‘Raging Bull’ is the reason we fell in love with the work of Martin Scorsese

Being the first of his films that we had the chance to see back in the good old days when video stores ruled our worlds, the renowned biographical drama Raging Bull is the reason we fell in love with the work of Martin Scorsese. A film that Ebert, Siskel and many others considered the high point of the 1980s American cinema, this is an intensive story of a talented boxer utterly destroyed by his inner demons, featuring a perfect performance from one of the untouchables, Robert De Niro, memorably helped by Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty. Raging Bull brings us the fascinating rise and fall of Jake LaMotta, based on the Italian-American boxer’s memoir Raging Bull: My Story. Written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, presenting phenomenal black and white cinematography by Michael Chapman, this stunning mixture of violence, anger, jealousy and resentment was nominated for eight Academy Awards, of which De Niro and the brilliant editor Thelma Schoonmaker went home with statues in their hands, and ultimately went down in history as one of the true peaks of American filmmaking. It certainly goes without saying that Raging Bull turned out to be a vital stepping stone in the growth of Martin Scorsese, a crucial step on his path towards cinematic hall of fame and massive respect he still enjoys in the cinephile community.

The screenplay for Raging Bull is ranked #76 on the WGA’s list of the 101 greatest screenplays. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Paul Schrader & Mardik Martin’s screenplay for Raging Bull [three different drafts: PDF1, PDF2, PDF3]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

Raging Bull began as Robert De Niro’s obsession, but the only man he believed could film it, Martin Scorsese, wasn’t interested—until the director’s near-fatal collapse gave him a visceral connection with the story of troubled boxing champion Jake LaMotta. Three decades on, Richard Schickel tells how one of Hollywood’s great friendships, forged by Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, drove Scorsese’s finest film.

Scorsese just couldn’t understand De Niro’s enthusiasm for this story. Mardik Martin, who was a friend of Scorsese’s from N.Y.U.’s film school and co-author of the Mean Streets screenplay, thinks that, at this point, Scorsese had done no more than riffle through the book. Born in 1942, the director had been a little kid (and already a committed movie geek) when La Motta was at the top of his game. “I didn’t know anything about boxing,” Scorsese says. “It was always one angle on TV or in the movie theaters, where they’d show the fights on the weekend. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. It was sports, which took me out of the picture.” Still, he agreed to help develop the project with De Niro, though without much passion or focus. By the time of De Niro’s hospital meeting with Scorsese, Mardik Martin had written at least one draft of the screenplay, with very little input from Scorsese.

Everyone recalls it as quite conventionally chronological: boyhood, adolescence, triumphant and then defeated young manhood, and finally some sort of almost inarticulate redemption. There was good stuff here—La Motta had been put in the ring by his father when he was a kid, with the money he picked up in these unsanctioned bouts helping to pay the family’s rent—but somehow it didn’t sing. And besides, Scorsese had a distracting obsession of his own: The Last Temptation of Christ, which he had wanted to make since Barbara Hershey had pressed the novel on him when they were shooting Boxcar Bertha for Roger Corman in 1972; he thought it was time to make another push for this unlikely project (which he would end up making nearly a decade later).—Brutal Attraction: The Making of Raging Bull

Raging Bull cinematographer Michael Chapman discusses his groundbreaking B&W camerawork on the landmark film. Chapman has had a huge influence on contemporary filmmaking, working on an impressive array of classic films including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Lost Boys and The Fugitive. You can watch the complete interview here.

Above: Michael Chapman uses a handheld camera to get the POV of LaMotta’s punch. Below: Chapman rigs the camera to Robert De Niro’s body for one of the fight scenes, courtesy of Will McCrabb.

“The idea was that Jake was such a difficult character to take and I knew we’d be getting a lot of criticism as to why make a film about this kind of guy and people judging him. And I just thought that the Bible quote was the right thing to do in terms of not making judgments on people. I think the quote is evident in what it is. It’s the idea of, I don’t know anything. All I know is I was able to see through working out this man’s problems on film, or this character’s problems I should say, through the vehicle of the real person Jake LaMotta gave us the ability to see other things about life.” —Martin Scorsese

This is quite priceless: page one of Raging Bull shooting script. De Niro’s notes on this page run the full spectrum of props, costumes, motivations and fight techniques, with comments ranging from “always find ways to express self thru body,” “remember, I’m not a fighter per se…” and “just concentrate on knocking the motherfucker out,” and specific references to the particular fight in opening scene. Image courtesy of The Robert De Niro Collection, The Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

Screenwriter Paul Schrader’s outline for Raging Bull.

Test polaroids of De Niro as he tries to perfect LaMotta’s look by stuffing cotton in his nostrils. This page is one of dozens of make-up tests, all of which attest to De Niro’s obsessive devotion to minute details. Images courtesy of The Robert De Niro Collection, The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin. A multimedia presentation on the creation of this exhibition can be found here at the Ransom Center’s Web site.

A somewhat shy and reserved Robert De Niro talks with Merv Griffin in 1981 about Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta, casting a film, working with Martin Scorsese, filming The King Of Comedy, winning awards, and his desire for privacy.

Thelma Schoonmaker‘s Tribeca Masterclass on editing and making Raging Bull. Schoonmaker has edited all of Scorsese’s features since 1980, but for The Cutting Room: An Insight to the Edit Suite, she chose to focus entirely on key sequences in Raging Bull and the stories behind them. [WNYC, MP3]

Additionally, here’s a transcription of some of the highlights, courtasy of Indiewire.


Schoonmaker touched upon the friendship her late husband forged with Scorsese before the making of Raging Bull. “Michael described Scorsese finding Powell living in obscurity and pummeling him with fast-talking questions about the Powell and Pressburger films, and Michael says in his autobiography, ‘After all those years of oblivion, the blood started started to run in my veins again.’”


One particular Powell and Pressburger film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, greatly influenced Raging Bull. “De Niro was fascinated by the film and how convincing the weight gain was, and pummeled Michael Powell with questions of how he did it.” Powell used make-up and doubles with actor Roger Livesay, but “this was not the kind of thing that De Niro would ever agree to,” no matter how much Powell objected to De Niro gaining weight.


Scorsese and company spent $90,000 on flashbulbs during the making of Raging Bull, and the encouragement of the actors playing photographers to constantly take pictures gave the production great moments. “We got lucky with the flashbulbs on De Niro’s face and on the shot of Reeves falling. You put those two shots together, you get a nice edit. This isn’t planned, but you take advantage of these kinds of things.”


Warner was a “congenial Midwesterner” with a habit of saying things like “okey dokey,” but Schoonmaker described his “mind of a genius.” “Frank would create a different sound for each punch in this movie, and there are a lot of them, and audition various ones… we never got him to tell us how he made those punches, but they were perfect.”


Warner would burn all of his sound effects when he finished a movie. “Not because he was afraid that someone else would use them, but because he didn’t want to use them himself. He wanted to approach each film with a completely open mind.”


Schoonmaker spoke of Scorsese’s use of slow motion to show LaMotta’s obsessive, hateful attitude towards the mafia. “We put normal sync sound in the mouth of Frank Vincent. Even if it doesn’t fit, we liked the effect of it being slightly off.”


“We degraded the image optically and desaturated the color as if it was fading with time passing. Marty personally went into the negative cutting room with a hanger and scratched the negative. I thought the negative cutter was going to have a heart attack.”


Aside from the red opening titles, the only color in Raging Bull comes from the LaMottas’ home movies. One projectionist didn’t take note of Scorsese and Schoonmaker’s careful work. “Once, when I was checking out theaters during the first run of Raging Bull, I came across a projectionist spooling footage from the movie onto the floor of his booth. Horrified, I asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘Someone made a mistake at the lab and spliced color footage into this movie. It’s supposed to black-and-white, and I’m taking it out.’ That’s why we call the projectionist ‘the final editor.’”


Scorsese usually uses two cameras for improv scenes between actors, but a scene involving Jake and Joey arguing about losing weight in the kitchen made this impossible due to the small space. “It took almost a month for me to wrangle the footage into shape… and it was extremely hot and the babies kept crying.” Schoonmaker also showed a funny outtake in which Pesci and De Niro try to keep their concentration and keep the babies from fidgeting or crying, with great difficulty.


Images of the bloodstained sponge and rope in the final fight were taken from a real match De Niro took Scorsese to. “I’ll apologize to you for the brutality of this scene, but it was part of the point of making the movie.” Then, an aside: “Boxing is insane, and in my opinion should be banned.”


Scorsese and De Niro did a number of terrific takes on the final speech in the film, but Schoonmaker and Scorsese disagreed on which was the best. “Scorsese and I rarely disagree, but I preferred a warmer take from De Niro. But Scorsese said he thought Jake had to be very cold when he confronts himself. So we screened it two ways, and Marty was right.”

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Still photographers: Brian Hamill & Christine Loss © Chartoff-Winkler Productions, United Artists.

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