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.