Martin Scorsese looks at the changing face of Oscar season over four decades

For years, the Oscars and Martin Scorsese just didn't seem to jibe. His films didn't resonate with that crowd. Maybe it was because he was an outsider. Maybe it was because he didn't trade in the breed of films that typically found footing with the Academy. Whatever the case, it became, for decades, a consistent note: How does Martin Scorsese not have an Oscar?

Things began to change nearly three decades into his career. Until 2002, a Scorsese film registering with the group was not nearly the consistent occurrence it is today. Yet since “Gangs of New York,” four of his last five films Have received Best Picture nominations and he finds himself a perennial fixture on the Oscar circuit, a circuit he has seen change drastically over the course of his career.

With Oscar voting drawing to a close, I spoke with Scorsese recently about that very phenomenon, how zealous campaigning by Hollywood magnate Harvey Weinstein may well have played a hand in catapulting the director into this new frame, and how perception of his work, whether from the industry or from the public, has always seemed to dance on a thin line. And here he is, “The Wolf of Wall Street” recently having become his most successful film to date, a culmination of sorts as many threads have slowly drawn together over the last decade.

Check out the back and forth below, with added discussion about his partnership with film editor Thelma Schoonmaker and what to expect from his upcoming “Silence” scattered throughout.


HitFix: Hey, sir. How are you? Thanks for taking time to chat on the weekend.

Martin Scorsese: Yeah, running around here. It's a little bit – time schedules are, you know – your body reacts a little oddly to it. I think I saw you in Santa Barbara and had just come in from Taiwan.

Where are you now?

Apparently in New York. So they tell me. And we're going out to L.A. again.

Yeah, it's a crazy time of year.

It's one of those things, you know, it's great. It's very nice that it's happening, but it is a bit… I also had to do location scouting in Taiwan so, trying to pull everything together – sleep patterns are lost. Anyway… So I hope I make some sense to you. What do you got?

Well I'm going to try to ask you some things that maybe you haven't been answering a million times. I'm going to give it a shot, anyway.

[Laughs.] I'll try to answer, seriously, as best I can! [Laughs.]

Well what you're talking about is actually part of it. I'm very curious about your perspective on the Oscar season because look, for the longest time, it was like, “Marty doesn't even have an Oscar. Who cares about the Oscars?” And then suddenly in the last 10 years you have four Best Pictures out of five movies and you're just on this circuit all the time. I'm curious your perspective on the season back in say the early-'80s versus now and just how it feels to you.

Well, that certainly was a different time, there's no doubt. The early-'80s, talk about the '70s, you know, “Taxi Driver” was nominated Best Picture, but myself and Paul Schrader were not nominated.


Well, at that time it was also Hal Ashby, his picture “Bound for Glory” was nominated and he was not nominated, and we were replaced by these two upstarts: Ingmar Bergman and Lina Wertmuller. [Laughs.] I mean, I adore Bergman, love Wertmuller, so it's like, what do you say and what can you do?

Yeah, that's a tough one.

I also realized that night, or when the nominations came out in '75, I think it was, or '76, that because of the nature of the films I was making, one never knew whether the American film industry, the American film art form has won, in a way – combining, because that's what it is in commercial cinema, whether they're independent films or not – what I'm saying is that I think it's all cinema, you know? Some are more commercial than others, obviously. And we were coming in from a less commercial side, in a way. And in those days it was encouraged, I mean for sensible budgets, where one didn't indulge, you know? And so I realized that was going to be the fate of the films I made, that we were just lucky enough to have recognition where we were based, which was Los Angeles at the time – to have recognition for the films at a place like the Academy. But normally the kind of films I made are not celebrated by the Academy, or if they are, they're recognized, but not given Oscars. They'll give an Oscar to the actor, maybe the writer, certainly to technical – editing, maybe cinematography. I think the best shot film that year was “Taxi Driver,” Michael Chapman – he wasn't nominated. You know what I'm saying? Because the film is hard. It's a tough film. I don't know what to say.

I finally got used to the fact that – especially with “Raging Bull,” when we were nominated, but I didn't win the Oscar, I didn't get it, which was fine – I actually had to put myself into a frame of mind saying, “Look, what are you complaining about? You can't complain. You have this picture that you finally put together. You got your career back online.” Because after “New York, New York,” that was a bit derailed and I didn't quite know where I was going, in a way. I was more concerned about whether I even have the passion to make another film. And with De Niro's help, etc., “Raging Bull” came out of that. That's what the whole movie is really about. It's about why you want to – it's the “Red Shoes” thing – why do you want to dance? Why do you want to live? If you can't express who you are or you have that kind of compelling need to utilize cinema and you can't get a subject matter or the financing to do what you really feel that you want to do, then why make it at all? So that was that scary period for me and it reached fruition in “Raging Bull.” And that was good enough for me! [Laughs.] Getting the picture made was good enough for me at that point.

And that was also when you brought Thelma Schoonmaker back and were able to work with her again. Was reconnecting with her on a professional level, did that flip a switch for you, too?

Well, it's complicated in that I'm from New York. I come out of independent cinema. I may love and be inspired, and still am, by American classical Hollywood cinema, by European, Asian, etc., but I don't do that. I mean I thought for a while I could, but I don't. And so I come out of a tradition in the late-'60s – that was becoming a tradition, I should say – that was really spearheaded by independent filmmakers here and documentary filmmakers on the East Coast, some on the West Coast, too, but mainly on the East Coast. As far as narrative cinema is concerned it was, really, you go to Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke. And they were involved in the editing of their films.

In Hollywood, it was different, and I found that I certainly was not welcome in the editing room. I was making a living as an editor with Roger Corman and others out there at that time around '71, '72, '73, right before I made “Mean Streets.” And so basically I was working as an editor, but I was non-union and for some reason I decided not to try to be or get in the union. First of all I didn't know how to, you know? But I was supervising a lot of montages, they called it, and editing films feature films for Roger Corman.

Related: Thelma Schoonmaker talks cutting 'Wolf of Wall Street' improv and learning from Martin Scorsese

So by the time I made “Taxi Driver,” I mean – how should I put it? I edited “Boxcar Bertha” myself. I edited “Mean Streets” myself, but I could not take credit because of the system at the time, so it didn't matter, really. But in any event I found that I needed somebody to work with – that I was able to work the way I used to work with Thelma in New York before “Woodstock.” Because once “Woodstock” happened, I was taken off the picture then we lost contact with each other. So I needed to find someone who would listen to me and be more like a friend. You're sitting there, you're making a picture, they'll do what you want to do, they'll add to it, they'll argue, they'll discuss and they'll stand by the picture, the integrity of the film. And believe me, it's always against everybody. It's against the system. It's against the studio. It just is. Even if it's an independent film, it just is. There's always stuff. So you need a good ally. And that's what I was looking for. I found that in Marcia Lucas at that time, “Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore,” “Taxi Driver,” “New York, New York.” But after that, she left, too. After winning the Academy award for “Star Wars” she went off. So I had to start all over again and at that time Thelma, by 1979, was unavailable. I think she was in Pittsburgh, I'm not quite sure.

Yeah, she was doing those documentaries out there.

Yeah. So I wanted that, too, because we used to have a lot of fun. Not a lot of fun. “Fun” is the wrong word because people misunderstand it. But it was very gratifying to even have a conversation working together, you know? She thinks the right way. She is not based in film. She's not based in the film world. It's politics and philosophy and all sorts of other things. And so that really is, you know – I missed that. But luckily she was able to start again with me and that helped out a great deal. She had to become a member of the union at that time and that's Irwin Winkler who was able to do that.

Well on the Oscar circuit thing, did it feel like anything changed around the time of “Gangs of New York?” I know the post-production was a battle on that film, but as far as a switch finally being flipped for the Academy and then ever since then, you are always on the circuit.

I don't know. It has a lot to do with who's in the film. And it has a lot to do with finally having a chance to fulfill kind of an obsessive quest, which was to make a film about that period in New York with the backing of Harvey Weinstein, you see, who has really, I guess – if you look back in the '80s and '90s, right, he kind of helped, I guess, change the course of how films are – what's the word, promoted?

He made awards part of his business model. Absolutely.

Yeah. So he started to do all these different things, and somehow that all came together on “Gangs of New York” with Leo DiCaprio, who happened to like my movies a lot. And he also was a young actor who was recommended to me by Bob De Niro, and Mike Ovitz pulled it together. At that point that I didn't even know what to do afterwards, quite honestly. I was going to do this film, “Silence,” but I hadn't even written the script at that point. So I took a chance and utilized all those elements.

As far as what happened with the Academy or with the promotion of the film, well, they put a lot of money into it and it went up to another level, but prior to that I had been written off, quite honestly, once again. I've been written off a number of times: “New York, New York,” pretty brutally, too, by a lot of publications and the Hollywood industry, and in the middle of the '80s I was written off again. I was written off after the failure of “The King of Comedy.” I was written off even after “The Color of Money,” quite honestly. There was some acclaim and support, I should say, for “The Last Temptation of Christ,” but of course not for Best Film. But in any event, by the time I did “Kundun” and “Bringing Out the Dead” I was written off completely. Even in the news, you know? Even on television.

And can I just say, I'm glad you brought that up, because I talked to Thelma specifically about “Bringing Out the Dead” because that's one of my favorite films you've done. I just love that film and it deserved a lot more acclaim than it received.

But they didn't want to pursue it. They also didn't know how to sell it, and that's not a criticism; it's a hard film to figure out how to sell. And maybe it should've been made, you know, more independently, and on an independent budget, so to speak. But there was no sense for a studio to follow, to throw money at it. It just wasn't. And it's a tough movie, you know. It's difficult subject matter.

It's also part of a stellar year in 1999, which I consider one of the best years for movies.

We were written off. George Lucas and I were completely written off. It was New Year's Eve/Day, and I was getting ready to go someplace for New Year's Eve that night. It was 1999 and on CNN there was a woman being interviewed, talking about the industry, and she said, “This is the year we saw the demise of the old guard, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas, and the beginning of the new guard,” you know, Paul Anderson, Wes Anderson, all terrific. It was a great time; they're right. But we were just – that morning! Once again, it's happened a number of times.

Related: Thelma Schoonmaker hopes Martin Scorsese's 'Bringing Out the Dead' will eventually get its due

But I don't really know. The reality was that with “Gangs of New York” and the way it was promoted, it did fairly well, from what I understand. So that did it. And then I became good friends with Leo. I liked working with him. And so I wanted to do a Hollywood spectacle and that became “The Aviator,” a kind of Hollywood film, you know? In other words I sort of, like, marked time and tried to figure out what else I wanted to do afterwards. So that began this business, and somehow the films were made in a very, I don't know, polished way – Bob Richardson's cinematography, the editing of the film, the special effects, the strange characters, you know, the performances were really good. So it got picked up by the Academy again. And that started this whole process. Except for “Shutter Island.”

Which was on my top 10 list that year. I think it should have made it, too. Not to be too greedy!

[Laughs.] Yeah, and I'm sorry if I'm going long-winded, but I don't know. Don't you think it has a lot to do with the performance and the box office power, too, of Leo DiCaprio?

That's probably a big part of it. I do feel like, because Harvey was so insatiable as far as getting awards recognition and, you know, that became the rally cry of “Gangs” and “The Aviator,” those of us who observe this stuff: Marty needs his Oscar.

Well, and people don't like to be told what to do.

That's absolutely true.

So that backfired for him. And I was in the middle. But I campaigned every which way I could for “Gangs of New York” because quite honestly I had everything in it. Whatever money I had, everything. And I don't even want to give the excuses because it's nobody's business, but I believed in the picture and I campaigned for it, that's right. And so, you know, it was a situation where, “You can't tell us what to do. We'll give the Oscar to 'Chicago.'” [Laughs.] “You can't dare tell us we're going to give you an Oscar for 'Gangs of New York.' And that Scorsese, too, in the middle of all of this. He's trying to get an Oscar!” No, I just wanted the picture to be successful. What am I going to do with an Oscar at the age of, what was it 56, 60 something, whatever? I was 60. Who cares? I mean, not “who cares.” Put it this way. It isn't certainly “who cares” because with an Oscar, at that time, it would've been easier to make another film, you know? But it became – not that it was easy – but the other one was “Aviator” and that was financed very, very well and put together very nicely and it turned out to be pretty satisfying. So I really had no argument there. It was “Departed” where things really changed.

Does this one, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” feel different at all because both you and Leo are actually producers on this one? Does it feel like more of, this is your baby and the culmination of a partnership, maybe?

I think, ultimately, as we were making the picture, there's no doubt I felt that culmination of the collaboration, you know? And people use “collaboration” because you can't really describe what that is. You work with people you really like or love and have similar tastes and that sort of thing. And this really seemed to hit all the levels. So we felt good about that as we were making it. Quite honestly, I didn't know how it was going to be received. And also, to tell you the truth, I didn't really care. I just wanted to get it done. What I mean by that is I wanted to make the movie and finish it and make the statement. I wanted to make sure I wasn't distracted or taken off course by concerns that had nothing to do with the truth of the subject matter, you know? The reason we made the movie.

Were you surprised that you had to defend it?

No, not at all no, no. I've been fighting that since “Mean Streets,” and, you know, certainly with “Goodfellas,” “Casino,” you know, a number of films. There was a lot of trouble, of course, with “The Last Temptation of Christ,” difficulty even with “Kundun.” So no, you know – look, I don't even use the word “defend.” I mean I don't know if I have anything to defend at all up there. If you're offended by it you're offended. If you can be offended by this and not be offended by people being thrown out of their houses and people not being found culpable in this situation and walking away with millions of dollars of bonuses – I'm offended by that.

Related: 'Wolf of Wall Street' scribe Terence Winter responds to criticisms and his first-ever Oscar nomination

Of course. And it has to feel good to still be able to stir people at this point in your career.

That feels good, yeah. That feels good. Because I think there's so much – I mean as I'm talking now there's a, you know, I have the TV on. The news is on without the sound, just a glut of images and a glut of, what's the word, programming that we've gone through. I've seen the change. I was around when CNN started, you know? The 24-hour news business. And I think it numbs people on every level, every level, every subject, every issue around the world. Whether it's famine, war, it numbs them. The war, they don't show too much. They learned that from Vietnam. But it just numbs people. So the only way you're going to get somebody's attention is to maybe shock them a bit.

That's very true. You mentioned “Kundun” and I just wanted to ask – I had dinner with Roger Deakins the other day and was talking about this – is there any chance you two would work together again? I loved what you did together on that film.

Oh, I'd love to. He's just extraordinary. He's amazing. I really would love to, but it needs the right subject matter, I think. And of course I also wound up having more of a relationship with Michael Ballhaus. I mean we got used to working with each other. And then Bob Richardson, to a certain extent. So now that's changing. Things are changing and, yeah, I saw Roger briefly – I didn't even get to say hello to him – at the Academy luncheon. Maybe I'll see him at the Oscars and say hello. But he's really the most remarkable and brilliant – he reminds me of Jack Cardiff.

He's definitely one of the best. And I also think it's great you're working with Rodrigo Prieto now. Is he going to shoot “Silence?”

I hope so, yes. We went to a location scout together. It's just a matter of working on our schedules. But I had a very good time working with him. He's a real poet of light. He really is. And also camera movement.

Which is always crucial in your movies, I've noticed.

Yeah. Yes! Exactly! Exactly. And he had a kind of flexibility with the camera that made me feel very comfortable. I could ask for anything, you know?

And finally, speaking of “Silence,” I talked to Thelma about it and she mentioned it'll be part of a sort of trilogy of religion films you've done with “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Kundun.” What can you tell me about it? What can we expect from it and what are you looking to do with it as an artist?

Well, it's just…huh…

Not to be too broad!

[Laughs.] It's really focusing on the story of it. I don't mean the narratives. I mean the inner core of the story. And that has to come through the character and the actors playing these parts. And to strip away a lot of the artifice around the picture. “Artifice” may be the wrong word, but strip away a lot of the production – hmm, that's the wrong word, too. Sorry. Strip away a lot of the visual complexity and get to something that may be, for this subject matter, essential, without mimicking the festival art films. Because you could fall into that, and – let me put it this way, without mimicking a different style of the greats, which I can never do. I can imitate it, maybe, but how am I going to find that silence in myself without making it, you know, something where no one's interested, you see? It's a hard one.*

Related: Thelma Schoonmaker recalls the heated controversy and moving testament of 'The Last Temptation of Christ'

Well I look forward to that. Thank you again for talking on a Saturday. It's always a pleasure.

Yeah, thank you.

And good luck at the Oscars!

Thank you! Thank you so much. I'll speak to you soon. Bye.

*Just a side note away from the interview as this answer fascinated me. As recounted above, Scorsese has been enjoying a very loud and energized sort of time in his career, consistent success, both with awards and box office. That his instinct appears to be to strip things down and find an essence strikes me – just a fan on the sidelines paying attention – as a wonderful step for the director, and I hope, indeed, he finds something he may well be looking for with this project.