Calling Martin Scorsese a “talker” is sort of like summing up Goodfellas as “a mob movie”: its accurate, sure, but doesnt quite convey the totality of the experience. It was only a matter of time before some enterprising media outfit figured out how to channel that quality into content—though it took some convincing. And so, Like Werner Herzog before him, Scorsese has now delivered a MasterClass on filmmaking, in which he shares anecdotes from his career and tricks of the trade with would-be Martys—or at least anyone willing to spend $90 for 30 Scorsese-hosted video tutorials. The Oscar-winning director spoke to Vanity Fair about his initial hesitation to sign on for the project, what changed his mind, and what he hope students will take away from his lessons—as well as the masters who taught him firsthand, including Billy Wilder, John Cassavetes, and Akira Kurosawa.
Vanity Fair: When the idea of doing a MasterClass was first pitched to you, did you have any hesitation about taking it on?
Martin Scorsese: Well, I did, because it depends on when one takes it on. But in an odd way, it might have been the perfect time, because its been, what, something like 40 years? So maybe its time. [Actually, its closer to 60 years: Scorsese made his first short film,Vesuvius VI, in 1959.]
I could look back on certain experiences or certain choices I make with objectivity—and not false objectivity, but with a sense of clearing away emotional and psychological issues that may have gotten in the way of those experiences. And you could be a little more clear, I think, about the trajectory of the work youve done over the years, and what you could impart to those who are interested, particularly younger people. They cannot experience films, movies, cinema in the same way I did.
The only way you saw movies was to go to a building [laughs]. I come from a time where for the most part—until Psycho in 1960, wed just walk in in the middle of a film. And then thered be a second feature, and then when the first feature started again, you or your friends would deliver the famous words to each other: “I think this is where we came in!”
Primarily, it was a communal experience in a theater. Now its different. Im not saying one is better than the other; its just that theres a different experience now. You had to get up and go to a theater. You had to find out where and when it was playing, hoping that the print was in good condition, because if it was a third or fourth-run theater—or repertory theater, they call them now—the prints were not very good. And if it was a foreign film . . . Im short, so invariably thered be somebody bigger in front of me, and I couldnt see the subtitles!
Did you ever get the opportunity to meet or sit down with any of the directors who influenced you?
Well, I was in Los Angeles in the early 70s, and I did get to meet George Cukor [Gone with the Wind], who was very kind and very supportive, and King Vidor [The Wizard of Oz], who I wouldve liked to have talked to longer—I only met him a few times—but who was also very supportive.
I met Billy Wilder [Some Like It Hot], who was very helpful. He taught me a lot about what the industry is like and—how should I put it?—what one can expect. Youre dealing with a situation where films are made for a certain amount of money, and they have to make a profit somehow, or at least break even, which affects your standing for your next picture. I was just learning at the time, thinking Id always get a film to make somehow—but he was very realistic about it, and with good humor.
But the two people who were most important: I got to meet Michael Powell, the director of The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom. He made these extraordinary films with his collaborator, Emeric Pressburger, and the only film of his and Pressburgers that we saw complete was The Red Shoes. All the others—A Matter of Life and Death,The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,Black Narcissus,The Tales of Hoffmann . . . they were almost impossible to see, either in their entirety, or in good prints, or even in color. And they were known for their color! So it was a real process of discovery.
We became friends. He came to New York and started working with Francis Coppola at Zoetrope, and he eventually married my editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. But it was more than picking his brain. He became like a part of the family, with him, my parents, and everybody working on the films. So it was a constant dialogue, and this was very, very important in the films I made over the years, because theyre heavily influenced by his work.
I saw The Red Shoes when I was about 10, and that was a major impact on me. The others I saw in maimed—or should I say poor?—condition. But they were still fascinating. And somehow they spoke to me.
The other person was John Cassavetes. I didnt spend the amount of time with John that I spent with Michael, but he had me work as an assistant sound editor on a movie called Minnie and Moskowitz. I didnt do anything! I just would follow him around and watch him cut film late at night, and he would dictate stories.
Id go to his house on Mulholland Drive, where he lived with Gena Rowlands, and hang out with Peter Falk, Val Avery . . . It was quite a time, and it was very special to be around him. And he had an extraordinary effect on me, because he was the one who said, in a sense, “Dont get too enamored of the studio system,” because I was coming off the golden age of cinema in America. Of course, it was long gone. I didnt realize it [laughs]. But he said, “Dont get hung up with that; stay with the heart, with what you feel strongly about.” He said, “Dont you have something that you can push, that you can fight to get made?” And that ultimately became Mean Streets.
In your MasterClass, you suggest that directors take opportunities to work as actors in other directors films. In your experience, which is easier: directing a comedian, or being directed by a comedian, as you were by Albert Brooks in The Muse?
I think directing a comedian is easier! [laughs] Because whenever youre directed by anyone, but particularly a comedian . . . comedians are like great jazz artists now, and their stand-up is like an extraordinary guitar solo. So its a real art form, and theyre so unique, I want to make sure they get what they need. . . and theyre always ahead of you! [laughs]
If youve ever tried to do stand-up, youll know what I mean. Its the hardest thing in the world. The audience is there, and theyre either with you or against you—and if theyre against you, you have to win them over. And if you dont win them over, you personally are rejected—not your film, not somebody elses script or cinematography. You personally onstage are attacked [laughs]. Theyre like warriors, and theres brilliance in most of them, so to try to be directed by them, I hoped that I could give them what they needed or what they wanted. And then theres the question of how far you can go. Because you wonder if you can be inspired by what inspires them. Can you do what Albert Brooks or Larry David do? Theyre so brilliant, how do you come up to their expectations?
Youve appeared in front of the camera for a number of notable directors, but theres one in particular that Im most curious about: what was it like to be directed by Akira Kurosawa in Dreams?
That was very different. The reason why I do a lot of these films is to try and constantly place myself in the actors position. The ability to walk across the frame, for example: youll think its very simple for an actor to do, but how do you do it without becoming conscious of your walking?
So were on location in Hokkaido; I played the scene with [Akira] Terao, who was the other actor in it, and Im supposed to be playing van Gogh in a field—a wheat field, I believe, and it was quite beautiful. It was the end of September. He did it with two cameras on tracks with zooms, so that he could have a six or seven-page dialogue scene in one take, and you never quite knew where the camera was. I asked—through the interpreter and his producer—if there was anything specific that he wanted. And they said, “No, no. This should be fine.”
So we do a rehearsal. And the producer, who was a translator also, comes up to me and says, “Yes, very good! But sensei . . . ”—that means “master” in Japanese. “Sensei feels that when you begin the scene, you should walk to your right, look over at the trees, start drawing, say your line, and when you finish the drawing, tear the page out.” “And throw it away?” “No, you place that page at the bottom of the pad. Now, you move to your left on this line . . . ” And it went on like this [laughs]. And I did it. I memorized it. I did it immediately. But it was so specific.
And I realized that this extraordinary artist . . . when you see the actors in the frame—he pretty much has given them their positions. You realize that Kurosawa was almost like a sculptor with actors. So we did, like, three takes, and I asked for one more. There was a big negotiation. But they granted me the one more take [laughs].
Do you remember which take he used?
I have no idea! [laughs] Probably the third. But the second take, I think, was pretty good.
What do you hope students take away from your MasterClass?
Well, I tried to be as frank with them as possible, and tried to express to them that cutting through all the technology and cutting through all the cultural fads, the fashion, the one thing you can rely on—the one thing that has to be protected—is that initial inspirational spark you had when you first decided that you wanted to express yourself through the moving image. Thats very hard to protect. It can be chipped away at over the years. You may have to do things that you dont necessarily want to do. But you still have to protect that initial inspiration. Ultimately, its just you and that. Nothing else matters.
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