The wisdom of Martin Scorsese: “I had to go through everything in order to learn”

Even after nearly six decades in movies, the greatest living director says he's still a student

Popping up on NME‘s screen is Martin Scorsese: the elder statesman of cinema. The GOAT you might say. And with a CV bursting with classics – Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed (which finally won him an Oscar for Best Director), The Wolf of Wall Street – that’s hard to argue against. He’s 80 now, but age has not yet caught up with him. When we speak over video, he’s in London for the film festival – both for an on-stage Q&A hosted by Edgar Wright and, more importantly, to present his latest movie Killers of the Flower Moon.

Nearly every Scorsese movie tends to be received rapturously, but there’s something special about his new one. A three-and-a-half-hour epic, based on David Grann’s true-life account of oil-related murders in the Osage Nation, it’s like a Scorsese fan’s dream: the first time he’s ever managed to unite his two greatest leading men, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, on screen. The two last appeared in Michael Caton-Jones’ 1993 coming-of-age drama This Boy’s Life. “It was very sweet to see the two of them work together,” says Scorsese.

Well, “sweet” is one way of describing watching two of the greatest actors of their respective generations go head-to-head for the first time in three decades. De Niro’s 10th Scorsese outing and DiCaprio’s sixth (not counting a 2002 short), they’re joined by a stellar cast including Jesse Plemons, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser and, best of all, Lily Gladstone, who previously featured in Kelly Reichardt’s films First Cow and Certain Women. Here, she gives an absolutely sublime performance as Mollie Burkhart, whose family, like so many, struck it rich after the government relocated the Osage from ancestral homelands to the Oklahoma prairie, which just happened to contain oil.

Killers Of The Flower Moon
On the set of ‘Killers Of The Flower Moon’. CREDIT: Apple TV+

Back before the COVID-19 pandemic, Scorsese was given Grann’s book by his manager Rick Yorn. “For some reason, the story stuck with me,” he says. “And I think a lot of it had to do with the nature of the system that was created in Oklahoma at that time. And still, to a certain extent is. What I mean by the system is how, ultimately, the indigenous people, by sheer fortune, became the richest people in the world. And at which point, they were totally controlled. And they were completely in a way swindled out of their money as much as possible by whites in every capacity.”

As the film shows, murders of Osage people start springing up, including a number of Buckhart’s family. Initially, DiCaprio was set to play Tom White – the FBI agent, now played by Plemons, who eventually begins investigating these murders. “Leo DiCaprio and I were trying to figure out what to do with these characters,” explains Scorsese. “At one point, he said, ‘Where’s the heart of this story?’ And I said, ‘The heart of the story is Mollie and Ernest.’” Before long, DiCaprio took the role of Ernest, a First World War veteran who married Mollie after the conflict. “This couple were really in love in reality,” says Scorsese. “Really in love.”

Cast opposite DiCaprio and Gladstone, De Niro plays Ernest’s uncle William ‘King’ Hale, a local society figure who professes his love for the Osage people on the surface. And underneath? “I think he’s really honest about it,” shrugs Scorsese. “I think he does love them. But he does feel that the clash of civilisations has worked itself out so that they will die out. And it’s a matter of, in his mind – particularly in the late 19th century, early 20th century, I should say – the superiority of a civilisation over others, in a way. And so kind of a closed-mindedness to what one can learn from other cultures.”

Martin Scorsese
Scorsese’s latest film is his 26th in the director’s chair. CREDIT: Apple TV+

Dealing with white exploitation of Native American culture, it was Scorsese’s first chance to come close to the western, a genre he grew up on. While 1995’s Casino, with its Las Vegas-set tale, has elements of the Wild West – notably with Joe Pesci’s trigger-happy character – he simply couldn’t crack the classic horse opera. “I never thought I could find a story or find my way through this monument of the American western genre made by such great filmmakers over the years,” says Scorsese, modestly, “and so I was always somewhat intimidated by it, and said, ‘I can’t add anything to it, I can’t give anything to it.’”

Wisely, Scorsese and his co-writer Eric Roth sought the help of the Osage people, to represent their voice in a way few – if any – movies have ever done. As part of this, Scorsese determined that the production would shoot in Oklahoma, where the events took place. “We really were immersed in that world,” he says. “I’m an urban person. You go out there and there is nothing but prairie. Where do you even aim the camera? Where do you stop? What do you leave in the frame and leave without? It’s a very different thing. And so I had to give myself to that.”

“I have to find other ways to feel vulnerable”

Raised Catholic in New York’s Little Italy – his parents, Charles and Catherine worked in the garment industry – Scorsese’s early years have been well documented. A sickly child with asthma, he spent his days absorbing movies, peering through a window onto worlds he couldn’t join in with. It was during this time that he’d observe the low-level hoodlums that fed into his breakthrough movie Mean Streets, which has just been re-released in the UK to celebrate its 50th anniversary. “Being young – 8, 9, 10 years old – [I was] seeing the people around me who may have been underworld figures as human beings first. Then seeing ultimately what they’re capable of was a great contradiction.”

His early exposure to the Catholic Church – with “one of two priests who were morally guiding us” – was also essential, notably feeding into Harvey Keitel’s devout-but-dangerous character in Mean Streets. This fascination with underworld figures never let up. “I think we may all be capable of this, given the wrong circumstances. How deep does it go? Will we turn immoral as they did? Will we become amoral? Or will we stand up for what we believe in? In other words, have we been tested in that sense? And these guys don’t pay any attention to that at all. They could create their own law, whether it’s Queens, New York, or Fairfax, Oklahoma, or anywhere else around the world.”

Looking at it now, Scorsese’s career might feel gilt-edged, but certainly after 1980’s Raging Bull, the sublime portrait of boxer Jake LaMotta made when Scorsese’s addiction to cocaine got out of hand, he suffered. Films like The King Of Comedy and After Hours flopped at the box office, while his controversial 1988 biblical drama The Last Temptation Of Christ was vehemently protested by religious groups. But for Scorsese, every experience counts.

Martin Scorsese
‘Killers Of The Flower Moon’ is out in cinemas on October 20. CREDIT: Apple TV+

“I think I had to go through everything in order to learn,” he says. “And I think a lot of it has to do with the initial enthusiasm for the moving image and exploring every aspect of it through camera movement cuts, long takes, that sort of thing.”

Still engaged and enthused, whether its supporting cinema through his Film Foundation or producing movies for others (like British director Joanna Hogg’s forthcoming ghost story The Eternal Daughter), there’s no sense of Scorsese spinning his wheels. The famous SteadiCam shot he pulled off in Goodfellas, weaving through the Copacabana Club, following gangster Henry Hill? “That’s no longer prominent… I don’t really have to do that again,” he shrugs. “I don’t have to find that anymore. I have to find other ways. And therefore, I feel vulnerable. And that’s good, because then I have to… not necessarily think it out but feel it out.”

Scorsese’s feature films aside, he’s also emerged as one of the greatest director and producers of music films. Starting with 1978’s The Last Waltz (documenting the final gig by The Band), he’s directed films on The Rolling Stones (Shine A Light) and George Harrison (Living In The Material World), as well as co-creating with Mick Jagger the TV drama Vinyl, all set in the 1970s music biz. He’s just finishing up a new film on David Johansen, lead singer of the New York Dolls. Co-directed with David Tedeschi, Personality Crisis: One Night Only looks at Johansen’s set at the Café Carlyle.

“When we learn about these cultures, we learn more about ourselves”

So why Johansen? “C’mon! Why not?” Scorsese says, arms aloft, a wolfish grin spreading across his face. “Because it’s the beginning of punk music and ‘Personality Crisis’ is a special song and David Johansen is a terrific musicologist. Over the years, I’ve been listening to David Johansen’s radio show, The Mansion Of Fun. And he plays everything from Maria Callas to The Flamingos. And he has this breadth of knowledge of music from all over the world. And so I thought it’d be interesting to see where he’s at now with his nightclub act.”

Johansen even introduced Scorsese to several songs that appear in Killers Of The Flower Moon. But talking about music in the film immediately brings up the name of Robbie Robertson. Theirs is a collaboration almost as indelible as the Scorsese-De Niro match-up. The driving musical force of The Band, after first working with the director on The Last Waltz, Robertson composed multiple scores for Scorsese including The Colour Of Money, The Irishman and now Killers Of The Flower Moon, completed before he died, aged 80, in August this year.

“We knew each other for 50 years,” says Scorsese, quietly. “And so his last work is this music in the film. And he was indigenous too. I think his mother was from the Mohawk Nation, up in First Nations in Canada. And so it was a very special project for Rob to do.” It’s clearly been special for Scorsese too, a late, great masterpiece in a career full of them. “Every aspect of this film – the Osage culture, the baby namings, the funerals, the wedding, all these things were something I wanted to recreate,” he says. “So we learn about these cultures and learn more about ourselves.”

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is in cinemas from October 20

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