Martin Scorsese is one of the best directors alive, this month brings to our screens the historical drama The Irishman based in the book I Heard You Paint Houses, in which author Charles Brandt interviewed former mobster Frank Sheeran about his involvement in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.
This is the story of his rise and fall from grace: From a truck driver of humble origins to successful mafioso, and finally too isolated elderly man weighed down by monumental regrets. That we meet him at the end is fitting -- the movie will unfold like a novel, with lengthy passages and heart-stopping moments that are earned by spending ample time with the characters. The film's three-and-a-half-hour runtime makes it a perfect fit for Netflix. Scorsese love for reading can be seen in many of his movies, most are adaptations from books.
From Raging Bull to Silence, The Age of Innocence or Shutter Island. In his quest for epic stories, the director is developing the life of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortes to the tv. Cortés is an iconic figure in Spanish history, known best for his conquest of large chunks of Mexico in the 16th century. He is credited with bringing down the Aztec empire. Malinche, a Mayan comrade of the conqueror, will play a key role. Aztec leader Moctezuma, a one-time friend turned enemy to Cortés, will also appear. With his Italian heritage, Scorsese suggest that his Spanish is just a mix of what he learns in the streets of New York and his Italian.
Q: The Irishman has a different editorial pace and perspective than you usually portray in your films. Would you be able to talk about your approach with these older men in the film
A: This is not a film we could have created or made as effectively if we had tried to make it ten years ago. It’s a situation where, like Robert’s character says at the end of the film, you don’t know what time is until you get there. Not until the kids are running around you and worried about you do you have that vantage point. From that perspective, when I read Charles Brandt’s book and Steven Zaillian designed the script did it come together. We went back to the audio recordings of Frank Sheeran. With all those elements, we deduced it was all about memory. Memory is often in flashes, but I was always fascinated at why a slower paced picture is effective. I always remembered Val Lewton films and not seeing everything being the reason it is effective. Or learning again a language of movie making or movie narrative through a slower paced Antonioni which for different reasons, people did not find that accessible in their lifestyle but found it accessible through the film. It is about learning patience with the work. It’s patience and timing. Yes, over the years we have had a lot of excitement and enthusiasm and bursting energy, as part of my makeup; I can’t help that. And the humor is very important, but ultimately over the years, I could not connect, and I think it is bourgeoisie lifestyle, over in Japan, France and here too. And at a certain point I was not interested because there were worse things going on in the world. The thing about it, ultimately, the Ozu pictures when you start to look at them, something happened. Over the period of 20 years ago and earlier is when I began to appreciate the use of inserts and the objects that are photographed. I do still have to put myself in a frame of mind to watch one of those films. I have been in Taiwan and other places, where I see something on Television and I say that looks like Ozu. He’s peeling an apple for 20 minutes and it’s really good. Why am I looking at that? There is a series of small essays by a Japanese author from I think the 17th century called “Essays in Idleness” which has this tone of the film. It deals with life and it deals with the passage of time and how dying is a part of living. Ultimately, it’s like reading Nabokov’s autobiography, “Speak, Memory.” He talks in his autobiography about a memory of light coming through a window when he was a small child. These sorts of things are the memories that stay with us, for whatever reason
Q: Are you the one who found this book?
A: Me and Bob (Robert De Niro) had been trying to make a picture together since 1995. So that was 24 years we had not worked together. And we kept trying to meet up but we kept missing each other. He would be involved and I would be involved. It ultimately came down to what Bob felt when he read the book and what you thought of the character Frank and the situation of his life. He had a strong connection when he presented the idea to me. I immediately felt we could tap in and go with it.
Q: Your last movie was about a Spanish Jesuit
A: Yes. I love the book Silence from Shusaku Endo. Is a novel about two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan in 1639 to find their mentor, a man rumored to have renounced his beliefs under torture.
Q: We see that brutality often in your films. Does working through depravity and darkness help you find a path to decency?
A: Yes. The negative aspects of being human very often involve brutality and violence and the capability of violence. And you have to understand it. Or at least be ready to understand it. That’s all kinds. And I don’t mean, -Let’s be brute- and say The Age of Innocence is violent. But a Jesuit in Rome the other day said it was a terribly violent film. You turn a card over and it’s all these different signs and signals of this tribe, which you’re ostracized from and it’s devastating.
Q: Why do you think you are so drawn to betrayal and traitors?
A: I think it goes back to the asthma I had as a kid. I was very much kept at home. Movie theater, church, go home. My parents had moved to Sunnyside, Queens, in ’42, but my father had a fight with the landlord and we were thrown out and sent back to where my father was born, which was 241 Elizabeth Street, my grandparent’s apartment. It was a pretty bad place, the Bowery, in the old days when the Bowery was the end of life.
Q: Have your religious beliefs changed in the decades it took to make the movie?
A: The religious quest that brought me to Last Temptation took me to a certain point. Silence demanded more an understanding of true faith. I know that sounds pretentious. But that’s what it is. Sorry. That’s who I am. For better or worse, I am a product of the mid-20th century New York Catholic Church. A priest at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, Father Francis Principe, was my greatest mentor. He was there from when I was 11 until I was 17. He was a real guide, a street priest. He taught us, You don’t have to get married at 21 like your parents or grandparents. Find your calling. Find your own way. An extraordinary man who possessed such love.
Q: Are you interested in the story of Hernán Cortes?
A: I like the story of the conquistador, I don’t know if that project will happen, but I find fascinating the Spanish history
Q: Do you speak Spanish?
A: I do understand some Spanish as I grew up in the streets of New York. My Spanish is more a mix of Italian and words that I picked up from my Puerto Rican friends
Q: Any Spanish author that you remember?
A: Love Borges stories, and I did enjoyed Terra Nostra; the novel from Carlos Fuentes
Q: What is the biggest challenge to a long career while at the same time retaining the desire to make films?
A: There is no one that can prepare you. Depending on the economics, it’s almost like going to training camp, you have to keep exercising to retain the desire to make films because everything is set up for you to lose that desire, it’s just too hard. For many young people trying to make films, it’s good to work with whomever you can, in whatever capacity you can. In my day you did it for no money, we didn’t get paid, you just did it, if you could get the financing. Others may need to be alone, to work on a story for three years. And with the technology today is the ability to somehow, with yourself, and friends, put a film together. But the main thing is always to protect that spark of energy, because it’s just physically difficult and then it becomes emotionally difficult so you have to protect that desire and drive. This is not to cloak it in the cliché of pursuing your dreams, a dream is a dream, but it can be done, particularly with the technology of today. But in order to do it, you have to forget how difficult it is. What I mean is, there’s a story about Stanley Kubrick and he’s with Jan Harland his producer on Eyes Wide Shut. Basically, it is a small scale film and Jan Harlan said Stanley had the director’s disease. I said, what was that? He said, Well, I showed him the production schedule of Eyes Wide Shut and it was an 89 day shoot. And Stanley said, Oh, I can do it in 70. And of course, it took a year. But you really think you can do it in 70 and suddenly, you’re in this and there’s no way out, but to finish.
Q: What it means for you to work with Robert De Niro
A:The reality is De Niro, in 1959 or 1960, he was in the neighborhood, the streets that I was on. We knew each other. We weren’t friends then, but he’s the only one alive working in cinema, in this business, who knows who I am and where I come from. That’s it. He’ll just look at me and we know. Now, we’re older, much older. We were able to work together on a series of films where we mined some very deep emotions and psychological issues. It wasn’t always pleasant. It was all based on trust.
Q: Why you choose to make The Irishman with Netflix?
A: We went to Netflix because Hollywood didn't want us. For me, the stories have always been about how we should live, who we are, and have a lot to do with love, trust and betrayal