This interview took place in Paris during the night of February 11-12, 1981. A translation of “Nuit blanche et chambre noire” from Positif, April 1981. Translated by Peter Brunette.
by Michael Henry
HENRY: Robert De Niro brought you Juke La Motta’s autobiography when you were preparing Taxi Driver. What attracted you to this character? Did your vision of him evolve in the years preceding the shooting?
SCORSESE: I remember having read the book in California when I was finishing Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. I also remember long conversations with Bobby during the night in my office at Warner Brothers. Honestly, it wasn’t like a bolt of lightning. No matter what anyone claimed later, I didn’t even notice Jake’s opening sentence: “When my memories come back to me, I have the feeling that I’m watching an old film in black-and-white.” My reasons for shooting in black-and-white, as you know, have nothing to do with this quotation. When we were screening Bobby’s training sequences, which had been shot in 8mm, I was struck by a remark made by Michael Powell: “But his gloves are red!” Yes, Michael Powell, the man who made The Red Shoes! Nowadays, boxers use gloves and pants that are colored, whereas our memories of boxing from the 40s are in black-and-white, like the newsreels and photographs of that time. Powell was right. You also know how much I worry about the instability and the changes in color film stock. The final reason was that several films on boxing were in preparation: The Champ, Rocky II, The Main Event, Matilda. I wanted Raging Bull to be very different visually and to evoke, if a reference is necessary, the admirable photography of James Wong Howe in The Sweet Smell of Success.
HENRY: Raging Bull is, along with Mean Streets, the film with the longest gestation period of all your films.
SCORSESE: I had worked on Mean Streets for so long, it was so close to me, that I knew almost word for word what the characters had to say, the way they had to dress or to move. Mean Streets was a fragment of myself. Alice was an experiment—and a lot of work. Taxi Driver was once again a film that was very close to me, one I had to make at any cost. We were completely confused during that period, and didn’t know whether to start with Taxi Driver or New York, New York, which seemed less risky. I think that I had already begun the preproduction of New York in 1974, when I went to see Bobby in Parma, on the set of 1900, to make sure that he still wanted the role of Jimmy Doyle. It’s then, during that very uncertain period, that we spoke seriously, one on one, about Raging Bull, about the book, about our favorite scenes. We thought of it as a small-budget film, we even thought we could write it ourselves. The one sure thing was that it wouldn’t be a film about boxing! We didn’t know a thing about it and it didn’t interest us at all!
HENRY: The book is edited like a Warner Brothers film from the 30s. It has a dramatic structure that’s very studied, in fact too studied to seem like an autobiography.
SCORSESE: Jake is constantly analyzing himself in the book. He very pedantically explains why he did this or that. But I didn’t think that Jake was really able to analyze himself like that. Or maybe he didn’t give us all the reasons. And how could he? All that stuff went back so long before. We felt that the book had been put into shape by Peter Savage, an amazing character. He appears in Taxi Driver and in New York, New York, and he made two films with Jake. He put a dramatic structure on Jake’s chaotic existence. It wasn’t so much Jake speaking about himself as Pete explaining Jake to Jake!
HENRY: The book privileges the relation between the two men. Certain events weren’t witnessed by Jake and so it’s Pete’s point of view that takes over at that point. You joined Pete, the friend, and Joey, the brother, who is in the background in the autobiography, into one character.
SCORSESE: Yes, because I just couldn’t buy this idea of undying friendship that justifies and links all the episodes. The book’s psychology is close to that of the 50s. This is not a reproach — I love tons of movies from that period! — but for me there were too many overlapping points of view. Even though Pete has since begun practicing hypnosis, he wasn’t inside Jake’s skin. How could he know what was happening inside Jake’s body, his impotence, his fears? I no longer knew who Jake was. The champion who was surrounded with respect or a hothead who was always getting in trouble? Joey and Pete gave up boxing, but Jake was still the champ! How could I separate the true from the false? It’s said that Joey did a lot of dirty work for his brother, and Pete said he did even more than was in the book. Who knows? It doesn’t really matter, it’s not really them any more on the screen. I’m the younger brother! I have a brother who’s 7 years older, and I know this situation well. We’re not speaking any longer of real individuals. That’s why we combined Joey and Pete. There was a lot that they had trouble admitting. Take their break-up: they didn’t speak for seven years. Why? We tried to explain it — it’s the longest sequence in the film — but in fact we still don’t know why. Only God knows what happened between two brothers. The only certain fact is the 7 year silence. When I said to them: “There must have been something, right?” They laughingly replied “Oh it wasn’t as serious as all that!” Seven years of silence, not as serious as all that? Everybody always gives false reasons. What did Renoir say in Rules of the Game?
HENRY: “Everyone has his reasons” In Raging Bull, Jake doesn’t have a past, or at least you invoke it only in a refracted way. You skipped his training years. Why? Where they too close to Mean Streets?
SCORSESE: No, that wasn’t it. I love the scene of the fight with the poker players, where Jake and Pete are like idiots at the door because they won’t let them in. It was also in the first version of the script. Mardik Martin had kept the attack on the bookmaker—and I knew exactly how to film it. We also hoped to bring in the character of the priest, who I was to play. Our favorite scene is the one in which Jake jumps on Pete’s girlfriend after she’s just read the letter Pete has sent her from prison: it’s a great scene, not because it’s the rape of a young virgin, but because it demonstrates the extraordinarily complex relationship between the two friends. Pete, you know, got a bullet in the arm while protecting Jake: it’s an episode that we really wanted to keep, but which we finally took out. That one was authentic, but the others?
HENRY: What was Mardik Martin’s contribution before you asked for Paul Schrader’s help?
SCORSESE: Mardik did two and a half years of research and interviews. He took off in all directions, and he even spent a year writing a play about Jake. The more eyewitness accounts he got, the more things got mixed up: there were about 25,000 shades of gray. No well-defined black and white: just gray! It was maddening. And on my side, I was struggling to finish New York, New York within the limited budget and taking into account the structural deficiencies of the script. When I was celebrating my 35th birthday at Sam Fuller’s house, I got it into my head that I could integrate, in Raging Bull, a followup to Italianamerican, where I was going to talk about the death of my grandparents, and the third part of the triptych begun with Who’s That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets! This shows you what a state of panic I was in! I was working simultaneously on New York, New York, The Last Waltz, American Boy, and The Act. My second marriage was falling apart. Domenica had just been born and I already knew that she wouldn’t be living with me. I told Mardik that I had to get myself together and that we had to find a way to get my grandparents into this film about boxing. In fact, I couldn’t concentrate any more, I was lost. Bobby, who had just come back from The Last Tycoon, was overwhelmed too.
HENRY: Is this when you met Norman Mailer?
SCORSESE: He encouraged me a lot. The script was way too long. Everything was there, Jake’s childhood, his father, the prison, and even his testimony before the Kefauver Commission in New York — but I didn’t want to hear about any boxing matches! “He’s a fantastic guy,” Mailer told me. “I never used any real people in my novels except Jake. He’s been very underestimated, both as a man and as a boxer. You have to make this film.” He was alluding to The American Dream, of course. Do you know that when Mailer met Jake in a bar, and told him “I could have been a boxer,” Jake, staring at his beer, coldly replied, “No, you’re not disturbed enough.”
HENRY: That’s when Paul Schrader came on the scene. What did he bring?
SCORSESE: At this stage, we were lost. We had to find a new structure. Schrader had worked on it for six weeks, to help us out. “Jake has to masturbate in his cell,” he told me at dinner. I found the idea interesting. In the novel, there was a complete obsession with the female sex. It was a new approach to the subject, basing it on sexuality. I said okay. Schrader had the idea of opening with the speech on the stage and linking that with Jake’s first defeat, in Cleveland. An unjust and inexplicable defeat. Anyway, it didn’t matter: the essential thing was for the audience to sympathize with Jake right away. So Schrader cut the whole first part of the novel. But Peter and Joey were still distinct, the session before the Senate committee was still there, and we also saw Jake’s gambling house at Kingston, long Island. Paul, who’s fascinated by gambling, wanted a very spectacular decor. I was happy with the Copacabana and the Debonair Social Club, one of those masculine sanctuaries where men can be alone and do their business quietly together. Something like Scala in Hollywood, where people in the business go to negotiate contracts. The ritual isn’t very different, you know.
HENRY: Was it you or Schrader who lessened the domestic violence portrayed in the book?
SCORSESE: It was me. Schrader had kept the scene in which Jake knocks out his first wife during a party and, thinking that she’s dead, imagines different ways to get rid of the body. They weren’t even 20 years old at that point, and they were living like animals. There was also the scene where his wife climbs up on the fender of his car to keep him from starting it. This violence came too early. I was happy with just the table overturned and a couple of swear words. For Jake and Pete’s scene in the parking lot, Paul had them fighting. Jake wanted his brother to punish him, and let himself be humiliated, screaming “I was on the mat!” I finally chose to keep it much simpler.
HENRY: With Schrader gone, there was only you. You were the only one left to harness yourself to the task?
SCORSESE: Well, that was our original dream, don’t forget. When he left, Schrader told me, “You pulled Mean Streets from your guts. Do the same thing now, but this time just use two or three characters. With four, you won’t make it.” After that I went through a serious crisis. I didn’t want to do the film any longer, I didn’t want to do it at all. Physically, I was also in terrible shape. I spent four days in the hospital hovering between life and death. I was lucky, I survived, the crisis passed. My suicide period was over. Bobby came to see me. We spoke very openly. To want to kill yourself over work, to dream of a tragic death —there’s a moment where you have to stop letting go, even if it’s stronger than you. We were talking about ourselves, but I suddenly understood the character. When Bobby asked me pointblank: “Do you want us to make this film?” I answered yes. It was obvious. What I had just gone through, Jake had known before me. We each lived it our own way. The Catholic background, the guilt feelings, the hope for redemption. Maybe it’s a little pretentious to talk about redemption. More than anything, it’s about learning to accept yourself. That’s what I understood the instant that I answered yes, without really knowing what I was saying. When I got out of the hospital, we left for San Martin, an island in the Caribbean where there are no films and no television. We were on the same wavelength, and now we were talking the same language. In ten days, we wrote a hundred-page script. On the last page, I added a quotation from the Gospel of St. John, the exchange between Nicodemus and Christ. Jesus told the High Priest that it was necessary to be reborn of the spirit before one could enter the Kingdom of God. I wasn’t planning to use it in this form, but I wanted to warn everyone who would read the script just what it meant to me.
HENRY: In removing La Motta’s youth, you also took away certain “extenuating circumstances” from your character. He became more opaque, just like his feeling of being guilt}’, his certainty that God was punishing hint for the bad that he hail done, especially for the unpunished murder of the bookmaker, all of which became more diffuse.
SCORSESE: I was right, no? That guilt, please understand this, doesn’t come from a specific act, but is part and parcel of the character. If you had inherited this guilt from birth, what chance would you have had to escape? If in the deepest part of yourself, you’re convinced that you’re not worthy—as I have been, and as I might be again some time—what can you do? You’re condemned, no?
HENRY: The film caused some very gut-level reactions: why devote a film to such a disgusting human being? However, what the hatred for fake translates into is the fear of knowing that you too are a sinner and that you are waiting to be struck by lightning at any moment.
SCORSESE: Ah, fear! What torture! You know his tactic in the ring. He could take more than anybody because he had an abnormally hard skull. Punch and get punched until the adversary got tired out. Raging Rail is the story of a man who is facing a wall. Of course, there is, in superimposition on the screen, the reminder of matches and dates, there are historically correct episodes, especially the one in Miami, but it’s really about what happens inside of him. The Kefauver Commission? Why did he spit it out? Why wasn’t he killed? That wasn’t our problem, it was the problem of the Family. Here’s a man who is methodically destroying himself, who is pulling others down with him, who falls into the deepest hole—and who pulls himself up again. Pulls him up again toward what? It doesn’t matter. To live with a strip-teaser? Yeah, so what? Are you better than a strip-teaser?
HENRY: Isn’t that one of the meanings of the parable of the Pharisees? Who are yon to cast the first stone? Who are you to condemn her? It’s up to the spectator to decide, in his soul and conscience, like at the end of Taxi Driver or American Boy: is this man a criminal or a brother?
SCORSESE: Yes, and that can go a long ways. You can’t act like Jake, of course, but isn’t there something rotten in everything that surrounds us? Well….If I said yes to Bobby, it’s because I unconsciously found myself in Jake. I felt that this character was the bringer of hope. It was for this hope that I made the film. Jake, I think, understood that. He admitted that it was him — and that it wasn’t him—up there on the screen.
HENRY: The criminal and the saint — these are the two contradictory postulations that you like to bring together in one individual. During our last meeting, in Rome, you said that the most primitive consciousness is closer to the Spirit than any other.
SCORSESE: Yes, it’s closer to God. Jake is an animal — and isn’t.
HENRY: He lives like an animal, but he is capable of conceiving something else. When he’s at his lowest point, in the cell in Miami, he has this great outcry: “I’m not that guy, I’m not me!”
SCORSESE: “I’m not that guy!” —that’s the key. And I shouted the same thing to Bobby. It’s strange, but no one has ever talked to me about this before. But everything I wanted to say is there. Will French Catholics understand me? For Italian-Americans it’s different: they’re born that way, convinced that they don’t deserve what has happened to them.
HENRY: And especially not success! In sports as in show business, there are those who construct a career and those who follow a vocation. Jake is one of the latter, and you are
too. The metaphor was already clear in New York, New York.
SCORSESE: I think I know what you mean. You’re putting into words what we feel in a pretty confused way. In the ring, Jake does what he has to do, that’s all. He can’t behave otherwise. He couldn’t do anything else. You should see them when they’re together, Jake, Pete, Joey. “Who’s the champion here? Who’s the champion?” asks Jake, and he repeats it, very softly, like a litany. “Vocation” —yes, in this sense, like a priest.
HENRY: You intervene in person in the final sapience, when Jake is getting ready to go on stage. You remind him of the demands of show business.
SCORSESE: This ending was in the script right from the beginning. And you know why? In one of the sequences cut by accident in New York, New York, the one in the Up Club, Lenny Gaines said to Bobby: “Relax. Take a twenty minute break. Have fun.” He was speaking about life in general, of course. Here Jake asks me “How much time do I still have?” And I answer “You’ve got five minutes.” Bobby and I felt this profoundly, especially me, since I’m incapable of relaxing, I’m always tense. I completely immerse myself in a film. On the set of Raging Bull, I was so much taken by the character that I often forgot my marks. The man with his face to the wall in the cell is me.
HENRY: All of us are in that prison with our face to the wall, no?
SCORSESE: Yes, sure. I’m there in any case. What is it that confers a sort of grace on him at that moment? That’s the mystery. Something happened to him, and it happened to me too, and that’s why I’m here now. Something that allowed him to say “I’m not that guy.” We were thinking—but it was really only a joke—of having a white light break into the cell or of tracing the shape of the cross with beams of light.
HENRY: A redemption maybe, but also, above all, a vital start, a reconquering of the self.
SCORSESE: It was a catharsis. How do you accept who you are? If you don’t accept yourself, you self-destruct. Do you remember, in America America, when the Turk Abdul says to Stavros: “Go ahead, take the knife, it’ll go quicker. Finish it now.” I know’ what Kazan means. Suicide is the simplest. With people who were strangers to me, who knew nothing about the film, I never spoke of redemption, I used the word “resolution.”
HENRY: In the book, the character of the priest is central. One imagines him being played by Spencer Tracy or Pat O’Brien. In the film, though, he’s only a silhouette.
SCORSESE: We could have remade Boys Town. We played with that idea for a while, before deciding that it wasn’t really important to show Jake’s beginnings. He’s there and he does what he has to do, and that’s it. You have to accept him the way he is. You don’t believe it? Too bad! Thanks for coming. I’m not mad at you. You’d be better off leaving and going to see Moonraker. Thanks and goodbye. I heard so much nonsense, if you only knew! Father Joseph? Oh, yeah. I only kept him for Webster Hall. That’s where my parents used to go dancing. It became the Ritz, one of the temples of New York disco. And then you see him again in the home movies. The whole parish knew him, they all went to him for confession. Like the priest in a small Sicilian village. Webster Hall is pure nostalgia. There was dancing and fighting between rival clans. In the film, the fight at the entrance is between the Italian-Americans and the more recent Italian immigrants, the “greaseballs,” as the bouncer says. That’s the only time the colors were right on the set! The costumes, the lighting, everything was perfect. And as in Knocking and Mean Streets, I think I really captured the strangeness of that way of life.
HENRY: The iconography of Mean Streets keeps popping up: the home movies, the holy pictures ami the statue of St. Francis of Assisi in the father’s apartment, the relation between Joey and Jake, which is the same relation as the one between Charlie and Johnny Boy.
SCORSESE: Absolutely, and I was very aware of that, even if I didn’t want to remake Mean Streets. The cross in the apartment is my mother’s. It was in Knocking, and the statue, too, I think. Jake shot them in 16mm. 16mm in the forties! He must have been rich. In Mean Streets, I only had 8mm, the format that less rich families had to use. We reshot Jake’s little bits of film with an Eclair. We had some problems with this because the original negatives were very dark and were often only three or four feet long! The Technicolor expert did great work, desaturating the colors, even putting color on the perforations, like in the scene of the wedding on the terrace in the Bronx. I considered for a moment using the still photos, as I did for the fights, then I remembered my parent’s wedding in 1933. It was so hot they had to hold the reception on the roof. The funniest thing is that the day of the shooting I was sick and I let my father play director, and you can imagine the chaos! One of my favorite moments is there, when the camera reframes, on the right, on an extra who’s sitting apart, on the edge of the roof. That’s how I see myself, with this feeling of being a stranger, of being completely lost.
HENRY: Jake’s environment doesn’t really explain his character. There’s something irreducible, which escapes analysis, that interests you, right?
SCORSESE: Now we’re getting to the heart of things! That’s what I realized at San Martin — before the death of Haig Manoogian, who I want to tell you about later. Why not narrate the lives of these people in big blocks, clearly distinct from each other? You’d find them at different stages. Like that conversation that started in a little Latin Quarter hotel in 1974 that we renew from year to year in different places. We have to proceed like that, I told Bobby, because there’s no way to explain everything that happens in between. There aren’t any words to speak about it. No words to say what happens in the cell. Not even religious words. He just stops destroying himself, that’s all.
HENRY: The first “flashback” seems to be set off by Jake practicing “That’s entertainment,” his entry onto the stage. The link is striking.
SCORSESE: We found it by accident one night at the editing table, when I was in despair about being able to connect Jake’s bloated face of the 60s with his young face of the 40s. Two tracks accidentally overlapped and bang! The sound connected the two eras. There’s another moment, even stranger, when Vickie moves her lips but no sound comes out of her mouth. After Jake has beaten them up, her and Joey, he finds her packing her suitcase. That came at the end of the shooting. After everything that had happened, any dialogue seemed meaningless. We tried everything, but no response worked. She’s there, she’s waiting with her whole body that lie’s touching and, if you notice, her lips are moving but you don’t hear anything, because there’s nothing left to hear at this stage. There are no words for such a situation.
HENRY: Several different times you isolate different parts of Vickie’s body, with very tight shots, especially at the swimming pool. Then, at Webster Hall, you have this blonde Irish woman sit at a table where there are only brunettes, no doubt Italian. Under this fetishistic look, Vickie seems only a mental image.
SCORSESE: And how! She doesn’t exist for herself. Look at those snakes that keep surrounding and entwining her! These “semi-toughs,” who aren’t as bad as all that, after all, much less than in the book, because, after all, I love all those people! Even Salvy, the fake judge. But not more than Michael in Mean Streets, who doesn’t manage to become a real tough guy, the kind that you don’t get too near to, but whom you respect and offer allegiance in embracing him. To come back to Vickie, if Jake takes her under the paternal roof, it’s because he knows that she doesn’t deserve it. Like J.R. in Knocking when he makes love with Zina Bethune on his mother’s bed. Where else to go? We don’t have an apartment, we don’t have any money… It’s a very authentic moment and I love it that at the end of the sequence they are framed only from the back. I had the feeling that if the audience identified with them at that instant, they would identify with them all the way to the end.
HENRY: The television set that doesn’t work is a great metaphor for fake’s frustrations. It seems to echo the one with the golf ball which comes before they make love.
SCORSESE: Each time that you see Jake and Vickie in an intimate moment, their relationship is coming apart a little more. The first time is the only satisfying one. It’s also the most chaste. The next time, before the third match with Sugar Ray Robinson, it’s only about sex and frustration. Later, when they’re in bed, he asks her “Who do you think of when we make love?” After, it gets worse and worse. We had the television set in there from the beginning, it was in Mardik’s script. At that time, the sets were always breaking down. I chose Of Mice and Men because it was on that Sunday — I checked it. And also because there are similarities between the two films. I love Aaron Copland’s score; I used the last third of it, the length of which corresponded exactly with our sequence. In the early 60s, at NYU, I acted in Of Mice and Men with Gregory Rozakis, who played the young guy with TB in America America. A little later, Variety announced, God know why, that 1 was getting ready to shoot a student film with Rozakis and… Jake La Motta! That was a sign of fate, no?
HENRY: It also seems like there’s a very carefully worked out evolution in the mise-en-scene of the fight scenes. The first one, in Cleveland in 1941, uses reaction shots, and even some long shots from the top of the stands, as in certain contemporary films of the match. It makes you think of Capra and of Meet John Doe during the riot scene. There is also the light from the flashbulbs which recalls the realistic photos of the 40’s. After that, the framing and the lighting become more and more unreal. The last fight with Robinson, for example, is choreographed in a completely abstract space, like the numbers of The Last Waltz that you shot in the MGM studios.
SCORSESE: Capra? No, I wasn’t thinking of him, I don’t remember Meet John Doe very well, but you’re right, there’s a escalation, a progression in the horror, and thus an increasing stylization. The first match is the only one in which we used the reactions of the audience. The last meeting with Robinson is completely abstract. There are wide angle and foggy shots because at this stage no one is worrying about the punches which landed so well. The ring is twice as big as it was in reality. It’s not a matter of literally translating what Jake sees and hears, but to present what the match means for him, all the while respecting, as much as possible, historical truth. To do it in such a way that you are more and more implicated in what is going on in this miserable ring. It’s not only a question of point of view: it’s not enough, I’m sure you realize, to shoot subjective shots or in slow motion.
Before shooting, I went to two boxing matches, five-round matches between unknown boxers. The first evening, even though I was far away from the ring, I saw the sponge red with blood, and the film started to take form. The next time, I was much closer, and I saw the blood dripping from the ropes. I said to myself that this sure didn’t have anything to do with any sport! From what point of view should it be filmed? I hesitated for a long time. Believe me, it’s not simple. It’s like math or chess. In the old days, the newsreel guys didn’t worry about it: they filmed the entire match from the same angle, outside the ropes, of course. That was shown during the intermission, between the two films on the main program, and I still remember how impatient and angry we were that we had to suffer through 15 rounds at a stretch.
It wasn’t simple! It wasn’t as simple as having Bobby gain 50 pounds. With the exception of the match against Dauthille, where we were outside the ropes, I was in the ring the whole time with the camera, just as attentive to the physical reality of the punches and the panting as I was to the psychological dimension of the encounter. When Jake let himself get massacred by Robinson, the television commentator yelled “Nobody can take such punishment!” He was right and that was why I gave such a stylized vision of this punishment—abstract, if you wish, but not unreal for all that. I had to use a lot of blood because we were shooting in black-and-white, but that’s just secondary. The real violence is inside. I know from my own experience that a broken nose doesn’t bleed that much. This vision became a mental projection.
HENRY: Between the highly emotional scenes, in and out of the ring, you allow yourself some breaks, like the discussions between Jake and Joey, that are filmed in a very simple manner. Suddenly, you look at these crazy people with a certain serenity, a certain distance.
SCORSESE: After Paul Schrader gave us the overall structure, Bobby and I kept condensing and simplifying. The masturbation scene, for example. Bobby talked me out of it: “What? I’m going to masturbate right after they’ve beaten me up?” It’s enough for him to bang his head against the wall, it’s the same thing. We shot tons of inserts that were meant for the montage sequences, before the meeting with Cerdan (in which you can see Audie Murphy, who had just finished Bad Boy) or for the last fight with Robinson—where Vickie’s face was, for example, supposed to substitute for Sugar Ray’s. I didn’t keep any of that. I also cut the press conference, which you can see an extract of in the trailer. In Miami, during the breakup, we had planned a long speech in which Vickie explains herself, but it wasn’t necessary.
After filming the fights, not without difficulty — and I’ve only mentioned a couple of the problems — I asked myself: does all of this have any meaning? Is there a good reason for printing all this film? Why move the camera? Is it really necessary? If I could, I would be happy to shoot it all in one take three hours long. I made this film for myself, no? Films are the most important thing in my life. OK, that’s understood. You still have to find reasons to manipulate this tool which has been given to us. Yes, the scene between Joey and Jake in the kitchen is very simple. Just like the one with the television set. I wanted to take a break to try to understand what was happening in their heads, the absurdity of that implacable logic.
A filmmaker friend whom I respect a lot once told me in Rome: “It’s not your best film.” Inwardly, I wanted to reply: “Do we always have to make our best film each time or are we building an oeuvre that will last?” He continued: “It’s not violent enough. You fell in love with your actors, you didn’t restrain them enough, they imposed their own rhythm at the expense of the deeper meaning.” I started asking myself some questions: In looking for simplicity, had I become lazy? Was I too easy? Not explicit enough? During the shooting, I had asked myself these questions, but in the opposite way: Isn’t it too obvious? Too explanatory? In reality, I just did what I thought was right. Some people think that something important happens in the prison in Miami, other people don’t. What can I do about it?
HENRY: The progression of Jake La Motta toward self-consciousness, toward a certain powerful decision, even if it’s schizophrenic, doesn’t it reflect your own attitude toward the project and more generally toward cinema itself ?
SCORSESE: I don’t know. The film really doesn’t help me to see these things more clearly, nor does it help me to understand others or myself. What really interests me is hope. In the pit of his dungeon, Jake doesn’t have anything, he’s lost it all. Vickie, his brother, his house, his children, his championship belt. Before, we saw him undergo a terrible punishment from Dauthuille. He let himself be massacred, then, in the last seconds, he had a surge of pride and demolished his opponent. In other words, lie’s never really gotten what he deserves. He hasn’t paid. After which, he meets Robinson. What does he see there? He sees his blood squeezed out of the sponge, his body that they’re preparing for the sacrifice. For him, it’s a religious ritual and he uses Robinson to punish himself. As I told you, everything happens in his head. He thinks he’s at the end of his martyrdom, but there again his pride carries him away. When they stop the tight in the thirteenth round, he yells “I didn’t hit the floor! I didn’t hit the floor!” He rebels one more time. Then the posing for the photographers at the swimming pool in Miami, and you see everything that he has to lose. Vickie, the kids, the Cadillac, the nightclub. He loses all that immediately and now, in his cell, all that’s left is himself. He’s facing the wall, facing himself, and he screams: “I’m not that guy!” He has fallen so low that he can only come up to be reborn. When we find him in the strip-tease joint, he has changed. A customer treats him like a clown and he answers, without any aggression, “That’s why I’m here.” He has found a kind of peace with himself. He’s no longer the same man. Of course, it’s not ideal, but he could have fallen even lower. His job isn’t degrading, he has stopped destroying himself like so many of his friends. He has survived.
HENRY: How did the idea of quoting from On the Waterfront come to you? Is it an indirect comment on fake?
SCORSESE: Jake often quoted it on the stage. Mardik’s script included a soliloquy from Shakespeare. Michael Powell talked me out of it; he found the character original enough that he didn’t need any quotations. Against his advice, 1 decided on Kazan. At this point, I wasn’t listening to anyone, I was acting like a kamikaze. Just like when I was making Mean Streets, I was convinced that this would be my last film, the end of my career. So I had a good time. I saw On the Waterfront when I was 12 years old and never forgot it. It’s so beautiful, that monologue of Brando’s, so funny and so sad: “Let’s be honest, I’m just a bum…” And, even more, it was the story of two brothers, like Raging Bull. But I didn’t want people to take the monologue as a comment on the relation between Jake and Joey: Jake isn’t accusing his brother, because without him he would have lived in the same way. Bobby and I explored all kinds of different ways of saying the lines. We did at least twenty takes. The most interesting one, the one we used, is also the simplest, the least expressive. A small, thin voice, that’s all. Bobby would have liked us to use three different takes in a row, but the most monotonous one was the best. I thought of the end of Taxi Driver: on the screen, the reading of a letter moves me even more because the face and the voice betray no emotion. The coat-stand in the dressing room is an homage to Ermanno Olmi, a reference to the death of the hero in Il posto that stunned me.
HENRY: As the film continues, what words are incapable of saying becomes clearer, retrospectively, in the light of the parable of the blind man and the Pharisees that you put at the end.
SCORSESE: I didn’t want to quote the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus because it could have been confusing. In re-reading the new English Bible, I fell upon a passage from Saint John, “The healing of the man born blind.” The Pharisees interrogate the parents twice about the miracle. The parents are afraid because the whole thing is political. Then the Pharisees called the child: “He who approached you is surrounded by prostitutes, pimps, tax collectors. Do you understand that this man is a sinner and that you must not go near him?” And the child responds: “All I know is that once I was blind and now I see.” Jake La Motta, at least as he appears in the film, is someone who allowed me to see more clearly. Like Haig Manoogian, to whom the film is dedicated.
When I took his first course, in the 6o’s, he transmitted the spark to me, he gave me the energy to become a filmmaker. His house became a second home for me, I was always there. I saw him again last May, when I was on the campus of NYU, when I was finishing the first cut of Raging Bull. The simplicity of the black-and-white was also a return to NYU. We laughed about American Boy, which I had come to talk to the students about, and suddenly he said to me, with great seriousness: “Do you still see a lot of films today? I really don’t feel the need any more. Now it’s all science fiction. Today, films don’t have any resolution, that’s the problem.” What did he mean? I wasn’t sure, but three weeks later he was dead—and the very same day Steven Prince, the protagonist of American Boy, lost his father. Both were buried on the same day. So Raging Bull is dedicated “with love and resolution” to the one who gave me inspiration, to the one who gave me, at the same time as a camera, the eyes to see.