Film

Martin Scorsese Tells All: Blood and Guts Turn Me On!

"I like the idea of spurting blood. It's like a, God, it's really like a purification, you know, the fountains of blood. It's a personal thing."

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Martin Scorsese Tells All: Blood and Guts Turn Me On!
April 5, 1976

After “Mean Streets,” Marty Scorsese was New York’s most evocative cinematic voice. He was Kid Ethnic, the skinny boy who tried to get respect in Little Italy by being sensitive instead of tough. He went to NYU where he learned to operate a camera with the street sense of Shirley Clarke and handle actors like John Cassavetes. Much of “Mean Streets” was shot in California but that didn’t matter: the language and obsessions oozing from Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel were pure native stock. Marty waited years to get “Mean Streets” off his chest, and in it, it seemed, was a moviemaker to grow up with.

Later some said Marty deserted his muse when he went to Arizona to make “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” But you have to get out of the neighborhood sometime. The film was a commercial suc­cess and Marty became, “bankable,” which is what Hollywood calls sure things. 

It was heartening to hear that Marty would shoot “Taxi Driver” on the old turf. But he didn’t return with the same adolescent flash. The gutter opera had turned to careful raunch; the manic camera that spoke of “becoming” was gone too, replaced by artful composition. De Niro and Keitel weren’t even Italian anymore. The cinema punk had gone stylish. Certainly many of the obsessions remained — the fearful and looming portrayal of blacks, the clumsy violence, the ritualistic males — but if the neighborhood in “Mean Streets” had Scorsese by the balls, in “Taxi Driver” he was exorcising old demons. 

We asked Marty about the past and present and what you can’t shake no matter what. —M.J.

“How did things go at the opening?

“Fine. Very good, in fact. Hollywood Boulevard theatre seems to be doing very good, I mean, really excellent.”

“What about the reviews?” 

“Reviews? Reviews is very, um — they’re very respectful, but they’re not… They don’t understand the ending and they don’t know if this kind of violence is really, you know… Actually, they’re wondering why we didn’t explain what this character’s about. They’re trying to find reasons why he did everything. And they get very upset at the ending because that may mean something else. See, everybody wants the picture to end like ‘Hamlet,’ everybody’s like dead all over the place, you know, and he looks up and points a finger at his temple and shoots himself three times, you know. That’s where everybody thinks it should end, because then it’s just like a… you know, I don’t think a Western is bad — I like Westerns — somebody gets killed and everybody goes home. Everybody forgets about the picture.”

“Well, maybe you could tell us why ‘Taxi Driver’ ended that way.”

“Well… [Laughter] the whole thing has to do with, you know, the whole process that the character goes through to the point at which he wants to sacrifice himself… And it’s going to be a blood sacrifice, right? Then you might as well do it right, and you might as well show every detail. I mean, I’m talking about the character. Travis goes through every detail, and the only thing is that he blows it, because he doesn’t get killed.”

“Is that why he puts his finger to his head, he’s upset that he didn’t get killed?”

“Yes. It’s also kind of mocking himself… It’s the final irony. And then the camera going back over things is really kind of, like a reexamination of the elements of the sacrifice.”

“So, it’s a ritual?…”

“A ritualistic, religious experience. Like the Mass. Christ came down and said you don’t have to kill any more lambs, right?”

“Did He?”

“Yeah. He said I’m gonna go up on the cross and it’s going to be a human sacrifice and I’m going to be — I’m the son of God and uh, [laughter]… Do you understand my point? The idea of Christ coming to fulfill… not to, not to destroy, but to fulfill, you know, the prophecy and the idea was, you know, no more ritualistic blood sacrifice of lambs.”

“You mean, Travis thought if he did that killing, New York City would be clean?”

“Yeah.”

“Is that idea coming from inside Travis, or from you?…”

“That’s part of my thing, and it’s part of Paul’s thing [Paul Schrader, the screenwriter]. Uh, you know, Paul had a religious background, a depressed background, the whole thing. He was in the Special Forces, in the marines. You only get that by watching the kind of knife Travis is using at the end. It’s called a K-bar. Only Special Forces use it. Uh, the way he, uh, the way he, uh, exercises it, uh… The haircut, that’s very important at the end — because the Special Forces, before they went out on patrol in North Vietnam, they would shave their hair like that.”

“Are we meant to see Travis as a kind of average person, a well-adjusted guy?”

“No. By the time you see him, he’s ready for a breakdown. Travis is right on the edge, you know. Right from the first frame, he’s on the edge and we just wait the hour and 51 minutes for him to go over. But… I think that he has right on the surface a lot of the emotions, a lot of the problems, that most everybody has in them. I have them, Paul has ’em.”

“Do you generally approve of your characters?”

“Absolutely.”

“What about their attitude toward black people?”

“Well, Bobby De Niro in ‘Taxi Driver’ is a racist character.”

“What about the point of view of the movie, though? I mean, whenever we look at a black person, we see somebody who’s majestically evil looking.”

“…Looking into his eyes. Remember that shot when he says fucking Mau Mau land and suddenly Bobby looks over, sees this guy?… The guy was such a sweet guy. He was an extra. A very sweet guy. He was sitting there all night for that one shot. The shot was in slow motion, though. That’s why he looks evil.” [Snicker]

“What about the black woman in ‘Mean Streets’?”

“Absolutely. Yes. He says she’s beautiful, she’s beautiful, but she’s black. You gotta realize where these guys are coming from.”

“Do you worry about the fact that people are going to think that that’s the way you look at things or is that the way you look at things?”

“We were brought up that way. You don’t lose certain things, you only get to deal with certain things, right? I mean, how do, how do you say ‘Oh, I mean, in the Italian-American neighborhood I never heard the word, “Nigger.”’ [Laughter] Never. You know, how do you say that? I mean, that’s not true. It just isn’t true. I mean, if you’re gonna put something up there about yourself you might as well try to do it as honestly as possible.” 

“When you were growing up I mean, did you buy those values?” 

“Buy what values?” 

“Let’s say, values toward black people and toward violence? I’m curious about how you related to all that stuff as a child.”

“You relate to it in many different ways. I mean, in one way I was involved with it, but I was also involved with the Church at the time, you know?”

“Did they counteract each other?”

“Yes, sure. Sure, but at the same time, at the same time, you know, you’re in the streets and you’re watching the stuff and, um, you get involved with it. You get involved with codes of behavior, you know, and how do you act, how should you act in a situation like this? You know, can you make yourself a special person because you’re not, you know, uh, the toughest guy on the block? You know, how do you do that? Because there are ways, you know, you can survive, you know, and you know, ‘respect’ is a key phrase.” 

“One thing I always wanted to ask you — what’s a mook? You never find out in ‘Mean Streets’ what a mook is.”

“Well, no, it’s not, you don’t have know what he’s saying, that’s the point. I found out in a discussion — some guy told me it’s a, it means, it’s a slang for big mouth, like shooting off at the mouth, like very often, they call a guy a dun, remember at the end of ‘Mean Streets’ he pointed a gun at Michael, he says… DD—Disappointed Dunsky…”

“What’s that?”

“D-Dunsky is a word for dun. Dun is like a Don. Like Don Corleone.”

“So in other words, a guy who’s a disappointed Mafia leader?”

“Yeah, disappointed — a dun can mean a man of respect, you know, an honorable man.”

“How similar was your childhood to what went on in ‘Mean Streets’? Did you live through things like that?”

“You live through them… above some of them; you see some of them and some you can’t talk about, you know what I mean?”

“How angry do you feel about things?”

“If I didn’t feel angry, I wouldn’t have to make ‘Taxi Driver.’ ”

“Do you feel angry the way that De Niro felt angry in that film?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“The movie’s like a nightmare to me.”

“Yes, it’s a nightmare. Yes.”

“I know Hitchcock works straight from his dreams. Do you ever do that?”

“Oh, sure, I had scenes in ‘Mean Streets’ that are dreams which I actually shot. You see the way it opens now, he jumps out of bed? Well, there was a dream before that. Took a shot of him lying on the ground — with a flame going out of his heart, some sort of flame in his chest, like it was supposed to be an X ray of him dying — you could see his soul burning up.” 

“Are there details in ‘Taxi Driver’ that come out of your dreams?” 

“All the slow motion. People in slow motion on the street. A lot of Bobby’s close-ups are slow motion. I wanted to extend the moment. You go inside his head, really, and also, it’s accentuating his acting, his looks.”

“Did you ever have nightmares like that?” 

“No, but that’s — very often when I get angry, that’s the way I feel.”

“How would you — can you — talk about that anger?” 

“Uh, gee, I should be paying you $45 a session…” [Laughter]

“Do you see a shrink?” 

“Oh, yeah, for the past few years… You talk about anger, like jealousy, for example, you put this woman as a goal, and then Travis puts all these self-destruct mechanisms, uh, in his actions with the girl, so that he knows that he can’t get her. Takes her to a porno movie, deep down knowing that he’s going to fuck up, you know… the conscious mind it’s fine, but the subconscious is saying you better screw up again and you don’t deserve her, understand?”

“Yes.”

“Well, uh, there’s a self-destruct mechanism that he puts in the relationship, see? So, uh… So, we talk about the anger and the jealousy and we come up with the whole thing he does in front of the mirror, which is really the key to the picture, you know…”

“Is that scripted, or did?…”

“No, that wasn’t scripted. We said, Bobby, let’s do something like that. Talk to yourself in the mirror. And when I shot the re­hearsals, I kept saying keep re­peating it. Repeat it. Because I couldn’t hear him. And it sounded great to me. I wanted to make sure we had it on sound. And the repeti­tion was what I liked. That’s what we used. The repetition of, ‘Are you talking to me? Are you talking to me?’ That’s what I liked a great deal. But there’s a lot of, um, you were asking the thing about the sessions, you know, like you think you put all that up on the screen. You think that you’re gonna, in a way — exorcise those feelings. Then, after the picture’s over, you watch it on screen and maybe besides the usual postpartum blues you have after a movie, there’s a period you go through when you realize, my God, you know, it isn’t enough to just put it on the screen. You’ve still got to work at chang­ing the feelings, you know, the feelings of anger and the feelings of — whatever.”

“How do you manage to feel close to your feelings and emotions when you’re making a movie? It’s such a complicated process?”

“You laugh a lot. Especially with actors that I like, you know. I have fun with them and, uh, you get the violence though, and the violence is so, uh, inch by inch, A-B-C. There’s no fun in that. It’s a pain in the neck, so in between jobs, you know, you wait two hours, because makeup has to be done.” 

“You say the violence in your films is ritualistic, but the way you shoot it is realistic.”

“Right, the violence has got to be plain, straight, and fast, and awkward, awkward and stupid looking, just the way it would happen in real life. It’s got to be just as if the Daily News photographer went there and shot the a whole thing. It’s gotta be just like tabloid.” 

“It’s not much fun to shoot those violent scenes?” 

“Oh, it’s really not that much fun, no. No. Then you have to plug your ears because the gunshots are so loud. Everybody’s getting head­aches. Murray Marston had to come in every morning and get his hand cut off [snickers]… And uh, meanwhile, mind you, I’d taken Bobby out to dinner twice — through the blood and the Mohawk haircut. And nobody, nobody paid any attention. This was like 99th and Broadway in one of those Cuban-Chinese restaurants, you know. I looked like a regular, one of the Saturday night crowd.” 

“How do you feel about New York now that you don’t live here anymore?” 

“Well, I’m here most of the time really, I mean this is… L.A.’s one big office. It’s got palm trees, and you look out the window, ’cause I’m looking out the window now and it’s got trees outside. That’s about it. It’s an office.” 

“Are you going to make more movies in the streets of New York?”

“We are gonna come back to do ‘New York, New York.’ But only some of it. I would like to make this film look like a film that was made in the ’40s. You know, shoot in studios and have some fun with that.”

“It’s a musical.”

“Yeah.”

“Does anyone get killed in it?” 

“No. No.”

“I’m trying to figure out what a musical by Martin Scorsese could possibly be like.”

“First of all, it’s not a musical, it’s a film, which has music in it, that comes from an actual source, in other words, big bands, everybody gets up and sings — sing! — right? — music!” 

“Set in, like, 1940.”

“Opens on V-J Day. A guy comes out of the war, and loves jazz. And he plays a sax, and he plays sax rather violently, too — so he’s got a strange way of playing music. He hears some new music being played in Harlem. It’s the beginning of Charlie Parker, and all that sort of thing, he gets fascinated by it, and he tries to incorporate it, with the Big Band Sound. It’s really a story about him and a girl who sings in the band, and they’re very young, they get married, on impulse. Both characters are on the edges of emotion all the time — like, he’ll get up and play a solo, an unannounced solo — and throw off the rest of the band… that kind of guy.

“In other words, it’s a little like ‘Taxi Driver,’ it’s still the same character propping himself up.”

“Yeah, yeah, but he’s talented, and the thing is that the talent, her talent and his talent, get in the way of the relationship and they have to split.”

“Did you always want to be a Hollywood director?… when you went to all those movies, is that what you wanted to do?”

“I didn’t know what a director was, I just wanted — I guess — to make the movies. I don’t mean — not the details, but I always came back thinking how I would have done the film.” 

“When I see ‘Taxi Driver,’ I notice a couple of heavy allusions. I mean, when Travis drops the Alka-Seltzer in the glass, is that like, a take from Godard?” 

“It’s exactly that. The script just says he pours the Alka-Seltzer in and, Jesus, think about what it refers to — the shot of the coffee cup in ‘Two or Three Things I Know About Her,’ she was all the way into the black coffee, and the coffee looked just like a galaxy, and they’re talking about the state of the universe.”

“Well I guess Travis is a lot like the character in ‘Diary of a Country Priest.’ ”

“Yeah, that’s my favorite of the Bresson pictures.”

“In fact, when Travis pours that peach brandy on bread, and he starts talking about how his stom­ach can’t…”

” ’Cause he, that’s again a self­-destructive thing. Don’t forget that what the priest is doing in ‘Diary of a Country Priest.’ He had cancer, that’s what he had the guy drinking this rotgut wine for, you know, he’s making sure he dies. But I mean — you should just understand — the way I like to work is I’m prompted by a lot of things, other books, things that happened to me in personal life, or that I do in life, some people will get it, some won’t, that’s fine.”

“Like what in ‘Mean Streets’?”

“Uh, ‘Mean Streets’ is a very, very… it’s really, obviously, personal, you know, because it deals with semi, semiautobiographical stuff, right? You know what I mean, by semiautobiographical, such as we were talking about before, saying that you really ex­perienced those things, well if you didn’t really experience them, ex­perience them spiritually or you hear about them, or you live through certain things like them, over a period of years, you know, if you compress them, you lie, you know, that’s what you do.” 

“Why does the murderer in ‘Mean Streets’ let his hair down at the last minute?”

“Several reasons. First one is — a ritual, he puts his hand over the glass, you know, ’cause what I had, I had — also, a physical problem, and I had to work it in the script.” 

“What physical problem?”

“Physical problem was that, the kid who did the scene was in another picture and he couldn’t cut his hair. Now, I knew that we had to write that in the script, and figure out a way that would work in terms of the whole picture — so that it should be done so that it’s almost like a ritual.”

“It never occurred to you that there would be any sexual ambiguity in it? I mean, the guy lets his hair down in the men’s room.” 

“Oh sure. Because nobody will know exactly what’s going to happen. Everybody… something sexual’s gonna happen and… bam!”

“Why do people always bleed from the neck in your movies?” 

“…For anybody it’s… I think it’s — you really, to me, you really want to know?” 

“Sure…” 

“To me, I like the idea of spurting blood, it reminds… it’s like a… God, it’s… it’s really like a purification, you know, the fountains of blood… but it’s realistic, all realistic. That’s my own head, you know… the guy puts the blood… I said, give me a little more… he says, ‘there’s gonna be a lot,’ I said, that’s gonna be okay [Laughs]. And… that’s it, no explanation for it, nobody asks any questions. I like the idea of getting shot… I can’t, I can’t respond to that, I mean just why he gets shot in the neck, but… it’s a personal thing, but like… it’s based on something I have… whatever.” 

“Okay, I’ll accept that.” 

“Oh boy.” 

“You want us not to print that stuff about your neck?”

“About the neck? No, you can run it. What about it? I do what I feel, not what comes out of my head, it’s like a fountain, washing, the fountain, like in the Van Morrison song, you know. ‘Wash Me,’ you know, the whole idea of stand­ing in the waterfall?” 

“Do you actually feel cleansed after you’ve made a film?”

“For a while — I’m discovering now that a lot of other feelings just don’t go away. I’m very disap­pointed. [Laughs] You know, it’s the whole feeling that I used to have with the Church, you know, not being worthy, not being worthy enough to be a priest, not being worthy enough to do this, because you’re not good enough, you know what I mean?” 

“You wanted to be a priest, when you were a kid?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Did you feel that there was some reason why you didn’t do it besides the fact that you decided you didn’t want to do it?” 

“Uh, well… I couldn’t… I realized I couldn’t fit in the institu­tion, let me put it that way, I couldn’t fit in the institution of the Church… I was… I was con­sidered, you know, I was thrown out.” 

“Did you do something special that got you thrown out, or…” 

“Oh, well, I had great, great grades, and then I, uh, caused havoc. Caused great havoc, and you know, I just would bring in all kinds of things and cause all kinds of trouble in the classroom, and… I cut up a lot, too, I did a lot of cutting up you know, in a sense… class clown, I guess, that’s the thing, and I was thrown out.”

“Do you still feel ambivalent about not being a priest?” 

“No, no, I think I can’t fit in that. The institution, I mean, I can’t fit in that.”

“How are you fitting into the institutions in Hollywood?” 

“Not very well. No director ever does in this situation. I mean, this is not the old Hollywood, this is a different kind of Hollywood.” 

“Do you feel like you missed out on the romance?” 

“It’s still pretty romantic.” 

“Do directors hang out to­gether? Do you know Spielberg?” 

“Sure.”

“How would you have directed ‘Jaws’?” 

“I would never do a picture about water.” 

“What if it was a movie about mussels?” 

“Depends on how they’re cooked.” 

 

 

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