Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall erupted into a flurry of cheers this afternoon as filmmaker Martin Scorsese strolled on stage to take part in a career Q&A at the London Film Festival.
The keynote session, hosted by Baby Driver filmmaker Edgar Wright, was the hottest ticket here this week in London. With a completely sold-out crowd of devoted film fans and UK-based filmmakers like Dexter Fletcher and Asif Kapadia, the session unraveled almost like a university lecture, with Scorsese speaking for lengthy periods about his films, career, and the effect both have had on his life.
“I’ve always considered myself a teacher more than a filmmaker,” Scorsese began when quizzed on his voracious appetite for world cinema and why he likes to remain in dialogue with other people about the films he loves.
“I’ve felt a sense of pride that I’ve influenced a couple of people not necessarily with my work but by recommending films,” Scorsese said. “ And then from their films, I get inspired. It opens up a whole new world.”
Working his way through Scorsese’s filmography — mostly chronologically — Wright reminded the filmmaker that his breakthrough hit, Mean Streets, turns 50 this year. Digging into the film’s creation, Scorsese said he simply wanted to “make a film about my life and friends in the Lower East Side.”
“It was a delicate issue because it wasn’t a place where you could bring cameras. And you couldn’t mention certain names,” Scorsese said of his neighborhood, which he described as rough and working class.
“I had to be very careful, so it became a very personal film, and that took three years.”
Scorsese said Mean Streets was filmed in 1972 and first presented to audiences in 1973. At that point, he said, “The only way we saw movies was on the big screen.”
“You didn’t see movies like this on TV because if you did — Mean Streets was shown on CBS late-night movies — it was edited to the point it was avant-garde. You’d be like, ‘What’s going on in this thing,’” he said. “Taxi Driver was worse. It was cut down to 45 minutes. I’m not kidding.”
Wright promptly moved forward to Taxi Driver, Scorsese’s first collaboration with writer Paul Schrader. Scorsese described his time making the feature as a “major fight.”
Despite Taxi Driver’s critical success — the pic won the Palme d’Or in 1976 — Scorsese said he could never truly figure out how to be accepted as a director in Hollywood regardless of how much he tried “to be a Hollywood guy.”
“They asked me to leave around 1978/79. And not just because of the filmmaking,” he said of Hollywood’s response to him. “We were younger, and I was going through teenage rebellion at the age of 27.”
Hollywood and the idea of a Hollywood-based film system took up a surprisingly short amount of time during the keynote. However, at the tail end of the session, Wright highlighted a series of recent interviews Scorsese has done where he has been quizzed about the future of cinema and asked the filmmaker how he felt about being positioned as what he described as the “last line of defense” for cinema against the rise of content.
“I didn’t want to be the last line of defense,” Scorsese said. “I don’t know where cinema is gonna go. Why does it have to be the same as it was in the last 90-100 years? It doesn’t. Do we prefer what’s been happening for the last 90 years? I do but I’m old. Younger people are gonna see the world in a different way.”
Scorsese continued to say that we are currently living in an “extraordinary time,” largely thanks to the technological advancements we live with on a day-to-day basis.
“If I had digital or even good video, I would’ve shot Mean Streets on that, and I wouldn’t have had to pay for cameras. It would have given us a sense of freedom,” he said. “Now there’s so much freedom that you really have to rethink what you’re saying and how you’re gonna say it.”
He added: “I hope that serious film can still be made with this new technology and this new world we’re a part of.”
Scorsese’s latest film Killer Of The Flower Moon screens this evening at the London Film Festival. The film, adapted from David Grann’s bestseller by Scorsese and Eric Roth and based on a true story, is set in Oklahoma in the 1920s, when oil brought a fortune to the Osage Nation, who became some of the richest people in the world overnight. The wealth immediately attracted white interlopers, who manipulated, extorted, and stole as much Osage money as they could before resorting to murder.
Starring are his frequent collaborators, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, alongside newcomer Lily Gladstone. Scorsese said he’s been working on the pic for many years but reworked most of the script with his co-writer Eric Roth during COVID.
The major change, Scorsese said, was prompted by DiCaprio who told the filmmaker that he believed the “heart of the film” was the relationship with his character, Ernest Burkhart, a federal agent, and Gladstone’s Mollie Burkhart.
“We had to take the script and rip it inside out. And we did it until the last day of shooting,” he said.
Killers of the Flower Moon opens wide on October 20. The London Film Festival runs until October 15.