Goodfellas: Interview with Martin Scorsese (1990) – by Gavin Smith

by Gavin Smith

Gavin Smith: What was it that drew you to the GoodFellas material?

Martin Scorsese: I read a review of the book; basically it said, “This is really the way it must he.” So I got the book in galleys and started really enjoying it because of the free-flowing style, the way Henry Hill spoke, and the wonderful arrogance of it. And I said, oh, it would make a fasci­nating film if you just make it what it is—literally as close to the truth as a fiction film, a dramatization, could get. No sense to try to whitewash, [to elicit| great sympathy for the characters in a phony way. If you happen to feel something for the character Pesci plays, after all he does in the film, and if you feel something for him when he’s eliminated, then that’s inter­esting to me. That’s basically it. There was no sense making this film [any other way).

Smith: You say dramatization and fiction. What kind of a film do you see this as being?

Scorsese: I was hoping it was a documentary. [Laughs]. Really, no kidding. Like a staged documentary, the spirit of a documentary. As if you had a 16mm camera with these guys for 20, 25 years; what you’d pick up. I can’t say it’s “like” any other film, but in my mind it [Has] the freedom of a documentary, where you can mention 25 people’s names at one point and 23 of them the audience will not have heard of before and won’t hear of again, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the familiarity of the way people speak. Even at the end when Ray Liotta says over the freezeframe on his face, “Jimmy never asked me to go and whack somebody before. But now lie’s asking me to go down and do a hit with Anthony in Florida.” Who’s Anthony?
It’s a mosaic, a tapestry, where faces keep coming in and out. Johnny Dio, played by Frank Pellegrino, you only see in the Fifties, and then in the Sixties you don’t see him, but he shows up in the jail sequence. He may have done something else for five or six years and come back. It’s the way they live.

Smith: How have your feelings about this world changed since Mean Streets?

Scorsese: Well, Mean Streets is much closer to home in terms of a real story, somewhat fictionalized, about events that occurred to me and some of my old friends. [GoodFellas] has really nothing to do with people I knew then. It doesn’t take place in Manhattan, it’s only in the boroughs, so it’s a very different world—although it’s all interrelated. But the spirit of it, again, the attitudes. The morality—you know, there’s none, there’s none. Completely amoral. It’s just wonderful.
If you’re a young person, 8 or 9, and these people treat you a certain way because you’re living around them, and then as you get to be a teenager and you get a little older, you begin to realize what they did and what they still do—you still have those first feelings for them as people, you know. So, it kind of raises a moral question and a kind of moral friction in me. That was what I wanted to get on the screen.

Smith: How did you feel about Married to the Mob, which satirized the Mafia lifestyle?

Scorsese: I like Jonathan Demme’s movies. In fact, I have the same production designer, Kristi Zea. But, well, it’s a satire—it’s just too many plastic seat- covers. And yet, if you go to my mother’s apartment, you’ll see not only the plastic seatcovers on the couch but on the coffee table as well. So where’s the line of the truth? I don’t know.
In the spirit of Demme’s work I enjoyed it. But as far as an Italian-American thing, it’s really like a cartoon. When he starts with “Mambo Italia no,” Rosemary Clooney, I’m already cringing because I’m Italian-American, and certain songs we’d like to forget! So I told Jonathan he had some nerve using that, I said only Italians could use “Mambo Italiano” and get away with it. There might be some knocks at his door [Laughs].

Smith: Do GoodFellas and Mean Streets serve as an antidote to The God­father’s mythic version of the Mafia?

Scorsese: Yes, yeah, absolutely. Mean Streets, of course, was something I was just burning to do for a number of years. [By the time I did it,] The Godfather had already come out. But I said, it doesn’t matter, because this one is really, to use the word loosely, anthropology —that idea of how people live, what they ate, how they dressed. Mean Streets has that quality —a quote “real” unquote side of it.
GoodFellas more so. Especially in terms of attitude. Don’t give a damn about anything, especially when they’re having a good time and making a lot of money. They don’t care about their wives, their kids, anything.

Smith: The Godfather is such an overpowering film that it shapes everybody’s perception of the Mafia—including people in the Mafia.

Scorsese: Oh, sure. I prefer Godfather II to Godfather I. I’ve always said it’s like epic poetry, like Morte d’Arthur. My stuff is like some guy on the street-corner talking.

Smith: In GoodFellas we see a great deal of behavior, bat yon withhold psychological insight.

Scorsese: Basically I was interested in what they do. And, you know, they don’t think about it a lot. They don’t sit around and ponder about [laughs]

“Gee, what are we doing here?” The answer is to eat a lot and make a lot of money and do the least amount of work as possible for it. I was trying to make it as practical and primitive as possible. Just straight ahead. Want. Take. Simple. I’m more concerned with showing a lifestyle and using Henry Hill (Ray Liotta] as basically a guide through it.

Smith: You said you see this as a tragic story.

Scorsese: I do, but you have a lot of the guys, like (real-life U.S. attorney] Ed McDonald in the film or Ed Hayes (a real defense attorney], who plays one of the defense attorneys, they’ll say, “These guys are animals and that’s life,” and maybe not care about them. Henry took Paulie |Paul Sorvino] as sort of a second father; he just idolized these guys and wanted to be a part of it. And that’s what makes the turnaround at the end so interesting and so tragic, for me.

Smith: In Scorsese on Scorsese fpublished by Faber and Faber I you said that, growing up, you felt being a rat was the worst thing you could be. How do you feel about Henry and what he did?

Scorsese: That’s a hard one. Maybe on one level, the tragedy is in the shots of Henry on the stand: “Will you point him out to me, please?” And you see him look kind of sheepish, and he points to Bob De Niro playing Jimmy Conway. And the camera moves in on Conway. Maybe that’s the tragedy—what he had to do to survive, to enable his family to survive.

Smith: This is “Henry Hill” as opposed to Henry Hill—purely an imaginative ver­sion of this guy?

Scorsese: Yes. Based on what he said in the book and based on what [co-writer] Nick [Pileggi] told me. I never spoke to Henry Hill. Towards the end of the film I spoke to him on the phone once. He thanked me about something. It was just less than 30 seconds on the phone.

Smith: You use him as a mirror of American society.

Scorsese: Yeah, the lifestyle reflects the times. In the early Sixties, the camera comes up on Henry and he’s waiting outside the diner and he’s got this silk suit on and he hears “Stardust.” And he’s young and he’s looking like all the hope in the world ready for him and he’s going to conquer the world. And then you just take it through America — the end of the Sixties, the Seventies, and finally into the end of the Seventies with the disillusionment and the state of the country that we’re in now. I think his journey reflects that.
That wasn’t planned. But there’s something about the moment when his wife says, “Hide that cross,” and the next thing you know, he’s getting married in a Jewish ceremony, and wearing a Star of David and a cross—it doesn’t make any difference. Although I didn’t want to make it heavy in the picture, the idea is that if you live for a certain kind of value, at a certain point in life you’re going to come smack up against a brick wall. Not only Henry living as a gangster: in my feeling, I guess it’s the old materialism versus a spiritual life.

Smith: GoodFellas is like a history of postwar American consumer culture, the evolution of cultural style. The nai vete and romanticism of the Fifties. . . . There’s a kind of innocent mischief mid charm to the worldliness. But then at a certain point it becomes corrupt.

Scorsese: It corrupts and degenerates. Even to the point (that) some of the music degenerates in itself. You have “Unchained Melody” being sung in a decadent way, like the ultimate doo-wop — but not black, it’s Italian doo­wop. It’s on the soundtrack after Stacks gets killed and Henry comes running into the bar. Bob tells him, “Come on, let’s drink up, it’s a cele­bration,” and Tommy says, “Don’t worry about anything. Going to make me.” And over that you hear this incredible doo-wop going on, and it’s sort of like even the music becomes decadent in a way from the pure Drifters, Clyde McPhatter singing “Bells of St. Mary’s,” to Vito and the Salutations.
And I like the Vito and the Salutations version of “Unchained Melody.” Alex North wrote it along with somebody else—it was from this movie made in the early Fifties called Unchained. And it’s unrecognizable. It’s so crazy and I enjoy it. I guess I admire the purity of the early times and. . . . Not that I admire it, but I’m a part of the decadence of what happened in the Seventies and the Eighties.

Smith: Bop music is usually used in films, at least on one level, to cue the audi­ence to what era it is.

Scorsese: Oh, no, no, forget that, no.
In Mean Streets there’s a lot of stuff that comes from the Forties. The thing is, believe me, a lot of these places you had jukeboxes and, when The Beatles came in, you (still| had Benny Goodman, some old Italian stuff, Jerry Vale, Tony Bennett, doo-wop, early rock ‘n’ roll, black and Ital­ian. . . . There’s a guy who comes around and puts the latest hits in. [But) when you hang out in a place, when you are part of a group, new records come in but [people) request older ones. And they stay. If one of the guys leaves or somebody gets killed, some of his favorite music [nobody else) wants to listen to, they throw it away. But basically there are certain records that guys like and it’s there. Anything goes, anything goes.

Smith: Why Sid Vicious doing “My Way” at the end?

Scorsese: Oh, it’s pretty obvious, it may be even too obvious.
It’s period, but also it’s Paul Anka and of course Sinatra—although there’s no Sinatra in the film. But “My Way” is an anthem. I like Sid Vicious’ ver­sion because it twists it, and his whole life and death was a kind of slap in the face of the whole system, the whole point of existence in a way. And that’s what fascinating to me —because eventually, yeah, they all did it their way. [Laughs] Because we did it our way, you know.

Smith: GoodFellas’ vision of rock ‘n’ roll style colliding with a fetishized gangster attitude made me think of Nic Roeg’s Performance, which was about the dark side of the Sixties too.

Scorsese: Oh I like Performance, yeah. I never quite understood it, because I didn’t understand any of the drug culture at that time. But I liked the picture. I love the music and I love Jagger in it and James Fox — terrific. That’s one of the reasons I used the Ry Cooder [song] “Memo to Turner” — the part where Jimmy says, “Now, stop taking those fucking drugs, they’re making your mind into mush.” He slams the door. He puts the guns in the trunk and all of a sudden you hear the beginning of this incredible slide guitar coming in. It’s Ry Cooder. And I couldn’t use the rest of it because the scene goes too quick.
The Seventies drug thing was important because I wanted to get the impression of that craziness. Especially that last day, he starts at six in the morning. The first thing he does is gets the guns, takes a hit of coke, gets in the car. I mean, you’re already wired, you’re wired for the day. And his day is like crazy. Everything is at the same importance. The sauce is just as important as the guns, is as important as Jimmy, the drugs, the helicopter.
The idea was to stylistically try to give the impression — people watch­ing the film who have taken drugs will recognize it—of the anxiety and the thought processes. And the way the mind races when you’re taking drugs, really doing it as a lifestyle.

Smith: The film’s first section presents a kind of idealized underworld with its own warmth and honor-among-thieves code. This gradually falls away, reflected in the characters of Tommy and Jimmy.

Scorsese: True, true. But Jimmy Conway was not Mafia. The idea was, you signed on for that life, you may have to exit that life in an unnatural way, and they knew that. I’m not saying, oh, those were the good old days. In a funny way [laughs] — not that funny — but in a way there’s a breakdown of discipline, of whatever moral code those guys had in the Fifties and Sixties. I think now with drugs being the big money and gangsters killing people in the government in Colombia, the Mafia is nothing. They’ll always be around, there’ll always be the organized-crime idea. But in terms of the old, almost romantic image of it typified by the Godfather films, that’s gone.

Smith: The Seventies sequence is about losing control, about disintegration.

Scorsese: Totally. Henry disintegrates with drugs. With Jimmy Conway, the disintegration is on a more lethal level, the elimination of [everybody else|. Earlier there’s so many shots of people playing cards and at christenings and weddings, all at the same table. If you look at the wedding, the camera goes around the table and all the people at that table are killed by Jimmy later on.

Smith: Unlike all your other protagonists, Henry seems secure in his identity. What is his journey, from your point of view?

Scorsese: You know, I don’t know. I don’t mean to be silly; I guess I should have an answer for that. Maybe in the way he feels through his voiceover in the beginning of the film about being respected. I think it’s really more about Henry not having to wait in line to get bread for his mother. It’s that simple. And to be a confidante of people so powerful, who, to a child’s mind, didn’t have to worry about parking by a hydrant. It’s the American Dream.

Smith: Once he has this status lifestyle, what’s at stake for him?

Scorsese: Things happen so fast, so quick and heavy in their lifestyle, they don’t think of that. Joe Pesci pointed out that you have literally a life expectancy —the idea of a cycle that it takes for a guy to be in the prime of being of wiseguy—the prime period is like maybe eight or nine years, at the end of which, just by the law of averages, you’re either going to get killed or most likely go to jail. And then you begin the long thing with going back and forth from jail to home, jail to home. It begins to wear you down until only the strongest survive.
I think Henry realizes the horror he’s brought upon himself, how they’re all living, and it’s way too late. The only thing to do is get out of it. And how can you get out?

Smith: He remains an enigma —untainted by what he’s done and at the end achieving a kind of grace as just a regular guy like everybody else. What were you trying to do with the ending?

Scorsese: It’s just very simply that’s the way the book ended and I liked what he said, I liked his attitude: “Gee, there’s no more fun.” [Laughs] Now, you can take that any way you want. I think the audience should get angry with him. I would hope they would be. And maybe angry with the system that allows it —this is so complex. Everything is worked out together with these guys and with the law and with the Justice Department. It’ll be phony if he felt badly about what he did. The irony of it at the end I kind of think is very funny.

Smith: Why do you have him addressing the camera at the end?

Scorsese: Couldn’t think of any other thing to do, really. Just, you know, got to end the picture. Seriously.

Smith: How did you conceptualize the film stylistically? Did you break the film down into sequences?

Scorsese: Yeah, as much as possible. Everything was pretty much storyboarded, if not on paper, in notes. These days I don’t actually draw each picture. But I usually put notes on the sides of the script, how the camera should move. I wanted lots of movement and I wanted it to be throughout the whole picture, and I wanted the style to kind of break down by the end, so that by his last day as a wiseguy, it’s as if the whole picture would be out of control, give the impression he’s just going to spin off the edge and fly out. And then stop for the last reel and a half.
The idea was to get as much movement as possible—even more than usual. And a very speeded, frenetic quality to most of it in terms of getting as much information to the audience—overwhelming them, I had hoped — with images and information. There’s a lot of stuff in the frames. Because it’s so rich. The lifestyle is so rich —I have a love-hate thing with that lifestyle.

Smith: I don’t think I’ve ever seen freeze frames used in such a dramatic wayfreezing a moment and bringing the narrative to a halt.

Scorsese: That comes from documentaries. Images would stop; a point was being made in his life. Everybody has to take a beating sometime, BANG: freeze and then go back with the whipping. What are you dealing with there? Are you dealing with the father abusing Henry — you know, the usual story of, My father beat me, that’s why I’m bad. Not necessarily. You’re just saying, “Listen, I take a beating, that’s all, fine.” The next thing, the explosion and the freezeframe, Henry frozen against it — it’s hellish, a person in flames, in hell. And he says, “They did it out of respect.” It’s very important where the freezeframes are in that opening sequence. Certain things are embedded in the skull when you’re a kid.
The freezeframes are basically all Truffaut. [The style] comes from the first two or three minutes of Jules and Jim. The Truffaut and Godard techniques from the early Sixties that have stayed in my mind — what I loved about them was that narrative was not that important: “Listen, this is what we’re going to do right now and I’ll he right back. Oh, that guy, by the way, he got killed. We’ll see you later.”
Ernie Kovacs was that way in the Fifties in TV. I learned a lot from watching him destroy beautifully the form of what you were used to thinking was the television comedy show. He would stop and talk to the camera and do strange things; it was totally surreal. Maybe if I were of a different generation I would say Keaton. But I didn’t grow up with Keaton, I grew up with early TV.

Smith: Or if you’re my generation it would be Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Scorsese: Yeah, again, breaking up a narrative—just opens up a refrigerator, there’s a whole show inside, and closes the door. That’s great. I love Pee Wee Herman. I tape the show. We had them sent to Morocco when we were doing Last Temptation; on Sundays we’d watch it on PAL system. Yeah. [Laughs]

Smith: GoodFellas uses time deletions during many scenes: you see someone standing by the door, then they’re suddenly in the chair, then

Scorsese: It’s the way things go. They’ve got to move fast. I was interested in breaking up all the traditional ways of shooting the picture. A guy comes in, sits down, exposition is given. So the hell with the exposition — do it on the voiceover, if need be at all. And then just jump the scene together. Not by chance. The shots are designed so that I know where the cut’s going to be. The action is pulled out of the middle of the scene, but I know where I’m going to cut it so that it makes an interesting cut. And I always loved those jump cuts in the early French films, in Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution. Compressing time. I get very bored shooting scenes that are traditional scenes.
In this film, actually the style gave me the sense of going on a ride, some sort of crazed amusement-park ride, going through the Underworld, in a way. Take a look at this, and you pan over real fast and, you know, it kind of lends itself to the impression of it not being perfect — which is really what I wanted.
That scene near the end, Ed McDonald talking to [the Hills] —I like that, [it’s as if the movie] kind of stops, it gets cold and they’re in this terrifying office. He’s wearing a terrifying tie —it’s the law and you’re stuck. And they’re on the couch and he’s in a chair and that’s the end of the road. That’s scary.

Smith: When you’re shooting and editing, how do you determine how much the audience can take in terms of information, shot length, number of cuts, etc.? Over the past decade our nervous systems have developed a much greater tolerance of sensory overload.

Scorsese: I guess the main thing that’s happened in the past ten years is that the scenes have to be quicker and shorter. Something like The Last Emperor, they accept in terms of an epic style. But this is sort of my version of MTV, this picture. But even that’s old-fashioned.

Smith: Is there a line you won’t cross in terms of editing speed, how fast to play scenes?

Scorsese: The last picture I made was “Life Lessons” in New York Stories. And that’s pretty much the right level. GoodFellas lends itself to a very fast-paced treatment. But I think where I’m at is really more the New York Stories section. Not Last Temptation. Last Temptation, things were longer and slower there because, well, of a certain affection for the story and for the things that make up that story. And the sense of being almost stoned by the desert in a way, being there and making things go slower; a whole different, centuries-earlier way of living. New York Stories had, I think, maybe a balance between the two. The scenes went pretty crisp, pretty quickly. There were some montage sequences. But still I’d like to sustain [the moments].
In GoodFellas, that whole sequence I really developed with the actors, Joe Pesci’s story and Ray responding to him, it’s a very long sequence. We let everything play out. And I kept adding setups to let the whole moment play out. But if what the actors were doing was truthful or enjoyable enough, you can get away with it.

Smith: The ” What’s so funny about me?” scene in the restaurant between Liotta and Pesci was improvised?

Scorsese: Totally improv — yeah. It’s based on something that happened to Joe. He got out of it the same way — by taking the chance and saying, “Oh, come on, knock it off.” The gentleman who was threatening him was a friend, (but) a dangerous person. And Joe’s in a bad state either way. If he doesn’t try laughing about it, he’s going to be killed; if he tries laughing about it and the guy doesn’t think it’s funny, he’s going to be killed. Either way he’s got nothing to lose. You see, things like that, they could turn on a dime, those situations. And it’s just really scary.
Joe said, “Could I please do that?” I said, “Absolutely, let’s have some fun.” And we improvised, wrote it down, and they memorized the lines. But it was really finally done in the cutting with two cameras. Very, very carefully composed. Who’s in the frame behind them. To the point where we didn’t have to compromise lighting and positions of the other actors, because it’s even more important who’s around them hearing this.

Smith: What about the continuation of the scene with the restaurant owner asking for the money?

Scorsese: Oh, that’s all playing around, yeah. That kind of dialogue you can’t really write. And the addition of breaking the bottle over Tony Harrow’s head was thought of by Joe at lunchtime. I got mad at him. I said, “How could you — why now, at lunch? Now we’ve got to stop the shooting. We’ve got to go down and get fake bottles.” He said, “Well, couldn’t we maybe do it with a real bottle?” “No.” “Well, maybe we could throw it at him.” “No, no, that’s not as good.” “How about a lamp? Let’s hit him with a lamp.” So we tried hitting him with different things. It was actually one of the funniest days we ever had. Everybody came to visit that day. And I don’t like visitors on the set, but that was a perfect time to have them visit because most of the laughter on the tracks that you hear is people from behind the camera, me and a lot of Warners executives who showed up.
The real improvs were done with Joe and Frank Severa, who played Car­bone, who kept mumbling in Sicilian all the time. And they kept arguing with each other. Like the coffee pot: “That’s a joke. Put it down. What, are you going to take the pot?” — he was walking out with the pot. It’s more like telling him, even as an actor, “Are you out of your mind? Where are you going with the coffee? We don’t do that.” Another killing, Joe says, “Come on, we have to go chop him up.” And Frank starts to get out of the car. And Joe says, “Where are you going, you dizzy motherfucker? What’s the matter with you? We’re going to go chop him up here.” Frank’s impulse was to get out of the car. So Joe just grabbed him and said, “What are you doing?” They improvised.

Smith: Did you ever get feedback from the underworld after Mean Streets?

Scorsese: From my old friends. A lot of the people that the film is about are not Mafia.
Nick mentioned that the real-life Paulie Cicero never went to the movies, never went out, didn’t have telephones, you know. So one night the guys wanted to see this one particular movie, and they just grabbed him and threw him in the car and took him to see the film. It was Mean Streets. They loved it. So that was like the highest compliment, because I really try to be accurate about attitude and about way of life.

From Film Comment, September/October 1990.


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