Martin Scorsese meets Time Out to talk philosophy and caterpillars...
Martin Scorsese is on publicity overdrive when we meet. He’s in London for two days before flying to Berlin for the world premiere of his new film Shutter Island, a 1950s-set thriller with a Hitchcockian B-movie flavour that reunites him with Leonardo DiCaprio for their fourth film together after Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed.
This gloomy mystery unfolds in a mental asylum on an island in Boston harbour and begins with two cops (DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) arriving to investigate the disappearance of a patient. But reality starts to fog and we’re soon drawn into a vortex of madness, guilt and past horrors of war and death seen in wonderfully stylised and haunting flashbacks. Stylistically fascinating, the film is a teasing puzzle and one that requires a willingness to sit tight until a late revelation makes sense of what’s gone before.
Scorsese talks fast, darting back and forth over his career, mapping out his life in films and finishing sentences with a flash of a smile and a roaring laugh. He sits deep in the sofa, his trademark thick-rimmed glasses on his nose, a small embroidered ‘MS’ on the belly of his shirt. He’s a model of polite efficiency but there’s also a hint of turmoil in his talk, as if the dark themes of Shutter Island have rubbed off on him, or vice versa.
Shutter Island looks like it was fun to make… I thought it would be a fun picture to make. But it turned out to be rather disturbing. Because of the subject matter. And the nature of the different levels we have to go through. But that’s the nature of filmmaking. You never know. Something you think is going to be absolutely horrible to make actually turns out to bring you a great deal of enjoyment.
I’m going to quote something back to you that you said in 1976 during an interview with Roger Ebert about Taxi Driver… Good lord!
You dismissed the idea of realism on film, saying, ‘Every film should look the way I feel.’ Oh, hey, I still agree with that.
How did that apply to Shutter Island? I’m not feeling so great! (Loud laugh) I’m not. I’m feeling… well, you know. My personal life and my family is good, thank God, everything’s moving along. But, no, Shutter Island reflects how I feel.
Even back to the choice to film Dennis Lehane’s dark novel? No. But once I read it, I had to do it. It was like a moth to the flame. It’s a chance to go deeper with a character, to walk a tightrope stylistically and to deal with parts of myself, parts of being human that other projects didn’t allow me. I may not want to go there but I’ve simply got to go there.
The film has a major twist at the end. Up until then, it’s something of a shaggy-dog story, keeping us hanging to the end. But that’s life, isn’t it? (Another loud laugh.) It may very well be life, for all we know. I don’t mean to be sitting here being so glibly ‘philosophical’, but as you get older… What is? And who is? And who are you? It’s Alice in Wonderland. Who… are… you? That’s the caterpillar, remember? Why is it so disturbing when the caterpillar asks her that? I remember showing it to my daughter when she was five or six-years-old. She did not like that caterpillar saying, ‘Who… are… you?’ (Laughs loudly again). But it’s interesting with this film because all the clues are there through the entire picture and I think, without giving away too much, if you see it and you don’t know anything, and you do at least find it satisfying by the end, you might then want to go back and see it a second time or a third time.
It recalls several of Hitchcock’s films – The 39 Steps, North-by-Northwest. The 39 Steps maybe. But I showed my colleagues his The Wrong Man, which is slightly different. The main character in that is innocent but he feels guilt for who he is. In his core, he is guilty. This interests me. I was raised Catholic and I’m interested in that aspect of ourselves. It has to do with guilt or a concept of original sin, if it exists. All these aspects always come to mind. It’s who I am and what I do. I try to be hipper but I can’t.
You’re hip enough. No, I’m not! (Laughs).
Does being hip concern you? I think that listening to other people’s opinions and being open-minded to other ways of thinking concerns me.
You fear being conservative? Yeah – because as you get older you may not want that many changes, but one has to be open-minded about so many things. Particularly when you have younger children. You’re almost excited to know what other people think. And if by reading or by somehow coming into contact with other ways of thinking, whether it’s philosophical or historical, you can enrich your life; that’s interesting.
And cinema must have played a huge part in that for you. It has, but it’s played more of a part in keeping my curiosity alive about life and about humanity and who we are. In other words, it covers everything, from being open to music, literature and philosophy of any kind that my little mind, what’s left of it, can understand.
You’re known not only for your own movies but also for your passion for cinema from all over the world through your World Cinema Foundation. Cinema happens to be where I am. If I had grown up in a different world, maybe it would have been literature, I don’t know... or painting, or music; that might have been something I would have preferred to do. But I am obsessed by cinema and that’s where I found my means of expression. So I’m there. It will always be cinema before the other arts. That doesn’t mean you don’t go to the other arts or that these arts cannot enrich cinema.
Were there any times over the past 40 or so years when your passion for cinema or film-making dimmed? Never for cinema. If it was for filmmaking, it was about finding where I could place my passion. I found that when The Last Temptation of Christ was cancelled in 1983 that, until I made it, whatever I did in between was just marking time. I had to get it done. That was a difficult period.
Where do you watch movies? A screening room, part of the editing facilities I have. I do have a very state-of-the-art DVD screening room at home. A very big screen. It’s very difficult for me to go to theatres these days. Also, when I did go a few years ago, the nature of the audience, the noise – it’s not taken seriously. And it hurts. I mean comedies, too. There’s an attitude, there are phones going off, people talking. It’s crazy.
You’ve always made documentaries – The Last Waltz, My Voyage to Italy – but now more than ever. You’ve got projects on both George Harrison and British cinema on the go. I’m still working on both. We have at least an hour of the British one done. The problem is Thelma [Schoonmaker, his editor and wife of the late British director Michael Powell] and I finding time between the features. There’s at least another two hours to go. I’m also working on one on Fran Lebowitz, a writer in New York, and also part two, we hope, of the Italian cinema film.
With the film on British cinema, have you been going back and re-watching lots of the films? Oh yes, going back to Millions Like Us, The Rake’s Progress. Sometimes two or three times. The Ladykillers. The Horse’s Mouth – that’s a wonderful film. It was directed by Ronald Neame from a novel by Joyce Cary. Sir Alec Guinness wrote the script and plays a painter called Gulley Jimson. It’s set in London, in colour. In fact, my daughter, who’s nine years old, fell in love with Alec Guinness and wants to meet him! I said he’s a little old now! (Laughs) She thinks he’s wonderful. I adored him, but I only met him once, through Michael Powell.
There were scenes in Shutter Island that made me think of Powell’s Black Narcissus and his I Know Where I’m Going. Exactly. The coastal elements. And the cliff scene in Black Narcissus. Literally, there were some shots in the film when we said, ‘Right, let’s have the Black Narcissus effect here!’
You enjoy working with familiar faces. Not just Leonardo DiCaprio, but also your editor, your director of photography, and many others. We know each other very well. They know what I’m capable of, probably more than me. They know where to push, how far I can go with certain aspects, with lighting, with production design. They just know. And even if I may be reticent or rejecting at first, they know that it takes me my own time to come round to certain things. I’ll either reject or accept, or explore further. That’s kind of fun. That’s really what it’s about.