Art Culture > Martin Scorsese: “I’m still the son of Sicilian labourers” Date posted: December 3, 2013

Martin Scorsese:
“I’m still the son
of Sicilian labourers”

Italian journalist Gian Antonio Stella from Corriere Della Sera has had the enviable chance of interviewing Martin Scorsese in New York a few weeks back when he was shooting the Dolce&Gabbana The One TV ad campaign. Enjoy the play between these two Italians.

Dwarf tossing! How could Martin Scorsese resist the idea of shooting a film about the violence of Wall Street? After all, this is the place where the young and arrogant Godfathers of the financial universe, having already tried everything possible, are forced to invent new forms of stress relief, such paying Grumpy five thousand dollars to be hurled towards a target instead of darts.

Of course, it’s a vulgar, suit-and-tie kind of violence, not like the bloodbaths in Goodfellas and the other films where the director has depicted the world of the districts he grew up in, where “fear had become a system for life, or survival”. And yet, the starting point is Jordan Belfort, the finance shark who became immensely wealthy in the 80s (“the year I turned 26, I made 49 million dollars, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week”) carrying out daring raids at the expense of savers until finally ending up ruined and in jail. This doesn’t sound so far removed from the happy-go-lucky bullish killers of Little Italy with the motto: make as much money as possible as quickly as possible. “Sorry, I went to bed at five AM to finish the film and I have a flight to Los Angeles in three hours”, go away and we’ll put the table back.”

The Wolf of Wall Street, which revolves around the roguish charm of Leonardo DiCaprio, has ended up an epic. There are simply too many stories crammed into Belfort’s autobiography of the same name, published in Italy by Rizzoli. The yacht covered with “enough teak to keep a crew of twelve people busy with paintbrushes and varnish on their knees from morning to evening”, the abuse of “Quaaludes, cocaine, crack, smoke, Xanax, Valium, Ambien, speed, morphine”, the chimpanzee on roller skates, banknotes thrown away like trading cards as a sign of contempt for “normal” people, high-class call girls paid for by credit card…

Martin Scorsese interview 2013 about Italy, movies and family on Corriere della Sera

Was that why you agreed to film three versions of the black and white Dolce & Gabbana advert with Scarlett Johansson and Matthew McConaughey – a long version for YouTube, a short one and a very short one? Was it a challenge to keep cutting down?
“Yes, it is. Every moment must be essential. It must get to the point. While making an ad for Armani in the 80s I learned that I could reduce everything to a minimum without losing anything. At all. The film Good­fellas owes a lot to that technique, which I learned through advertising. And so does The Wolf…”

Ads serve as an exercise in condensing.
“They were very useful to me. As was the money I made through advertising, which I used for other films. Other works.”

I read that you made Cape Fear against your will, just for the cold, hard cash…
“I needed that money to restore old films that would have been lost otherwise. They were saved and then given over to the Film Foundation”.

So will the Dolce & Gabbana ad also help save other films from the past?
“Of course.”

It seems like you put a lot of money into your daily work, into being an artist and worker at the same time, always working on something…
“I don’t live in the clouds. Life is work, day after day. It’s a question of mind set.”

What did your father Luciano do?
“He was a clothes presser. He ironed women’s clothes in big exploitative company. There was a lot of steam, it was terribly hot. It was like working in a mine. It was a lot of hard work, a lot of sweating. He would come home wiped out…”

Your mother?
“She was a seamstress”.

At the same factory?
“No, another one a few blocks away, but also in the Garment District, between Fifth and Ninth, they area they now call the Fashion District”.

So they were affected by the memory of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy, the fire that killed a lot of Italians who had been locked into their workstations…
“Yes. My mother was born the year after and she talked about it a lot. My grandparents landed in New York in 1910. My mother told me that in those times there was a sign put up in the factories that said “If you don’t come in on Sunday don’t come on Monday either.”

“You had to work every day. Every day. Whoever wasn’t willing to work all the time was left at home. I think the disaster at the Triangle had a bearing on my parents’ decision to always be on the side of the unions. They couldn’t accept this philosophy of blackmail at work.”

You always work, even though you don’t risk being fired…
“I take breaks sometimes. But I’ve never been on vacation. I began with my wife Helen. And with my daughter Francesca, who’s turning fourteen. Now I’m taking a break for a week, a week and a half. We might go and visit my wife’s family in Maine. But normally no, I don’t go on vacation. I work, I read, I go to dinner with friends, I listen to music. Even if it’s harder having a child”.

Your dad played the mandolin, do you?
“Not at all. My brother plays the guitar and I would have liked to play, but I didn’t feel up to it somehow. They said my fingers were too short. Maybe that’s why I’ve always been fascinated by stringed instruments. From the violin to the guitar, from the viola to the cello. I’ve always had a great passion for music though.”

It shows: you’ve made films about George Harrison, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and before that The Last Waltz with The Band…
“That was one of the greatest experiences of my life. In addition to Dylan there was Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Muddy Waters… It was fantastic”.

Martin Scorsese interview 2013 about Italy, movies and family on Corriere della Sera

Do you love classical music too or just rock?
“I grew up before rock’n’roll. The music in our house was the music that came out of the radio. Bing Crosby, Cole Porter, Frank Sina­tra…”.

Weren’t you supposed to be making a film about him?
“That project’s still going strong. As I was saying, the music I heard was that which came out of the radio. The first records that came into our house were 78s. The first record I can remember was by Django Reinhardt, the French jazz guitarist. The second was a gift from my aunt. It was Enrico Caruso: M’apparì tutto amor from Martha, Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci. Then Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio italiano. I used to listen to them for hours. Then I liked jazz, but not progressive. I liked Benny Goodman, Chet Backer… A mixture of different music. I never felt comfortable in the Bohemian world of Greenwich Village. I have nothing to do with Greenwich. I was and I remain the son of Sicilian labourers. Deeply Sicilian.”

Is it true that you even have a collection of holy pictures?
“Sure. I have a lot. I can’t show you them though, since the house is upside down right now”.

Just out of curiosity – who is it in that portrait of a man and a woman on the wall?
“They’re ancestors of my wife, Helen Morris”.

It was hard to imagine them as your grandparents, with all those fancy clothes…
“The man you see on the right, Gouverneur Morris, wrote part of the American constitution. He didn’t sign it, but the handwriting is his. There’s the preamble, which says “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union…” Well, he wrote that. Then he was sent to Paris as ambassador to the court of Louis XVI, where he became friends with Marie Antoniette and wrote valuable insights on the French Revolution. He also brought a lot of furniture back from France, which then got scattered among his descendants”.

So you’ve brought together the two parts of America: the “nobility” of the Protestant, Anglo-Saxon ranks and the poverty of the Catholic Italian immigrants.
“Of course, the photos of my grandparents are very different. And so are those of my mother and father.”

How much did the fact that Domenico Dolce is from Polizzi Genero¬sa weigh on your decision to accept Dolce & Gabbana’s offer?
“A lot! We’re “paesani”! My grandfather, Francesco Scozzese, was from there”. (Laughs)

You mean your name should have been “Scozzese”?
“Really. When my grandparents arrived at Ellis Island in 1910 they wrote down the name wrong. “Scozzese” is also written in a First World War memorial. Meaning “Scotsman”, an inhabitant of Scotland”.

How bizarre!
“There are the ruins of an ancient Norman castle in Polizzi Generosa. I imagine my ancestors came down to Sicily with them. I did a DNA test, and on my mother’s side I’m completely Mediterranean, but on my father’s side they found genes that seem similar to those found in the Shetlands, the islands north of Scotland. The researchers were very surprised by that discovery.”

Is there a gap between the pride you take in your origins and that of the young Italian-Americans of today?
“I can only speak from my experience, looking down with age.

(Laughs). I have three daughters. The oldest, Catherine, is Italian-American. Even though my first wife wasn’t Italian, she lived with me and my parents, she knew the Italian districts. In short, she’s Italian-American. My second, Domenica, is American, and the third, Francesca, is “too” American. I kept reminding her that she is half Sicilian since, even though she’s blonde with blue eyes, she has a truly Sicilian temperament. But she’s too American. Really.”

In an old interview with Gian Luigi Rondi you said that even though you were born and raised in America, and even though America has given you fame and fortune, you still feel “off”, an ex-Italian, born in the “Italian ghetto”. Not a foreigner, but an “outsider””.
“That’s right”.

So a blond, handsome, blue-eyed Robert Redford-style American is alien to you.
“It’s true. It still is now. Not just Redford, all of the people I see out of the window, here in the street – they’re all aliens to me. They’re Martians”.

Even your wife then, who is a true “wasp”.
“Of course. (Bursts out laughing). Her too. But I’ve learned to live with the aliens. We know each other well now I would say.”

What is left of your “outsiderness”?
“I still feel like an outsider. As soon as I leave home that’s what I am. I don’t think you necessarily have to blend in with a culture. I have my own. This is my country. Obviously. I was born here. But I’m not like “them”. Though my daughter, the overly American one, will never understand.”

Is this feeling of “being out of place” useful? Does the anxiety help us in life?
“Yes. I tried to be part of American society. I didn’t succeed. I don’t belong to this society. The way the world is changing is not for me. The type of communication… I prefer to live more quietly. Or maybe I’m just getting old. Though this new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is not at all peaceful, let’s say.”

Martin Scorsese interview 2013 about Italy, movies and family on Corriere della Sera

You made Hugo for Francesca?

“In part”.

To turn her less American?
“I tried. My wife grew up in France so our child has some European influence. But… actually, I call her a child but she’s fourteen. She’s a little butterfly ready to fly away. She already put on wings for Halloween… My God! She’s growing up in such a hurry!”

Has she seen your films?
No. Just The Age of Innocence, Kundun on the life of the Dalai Lama, Hugo and Italianamerican.”

Are you still convinced that the documentary you made about your mum and dad is your masterpiece?
“Yes. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It was then I realised that just one image of one person can tell a story. A world. They were better than actors, but they weren’t actors.”

In the end Luciano and Caterina really did become actors, after appearing in your films so many times…
“They were totally natural, totally spontaneous. I think Francesca inherited something from them.”

Have you had her act yet?
“Nooo. No no no no!” (He laughs, horrified at the idea of her acting).

What is your relationship with Hollywood now?
“Unstable”, let’s say. Hollywood always burns you. But that’s where the funding comes from. If you’re lucky enough to find actors and actresses who can give you success, then great. Otherwise… Of course I have nothing to do with the films that Hollywood makes today. In the 70s I could stand it, and maybe even in the 90s. Luckily, Leonardo DiCaprio has a lot of power at the box office. And it’s thanks to Leo, thanks to God, that people like the films we make together. He’s a bright boy. Very intelligent.”

Do you think he’s been penalised for being good-looking?
“Definitely. But he’s very talented. Really talented. Just look at him in What’s eating Gilbert Grape. Or in Shutter Island… He’s extraordinary”.

Were you really kept awake at night by nightmares when making that film?
“Yes, I didn’t sleep well. Especially during the final shoots. I experienced some panicked reactions”.

In addition to De Niro and DiCaprio, your films have featured Liza Min¬nelli, Linda Fiorentino, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Joe Pesci, Michael Scala, Cesare Danova, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Ray Liotta… A deluge of Italian-Americans!
“I have to be around people who belong to the world I’m part of. And they are part of me. They understand me.”

But you were still comfortable around Paul Newman, a blond American. Was it because he also came from a minority, being Jewish?
“You’ve hit the nail on the head. Exactly.”

Going back to this idea of being an outsider…
“That’s how it is. Italians and Jews have been very important in American history. Despite not belonging…”

Martin Scorsese interview 2013 about Italy, movies and family on Corriere della Sera

Years ago you said that you couldn’t stand to re-watch the violence of some of your films, such as Goodfellas…
“And then I made The Departed. I know.”

You could say that it’s a different kind of violence, when the dead people are shot with a gun rather than battered with a baseball bat. But that image of Jack Nicholson stained with blood is worse than seeing a butcher in action though.
“True. But you don’t see it. It’s implied violence”

In the book The Hollywood Curriculum on Italian-Americans, Carlos E. Cortes says that American cinema is enhanced by Indians who shout and Italians who shoot.
“It’s true, absolutely true.”

Years ago you told the New Yorker that you renounced the violence in Mean Streets or Goodfellas.
“It wasn’t the right word. I couldn’t “renounce” it. I had explored that violence right down to its depths. And when you explore something like that it consumes you. There’s no spiritual growth in exploring violence. Violence creates more violence. You have to go beyond it.”

Do you still think that it’s something that’s in each of us and the aim of life is to control it?
“I really think that that’s how it is. In Little Italy I grew up inside those kinds of things. We weren’t at war but it was as if we were. It was a kind of violence you experienced day in day out. You had to come to terms with it.”

And if you needed to run you couldn’t because of your asthma attacks.
“It was impossible for me to run. This added an emotional violence, which also needed to be confronted. The asthma is starting to clear up now though. Maybe it’s one of the good things about getting old.”

Do you think your daughter will see less violence?
“On the contrary! The news is full of violence. If she’s here I don’t watch the TV news. Some reports are more violent than Goodfellas. And the same goes for the internet. The whole world seems more violent. Infinitely worse.”

Is that why you called your daughter Francesca? Because Saint Francis represents the choice of talking to the wolf?

Do you still plan to make a film about him?
“I’ve been thinking about it for years. Years. I’ve read a lot. I would really like to do it, but after The Flowers of St. Francis by Roberto Rossellini…”

…it’s a difficult topic to go back to.
“Very difficult. Maybe from another angle. Who knows. Right now I have a project for HBO, the pay TV cable channel, about another big name in the Church. Can you guess who?”

No idea.
“Celestine V”.

The Pope who resigned?
“That’s the one. It’s a story that takes place over just a few days. And it’s great.”

Image credits: Brigitte Lacombe

Credits: Corriere della Sera, Sette

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