As unlikely as it seems, Martin Scorsese has never made a picture that was a mega box-office hit. Of course, that’s easy enough to understand: Scorsese’s films don’t take place in outer space or in Beverly Hills. They never feature precocious kids, ambitious secretaries, ghost chasers, fraternity high-jinks, the undead in hockey masks nor any kind of military equipment. Even when his subject matter parallels the stuff hits are made from, Scorsese’s vision is unique: His Mafia lives and works in the streets, not in a posh family compound; when Scorsese went to the boxing ring, his pugilist was a self-destructive putz, not a come-from-behind hero. As if that were not enough to court box-office disaster, Scorsese avoids two subjects that most moviegoers crave: sex and romance.
While the result will never be Batman, Rocky nor even Home Alone, Scorsese occupies a singular place in American cinema. “[He’s] one of a handful of American movie directors whose movies really matter,” says critic David Ansen. He has won the Golden Palm at Cannes and numerous film-critics’ awards (the New York, the Los Angeles and the National Society associations named GoodFellas best picture of the year and Scorsese best director). He has been nominated for an Academy Award two times as Best Director but has yet to win. Some of his associates have been luckier: Paul (The Color of Money) Newman, Robert (Raging Bull) De Niro and Ellen (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) Burstyn all won Oscars under his direction.
After making some student films, Scorsese worked as a teacher in New York University’s cinema department from 1968 to 1971. Since then, he has made 13 major motion pictures, four documentaries (including The Last Waltz), two Giorgio Armani commercials, an episode of Amazing Stories and a music video, Michael Jackson’s Bad. He has also done film editing (notably, Woodstock), producing (Stephen Frears’s The Grifters) and acting (he has made 14 brief appearances in movies ranging from his own to Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams and the upcoming Guilty by Suspicion). And then there are the hundreds of hours spent passionately hounding anyone who will listen about the necessity of film preservation and the evils of colorization.
His 20-year career has been both illustrious and rocky. His first three major films—Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver—instantly catapulted him into the top rank of directors. But he followed that trio with a well-intentioned, but costly failure, New York, New York, and found himself a Hollywood outcast. Both his private life and his films have been dogged by controversy. When an obsessed Taxi Driver fan shot Ronald Reagan, the film was blamed. The Last Temptation of Christ was picketed, vilified and boycotted—even Scorsese’s parents were castigated. On the personal front, he nearly died from a bout with drugs. He has been married four times, divorced three, including once from actress Isabella Rossellini.
Whether he was in favor or out, Scorsese still managed to make memorable films. Raging Bull is widely considered to be one of the best movies—if not the best movie—of the Eighties. Few directors have even attempted to plumb the depths of urban despair evoked in movies such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and GoodFellas. His artistry has yielded dozens of classic scenes: De Niro shadowboxing under the opening credits of Raging Bull; De Niro asking his mirror image, “You talkin’ to me?” in Taxi Driver; Willem Dafoe as Christ pulling his heart from his chest; De Niro, Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta segmenting a dead gangster’s body for a hurried burial in GoodFellas. Scorsese’s camera slips, slides and pries into his characters’ public and private lives—lives often without redeeming qualities.
Even when working closer to the mainstream (The Color of Money, After Hours, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the eerie The King of Comedy or the upcoming genre thriller Cape Fear), Scorsese routinely eschews the commercial approach in favor of personal subtext. When he directed New York, New York, with De Niro and Liza Minnelli, he couldn’t resist using the film as a dark mirror. Years later, “Life Lessons,” Scorsese’s segment of the New York Stories trilogy, was a discourse on an artist’s dependence on borrowing creative inspiration from the pain of his deteriorating romantic relationships. His films resonate with echoes of his childhood in New York’s Little Italy on the Lower East Side, where he grew up with the violence, the wise guys and the Italian-Catholic mystique that shape and color so much of his work.
Currently separated from his fourth wife, producer Barbara De Fina (despite their marital difficulties, they still work together), and living in New York, Scorsese is certainly no pariah in Hollywood. Now rehabilitated and redeemed, he has become an éminence grise in the entertainment industry, having demonstrated his ability to direct more traditional movies, such as The Color of Money, as well as produce on-budget films for other directors. “The establishment joined Marty, not vice versa,” maintains his friend Steven Spielberg, who is the executive producer of Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear. With the success of GoodFellas, the possibility of an Oscar for the maverick director seems less elusive.
Playboy sent Contributing Editor David Rensin to meet with Scorsese in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, just four days before Cape Fear started filming. Rensin reports:
“The interview took place in Scorsese’s rented home. For each session, he appeared at the appointed hour wearing a pressed shirt, olive slacks and a wide belt with a formidable buckle—though for our final meeting, on the morning of his forty-eighth birthday, he was shoeless, unshaven, wearing jeans and a blue T-shirt. I’m still unsure if he was finally relaxing or just happy the interview would soon be over, allowing him to turn to the more pressing business of beginning a motion picture.
“Scorsese’s wiry intensity offsets his obvious fragility. He speaks in brisk cadences, punctuated by deep breaths and routine use of his handy asthma inhaler and nose drops. In fact, he prefaced our opening talk with a history of his lifelong asthma problem and its various medications; and it was as detailed and impassioned as a later explanation of why he has become bored with questions about violence in his films.
“His focus and range required uncommon energy. To ask a question meant being prepared for a one-sentence answer, followed by a five-minute detour into film history or philosophic speculation.
“For a guy saddled with such a serious reputation, Scorsese laughed often and maniacally loud, his lips stretching into a wild, teeth-baring smile. Although we ended up meeting four times—twice as many as planned—and then talked more on the phone, that first morning, Scorsese seemed unsure of what to expect. He appeared agitated and somewhat preoccupied but nonetheless attacked the job at hand with ferocity. We made some initial chat about a possible forthcoming Oscar nomination for GoodFellas, but the subject quickly turned to anxiety.”
Interview by David Rensin
Playboy: All three major film-critics’ organizations have named GoodFellas as best picture and you as best director. Now it’s Academy Award time. Do you want to go out on a limb and predict if this is finally your year for an Oscar?
Scorsese: What does “This is your year” mean, ultimately? When you’re an asthmatic kid from the Lower East Side and you’re watching television and you’re movie-obsessed because the movies and church are all your parents will let you go to, then I suppose it means a great deal. [pauses] I get chills now thinking about the Academy Awards televised in black and white in the early Fifties. But as I grew up, I understood that when they give you an Oscar, it doesn’t mean it’s always for your best picture. Howard Hawks never got one. Alfred Hitchcock never got one. Orson Welles never got one. Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe. Everything has to be kept in perspective. If I win, it doesn’t mean that GoodFellas is better directed than Raging Bull or Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. I think a great deal of the Academy, but much of it has to do with timing. The only thing you can do is make more pictures. In other words, it’s the old story: You keep proving yourself time after time after time. [smiles] It’s like this Playboy Interview: Where were you ten years ago?
Playboy: Well, you’ve reached a certain level, and—
Scorsese: Reached a certain level? I didn’t reach that level with Raging Bull ten years ago? I certainly did; it’s the same picture I’ve been making for fifteen years. I think people just began to understand and realize that. And maybe you’ve interviewed everyone else so there’s only me around. And while you were doing all the other people, Scorsese’s still chopping away and making these pictures.
Playboy: Back to the Oscars. You do want one, don’t you?
Scorsese: I’d love to have a bunch of Oscars. It would be fun. But I’m at a point in my life where I’m just happy enough to make the pictures. But I feel good about any awards. I love the film-critics’ awards from different cities; I’d love the grand prize again in Cannes if I could get it. GoodFellas got the Golden Pit Award [for insensitivity], along with the soap opera Santa Barbara. That was good, because I don’t want GoodFellas to be too respectable.
Playboy: Let’s talk about the work. Why do you direct?
Scorsese: I don’t think I can do anything else.
Playboy: You can give us a better answer than that.
Scorsese: Well, despite all the pain of it, all the difficulty, a lot of times, I’ve made things happen that I really enjoy. Actors do something that I don’t expect, or they interpret what’s there perfectly. You hear me laugh on the tracks a great deal. The beauty of it is when I get into the editing room and combine what they did on the set with my pre-thought-up cuts and camera moves. I’m fascinated by the moving image. It’s like a miracle to me. I’m obsessed with those sprocket holes. Sometimes, in editing, we stop on the little frame and go, “Look!” Perhaps it’s half-flash-framed because it’s the end of the tape. Or the expression on the actor’s face is so beautiful we have the frame printed up and we put it on the wall. And then putting music on: the music in GoodFellas or Taxi Driver. I just want to listen to it over and over. Those are the joys, the rewards. That’s it. That’s a lot.
Playboy: What are the problems?
Scorsese: On certain films, every day was anxiety-producing, just wondering if I was going to get enough done for the day—let alone if it was going to be the shots that I had planned, the performances I had worked on. Let alone if it was going to be any good. Another problem, of course, is not having enough money to make the picture.
Playboy: It’s never enough, is it?
Scorsese: Well, when you really know it’s enough, that can be a problem, too.
Playboy: In four days, you’ll start shooting a new film, Cape Fear, with Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and other surprise stars. Are you excited?
Scorsese: I’m nervous.
Playboy: But you’ve made thirteen films.
Scorsese: Yeah, but it’s a matter of being afraid of becoming complacent about the ability to make films. If I’m not nervous, then there’s something to be nervous about.
Playboy: But you seem to be on something of a hot streak lately. GoodFellas is widely respected; Life Lessons, your section of New York Stories, was the best reviewed; and just last year, Raging Bull was selected as the best film of the Eighties by a consortium of “film-world notables” in Premiere magazine. Doesn’t that inspire a certain amount of self-confidence?
Scorsese: The award made me feel really good, especially after five or six years in the Eighties when I had trouble with The Last Temptation of Christ and made After Hours and The Color of Money. Even the British, in Time Out magazine, had the hundred best films of all time, and Raging Bull was number eight. That was great. I had a dinner for my birthday last year at The Russian Tea Room. I remember we had a lot of champagne because Raging Bull had been called the best picture of the past ten years. So it was more than a birthday celebration; it was like having been vindicated. Remembered. That was nice.
Playboy: So even though you told Paul Schrader in 1982 that you’d rather be fulfilled than remembered, you do like being remembered.
Scorsese: Oh, don’t believe anything I said back then. [laughs] Being remembered is what it’s all about. It’s all a way of getting past the notion of death. Woody Allen always talks about it. Maybe at the time I felt that way. I thought the only thing going for me then was being fulfilled by knowing my work had been good.
Scorsese: I felt good about Raging Bull, but I thought while making it that people would be repulsed. Some were, and I don’t blame them. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea. It was a very strong picture. But most of the pictures I make are not made with “the audience” in mind. I don’t mean that badly; I mean that I’m the audience. Raging Bull is a special movie for me. It was made on a purely personal level and I knew a lot of people wouldn’t go for it. It was kamikaze film making. I just poured everything I knew into the film—threw it all in without caring what anyone thought. It was done with such passion that I figured, If they don’t like this, then I’ll have no choice. I’ll have to go away, do documentaries about saints in Rome. I suspected my career would be over.
Instead, we got some wonderful feedback right away. And all those Academy nominations. [De Niro won the Best Actor Oscar; Thelma Schoonmaker won for Best Editing.] I’m not complaining. And remember, nobody had a print of the film until three or four days before it opened. It wasn’t like GoodFellas, where we had three months to work on publicizing it.
Playboy: Isn’t it true that at one time, you didn’t want to make the picture?
Scorsese: Right. I didn’t really want to do Raging Bull; Bob [De Niro] wanted to. And I didn’t really understand it until a period of excess I was going through, which landed me in the hospital, was over. I didn’t understand what the film was going to be about from my side. From Bob’s point of view, it was something else. But then I found my hook. When I made it through and I was all right, and I survived, I understood what the movie was about.
Playboy: Which was?
Scorsese: Self-destruction. I understood the character I wanted Jake to be. That’s why I made the ending as I did. Jake is able to reach some sort of peace with himself, and then subsequently with the people around him. He’s able to look at himself in the mirror and talk to himself, reciting lines from On the Waterfront, flat. You want to put meanings into the lines? Fine. Those aren’t the meanings that we’re talking about. It’s just flat. He takes it easy on himself and the people around him. That was a goal that I wanted to get to.
Playboy: How did De Niro act as a catalyst?
Scorsese: He kept pushing until finally I saw what I needed to see in it. I got out of the hospital and went to Italy for a week or two. When I came back, Bob and I went to an island and spent three weeks rewriting the script. That was the epitome of the collaboration.
Playboy: Maybe De Niro pushed you to do that because he wanted you to see what you, personally, needed to see.
Scorsese: No, I don’t think so at all. [pauses] Well, when he came to talk to me in the hospital, yes, to a certain extent. I think he really loved the project and wanted to get it made.
Playboy: You mention a period of excess. That was when you were roommates with the Band’s Robbie Robertson in the Hollywood Hills. What happened?
Scorsese: It was pretty self-destructive. Lucky to get out of it alive. I nearly died. But I did it; it’s over.
Playboy: Did what?
Scorsese: [Uncomfortable] Knock around, party after party.
Scorsese: Whatever. Everything you could get your hands on. We had some good times, but eventually, I began to ask myself, What was this life ultimately going to be like? Were we going to hit the ultimate party? Meet the ultimate young woman? The ultimate drug? What? No!
Playboy: When did you realize that?
Scorsese: Toward the end. Of course, Robbie and I had extremely creative, interesting discussions. We’d have little soirees in our house on Mulholland, and we’d screen movies—Jean Cocteau, Sam Fuller, Luchino Visconti—all night. We’d close off all the windows so we didn’t see any light coming up in the morning. We didn’t want any light coming in. It really got to the point where I got so bewildered by it all that I couldn’t function creatively. I realized that something had to be done about my having “checked out” this way of life.
Playboy: Checked out? Come on. This wasn’t a case of mere curiosity.
Scorsese: Whatever you want to call it. It’s a symptom of my having developed later in life than other people. You go out and say, Well, I’m going to have some fun. It’s like watching some old cartoon where people do stupid things. It gets very boring after a while. I was just acting out like a child would.
All that stuff eventually found its way into Raging Bull. I also put some of it into The Last Waltz. In fact, when I finished The Last Waltz, I thought that it was the best work that I had done. That’s what I felt. And I still wasn’t happy. Even the good work wasn’t making me happy. That’s when I had to really start to find out what was going on.
Playboy: We’ve heard a rumor that you had to alter the final print of The Last Waltz in order to excise some cocaine visible on Neil Young’s nose. Is that true?
Scorsese: We had to fix it because the song is so beautiful. The audience’s eyes would have gone right to that in the middle of Helpless. Plus, it’s such a beautiful, moving shot—simple and emotional. It cost ten thousand dollars or something. I think Neil has the contact framed.
Playboy: How did those years end?
Scorsese: I started to physically fall apart. Toward the end of the summer of ’78, during the week, I’d spent maybe three days in bed, because I couldn’t function. Maybe, maybe two and a half days of work. It got to the point where I couldn’t work anymore, and then around Labor Day of 1978, I had to be hospitalized. I was bleeding internally. I realized, What am I doing? Well, I guess I did it all, so I’d better move on.
Playboy: Is there a reason you haven’t used the word cocaine in reference to your excesses, considering what we’ve just discussed?
Scorsese: Using it reminds me of people telling all. I just don’t like it. I do think it’s important for people to understand that if you go through excess, whether you’re using cocaine, speed, liquor or whatever you can get your hands on, you’re going to reach the point of what excess is all about. That is, you realize that you have a choice: You can either go under—die in your sleep like Fassbinder—or stop it. That’s all it’s about, if there’s any message for people reading this. [pauses] I’m just embarrassed about too much breast-baring. Look at my movies, instead. The emotion: the violence, the anger, the rage, the childishness. It’s all there.
Playboy: You’ve said before that you use your films as personal therapy.
Scorsese: Yeah, that was another stupid thing I’ve said—as if there’s an inner rage in you when you make, say, Taxi Driver, and at the end of it, you think the rage has been expelled. It hasn’t. No movie is going to do that for you.
Playboy: Bearing in mind the very personal nature of the experiences that fed Raging Bull, how did you feel in 1981, at the Academy Awards, when Ordinary People, a film that is not on anybody’s ten-best-of-the-decade list, won Best Picture and Robert Redford got the Oscar for Best Director?
Scorsese: That’s a good picture. I thought I had a good chance. But I realized I wasn’t going to get it when the Directors Guild didn’t give me its Best Director of the Year. Usually, Oscar-winning films are certain kinds of pictures. The year Citizen Kane was nominated, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley won. A wonderful picture. It’s about family. It’s a good, wholesome film, more in the mainstream and easier to take. So it’s more understandable that a Driving Miss Daisy rather than a Born on the Fourth of July or an Ordinary People rather than a Raging Bull would win.
Playboy: When did you realize you weren’t mainstream?
Scorsese: Actually, I thought I was until New York, New York. I thought it was going to be a blockbuster. The idea is a homage to the style of the musicals of the late Forties and early Fifties, with characters grafted onto it who are more out of Scenes from a Marriage or a John Cassavetes picture. It was a naturalistic documentary approach.
But the more we shot, the more money it cost and the more I got involved with the reality of the characters. I knew they weren’t going to wind up together at the end, and I knew that the picture wasn’t going to do anything at the box office. I had changed whatever was commercial about it to something more experimental and, again, personal.
Playboy: How shocking was the reaction to New York, New York, considering your earlier successes?
Scorsese: Three films people loved—or at least they got a strong reception: Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver. The minute New York, New York came out, there was such ridicule. It made me think, What the hell am I doing here? Up to that point, I thought I’d belonged within the industry and the Hollywood tradition of classic directors. A real director is someone who can do a swashbuckler, then a film noir, then a gangster picture, then a love story. They had a great deal of range; they were pros who could probably have done anything. I always wanted to be that kind of director. But after New York, New York, I realized the studio system was over. There was no way I could get that back or re-create it. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life.
Playboy: Why, when it’s clear that you’re so respected for your originality, did you even want to be mainstream?
Scorsese: Well, I don’t want to be considered an adjunct to the business, or some sort of strange punctuation that’s on the margins. All my life, I’ve been on the outside. A good example: I lived in California more than ten years, but at every party I went to—and I went to every party—there was one person who would say, “Well, how long you out here for?” I’d say, “No, no, I live here.” Or they’d come into my house and say, “You just renting this?” “No, I bought it.” It’s that kind of thing.
Playboy: And you were an outsider as a kid, too?
Scorsese: Right from the beginning, because of my asthma. I couldn’t join in and play stickball. In the summertime, they’d open the fire hydrants. Water would go all over the street, and I was never allowed to go into that. That sounds like some poor little kid behind a window staring at kids playing, but that’s really what it was. So my parents would take me to the movies a lot.
Playboy: Was it fear of being an outsider that eventually made you direct more mainstream films, such as After Hours and The Color of Money?
Scorsese: No. It was just a good way of getting back into shape after The Last Temptation fell through. I got a big dose of humility. I didn’t bang any walls, though. I decided to get stronger and rehabilitate myself. I realized I just couldn’t walk into a film anymore and say, “OK, it’s going to take as long as it takes.”
Playboy: Or cost as much as it costs.
Scorsese: There were three pictures where I didn’t really worry about the money: New York, New York, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy. Those films were made in a period when it was a little easier. King of Comedy was maybe three hours a day shooting—but I was tired, had just had pneumonia and had to start the picture before I was ready because of an imminent directors’ strike. Now I shoot ten hours. By the end of that film, I realized I wouldn’t be able to sustain a career that way any longer. Also, a few days after Raging Bull came out, Heaven’s Gate was released by the same studio. That was the end of complete autonomy budgetwise for most directors. And I realized that with less money, in most cases, you have more freedom to make the picture, and more of a chance of surviving in the theater.
Playboy: Is that why The Color of Money, with Tom Cruise and Paul Newman, seems so traditional? It’s not exactly a Scorsese picture.
Playboy: Funny. Spielberg also said he felt that The Color of Money wasn’t a Scorsese picture. And he’s right, in the traditional sense. It became a mainstream film. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t do it intentionally. We applied the same principles of production, which was very low budget, that we used on After Hours to a picture with a big star like Paul Newman. Those standards seemed to work very much in our favor. We came in a million and a half under budget.
Playboy: Was working with Newman intimidating?
Scorsese: Yes. In the beginning, my talks with him were a little difficult for me. It was the “under twenty-one syndrome” that Woody Allen spoke about in trying to direct Van Johnson in The Purple Rose of Cairo. When he was under twenty-one, Woody had seen Johnson in so many movies that he was like an idol. Newman was an idol to me and it was tough to be fully myself until I understood what he needed.
Playboy: What did he need?
Scorsese: A reason for making the film.
Playboy: For that film, of all films?
Scorsese: He never felt that there should have been a sequel to The Hustler.
Playboy: But he came to you, didn’t he?
Scorsese: Yeah. In this business, you say, “Well, let’s see if so-and-so can do something with it. Maybe if this guy comes up with something, I might really think about it seriously.” He didn’t believe at the time in the continuation of characters in different movies. So I told him, “I just don’t believe that ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson would give up. He’d become something else. He’d become everything he hated. He’d become the character George C. Scott was.” Newman was skeptical. Or cautious. But he thought what I’d said was interesting. I came up with the idea of doing sort of a road movie: take a young boy under his wing and teach the kid all these terrible things. Corrupt the kid and then be bitter with his own corruption, until he does what he was supposed to do all his life, anyway: play the game. Maybe not win but play the game.
Playboy: Can you describe the ideal film you’d like to make?
Scorsese: Pictures that interest me as much as possible personally, are experimental and stay within the system somehow so that they can be shown in theaters. I’ve always tried to blend “personal” movies with being inside the industry. A lot of my success has to do with sacrifice: being paid very little for certain types of pictures and learning to work on a very, very small budget.
Playboy: Isn’t that increasingly difficult in the era of the megahit?
Scorsese: Yeah. I’ve got to be lucky just to make fifty or sixty million dollars on a picture. I have a great love for organized studios in Hollywood and the way the system works. I’ll argue, I’ll discuss, I’ll complain and I’ll say, “Yeah, but if you’re making too many films that you expect to make two hundred million dollars on, where are the new people going to come from?” And, sure enough, there’s a wonderful sturdiness about independent film making in America. For example, where was Tim Burton a few years ago? Doing smaller pictures. It isn’t as if we got some guy who had worked ten, fifteen years in the business to direct Batman and that’s why it became the four-hundred-million-dollar epic.
Playboy: You once said that a crucial aspect of Mean Streets was that Charlie and Johnny Boy don’t die, they go on. You’ve had some hard personal times. Have you ever not wanted to keep living?
Scorsese: Only when I was a kid. I read the book The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene. Scobie is the character’s name. As I remember, his wife had been hurt in an accident, so they couldn’t make love anymore. There’s an airplane crash and he nurses one of the victims back to health. She’s a young woman, and he falls in love with her. He can’t leave his wife and he can’t stop the adultery. By the end, he decides to commit suicide, because he can’t go on offending God.
I had those thoughts when I was fifteen or sixteen, as I was encountering natural sexuality: impure thoughts, masturbation, the whole thing. I thought that if these impurities continued, then maybe I should do what Scobie did. But then I said it in confession to my parish priest, who’s now dead, and he said, “No, no, no. You mustn’t think those thoughts.” [laughs] I guess I took it too seriously.
Playboy: When did you make your last confession?
Scorsese: Oh, 1965, I think. I’ve been confessing most of the time since then on film, so it doesn’t matter. My old friends who are priests, they look at my films and they know. Still, I can’t help being religious. I’m looking for the connection between God and man, like everybody else. Some say there is no God, and that’s the end of the connection. We exist and then we don’t exist.
Playboy: Do you believe that?
Scorsese: I believe the more you know, the less you know.
Playboy: When do you feel the most Catholic?
Scorsese: When I’m making pictures like Cape Fear. Bob De Niro’s character, Max, is the avenging angel, in a way. Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange’s characters, Sam and Leigh, are representative, for me, of humanity. They’re basically good people who have had some hard times and are trying to go through them and piece their lives together. Now they’re being tested, like Job, by Max.
Playboy: Can’t you help yourself from Catholicizing everything?
Scorsese: [Laughs] No. It’s an embarrassment. It just seems to fall into place that way. I have to ground everything in a bedrock of spiritual motivation.
Playboy: Do you think you’ll ever go back to the Church?
Scorsese: A couple of friends of mine think I will. I don’t think I’ve ever left, really.
Playboy: At one time, you wanted to be a priest. What happened?
Scorsese: I couldn’t become a priest because I couldn’t resolve how one could take the concepts of Christianity and make them apply to daily life. You hear how life’s supposed to work from priests, then you watch how it really works on the streets. That shows in Mean Streets, where Charlie is trying to lead a life philosophically tied in with Roman Catholic teaching: offering up penances, suffering for atonement of his own sins, dealing with the sins of pride and selfishness and trying to take the concept of loving your enemy and fellow man and reconcile it with rules of living in a total jungle. I couldn’t resolve that for myself, because the microcosm of Little Italy is just that: It’s a microcosm of us today. It’s a microcosm of troops in Saudi Arabia, it’s a microcosm of everything. The same concepts apply in every form of society throughout the world, in different degrees of intensity.
Another reason, of course, was that I’d become aware of girls. There was no way to resolve the sexuality that I felt. I was very, very shy that way because of wanting to be a priest, and even more introverted because I had asthma. I was a late bloomer. I’d discovered girls but didn’t act on it like some of the other guys who had healthier attitudes. And that, too, figured into Mean Streets. During the pool-playing scene, Charlie talks about his priest, who had told him a story about a young boy and girl who were nice kids but who went out and had sex—and paid for it. The kids have never made love. One night they decide to go all the way. They park the car, they’re making love and a truck comes by and smashes into the car and they burn up in flames. And the priest said he knew these two kids. Charlie believed it.
I’d heard the same story on retreat and years later, a girl I knew told it to me, too. She said the priest she’d heard it from also knew the kids personally. Well, it couldn’t have been the same priest. So I talked to a friend who had been on that retreat with me and he said, “Of course it was not true.”
Playboy: You believed it?
Scorsese: Totally. I saw those bodies writhing in flames because they had dared to have sexual thoughts and act on them. Priests are great actors. [smiles] I was a fool. I was very gullible and naïve. I felt that the priest had lied to me personally.
You’ve got to understand: I was still a baby in that way. I was living with my parents. A lot of these other guys around me, they were more on their own. I stayed very much a family boy until after I shot Taxi Driver.
Playboy: But by the time you heard the story about the car’s going up in flames, you’d already had sex?
Playboy: When was the first time?
Scorsese: Oh, very late. Very late.
Playboy: In college?
Scorsese: No, I was married. The idea was one person, and that was the one person.
Playboy: Would you have had sex earlier if your religion had allowed it?
Scorsese: No, absolutely not. I was going to be a priest—and I harbored a desire to go back to the seminary right up until I made my first short film in 1963.
Playboy: Should priests get married?
Scorsese: Oh, I go the party line on that. Maybe that’s one reason I never became a priest. There’s supposed to be a devotion, a selflessness; they cannot share their life with anybody else. There has to be a sense of sacrifice, discipline and asceticism. If somebody gets run over by a train, the priest is called in and he has to perform the last rites on what’s left of the body. Then he goes back to his rectory. If he were married, what would his wife say? “What was it like today, dear?”
Playboy: You got married at twenty and had a daughter, but the marriage didn’t last very long.
Scorsese: Right. My upbringing was so parochial. Kids from other cultures might have lived together first to try to see if their lifestyles meshed. If I’d had any inkling what this film business was like, I would have wanted to, as well. I was twenty or twenty-one, I was doing films at New York University. I had one foot in one world and one foot in the other. In order to continue the films, I think, I had to really concentrate on that and let the personal life slide. I was late in everything in my life, because I came from a very closed, parochial environment. I didn’t let my hair grow until 1969. I went to Woodstock—to work, mind you—in a shirt with cuff links and didn’t buy my first pair of jeans or start wearing cowboy shirts until afterward.
Playboy: So you do think business and artistic pressures tend to make successful relationships between two creative people difficult, as in New York, New York?
Scorsese: Actually, it took Jean-Luc Godard to tell me, when I finally met him, what that movie was about: the impossibility of two creative people sustaining a marriage. There are great married teams: Nicolas Roeg and Theresa Russell, Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews. They seem to be doing fine. You should ask them. I don’t think I’ve ever really tried it that way. Over the years, you get involved with people and many of them are also creative, and you usually find that the drive for fulfillment of their own work starts to clash.
Playboy: And once again, you put it on the screen?
Scorsese: No matter what I do, [my personal experiences] seem to get up there. Not to betray the people who are with me; not to betray my wife or my close friends. It’s not as if I think, I’m going to take that and put it up on the screen. I’m just trying to find a truthfulness, and I look into myself first.
It isn’t easy to do, by the way. I don’t know if you ever get into an argument with somebody you love and think, Oh, that would be incredible on film. Your emotions are in the way; you can’t do that. And once you calm down, you forget every word. Later, maybe things come to you, so you try to put them into different characters.
Playboy: Do you think that if you and your second wife, writer Julia Cameron, had stayed together, the New York, New York characters might have stayed together?
Scorsese: [Very uncomfortable] I don’t know. When you mention her name…I can’t talk about it that way. It would have been kind of schizophrenic if we hadn’t stayed together to put them in the movie that way. In that particular instance, it seemed to be the most honorable way of ending the movie. Everything else would have been a lie if they had walked off together. But the movie is not just about my marriage at the time. It drew from all kinds of relationships.
Playboy: Does that mean if you had focused more off screen on your relationships with women, your movies might have been different?
Scorsese: [Bristles] I’m always focused on my relationships. It’s just that at a certain point in my life, I realized I could focus only up to a certain point, and then you need glasses. The moment you realize you need glasses, and what kind of prescription it is, you tend to take it a little easier on yourself. You think, I can stay in for the long haul if I can. But you know that it will probably end.
Playboy: At some point, you couldn’t give as much as they demanded?
Scorsese: Not necessarily what the people demanded but what the relationship needed. Up to a certain point, I probably give as much as possible. And I have reacted differently over the years, with depression or rage, at the realization that I couldn’t continue.
Playboy: You once told Roger Ebert that you couldn’t look at ads or movies with Isabella Rossellini—or even Nastassja Kinski, who looks like her—after your marriage dissolved.
Scorsese: Well, that was right after the breakup of our marriage. There was a great longing. But that was 1982, 1983, an interesting time. That was when King of Comedy finished. And within a week or two, I started preproduction on The Last Temptation of Christ and I was completely happy again. I was able to put our marriage into some sort of perspective, and now we’re pretty good friends.
Playboy: Did you like her in Blue Velvet?
Scorsese: She’s quite good, but that’s a weird role for an ex-husband to look at. I cannot be totally objective. All I know is that it was a believable performance.
Playboy: Did you get angry at Dennis Hopper when he was hitting her?
Scorsese: No. [laughs]
Playboy: Are you, like Nick Nolte’s character, Lionel Dobie, in Life Lessons, someone who needs emotional pain to create?
Scorsese: Not anymore. [laughs] But remember, you’re talking to an Italian. I had to have drama off screen as well as on screen. Now the drama on screen is pretty much enough.
Playboy: Let’s talk about another of your important relationships: Robert De Niro.
Scorsese: Let’s not. [laughs] Just kidding.
Playboy: Well, it’s true you rarely discuss your relationship. Yet you’ve done six pictures together and other actors and directors regard your working relationship as a model. Now, after nearly ten years of not working together, he has been part of the ensemble in GoodFellas and plays the lead in Cape Fear. Why the long break?
Scorsese: It was important, after King of Comedy, that I did less with Bob and concentrated on my own work again. We had explored so much together. We needed time to learn more about ourselves. I realized that a man lives his life alone. I don’t believe in teams, ultimately. Eventually, it’s you and the material. But now, after a whole series of pictures on my own, it will be interesting to see if Bob and I can do something that will further our experience in film making.
Playboy: When you watch De Niro’s work with other directors, do you ever get jealous? Feel proprietary?
Scorsese: In the early days, when I was making films with him all the time, yes. When I saw him in The Deer Hunter, for example, I felt a bit nervous watching. It was like somebody who was extremely close to me having an affair with someone else. But I admired his work in that film and others.
Playboy: Why does it work so well between you?
Scorsese: Trust, creatively. He has instincts that just turn out right for me. And also personally. He and I can say the stupidest things to each other about anything, and it’s not going to find its way past us. We identify with each other somewhat through the characters he acts out and I direct. We also seem to be growing older in the same way.
Playboy: Is it true you wanted De Niro to play Christ originally?
Scorsese: No. I flew to Paris for one night to talk to him about it. He felt he didn’t know enough about religion to understand what was needed. I knew that before I asked him. It was more a discussion. At one point, he said, “Listen, if there’s any problem, if you can’t get the picture made without me, I’ll do it.” For a guy to hang on a cross for three days, you’ve really got to want to do that. But he meant it wholeheartedly, and I appreciated that.
Playboy: Just before your deal was made for a second try at The Last Temptation of Christ, you both visited Marlon Brando on Tetiaroa. Why?
Scorsese: Brando had an idea for a comedy he wanted me to do. He said he was a fan of King of Comedy. He said, “Would you like to come down? Tahiti’s beautiful.” Bob just happened to be around and said, “Why don’t I come down, too?” I don’t think he’d met Brando. Plus, he likes islands. I live in buildings; I don’t understand islands. I see a palm tree, I get nervous. We went for seven days and spent about three and a half weeks.
Playboy: Why the change in plans?
Scorsese: Brando said, “I’ll come around, just enjoy yourself.” He put me in a small house. The island is very small; you can walk around it in less than forty minutes. There’s nothing to do there. Then he waited until I got into the rhythm of Tahiti, and that took three or four days. He’d come by and say, “Did you walk around the island yet this morning?” I’d say, “Yeah.” He’d say, “What are you going to do this afternoon, go the other way?” I’d say, “Yeah.” Then I’d be reading a book. “Still reading that book?” Soon I began to understand that you don’t do anything. You don’t know what time it is, you don’t know what day it is. You get up, you walk around, you go into the water.
It was the first and only time in my life when I was very sad to leave a place—despite having a hard time because I was being eaten by the mosquitoes.
Playboy: What did you talk about?
Scorsese: Brando is a raconteur and he has wonderful stories. You get a sense of what’s important to him in his life. He would read poetry to me. I liked him. I really wish we could have worked together. But it’s hard for me to do other people’s dreams, other people’s projects that they’re burning to do. Over the years, with so many people I admire, we’d get together, we’d like to work together, but it was usually something that I had to do for them. Or something that came out of their soul. It’s very, very hard, at this stage of the game, for me to become as excited as they are over that particular project. I’ve got only so much time left. I’m forty-eight years old. Each film has got to mean something to me. I don’t care who it is—if it were my brother’s project, I couldn’t do it. I’ve got to do what is important to me.
Playboy: Let us read you something.
Scorsese: Are these my bad reviews? I don’t read the bad reviews. [laughs]
Playboy: It’s a letter to the editor from the Los Angeles Times Magazine, in response to an article about you when GoodFellas was released. It reads, in part, “Like other hack directors, Scorsese uses mayhem to excite audiences, not reveal meaning.”
Scorsese: Oh, the violence question. It comes up.
Playboy: Obviously, this is a criticism you’re familiar with. Does it upset you?
Scorsese: Only because, as I’ve said many times, the violence comes out of the things that I really know about. It would be very difficult for me to do a war picture. Take Oliver Stone and Platoon. He saw war. You get that sense of absolute horror and panic. Maybe it’s no justification that these things come from my experience. But that’s why I make personal movies. I make them about what I think I understand.
I grew up in the tenements. I lived only half a block away from the Bowery. We saw the dregs, the poor vagrants and the alcoholics. I saw everything. Most mornings on the way to grammar school, I’d see two bums fighting each other with broken bottles. Blood all over the ground. I had to step around the blood and the bottles—and I’m just eight years old. Or I’d be sitting in the derelicts’ bar across the way. We’d go in—we were only kids, nine years old—and sit there. We’d watch guys get up and struggle over to another table and start hallucinating and beating up someone.
The first sexual thing I ever saw was at night: two derelicts performing fellatio on each other and then vomiting it up. I was about thirteen then. But I’ll never forget the images. Never forget them. The first aspect of life I remember seeing was the death of it. You don’t even have to go to the Bowery now to see it. In Manhattan, it’s all over the streets.
Playboy: Sounds like a disturbing childhood.
Scorsese: It wasn’t. This was just the environment I was in. It was like the wild West, the frontier. When it came to your apartment in the tenement where you lived, you were protected, usually. Though at night, coming back late, you found derelicts in the halls, or people robbing each other in the halls. After a while, in the early Sixties, they put locks on the street doors and two lights on each doorway.
Playboy: And these are the experiences you’ve embraced on film. Why?
Scorsese: Violence is just a form of how you express your feelings to someone. Take this situation: Let’s say you’re growing up in this area and you want to be a gangster. Well, you can get into somebody’s crew, and you start working, but you’ve got to prove yourself. And what you have to do, you know, is very clear. For instance, an old friend who got into that lifestyle for a while told me this incredible story.
He had to go collect money—because it’s always about money. He’s told by the man running his crew, “You go to the guy in the store, take this bat and break it over his head. Get the money.” The guy says, “Why?” And he says, “Well, because he’s been late a few weeks and he owes me the vig. He should be hit. Get the money if you can.” So he gets there. He also takes a younger guy with him. They get in the store and he sees there are a lot of people waiting to buy things. So he takes the owner in the back and threatens the guy for money.
The guy says, “Oh, I have it. I have it here. Glad you came. Here’s the money.” So he takes it and leaves. On the way out, the young guy who was learning from him says, “You were supposed to hit him.” “No, he had the money. We don’t have to hit him; he gave us the money.” So he went back to his boss and said, “Here’s the money.” The boss said, “Did you hit him? Did you break his head?” “No.” “Why not?” “He had the money. And there were people there.” “That’s the point. He’s late, isn’t he? Take the bat and break his head. Even when he gives you the money, especially if there’s people there. That’s how you do it.”
And not only do you have to do it, you have to learn to enjoy it. And that’s what I think people started to get upset about again lately, with GoodFellas.
Playboy: In stories about you, there’s always the suggestion that although you were too sickly to join in, you wanted to be a wise guy—much like Henry Hill in GoodFellas.
Scorsese: I couldn’t do it personally, but as a boy of thirteen or fourteen, I had to harden my heart against the suffering. I had to take it. My friends go to beat up somebody, I went with them. I didn’t jump in, but I watched or set it up.
Scorsese: Oh, of course. Sure, you do all that. It’s part of growing up there. So it’s my experience. I don’t expect this person who wrote the letter you read to have the same experience. Maybe he had experience with violence in another way. I don’t know, but that’s for him to make a film or write about; I have no argument.
Playboy: As an adult, what were your violent experiences about?
Scorsese: Years ago, oh, God, the tension of shooting, the frustration of trying to get everything. I had this constant thing of having incredible energy and then suddenly, if things weren’t going right, I’d punch a wall. I would traumatize the knuckles on this right hand. When we had only twenty days to shoot and something went wrong, I’d go into the trailer, pound the wall and come out smiling as if nothing was wrong. Now I know what’s going to happen if something goes wrong on the set, and I’ll either try to make it right or move on. All the screaming and the yelling is not going to help. That doesn’t mean I don’t still have insecurities. And the anger is there; it simmers. I just don’t necessarily act out violent rages anymore.
Playboy: Perhaps the violence in your films is some wishful extension of your inability to participate earlier.
Scorsese: No. It’s so destructive, the violence. Look at Jake in Raging Bull.
Playboy: When do you find violence in film exultant?
Scorsese: The Wild Bunch has a choreographed excitement. Meaning like ballet. Plus, you also like the characters for some reason.
Bonnie and Clyde is another example of a very important film where you really like the people. The violence is overblown. The violence is just amazing. [New York Times critic Vincent] Canby said that it really was a watershed film. It opened the door to a new understanding of violence on screen during the time we were in Vietnam. It was a way to keep abreast of how things were changing.
Playboy: Does violence in films cause violence in the streets?
Scorsese: It depends on the person. I don’t believe any one movie or any one book makes people in their right mind, whatever that is, go out and act some way because they saw it in a movie. [But I can’t satisfy] America’s need for quick, one-statement answers here. American readers seem to want to read a clear statement and say, “You know, they’re right.” As simple as that, like taking polls on CNN. It’s crazy. That’s not a one-statement answer, it’s a very complicated question.
Playboy: Roger Ebert said he didn’t think you could make Taxi Driver today, because it had the wrong kind of violence. He said it was meaningful, well-thought-out violence, as opposed to random violence.
Scorsese: I suppose the kind of random violence he’s talking about is in films like Total Recall—which I haven’t seen—which are really the action-adventure B films from the Thirties and Forties taken to another level. That violence confuses me and perplexes me. I really don’t understand it. Violence in films today is so abstract. Horror films and the disemboweling of people. Maybe that satisfies a need in human beings that was satisfied by real blood lust two thousand years ago. I don’t know what’s happened to our society. I don’t know why we have to see our entrails being dragged out. I don’t get it.
Playboy: What about Taxi Driver? The film is perhaps the pre-eminent example of how the public associates you with violence.
Scorsese: Well, I didn’t do the violence scenes in Taxi Driver for titillation, for instance, or for an audience to have fun with. It was just a natural progression of the character in the story. And the total tragedy of it.
Playboy: Can you defend Travis Bickle?
Scorsese: Travis Bickle, the character that Paul Schrader wrote, is the avenging angel. He comes in and he wants to clean up the streets. He wants to clean everybody out. He really means well. The problem is the old story of what constitutes madness. We have this fantasy sometimes, in the city, where you look at it and you say, “God, how could this exist? Look at the poor people in the streets. What’s going on? What’s happened in the past fifteen years to America? I wish I could do this; I wish I could do that.” You even get a sense of violence walking in the streets.
Playboy: Many of us don’t walk in those places because—
Scorsese: Exactly. You don’t have to finish your sentence, because I know what you’re saying. A lot of people may read this and they may not understand that, because they may live somewhere else. But in most urban centers, you get that sense of incredible violence.
The point is that Travis sees this, and although we have fantasies about it in our weakest moments, Travis acts out the fantasy.
Playboy: You said you understood Travis’ having gone about it the wrong way. Are you saying you tried to get the message across incorrectly about how horrible all this violence is?
Scorsese: I don’t know. There are lots of mistakes you make. What’s the old cliché—The road to hell is paved with good intentions? Or the line that always brings tears to my eyes in The Last Temptation: “I’m so ashamed of all the wrong ways I looked for God.” I did take that rather personally.
Playboy: One person who got it wrong was John Hinckley. He used having seen Taxi Driver, and having become obsessed with Jodie Foster, as part of his defense.
Scorsese: To use the film as a defense is such an oversimplification. A horror. But attempted assassinations are so horrible, and the country is so frightened by this phenomenon, that using the film as a defense kind of sedates the public. It makes them feel, “It’s OK, we’ve got everything under control. It was the fault of these guys who made this picture, and it was the fault of Catcher in the Rye.” Does this then mean it has really nothing to do with his family, it has nothing to do with maybe there’s something wrong physically with his brain?
Playboy: When did you hear the news linking the film and the assassination attempt?
Scorsese: We were in Los Angeles for the Academy Awards. Afterward—Bob won the Academy Award for Raging Bull—at a party at Ma Maison, someone said, “Didn’t you hear the news?”
Playboy: How did you feel at that moment?
Scorsese: I said it was absurd. Then they explained the details about Hinckley. Oddly enough, and I’ve never told this story before, when I was attending the Academy Awards years before, when Taxi Driver was nominated for Best Picture, I’d gotten a threatening letter from somebody. Jodie Foster had been nominated, and the letter read, “If Jodie Foster receives an Academy Award for what you made little Jodie do, you’ll pay for it with your life. This is no joke.”
I remember showing it to Marcia Lucas, George Lucas’ wife at the time, who was my film editor. There were so many things going on. We were trying to finish New York, New York and we said, “That’s all we need.” So the FBI came by, I gave them the letter, they looked into it, and a few nights later, I had to go to the Academy Awards. Billy Friedkin was the producer of the show and he let me in first. It was great. They pointed out the FBI agents who were there at the door, some of them women in gowns, and said if anything happens.… They thought Jodie might win that night and—who knows?—maybe the person is in the audience. Of course, she didn’t win and it was forgotten.
Playboy: OK. Given the violent moments in your movies, how have you resisted what so many other film makers haven’t—violence against women, especially the connection between violence and sex?
Scorsese: There isn’t that much sex in the films I make. Seriously, in Taxi Driver, the sex is all repressed. If you had any real sex in it, it would blow the entire picture.
You have to remember that most of the pictures I make deal with worlds in which the men predominate, and I’ve gotta be true to those particular worlds. All the Italian women are very strong. Don’t believe that nonsense that the man runs the house. No way. Ultimately, it’s the matriarch. So when I saw certain scripts in which the woman was just an appendage, I didn’t do them. That’s why, especially in GoodFellas, I chose to make sure that the woman’s role was as strong as possible. But it still says GoodFellas, and the men chopped up the bodies, not the women.
Playboy: And the women in your other films are also allowed to be strong. Taxi Driver, for instance.
Scorsese: You’re the first person in fifteen years to say that.
Playboy: Do you agree?
Scorsese: Oh, totally. Others have missed it, though I’ve really tried to make it clear. Even in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, I was trying to do something radical in terms of women. But ultimately, we all came to the conclusion that it was OK if she wanted to live with somebody. I felt bad about it and thought maybe it wasn’t a radical enough statement for that time of feminism.
But I like women. A lot of the people who’ve worked with me for years are women: my editor, my producers, my production managers. I find that they have a whole other point of view. It’s fascinating to me. I was the first instructor at New York University to allow women to direct. They didn’t have any women directors.
Playboy: The question, of course, is how women react to your films.
Scorsese: I’ll tell you one interesting anecdote about this. After the [American Film Institute] tribute to David Lean, there were some cocktails. I’d been working with a number of the archivists and one of them introduced me to another archivist, a young woman. We talked awhile, then she said, “I must say that I’m an admirer of your films. After all, I am a woman.” I don’t get it.
Playboy: Could you make a movie from a woman’s point of view?
Scorsese: I think so. I could try.
Playboy: What about one that deals more directly with sex?
Scorsese: That’s a very good question. I guess when I find the right angle for the interest I have in it. The subject matter that I seem to be attracted to—for example, Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence; Jay Cocks and I are doing a script—has the yearning for sex, which I believe at times can be more satisfying than the actual consummation. I’m exploring those areas—material that has to do more with the repression of sexuality than the actual sex itself. Raging Bull has tons of repressed sexuality. The love scene where she gets him to a point of desire, and then he pours ice water on himself. That’s interesting sexually to me.
Playboy: What do you think about onscreen nudity? Again, there’s not much in your films.
Scorsese: I like it. [laughs] I don’t have time to go to many movies, so I see most of it on cable or video tape. I’ll always look, and then maybe change the channel anyway. Sometimes in a theater, I feel a little uncomfortable with it.
Playboy: Sexuality, or the mere suggestion of it, seemed to play a significant role in your troubles making The Last Temptation of Christ. Paramount was going to make the picture in 1983 but pulled the plug in fear of potential protests. Then, four years later, Universal Studios became interested. What appealed to you so much about the Kazantzakis book that you never gave up?
Scorsese: There are many reasons. Because it’s about humanity. It deals with everybody’s struggle. You don’t have to be Catholic. I had hoped it would be the kind of film that would engender very healthy discussions on the nature of God and how the Church should change to meet today’s needs.
Playboy: The Catholic Church wasn’t nearly as vocal about the film as the fundamentalist groups. Their outrage focused not on the issues you’d hoped but on whether or not the film should even be shown. When you saw footage of the protesters on Nightline, you said, “The film was gone.” What did you mean?
Scorsese: Well, I meant that selfishly. I knew there would be problems. I knew that the fundamentalist movement was difficult in 1983, and that’s why the film was canceled, but I didn’t think they would be as vociferous the second time around. There were a number of people from Protestant groups who were for the film. They kept pointing out on television that the fundamentalists—that Reverend Donald Wildmon and the other man, Reverend Hymers, who was doing all the demonstrations in Los Angeles—were only a very small minority. But the fundamentalists got the coverage. So, after Nightline, I figured, Well, that’s enough; I guess they don’t have to release the film if they don’t want to. The hell with it; just let it go.
Playboy: That was it? That easily?
Scorsese: Of course not. But, as I said, I was being selfish. My thought was of the film; I should have been thinking about the people for whom the film was made—people like me who are not necessarily involved with the daily ritual of the Church but still believe to a certain extent, who have questions they want to discuss and who want to feel that there is a Jesus for them. Remember, Jesus was on Eighth Avenue with the prostitutes. He wasn’t uptown or in Washington, D.C.
Playboy: Did your parents suffer in anyway from this?
Scorsese: I think so, yes. They weren’t harassed, but I think they were very hurt by the circus on TV. My mother was very upset about it. One religious leader said that she was a whore. I said, “He was using it to make a point, Mom. He’s saying that people are hurt that I may be saying things about Jesus that are the equivalent of my saying their mother is a whore. That’s what the priest was saying.”
Playboy: What was Christ’s last temptation?
Scorsese: In the film, the last temptation was to live the life of an ordinary man and die in old age.
Playboy: Since you identify with your characters, can we assume you harbor the desire to live an ordinary life at some point, to get off the directorial cross?
Scorsese: No, no. I accept who I am. In the film, giving in to the last temptation was kind of like a copping out, even though life as an ordinary man looked very attractive. Eventually, Christ rejected the last temptation. [smiles] So what else am I going to do but direct? And whatever happens, I’ll always have something to do with film.
Playboy: Let’s start wrapping this up, with one of your favorite subjects. Why did you once say you hated the phrase Italian-American sensibility?
Scorsese: Did I say that? [laughs] I get upset about the happy, dancing, singing peasants, organ-grinder’s monkey, everybody eating pasta cliché of the Italian-American. Any ethnic group would be a little annoyed by the stereotypes.
Playboy: Italian-Americans seem to be annoyed at you for stereotyping them as wise guys and Mobsters.
Scorsese: OK. But I want to be clear about this: It’s not the experience for all Italian-Americans. Not everybody in my neighborhood was a wise guy. This is a very annoying area to talk about without the Italian-Americans’ getting upset. I point out, and Nick Pileggi [author of the book Wiseguy and co-author of the screenplay GoodFellas] points out, that out of twenty million Italian-Americans, there are only four thousand known organized-crime members. Yet there is a reality to how those organized-crime figures are interlaced into the Italian-American lifestyle. To best understand the importance and the unimportance of it is to come from that lifestyle. It’s very difficult to describe.
Playboy: Why does Hollywood love Mob movies?
Scorsese: Actually, what’s more interesting is that it was easier for me to make Mean Streets because of The Godfather. I had tried to get Mean Streets made earlier, and I couldn’t get any money. My film school professor Haig Manoogian said, “Nobody cares about these people.” At the time, he was right. It was the late Sixties, you know, free love.
Playboy: Did you know Francis Ford Coppola at the time?
Scorsese: We met at the Sorrento Film Encounter in Italy. I was there with Who’s That Knocking?, working every angle, working every room, getting to every cocktail party I could get to, to get money to make another picture. We had a great time. We ate lots of pasta, told stories. Francis was working on the script for The Godfather right there in Sorrento. I said, “When you come back to New York, eat at my parents’ house.”
Playboy: Did he?
Scorsese: Yeah. My parents would tell him stories. My father’s voice was recorded to listen to the accent. My mother was constantly giving him casting suggestions.
Playboy: Did he take any?
Scorsese: Yeah, sure. One night at dinner, she told him she wanted Richard Conte in the picture and he put him in. Another time, she asked him how many days he had to shoot and he said, “A hundred days.” She said, “That’s not enough.” This is 1970. I said, “Mom, don’t get him terrified!” As it was, he went over budget somewhat. He was fighting every day. I remember one story where he had one day to shoot the funeral of the Godfather. And he just sat down on one of the tombstones in the graveyard and started crying. But out of that torture came a wonderful film.
Playboy: Did you contribute?
Scorsese: I took [set designer] Dean Tavoularis around for set ideas. I remember finding the olive-oil factory. He also used the interior of my church, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the old cathedral. They shot the baptism scene there.
Playboy: So you were more involved than is generally known.
Scorsese: Yeah, for a lot of the locations, and my parents helped out a lot. We got a lot of people they knew to be in it, too.
Playboy: Are you and Coppola still close?
Scorsese: It has always been kind of a constant thing with us. We don’t see each other that much anymore. He was like a big brother who helped me a lot.
Playboy: How would you compare your Italian-American films with The Godfather, Married to the Mob, Prizzi’s Honor?
Scorsese: Demme was using stereotype for Married to the Mob, but for a farce, you can get away with it. Prizzi’s Honor? Forget it; it’s a whole different thing. Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston went right over the top with those accents. It was a wonderful self-parody in a way, and it’s very difficult to do.
Playboy: Are you at all offended or cynical about those films?
Scorsese: Yeah. Certain films about Italian-Americans are exaggerations. They’re not made by Italian-Americans. Moonstruck, for example, is an enjoyable picture, but it’s a little exaggerated in terms of the ethnicity of it. It sometimes is disturbing. When the titles come up and you hear That’s Amore by Dean Martin, as an Italian-American, you cringe a little bit. Or Mambo Italiano in the titles of Married to the Mob. I told Demme, “You can’t do that, you’re not Italian. Only Italians can play that music. Only Italians can say the bad things about ourselves.”
Playboy: Have you ever gotten compliments on these kind of films from, say, Mafia types?
Scorsese: Nick Pileggi told me that Henry Hill told him that [Mafia kingpin] Paulie Vario never went to the movies. One night, they said, “Paulie, we’re going to take you to see this picture.” They took him to see a movie, and it was Mean Streets. And he loved it. It was his favorite picture. And I got the same response from Ed McDonald, who was head of the Brooklyn organized-crime strike task force.
Playboy: Why was it so appealing?
Scorsese: Because it had a truth to it. And that was the highest compliment.
Playboy: Have you ever packed any heat yourself?
Scorsese: No. I’d shoot myself by accident. People would knock on the door and they’d be killed. I’d be so nervous, I’d be like Barney Fife.
Playboy: This has been a whirlwind—and not only because you speak so fast between breaths and shots from your inhaler. When do you slow down?
Scorsese: When I’m sleeping. Sometimes. Playing with my dog. When Jay Cocks and I are together, looking at old sixteen-millimeter films.
Playboy: Don’t you go out?
Scorsese: I don’t really see many people anymore.
Playboy: When are you most alone?
Scorsese: A few minutes before falling asleep. That’s when I have a sense of mortality.
Playboy: When you’re alone in your New York apartment then, seventy-five stories above the city, looking out the picture window, surveying New York, what goes through your mind?
Scorsese: The city looks like a painting that keeps changing. I keep thinking that I don’t know how much longer I’ll be there—I’m renting—that eventually I want to get my own place. But I realize I don’t belong back on the Lower East Side. I don’t belong in Rome, I don’t belong in London. Where do I belong? Maybe just above New York—and me, afraid of flying. But I don’t have to think about where I belong when I’m up there. I can just enjoy it, look over it and think about where I came from and what I’m doing now.
Playboy: If you had to do it over again, would you do it the same?
Scorsese: Oh, there’s no doubt. I would have to, because the mistakes are even more important than the successes.
Playboy: Any other wisdom to share?
Scorsese: I’m reminded of a sequence I always loved from Diary of a Country Priest. The priest is listening to a woman’s problems. She’s had a very hard time. He tells her something I’ve always felt deep down: “God is not a torturer. He just wants us to be merciful with ourselves.”
Playboy: Is that the kind of advice you’d give to Martin Scorsese?
Scorsese: It’s good advice. I’m just trying to get through every minute of the day. It’s the continuing struggle. It sounds pretentious, but I mean it in a good way. I don’t mean being an achiever. I mean accomplishing whatever there is to accomplish between friends and in relationships. I was pretty strongly single-minded when I was young. I knew that I wanted to be a director, and I got that. And when you get it, when you get your dream, what do you do with it?
Playboy: Good question.
Scorsese: You go minute by minute.
Playboy, April 1991