OBSESSION : Martin Scorsese Eats, Sleeps, Breathes and Dreams Movies, Shot by Shot

T. J. English is the author of "The Westies: Inside the Hell's Kitchen Irish Mob," published this year by G. P. Putnam

When Martin Scorsese was 8 years old, he drew. Sketches mostly, elaborate shot-by-shot renderings of flicks he'd seen at the local movie theater. Sometimes they were movies that existed only in his imagination, to be recreated on paper. Drawn in pencil and crayon, they were often titled "Directed and Produced by Martin Scorsese." By the age of 12, Martin was drawing colorful Bible epics and Westerns, grappling with how to compose his comic-book panels so as to achieve maximum visual effect.

"I wanted them to be really big," he says now, laughing at his own precociousness, "but I was having trouble drawing close-ups in the 70-millimeter format. To this day, directors still have this problem."

Scorsese is on his home turf, New York City, seated in his office in the Brill Building in the heart of Times Square. Talking about his earliest attempts to interpret the world in a visual form seems to bring him great pleasure. His eyes are alive and his face animated, an expressive look accentuated by the fact that he has recently shaved his familiar black beard. Gone is the dark, Mephistophelean character who, from the back seat of Robert De Niro's cab in "Taxi Driver," rhapsodized about murdering his unfaithful wife with a .44 magnum. The devilish black eyebrows are still in evidence, but his features are smooth and accessible now, making it a lot easier to picture the 8-year-old Martin bringing his memories and fantasies to life frame by frame.

As Scorsese remembers it, the years passed and his sketches were set aside. A somewhat sickly kid with asthma, he watched the world unfold from the window of his parents' apartment on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy. Restricted from playing outdoors with other kids because of his condition, he developed the eye of an outsider while living in a tough neighborhood.

Eventually, Scorsese ventured out on his own, and the rest is an oft-told story: the months spent in a seminary studying to be a priest; his years as a wunderkind student filmmaker and, later, a teacher at New York University, and the beginnings of his career in the film business as an editor and then a director.

Most of all, there were the movies: "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ." Certainly Scorsese's work has received accolades--Oscar nominations for Best Director ("Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ" and Best Picture ("Raging Bull," "Taxi Driver") and the highest praise from his peers. "Raging Bull" was selected in critics' polls by Premiere, USA Today and others as the best film of the last decade. At age 47, Scorsese was profiled on the PBS program "American Masters," an honor that put him in the category of such national treasures as Billie Holiday, Jasper Johns and Arthur Miller. Among cineastes here and in Europe, Scorsese is generally considered the most interesting and talented director in America, if not the world.

Yet, his success has not spared him the unhappy vicissitudes of life. In fact, some have observed that Scorsese's total devotion to his work--his downright obsessiveness--has often been destructive to his personal well being. He's seen two wives come and go. His health has frequently suffered, with various stints in hospitals for mental exhaustion before and after shooting some of his films. And even though he is acknowledged as a brilliant filmmaker, getting financial backing for his occasionally provocative projects is never easy. Despite the critical acclaim, his films do not bring in the receipts of those by Messrs. Spielberg and Lucas.

"The money people respect Marty. They like his movies. But he makes them uneasy," says his longtime producer and friend, Irwin Winkler. "They never know what to expect from one of his pictures, and that's not considered good business."

Sometimes, Scorsese admits, the burdens of filmmaking can lead to a kind of emotional isolation, much like that experienced by the main character in one of his favorite movies, Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom." Released in Great Britain in 1960, it tells the story of a man whose obsession with filmmaking causes great tension in his life. Eventually, the man begins filming himself murdering people by stabbing them with the tripod of his 8-millimeter camera. In this movie, Scorsese says, "you can see the danger of filmmaking, at least for the people who express themselves through film."

So why does he continue to plunge deeper and deeper into his art? There is the sense that he really has no choice. The way he sees it, his current vocation is the inevitable extension of what he's been doing since he was 8 years old: taking his accumulated experiences, imagination and personal anguish and putting them all together, shot by shot.

"I really can't imagine Marty doing anything other than what he's doing," says Winkler, who produced "GoodFellas," Scorsese's 12th and latest feature. "It's like that line in 'Taxi Driver': 'There never was any hope for me.' With Marty, it was preordained."

PACING BACK AND FORTH in his Times Square office, Scorsese is mildly unsettled. Not upset, mind you, or annoyed or even uneasy. Unsettled. The source of his discomfort has to do with a press preview screening of "GoodFellas." It was a couple of months prior to the film's release, and as far as Scorsese is concerned, the film was an unfinished product. Most of it was there, of course--the brooding cinematography, the 1950s and '60s period detail, the music. Even the editing was completed.

So what was missing? One thing: a finished version of the title credits.

"For me," says Scorsese, in his inimitable staccato delivery, "credit sequences are sometimes more important than the movie, because they present the picture a certain way. They promise something."

Judging from Scorsese's movies, his concern for credit sequences is obviously genuine. Who could forget the home movie and typewriter titles of "Mean Streets"? Or the luxurious cutout Manhattan skyline that adorned the titles for "New York, New York"? Or, most triumphantly, Jake La Motta shadow boxing to the strains of Pietro Mascagni at the beginning of "Raging Bull"? But listening to Scorsese, you get the impression that whatever he's working on at the moment, that's the most important thing in the picture. Whether it's pre-production, the rigors of actually shooting the movie, the editing, the music, or one of the last and most taken-for-granted elements of movie making, the title credits, to Scorsese it is the one thing that could make or break the film.

For many viewers, it is this perfectionism that makes Scorsese's movies so watchable. His "story boards," or frame-by-frame drawings, for the terrifying climactic shoot-out in "Taxi Driver" show a loving attention to detail. Excitedly, he talks of the pleasure--the self-discovery--of editing "Raging Bull" with his long-time collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker. And he fondly remembers the fun he had devising elegant camera moves for "The Color of Money" with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who also worked with him on "GoodFellas."

Scorsese's office is amazingly neat; every note pad and pencil has its place. There are three VCRs and a TV against one wall, a bookshelf containing bound volumes of scholarly film periodicals against the other. The walls are dotted with photographs--two of Scorsese with his good friend Robbie Robertson, former leader of The Band, who starred in Scorsese's rock 'n' roll documentary, "The Last Waltz." There are also framed movie posters of "The Kiss of Death," "The Shanghai Gesture" and "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," the penultimate movie by his late friend and mentor, Michael Powell. Dominating the room, mounted on the wall above his desk, is an ornate fresco depicting Christ's crucifixion.

Much has been written about Scorsese's neurotic, rapid-fire mode of conversation. Even his own publicist warns interviewers to take along a good tape recorder and an extra set of batteries. But nothing quite prepares you for it. Scorsese's words flow out in a torrent, intense, sometimes blustery. He is not a pontificator in the manner of an Orson Welles; he is constantly probing, trying to communicate his emotional connection to whatever he may be talking about at the moment. His mind is lively and quick, and sometimes his speech struggles to keep up.

These days, Scorsese appears reasonably content. Of course, there are the expected anxieties that come with opening a $25-million movie, especially one that exhibits Scorsese's usual commercially risky approach--harsh, disturbing violence; absence of plot, and a two-hour-and-20-minute running time. But for the man who was almost crucified by fundamentalists for making a movie about Christ, "GoodFellas" promises a smooth ride.

Based on Nicholas Pileggi's 1985 nonfiction book, "Wiseguy," "GoodFellas" is a panoramic view of underworld life, spanning three decades. Focusing on a group of low-level tough guys and racketeers from a section of Brooklyn known as East New York, it covers terrain familiar to the director, whose portrayals of working-class life in New York have long since become the standard for other filmmakers. To facilitate his vision, he cast many people he has worked with before, including his frequent collaborator, Robert De Niro.

"I always knew I would return to this subject matter," says Scorsese, who made his low-budget gangster classic, "Mean Streets," more than 18 years ago. "When Pileggi's book came out, I read it from front to back; it was the most authentic thing I had read on this way of life. So I thought, hey, there's no sense in me doing another picture about this way of life unless I can approach it in a unique way."

For Scorsese, coming up with a unique approach often means seeing every movie ever made on the subject. "Mean Streets" was at least partially intended as an ode to the 1930s Warner Bros. gangster movies. The ominous, paranoid look of "Taxi Driver" was influenced by an eclectic collection of films, including Alfred Hitchcock's "The Wrong Man." For "The Last Temptation of Christ," Scorsese studied "King of Kings," "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and Pier Paolo Pasolini's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew," among others.

But "GoodFellas," says Scorsese, has no such cinematic antecedents. Although he quickly acknowledges that "everything from this genre properly comes from the inspiration of 'Public Enemy' and 'Little Caesar,' " the idea was "to come up with something that was without precedent in terms of style--that was the challenge."

Critics like to write about Scorsese's expressive cinematic style. Cited most often is the mobility of the camera in his movies, the way it swoops and tracks and pans its way into the lives of his characters. "Certain directors will emphasize the lighting of a scene," Scorsese says. "But for me, it's the sense of motion. I love the way the camera moves. I love the cut from one moving shot to the next, or the cut from a moving shot to a static shot. The inspiration always comes from the point of view of the lens."

Nonetheless, a flashy visual style has little or nothing to do with a director's search for the truth. In today's Hollywood, where film-school diplomas are ubiquitous, there are plenty of directors out there with nothing but style. With Scorsese, there is another element to his work that is at least equally distinctive and important. It has to do with something he remembers vividly from the movies he saw as a kid, something he refers to simply as "the performance."

"THE THING THAT'S great about Marty," says Joe Pesci, who plays a pivotal role in "GoodFellas," "is that he's very open to what an actor has to say. And even if he doesn't use what you say, he doesn't make you feel like yours was a stupid idea and his is better. He wants and expects you to contribute--chances are, that's why he picked you in the first place."

Pesci's admiration of Scorsese goes beyond the usual actor-director relationship. The two New Yorkers have been good friends ever since Scorsese "discovered" Pesci in the late 1970s. At that time, Pesci had given up acting and was managing an Italian restaurant in the Bronx. Scorsese and De Niro were looking for a fresh face to play De Niro's brother in "Raging Bull." They had viewed a low-budget movie called "The Debt Collector" to check out another actor, but when they spotted Pesci in the movie, they knew he had the authenticity they were looking for.

On the set, it took Pesci a while to adjust to Scorsese's methods. The director and De Niro, who had already made three memorable films together, would often huddle off to the side and talk privately. "I mean, when Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese do that to you, it can be very intimidating," says Pesci. But eventually, Scorsese pulled him aside and explained that he felt an actor would be less inhibited if he or she were able to talk privately about a certain scene outside the earshot of others.

In "GoodFellas," Pesci plays Tommy DeVito, a jovial, talkative hood with a pathological propensity for violence. He gives a performance steeped in naturalism. "That's Marty's thing," the actor says. "He always says 'I don't want you to act like anybody; I just want you to behave the way you behave.' And he's a great acting coach because he stays on you that way. I probably shouldn't say this 'cause I may never get another job, but I wouldn't care if I never worked for any director other than Marty."

The respect Pesci and other actors feel towards Scorsese is not limited to those who have worked with him. Read almost any interview with an actor or actress these days, and, when asked what they hope to do before their career is over, they all say, "Work with Scorsese." Some are even motivated to take action, like Paul Newman, who wrote Scorsese a fan letter after seeing "Raging Bull" (Newman misidentified him as "Michael" Scorsese). Later, the two worked together on "The Color of Money."

What makes Scorsese such a rare director is his ability to combine a visually sophisticated approach with an unparalleled attentiveness to his actors. Like Hitchcock, the master, Scorsese is known for his thorough pre-production; he knows what he wants long before shooting begins. But unlike Hitchcock, Scorsese's method does not sap the juices from his actors. He seems to elicit such great performances (De Niro, Newman and Ellen Burstyn have all won Best Acting Oscars working with Scorsese, for "Raging Bull," "The Color of Money" and "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," respectively) precisely because he compels his actors to dig as deeply into the material as possible.

The passion Pesci conveys when talking about Scorsese is echoed by others who worked on "GoodFellas." Ray Liotta lobbied hard for the role of Henry Hill, the half-Irish, half-Sicilian Mafia wannabe whose recollections of life in the mob were the focus of Pileggi's book. "Marty definitely gives you the ball," says Liotta.

"He cast all these strong-minded Italians in the movie," says Lorraine Bracco, who plays Henry Hill's wife, "people who wanted to have a cappuccino and a discussion after every scene. And I remember, one day, he was banging his hand against his head, saying, 'What did I do, what did I do?' But, really, Marty thrives on that kind of input. He's ego-less in allowing his actors to bring who they are into the role, and he loves them for it."

Scorsese's love for the performance stems in part from his appreciation of film history. "I simply saw 'East of Eden' over and over again," he explains, "or 'On the Waterfront'--that's the acting school I went to. Topped off by Olivier in 'Richard III,' or Orson Welles. Welles in 'Touch of Evil' is beyond belief; his enjoyment of expressing himself on screen is so strong you can feel it."

Scorsese's method sounds simple enough: truth in casting. He often uses non-actors in his films, including his parents. Catherine Scorsese, his mother, has a few big scenes in "GoodFellas" as Tommy DeVito's mother. Even the professional actors in the film--De Niro, Pesci, Liotta and Bracco--all come from backgrounds not unlike those of the characters they portray. "Some wonderful actors wanted to be in 'GoodFellas,' " he says ruefully, "and I wish I could have used them. But they'd have had to learn about the lifestyle. Better to get people who had some contact with it growing up. Because when you're growing up, it stays in your mind, and you can draw on that. It reminds you of certain images, certain people you knew in your childhood."

For a man with such a strong identification with actors, Scorsese is strangely dispassionate when it comes to his own sporadic acting career, which he claims means little to him. His extraordinary cameo in "Taxi Driver" happened only because the actor who was supposed to play the part didn't show up for work that day. He agreed to appear in " 'Round Midniqht" as Goodly, the jazz promoter and quintessential New Yorker, because Winkler was producing the movie. Recently, he shaved his beard to appear as a blacklisted Hollywood director in "Guilty by Suspicion," written and directed by Winkler and starring De Niro. And, in an imaginative bit of type-casting, he was enlisted by the great Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, to portray Vincent Van Gogh in the recently released "Dreams."

"It's very complimentary that friends of mine keep wanting to put me in their films," he says. "I don't like it, but you learn what it's like to wait on a set, to be in front of a lens, to hear nothing from the director and the cameraman and see them talking over in the corner." He laughs. "You find yourself looking with expectancy and saying, 'Was it good? Gee, maybe it wasn't good.' "

A simpatico relationship between actor and director is not always a given in Hollywood, and Scorsese attributes his own respect for actors to the influence of a very un-Hollywoodlike personality: John Cassavetes. In the early 1960s, he first saw Cassavetes' "Husbands" and was overwhelmed by the raw, spontaneous authenticity of the performances. He learned from Cassavetes that an actor's energy should be nurtured and directed, not squelched. Later, he and Cassavetes became close friends. It was Cassavetes who took Scorsese aside after seeing a rough cut of "Boxcar Bertha," Scorsese's first Hollywood feature, and told the young director he'd just spent a year of his life "making a piece of shit.

"Don't you have something you really want to do," prodded Cassavetes, "something personal?" It gave Scorsese the motivation to make the highly autobiographical "Mean Streets."

When Cassavetes died last year at the age of 59, Scorsese was saddened not only by the director's death but also by his own inability to confront the inevitable. Living in New York, he had put off flying to California to visit Cassavetes, even when he knew his friend was dying. "There are certain periods in my life when I'm terrified of flying," he says, "and that was one of them. But I think if I had been more courageous, I would have been able to do it. But it was something that I partially could not accept. At that age, so much power and so much inspiration about to expire. I couldn't face it."

AN INABILITY TO FACE his anxieties and fears is not a trait people usually associate with Scorsese. Behind his edgy New York persona is a scaldingly honest penchant for self-appraisal, one that permeates his work. When "Mean Streets" came out, Pauline Kael called it a "triumph of personal filmmaking." Even "New York, New York," which started out as a harmless showbiz musical, became a tortured elegy on the impossibility of mixing marriage and career--a dominant theme in Scorsese's life at the time. In "Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ" and even the "Life Lessons" segment of "New York Stories," his internal struggles--with his own destructive tendencies, his spiritual doubts or his insecurities--are right up there on the screen.

Using his work as a kind of personal psychotherapy often leaves him emotionally delicate, which takes its toll on his non-professional life. A well-trained Catholic, he has a large capacity for guilt and suffering. When his three-year marriage to model-actress Isabella Rossellini fell apart in the early 1980s, Scorsese told film critic Roger Ebert that not only was he unable to look at ads or movies that featured Rossellini because "it was just too painful," but he was also unable to watch movies starring Nastassia Kinski because of her resemblance to Rossellini.

Although there have been periods of "excess" in his social life, Scorsese's alliances are now largely restricted to a small circle of close friends. His third and current wife, Barbara DeFina, produced "The Last Temptation of Christ" and was executive producer on "GoodFellas," and many of his friendships are inextricably connected to his work.

Harvey Keitel, a kindred soul who has appeared in five of Scorsese's movies, once described their relationship as "like walking into a room . . . and looking into a woman's eyes. She looks back, and for whatever reasons, you both know it's something special." At times, Keitel and others have been willing to take sizable salary deferments when working with Scorsese in an effort to keep budgets down and get his movies made.

In "GoodFellas," Scorsese may not plumb the depths of his psyche, but there is still that personal connection. As with much of his work, he says his affinity for the material stemmed from childhood memories. He remembers the "good fellas," or Mafiosi, in Little Italy as princely figures, with the best cars, the best clothes and the most glamorous women. His movie dotes on the accouterments of the gangster's life in extravagant detail.

But if you expect a romanticization of the lifestyle in the manner of the "Godfather" movies, you've got the wrong director. The point of "GoodFellas" seems to be that the attractions of gangsterism are illusory. "Ultimately," Scorsese states flatly, "the lifestyle leads to disintegration and death. It just does."

With a large cast, the acting in "GoodFellas" is of the ensemble variety, which at times creates the feeling of an epic home movie. Even De Niro, who gets top billing, does not dominate. Nor does Ray Liotta, whose character serves as the focus for the action.

One scene involves a memorable moment by De Niro, who plays Jimmy Conway, the only Irish gangster in a group of Italians. Conway's gang has recently pulled off a lucrative heist, and in order to keep from getting caught, Conway has been systematically eliminating his fellow gang members. While standing in a bar, drink in hand, the camera tracks toward De Niro-Conway while the voice-over narration tells us of Jimmy's mounting paranoia. The camera lingers on De Niro's face, and we see him come to the realization that another of his associates must be killed.

It is a subtle, powerful actor's moment, the kind many viewers have come to expect from De Niro and Scorsese. Scorsese is cagey about his relationship with the actor, saying only that what happens between a director and any actor is private. In any event, "GoodFellas," he cautions, given its ensemble nature, is not a "major collaboration" between the two.

One aspect of "GoodFellas" that may surprise people who have come to know and appreciate Scorsese's work is the film's absence of spirituality. Many of his past movies have been populated by characters best understood in a religious context. In "GoodFellas," the characters have no comprehension of the spiritual hell in which they are trapped. There is no internal struggle. The inevitable result of this spiritual alienation is violence.

"It's about pursuing the American Dream," says Scorsese, with a shrug. "And what happens when things don't turn out like you planned."

Oddly enough, what might disturb viewers most about the violence in "GoodFellas" is that it's so unnervingly funny. Many will call the film a black comedy because of its unusual mixture of humor and near-slapstick mayhem. The starkest example of this is its opening, pre-title scene, a giddily shocking bit of brutality that culminates with the film's tag line, spoken in voice-over by Ray Liotta: "As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a gangster."

When Scorsese is told the film's opening might be the most dynamic since Sam Fuller's "The Naked Kiss," he laughs. "Come on now, 'The Naked Kiss'! That's the ultimate."

Fuller is one of Scorsese's major influences, and the opening of "The Naked Kiss" is one of the most startling in movie history. While loud, frenetic jazz music plays, a tall, blond hooker whips the daylights out of her pimp with a telephone. The pimp reaches up and pulls her wig off--and then it's a bald hooker whipping the daylights out of her pimp.

Scorsese is excited now, his eyes twinkling as they often do when he talks about movies he loves. "But you haven't seen 'The Street of No Return.' It's Fuller's latest picture. We hope to get it here in America in January or February. The opening may be as strong as 'The Naked Kiss.' "

Really?

"Yeah, maybe. But there's not a woman in it. That's why I think 'The Naked Kiss' is still the strongest opening."

A bald woman.

"Yeah. A baldheaded woman. You know, I don't even want to begin to question what that might be all about."

SCORSESE'S DEEP, impassioned affection for movies and his willingness to invest so much of his inner life into his own filmmaking beg the question: What becomes of a little boy who is already story-boarding at the age of 8?

Scorsese's total immersion in the culture of cinema, both as a viewer and a filmmaker, often amazes those who know him. Mention any obscure film, American or otherwise, and he can probably tell you the director, the studio and the year it was made. Since 1980, much of his free time has been devoted to the issue of film preservation, in an attempt to save color films of the '40s and '50s from falling into disrepair.

Now, his days are consumed with preparing for his next project, an updated version of the 1962 film noir, "Cape Fear." After that he will be working again with Winkler on a long-planned film biography of George and Ira Gershwin, which promises to satisfy once again his fondness for period recreations.

Scorsese's total love of film is apparent in his work. When combined with his penchant for intense personal exploration--and his ability to weave it all into the tapestry of his stories--his best movies exist, for many, on a kind of transcendental level far above the commercial fray.

There is, of course, a downside to all this, one that Scorsese sometimes appears reluctant to accept. When asked on the "American Masters" profile broadcast last July whether or not his entire life was rooted in film, he got testy. "Doesn't that make you a one-sided person?" he snapped. "It's just ridiculous, don't you think? If all I know is film, what other interest is there? Why are you talking to me? How could you be interested in what I'm saying? I have some thoughts about life, people, also."

Now, in his office weeks later, Scorsese is less defensive. The words "spirituality" and "salvation" pop up in his conversation a lot and it becomes clear that for him filmmaking has become a kind of religion. He willingly admits that, in retrospect, he may well have become involved in making movies for the same reasons he initially studied for the priesthood. "I didn't set out specifically saying that I can put whatever emotions or passions I had for the priesthood into filmmaking. That happened. Would the same themes and ideas that I was interested in come across in theology or in preparatory seminaries? Possibly, I don't know. But evidently, yeah, they've stayed for a long time."

The key to understanding his theology, Scorsese says, is the English director Michael Powell. Like Cassavetes, Powell helped Scorsese comprehend his own all-consuming love of film. And, like Cassavetes, the 84-year-old Powell died recently, leaving a void in Scorsese's life. A vastly intelligent and erudite thinker, Powell was once quoted in an interview as saying: "I am not just a director with a personal style; I am cinema."

When he is asked to interpret that remark, Scorsese grows quiet. One can hear horns honking and sirens wailing through Times Square.

"It's a tough one to interpret," he finally answers. "You see, Michael understood movies, things that moved; that was the idea. Pictures that moved. Remember I told you I was always attracted to shots before lighting, the movement of the camera or the non-movement of the camera? We were both attracted to that. . . ." Scorsese is talking even faster now, with emotion in his voice. "And at a certain point, you can actually feel it go through your body. It's part of you. And sometimes, when it all comes together on the set, and especially when it comes together in the cutting room, it becomes part of you. It's like it just seeps out of your body. And you become what you're--you become the film you're making."

Scorsese's voice trails off. Maybe it's just that it's late in the interview, but he seems almost embarrassed, as if he has revealed too much of himself. Undoubtedly, he is aware of the implications of what he is saying--the implied loneliness and isolation. The alienation.

I am cinema. For a man who claimed it was a hard statement to interpret, Scorsese appears to comprehend its meaning implicitly, almost as if he'd said it himself.

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