In 1990, director Martin Scorsese talked about filmmaking in an interview brought to new life by PBS Digital

By on April 12, 2016

Today’s brand new animated cartoon feature in the recurring Blank on Blank/PBS Digital Studios series features an interview from 1990 between director Martin Scorsese and writer T.J. English, an award-winning journalist and best-selling author, who is known primarily for his non-fiction books on organized crime, criminal justice and the American underworld.

Nearly twenty-six years ago, on August 3, 1990, Scorsese told English — whose The Westies: Inside the Hell’s Kitchen Irish Mob, his best-selling debut about an Irish/American gang in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, had just been published in hardcover by G. P. Putnam’s Sons (March 19, 1990) — how he became a filmmaker after first studying for the priesthood, and he also talks about his mother’s reaction to his film Mean Streets (she wanted everyone to know that kind of swearing wasn’t allowed in her house).

At one point, talking about the organic way a film comes together in the editing process, Scorsese says,

“Sometimes when it all comes together on the set, and especially when it comes together in the cutting room, at a certain point, you can actually feel it go through you in your body. It’s a part of you. It just seeps out of your body. You become the film you’re making. I think there’s an aspect of that in that statement, ‘I am cinema.’.

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At one point during their chat, English brings up the topic of western movies, and the director confirms that he likes them a lot, particularly since he’s from New York City, and he loved “the idea of horses and loved the idea of open spaces, to which I would probably never get to see, although I was not physically made for that sort of thing, to live that way. I’ve got certain dreams about it.”

When Scorsese is asked by English, “What would a Martin Scorsese western be like now?,” he says:

“I don’t know. There are possibilities. I would love to maybe, try something of eventually something on mythic scale end of the West rather than ultra realistic. Something rather than revisionist, I’d like to try to see what made some of these people tick and a sense of honor and a sense of a code, some sort of code because being there part of the frontier, dealing with death and life every second. It makes a person act in a certain way.There were certain characters who act in certain ways. Some personalities came out of the West. I’m interested in those personalities.”

You can read the transcript from their interview here.

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At the time, Scorsese had just finished making Goodfellas, his film adaptation of the 1986 non-fiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi (who co-wrote the screenplay with Scorsese).

Goodfellas — which tells of the rise and fall of mob associate Henry Hill (he’s the first-person narrator in the film) and his friends over a period from 1955 to 1980 — was premiered at the 47th Venice International Film Festival, where Scorsese received the Silver Lion award for best director.

The film received a wide release in North America on September 21, 1990 in 1,070 theaters, with an opening weekend gross of US$6.3 million. It went on to make $46.8 million domestically, and is still today considered one of Scorsese’s best films to date.

In his September 2, 1990 review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote about Goodfellas,

“Most films, even great ones, evaporate like mist once you’ve returned to the real world; they leave memories behind, but their reality fades fairly quickly. Not this film, which shows America’s finest filmmaker at the peak of his form. No finer film has ever been made about organized crime – not even The Godfather, although the two works are not really comparable.

Here’s more from T.J. English’s article for the L.A. Times, “OBSESSION : Martin Scorsese Eats, Sleeps, Breathes and Dreams Movies, Shot by Shot,” published on September 23, 1990:

When Martin Scorsese was 8 years old, he drew. Sketches mostly, elaborate shot-by-shot renderings of flicks he’d seen at the local movie theater. Sometimes they were movies that existed only in his imagination, to be recreated on paper. Drawn in pencil and crayon, they were often titled “Directed and Produced by Martin Scorsese.”

By the age of 12, Martin was drawing colorful Bible epics and Westerns, grappling with how to compose his comic-book panels so as to achieve maximum visual effect.

“I wanted them to be really big,” he says now, laughing at his own precociousness, “but I was having trouble drawing close-ups in the 70-millimeter format. To this day, directors still have this problem.”

Scorsese is on his home turf, New York City, seated in his office in the Brill Building in the heart of Times Square. Talking about his earliest attempts to interpret the world in a visual form seems to bring him great pleasure. His eyes are alive and his face animated, an expressive look accentuated by the fact that he has recently shaved his familiar black beard.

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese

Gone is the dark, Mephistophelean character who, from the back seat of Robert De Niro’s cab in Taxi Driver, rhapsodized about murdering his unfaithful wife with a .44 magnum. The devilish black eyebrows are still in evidence, but his features are smooth and accessible now, making it a lot easier to picture the 8-year-old Martin bringing his memories and fantasies to life frame by frame.

As Scorsese remembers it, the years passed and his sketches were set aside. A somewhat sickly kid with asthma, he watched the world unfold from the window of his parents’ apartment on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy. Restricted from playing outdoors with other kids because of his condition, he developed the eye of an outsider while living in a tough neighborhood.

Eventually, Scorsese ventured out on his own, and the rest is an oft-told story: the months spent in a seminary studying to be a priest; his years as a wunderkind student filmmaker and, later, a teacher at New York University, and the beginnings of his career in the film business as an editor and then a director.

Most of all, there were the movies: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ. Certainly Scorsese’s work has received accolades–Oscar nominations for Best Director (Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ) and Best Picture (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver) and the highest praise from his peers. Raging Bull“was selected in critics’ polls by Premiere, USA Today and others as the best film of the last decade.

At age 47, Scorsese was profiled on the PBS program “American Masters,” an honor that put him in the category of such national treasures as Billie Holiday, Jasper Johns and Arthur Miller. Among cineastes here and in Europe, Scorsese is generally considered the most interesting and talented director in America, if not the world.

Yet, his success has not spared him the unhappy vicissitudes of life. In fact, some have observed that Scorsese’s total devotion to his work—his downright obsessiveness–has often been destructive to his personal well being. He’s seen two wives come and go. His health has frequently suffered, with various stints in hospitals for mental exhaustion before and after shooting some of his films. And even though he is acknowledged as a brilliant filmmaker, getting financial backing for his occasionally provocative projects is never easy. Despite the critical acclaim, his films do not bring in the receipts of those by Messrs. Spielberg and Lucas.

“The money people respect Marty. They like his movies. But he makes them uneasy,” says his longtime producer and friend, Irwin Winkler. “They never know what to expect from one of his pictures, and that’s not considered good business.”

(read more at the link)

T.J. English’s most recent book, Whitey’s Payback, is a collection of his crime journalism.

Be sure to check out our other posts from PBS Digital Studios’s Blank on Blank series, including our previous animated shorts on Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Waits, Bill Murray and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.