Director Martin Scorsese blends improvisation with discipline in making his movies

February 24, 2012

“Marty used to sit underneath the camera and kind of conduct my performance. I wasn’t looking at him, but I could sense him,” Liza Minelli said, describing how Martin Scorsese directed her in the 1977 film “New York, New York.” A conductor. The maestro leading a great orchestra.

Yet, if Scorsese is one of film’s grand conductors — and having directed 22 feature films so far in his career, and his latest work, “Hugo,” receiving 11 Oscar nominations just this year, he certainly is — then there’s one important twist to the kind of orchestra he leads. It’s sometimes playing jazz.

His leadership style is equal parts structure and improvisation, reverence and irreverence. It’s a duality that stretches back to Scorsese’s early years growing up on New York’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood of contradictions. “I was raised with gangsters and priests, that’s it, nothing in between. I wanted to be a cleric. I guess the passion I had for religion wound up mixed with film. And now as an artist, in a way, I’m both gangster and priest.”

It is the passion and discipline with which Scorsese approaches his films that have won him an adherent flock in the form of actors, screenwriters, cinematographers, producers and crew. He is “a magnet,” director Michael Powell said, who “attracts people by principles and ideals.” While writing “Martin Scorsese: A Journey,” I interviewed many of those who have felt the Scorsese pull, and all mentioned his ability to make them feel they were taking part in something extraordinary.

Yet coupled with Scorsese’s sense of a higher order and purpose, and perhaps out of it, comes an instinct for how to successfully bend the rules. “Marty’s very, very prepared,” said Irwin Winkler, a producer of several Scorsese films including “Raging Bull.” “He knows what he wants so he has the freedom of improvising . . . like a jazz musician.”

Many actors who have worked with the maestro credit this mix of structure and creative flexibility with his success as a leader on set. “It was loose and methodical at the same time,” Ellen Burstyn said of the process. She won the Academy Award for best actress for her performance in Scorsese’s 1974 film “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” “Of all the directors I’ve worked with, Marty is the best at providing an atmosphere where actors can do their best work. He trusts actors and involves them.”

Robert De Niro remembers a similar technique of finding “a structure for the improvisation” in “Mean Streets,” as well as in “Raging Bull.” The famous scene when De Niro, in the role of Jake La Motta, accuses his brother of having an affair with his wife and then beats them both was a product of this process. “We said, ‘How about fixing a TV?’ Some stupid little domestic thing where there’s an incident waiting to happen,” De Niro recalled of the experimentation during rehearsals. And Joe Pesci, who played the brother, added: “We’d improvise and keep cutting down. But once we’ve got the line, Marty wants it to stay that way. He’s very structured.”

This attention Scorsese gives to process, this execution of his own vision by coaxing the best out of others, doesn’t only happen with the A-list stars on his films. Scorsese’s cinematographers say he imagines and then draws out every shot, each angle and all camera movements. Then he enlists their input, often offering them a chance to do things they never have done before. Michael Ballhaus said his work in “GoodFellas” was “totally different from other movies I’ve done. More wide angles, long lens, harsh direct light with a lot of darkness and yet it all looks real.”

Still, the freedom of experimentation Scorsese provides each member of his team acts in concert with — and toward the greater goal of — his vision.

Michael Chapman, director of photography for “Raging Bull,” in discussing the intricate choreography of each fight, said, “It’s not just that the camera moves, it’s the emotion that it shares.”

It’s also the emotion that Scorsese himself shares, both through his art and through those he manages on set.

Scorsese’s sense of humor also keeps things moving.

I was on the set of “GoodFellas,” and a complicated tracking shot, a kind of warm-up for the famous long walk through the Copa kitchens, was ready to go. Months of preparation, all these improvisations with the actors, the attention to detail by the art department and then: Action.

Perfect movement of actors and camera until a production assistant — walking backward, carrying a cable — stumbled.

Cut.

Scorsese laughed.

Of course, the shot would be ruined by the most junior member of the crew.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Take 2.”

Kelly is a filmmaker and the author of several books, including “Martin Scorsese: A Journey” and “Galway Bay.”

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