized backdrop against which De Niro and Liza Minnelli act out an extremely edgy relationship.

That was conscious. That was a love of the old stylization, you know, a love of those films, but then showing what it really is like as close as possible in the foreground. That’s, I guess, what they call revisionism, and that’s why the picture — besides being too damn long — didn’t catch on.

But getting back to the point about censorship, you must think about the potential impact of your films. You were shocked when audiences responded in an almost vigilante fashion to the end of Taxi Driver.

I was kind of shocked. I went to see the film, and they were reacting very strongly to the shootout sequence, and I was disturbed by that. It wasn’t done with that intent. You can’t stop people from taking it that way. And you also can’t stop people from getting an exhilaration from violence, because that’s human, very much the same way as you get an exhilaration from the violence in The Wild Bunch. But the exhilaration of the violence at the end of The Wild Bunch and in Taxi Driver — and I know how it’s shot because I shot it and designed it — is also in the creation of that scene in the editing, in the camera moves, in the use of music and the use of sound effects and in the movement within the frame of the characters. So it’s like…art — good art, bad art or indifferent, it’s still art. And that’s where the exhilaration comes in. The shootout at the end of The Wild Bunch is one of the great exhilarating sequences in all of movies, and it’s also one of the great dance sequences in the movies. It’s ballet.

The intent was not necessarily the reception I saw at Taxi Driver. I know it can’t be the reaction of most of the people who have seen the picture. I was in China in ’84, and a young man from Mongolia talked to me at length about Taxi Driver, about the loneliness. That’s why the film seems to be something that people keep watching over and over. It’s not the shoot’em-out at the end.

You often speak of your movies in spiritual terms, but there’s a brutal physicality about so many of them. How do you square that?

It’s just the struggle, that’s all. The struggle to stay alive and even to want to stay alive. Just this corporal thing we’re encased in and the limitation of it and how your spirit tries to spring out of it, fly away from it. And you can’t. You can try. People say you can do it through poetry; you can do it through the work you do. Thought. But you still feel imprisoned. So the body is what you deal with, and it’s a struggle to keep that body alive.

Living in New York, obviously violence is around you all the time.

Oh, come on. I just took a cab on Fifty-seventh Street, we’re about to make a turn on Eighth Avenue, and three Puerto Rican guys are beating each other up over the cab. Over it — from my side, onto the hood, onto the other side. This is just normal — to the point where the cabbie and myself, not a word. We don’t say anything. He just makes his right turn, and we move on.

You grew up in New York’s Little Italy section, which is right next to Greenwich Village. But in your movies it’s as if that other world hardly existed.

On the Lower East Side we didn’t have the influx of other cultures, that very important bohemian culture. That there was another world — we didn’t know that. I never went to the Village until I enrolled at New York University in 1960; I had one foot in the university and the other foot in the world of Mean Streets. From 1950 to 1960, for ten years, I never ventured past Broadway and Houston Street. I remember a friend of mine — I was about nine years old — his mother took us to the Village to see the little houses and flowers. It was like a wonderland. It was a very different culture. I was used to wonderful stuff, too, on Elizabeth Street: five grocery stores, three butcher shops, all on one block. Two barbershops on one block. Barrels of olives. Growing up down there was like being in a Sicilian village.

It’s a world that’s perfectly rendered in Mean Streets.

That’s the whole story of Mean Streets. I wanted to make an anthropological study: It was about myself and my friends. I figured even if it was on a shelf some years later, people would take it and see that’s what Italian Americans — not the godfather, not big bosses — lived like on the everyday scale. This is what they really talked like and looked like and what they did. This was the lifestyle.

Why was it important for you to document that way of life?

Oh, you know — myself. I mean, why does anybody do anything? You think you’re important, so you do a film about yourself. I guess it’s just the old coming-of-age story. Actually, there were two of them for me: Who’s That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets. Who’s That Knocking I never got right except for the emotional aspects of it. I got that.

You started making that movie in 1965, but the sexual conflict you depict in the film — in which the Harvey Keitel character refuses to have sex with his girlfriend because he idealizes her, and then he leaves her when he finds out she isn’t a virgin — is so out of sync with the mores of the time. Rather than Sixties openness, it seems…

Medieval! It’s that whole Italian American way of thinking and feeling. We were having a problem getting a distributor, and my agents at William Morris said to me, “Marty, what do you expect? You have a film here in which the guy loves a woman so much that he won’t make love to her. Here we are in the age of sexual revolution — and you’re making a movie about repression! Total sexual repression. Who’s going to see it? Nobody!” Yeah, I mean, that was my life. I became aware of other people in the world and other lifestyles, other views, political and otherwise, much later. When I went to Woodstock in ’69 — afterwards I started wearing jeans. I took cuff links — I lost one of the cuff links.

You often speak about your background, but the life you’ve been living for the past two decades is very different from the world you came from. Do you ever feel a conflict about dramatizing people and a place that you yourself have left behind?

Because you left it behind doesn’t mean that you don’t have it. It’s what you come from. You have an affinity to it, and very often you have a love of it, too. I can’t exist there now; I don’t belong there anymore. But I can damn well try to make sure that when I use it in a film like GoodFellas, I make it as truthfully as possible. What’s wrong with that? A lot of what I learned about life came from there.

What did you learn?

People are usually the product of where they come from. The bonds that you made, the codes that were there, all have an influence on you later on in life. You can reject them. You can say, “Okay, those codes don’t exist for me, because I’m not of that world anymore.” But the reasons for those codes — why people live that way — are very strong lessons. The most important reason is survival. It comes down to that. That struggle of the human form, the corporal, the flesh, to survive — anything to survive. I think those things you carry with you the rest of your life.

And of course, it causes problems in your response to certain stimuli. You get the same stimuli now, you’ve got to be careful you don’t respond in the street fashion. It’s funny, because I’ve seen people do things that made me say, “My God, if a guy did that, if that woman did that to me or a friend of mine back in 1960 in that neighborhood, they wouldn’t be alive.” You have to realize it’s a different world.

Basically, I’m here, in this building. I stay here. Here in this chair. That’s it. I answer the phone. They let me out to make a movie. People come over to eat. That’s it. I just do my work and see some close friends. So in a funny way, all the trauma of trying to find the new ways to react to the same stimuli in this new society, it’s kind of past me — which is good.

Why don’t you like to go out?

I did it all. In the past twenty years in L.A. and New York and all around the world, I’ve lived that way, and now it’s getting narrower and narrower. There’s only time to do your work and see some people that you really appreciate. If you go to a cocktail party, and someone comes over to you…like, I don’t know, some strange insult occurs. You know, how dare you! In the old days, in neighborhoods like mine, certain people, if you stepped on the guy’s shoe — let alone come over and insult him — you could die. He’d kill you. Oh, you’d be surprised how the insults come — it’s just wonderful what they do. And people wonder why you don’t want to talk to anybody.

One person in the academic world was introduced to me. We were having a few drinks after the David Lean American Film Institute dinner, and the woman said, “I must say, I’m an admirer of some of your films — because, after all, I am a woman.” Who needs it? I mean, look, I make a certain type of film and that does bring out certain things in people. What can I say? So you try to avoid it. It’s an energy drain. As you get older — I’m forty-seven — the energy’s got to be for your work. That’s all it comes down to.

But aren’t you afraid of losing touch?

No. I mean, you come from a certain time and place. I can’t turn and say, “Well, gee, I’ll only listen to rap music now.” I can’t. I mean, I still listen to older rock & roll; I listen to the music that I like. Maybe there are some filmmakers who can keep up with the times and move along with what audiences expect today. I just think we are of a time, and the generations that come after us, we’ll still either speak to them or we won’t. I mean, you take a look at the early Sixties, when you had the French New Wave and the Italian New Wave, with the jump-cuts and the freeze frames, the destruction of the narrative form. You had a lot of Hollywood directors trying similar things, and it didn’t work. And the guys whose work stayed strong are the ones who were not swayed by what was fashionable, who stayed true to themselves.

What do you think is the flash stuff now?

I think the formula — what do they call them? — high-concept pictures. A high-concept picture has a basic theme. You can say it in one sentence: “A fish out of water.” But you know, high-concept pictures have been around for a long time under different guises. In some cases they were very beautifully made vehicles for certain stars. Bette Davis. Clint Eastwood. If you went to see a person, you knew what kind of film you were going to see. Okay, there were a lot of films like that, but they had a little more style to them, they had better actors, they were better written. But now, the more money that’s spent on a film, the bigger the audience has to be. So you’ve got to cut it down to the best common denominator — and probably the lowest — so that it reaches more people. The influence of MTV over the past eight years on movies — maybe the audience attention span is a bit of a problem now. Things have to move faster. And you feel that. But you can be true to yourself — you really can in this business. But it has to be for a price.

Your movies have been pioneering in their use of music, but now with MTV, everybody’s using music.

I think they’re using it cheaply. They’re using it unimaginatively. They’re using it basically to say, “Okay, it’s 1956.”

In your movies, the relation between the song and the scene really varies. I was thinking about GoodFellas, when the corpses of the mob guys are being found around the city and the coda from “Layla” is playing.

That was shot to “Layla,” you know. We played a playback on the set. All the murders were played back on the set to that piece, because it’s a tragedy. A lot of those people, they didn’t really deserve to die. It’s like the unveiling, a parade, a revue, in a way, of the unfolding tragedy. It has a majesty to it, even though they’re common people. You may say, “Common crooks” — I still find that they’re people. And the tragedy is in the music. The music made me feel a certain way, gave a sadness to it and a sympathy. The way that coda in “Layla” plays, it’s like the unfolding of the results of this lifestyle.

I wanted to ask you about a term you have used to describe the making of Raging Bull: kamikaze filmmaking.

What I meant was that I threw everything I knew into it, and if it meant the end of my career, then it would have to be the end of my career.

Did you honestly feel that?

Absolutely, yeah. I don’t know exactly why, but I did feel that. I just felt it would probably be the end of it, but I might as well throw it all in and see what happens.

But why, because it might prove too much for people to take?

Well, I was making a certain kind of film. Films at that time…don’t forget, it was the beginning of the Reagan era. Sylvester Stallone had created his own new mythology, and people were more towards that. I mean, after the experience of New York, New York, I realized the kind of pictures I was going to make, even if I was dealing with genre…this is why I was telling you about the new thriller Cape Fear. It’s a very interesting situation, because I don’t want it to be necessarily revisionist, the way New York, New York was. But on the other hand, I want to find my own way in it. Now, does my own way mean, automatically, the undermining of a genre picture in traditional terms — which means it will not be satisfying to audiences the way the traditional hero films, like all the Rockys, are? I mean, that was the mood of the country. And Raging Bull comes out, who’s going to see it? Who cares about this guy? Nobody — that’s what I thought. And maybe some people would say, “Well, you were right, because nobody saw it. It only made a certain amount of money.”

The whole mood of the country was different. Big money was being made with pictures like Rocky and eventually the Spielberg-Lucas films. At that time they were the myth makers, and to a certain extent, they continue to be. I mean, New York, New York was a total flop, and it opened the same week as Star Wars. So at that time I knew which way the wind was blowing, and it certainly wasn’t in my direction. Therefore, I just did the best I could with Raging Bull, because I had nothing and everything to lose.

When you talk about not being able to make a genre film without subverting the genre…

Subverting the genre, I think, would be a problem. What I hopefully will try to do in the future will be to blend the genre with me, in a sense — with my expression of it, with the elements that I’m interested in, and see if it doesn’t derail it too much. I don’t know if I can. I mean, I still wouldn’t be interested in doing — as much as I adore them — the old musicals. As much as I adore them — I have no words for them, some of them are so beautiful. I still wouldn’t be able to do that; I wouldn’t be interested in doing that. I still want to do something with a musical where it’s got an edge to it. But I think I would be able to, this time, get a clearer idea of how to approach that.

What’s the difference now?

New York, New York, we made it up as we went along. We had a pretty good script by Earl Mac Rauch and didn’t pay any attention to it. The two methods of filmmaking — the improvisatory style and the old studio style, where you build sets — didn’t blend. You’re wasting money that way, because the set was built, and you would improvise yourself into another scene. Then you’d have to reimprovise yourself back into that set. It was crazy.

I think we got some real good stuff out of it — and some real truth about that world and relationships between creative people. But I think it could have been more concise, maybe shorter. Maybe there was too much music. The repetition of scenes between the couple was really more like life, where a scene repeats itself and repeats itself and repeats itself until finally…

It becomes unbearably tense.

And that’s the idea. The way if you’re in a relationship with someone and you’ve talked it out and talked it out and talked it out and you walk in the room, you can’t sit, you can’t go in the same room! That was the idea. Maybe in that case, it’s successful — but I don’t know if it’s entertainment. I can guarantee you, you’re not going to have the head of a studio say, “Marty, let’s make a picture where the people get so tense — and it’s a musical, okay? And people come out thinking about their own lives and their four marriages, and they get upset — and we’ll give you $50 million to make it!” No, they’re not going to do it.

Which of your movies mean the most to you?

Well, Mean Streets is always a favorite of mine because of the music and because it was the story of myself and my friends. It was the movie that people originally took notice of. It’s kind of a favorite, but I certainly couldn’t watch it. It’s too personal. I like certain elements of Raging Bull; I like the starkness of it and the wild fight scenes, the subjective fight scenes, as if you were in the ring yourself, being hit. Frank Warner’s sound effects are just so wonderful. I like the look of a lot of it. And I love Bob and Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty. And Frank Vincent. I love the performances. Nick Colasanto. It was just wonderful.

Taxi Driver?



I like Bob in it. Oh, I like everybody in it. Cybill Shepherd was wonderful there. Jodie Foster. But Taxi Driver really is Paul Schrader’s. We interpreted it. Paul Schrader gave the script to me because he saw Mean Streets and liked Bob in it and liked me as a director. We — meaning Bob and myself — both had the same feelings about Travis, the way he was written, the way Paul had it. It was as if we all felt the same thing, like a little club between the three of us. Paul Schrader and myself had a certain affinity about religion and life, death and guilt and sex. Paul and I are very close on that sort of thing. But I must say the original concept is all his. I’m not being falsely modest — another guy can come along and say he merely interpreted it and ruin it. But you’ve got to understand that the original idea came from him. And I think when they say, “Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver,” that’s something that can be very painful to Paul. It’s really his.

What about some of the other movies that aren’t necessarily in the first rank of your films, like After Hours, The Color of Money, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore?

On one level they were all hard work, learning experiences. With, let’s say, Ellen Burstyn in Alice, I needed to do something that was a major studio film for a certain amount of money and to prove that I can direct women. It was as simple as that. After Hours was trying to learn again, after The Last Temptation of Christ was pulled away, to make a film quicker. And The Color of Money was trying to do a real Hollywood picture, with movie stars like Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. But each one was a lesson. And Cape Fear, to a certain extent, will be that way too. Although in Cape Fear, I got Bob De Niro. It becomes something else.

Can you describe that relationship?

We’re interested in similar traits of people. Like I said, we felt that we understood certain things about Travis.

What did you understand?

You understand the rage; you understand you have certain feelings yourself. You’re not afraid to say to each other, to the people who are seeing the movie, that those are aspects of ourselves. Many people have it under control. This character doesn’t. He starts to act out his fantasies. Living in this city, at a certain point you may want to kill somebody. You don’t do it. Travis does it. He crosses over. We understand those implications.

Bob is not a guy who knows movies the way I do. He can’t sit with me and Schrader and talk about Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur’s film noir. He doesn’t know it. And yet that makes it purer, because he’s just relating to what’s there. It’s better. He’s not taking any baggage with him. It’s very, very clear.

We find ourselves always coming around. The roulette wheel keeps moving, and we stop and look at each other, and we’re in the same place: “Oh, it’s you again.” It’s that kind of thing, where you seem to grow together rather than apart. I think the basic thing that happens there is trust. Once we’re in the groove, we very rarely have disparate points of view.

Together, the two of you created a character that has really entered the culture. I mean, how many times have you seen somebody imitate De Niro playing Travis Bickle?

We improvised the mirror scene. That’s true. I did improvise him talking in the mirror: “Are you talking to me?” It was in the script that he was doing this thing with the guns and looking at himself, and I told Bob he’s got to say something. He’s got to talk to himself. We didn’t know what. We started playing with it, and that’s what came out.

You and your work have become virtually synonymous with the idea of integrity. Do you find that inhibiting?

No, I feel really good about it. I feel gratified that people feel that the work is — I don’t know what words you want to use — personal or uncompromising. No matter what happens, though, there are compromises. You can say, “Yes, I’m going to make The Last Temptation of Christ. Give me $7 million, and I can do it.” But it’s compromised at $7 million. I would have liked certain angles. I would have liked extra days for shooting.

Okay, that’s artistic compromise, and people may say that what the film has to say is not compromised. But one has to realize it’s scary, because you have to keep a balance. You want to get films made that express what you have to say, but it’s a very delicate balance. I would like the chance to try exactly what I’m doing now with Cape Fear, for example — to do a great thriller and to give the audience what they expect from a thriller but also to have those elements which make my pictures somewhat different. I will try. I tried in Color of Money. I don’t know if it was totally successful there.

Sometimes it’s a trade-off. You have to do a certain kind of film in order to get maybe two others of your own that you want. I’m in this period now where I want to start exploring different areas, and you’ve got to make use of each film you make. You’ve got to learn from it, and you have to utilize it to get your own pictures made — the difficult ones, I should say, because they’re all, in a way, your own pictures. And no matter what happens, the really hard ones, you’re only going to get a certain amount of money for them anyway. So you’ve also got to think of making money for yourself for the lean years, when you have pictures you’re only getting paid a certain amount to make. There are so many variations. It’s playing a game, a line that you’re walking, taking everybody very seriously: the studios and what they need and what you need. Every now and then, they come together, like in GoodFellas. That was the best of both worlds: $26 million to make a personal movie. That’s very interesting. I mean, every movie wastes money to a certain extent, but you don’t want to do it to the point where…

You create problems for yourself.

Where you create real problems. But it’s not that rational. It’s not “My God, how rational he sounds” — God forbid if I do — it’s a matter of being careful and smart. The artists coming out of America in film come from Hollywood. The Hollywood film. And I’m proud to be associated with Hollywood because of that. I mean, I lived in Hollywood for over ten years. Even then, they thought I was still living in New York, but I’m a Hollywood director. I’m always proud to be considered that by the rest of the world. And to show that America, every now and then, will give me something to do or give something to other guys — Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch — who do very specific, very personal pictures. And you just utilize it. There’s so much fun involved sometimes that it’s enjoyable. But it’s dangerous.

In This Article: Coverwall, Martin Scorsese


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