An interview with legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese, conducted in 2012 when he was presented with the BAFTA Fellowship, the Academy's highest honour.
Words by Quentin Falk
The term ‘Honorary Englishman’ is often bandied about, but it’s never seemed quite as apt as in the case of Martin Scorsese.
To hear the quintessential New Yorker, the son of working class Italian-Americans, waxing lyrical and so knowledgably about British cinema – whether it’s the past pleasures of Ealing Studios and Powell-Pressburger or the skills of contemporary filmmakers like Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay and Joanna Hogg – is like a riveting domestic masterclass.
Venerable titles such as The Red Shoes (1948), The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Blue Lamp (1950), trip off his tongue as he explains how it was American and British Cinema – okay, with some neo-realist Italian thrown in, too – that were the principal building blocks for a remarkable career that has now spanned more than 40 years.
Scorsese’s Academy Fellowship comes on the back of no fewer than 11 BAFTA nominations down the years, including three wins for 1991’s Goodfellas (Direction, Adapted Screenplay and Best Film). This was, incidentally, a good 16 years before he finally got an Oscar from his native Academy for The Departed (2006).
So his acknowledgement of the award is clearly heartfelt as he explains: “Because of the importance of British cinema to me and the powerful influence it had on my life, the word ‘special’ is inadequate for such an honour. I am really pleasantly surprised; I certainly didn’t expect it.”
The more obvious surprise to everyone else is that for a man with such a deep and abiding love of British cinema, it took him so long to make a film in the UK, which he finally did last year with Hugo (2011).
“I tried,” he asserts, “but the elements didn’t ever coordinate, usually thematically.” Over the years there were talks about remakes of The Heart Of The Matter (1953) – “that seemed to get tied up in rights issues” – and even Brighton Rock (1947), “and I said I couldn’t go near that material as I don’t quite get it.
“It’s like when they once asked Fellini: ‘Why don’t you come and make a film in New York? And he replied, ‘I don’t understand it.’ There’s a tradition of British noir that goes from something like Night And the City (1950) right up to things like The Long Good Friday (1980), Sexy Beast (2000) and beyond. It’s a genre in itself.”
"Because of the importance of British cinema to me, the word 'special' is inadequate for such an honour." Scorsese on receving the Fellowship
Now in his 70th year, Scorsese’s films read like a roll call of the Best of American Cinema, from the sidewalk grittiness of Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976) to tough gangland tales like Goodfellas, Casino (1995), Gangs Of New York (2002) and The Departed, not to mention biopics such as Raging Bull (1980) and The Aviator (2004).
The richness and variety of his CV also belies the notion that seemed to predicate most reviews of family-friendly Hugo: that he’s only interested in bloody violence and foul language. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), The Age Of Innocence (1993), New York New York (1977), The King Of Comedy (1983) and Kundun (1997) as well as his exhaustive music documentaries for TV on Bob Dylan and George Harrison are perfect proof.
As an asthmatic from the age of 3, sports and “hysterical laughter” (he chuckles) were effectively banned so his parents “who weren’t really in the habit of reading, went to the movies a lot and I would often go with them.”
If, as Scorsese has often acknowledged, Haig Manoogian, his film professor at Washington Square College, NYU, was his most important mentor in terms of inspiration and encouragement, then he would probably cite 12-year-old youngest daughter Francesca as his current muse. Hugo, about children and cinema history, was, he has said, to do with the development of her imagination as well as an opportunity to make something she and her friends could see in the cinema – in 3D, of course.
Scorsese says he loves “learning and unlearning about films” in Francesca’s company, “exposing her to films other than those – you know, the blockbusters, animation and sci-fi – that have to make their money back from the first night. She’s fallen in love with Alec Guinness after showing her The Horses’ Mouth (1958) and The Ladykillers (1955). She also now loves Hitchcock, including those ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ films for television, especially because he would introduce them himself with that dark humour.”
"I love unlearning and learning about films with her." On introducing his young daughter to cinema.
It would surely be easy for him to rest on his laurels and bask in the afterglow of acclaim for his work. So is he self-critical?
“An interviewer asked me recently when was the last time anyone had told me they didn’t like my work to my face. I had to think about that and answer as best as I could. When he left, I realised the real answer is ‘Myself – whenever I look in the mirror.’”
Turning 70 later this year doesn’t appear to hold many fears. “I keep in shape, but then there’s the question of actually trying to make a good movie; your body may be in shape, but is your mind? It’s about protecting the creative spark if it’s still there; and if it is, have you anything of interest to say to anybody?”
With a continuing devotion to film preservation, and Japanese historical drama Silence (2013), a Sinatra film and British cinema documentary currently in the pipeline, the esteemed filmmaker remains tireless – and legions of film fans wait in anticipation to enjoy the latest in an exceptional body of work.