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Thursday 21 September 2017

'I think it's different to Goodfellas' - Martin Scorsese talks new gangster film The Irishman

As he prepares for the release of his latest work, The Irishman, film director Martin Scorsese tells Christopher Hooton about his dedication to film-making, his obsession with peace and quiet and having an audience with Pope Francis

American Film Director Martin Scorsese speaking at an IFTA Masterclass at the InterContinental Hotel in Ballsbridge.
Pic Steve Humphreys
American Film Director Martin Scorsese speaking at an IFTA Masterclass at the InterContinental Hotel in Ballsbridge. Pic Steve Humphreys

Christopher Hooton

It's telling, perhaps damning, that a Martin Scorsese film now feels like almost an audacity.

With so-called "tentpole" movies reliably and surgically extracting billions from the box office, funding a drama by arguably Hollywood's biggest director is now something to scratch chins and underline scripts over with uncertainty.

His most recent film, Silence, eventually came into existence after 26 years of toil on Scorsese's behalf, during which, he tells me, he was even asked to give up on the project by his agents and managers.

A "passion project" is how it will always be referred to - perhaps the ultimate one - but I can't help but feel that as a director that term might be irksome, a cliche which implies that the film in question is an act of self-indulgence and the rest of a filmography is not motivated by passion.

"You're right, it is a kind of meaningless phrase," he tells me in his bristly but genial New York accent. "I guess it's more about them positioning a film in the marketplace.

"One has to have passion for every project one does and, if it isn't there, you find out immediately. I've done projects that weren't generated by me or people that I necessarily trusted on an aesthetic level, and I found that I had to make it a passion, otherwise I really couldn't get through the process."

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Directorial pilgrimage: Silence, starring Liam Neeson, took Scorsese more than 20 years to make

His next picture, The Irishman, sounds more like vintage Scorsese and definitely has mainstream appeal.

An adaptation of Charles Brandt's non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, it will tell the story of Mafia-tied 1950s hitman Frank Sheeran, be released through Netflix and star an irresistible trio of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.

The element of Sheeran's story that jumps out to me as ripe for cinema is his service in World War II, during which he committed numerous war crimes - often on instruction from unit commanders - and subsequently became desensitised to death and therefore a willing, successful hired gun.

"Well that, and what makes a person this way, what makes them become a professional killer," Scorsese says of his attraction to the project.

"It's about love, betrayal, remorse and the sadness and tragedy, ultimately, of a life led that way. It's about mercy too, I don't know if there'll be any of that in the picture yet, there might be."

This is familiar ground for Scorsese, and I ask him if The Irishman is going to be in the vein of Goodfellas et al.

"I think this is different, I think it is," he insists. "I admit that there are - you know, Goodfellas and Casino have a certain style that I created for them - it's on the page in the script actually.

"Putting Goodfellas together was almost like an afterthought, at times I was kind of rushing, I felt I'd already done it because I'd played it all out in terms of the camera moves and the editing and that sort of thing.

"The style of the picture, cuts, the freeze-frames, all of this was planned way in advance, but here it's a little different.

"The people are also older in The Irishman, it's certainly more about looking back, a retrospective so to speak of a man's life and the choices that he's had to make," he adds.

An obsession project might be closer to the mark when it comes to Silence, given the years of legal problems, financial issues and noncommittal producers.

The director and his leading cast took a pay cut to make it happen but he got there in the end: "I just never gave up on it. I never gave up on me."

It begs the question, now that's he made the film that's been tapping at his brain while he's been immersed in other projects for so many years, does he feel gratified? Has he achieved what he was hoping to?

"There were moments when there was some gratification, there's no doubt, in the process of making the film, the actual shooting and in the editing too," he said.

Chatting about it though, it becomes clear that Scorsese does not regard the film so much as a defined, finished entity, an IMDb entry he's put behind him, but an ongoing expression of his faith.

"It's alive. It's my life. It's not something that you suddenly finish and then move onto something else, it's a constant work in progress in my mind, and in my daily life too.

"So it was a matter of, I think, approaching it finally, feeling comfortable with it, trying to create something and then having to leave it at that point in time; just leave it.

"It's still there, I'm with it every day, but I had to leave the film alone after a point, I guess it's somehow completed, but in my mind it's not."

Fellow director Shinya Tsukamoto, who I spoke to earlier in the year and who gave an astonishing performance in Silence, described Scorsese as "very tenacious" during production, and explained that he himself didn't sight-see or really relax on location in Taiwan.

Co-star Andrew Garfield, with whom he shared many scenes, previously said Scorsese insists on silence on set and there are also decades-old stories of him asking crew members to remove their wristwatches.

It is as though Scorsese wants his set to exist outside of time and outside of the world, a vacuum but for creativity, which is allowed to bounce uninhibited.

"Maybe part of it is because I grew up in a very noisy area; once you realise that you don't have to live that way for the rest of your life, that silence is a part of reflection, that it is reflection; ultimately you accept it and you're not so afraid of being alone, not afraid of the silence. You welcome it."

Scorsese may not be on Twitter eking out trivia and trading witticisms with other directors, but he's sadly not untouched by the din, both physical and psychic, of modern society, as evidenced by the volume of adjectives he uses to describe it, telling me we are "embroiled in a claustrophobic, crazy, noise-ridden, jammed world".

"It gets to a point where things get distracting, it's as simple as that," he says.

"Rodrigo Prieto told me of another wonderful director, I won't say his name, that is overly sensitive to light and has to wear dark glasses on set; I have become very sensitive to noise. Silence is something to protect. It really is."

A demonstrably conflicted but committed Catholic, Scorsese had the honour of screening Silence in the Vatican and being granted an audience with Pope Francis, an encounter he said was initially a little awkward, with the complex protocols involved, but "very informal and pleasant" once he entered the room.

The meeting came before the Pope had seen the film, but Scorsese learned through priests whom he later met again in Taipei that he apparently "liked it very much", something the director says he was "very pleased" (and presumably incredibly relieved) about.

Silence is available to own on digital download, Blu-ray and DVD now

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