Martin Scorsese is the most alive he’s been in his work in a long time, brimming with renewed passion for filmmaking and invigorated by the reception that has greeted his latest gangland magnum opus, ‘The Irishman’.
And what he wants to talk about is death.
Just to be clear, he’s not talking about the deaths in his movies or anyone else’s. “You just have to let go, especially at this vantage point of age,” he said one Saturday afternoon last month.
The 77-year-old director was stretched out in a comfortable chair in a living room of his Manhattan town house, a seat he would rise from several times when a whimsical mood struck him during a spirited conversation about mortality and its inevitability.
As he explained, Scorsese was talking about setting aside his expectations for ‘The Irishman’. But he also meant relinquishing physical possessions: “The point is to get rid of everything now,” he said, in his trademark mile-a-minute clip. “You’ve got to figure out who gets what or not.” And the last step in this process is to let go of existence itself, as we all must.
“Often, death is sudden,” he continued. “If you’re given the grace to continue working, then you’d better figure out something that needs telling.” He found that inspiration in ‘The Irishman,’ his mammoth dramatisation of the life of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a mob enforcer who claimed to have killed Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
It was not an angst-free undertaking for Scorsese — his movies never are — as he struggled with the idea of making another film set in the world of organised crime and hesitated about pursuing the project with Netflix instead of a traditional studio.
But what compelled him to abide these uncertainties was a story that went well past the scope of ‘Goodfellas’ or ‘Casino’, to the waning days of Sheeran’s life, when he is left alone to contemplate the morality of his deeds. In words that Scorsese knew would resonate beyond the framework of ‘The Irishman’ he said, “It’s all about the final days. It’s the last act.”
He may occasionally talk like someone with nothing left to lose, when he is candidly holding forth on comic-book movies, the treatment of women in his films or what he feels is his tenuous place in the current film industry.
But Scorsese remains deeply invested in his career, after more than half a century, and while ‘The Irishman’ could easily provide a fitting coda, he has no intention of stopping here.
What motivates him now, he said, is not fear of death but acceptance that it happens to everyone, an understanding that provides him with perspective. “As they say in my movie, ‘It’s what it is,’” he said. “You’ve got to embrace it.”
Like the man himself, Scorsese’s home is a monument to moviemaking. Aside from the stately fireplace portrait of Gouverneur Morris, a Founding Father and ancestor of the director’s wife, Helen, the most prominent decorations surrounding him were oversize posters of beloved films by Jean Cocteau and Jean Renoir, including three for ‘Grand Illusion’ in this room alone. Across the hallway was the dining room where he had edited portions of ‘The Irishman’, ‘Silence’ and ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’.
Scorsese is perpetually reliving this history, telling tales of revelling in ‘Citizen Kane’ when he watched it on a butchered TV broadcast years ago or being awestruck when John Cassavetes, a hero and mentor, was given what seemed like the princely budget of $1 million (Dh3.7 million) to make ‘Husbands’, his 1970 comedy-drama about men in midlife crisis, for Columbia Pictures.
An eye for macabre details and an unflinching willingness to depict them have served Scorsese well, but somewhere around the making of his Vegas mob saga ‘Casino’ (1995) — particularly the scene in which Joe Pesci’s character is beaten to death and buried in a cornfield — the director began to wonder if he had pushed this skill set to its limit. “I said I can’t go any further with it,” he recounted.
Over the next two decades, he largely avoided projects in the crime-drama genre. (An exception was ‘The Departed’, for which he finally won an Academy Award.) But whatever the subject matter, Scorsese said he felt drained by these films, usually near their conclusions, when he inevitably found himself butting heads with studio executives who wanted the running times shortened.
“The last two weeks of editing and mixing ‘The Aviator’,” a co-production that included Warner Bros and Miramax, among others, “I had left the business from the stress,” he recalled. “I said if this is the way you have to make films then I’m not going to do it anymore.”
He did not quit, of course, but he has increasingly turned to independent financiers to back his projects, believing that he and the studio system had become mortal enemies.
When De Niro approached him with the source material for ‘The Irishman’, in the midst of work on another potential Paramount film they would ultimately walk away from, Scorsese did not necessarily see it as an opportunity to make a grand pronouncement on his body of work or the mafia milieu. “I saw it as a danger,” he said, fearing that it would be dismissed as yet another mob drama on his resume.
The only reason to do ‘The Irishman’, Scorsese said, was if it addressed ideas he hadn’t previously confronted. “Is it going to be enriching?” he asked himself. “Are we going to learn about the invisible, the afterlife? No, we’re not.”
‘The Irishman’ took more than a decade to make, and as its cast grew to include Harvey Keitel, Pesci and Pacino (who had never worked with Scorsese), the director could feel the stakes getting higher.
In ways both subtle and substantial, Scorsese sees the world changing and becoming less familiar to him. He gratefully accepted a deal with Netflix, which covered the reported $160 million budget for ‘The Irishman.’ But the bargain meant that, after the movie received a limited theatrical release, it would be shown on the company’s streaming platform.
That means some viewers are watching the three-and-a-half hour movie incrementally, instead of in one sitting, as its director would prefer. But Scorsese said he’d rather the film be available somewhere, in some form, than nowhere. “Even if it’s going to be shown on a street corner, maybe someday it’ll be shown in a theatre as part of a retrospective,” he said. “I really thought that.”
Netflix said ‘The Irishman’ was watched by more than 26.4 million accounts in its first week on the site, but the realm of smartphones, tablets and streaming devices is largely invisible to Scorsese.
But you also know that Scorsese is hardly a wallflower if you’ve followed his recent remarks against Marvel movies, which he said were “not cinema” and closer to “theme parks” in an October interview with Empire magazine.
That prompted Robert A Iger, the chief executive of the Walt Disney Co (which owns Marvel) to tell Time magazine that Scorsese’s remarks were “nasty” and “not fair to the people who are making the movies,” adding that he was seeking a meeting with the director.
Scorsese told me that he had reached out to Iger several months earlier, on behalf of his non-profit Film Foundation, which is seeking to restore and preserve movies in the 20th Century Fox library that Disney now owns. “Then all this came up,” Scorsese said with a chuckle. “So, we’ll have a lot to talk about.” (A Disney spokeswoman said the company was trying to set up the meeting between Scorsese and Iger.)
Despite his professed aversions, Scorsese is going back to the Hollywood studios for his next movie, ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’, which is adapted from David Grann’s nonfiction book about the murders of Osage Indians in 1920s Oklahoma and which will be financed by Paramount.
Scorsese has other aspirations but they have nothing to do with moviemaking. “I would love to just take a year and read,” he said. “Listen to music when it’s needed. Be with some friends. Because we’re all going. Friends are dying. Family’s going.”
Don’t miss it!
‘The Irishman’ is now streaming on Netflix.