Master Class with Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro on the set of Taxi Driver in 1975. Photo courtesy of Taschen; copyright Steve Schapiro

From Scorsese and Lynch to Wenders and Godard, interviews with twenty of the world’s greatest directors on how they make films—and why. Each great filmmaker has a secret method to his moviemaking—but each of them is different. In ‘Moviemakers’ Master Class,’ Laurent Tirard talks to twenty of today’s most important filmmakers to get to the core of each director’s approach to film, exploring the filmmaker’s vision as well as his technique, while allowing each man to speak in his own voice. Martin Scorsese likes setting up each shot very precisely ahead of time—so that he has the opportunity to change it all if he sees the need. Lars von Trier, on the other hand, refuses to think about a shot until the actual moment of filming. And Bernardo Bertolucci tries to dream his shots the night before; if that doesn’t work, he roams the set alone with a viewfinder, imagining the scene before the actors and crew join him. In these interviews—which originally appeared in the French film magazine Studio and are being published in English for the first time—Tirard has succeeded in finding out what makes each filmmaker—and his films—so extraordinary, shedding light on both the process and the people behind great moviemaking. Among the other filmmakers included are Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Pedro Almodovar, Joel and Ethan Coen, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Wong Kar-Wai and John Woo.

We can’t recommend this book enough and consider it required reading for all aspiring filmmakers. You may purchase it from Amazon or Book Depository. It is also available at Barnes&Noble, as an ebook and in paperback. The following is an excerpt.

MASTER CLASS WITH MARTIN SCORSESE

I had some teaching experience at Columbia University around the time when I was making The Color of Money and The Last Temptation of Christ. I didn’t show films or give lectures; I just helped graduate students by giving them advice and comments on the films they were making. What I usually found to be the most problematic with these films was their intent, what the filmmaker wanted to communicate to the audience. Now, this could make itself evident in many different ways, but it was primarily a problem of where to aim the camera, shot by shot, and how each shot builds to make a point, to show something the filmmaker wants the audience to comprehend. This can be a purely physical point—a man walks into a room and sits on a chair—or it can be a philosophical point, or a psychological point, or a thematic point—though I guess thematic would include philosophical and psychological. But you have to start with the basics, which is, Where do you aim the camera to express what you put down on paper in the script? And it’s not just aiming the camera in one shot, it’s the one after that, and the one after that, and how they will edit together to create what you want to say to the audience.

Of course, you may find that the biggest problem of young filmmakers is that they have nothing to say. And invariably their films will be either very unclear or very conventional and geared toward a rather commercial marketplace. So I think the first thing you need to ask yourself if you want to make a film is “Do I have anything to say?” And it doesn’t necessarily have to be something literal that can be expressed through words. Sometimes you just want to communicate a feeling, an emotion. That’s sufficient. And believe me, it’s hard enough.

TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW

I come from a tradition in the early sixties that had to do with more personal filmmaking, with themes and subject matter that you felt more confident dealing with—about yourself, about the world you came from. That kind of cinema flourished in the seventies, but since the eighties, there’s been consistently less of that in mainstream cinema. Now I even find that some of the independents are starting to show a trend toward melodrama and film noir, which indicates that they’re getting their eyes set on a more commercial aspect of cinema. When I see low-budget films today, I often feel that the directors are trying to audition for the studios. You might ask, “Why do films have to be personal, anyway?” Well, of course, it’s all a matter of opinion, but I tend to feel that the more singular the vision and the more personal the film, the more it can claim to be art. As a spectator, I find that when they’re more personal, films last longer. You can watch them over and over again, whereas with a more commercial film, you might get bored after two showings.

So what makes a film personal? Do you have to write the script yourself to make the film yours, as the auteur theory claimed? Not necessarily. I think there’s kind of a twofold situation there. I think you have to make a distinction between the directors on one side and the filmmakers on the other. The directors—and they can excel at doing that—are people who only interpret the script, who just turn it from words into images. The filmmakers, however, will be able to take somebody else’s material and still manage to have a personal vision come through. They will shoot the film or direct actors in a manner that will eventually transform that film so that it becomes part of the body of work of their other films, with similar themes and approaches to material and characterization. That’s what makes the whole difference between, for instance, His Girl Friday by Howard Hawks and Dream Life by Sidney Sheldon. Both are studio movies; both are comedies starring Cary Grant. And yet you can watch the first one repeatedly, whereas the second one, although pleasant, will not stand a second showing. And that’s also what makes the difference between a John Woo movie, which is always very personal, and, let’s say, the Batman sequels, which may be well crafted but could have been directed by anybody.

KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT

At the risk of sounding redundant, I think the duty of a filmmaker is to tell the story that he or she wants to tell, which means that you have to know what the hell you’re talking about. At the very least, you have to know the feelings, the emotions you’re trying to convey. It doesn’t mean you can’t explore, but you can only do it within the context in which the story is set.

Let’s refer to one of my own pictures, The Age of Innocence. In that film, I took the emotions that I knew, but I set them in a world that I wanted to explore and I analyzed them in an anthropological way, to see how the trappings of that society affected these emotions—the trappings of that society being the flower arrangements, the china, the formality of body language, and how that affected emotions that I think are universal in human experience: the longing, the unfulfilled passion… So I took all that and put it in the pressure cooker of that particular society. But with the same characters and the same story, I think you would make a very different film if you set it in a village in, let’s say, Sicily or France. So, sure, you can explore, you can experiment. But don’t forget that movies cost anywhere between $1 million and $100 million. You can experiment with $1 million, but with $40 million, I don’t think so. They won’t give you the money again.

There are filmmakers who claim that they never know where they’re going when they make a film, that they make it up as they go along. On the highest level, certainly Fellini would be the main example. But I don’t quite believe that. I think he always had some idea, however abstract, of where he was going. There are also filmmakers who have a script but don’t know exactly what the angles or shots of a particular scene are going to be until they get into the rehearsal of that scene, or even on the day of shooting. I know people who can work that way. I don’t think I can. I need to have my shots decided in advance, even if it’s all theoretical. At the very least, I need to know every evening what the first shot of the next day is going to be. In some cases, if I decide to add scenes that were not planned and that are not vital to the story, it might be fun to go there completely bare and see what I can do on the spot. But that’s not what I would advocate. You need to know where you’re going, and you need to have it on paper. The script is the most important thing. But don’t become a slave to the script, either, because if the script is everything, you just photograph the script. The script is not everything. It’s the interpretation that’s everything—the visual interpretation of what you have on paper.

 
If you are an intuitive filmmaker, and if you have the economics under control, by all means, go ahead, take your time and make it up as you go along. I can’t do it. It depends on the personality, I guess. I tried this kind of approach only once, on New York, New York, where I didn’t quite know where I was going and tried to rely on my instincts, and I was never quite satisfied with the final outcome of that picture.

HARD CHOICES

I guess the main lesson I’ve learned about filmmaking is that it’s a tension between knowing exactly what you want and being able to change it according to the circumstances, or taking advantage of something more interesting. So the whole problem is being able to know what is essential, what you absolutely cannot change, mustn’t change, and what you can be more flexible on.

Sometimes you go to a location and the location is very different from what you had in your mind when you imagined the shots you were going to make there. So what do you do? Do you try to get a new location, or do you change your shots? In other cases, you can make up the shots from the location. I did it both ways. Sometimes I went to the location first and designed the shots from there, and sometimes I decided on the shots beforehand and then tried to make them work within the constraints of the location. I tend to go more for this second option, though.

Working out a theoretical shot list includes camera placement and decisions on who is in the frame and who isn’t. Are the actors shot in separate frames, or are they in each other’s frames? Or are they singles, and if they’re singles, what size are they? That sort of thing. Are there camera movements? On what lines? Where? Why? Ideally, those theories can be applied in any location. Very often, though, there are walls and ceilings you have to deal with. Except in a studio situation, of course. But in a studio, you usually have only enough money to build three walls, and you cannot do a 180-degree shot, for instance. Now, if you feel there has to be a 180-degree shot on that set, you have to have it. And so maybe you spend more money to get a fourth wall, and maybe you’ll have to lose certain scenes of that film to remain in the budget. You have to know what’s important, what cannot be changed, and you have to fight for it. But you mustn’t be stubborn, you mustn’t say no to everything that creates a change. Because if you do, you’re not allowing for the life around the camera and the set to come through. And it shows on the film. Sometimes an accident or a last-minute change can create something unexpected and magical. And sometimes you can be so stubborn in what you want that the life you create on film becomes rigid and formal. You have to be aware of that.

A LANGUAGE TO (RE)INVENT?

Is there a grammar in filmmaking, the same way there is a grammar in literature? Well, sure there is. And it’s been given to us twice. As Jean-Luc Godard said, we’ve had two main teachers in film history: D. W. Griffith in the silent era and Orson Welles in the talking era. So of course there are basic rules. But even today, people are still struggling with new ways of telling stories through film, and they’re still using the same tools—establishing shots, medium shots, close-ups—but not necessarily with the same intent. And it’s the juxtaposition of these shots in the editing process that is creating new emotions or, more precisely, a new way to communicate certain feelings to the audience.

The first examples that come to mind are films by Oliver Stone, such as Natural Born Killers or Nixon. In Nixon, for instance, there is a sequence in which the President is hallucinating: you have a shot of his wife talking to him, and then you cut to a black-and-white shot, and then you go back to the wife and you can still hear her talking—except on the screen, she’s not saying anything. This is really interesting because Stone found a way to create an emotion and to create a psychological state purely through editing. You have a close-up of a person who is not saying anything, and the shot is still creating an emotion. David Lynch is another filmmaker whose experimentation with the language of film is very interesting. In many ways, the grammar of film is up for grabs. Anyone can try a new way of juxtaposing shots to tell a story.

I guess the film I experimented on the most was probably Goodfellas. But then again, I’m not sure I would call that experimenting, as the style was mainly based on Citizen Kane’s ‘March of Time’ sequence and the first few minutes of Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. In the latter film, every frame is just filled with information, beautiful information, and there’s a narration which tells you one thing when, in fact, the image shows you something else… It’s very, very rich, and that sort of richness of detail is what I played with in Goodfellas. So it was nothing new, really. But what was new, I felt, was the exhilaration of the narration juxtaposed to the images to create the emotion of that lifestyle, of being a young gangster. The other film on which I experimented a lot was King of Comedy, but mostly in terms of acting style—and, of course, because there were no camera movements at all, which, for me, was very unusual.

SEEING LIFE THROUGH A 25-MILLIMETER LENS

As with all directors, there are certain tools that I like to use and others that I am not so fond of. For example, I don’t mind using a zoom lens, which many directors hate. But there are two things I don’t like about it: first, the overuse of zoom for shock effect, which is something that Mario Bava did originally in the sixties. It still works when you see his movies, but, of course, it’s a particular genre. The main problem with the zoom lens is the lack of hard element in the lens, so the image is not as crystal clear as you would have with a prime lens.

When I work with Michael Ballhaus at the camera, we often use a zoom lens, but we use it together with camera movement to change the size of the frame, so we’re disguising the zoom as the camera’s moving to get closer to an object or farther away from it. As a rule, however, I prefer wide-angle lenses. I like 25 millimeters and wider, and that has mostly to do with Orson Welles, John Ford, and even some movies by Anthony Mann. These are movies that I grew up watching, and they used the wide angle to create a sort of expressionistic look which I guess I liked very much. Which is also why I like contemporary Polish cinema, where directors use the wide angle a lot, not for obvious distortion but for crispness and for a dramatic use of the lines. The way the lines converge in a wide-angle-lens image is more dramatic, I think.

When I made New York, New York, I shot most of it with a 32-millimeter lens because I wanted a flatter look, like the films of the late forties. Musicals were a little different, though, because although they were going for that flatter look, they would use wide-angle lenses up to 25 or 18 millimeters, shooting from a low angle to get the ceiling for dramatic effect. And so, anyway, I used a 32-millimeter lens to get the look of these films of the late forties, where characters were mainly composed from below the knee up. That’s what I tried in that film.

Originally, I also wanted to try a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but we wouldn’t have been able to get it projected properly, so we shot it in 1.66:1, which is the current standard format. I don’t particularly like to use long lenses because I feel they make the image look indefinite. I like the way other people use them—for instance, David Fincher in Seven. And of course Akira Kurosawa always used them beautifully. But when I use a long lens, it has to be with a very specific purpose. For instance, there’s one scene in Raging Bull that I shot only with long lenses. I believe it’s the second Sugar Ray fight, and we had rippling flames in front of the lens to distort the image. So sometimes the use of bits of imagery through long lenses like that can be very good. But very often I find that a lot of people who don’t really know how to shoot just put two people off in the distance, have them walk toward the camera, and shoot it all with a long lens. You can get it easily that way, but for me the image always seems undirected.

ACTORS MUST BE FREE—OR THINK THEY ARE

There’s no secret to directing actors, really. I mean, it depends on the director. Some directors get great performances with actors even though they are very cold with them, very demanding, and even nasty at times.

My impression of working with actors is that it’s good if you have actors that you like as people. Well, at least, you have to like certain aspects of them. I think that’s the way Griffith worked. He really liked the actors he directed. But we’ve also heard all the stories of Hitchcock and how he hated actors. I don’t believe that entirely, though. I think it’s just a funny thing to say. But no matter how he behaved, he got great performances out of them. Fritz Lang was very tough with actors and got great performances from them too—or at least he got what he needed.

Personally, I have to like the actors I’m working with, and I try to give them as much freedom as possible to make the scenes come alive. Of course, “freedom” is a relative term on a movie set because there are so many constraints. So, really, you have to give the actors the impression that they’re free within the schematics of a scene. And sometimes these can be the schematics of three feet of space. But I think the actor needs to feel free to come up with something interesting. I don’t like to reel in an actor with a certain light or a certain lens. I’ve had to do it sometimes, of course, and I’ve been lucky because I’ve worked with actors who could be free and still hit their marks correctly. I guess you can tell from my movies that most of the time, my shots are very precise. But I always try to work it out with the director of photography so that the actors eventually have space to move.

There’s a certain freedom in Goodfellas, as it’s mostly medium shots, where the actors have room to move. But that’s the world these characters live in. It’s not a world of close-ups. They have people around them all the time, and what they do always affects the world around them. So you have to shoot it in medium shots.

It’s important not to restrict actors. But, on the other hand, I cannot let actors give me something that I don’t want. On a film like Casino, there was a lot of improvisation, which is fine. If an actor feels really comfortable playing that character in that world, I let him improvise within a given scene, and I cover it in a pretty straightforward manner: medium shots, close-ups… When you do that, the world is pretty much created by the actors. I place them in the frame, and the set around them is part of their life, but they bring the life to it. When that happens, and when it goes in the direction you wanted, it can be incredibly rewarding. Often on that film, I found myself sitting behind the camera not as a director, but as an audience member. I got so involved in watching that it was like I was watching a film somebody else was directing. And when you get that feeling, you know you’re on to something good.

WHOM DO YOU MAKE FILMS FOR?

Some directors make films strictly for the audience. Others, like Steven Spielberg or Alfred Hitchcock, make them for the audience and for themselves. Hitchcock was great at doing that; he knew exactly how to play the audience. So you could say that Hitchcock made only suspense movies, which is true in a sense, but there was a psychology behind his films that was so personal that it made him a great filmmaker. These were personal films disguised as thrillers, really.

As for me, well, I make films for myself. I’m thinking and knowing that there will be an audience out there, of course. But how big an audience, I don’t know. Some people will see the film; some will appreciate it; some will even see it repeatedly, but certainly not everybody. So I find that the best way for me to work is to make a film as if I’m the audience.

As I sometimes work for studios, I have my films tested by an audience to see how they react. I find that interesting in terms of finding out the ABC’s of what you’re doing. You find out if certain things are not communicated, if certain things are confusing and need to be cleared up, if there are length problems or redundancies, that sort of thing. But as far as the audience saying, “I don’t like the people you’re showing me, I wouldn’t go see this movie,” well… that’s life! When the film comes out, there will be publicity on it, and people who go see it will know what to expect. But in a test audience, of course, there are going to be many people who couldn’t care less. And so you have to know which comments to listen to and which to ignore. That causes problems with the studio, of course, because they want everything addressed.

The only film I made particularly for an audience was Cape Fear. But this was a genre film, a thriller, and when you do that there are certain rules you must follow so that the audience reacts in certain ways: suspense, fear, excitement, laughter… But still, let me put it this way: the skeleton of that film I did for the audience; the rest was for myself.

MAKE A POINT—BUT ONLY ONCE

There are many different kinds of mistakes that I think a director must try to avoid at all costs. The first that comes to mind is redundancy—making the point of a film over and over again, either emotionally or intellectually. Well, emotionally, you can get away with it sometimes, because the emotion can become intense enough to become something else. But in terms of a message, whether it’s a political message or just the underlying theme of the film, I sometimes see films in which, at the end, a character will, either virtually or literally, make a speech or have a line of dialogue where he will explain that the film title means or even explain what the film was all about. And that, I feel, is the worst thing you can do. I’m not sure I’ve avoided that myself. But I’ve certainly tried.

Photo credit: Steve Schapiro, Mario Tursi, Phillip V. Caruso, Barry Wetcher, & Brian Hamill.

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