For those dotCommonwealers who fail to check in at the magazine’s main desk, here’s a link to the interview I did with director Martin Scorsese, discussing his new movie, Silence, based on the Shusaku Endo novel of the same name. The interview is set to run in print in the next issue, but first ran online – in serial installments, like a Dickens novel.
The magazine did it this way because the interview is very long, and that’s because Scorsese – “Marty,” as one quickly learns to call him, taking a cue from his publicist – is extremely garrulous. And he talks fast. I was amused to learn that the great director Akira Kurosawa chose him to play Vincent Van Gogh in a segment of his 1990 film Dreams because he, Kurosawa, liked Scorsese’s speedy volubility, and improbably imagined the Dutch painter sounding like that.
Anyway, at times I felt less like I was guiding a conversation than riding a tsunami.
The interview took place not at Scorsese’s apartment on the Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but in a suite in a nearby hotel that he uses for interviews and various other meetings. It was a posh boutique place where the staff spoke French, I sipped hot mulled cherry cider as I waited in the lobby, and the clientele seemed to consist exclusively of wealthy septuagenarian Europeans with their little dogs, or young American guys in expensive ripped jeans and overcoats, who looked like movie stars.
As for Scorsese, he was terrific – genial, audaciously energetic for an almost-75-year-old, and thoroughly unpretentious (but that’s pretty much guaranteed when your film alter ego is Harvey Keitel, right?). A lifelong practicing Catholic, he’d been interviewed before by Commonweal, and he recalled it, pegging the interview accurately to the appearance of his 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ – the burning controversy over which seems to have branded itself on his memory. When I said that “I know you’re familiar with our magazine and our readership,” the director laughed – he laughs a lot – and made a self-deprecating remark. “I come from a working-class culture, and there were no books in the house,” he said. “The only reading material was the Daily News and the Daily Mirror. Not the Post, and certainly not the Times!”
It’s a long journey from the Daily News to Shusaku Endo. I was interested to learn that Silence had come Scorsese’s way via the late Episcopal bishop of New York, Paul Moore, all the way back in 1988. The circumstances of that exchange are fascinating. Scorsese and a team of his people involved in Last Temptation had just given an advance screening of that film to religious groups who had been angrily complaining about it – “without even having seen it,” Scorsese told me. He felt both irked and somewhat battered by the angry reaction, and thus all the more relieved that night when his group from Paramount was joined at dinner by Bishop Moore, who had shown up specifically to tell Scorsese that in his view the film was “Christologically correct.” At the end of that dinner Moore recommended Endo’s novel, promising to send it to Scorsese. I got the feeling that the two things were linked; that Scorsese’s grateful relief to find at least one important religious authority who was not denouncing his movie cued up a readiness to take Moore’s literary recommendation to heart. And thus began his nearly thirty-year attempt to bring it to the screen.
In looking for ways to streamline a very long interview we edited out some stuff about the business of making movies and this movie in particular – industry backstory, as it were, full of names and stories of deals done and undone. Thinking about those parts of the conversation, I can’t help noting how sometimes a critic remains fixed on a film’s ideas, while the filmmaker himself is inwardly brooding (or chuckling) over ironies that have nothing to do with the themes of the film, and everything to do with the clash of personalities and ambitions involved in making it.
For instance. Scorsese recounted the rough critical reception accorded his 1983 film The King of Comedy, a darkly funny satire with Robert DeNiro playing a publicity-seeking nobody who stalks a famous comedian and talk-show host (played brilliantly by Jerry Lewis). I told him how much I’d always admired that movie, placing it alongside Elia Kazan’s underappreciated 1957 masterpiece, A Face in the Crowd, and its penetrating take on the pathology of fame. Scorsese nodded, even as he said, cryptically, “Well, there's a whole ‘nother story there.” I didn’t pursue the remark... and didn't realize until later, combing through online accounts of the problems plaguing the development of Silence, that he was referring to Elia Kazan's son, Nick, a screenwriter who contributed early on to Silence and subsequently filed a lawsuit seeking both a screenwriting credit and a lot of money – part of the “Gordian knot” Scorsese referred to in discussing the obstacles to the film. Thus, of course, Scorsese’s chortling when I lumped King of Comedy in with Elia Kazan's masterpiece. I was thinking about what genius the father had brought to bear; he was thinking about what a pain in the butt the son had been.
As for Silence itself, first, for the record, my top-five Scorsese films, in no particular order, would be Goodfellas (esp the first half), Raging Bull (genius by DeNiro), King of Comedy, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and The Departed... followed closely by Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, The Color of Money, Hugo and The Age of Innocence. I screened Silence in the cozy luxury of the screening room at Scorsese’s Midtown production company offices, and my first impression was that it is considerably more beautiful than just about anything he has made before, both more interesting and more seductive visually. That explains his focus in our interview on the act of composing the particular look and feel of the film, and what he was after with it. There is a stillness at the heart of this movie; it's fundamentally isolated and meditative. That comes off as earnest, and these aren't Scorsesean qualities; much more typically his movies brim with raucous energies, jousting sarcasm, and a lot of noise.
The Scorsese intensity is certainly there; and the violence and suffering showcased by the brutal facts of martyrdom don't come off as gratuitous or lurid in the Mel Gibson, Passion of the Christ way. What I’m not sure of, for myself anyway, is whether the story as the film presents it succeeds in rippling outward to gain significance in your mind and emotions in the days after you see it. It's the kind of film that needs to be able to do that. Maybe it will for you... or for me, on a second seeing.