By Tim Pelan
Scorsese’s Raging Bull is not your dad’s boxing movie. It’s certainly not a story of conventional redemption or hope overcoming the odds. Instead it’s mainly a troubling deep dive into a sick soul, haunted by self-loathing, sexual frustration, jealousy and anger, the ring-centred conflicts heightened, abstract and visceral extensions of the id. One man’s fear of emotional connection, expressed with his fists. The feel-good film of 1980! In the hands of director Martin Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker (to be honoured with the BAFTA Fellowship at this year’s 2019 EE British Academy Film Awards on Sunday 10 February), cinematographer Michael Chapman and the sound design of Frank Warner though, toxic masculinity never looked or sounded better. It won Oscars for editing and leading man Robert De Niro’s animalistic performance as boxer Jake LaMotta, the film nominated in eight categories overall. Critic David Thomson is blunt. “Michael Chapman’s black-and-white photography (printed on Technicolor stock) is like living in filth, and it aids and abets the lovely capturing of the 1940s—an achievement of soundtrack, clothes and décor. But it hardly ever looks ‘real’—as opposed to emotional or spiritual—and when the picture ends with the soaring notes of Mascani’s music, we know we are no longer in New York, but in a version of heaven and hell… the determination to see the ring’s ropes as like umbilical cords, and a boxer’s damaged hand thrust into ice as like a wounded phallus, is poetic, transcendent and uncommonly arty (in the best sense).” Steady on David! I don’t think he loved it, but he at least admired the hell out of it. There is an interesting contrasting view of the “realness” of the film at the end of this piece. The film was deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1990. One could see though how this Dante’s circling hell of a man’s life could eventually appeal to Scorsese, teetering as he then was on the edge of his own breakdown, racked with self-doubt and lashing out at those he loved. He truly believed, in the fading notes of commercial failure with New York, New York, an ambitious period anti-love story with big band feuding lovers De Niro and Liza Minnelli, that this was his last shot, his “kamikaze movie.” As such, he threw everything into the ring:
“After New York, New York, I thought, I’ll never have the audience of Spielberg, not even of Francis (Coppola)… Maybe I’m crazy, but rather than compromise the story and make ten other pictures afterward, I’d rather leave it done and not make any more movies after this. So what the hell!”
Raging Bull, along with The King of Comedy, was a passion project for De Niro, who first touted it to Scorsese in the book form of LaMotta’s ghost autobiography on the set of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. It was worth his perseverance, for this, The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, are their holy trinity of triumphs. The film was produced for United Artists by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, who had won Oscars in 1977 for Rocky, which was helpful in getting Raging Bull the green light, although it was to be a very different experience (amusingly, a fan edit of the two pugilists meeting in the ring (Legends: Rocky Balboa Vs Jake LaMotta) has just surfaced on Youtube). Much has been written about how Scorsese and eventual writer Paul Schrader connected with the dank underbelly of the subject, but it is difficult for even De Niro to articulate what he saw in it. “I’m not certain that De Niro himself could, at the time, have fully explained his obsession with what was nominally a biopic and nominally a boxing picture, but was not quite either one,” Richard Schickel wrote for Vanity Fair. “It had something to do, he now thinks, with ‘the primal emotions’ the film trafficked in. He felt that if an essentially middle-class movie audience could be induced to empathize with these marginal, emotionally ignorant, and screechingly inarticulate people—LaMotta, his wife, and his brother—it would be a good, discomfiting, perhaps even instructive experience.”
Scorsese and his writing partner Mardik Martin took a stab at it, but the sickly Scorsese had hated sports growing up. His young soul sang to the sound of a hundred neighborhood radios and record players blasting out from tenement windows, and the flicker of the local flea-pit. However, the director’s coke-fuelled, paranoid, insecure mind-set in the late ’70’s perfectly mirrored LaMotta’s own tempestuous temperament. “I was always angry, throwing glasses, provoking people, really unpleasant to be around. I always found, no matter what anybody said, something to take offense at.” (From Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.) Ironically, he recalled, “I didn’t know what Raging Bull was about.” He called in old collaborator Paul Schrader to give the script a polish. Mardik recalled, “Paul didn’t even come to me. He sent somebody to get all my research, all my versions, three of them. I gave it to the guy, said, ‘Good luck.’” Schrader found the key in the relationship between LaMotta and his brother/manager, Joey (a great early performance from Joe Pesci). It became a mirroring of his own relationship growing up alongside his brother Leonard in their strict Calvinist household.
Schrader would work on the script at Nicodell’s, a bar on Melrose next to the Paramount lot. It was here he came up with idea of an older, bloated and depressed La Motta, now doing a stand-up of sorts, rhyming verse interspersed with the “I coulda been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront. He’s been arrested for introducing underage girls to customers at his Florida club, and is trying to jerk off in the lock-up (in the script, that is—De Niro winced at this). But each time he conjures a venus, he remembers how shittily he behaved towards them, and has to drum up another image. Eventually he slams his head and fists repeatedly against the wall, sobbing, “I’m not an animal!” Even Schrader was repulsed by their subject. “We have to give Jake a depth, a stature he does not possess, otherwise he’s not worth making a movie about.” It’s debatable if the film-makers achieved that. As a child, LaMotta was forced to fight his brother Joey by their father for the entertainment of the neighborhood men, who would toss money into the improvised ring. Their father used the fight money to pay the rent. The boxer was deferred wartime military service for a childhood hearing defect—too many blows to the head at his old man’s behest? Although there are moments of curious tenderness amidst the ugliness. David Thomson again:
“Jake abandons his first wife when he sees Vicki (Cathy Moriarty), adroitly pitched between carnality and comic-book drool. Moriarty was gorgeous and voluptuous in a slow-mo, Lana Turner-esque way. She was 20 when the film came out, yet Vicki is said to be 15. She is therefore forbidden, but Jake is helplessly attracted to her. Quite early on, there is an astonishing scene in which Jake seduces a very willing and uncritical Vicki. It is a slow, swollen love scene–itself a curiosity in Scorsese’s work—that ends with the aroused Jake pouring a pitcher of cold water over his groin. Boxing movies aren’t usually like this.” Vicki is the white queen ideal to Jake, as Betsy was to Taxi Driver‘s Travis.
Scorsese perhaps saw more of a coruscating catharsis for himself. After he crashed and burned, bleeding from every orifice after a bad combination of his asthma meds, other prescription drugs and some bad coke, he had an epiphany in recovery. The wanton self-destruction, the lashing out? He, the weedy, paranoiac, affirmation-seeking creative, and the self-loathing punch-bag who always craved to be known as an artist, not an animal (‘So give me a stage where this bull can rage, and though I can fight, I’d much rather recite. That’s entertainment.’), were the same under the microscope. Although the script is credited to Schrader and Martin, De Niro and Scorsese hammered out a lot of ideas that made it into the final cut during a two week working break at the La Samanna resort, on the Caribbean island of St. Martin. Talking about that final jail scene, Scorsese recalled, “When I looked at it there [in St. Martin], I saw the scene I saw the shot—what you see in the film. A number of times I wished I had a camera. I would’ve shot it immediately.”
So much for the emotional dredging of the writing process. How about the look, the taste, the blood and sweat? Cinematographer Michael Chapman called it an Opera, in the Cavalleria Rusticana sense. The boxing sequences would be the arias, he considered, whereas the family sequences would show the LaMottas as “Italian peasant people who just happened to have been moved to the Bronx.” Mardik knew Scorsese loved Biblical epics. “Think of them as gladiators, fighting in an arena packed with people. Then think of them exchanging blows, and the sweat and the blood flying all over the place, onto their tuxedos, their mink coats.” (The crowds were often bussed in from retirement homes to LA’s old Olympic Auditorium, and a soundstage at Culver Studios, teased with a raffle for a free TV.) The decision to film in black and white didn’t come straight away. They shot 8mm colour footage of De Niro training in the ring. Scorsese’s friend, idol and exile from the field of critical approbation (after the disastrous reception of the now revered Peeping Tom) Michael Powell, said “Something’s not right.” The gloves were bright red, not the 40’s period oxblood. So they brilliantly went with black and white, all the better to ape the Weegee style period tabloid look for the crowds and the clothes, and the multiple flashbulbs. At the time Scorsese was just getting into film preservation. Color stock at that time faded quickly. If we shoot in B&W, he thought, “It’ll never fade.”
The real LaMotta trained De Niro hard for nearly a year, adding twenty pounds of muscle. He fought three professional bouts under another name, winning two. After the fighting and early years’ scenes were done, the picture shut down (everyone still got paid) while De Niro hoovered up pasta and ice cream on a Grand Tour of Europe, gaining fifty pounds of lard. He could have worn a fat suit, but the physical transformation, bare bellied, thick of neck and chops, is startling and, of course, real. Doctors fussed over his labored breathing.
The title sequence of Raging Bull is as iconic as the rest of the picture, as a hooded LaMotta glides and weaves, jabbing in slow motion to the music of Cavalleria rusticana, a grace not embodied within his actual gruelling fights. Designer Dan Perri spoke to Art of the Title about it. He brought a little crystal bull to Scorsese’s apartment. “I think I had seen the film or parts of it at that point, because I knew who Jake LaMotta was and I had an opinion about him. I knew how violent and bizarre and fascinating he was but what I got from the character was that he was this maniacal, sadistic, and masochistic person. I thought, he’s not a raging bull, he’s a RAGINGBULL. He moves so fast—he’s violent, he’s so driven, he’s so obsessed—that when we do the title there shouldn’t even be a space between the words to illustrate his maniacal quality, his lunatic personality, the way he treats his women, and so on. I felt strongly that it (the title) had to be red. Marty looked at me quizzically because he knew that I knew that the film was shot in black and white. But he liked the idea a lot.”
Michael Chapman shot the footage used at 48 FPS. “I wound up copying the scenes that the titles were over,” Perri said. “It was basically the character warming up in the ring and each shot was overcranked, but when I duped that I double-framed it again so it was now at 96 frames a second, so it was even slower than the original photography.”
The boxing scenes required a 10-week shooting schedule, for 10 minutes of screen time. Raging Bull was Scorsese’s first full collaboration with Thelma Schoonmaker (she fixed his early film, Who’s That Knocking At My Door?; they both worked on Woodstock). As she viewed the footage, she saw it as “a tapestry,” Scorsese finely calibrating one shot into the next. Much of the film was shot with just one camera. Scorsese planned LaMotta’s final fight, against Sugar Ray Robinson, as akin to the shower murder from Psycho. He storyboarded and timed every punch. Even LaMotta’s glove scrabbling for the rope (“You never got me down, Ray!”). “All the fight scenes were done in drawings,” Scorsese recalled. “It’s very much like staging a dance to music. Instead of a verse with maybe twelve bars of music, it’s four bars of punches. Because it’s all choreography.” The ring is different sizes in different fights, the action alternates between subjective and objective views. There’s fast forward cutting and zooms in and out. During the pummelling of the final fight, Jake appears to receive a benediction as vaseline is applied to his cuts; the ring is a rippling, hellish environment, an effect achieved by lighting flames beneath the lens. “It’s not just how the camera moves, it’s the emotion that it shows,” Schoonmaker says. Sound designer Frank Warner spent weeks, months, in post-production, layering a multitude of sounds to the fight scenes: no two punches come from the same sound source. He used a lot of animal cries, including an elephant, mixed, slowed down, exaggerated, to suggest the fighter’s labored breathing and reactions to a punch. When the work was done, Schoonmaker said he “burned all his effects, so he wouldn’t be tempted to use them again.”
Richard Schickel spoke to the editor about how she seemed to have “particularly bonded with the Vickie character, speaking of the anguished cutaways to her as she witnesses the beating her husband takes from Sugar Ray Robinson in their final bout—shots that seal our identification with this unlikely figure. She also speaks of the way Vickie is often isolated in the frame: a lonely, puzzled, yet somehow determined woman. It seems to me that in their editing Schoonmaker and Scorsese almost subliminally enlisted the audience’s compassion for the film’s principals—an element that was not all that evident even in the final script.”
When the film was screened for United Artists executives, there was silence. Andy Albeck, the unprepossessing suit in charge, marched up the aisle and pumped the director’s hand. “Mr. Scorsese, you are an artist.”
Niles Film Files puts it well:
“There is a lot of seeing in Raging Bull, just as there is a lot of exposure—notice the cameras constantly flashing, exposing La Motta and showing a thread of shame and guilt through the story… The most evocative moments in the whole film may be the 16mm home movies that play in the early section. In color, scratched, de-saturated, and complimented with only Pietro Mascagni’s opera music for sound, then interspliced with black and white still frames of La Motta’s fights over the next few years, Scorsese is telling us how film captures life, or maybe how it can’t capture life, seeing as the mirth in these moments are so different from the moments that precede and follow them (screaming spouses, crying children, violence). But film gives poetry to life, and Scorsese approaches cinema the same way a priest approaches the Gospel. It’s a sacrament, it’s holy, it’s a prayer aimed at grace. And this is a story of a man who seems beyond grace.”
This interview, by Michael Henry, took place in Paris during the night of February 11-12, 1981. A translation of “Nuit blanche et chambre noire” from Positif, April 1981. Translated by Peter Brunette.
Robert De Niro brought you Juke La Motta’s autobiography when you were preparing Taxi Driver. What attracted you to this character? Did your vision of him evolve in the years preceding the shooting?
I remember having read the book in California when I was finishing Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. I also remember long conversations with Bobby during the night in my office at Warner Brothers. Honestly, it wasn’t like a bolt of lightning. No matter what anyone claimed later, I didn’t even notice Jake’s opening sentence: “When my memories come back to me, I have the feeling that I’m watching an old film in black-and-white.” My reasons for shooting in black-and-white, as you know, have nothing to do with this quotation. When we were screening Bobby’s training sequences, which had been shot in 8mm, I was struck by a remark made by Michael Powell: “But his gloves are red!” Yes, Michael Powell, the man who made The Red Shoes! Nowadays, boxers use gloves and pants that are colored, whereas our memories of boxing from the 40s are in black-and-white, like the newsreels and photographs of that time. Powell was right. You also know how much I worry about the instability and the changes in color film stock. The final reason was that several films on boxing were in preparation: The Champ, Rocky II, The Main Event, Matilda. I wanted Raging Bull to be very different visually and to evoke, if a reference is necessary, the admirable photography of James Wong Howe in The Sweet Smell of Success.
Raging Bull is, along with Mean Streets, the film with the longest gestation period of all your films.
I had worked on Mean Streets for so long, it was so close to me, that I knew almost word for word what the characters had to say, the way they had to dress or to move. Mean Streets was a fragment of myself. Alice was an experiment—and a lot of work. Taxi Driver was once again a film that was very close to me, one I had to make at any cost. We were completely confused during that period, and didn’t know whether to start with Taxi Driver or New York, New York, which seemed less risky. I think that I had already begun the preproduction of New York in 1974, when I went to see Bobby in Parma, on the set of 1900, to make sure that he still wanted the role of Jimmy Doyle. It’s then, during that very uncertain period, that we spoke seriously, one on one, about Raging Bull, about the book, about our favorite scenes. We thought of it as a small-budget film, we even thought we could write it ourselves. The one sure thing was that it wouldn’t be a film about boxing! We didn’t know a thing about it and it didn’t interest us at all!
The book is edited like a Warner brothers film from the 30s. It has a dramatic structure that’s very studied, in fact too studied to seem like an autobiography.
Jake is constantly analyzing himself in the book. He very pedantically explains why he did this or that. But I didn’t think that Jake was really able to analyze himself like that. Or maybe he didn’t give us all the reasons. And how could he? All that stuff went back so long before. We felt that the book had been put into shape by Peter Savage, an amazing character. He appears in Taxi Driver and in New York, New York, and he made two films with Jake. He put a dramatic structure on Jake’s chaotic existence. It wasn’t so much Jake speaking about himself as Pete explaining Jake to Jake!
The book privileges the relation between the two men. Certain events weren’t witnessed by lake and so it’s Pete’s point of view that takes over at that point. You joined Pete, the friend, and joey, the brother, who is in the background in the autobiography, into one character.
Yes, because I just couldn’t buy this idea of undying friendship that justifies and links all the episodes. The book’s psychology is close to that of the 50s. This is not a reproach—I love tons of movies from that period!—but for me there were too many overlapping points of view. Even though Pete has since begun practicing hypnosis, he wasn’t inside Jake’s skin. How could he know what was happening inside Jake’s body, his impotence, his fears? I no longer knew who Jake was. The champion who was surrounded with respect or a hothead who was always getting in trouble? Joey and Pete gave up boxing, but Jake was still the champ! How could I separate the true from the false? It’s said that Joey did a lot of dirty work for his brother, and Pete said he did even more than was in the book. Who knows? It doesn’t really matter, it’s not really them any more on the screen. I’m the younger brother! I have a brother who’s 7 years older, and I know this situation well. We’re not speaking any longer of real individuals. That’s why we combined Joey and Pete. There was a lot that they had trouble admitting. Take their break-up: they didn’t speak for seven years. Why? We tried to explain it—it’s the longest sequence in the film—but in fact we still don’t know why. Only God knows what happened between two brothers. The only certain fact is the 7 year silence. When I said to them: “There must have been something, right?” They laughingly replied “Oh it wasn’t as serious as all that!” Seven years of silence, not as serious as all that? Everybody always gives false reasons. What did Renoir say in Rules of the Game?
“Everyone has his reasons.” In Raging Bull, Jake doesn’t have a past, or at least you invoke it only in a refracted way. You skipped his training years. Why? Where they too close to Mean Streets?
No, that wasn’t it. I love the scene of the fight with the poker players, where Jake and Pete are like idiots at the door because they won’t let them in. It was also in the first version of the script. Mardik Martin had kept the attack on the bookmaker—and I knew exactly how to film it. We also hoped to bring in the character of the priest, who I was to play. Our favorite scene is the one in which Jake jumps on Pete’s girlfriend after she’s just read the letter Pete has sent her from prison: it’s a great scene, not because it’s the rape of a young virgin, but because it demonstrates the extraordinarily complex relationship between the two friends. Pete, you know, got a bullet in the arm while protecting Jake: it’s an episode that we really wanted to keep, but which we finally took out. That one was authentic, but the others?
What was Mardik Martin’s contribution before you asked for Paul Schrader’s help?
Mardik did two and a half years of research and interviews. He took off in all directions, and he even spent a year writing a play about Jake. The more eyewitness accounts he got, the more things got mixed up: there were about 25,000 shades of gray. No well-defined black and white: just gray! It was maddening. And on my side, I was struggling to finish New York, New York within the limited budget and taking into account the structural deficiencies of the script. When I was celebrating my 35th birthday at Sam Fuller’s house, I got it into my head that I could integrate, in Raging Bull, a followup to Italianamerican, where I was going to talk about the death of my grandparents, and the third part of the triptych begun with Who’s That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets! This shows you what a state of panic I was in! I was working simultaneously on New York, New York, The Last Waltz, American Boy, and The Act. My second marriage was falling apart. Domenica had just been born and I already knew that she wouldn’t be living with me. I told Mardik that I had to get myself together and that we had to find a way to get my grandparents into this film about boxing. In fact, I couldn’t concentrate any more, I was lost. Bobby, who had just come back from The Last Tycoon, was overwhelmed too.
Is this when you met Norman Mailer?
He encouraged me a lot. The script was way too long. Everything was there, Jake’s childhood, his father, the prison, and even his testimony before the Kefauver Commission in New York—but I didn’t want to hear about any boxing matches! “He’s a fantastic guy,” Mailer told me. “I never used any real people in my novels except Jake. He’s been very underestimated, both as a man and as a boxer. You have to make this film.” He was alluding to The American Dream, of course. Do you know that when Mailer met Jake in a bar, and told him “I could have been a boxer,” Jake, staring at his beer, coldly replied, “No, you’re not disturbed enough.”
That’s when Paul Schrader came on the scene. What did he bring?
At this stage, we were lost. We had to find a new structure. Schrader had worked on it for six weeks, to help us out. “Jake has to masturbate in his cell,” he told me at dinner. I found the idea interesting. In the novel, there was a complete obsession with the female sex. It was a new approach to the subject, basing it on sexuality. I said okay. Schrader had the idea of opening with the speech on the stage and linking that with Jake’s first defeat, in Cleveland. An unjust and inexplicable defeat. Anyway, it didn’t matter: the essential thing was for the audience to sympathize with Jake right away. So Schrader cut the whole first part of the novel. But Peter and Joey were still distinct, the session before the Senate committee was still there, and we also saw Jake’s gambling house at Kingston, Long Island. Paul, who’s fascinated by gambling, wanted a very spectacular decor. I was happy with the Copacabana and the Debonair Social Club, one of those masculine sanctuaries where men can be alone and do their business quietly together. Something like Scala in Hollywood, where people in the business go to negotiate contracts. The ritual isn’t very different, you know.
Was it you or Schrader who lessened the domestic violence portrayed in the hook?
It was me. Schrader had kept the scene in which Jake knocks out his first wife during a party and, thinking that she’s dead, imagines different ways to get rid of the body. They weren’t even 20 years old at that point, and they were living like animals. There was also the scene where his wife climbs up on the fender of his car to keep him from starting it. This violence came too early. I was happy with just the table overturned and a couple of swear words. For Jake and Pete’s scene in the parking lot, Paul had them fighting. Jake wanted his brother to punish him, and let himself be humiliated, screaming “I was on the mat!” I finally chose to keep it much simpler.
With Schrader gone, there was only you. You were the only one left to harness yourself to the task?
Well, that was our original dream, don’t forget. When he left, Schrader told me, “You pulled Mean Streets from your guts. Do the same thing now, but this time just use two or three characters. With four, you won’t make it.” After that I went through a serious crisis. I didn’t want to do the film any longer, I didn’t want to do it at all. Physically, I was also in terrible shape. I spent four days in the hospital hovering between life and death. I was lucky, I survived, the crisis passed. My suicide period was over. Bobby came to see me. We spoke very openly. To want to kill yourself over work, to dream of a tragic death—there’s a moment where you have to stop letting go, even if it’s stronger than you. We were talking about ourselves, but I suddenly understood the character. When Bobby asked me pointblank: “Do you want us to make this film?” I answered yes. It was obvious. What I had just gone through, Jake had known before me. We each lived it our own way. The Catholic background, the guilt feelings, the hope for redemption. Maybe it’s a little pretentious to talk about redemption. More than anything, it’s about learning to accept yourself. That’s what I understood the instant that I answered yes, without really knowing what I was saying. When I got out of the hospital, we left for San Martin, an island in the Caribbean where there are no films and no television. We were on the same wavelength, and now we were talking the same language. In ten days, we wrote a hundred-page script. On the last page, I added a quotation from the Gospel of St. John, the exchange between Nicodemus and Christ. Jesus told the High Priest that it was necessary to be reborn of the spirit before one could enter the Kingdom of God. I wasn’t planning to use it in this form, but I wanted to warn everyone who would read the script just what it meant to me.
In removing La Motta’s youth, you also took away certain “extenuating circumstances” from your character. He became more opaque, just like his feeling of being guilty, his certainty that God was punishing hint for the bad that he hail done, especially for the unpunished murder of the bookmaker, all of which became more diffuse.
I was right, no? That guilt, please understand this, doesn’t come from a specific act, but is part and parcel of the character. If you had inherited this guilt from birth, what chance would you have had to escape? If in the deepest part of yourself, you’re convinced that you’re not worthy—as I have been, and as I might be again some time—what can you do? You’re condemned, no?
The film caused some very gut-level reactions: why devote a film to such a disgusting human being? However, what the hatred for fake translates into is the fear of knowing that you too are a sinner and that you are waiting to be struck by lightning at any moment.
Ah, fear! What torture! You know his tactic in the ring. He could take more than anybody because he had an abnormally hard skull. Punch and get punched until the adversary got tired out. Raging Rail is the story of a man who is facing a wall. Of course, there is, in superimposition on the screen, the reminder of matches and dates, there are historically correct episodes, especially the one in Miami, but it’s really about what happens inside of him. The Kefauver Commission? Why did he spit it out? Why wasn’t he killed? That wasn’t our problem, it was the problem of the Family. Here’s a man who is methodically destroying himself, who is pulling others down with him, who falls into the deepest hole—and who pulls himself up again. Pulls him up again toward what? It doesn’t matter. To live with a strip-teaser? Yeah, so what? Are you better than a strip-teaser?
Isn’t that one of the meanings of the parable of the Pharisees? Who are yon to cast the first stone? Who are you to condemn her? It’s up to the spectator to decide, in his soul and conscience, like at the end of Taxi Driver or American Boy: is this man a criminal or a brother?
Yes, and that can go a long ways. You can’t act like Jake, of course, but isn’t there something rotten in everything that surrounds us? Well, if I said yes to Bobby, it’s because I unconsciously found myself in Jake. I felt that this character was the bringer of hope. It was for this hope that I made the film. Jake, I think, understood that. He admitted that it was him—and that it wasn’t him—up there on the screen.
The criminal and the saint—these are the two contradictory postulations that you like to bring together in one individual. During our last meeting, in Rome, you said that the most primitive consciousness is closer to the Spirit than any other.
Yes, it’s closer to God. Jake is an animal—and isn’t.
He lives like an animal, but he is capable of conceiving something else. When he’s at his lowest point, in the cell in Miami, he has this great outcry: “I’m not that guy, I’m not me!”
“I’m not that guy!”—that’s the key. And I shouted the same thing to Bobby. It’s strange, but no one has ever talked to me about this before. But everything I wanted to say is there. Will French Catholics understand me? For Italian-Americans it’s different: they’re born that way, convinced that they don’t deserve what has happened to them.
And especially not success! In sports as in show business, there are those who construct a career and those who follow a vocation. Jake is one of the latter, and you are too. The metaphor was already clear in New York, New York.
I think I know what you mean. You’re putting into words what we feel in a pretty confused way. In the ring, Jake does what he has to do, that’s all. He can’t behave otherwise. He couldn’t do anything else. You should see them when they’re together, Jake, Pete, Joey. “Who’s the champion here? Who’s the champion?” asks Jake, and he repeats it, very softly, like a litany. “Vocation”—yes, in this sense, like a priest.
You intervene in person in the final sapience, when Jake is getting ready to go on stage. You remind him of the demands of show business.
This ending was in the script right from the beginning. And you know why? In one of the sequences cut by accident in New York, New York, the one in the Up Club, Lenny Gaines said to Bobby: “Relax. Take a twenty minute break. Have fun.” He was speaking about life in general, of course. Here Jake asks me “How much time do I still have?” And I answer “You’ve got five minutes.” Bobby and I felt this profoundly, especially me, since I’m incapable of relaxing, I’m always tense. I completely immerse myself in a film. On the set of Raging Bull, I was so much taken by the character that I often forgot my marks. The man with his face to the wall in the cell is me.
All of us are in that prison with our face to the wall, no?
Yes, sure. I’m there in any case. What is it that confers a sort of grace on him at that moment? That’s the mystery. Something happened to him, and it happened to me too, and that’s why I’m here now. Something that allowed him to say “I’m not that guy.” We were thinking—but it was really only a joke—of having a white light break into the cell or of tracing the shape of the cross with beams of light.
A redemption maybe, but also, above all, a vital start, a reconquering of the self.
It was a catharsis. How do you accept who you are? If you don’t accept yourself, you self-destruct. Do you remember, in America America, when the Turk Abdul says to Stavros: “Go ahead, take the knife, it’ll go quicker. Finish it now.” I know’ what Kazan means. Suicide is the simplest. With people who were strangers to me, who knew nothing about the film, I never spoke of redemption, I used the word “resolution.”
In the book, the character of the priest is central. One imagines him being played by Spencer Tracy or Pat O’Brien. In the film, though, he’s only a silhouette.
We could have remade Boys Town. We played with that idea for a while, before deciding that it wasn’t really important to show Jake’s beginnings. He’s there and he does what he has to do, and that’s it. You have to accept him the way he is. You don’t believe it? Too bad! Thanks for coming. I’m not mad at you. You’d be better off leaving and going to see Moonraker. Thanks and goodbye. I heard so much nonsense, if you only knew! Father Joseph? Oh, yeah. I only kept him for Webster Hall. That’s where my parents used to go dancing. It became the Ritz, one of the temples of New York disco. And then you see him again in the home movies. The whole parish knew him, they all went to him for confession. Like the priest in a small Sicilian village. Webster Hall is pure nostalgia. There was dancing and fighting between rival clans. In the film, the fight at the entrance is between the Italian-Americans and the more recent Italian immigrants, the “greaseballs,” as the bouncer says. That’s the only time the colors were right on the set! The costumes, the lighting, everything was perfect. And as in Knocking and Mean Streets, I think I really captured the strangeness of that way of life.
The iconography of Mean Streets keeps popping up: the home movies, the holy pictures ami the statue of St. Francis of Assisi in the father’s apartment, the relation between Joey and Jake, which is the same relation as the one between Charlie and Johnny Boy.
Absolutely, and I was very aware of that, even if I didn’t want to remake Mean Streets. The cross in the apartment is my mother’s. It was in Knocking, and the statue, too, I think. Jake shot them in 16mm. 16mm in the forties! He must have been rich. In Mean Streets, I only had 8mm, the format that less rich families had to use. We reshot Jake’s little bits of film with an Eclair. We had some problems with this because the original negatives were very dark and were often only three or four feet long! The Technicolor expert did great work, desaturating the colors, even putting color on the perforations, like in the scene of the wedding on the terrace in the Bronx. I considered for a moment using the still photos, as I did for the fights, then I remembered my parent’s wedding in 1933. It was so hot they had to hold the reception on the roof. The funniest thing is that the day of the shooting I was sick and I let my father play director, and you can imagine the chaos! One of my favorite moments is there, when the camera reframes, on the right, on an extra who’s sitting apart, on the edge of the roof. That’s how I see myself, with this feeling of being a stranger, of being completely lost.
Jake’s environment doesn’t really explain his character. There’s something irreducible, which escapes analysis, that interests you, right?
Now we’re getting to the heart of things! That’s what I realized at San Martin—before the death of Haig Manoogian, who I want to tell you about later. Why not narrate the lives of these people in big blocks, clearly distinct from each other? You’d find them at different stages. Like that conversation that started in a little Latin Quarter hotel in 1974 that we renew from year to year in different places. We have to proceed like that, I told Bobby, because there’s no way to explain everything that happens in between. There aren’t any words to speak about it. No words to say what happens in the cell. Not even religious words. He just stops destroying himself, that’s all.
The first “flashback” seems to be set off by Jake practicing “That’s entertainment,” his entry onto the stage. The link is striking.
We found it by accident one night at the editing table, when I was in despair about being able to connect Jake’s bloated face of the 60s with his young face of the 40s. Two tracks accidentally overlapped and bang! The sound connected the two eras. There’s another moment, even stranger, when Vickie moves her lips but no sound comes out of her mouth. After Jake has beaten them up, her and Joey, he finds her packing her suitcase. That came at the end of the shooting. After everything that had happened, any dialogue seemed meaningless. We tried everything, but no response worked. She’s there, she’s waiting with her whole body that lie’s touching and, if you notice, her lips are moving but you don’t hear anything, because there’s nothing left to hear at this stage. There are no words for such a situation.
Several different times you isolate different parts of Vickie’s body, with very tight shots, especially at the swimming pool. Then, at Webster Hall, you have this blonde Irish woman sit at a table where there are only brunettes, no doubt Italian. Under this fetishistic look, Vickie seems only a mental image.
And how! She doesn’t exist for herself. Look at those snakes that keep surrounding and entwining her! These “semi-toughs,” who aren’t as bad as all that, after all, much less than in the book, because, after all, I love all those people! Even Salvy, the fake judge. But not more than Michael in Mean Streets, who doesn’t manage to become a real tough guy, the kind that you don’t get too near to, but whom you respect and offer allegiance in embracing him. To come back to Vickie, if Jake takes her under the paternal roof, it’s because he knows that she doesn’t deserve it. Like J.R. in Knocking when he makes love with Zina Bethune on his mother’s bed. Where else to go? We don’t have an apartment, we don’t have any money… It’s a very authentic moment and I love it that at the end of the sequence they are framed only from the back. I had the feeling that if the audience identified with them at that instant, they would identify with them all the way to the end.
The television set that doesn’t work is a great metaphor for fake’s frustrations. It seems to echo the one with the golf ball which comes before they make love.
Each time that you see Jake and Vickie in an intimate moment, their relationship is coming apart a little more. The first time is the only satisfying one. It’s also the most chaste. The next time, before the third match with Sugar Ray Robinson, it’s only about sex and frustration. Later, when they’re in bed, he asks her “Who do you think of when we make love?” After, it gets worse and worse. We had the television set in there from the beginning, it was in Mardik’s script. At that time, the sets were always breaking down. I chose Of Mice and Men because it was on that Sunday—I checked it. And also because there are similarities between the two films. I love Aaron Copland’s score; I used the last third of it, the length of which corresponded exactly with our sequence. In the early 60s, at NYU, I acted in Of Mice and Men with Gregory Rozakis, who played the young guy with TB in America America. A little later, Variety announced, God know why, that I was getting ready to shoot a student film with Rozakis and… Jake La Motta! That was a sign of fate, no?
It also seems like there’s a very carefully worked out evolution in the mise-en-scene of the fight scenes. The first one, in Cleveland in 1941, uses reaction shots, and even some long shots from the top of the stands, as in certain contemporary films of the match. It makes you think of Capra and of Meet John Doe during the riot scene. There is also the light from the flashbulbs which recalls the realistic photos of the 40’s. After that, the framing and the lighting become more and more unreal. The last fight with Robinson, for example, is choreographed in a completely abstract space, like the numbers of The Last Waltz that you shot in the MGM studios.
Capra? No, I wasn’t thinking of him, I don’t remember Meet John Doe very well, but you’re right, there’s a escalation, a progression in the horror, and thus an increasing stylization. The first match is the only one in which we used the reactions of the audience. The last meeting with Robinson is completely abstract. There are wide angle and foggy shots because at this stage no one is worrying about the punches which landed so well. The ring is twice as big as it was in reality. It’s not a matter of literally translating what Jake sees and hears, but to present what the match means for him, all the while respecting, as much as possible, historical truth. To do it in such a way that you are more and more implicated in what is going on in this miserable ring. It’s not only a question of point of view: it’s not enough, I’m sure you realize, to shoot subjective shots or in slow motion. Before shooting, I went to two boxing matches, five-round matches between unknown boxers. The first evening, even though I was far away from the ring, I saw the sponge red with blood, and the film started to take form. The next time, I was much closer, and I saw the blood dripping from the ropes. I said to myself that this sure didn’t have anything to do with any sport! From what point of view should it be filmed? I hesitated for a long time. Believe me, it’s not simple. It’s like math or chess. In the old days, the newsreel guys didn’t worry about it: they filmed the entire match from the same angle, outside the ropes, of course. That was shown during the intermission, between the two films on the main program, and I still remember how impatient and angry we were that we had to suffer through 15 rounds at a stretch. It wasn’t simple! It wasn’t as simple as having Bobby gain 50 pounds. With the exception of the match against Dauthille, where we were outside the ropes, I was in the ring the whole time with the camera, just as attentive to the physical reality of the punches and the panting as I was to the psychological dimension of the encounter. When Jake let himself get massacred by Robinson, the television commentator yelled “Nobody can take such punishment!” He was right and that was why I gave such a stylized vision of this punishment—abstract, if you wish, but not unreal for all that. I had to use a lot of blood because we were shooting in black-and-white, but that’s just secondary. The real violence is inside. I know from my own experience that a broken nose doesn’t bleed that much. This vision became a mental projection.
Between the highly emotional scenes, in and out of the ring, you allow yourself some breaks, like the discussions between Jake and Joey, that are filmed in a very simple manner. Suddenly, you look at these crazy people with a certain serenity, a certain distance.
After Paul Schrader gave us the overall structure, Bobby and I kept condensing and simplifying. The masturbation scene, for example. Bobby talked me out of it: “What? I’m going to masturbate right after they’ve beaten me up?” It’s enough for him to bang his head against the wall, it’s the same thing. We shot tons of inserts that were meant for the montage sequences, before the meeting with Cerdan (in which you can see Audie Murphy, who had just finished Bad Boy) or for the last fight with Robinson—where Vickie’s face was, for example, supposed to substitute for Sugar Ray’s. I didn’t keep any of that. I also cut the press conference, which you can see an extract of in the trailer. In Miami, during the breakup, we had planned a long speech in which Vickie explains herself, but it wasn’t necessary. After filming the fights, not without difficulty—and I’ve only mentioned a couple of the problems—I asked myself: does all of this have any meaning? Is there a good reason for printing all this film? Why move the camera? Is it really necessary? If I could, I would be happy to shoot it all in one take three hours long. I made this film for myself, no? Films are the most important thing in my life. OK, that’s understood. You still have to find reasons to manipulate this tool which has been given to us. Yes, the scene between Joey and Jake in the kitchen is very simple. Just like the one with the television set. I wanted to take a break to try to understand what was happening in their heads, the absurdity of that implacable logic. A filmmaker friend whom I respect a lot once told me in Rome: “It’s not your best film.” Inwardly, I wanted to reply: “Do we always have to make our best film each time or are we building an oeuvre that will last?” He continued: “It’s not violent enough. You fell in love with your actors, you didn’t restrain them enough, they imposed their own rhythm at the expense of the deeper meaning.” I started asking myself some questions: In looking for simplicity, had I become lazy? Was I too easy? Not explicit enough? During the shooting, I had asked myself these questions, but in the opposite way: Isn’t it too obvious? Too explanatory? In reality, I just did what I thought was right. Some people think that something important happens in the prison in Miami, other people don’t. What can I do about it?
The progression of Jake La Motta toward self-consciousness, toward a certain powerful decision, even if it’s schizophrenic, doesn’t it reflect your own attitude toward the project and more generally toward cinema itself?
I don’t know. The film really doesn’t help me to see these things more clearly, nor does it help me to understand others or myself. What really interests me is hope. In the pit of his dungeon, Jake doesn’t have anything, he’s lost it all. Vickie, his brother, his house, his children, his championship belt. Before, we saw him undergo a terrible punishment from Dauthuille. He let himself be massacred, then, in the last seconds, he had a surge of pride and demolished his opponent. In other words, lie’s never really gotten what he deserves. He hasn’t paid. After which, he meets Robinson. What does he see there? He sees his blood squeezed out of the sponge, his body that they’re preparing for the sacrifice. For him, it’s a religious ritual and he uses Robinson to punish himself. As I told you, everything happens in his head. He thinks he’s at the end of his martyrdom, but there again his pride carries him away. When they stop the tight in the thirteenth round, he yells “I didn’t hit the floor! I didn’t hit the floor!” He rebels one more time. Then the posing for the photographers at the swimming pool in Miami, and you see everything that he has to lose. Vickie, the kids, the Cadillac, the nightclub. He loses all that immediately and now, in his cell, all that’s left is himself. He’s facing the wall, facing himself, and he screams: “I’m not that guy!” He has fallen so low that he can only come up to be reborn. When we find him in the strip-tease joint, he has changed. A customer treats him like a clown and he answers, without any aggression, “That’s why I’m here.” He has found a kind of peace with himself. He’s no longer the same man. Of course, it’s not ideal, but he could have fallen even lower. His job isn’t degrading, he has stopped destroying himself like so many of his friends. He has survived.
How did the idea of quoting from On the Waterfront come to you? Is it an indirect comment on fake?
Jake often quoted it on the stage. Mardik’s script included a soliloquy from Shakespeare. Michael Powell talked me out of it; he found the character original enough that he didn’t need any quotations. Against his advice, I decided on Kazan. At this point, I wasn’t listening to anyone, I was acting like a kamikaze. Just like when I was making Mean Streets, I was convinced that this would be my last film, the end of my career. So I had a good time. I saw On the Waterfront when I was 12 years old and never forgot it. It’s so beautiful, that monologue of Brando’s, so funny and so sad: “Let’s be honest, I’m just a bum…” And, even more, it was the story of two brothers, like Raging Bull. But I didn’t want people to take the monologue as a comment on the relation between Jake and Joey: Jake isn’t accusing his brother, because without him he would have lived in the same way. Bobby and I explored all kinds of different ways of saying the lines. We did at least twenty takes. The most interesting one, the one we used, is also the simplest, the least expressive. A small, thin voice, that’s all. Bobby would have liked us to use three different takes in a row, but the most monotonous one was the best. I thought of the end of Taxi Driver: on the screen, the reading of a letter moves me even more because the face and the voice betray no emotion. The coat-stand in the dressing room is an homage to Ermanno Olmi, a reference to the death of the hero in Il posto that stunned me.
As the film continues, what words are incapable of saying becomes clearer, retrospectively, in the light of the parable of the blind man and the Pharisees that you put at the end.
I didn’t want to quote the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus because it could have been confusing. In re-reading the new English Bible, I fell upon a passage from Saint John, “The healing of the man born blind.” The Pharisees interrogate the parents twice about the miracle. The parents are afraid because the whole thing is political. Then the Pharisees called the child: “He who approached you is surrounded by prostitutes, pimps, tax collectors. Do you understand that this man is a sinner and that you must not go near him?” And the child responds: “All I know is that once I was blind and now I see.” Jake LaMotta, at least as he appears in the film, is someone who allowed me to see more clearly. Like Haig Manoogian, to whom the film is dedicated. When I took his first course, in the 6o’s, he transmitted the spark to me, he gave me the energy to become a filmmaker. His house became a second home for me, I was always there. I saw him again last May, when I was on the campus of NYU, when I was finishing the first cut of Raging Bull. The simplicity of the black-and-white was also a return to NYU. We laughed about American Boy, which I had come to talk to the students about, and suddenly he said to me, with great seriousness: “Do you still see a lot of films today? I really don’t feel the need any more. Now it’s all science fiction. Today, films don’t have any resolution, that’s the problem.” What did he mean? I wasn’t sure, but three weeks later he was dead—and the very same day Steven Prince, the protagonist of American Boy, lost his father. Both were buried on the same day. So Raging Bull is dedicated “with love and resolution” to the one who gave me inspiration, to the one who gave me, at the same time as a camera, the eyes to see.
After the projection of Raging Bull, one of the landmarks of American cinema and a crucial part of the Michael Chapman retrospective held at the Camerimage International Film Festival, an overwhelming applause fills the theater hall as a smiling man slowly climbs the stage with the help of a walking stick and waves to the audience. The renowned cinematographer Michael Chapman, invited to the festival as the most special of guests to receive a lifetime achievement award just a couple of days before his 81st birthday, is a name impossible to miss if you’re an aficionado interested in the history of film: cinematographer on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Waltz, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Last Detail and The Lost Boys, camera operator on such classics as The Landlord, The Godfather and Jaws, Chapman has left a deep mark having influenced and witnessed the creation of some of the most significant movies ever made. Humble and completely down to earth, he radiates experience and humor as he tackles the audience’s questions before retreating from the stage surrounded by a horde of film students. As we sat down to discuss some aspects of his career and the current stage of the art and craft of cinematography, the legend of the industry smiles and sips his tea patiently, modestly acknowledging the fact that he “must have done an okay job” to be where he is today. An interview conducted by Sven Mikulec. Production still photographers (Taxi Driver): Josh Weiner & Paul Kimatian. Special photography by Steve Shapiro © Columbia Pictures, Bill/Phillips, Italo/Judeo Productions. Production still photographers (Raging Bull): Brian Hamill & Christine Loss © Chartoff-Winkler Productions, United Artists.
Congratulations on the lifetime achievement award here at Camerimage.
Thank you very much.
You said that great cinema doesn’t need to be beautiful, that a film’s visuality should first and foremost be appropriate. Would you say this is a mistake contemporary filmmakers keep making?
Mistake is probably not the right word, but in the simple sense, yes, I think they do. People tend to think, oh, this is going to be beautiful, and that sometimes gets in the way. The visuals need to be appropriate, and sometimes beautiful is appropriate. Sometimes it isn’t. For instance, and I’ve used this example before, a scene begins with a man in a room, he looks down, beaming with love and affection, it’s wonderful, and you cut to what he’s looking at, and what he’s looking at is a wonderful woman on a bed, it’s the great love of his life. It’s just heavenly for him. Certainly the image of that woman should be beautifully lit. It should have lovely soft sidelight coming in from the window, she must look gorgeous, you know? So in that case, beautiful is appropriate. Cut to six months later, they’re having a furious argument in the back of a taxi. You son of a bitch, she says and hits him. Now, should it be beautiful? No! If it were beautifully lit, it would just get in the way. So all I’m saying is that lighting, and any of those things, are simply tools to tell the story, and while at a certain time being beautiful is wonderful, sometimes it just gets in the way and screws things up.
There were at least three people who had huge impacts on your career. Your mentor, Gordon Willis, the director of The Last Detail Hal Ashby who got you your first job as a cinematographer, and Martin Scorsese, with whom you made several landmark films. Who would you add to the list?
Well, Hal Ashby had huge influence on me in the way that he hired me. But Gordy, of course, above all. Marty Scorsese, well, you can’t help being influenced by him! It doesn’t get any better than that, and I was really lucky to have done three or four different things with him. The one you didn’t mention was Raoul Coutard. He’s had a huge influence on me. On all of us, actually. He freed cinematography, opened it up. He demonstrated it can be absolutely off on its own, that it doesn’t have to have all of the silly rules it used to have. Enormous influence on me. Of course, I’m not the only one, but from the cinematographic point of view, Raoul Coutard was on the one end, Gordon Willis on the other, those were the two poles of cinematography, it seems to me.
You got into cinematography primarily because you married a girl whose father, a successful cameraman, didn’t want his son-in-law working as a freight breaker. You were a bit lucky, it seems.
Luck has enormous amount to do with it. Oh God yes. It’s good to be talented and take your opportunities when you get them, but sheer luck has an enormous impact. The reason why Hal Ashby hired me for the first time to be a DP was a series of coincidences. Gordy and I had made a movie for Hal Ashby before, Gordy had been the DP and I’d been the operator, so he knew me. (It’s The Landlord.) He wanted us to come to the East Coast to make The Last Detail. In those days the unions were divided between New York and Los Angeles, and if you were making a film on the East Coast, you had to use East Coast people. Since this was after The Godfather, Gordy had become a big star, he was off, I can’t remember what he was doing, conquering Hollywood… He wasn’t available. The other person Ashby tried to get was Haskell Wexler, but Haskell didn’t have a card on the East Coast. It was just a whole series of things that happened that made me the DP on The Last Detail. He said, alright, let Chappy do it. So they hired me.
Martin Scorsese and you made some unforgettable films now deemed classic. What made you such good partners that you kept working together?
Again I think it’s just a matter of things happening by chance. You’d have to ask Marty, but I think we worked well together on Taxi Driver. He hired me there again because it was going to be made in New York, he had to have an East Coast cameraman, they didn’t have any money, it was a low-budget movie, they couldn’t hire a big, expensive cameraman, so he hired me. We did Taxi Driver and I think it turned out pretty good. But when he was going to do The Last Waltz, he was originally planning to hire László Kovács, with whom he worked the previous year on New York, New York. Kovacs backed out, said he was too swamped to do it, so Marty only hired me then as a second choice. Again it turned out pretty well, but again, it was a coincidence. He knew I was able to do elaborate planning, which was needed because The Last Waltz had, I don’t know, ten cameras all over the place, and he knew I could figure that stuff out, he was confident about me. I’m not sure why he hired me on Raging Bull, though, I’m certain he had access to lots of people… It seems to me we saw movies the same way. We got along fine, I don’t remember ever arguing with him. At the end of Raging Bull I thought I’ve had enough. This sounds wrong, it’s not that I was fed up with Scorsese, it was just that I felt I’ve done enough Marty Scorsese movies and that I needed to seek another direction, another challenge.
Just to go back to Taxi Driver for a bit. You said Paul Schrader’s script was one of the best things you’ve read. It was a low-budget, small film, but when you made it, did you have the feeling this was something people will be talking about for decades to come?
I don’t think so. I’ve never had that experience. And I worked on The Godfather, and Jaws, Raging Bull, and so on. All these movies turned out to be pretty well-known, but I don’t know that during that time that you ever think how a classic is being made. On The Godfather, for instance, they were constantly trying to shut us down, threatening to close us, complaining all the time. And the same on Jaws, constantly trying to pull the plug during the first two months. So who knew? No, I don’t think I knew Taxi Driver was to be so great. I knew it was a wonderful script, that the film had New York, that it just had New York, but that I knew people are going to be talking about it like we’re doing right now? I don’t think anyone of us knew that. And I didn’t have the time to sit down and think about it, we were working our ass off!
How did you pull off that unbelievable scene at the end, where Travis lies on the couch covered in blood and the camera glides around the room over the massacre?
(laughs) We cut through the ceiling. Marty wanted to do it, and it was an old beat-up building on the West Side that was kind of falling apart, so we took a chance. I drew a line where it should be, the grips took chainsaws and they cut it! And it worked. They had to brace the outsides of the building so the structure wouldn’t collapse, but it worked.
You weren’t a huge fan of Raging Bull when it came out.
That’s true. Paul Schrader and I watched it, he wrote one version of the script, we were both kind of disappointed in it. We thought it was brilliantly done, that everybody had done a marvelous job, but that it didn’t add up as a movie so much. Paul’s script was rather different from what was finally shot. I saw the film, however, many years later and realized I had been wrong, and Marty had been right, that it really was a wonderful film. I just hadn’t got it at the time, it was stupid of me. I hadn’t quite got it, its horrible poignancy about how everything in your life finally just comes down on you and you can’t avoid it. Which is a very grim thought, but certainly true. I hadn’t quite realized it was what the movie was saying. Well, you know, we all mess up sometimes.
Is it a film you’re most proud of?
Well, technically I’m very proud of it. As a movie, I think it’s wonderful, but I believe Taxi Driver is a better movie. I’m proud of my work there, too, for that matter. It’s not as demanding as Raging Bull, but I think I did a really good job and that I did just the right job. I let New York light itself. I’m proud of both of them, but I prefer Taxi Driver as a movie. Raging Bull is a technically perfect movie, it’s just that I got more emotion from Taxi Driver.
Bridge to Terabithia was a film I enjoyed, it did great at the box office, the critics loved it. Why did you retire after shooting it?
I was seventy years old and I was tired! The reason I did Bridge to Terabithia in the first place was that it was a children’s movie. The laws of the state of California state that you can’t make children work 15 hours a day. There was a time when they did, you know? Judy Garland and those other child stars, they fed them speed and they worked forever, but you can’t do that now. The shooting schedule stops at ten or twelve hours. I can’t tell you how wonderful that is. You try being seventy years old and working fifteen hours a day. See how you like it! I think the last three movies I shot were all children’s movies. I was running out of steam, just getting tired. I couldn’t work those hours anymore. The hours in the movie business are scandalous, they really are. You know, I don’t know how many times a year grips or electricians work for fourteen or fifteen hours and then drive home one hour away and fall asleep, crash and die. The hours are terrible. And they’re getting even worse.
You said cinematographers were a dying breed of professionals, that the rise of technology might make their position obsolete.
Well, cinematographers in the old, traditional sense are a dying breed, yes, because the technology has changed so much that the same skills are not needed. Skills of screen direction and framing size not so much, but even that’s loosening up a lot. But the skills of lighting and getting it “just right” in the old-fashioned filmmaking sense no longer apply because you can change everything in postproduction. You can screw up badly and still fix it in postproduction. I don’t like that blue wall, make that wall red. The light is too low here, fix it a bit, good. I think that the task of cinematography has changed, but I don’t think it’s disappearing. I often think you should probably just get any old wally to shoot it, and that the cinematographer should take over in postproduction and paint it. Cinematographers are more and more painters than they used to be, you know? I don’t know anything about technology, I’ve never shot digital, but that might be wonderful for new cinematographers, to just sit there and paint. Paint her face, paint that wall, you can do anything. That’s the direction it seems to me that the cinematography is going. That and the other end of cinematography which should be taken more seriously is Raoul Coutard expanded to the hundredth degree: shooting with your cell-phones. The emotionally most gripping images we see now are things people shoot with their cell phones. Aleppo, for instance. No cinematographer on set is going to do anything as powerful as that. So there’s painting in postproduction and shooting with your cell phone, either one of them is a real and strong option, I think.
Raging Bull cinematographer Michael Chapman discusses his groundbreaking B&W camerawork on the landmark film.
Drawing the storyboards is my way of visualizing the entire film before I shoot it. In a sense, drawing the film as I wish to see it. —Martin Scorsese
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. Here’s a transcription of some of the highlights, courtasy of Indiewire.
ON SCORSESE AND MICHAEL POWELL: 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.’”
ON POWELL’S INFLUENCE ON ‘RAGING BULL’: 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.
ON THE SERENDIPITOUS USE OF FLASHBULBS: 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.”
ON THE WORK OF SOUND EDITOR FRANK WARNER: 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.”
ON WARNER’S PERFECTIONISM: 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.”
ON SCORSESE’S USE OF SLOW MOTION: 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.”
ON THE LAMOTTA HOME MOVIES: “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.”
ON A PROJECTIONIST’S SCREW-UP: 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.’”
ON ONE OF THE TOUGHEST SCENES SCHOONMAKER EVER WORKED ON: 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.
ON THE BRUTAL IMAGES IN THE FILM’S FINAL FIGHT: 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.”
ON A DISAGREEMENT WITH SCORSESE: 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.”
The following audio commentary, featuring director Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, was recorded for the 1990 Criterion laserdisc edition of the film.
“A lot of the shots in the film had different degrees of slow motion, but notice that all of them were preceded by close-up of Jake LaMotta, telling us unmistakably that this is his POV. Slow motion shots appeared both in boxing ring as well as in his domestic life. Scenes (and slow motion shots) inside the boxing ring were already discussed at length (see the links at the end). Therefore, we’ll focus on the slow motion shots that appear outside the boxing ring. Watch the video below to experience how is to see the world through the eyes of Jake LaMotta—self destructive paranoid violent ambitious possessive suspicious volatile explosive angry and jealous character.” —Jan Stripek
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 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.
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.
It’s part of the oral tradition. Rather than writing my way through an outline, I tell my way through, and then each time I tell it, I re-outline it.
A detail from Paul Schrader’s outline for the screenplay of Raging Bull.
Screenwriter must-read: Paul Schrader & Mardik Martin’s screenplay for Raging Bull [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.
In December 1980, arguably the greatest sports film of all time was released. Thirty years on from the premiere of Raging Bull, 5 live sport celebrated Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. Scorsese tells the story behind the making of the film, while ‘The Bronx Bull’ Jake LaMotta, whose career the film documents, reminisces with Mike Costello. Mark Chapman also speaks with Robert De Niro who’s portrayal of La Motta won him an Oscar.
Even though Martin Scorsese is famous for his use of music, one of his best traits is his deliberate and powerful use of silence. Take a glimpse at fifty years of this simple technique from one of cinema’s masters. This video essay was written, edited, and narrated by Tony Zhou.
Martin Scorsese delivers the David Lean lecture on film where he talks about work that influenced him, the craft of editing and making Mean Streets, Raging Bull and The Irishman.
One of the most widely-seen episodes in the magnificent series Cinéma, de notre temps. Labarthe filmed Martin Scorsese soon after the “scandal” of The Last Temptation of Christ had begun to die down. Not sure which approach to use for the film, Labarthe and his crew simply went to Scorsese’s office and began shooting him moving around, watching rushes, etc…
In loving memory of Michael Chapman (November 21, 1935 – September 20, 2020)
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Photographed by Brian Hamill & Christine M. Loss © Chartoff-Winkler Productions, United Artists. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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