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'Can A Person Change?': Martin Scorsese On Gangsters, Death And Redemption

Scorsese's latest movie, The Irishman, stars Robert De Niro as a truck driver and World War II veteran who becomes a hit man for the mob. Like many of the director's previous films, The Irishman features backroom deals, shootings and explosions. But Scorsese says the film is also an expression of his "religious beliefs or concerns or obsessions" — particularly in the way it explores morality and what happens to gangsters at the end of their lives.

43:31

Other segments from the episode on January 15, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 15, 2020: Interview with Martin Scorsese; Review of the film 1917.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Martin Scorsese. His new film "The Irishman" was just nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture, best director and best supporting actor for Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. It's available for streaming on Netflix and is playing in select theaters. "The Irishman" reunites Scorsese with Robert De Niro, who starred in Scorsese's "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver" and "The King Of Comedy." De Niro and Pesci starred in Scorsese's "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas" and "Casino."

"The Irishman," adapted from the book "I Heard You Paint Houses," is based on the stories of three real people who were involved in organized crime. Pesci plays Russell Bufalino, a crime boss in northeastern Pennsylvania. Pacino plays Jimmy Hoffa, the powerful leader of the Teamsters Union who disappeared in 1975 and was presumed murdered. De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, a World War II veteran and truck driver who became Bufalino's assistant and sometimes hit man, and later, as the film tells it, became Hoffa's bodyguard and right-hand man. The film is told from the perspective of Sheeran when he's an old man in an assisted living facility looking back on his life. Reviewing the film in The New York Times, A.O. Scott called it Scorsese's least sentimental picture of mob life and, for that reason, his most poignant.

Let's start with a song that we hear when the film opens and we enter the assisted living facility. It's the 1956 recording of "In The Still Of The Night," recorded by The Five Satins.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE STILL OF THE NIGHT")

THE FIVE SATINS: (Vocalizing).

(Singing) In the still of the night, I held you - held you tight. 'Cause I love, love you so, promise I'll never let you go in the still of the night - in the still of the night. I remember...

GROSS: Martin Scorsese, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming to our show. Why did you want to start "The Irishman" with that song?

MARTIN SCORSESE: You know, I always think of music first in a way that accompanies the type of picture I want to make or what - actually, the atmosphere or the mood - music that reflects our world not in terms of nostalgia. That's very important. That devalues it, I think. But in terms of this particular film, that was the only piece of music I heard in my head. Basically, it has to do with a sense of coming to terms, or as best you can come to terms, with the end of your life.

I used to listen to many, many sermons back in the early '50s by the older Italian priests who were administering to the Italian American community in the Lower East Side. And the main theme often was about death and about death approaching like a thief in the night. You never know when. You never know how. And then there's nonexistence.

GROSS: Well, what about death? For you, were you afraid when you were young? Was death something you were afraid of? And I'm thinking here, too, of, like, in the beginning of "Mean Streets," one of your early films, when Harvey Keitel's character is in church. And there are lit candles, and he's putting his finger into one of the flames, thinking about how there's two sides of hell. There's - you know, there's the physical pain and the pain that you feel in your heart. And he's thinking about death, and he's thinking about the possibility of hell as his future. So did you think a lot about death even when you were young and about what that might mean for you?

SCORSESE: Well, yes. Yes, of course. And what was most frightening was the pain of the spirit. And also, I had been an altar boy for a while. And I did very well at the dead Masses on Saturday morning at 10:30.

Now, you have to understand this is a period, you know, down the Lower East Side - Elizabeth Street, Mott Street, Mulberry - that were still very much populated by the older Sicilians and Neapolitans who had come over - around 1910 in the case of my grandfathers and grandmothers. And so by the mid-'50s to early '60s, they were all dying off. And also, there was - that world was changing. We were part of America in a way, yet we were still rooted in a kind of small Sicilian village in a sense. And the old and the dying were part of life.

You know, I was - I used to help my friend deliver flowers to the wakes - big flower pieces - floral pieces like the bleeding heart I used to talk about, which was a big floral piece of a heart with long ribbons of red - red ribbons that - blood from the heart, you see, flowing from it, or the big floral piece that was the - flowers - a clock at the time of death - indicating time of death. This sort of thing - this is pretty much a culture that lived with it in a way.

GROSS: I wish I could show these two shots, but I want to contrast two shots, one in "Goodfellas" and one in "The Irishman." There's a scene in "Goodfellas" where Ray Liotta's character is walking into the Copacabana, this, like, really swank nightclub.

SCORSESE: Oh, yes.

GROSS: And it's a long tracking shot. You see him get out of the car. He walks in.

SCORSESE: Yeah.

GROSS: And, you know, there's a twisting route that he takes through the kitchen and through the back rooms...

SCORSESE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Of the casino. And then from, like, backstage, they enter the actual club. And suddenly, a table appears for them. And it's this really long shot, and it's all about the glamour he's showing - is it his wife yet or a girlfriend then? I'm trying to remember.

SCORSESE: His girlfriend.

GROSS: Yeah. And so he's showing her, like, the glamour and power, you know, that he has access to now. So compare that with the opening shot in "The Irishman," where it's a long tracking shot in an assisted living facility where it's, like...

SCORSESE: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...Going through the rooms and the hallway, and we're seeing, like, people on walkers and in wheelchairs. We see, like, aides coming and going and people playing checkers and - I think it's cards. And then the camera stops on Robert De Niro's character, Frank Sheeran, who's in a wheelchair.

And so you have this long tracking shot about glamour, as opposed to this long tracking shot at the end of life in a nursing home, where they're - an assisted living facility, I should say - where there's, like, no glamour. Is that a comment on the difference between these two films or a comment on how you see that life differently now or just a comment about aging? Like, how would you contrast those two views?

SCORSESE: Well, I mean, well, the opening shot of "The Irishman," in a sense, played itself out by listening to the music - "In The Still Of The Night." And when I heard the song, I just knew we had to be floating down the hall of this assisted living facility and wind up on this old man sitting in a chair.

I get it. I knew that when I determined that that it would be compared to the long taking of the Copacabana in "Goodfellas." But it didn't matter because, ultimately, you know, it's been 20 years, and so I've spent a lot of time in these places - in hospitals and emergency rooms and kind of assisted living places. And I see the people. I've been involved with some things that - you know, people having difficult times in their lives, and also just people ending - at the end of their lives.

And I know the routines. I know what it's like in the middle of the night in the hospital while you're waiting with some - waiting for, you know - waiting there because the patient is very close to you. And what do you do? You just sit there. Nurses go by. The light changes. Lives go by. Beds go floating by, you know? And all these lives, we know nothing about them. They just become old and gone. And it's a whole life has gone by in a way. And these are the ones who survive, in a sense, to that old age.

But it's the mood and tone of those places that I spent a lot of time in. And it's not even as simple as saying, well, now I look back, and I realize gangsters are bad. I know they're bad. I know it's bad, you know? And I think there's always been this issue of glamorization of the gangster. The point is, of course, that because of my religious beliefs or concerns or obsessions, it has to do with - really has to do with, can a person change, and can a person be redeemed? Or if a person isn't redeemed - well, how should I put it? - part of our human nature, the bad part of our human nature, the evil, it's still human nature. We can't put it aside and say - we can't say it doesn't exist. And if that's part of us, and it may be part of every one of us, what are we capable of?

GROSS: Yeah, because your film, in a way, is kind of asking a question, if you've been able to be a hit man and to kill people through a good deal of your adult life, when you are facing death, what do you feel? Do you feel regret? Do you feel a remorse? Can you repent at the last minute? Does that count? Does that make up for it?

SCORSESE: No, repent at the last minute is like - I don't know. That's always the - what? - the deathbed Catholic routine, you know? I'm not quite sure. I mean, look; he is alone. He's alone. And who's he got to talk to? This very young priest, very nice young man who - he might as well be talking to a person from outer space. That young man has no way of understanding the world he came from.

On the other hand, he - the priest does try to understand - tries to get him to at least acknowledge some kind of remorse. And all I think that Frank could come up with and Zaillian insisted we have in there is - he said, don't you feel anything? He said, well - I'm paraphrasing the line, but it's something to the effect that, well, I'm here. I guess that means something, meaning he's open to talking. That's the beginning of some kind of admission and some kind of - trying to come to terms with who he is. You know, it's something. There are other people who won't talk at all. They close the door, and that's the end of it. You never hear from them.

GROSS: So I want to play a very brief clip from "Goodfellas." And this is from the very beginning of the film, where Ray Liotta as Henry Hill, who becomes the wise guy, this small-time connected guy, is - he's a child in this. But we hear Ray Liotta's narration as he's looking out the window at what's going on in the street below.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOODFELLAS")

RAY LIOTTA: (As Henry Hill) To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States. Even before I first wandered into the cab stand for an after school job, I knew I wanted to be a part of them. It was there that I knew that I belonged. And to me, it meant being somebody in the neighborhood that was full of nobodies. They weren't like anybody else. I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They double-parked in front of a hydrant, and nobody ever gave them a ticket. In the summer when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops.

GROSS: It's so interesting to me in that scene that he thinks that that's what power is, that you can double-park in front of a fire hydrant...

SCORSESE: Yeah, to a child.

GROSS: ...And not get a ticket. Did you think...

SCORSESE: Yeah, to a child.

GROSS: ...That too? Did you relate to that?

SCORSESE: Well, not myself. But I knew other people - other people around me certainly did, you know? They had no education, you know? They were very poor. There's a lot of street life, and the street life at a certain point if you - you know, some of the kids couldn't read. Some - one or two were illiterate. I was surprised. There are others - of course, we were in Catholic school. We were in St. Patrick's School with the Sisters of Mercy, I believe, on Mott Street. So we were going to school, and we were told to go to school.

But, you know, many people, say my - I'll refer to my parents - they didn't have any understanding of what I would be doing in life, you know? As far as my older brother, they just wanted him to get a steady job because he left high school in the first year. He wouldn't go back. But I didn't. I had asthma and that sort of thing, and I stayed in school. It was the only place where I felt - between the school and the church and the movie theater is where I had a sense of the other world and a sense of might as well just stay here because the rest of this place is pretty crazy (laughter) you know?

GROSS: So those are the safe places - school, church and home?

SCORSESE: Those were the safe places is right (laughter).

GROSS: What? You're laughing. I'm sorry. What's so funny?

SCORSESE: No, it's - and they weren't that safe, I could tell you (laughter).

GROSS: They weren't that safe. Oh, yeah, OK (laughter). Yeah, I can imagine school not being very safe. Church, I figure, was probably safe.

SCORSESE: Yeah, but it was the old style, you know? And it was the old style. But you know what I mean in terms of corporal punishment and that sort of stuff. But there was...

GROSS: Oh, true. Of course. Right.

SCORSESE: But there was a lot of love from those particular nuns. It was very interesting how they worked it. But in any event, you have to understand, I was on Elizabeth Street between Houston and Prince living there. My parents were born on that block - my father at 241 Elizabeth Street and my mother across the street at 232. And the Bowery was known as Devil's Mile. The next block over to my left was Mott, then Mulberry. And Mulberry was known as Murder Mile.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCORSESE: OK? So now (laughter) - for different reasons. Devil's Mile, the people went there, and they died. They were alcoholic guys - men and women - who basically, a lot of them were - I've got to tell you, a lot of them were - had fought with George Patton. A lot of them were vets, and they just collapsed. And it was an extraordinary place to be and be with them. It was very disturbing and eye-opening and also interesting. When they were sober, sometimes they'd talk to you about things that you didn't know, another world, you know?

But Murder Mile, it was called - Mulberry was called Murder Mile at that time apparently because they used to drop off bodies that were executed. And so it permeated the tragedy, the daily tragedies of those poor guys, men and women, on the Bowery and - well, again, a tragedy of people taking the wrong turn, like in "Mean Streets" or in "Casino" and winding up dead in the streets.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Martin Scorsese. His new film "The Irishman" is nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture and best director. It's now in select theaters and available for streaming on Netflix. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BLUME'S "I WORK THE WHOLE CITY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Martin Scorsese, director of the new film "The Irishman," which stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. It's nominated for 10 Oscars and is available to watch on Netflix, and it's in select theaters.

Catholicism has so much pageantry in it. You know, you have basically - like, you have costumes. You have music.

SCORSESE: Yeah.

GROSS: You have paintings and sculpture...

SCORSESE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And stained glass windows, and you have a fight between good and evil. And, oh, you have violence. You have crucifixion. And I'm wondering if all the church imagery and pageantry and, you know, the violence, the battles between good and evil, if that either affected your interest in movies or your interest in making movies or the way you make movies.

SCORSESE: Yeah, it could be. I mean, I was - I spent a lot of time, a great deal of time, in St. Patrick's Old Cathedral on Mott Street. The images of the saints, the images of the martyrs, the images of the souls in purgatory burning in the flames and the extraordinary crucifix that's hanging, suspended over the altar - it's still there. It's quite beautiful. And passion week was something that was really important because at that time, on Ash Wednesday - and then it would become Holy Thursday. And Holy Thursday in the mid - in the early to mid-'50s, the tradition was to go from church to church and light a candle.

Even took us to interesting churches, one in the Ukrainian section of New York, like on 7th or 8th Street, near 2nd or 3rd Avenue in which there was a embalmed body of a policeman who'd been killed by thieves who were about to rob the poor box around 1901. But he was dressed, like, medieval clothing - he was dressed in medieval clothing, and his beard and fingernails still grew. And we would go and say a prayer to - with his buddies behind - in a glass coffin. I mean, it was a very different kind of time.

And so those images certainly stayed with me. And then you blend that with - the first movie I saw as a - by title that I remember - I was about 3 years old or 4 years old - was "Duel In The Sun." And certainly, the images in the church - there's no doubt.

I think that when I served the dead mass at 10:30 in the morning on Saturdays, you know, it was very, very dramatic, very dramatic, particularly when the "Dies Irae" was played. That's the moment that all the pallbearers came down to take the coffin down the aisle. And that's when we got our - we had - we were acolytes. We had our candles, and the priest was between us with his - a crucifix, holding it high. And we go down and bless the catafalque, or whatever, that had the coffin on it. But when those guys came down the aisle, the effect on the family was pretty strong.

GROSS: Wow. You were really exposed to a lot of death as a child.

SCORSESE: Yeah, I think so. I think so. Look - big families, you're living in small places. You know, my parents grew up in those apartments on Elizabeth Street, which are very chic now and cost a lot of money. But they were born in them, and they were living in them with 12 to 14 people. Luckily (laughter), we were only three or four, you know, four people down the block on 253 Elizabeth - my brother, myself, my mother and father. But the doors were open. Other people, the neighbors next door were, like, pretty much living with you.

My uncle was living downstairs with his two kids and his wife and the dog. And, you know, my father's uncle ran the building. He was an old Italian guy who was really scary. He lived on the ground floor. And (laughter) the kids were making noise in front - sometimes we were making noise running around. He wouldn't say a word. He'd just get off his - he was sitting on a little wooden orange crate, you know, fruit crate or whatever. And he would get up and go back to his apartment, the basement, come back out with an ax. And then we all ran. He didn't have to say a word.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Martin Scorsese. His new film "The Irishman" is nominated for 10 Oscars. After we take a short break, he'll tell us why he thought about becoming a priest but didn't, how he met De Niro when they were teenagers and more, and our film critic Justin Chang will review "1917," which is also nominated for 10 Oscars. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBIE ROBERTSON'S "THEME FOR THE IRISHMAN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Martin Scorsese. His new film, "The Irishman," was just nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. It's available for streaming on Netflix, and it's still playing in select theaters. "The Irishman" reunites Scorsese with Robert De Niro, who starred in Scorsese's "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver" and "The King Of Comedy." De Niro and Pesci starred in Scorsese's "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas" and "Casino." Scorsese grew up in the Little Italy neighborhood of Manhattan and was raised Catholic.

Before you decided to become a filmmaker, did you ever think about becoming a priest?

SCORSESE: Oh, yes. Yeah. I thought that that was - I had - it made sense. It made sense. They spoke about - put in simplistic terms - good and evil, you know. But how the hell are we supposed to live in this life? The morality - you call it morality, I guess. But it's the human condition. And what do we do? What are we supposed to do? My father taught us certain things, you know, between right and wrong. It was very strong - a very strong opinion.

But I saw different things in the street, I could tell you. Not even to get into the kind of thinking that's in "Irishman." That's another level. That's somewhere else and has nothing to do with me, but - meaning when I was growing up. But yeah, there's one priest, Father Principe, he made a difference. He told us, you know, you don't have to live this way. Don't get married right away if you don't need to. Think, explore the world.

GROSS: But you didn't become a priest. So what made you change your mind?

SCORSESE: No. Well, what happened was that you can't become a priest because you want to be like the priest who was your mentor. Once you get in, you say, wait a minute, this is really serious (laughter).

GROSS: Right.

SCORSESE: You have to have what they call a vocation, you know. And it's like you have to love the mass. You have to understand what that means. And I didn't know. I didn't know, and it was a major shock. I was, you know, expelled from this preparatory seminary.

GROSS: How come you were expelled?

SCORSESE: Well I didn't do any more - I stopped after about two months of doing the work. I just stopped doing the work and behaved badly, class clown kind of thing.

GROSS: Did you want to be expelled? Were you trying to get out of it but didn't want to say that you were leaving?

SCORSESE: I didn't know. I guess it wasn't - I guess, you know, I told everybody. And I had this kind of holier-than-thou routine going on. Oh, my son's going to be a priest, you know - that they didn't like that, but basically that's what he wants. And he was always sickly anyway. You know, let him go there and that sort of thing. And, you know, you have to come back like the prodigal son completely, you know, in a failure. You're a failure. I was 15.

GROSS: So did it feel better to kind of like get thrown out because that's a kind of, like, statement as opposed to saying, like, oh, I don't want to do it?

SCORSESE: No. No. I knew I was missing something truthful. And I knew I was missing the very essence of how you should live. I really did.

GROSS: Did you feel like you could find that essence through art, through making movies and through watching them?

SCORSESE: Yes, ultimately. Yeah, ultimately. But that took a little while. I mean, it was always there. I was, you know, doing things with my friends and stuff like that in the cinema. Movies had become, like, so important to me because I would go just basically spend a lot of time there. I couldn't really play sports or anything like that. Maybe I should have. Maybe I should have been like Teddy Roosevelt, who did everything, you know, with that asthma. But my parents are, you know, old-fashioned, and as I said, uneducated in a way. And the doctor said don't do this, you didn't do it. That was it.

GROSS: So did you spend a lot of time as a kid at home watching TV or reading books, watching movies on TV?

SCORSESE: Well, watching movies on TV. That was a lot. The school was right around the corner on Mott Street. And for lunch, I'd just go home. My mother was working. So I'd just go in and there was a sandwich waiting for me or whatever. And maybe there was a film on Channel 11, you know, in the afternoon. And certainly after 3 o'clock, I had that apartment to myself. It was amazing. I saw Cocteau's "Beauty And The Beast." I saw Renoir's "Diary Of A Chambermaid."

I saw "The Southerner," Renoir. I became fascinated by Renoir because I got to know that, of course, his father was this great painter too. And I saw these pictures of the paintings in school. I thought it was amazing. And I became fascinated by some of these, especially if the film had subtitles. I find that very curious. Like "Belle Le Bete" (ph) had subtitles. It was fantastic. And "Les Enfants Du Paradis" one night was on. I only saw the first hour.

GROSS: "Children Of Paradise," yeah.

SCORSESE: Yeah.

GROSS: Beautiful film.

SCORSESE: Yeah. It had subtitles. You can - they're speaking this other language. They're dressed in a very interesting way. The culture is very, very different.

GROSS: So it's another world. It's certainly such a different world from the one you were growing up in.

SCORSESE: Yes.

GROSS: You got out of your neighborhood by going to NYU.

SCORSESE: Yeah.

GROSS: So once you started going to NYU, which was a different world even though it was near to where you grew up...

SCORSESE: Yes.

GROSS: ...Were you - and I imagine you were coming home afterwards.

SCORSESE: Yes, I was.

GROSS: Were you a different person in both of those worlds?

SCORSESE: Yes.

GROSS: And what was the difference?

SCORSESE: The difference is "Mean Streets," Charlie in "Mean Streets" kind of character. It's a blend of my father and me in a way, my father and his relationship with his youngest brother who was always getting in trouble and was in and out of jail.

GROSS: Oh, so his brother was the De Niro character.

SCORSESE: Yes. Yeah. And it was reflected in myself and a close friend of mine. And our friend was always in trouble. And so it had - it referred to both my father's world and my world. I didn't realize this until years later. It's about my father and my uncle. But primarily it was about, in a sense, me, to a certain extent, trying to get out of there and living, you know, going to Washington Square College and reading "Moby Dick" - and I don't know - and then beginning with this - these filmmaking courses, which were just really - they're not - it's not the way it is now. It wasn't the way it is now.

You have to understand too between '60 and '64, we're right at the height in 1959 and '60 of the French new wave, the Italian new wave, incredible Russian cinema, Japanese cinema. Which, by the way, Japanese films - the first Japanese film I saw was on Channel 9 with commercials, dubbed in English. It was "Ugetsu," Mizoguchi. That was amazing, you know, which we finally got to restore a couple of years ago. And so - Indian films, Satyajit Ray. All of these new cultures all mixed together, but the excitement of a new vocabulary being created by Godard, by John Cassavetes, by Hollis Frampton, by by Jonas Mekas and the whole underground - you know, Shirley Clarke, for God's sakes. Amazing.

GROSS: You met Robert De Niro when you were both around 16.

SCORSESE: Yes.

GROSS: Where did he fit into your life and into your world?

SCORSESE: Well, in that area, as I say, not necessarily the college crowd, but different little cliques - or cliques, I guess you'd call it now - but there were other groups, and they would hang out in different what they call social clubs. And he was with them, and sometimes they'd mix. And I remembered him as the nice one.

GROSS: So when you met, you had no idea that either of you would be in movies.

SCORSESE: No, no.

GROSS: So it must have been a big surprise when you met up again.

SCORSESE: Yeah. I was at Jay Cocks' and Verna Bloom's house and - Christmas dinner. Brian De Palma put us together. It was 1970, I think. And after dinner, De Niro looked at me and said, you know, I know you used to be with Joey (ph) and Curtie (ph) and this guy and that guy. And I said, wait a minute, how do you know that? Because at that point, I was denying it all.

GROSS: (Laughter) What do you mean?

SCORSESE: Well, I don't know - I don't - you don't want anybody to - you know, you're going to be a filmmaker. I was going to go to Hollywood, probably, and make movies or something. You know. And you were with - I was with people who you can actually have conversations with that deal with interesting subjects, so to speak, and open your mind - you can learn from them.

GROSS: So you didn't want them to know about your past.

SCORSESE: Not necessarily. I'd sometimes tell stories and things like that, the kind of interesting place I came from. In a sense, I was still part of it, and I only learned that by the time I made "Raging Bull," really. You know. It was time to - we thought I could really change and sort of reinvent myself and become this director, you know. And in effect, it did. But not really. Not really.

So ultimately, after "New York, New York," I just sort of caved in and said, OK, look. This is who you are. This is what you do. These themes that you've been dealing with in "New York, New York" and Paul Schrader's script of "Taxi Driver" and "Alice Doesn't Live Here," all of that's fine and good, and that's something that might sustain you and had universal interest, but the problem is you can't - you just can't deny or pretend it didn't exist, in terms of the where you came from. That forms you, you know. And that included everything, because don't forget, the '60s were still - it had the counterculture. I used to like a lot of the hippies. I found...

GROSS: Can I just stop you there for a second? You can tell me if this is true - I read that when you went to Woodstock, you were actually wearing cufflinks.

SCORSESE: That's right.

GROSS: Tell me more.

SCORSESE: I lost one of them.

GROSS: That's a shame (laughter).

SCORSESE: Yeah, I know. It wasn't a great one, but I lost it. I had French cuffs on my shirt. And...

GROSS: Wow.

SCORSESE: You know. Then I started wearing jeans after that, by the way.

GROSS: Radical (laughter).

SCORSESE: Yeah, I know, I know. I really pushed it there. And that's 1960-what...

GROSS: Were you, like, wearing a suit to Woodstock? (Laughter).

SCORSESE: Well, it wasn't a suit. It was, you know, I - (laughter) - I just dressed differently from these guys, and they all looked at me very strangely. And I would dress very differently, and I still do. So, you know, I went back to what - in the '70s, it all changed, of course - we were wearing more outlandish things, but - and it was very enjoyable to do that. And - but in any event, no - Woodstock - I just wasn't prepared for - look. I'm not prepared for the country, OK? I'm not a country person.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, especially with asthma.

SCORSESE: I just am not. Yeah. I just am not. However, I did wear cowboy boots - Frye boots - for a while. They were...

GROSS: (Laughter) OK.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Martin Scorsese. His new film "The Irishman" is nominated for 10 Oscars. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROLLING STONES' "OUT OF TIME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Martin Scorsese. His latest film, "The Irishman," stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. It's nominated for 10 Oscars. And it's available to watch on Netflix, and it's in select theaters.

So I just want to read a little bit of what your schedule was like in the '70s. This is a list of years and films for you. "Boxcar Bertha" in 1972, "Mean Streets," '73, "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," '74, "Taxi Driver," '76, "New York, New York," '77, "The Last Waltz," '78, "Raging Bull," 1980, "King Of Comedy," 1982. I'm just thinking your schedule must have been insane.

SCORSESE: Yes.

GROSS: And that must have been, like, a whole lot of stress on you...

SCORSESE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, and eventually, I just collapsed.

GROSS: ...Physically and emotionally.

SCORSESE: Yeah, yeah. Just collapsed. And out of that came "Raging Bull," ultimately. That's the story.

GROSS: So you collapsed - you collapsed, and then you made "Raging Bull"?

SCORSESE: Yeah. But again, I...

GROSS: What was the collapse like?

SCORSESE: Well, I mean, collapse, with, you know, the same old story - you know, having - I got to tell you, whether it was drugs or not, you want to get into drugs, but the issue is - with the failure of "New York, New York," or considered failure, so to speak...

GROSS: I like that film a lot.

SCORSESE: Yeah, exactly. At that time, it was considered a terrible flop. They considered that. People now look at it and say it was very, very different. OK. But with that failure, and the, for me, a certain artistic failure, for this big experiment that I wanted to try, there was a lack of - something happened that was like, I felt the creativity was just punched out of me.

And, yeah. You saw some interesting times. You were taking these drugs and that sort of thing. But ultimately, it was an experiment, a curiosity to try to find if I could ever care enough to get back on a set, to care enough. I didn't care anymore, and I had to find if I could make another film. I felt a little bit about "The Last Waltz"...

GROSS: What was it about "Raging Bull" that made you feel that again?

SCORSESE: Because that's what he goes through.

GROSS: Oh.

SCORSESE: See?

GROSS: Right.

SCORSESE: But I didn't know that. De Niro knew it. He more or less knew it because he also wanted to be in it. He had been working out. He was - we were 35 and 36 years old. And he knew that he really had to make it as soon as possible because physically, he wanted to do is gain all that weight. It would - can be very hard for him if he got older. And he knew I was the right person to make it. And he kept pushing me and pushing me, and I kept rejecting it for, like, two years.

I don't know anything about sports. I didn't - boxing, to me, was always an image of - too small image - an image on a 16-inch screen in black and white of two small figures kind of moving around a white square. What is that? You know, I never went to a fight, so I don't know. I saw fights in the street, yes, but not in a ring, you know. And so - and I knew, you know, certain things about it.

But ultimately - I also didn't know how to shoot it. So I came up with my own way of shooting it, like music. See? So - like, covering music, like in "The Last Waltz," for example and in "New York, New York." And I applied those same principles to the fight scenes in "Raging Bull." But primarily, it's the rebirth in a way. He's reborn. And I thought, pretty much, that was it. But it took about 25 years before we could agree on the subject matter to make our next film, and that became Irishman.

GROSS: Yeah.

SCORSESE: Because I - we were trying to do other things. We were trying to do - really, what we were trying to do was a remake of "Bad And The Beautiful" and "Two Weeks In Another Town."

GROSS: Those are two separate films.

SCORSESE: The two films about Hollywood. Yeah.

GROSS: Right. Yeah.

SCORSESE: But in a way, this is what it is...

GROSS: "Bad And The Beautiful" is like three films in one, to begin with.

SCORSESE: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yeah. So that's a lot of films.

SCORSESE: Yeah. We wanted to do that. We wanted to do our version of it. And we were living it, and we couldn't figure out when to start and when to stop, you know. And also, sometimes you get into things that - things that happen to you. And you say, would you do that? No, this person will be upset, or that - and so we found the common ground on Irish, really. That's what happens.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, I'm glad you did. Do you still consider yourself Catholic?

SCORSESE: I think so, yes. Yeah.

GROSS: And, like, have your beliefs changed from what you believed about, like, heaven and hell and life and death from when you were an altar boy?

SCORSESE: Well, of course. You were a child, and you had the faith of a child.

GROSS: Yeah. Exactly.

SCORSESE: So what's the Saint Paul thing? I put away childish things. Now we're stuck with the adult things.

GROSS: So what's your adult vision of death now and of what, if anything, is after?

SCORSESE: That's a good question, of course. I don't know. I think - I know - to sound this way, it sounds rather naive, I guess, but the point is that I do believe in something beyond the material. I mean, I do believe in this machine we're in, in a way, this body. It wouldn't be the same without the spiritual part of it, whatever that is. And people will say, well, that's the brain, its synapses. Yes, but the brain is just a piece of meat, in a sense. There's something that happens that's transcendent. I'm talking - I'm trying to find a moment of that.

I think it approaches sometimes when we create something and we feel something from what we create. That gets us close, I think, to a sense of transcending the material. And if we go there and stay in that (laughter) space of transcendency, maybe that's where we wind up. Of course, we don't know because it's probably the same place we were when - before we were born.

GROSS: So has work for you become a means toward working toward transcendence?

SCORSESE: Partially. It used to be. But there are other issues now. I mean, there are different - there's certain things that - family - which have become much closer.

GROSS: Yeah.

SCORSESE: And very, very different.

GROSS: Right. And I'm sure that's all very personal, so I won't...

SCORSESE: Yeah, it is. And it's...

GROSS: I won't ask you about that.

SCORSESE: You try your best. You try your best. And, you know - but yeah, you learn different - a different approach to life.

GROSS: So I want to thank you not only for your movies but for the movies you've introduced me to. You've restored a lot of movies.

SCORSESE: Oh, yes. Yeah.

GROSS: You - like, years ago, you were issuing - reissuing a bunch of movies on DVD. And one of them I'm especially grateful for is "Johnny Guitar," which is...

SCORSESE: Oh, yeah (laughter).

GROSS: ...One of my favorite films now. And it's such a great Western. It transcends the Western form. But it's...

SCORSESE: Yes, it does. Yeah.

GROSS: So I always think of you as, like, a great filmmaker and also a great film teacher. So thank you for both.

SCORSESE: Thank you. Thank you.

GROSS: Martin Scorsese's new film "The Irishman" is nominated for 10 Oscars, including best actor and best director. After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the film "1917," a World War I movie which is also nominated for 10 Oscars. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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