As tempting as it is to go off subject with Richard Schickel, the film critic for Time, author of more than 30 books about movies and the maker of dozens of documentaries about film, we managed to stay on track to discuss his latest book, Conversations with Scorsese. With just one or two detours (“Doris Day is a great artist,” says Schickel), the author filled us in on his subject, one of the greatest directors and producers of all time who’s brought films like Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, among others, to the silver screen.
What was it like to work with Scorsese on the book?
The project started four years ago. He’d just finished The Departed, and he was starting heavy preproduction on Shutter Island. He was living between two houses on the Upper East Side, so at one point he ensconced himself at the Waldorf Towers in two, maybe three suites for several months. We worked from eight in the evening until 12 or one at night.
Marty’s a relentlessly articulate guy. It sort of surprised me; he was really open talking about stuff with his family.
You spend some time discussing his childhood during the 1950s in Little Italy. How did that time in his life influence his films?
He was an asthmatic little boy whose health prevented him from being a full-time member of the street gangs in Little Italy. His father began taking him to movies on Sundays at the Academy of Music or at movie houses in the neighborhood. Marty loved whatever was playing—westerns, crime movies; he even came to love “weepie” romances.
He watched Million Dollar Movie, on WOR I think, which played the same movie every night for a week. Then one of the off-channels got into foreign films. That’s when he got to neo-realism. Movies made in Italy made a vivid impression on him. The big thing that came out of his childhood was a pretty capacious sense of the range and variety of films that he liked.
As you point out, Scorsese grew up watching classic genre films. Where do his films stand in relation to those classic genres?
I think in some instances his movies are within genre traditions by and large, but there’s an intensification. They can be more violent, not just in a physical sense, but in a romantic sense.
He’s worked in more genres than people give him credit for. He kind of resents the notion that people think he only makes crime movies. There aren’t all that many gangster movies among his films. There’s The Age of Innocence, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The picture he’s making now in England is a kind of children’s picture.
What themes thread through his films?
He thinks his great theme is betrayal, where people have familial ties or ties of friendship. For various reasons they betray the trust they have for one another.
How autobiographical are his films?
I think in The Aviator he sees Howard Hughes as intense about aviation as he is about making movies. Marty’s aware of this [compulsion]; he’s even humorous about it. But he says he can’t help himself. He says he wouldn’t be doing the things he does unless he did them with an intensity. I think Marty’s aware that he can go over the top in terms of details in his movies. He’s not Howard Hughes. He’s not crazy.
The three Scorsese films Schickel most admires:
Raging Bull: “You have to put Raging Bull at the top of the list. It’s a strangely compassionate movie. It has the character of Jake LaMotta as a guy who is kind of an animal, but who is smart enough to know he shouldn’t be an animal and to some subtle, nuanced degree ceases to be an animal.”
The Aviator: “Its representation of Hollywood life in that era is very nicely done. The aviation stuff is spectacular.”
The Age of Innocence: “It’s a beautiful film beautifully acted by everybody. Marty thought those people in the social circles of New York society were as rigid and class-ridden as the Mafia. They wouldn’t kill you, but with a look, a glance, a nod of disapproval they could take you out of your position in society.”