Interview by KRISHAN GABRANI and ARUN BHANOT
For our 50th anniversary this year, SPAN is reprinting articles from past editions that reflect on issues we are reporting about today. This article from the April/May 1996 issue features an exclusive SPAN interview with Hollywood director Martin Scorses.
You are in India, we understand, in connection with your new film project on the life of the Dalai Lama, called Kundun. How did you come to have this title, which is a Hindi word?
Kundun means “the precious one.” That’s the title Melissa Mathison, who wrote the script, gave it. We’ve kept the title. And they do call him Kundun at times in the story. She gave me this script about four years ago, and since then we’ve been working on it, to get the film made. You say it’s a Hindi word.
Yes. It means “the pure.”
That’s interesting. It’s the precious jewel. That’s the idea. I’m going to talk to Melissa about that.
Several of your films deal with violence, mobsters and the Mafia.
Three of them do—Mean Streets, GoodFellas and Casino.
How did you change gears and opt for this apostle of peace and nonviolence?
I’ve always been very interested in religion, and I really wanted to do a film that was further away from the world that I grew up in, which was the world of urban New York, Lower East Side—Little Italy—an area where there were organized crime figures. As a child I didn’t know that. They were human beings to me then. You know I’m a Sicilian American. My grandparents come from Sicily. So crime was very much part of our culture, for better or for worse.
In the past 24 years that I’ve been making films—I think I’ve made about 16 films—only three of them deal with organized crime figures.
...yes, violence’s been a strong part of my movies. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull,of course. In Raging Bull the man’s job is to go and hit people and be hit. It’s like a very primal basic exploration. And we were able to use it as a metaphor, I’m afraid, for life. But, I’ve done a number of pictures that are not violent. Even The Color of Money is not a violent film. Then I’ve made After Hours andThe Age of Innocence, which is a story about the New York aristocracy. And Kundun was another one that I wanted to make—the story about the Dalai Lama—to take me into another world.
When did you come to know of the Dalai Lama as a person with a larger-than-life persona?
A good question. I remember his escape from Tibet. I remember that as a young person. I remember a photograph of him on the front page of a newspaper. But I became aware of the loss, the physical loss, of the culture of Tibet in about 1986-87. I saw a number of programs on television in America, and the shock of the tragedy affected me strongly. What it also meant to me was that the Dalai Lama had left Tibet but he had “taken” Tibet with him. And that would be an interesting story because, if anything, what the world needs is more of a society where people could look in rather than look out.
That’s what our Indian scriptures teach us.
That’s what’s so fascinating about India. It’s fantastic. And it took me all these years to get here.
Is this your first visit to India?
What are your first impressions—of the people, of the country?
Overwhelming. I was up in Dharamshala, also Jammu. I’m amazed by the varieties of people—the different ways, the different languages, the look of the country, which is something I never had known.
I was eight years old when I saw the first movie about India, Jean Renoir’s The River,which was so beautiful, full of the sense of color and smell. From that film you could smell the different spices and the incense. I think Satyajit Ray also worked on that film.
Yes. He assisted Renoir during the filming.
So, all these years I wanted to get to India, to have an excuse to come here. I don’t travel very often.
Talking of Satyajit Ray, you’ve recently been involved in the restoration of eight of his films. But even in the early 1960s you made a statement that The Apu Trilogy was “one of the greatest cinematic experiences of my life.” How come at that time, when you were just a young boy in New York, you got interested in this filmmaker?
I was about 15. Experiencing The Apu Trilogy together—to see all three films as I did, five-and-a-half hours straight—was really like reaching over to the other side of the world and becoming totally understanding of people in different cultures and different points of view but still seeing them as human beings. It was so different from us, so different from our cultural setup in New York.
But at that age, to feel so intensely about...
...very intensely, especially the first one, Pather Panchali,and the last one, The World of Apu. The middle one, Aparajito,was also good, but the first and the last were overwhelming. You can’t deny the power of these stories. And it seems very simple, but it’s very hard to shoot.
How would you rate Satyajit Ray?
He’s certainly one of the all time greats. There is no doubt. I think one reason why I reacted to his films the way I did was that when I was a child in New York I saw Italian films on television—Open City, The Bicycle Thief,and many others—and when I saw The Apu Trilogy it reminded me of those. Even to think about this film now is so moving.
Interestingly, Ray was deeply influenced by The Bicycle Thief.
In fact, I feel so strongly about the Italian cinema that we’re going to do a documentary on the Italian cinema, starting from The Bicycle Thief andtaking it all the way up to Federico Fellini and Bernardo Bertolucci and a few of the other filmmakers now.
I have just completed a three-hour-and-45-minute documentary on American cinema to work as a guide. A personal view. It’s not a view of the Academy Award winning films but of different movies that I experienced and enjoyed as a child and as a young filmmaker.
You’ve made some of the most memorable films. Which of your films would you rate as your best and why?
I have a very strong personal connection to Mean Streets which I did in 1973. Then I made a film on my mother and father, a documentary. Very simple story. No story, actually. Just having dinner with my mother and father on a Sunday afternoon and asking them questions about how they were raised—and about my grandmother. It was a very simple documentary, less than an hour. It was called ItalianAmerican. I learned a great deal about them. I learned they had a life before me [laughs]. They’d been married 42 years at that time.
Coming back to Ray. When you first experienced him, you couldn’t have, at that young age, been thinking of becoming a filmmaker or...
...I was thinking about it. Well, also at that time I was at the preparatory seminary, training to be a priest. I didn’t make it to the priesthood because I was veering toward films. And the humanist approach of Ray was what affected me. I wanted to make films like that, films that reached across cultural barriers and national barriers, to humanity, to everybody. That is what I think is the danger now in America. Americans don’t look at foreign films anymore. And that is why I’m trying to change them. I tried to release some old French films. I re-released Rocco and His Brothers by Luchino Visconti. That’s also why I helped Ismail Merchant in the restoration of the Ray films. It’s very important how he supported the showings of the Ray films in America.
One interesting parallel in your films and Ray’s is that for most of his films Ray had Soumitra Chatterjee as the common male protagonist and you’ve had Robert De Niro in almost all your films. Is it because a director looks for the ideal actor who can express what the director wants to say?
Basically, we had such a tight relationship that I had to say very little. He doesn’t even act, he sort of behaves. He becomes this person, the film’s character, and, like a joke, we usually say: “Is Jake in this morning?” [Jake LaMotta is the character De Niro plays in Raging Bull.]“Is he on time?” “Yes, he’s on time.” “Okay, we’ll go see Jake now.” We usually call him by the character’s name.
Is it also because you’re both from the same background?
Yes, we have a similar background, although, interestingly, I grew up in the Lower East Side with different groups of young boys, some of whom went to college, some went to organized crime, and some became lawyers. That’s just the way it was, and still is, I think, in Little Italy. And Bob De Niro was also down there, although he lived four blocks away. We knew each other and he would come and visit me and we would hang out together.
Bob came from a very different background. His father was a famous painter and his mother was a writer. I came to know of that only after we had known each other for two years. And my people were just working class people. There were no books, no literature in our house. They could read and write but they were hardworking Italian Americans trying to stay away from “the mob” and make a decent living. Bob’s father died in 1993—three months before my father. He would visit his father in the hospital and then cross the street to visit my father.
Whom would you rate as the greatest filmmaker in the world of cinema?
I like many types of films, so it’s difficult to say. But among Hollywood filmmakers I like Orson Welles and John Ford. Welles, because he made me understand what a director does. I could see the camera moves, I could see the angle, the surprise of the editing. But most of all I liked the way he told a story. The story wasn’t straightforward. In America now the studios always say Act I, Act II, Act III of the script or the film. But I say: “Why do you want to do that? That’s theater. This is film. A film is like music. It has to flow. There can be five sequences, there can be 25.”
I found that Welles didn’t tell stories that way. He told a story visually. Ford told stories visually, too, but he is simple. The same thing with Ray: the poetry. It’s just like John Ford.
The characters in your films are always on the edge, or—to put it another way—you depict them in extreme situations. But at the same time you have made some beautiful documentaries on music like The Last Waltz and Woodstock (as coeditor), and last year you produced a documentary on blues guitarist Eric Clapton.
I was executive producer of the Clapton film and what I worked on there was to ensure that there weren’t too many cuts in the music. I wanted to keep intact the power of his performance.
What attracts you to rock music? How do you really relate this to your cinematic themes?
The key thing is music. For me, when I hear music—it could be rock ’n’ roll, blues, Indian music, or it could be classical music—I imagine images and I imagine sequences. I usually play music whether I’m working on a script or drawing pictures. I play the music for the film. Take Casino.There is maybe three hours of music there. That’s enormous. And for that I played some old 1950s rock ’n’ roll and I played Bach—two contrasts, because that is the story for me. It’s like a tragedy, only it is a tragedy of gangsters.
Have you ever been exposed to any Indian filmmakers other than Ray?
Shyam Benegal. I was with him in China in 1983 or 1984. We did a symposium along with a number of other directors. Some of the Mrinal Sen films, and some new films also.
Have you seen any commercial Hindi movies?
Yes, I watch the Indian news on Sunday morning at home in New York. I see cuts from Hindi movies. I don’t understand them because they don’t have subtitles. But I do understand that cinema is a fantasy, the way Hollywood cinema was in the 1930s during the Depression when everyone wanted to see musicals.
When TV came to America it was predicted that it’ll be the demise of cinema. But that didn’t happen. And now TV has come to India in a big way. You think it will have either a good or bad influence on Indian cinema?
I think it’ll certainly change the way films are made here. Because many of the films will be made directly for television. There’s a danger it may hurt the cinematic quality, the way of telling a story in pictures. Because when you make a film for TV—some of them, of course, are brilliant—it’s not being made for experiencing by a big audience. There’s a danger in this, and that’s what is happening in America. If you look at some of these films made in the past, many of them are very popular and are well-made films, excellently acted and well directed, but basically television films. A number of Americans are attempting to make real cinema—films where they utilize the visual image—or trying to tell a story with pictures. It’s very dangerous because the budgets are getting higher and we’ve got to take less chances then.
Brian De Palma, for example, is doing a mission impossible, going back to the TV show but which is really a big movie. I think he is one of the great directors, the way he tells a story visually. It’s extraordinary.