Martin Scorsese is still curious – and still impressed by the possibilities of cinema
A moment from years ago keeps coming back to Martin Scorsese’s mind.
When Akira Kurosawa received an honorary Oscar in 1990, the then 80-year-old Japanese director of “Seven Samurai” and “Ikiru” said in his brief, humble speech that he had not yet grasped all the essence of cinema. .
This seemed curious to Scorsese, then in post-production on “Goodfellas”, from such a great filmmaker. It wasn’t until Scorsese also turned 80 that he began to understand Kurosawa’s words. Even today, Scorsese says he is just beginning to realize the possibilities of cinema.
“I’ve lived long enough to be his age and I think I get it now,” Scorsese said in a recent interview. “Because there is no limit. The limit is within yourself. It’s just the tools, the lights, the camera and all that. How far can you explore who you are?”
Scorsese’s lifelong exploration has seemingly only deepened and questioned more with time. In recent years, his films have grown in scope and ambition as he questions the nature of faith (“Silence”) and loss (“The Irishman”).
His latest work, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” about the systematic killing of members of the Osage Nation for their oil-rich lands in the 1920s, is in many ways far outside Scorsese’s own experience. But as a story of trust and betrayal, the film centers on the loving but treacherous relationship between Mollie Brown (Lily Gladstone), a member of a large Osage family, and Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a veteran of the First World War who comes to work. for his corrupt uncle (Robert De Niro) – it’s a deeply personal film that maps some of the themes of Scorsese’s gangster films onto American history.
More than the shenanigans of “Casino,” the bloody rampages of “New York Gangs” or the financial scams of “Wolf of Wall Street,” “Killers of the Flower Moon” is the story of a crime wave. It is an insidious and disturbing phenomenon, where greed and violence infiltrate the most intimate relationships – a genocide within the home. All of this, for Scorsese, is reminiscent of the tough guys and weak-willed sidekicks he witnessed as a child growing up on Elizabeth Street in New York.
“It’s been my whole life dealing with who we are,” Scorsese says. “I found this story lent itself to this deeper exploration.”
“Killers of the Flower Moon,” a 206-minute epic produced by Apple and released in theaters Friday to $200 million, is a big, bold move by Scorsese to pursue his personal, ambitious brand of cinema on a larger scale at a time when such grandiose statements on the big screen are rare.
Scorsese considers “Killers of the Flower Moon” “an inside show.” The film shot in Oklahoma, adapted from David Grann’s 2017 bestseller, could be considered his first western. But in developing Grann’s book, which chronicles the Osage murders and the birth of the FBI, Scorsese realized that centering the film on federal investigator Tom White was a familiar type of Western.
“I realized, ‘You’re not doing that. Your westerns are the westerns you saw in the late ’40s and early ’50s, that’s all. Peckinpah finished that. ‘Wild Bunch,’ This is the end. Now they are different,” he said. “It represented a certain era of who we were as a nation and a certain era of the world – and the end of the studio system. It was a genre. That folklore is gone.”
Scorsese, after conversations with Leonardo DiCaprio, turned to the story of Ernest and Mollie and a perspective closer to Osage Nation. Consultations with the tribe continued and expanded to include the accurate capture of traditional language, clothing and customs.
“It’s historic that indigenous people are able to tell their stories at this level. It’s never happened before, to my knowledge,” says Geoffrey Standing Bear, Principal Chief of the Osage Nation. “It took someone who could know that we have been betrayed for hundreds of years. He wrote a story about betrayal of trust.”
“Killers of the Flower Moon” for Scorsese was born out of a period of reflection and reassessment during the pandemic. COVID-19, he says, has been a “game changer.” For a filmmaker whose time is so intensely scheduled, the break was something of a relief, and it allowed him to reconsider what he wants to dedicate himself to. For him, preparing a film is a meditative process.
“I don’t use a computer because I’ve tried several times and I’ve been very distracted. I’m distracted as is,” Scorsese said. “I have films, I have books, I have people. I only started reading emails this year. Emails scare me. There is “CC” and there are a thousand names. Who are these people?”
Scorsese laughs when he says this, surely aware that he is playing on his image as a member of the old guard. (A moment later, he adds that voicemail “is interesting to do sometimes.”) Yet he’s also passionate enough about technology to digitally age De Niro and make appearances in his daughter Francesca’s TikTok videos.
Scorsese has for years been the preeminent conscience of cinema, passionately championing the place of personal filmmaking in an era where films can be devalued as “content”, movie screens are monopolized by Marvel and vision on the big screen can be reduced. streaming platforms.
“I try to keep alive the feeling that cinema is an art form,” Scorsese says. “The next generation may not see it that way, because as children and young people they are exposed to films that are wonderful entertainment, beautifully made, but are purely diversionary. I think the cinema can enrich your life.”
“As I leave, I try to say: remember, this really can be something beautiful in your life.”
This mission includes carrying out major restoration work with the Film Foundation as well as regular documentary production between feature films. Scorsese and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, are currently producing a documentary about Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Cinema, he says, may be the predominant art form of the 20th century, but something else will belong in the 21st century. Now, says Scorsese, “the visual image could be made by anyone, anytime, anywhere.”
“The possibilities are endless on every level. And it’s exciting,” says Scorsese. “But at the same time, the more choices there are, the harder it is.”
Time pressure also weighs more heavily on Scorsese. He has, he says, maybe two more features left in him. Currently in the mix are an adaptation of Grann’s latest book, the 18th-century shipwreck tale “The Wager,” and an adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s “Home.”
“He’s uncompromising. He just does what he really wants to study,” says Rodrigo Prieto, Scorsese’s cinematographer on “Flower Moon,” as well as his last three features.
“You feel like it’s a personal exploration of your own psyche,” adds Prieto. “By doing that, he allows everyone to grow, in some way, really interested in these characters who might do things that we might find very objectionable. I can’t think of many others filmmakers who attempt to achieve such a level of empathy and understanding.”
Still, Scorsese says he often feels like he’s in a race to accomplish what he can with the time he has left. More and more, he prioritizes what is worth it. Some things are easier for him to give up.
“Would I like to do more? Yeah. Would I like to go to everyone’s parties and dinners and stuff? Yeah, but you know what? I think I know enough people,” says Scorsese laughing. “Would I like to go see ancient Greek ruins? Yes. Go back to Sicily? Yes. Go back to Naples? Yes. North Africa? Yes. But I don’t have to.”
Scorsese’s time may be waning, but curiosity is as plentiful as ever. His recent readings include a new translation of “The Betrothed” by Alessandro Manzoni. Some old favorites that he can’t help but revisit. “Out of the Past” – a film he first saw when he was 6 – he watched again a few weeks ago. (“Every time it’s on, I have to stop and look at it.”) Vittorio De Sica’s “Golden Naples” was another recent reread.
“If I’m curious about something, I think I’ll find a way – if I stick it out, if I stick it out – to try to make something of it on film,” he says. “My curiosity is still there.”
The same goes for his continued amazement at cinema and its ability to transfix. Sometimes Scorsese has a hard time believing it. The other day he watched the 1945 horror film “Island of the Dead,” produced by Val Lewton, starring Boris Karloff.
“Really? How many more times am I going to see this?” Scorsese said, making fun of himself. “It’s their looks, their faces and the way (Karloff) moves. When I first saw it as a child, a young teenager, I was terrified of the film and its silences. The feeling of contamination. I’m still stuck there.”