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Martin Scorsese: How to Lead a Creative Life

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AT 69, AN AGE WHEN MOST HOLLYWOOD DIRECTORS have been packed off after a hollow cavalcade of plaudits, roasts, and nostalgic fetes, Martin Scorsese is once again panicked about hitting a deadline. His new movie is Hugo, a 3-D children’s movie being released by Paramount Pictures this Thanksgiving weekend, and Scorsese has never before directed in 3-D, nor, God knows, made anything resembling a kid flick. But this is what life is like for Marty, as everyone calls him. The director has achieved the trifecta of a fulfilling, creative life: enough money to do only what truly interests him, enough freedom to attack those projects in a way that is satisfying, and enough appreciation from his peers to tame–just slightly, just ever so slightly–the neurotic beast of self-doubt. After 22 movies, five commercials, 13 documentaries, a handful of music videos, three children, five wives, and 25 studios; after insolvency and misery, after box-office failures and years of going unappreciated; after the one Oscar and all the others he should have won, Marty Scorsese has earned the right that every creative person dreams of: the right never to be bored. And what all this adds up to in his case, what this really means to this particular man, is that he has earned the right to continue to fret every little detail in the world well into the next decade and for as long as he cares to make movies.

So as he sits down for the filmed part of a fastcompany.com interview in his office screening room, a comfortable unostentatious cave surrounded outside by posters of classic films likeThe Third Man, Citizen Kane, and Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief), Hollywood’s eminence grise starts off by wanting to get something straight: “Let me ask you: Do I look like Quasimodo? Am I sitting too far down in the chair? The shoulders on this jacket, against these chairs, they can scrunch up so I look like Quasimodo. Okay, is this good?” Yes, Mr. Scorsese. And how are you feeling today?

Photo by Art Streiber

“I’m good. I’m tired. I’m tired, but in a good way. There’s just so much to do. What I’m worried about is, is there confusion in the film? Because there’s so many things going on, especially in a movie like this, in 3-D. There’s the color timing; Bob Richardson has done the film but he’s in Budapest right now shooting another film, and he’s got to get the timing right, but he’s doing it through Greg Fisher who’s living here now, but originally Greg did it with Bob in England, so there’s that problem. Rob Legato is living here now for the special effects–he doesn’t live here, but he’s here in New York till the picture’s finished. These special effects are hard! Some take 89 days to render–89 days to render! And what if you don’t like it when it comes back? I tell them at a certain point, you’ve gotta tell me, you’ve got to say: This is the point of no return, Marty; you’ve got to make up your mind right now about this facet of the shot! So, you know, that’s when you’ve got to make up your mind.”

Scorsese, to pick a side in an endless argument, is America’s greatest living director. And yet he still can’t make up his damn mind, still gets obsessed, still gets crazed by the same kinds of things that make any creative type nuts. Is he going to get the resources he needs? Will his bosses like what he’s doing? Will they give him another chance on another project? How much of his creative vision will get into this project? How much will the powers that be screw with his vision? When does he say “no” to them? When does he say “yes”? Whom does he trust? And how in the world is he going to get away with doing the work he loves for his whole life?

In an era when careers are measured in months rather than decades, Scorsese has reliably delivered for 45 years–but it still isn’t easy. “There’s always been pressure,” he says. “People say you should do it this way, someone else suggests that, yes, there’s financing, but maybe you should use this actor. And there are the threats, at the end–if you don’t do it this way, you’ll lose your box office; if you don’t do it that way, you’ll never get financed again. . . . 35, 40 years of this, you get beat up.” Hollywood has always been a battlefield, as rough as any more-traditional corporate setting.

And yet unlike so many creative geniuses, Scorsese hasn’t burned out, he hasn’t alienated the people he’s worked with, and he’s generally not considered a creep. Despite the fact that he’s never had a massive box-office hit (Shutter Island is his biggest grosser to date, with $300 million earned worldwide), Paramount decided to give him a reported $85 million to make a 3-D children’s movie about a broody child named Hugo Cabret. And while Hugo’s success is uncertain (for God’s sake, screams conventional wisdom, it’s two hours long, it’s dark, it takes place in France, and aren’t people over live-action 3-D?), Scorsese is well on his way toward funding his next project, Silence–an adaptation of a book about 17th-century missionaries. In Japan! (Which is yet another foreign country, people!)

Any man who can get this stuff financed–never mind make great art from the material–has clearly learned a trick or two. Scorsese has sweated the details of his career as thoroughly as the details of his movies. As he explains here, in his own rat-a-tat style, the man knows a few things about constructing a life of meaningful work–things that apply to anyone in the business of trying to craft a creative life.

RESPECT THE PAST

Nobody talks about the movies the way Marty Scorsese can talk about the movies. His conversation bounds from John Cassavetes (a mentor) to Steven Spielberg (a friend) to Akira Kurosawa (an acquired taste) to George Melies, the silent-film director and innovator whose story forms the basis of Hugo. “When we begin a film,” says Dante Ferretti, the Oscar-winning production designer of KundunGangs of New York, The Age of Innocence, and now Hugo, “I read the script and then Marty shows me films. Many, many films, with many different references he wants me to think of for the look of our movie. He carries all these films in his head. He shows me whole films for just one shot, telling me, ‘Remember this image, that’s the feel I want.’”

Scorsese revels in such details. He likes to speak of directors on three levels: their films, their careers, and their lives within and without Hollywood. He is fascinated by how these men (and the occasional woman) made it–or didn’t make it–through the gauntlet. In 1995, he narrated and codirected a documentary about their careers called A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. It’s a career how-to video disguised as the greatest lesson in U.S. film history. Going back to D.W. Griffith, through Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder, and up to modern-day filmmakers, he looks at how these “smugglers, iconoclasts, and illusionists” managed to get some version of their creative visions on-screen. “I was mainly interested in the ones who circumvented the system to get their movies done,” he explains in the video. “To survive, to master the creative process, each had to develop his own strategy.”

For someone whose own innovations are numerous–the introduction of a certain New York street vernacular in Mean Streets and Who’s That Knocking at My Door, the intimacy of the boxing scenes in Raging Bull, the rush and flow of Goodfellas, and now, with Hugo, a reinterpretation or rediscovery of how 3-D can bolster a film’s beauty without intruding on the story–Scorsese understands himself as a product of, and a battler against, the Hollywood system. He draws clear lines from classics past to his own work: Nicolas Cage’s EMT in Bringing Out the Dead is “a modern-day saint, like what Rossellini did in Europa ‘51“; the fight sequences in Raging Bull draw from, yes, the ballet in The Red Shoes. His comfort with the past is so deep that he romanticizes the old-Hollywood-studio system, where directors worked for one studio churning out at least a movie a year, if not three or four. “There was always a part of me that wanted to be an old-time director,” he says, laughing. “But I couldn’t do that. I’m not a pro.”

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