In the latest episode of SBS’ new culture podcast, The Playlist, Martin Scorsese reflects on how he’s managed to “make films in the margins” throughout his celebrated 50 year career. In a wide-ranging interview with SBS Movies managing editor Fiona Williams, the self-deprecating Oscar winner describes himself as a “thief” who “got away with” making movies that continue to connect back to his early observations of the best and worst aspects of humanity, as a child growing up in New York’s tough Lower East Side.
“I kind of look back now and I say after all these years, ‘I couldn’t make it as a Hollywood movie maker’,” he says. “I was almost a thief who got away with making these movies in the margins of the book. Some were more in a marketable range.... Others are not. I found I could only really get excited about stories that I wanted to tell and they seem to be more internal and personal.”
Scorsese has always credited the influence of the Catholic Church in New York as a stabilising influence in a childhood that was marred by chronic illness (asthma) and exposure to violence on the neighbourhood streets at the nexus of Little Italy and the Bowery district known as skid row. A young priest, in particular, acted as a mentor for young Scorsese as the child developed a moral compass.
“His sense of morality, ethics, his spiritual sense was something that was very real and very - what’s the word? practical, in the American world,” Scorsese explains. “The world I was really in at that time was waning, and that was the world of the old Sicily. It was a different way of thinking for my grandparents, who didn’t speak English, and for my mother and father who were born in New York but were part of the old world.
“This was an Italian-American who was more American-Italian. So it was infusing a new energy and new thinking yet with the spirituality of Christianity and how one could apply that to your daily life in a world [in which] you’re straddling two worlds. For me, the essence of Christianity, the essence of how one leads a life that as best as possible is moral, and as best as possible is ethical, is how you treat the people around you.”
"I was almost a thief who got away with making these movies in the margins of the book"
The catechism of compassion that was imprinted on young Scorsese in his formative years has played out in various ways within his filmmaking career (“I couldn’t see any other way!”), and loomed over his epic three decade attempt to bring a story about the fundamentals of faith to the screen.
Shusako Endo’s 'Silence' is a harrowing story of religious persecution in the 17th century, told from the perspective of a Jesuit missionary, Rodriguez (Andrew Garfield). The presence of missionaries in Japan escalates the torture being carried out against the “secret Christian” communities, and the burden of bearing witness to the suffering calls Rodriguez’s own seemingly immoveable faith into question.
Scorsese admits that for many years, “I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling” about the story, which he first encountered when New York Archbishop Paul Moore recommended the book around the release of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.
“All of it came together but it took many, many years. There are many reasons why the film could not have been made, would not have been made but I decided to keep going and it put people around me through a lot of hardship and difficulties, and so if that ‘means’ anything it means that i really wanted to make it!”
In the interview Scorsese goes on to discuss which of his past films most closely aligns with the themes of Silence (it may not be the one you think), and what he hopes non-believers will take away from the film.
You can listen to Martin Scorsese's full interview in the The Playlist episode, below (interview commences at 17:40).
Saturday 19 December, 11:40pm on SBS (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Drama, History
Language: Japanese, English
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, Liam Neeson, Issei Ogata