It was the mother of all cinematic events. Film fans everywhere in the country were stunned to learn that the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is hosting Martin Scorsese, the greatest living American filmmaker, for a “seminar two days prior to Christmas. This wasn’t just the biggest cinematic event of the year; it was arguably the biggest of the decade.
Film fans from across the nation made Alexandria their destination on Wednesday, flocking in droves to see the legendary filmmaker. More than 1,200 Scorsese enthusiasts, including actors Ahmed El Sakka, Khaled Abol Naga, Yousra, Hussien Fahmy and directors Elia Suleiman, Yousry Nasrallah and Mohamed Khan, heeded Scorsese’s call.
For regular film spectators, the discussion was certainly worth the trip. Charming, down to earth and charismatic in every sense of the word, Scorsese entertained the audience with stories about his beginnings, his filmmaking and his influences.
Yet for hardcore film buffs and professionals alike, the seminar was a rather disappointing affair. The questions, drawn from the footnotes of his IMDB bio, were uninspired. If you’re a Scorsese fan, you would’ve been too familiar with the anecdotes chronicled in the discussion that have been documented in dozens of books, articles, TV interviews and documentaries over the past 30 years.
The biggest gaffe of the event was the complete disregard of Shadi Abdel Salam. Earlier this year, Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation restored Abdel Salam’s 1969 masterpiece “The Night of Counting the Years. The newly restored version debuted last May at Cannes and was the talk of the festival. And yet, not a single question about the film was asked by Bibliotheca Director General Ismail Serageldin, who was moderating the seminar.
Despite the exceedingly trite questions and the single-track discussion, the seminar still managed to deliver a few highlights. And truth be told, it was extraordinarily difficult not to have been captivated by Scorsese’s passion for both the movies and his iconic collaborators.
The first part of the seminar focused on his much-documented childhood, his Catholic upbringing, the asthma that kept him indoors in the company of movies, his aspiration to become a priest and his infatuation for religion that was transferred to cinema.
He credited famous B-film director Roger Corman for teaching him how to make films with small budgets in a short period of time. He cited American independent film pioneer John Cassavetes as one of his mentors.
“After he saw Boxcar Bertha, he smiled, he hugged me, and he said ‘you’d spent a year of your life making a piece of junk. You can make a better picture than that. Don’t you have something you wanna do?’ Scorsese said. “He was very supportive, especially in ‘Raging Bull.’
Scorsese spoke about his relationship with Robert De Niro, whom he knew since he was 15. “He was with a different group of young Italian Americans, kind of the tough guys, he said. “He lived two blocks away from where we lived. We didn’t really socialize. I remember him being a very sweet young man. His background is very different than mine. His father was a famous painter, his mother too. They came from a bohemian background. My parents were working-class who worked in the garment district.
His actors, he said, are the key to making his films. “The actors I’ve worked with, Keitel, De Niro, are very similar to me. We express ourselves differently, but we’re similar. Same thing with Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio is attracted to the same themes and ideas. He’s not afraid to take chances and he’ll go to those strange and difficult places. I admire that greatly.
He also spoke about Paul Schrader, the great scriptwriter who penned some of his most acclaimed films such as “Taxi Driver and “The Last Temptation of the Christ.
“Paul is very precise, he said. “Paul saw his first movie at the age of 18. Films were forbidden to him, part of the Calvinist religion. And the first films he saw were by [iconic French Catholic filmmaker] Robert Bresson. We improvised only two scenes in ‘Taxi Driver.’ The rest was all written by Paul and we didn’t touch it.
A number of Scorsese’s most celebrated films were not passion projects. He revealed that he didn’t want to make “Raging Bull, that De Niro was the one who convinced him to direct it.
“I didn’t know anything about boxing, he said. “‘New York, New York’ was a failure. When I did the ‘The Last Waltz’ afterwards, I felt I was onto something again. But again, that was the music of The Band and Bob Dylan and Van Morrison and Neil Young. That wasn’t my work. It was the way it was captured onstage and the way the film was edited. I needed something I was passionate about, and the last thing I was passionate about was ‘Mean Streets’ and ‘Taxi Driver.’
“After behaving badly for two or three years, I just collapsed. I was in a New York hospital, it was Labor Day weekend, 1978. De Niro visited me. This was after two years of working on the script. He told me, what are you trying to prove? What’s the point of killing yourself? C’mon, get out of bed and make this film with me. Until that moment in my life, there was nothing more for me to do but to make that film. So I said yes.
Big Studios, Big Productions
With big studio films such as “The Color of Money and “The Aviator, Scorsese pointed out that the challenge was to prove to the studios that he was able to make big films with major stars in order to regain his credibility and acquire the liberty to do his more personal projects.
The success of “The Departed, for which he won his overdue best director Oscar, was surprising to him. The film was initially conceived as modern-day noir, not the star-studded blockbuster it turned into. “Leo [DiCaprio] said he wanted to be in it. And then they [the studio] suggested Matt Damon, I said great. And then they said you need somebody of a certain level to play Frank Costello. I always wanted to work with Jack Nicolson, so he came along. The actual budget of the film was a moderate budget, in terms of Hollywood standards.
“I wanted to get away from the film so badly. The original story of the Chinese film, ‘Infernal Affairs,’ is a beautiful story, about betrayal, and about the young man trying to kill his father to a certain extent. The thing about ‘The Departed’ is that I tried to build character into the plot to the point where the characters always tended to damage the plot in a way. It was like wrestling with a hydro; once we fixed one thing, another thing would come up. Myself and [editor] Thelma Schoonmaker took a long time with it.
Judas vs. Jesus
Predictably, Scorsese was asked about “The Last Temptation of the Christ, one of the most controversial films of all time, and his conception of Judas. “It was Nikos Kazantzakis and his take on the Book of Judas and many different things. I remember growing up on the Lower East Side, which was strongly bound together by family and working class people trying to make a good life. But there was also an underworld, and the worst offense that you could do was betrayal. What is the essence of this betrayal? What is it in every human being that makes him capable of betrayal? This is what interested me in Judas.
“Judas was not the betrayer. Without him, Jesus couldn’t go through the sacrifice. In Kazantzakis’s book, when Judas tells Jesus, ‘I can’t betray you, it’s the worst thing I can think of,’ Jesus tells him, ‘That’s why I was given the easier job, to be crucified.’ I thought that was a very interesting Jesus.
The main highlight of the seminar for me was the brief mention of Shusaku Endo’s historical fiction “Silence, one of my personal favorite novels which Scorsese has been planning to adapt for more than two decades. Widely regarded as one of the prime literary works about the Christian faith along with Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory, “Silence is based on a true story of a Jesuit missionary who goes on a mission to locate his mentor in seventh century Japan, during a large wave of Christian persecution, after
learning that he’s apostatized.
“The missionaries are questioned, tortured and put to the point where . should they apostatize? Should they give in? Scorsese commented. “And ultimately is it about them? Or is it about compassion? Is that feminine side of Jesus, which Endo is talking about, the nurturing, loving, compassionate side? Or the tougher side?
Scorsese stated that he’s been “trying to prepare for the film and did the casting in Japan earlier this year. The specific future of the project remains unknown. Daniel Day-Lewis, Gael García Bernal and Benicio Del Toro have been attached to the film but nothing has been confirmed yet. An initial release date of late 2012 is likely to be deferred considering the fact that Scorsese is currently working on two projects: A documentary about George Harrison and the much-publicized Frank Sinatra biopic.
In the last part of the discussion, Serageldin took some questions from the audience about whether Scorsese would consider shooting a film in Egypt, and how to improve the image of Muslims in Hollywood movies.
By that point though, the seminar felt like a wrecked ship struggling to reach its port. There were infinite interesting directions the discussion could have taken, a multitude of questions that could’ve made the seminar a truly unique event.
For instance, I would’ve liked to learn about the future films his foundation is planning to restore, his views on Shadi Abdel Salam’s film, the open letter he sent to Los Angeles County Museum of Art in August, his undying fascination with “The Red Shoes (which he spent most of this year promoting), his personal relationship with director Michael Powell, and the dispute he had with the New York Times following Fellini’s death.
Ultimately, the organizers of the seminar settled for a more conventional route, wasting a golden opportunity to explore a different side of Scorsese that has not been investigated before.
As Scorsese headed for the exit door amid a deafening eruption of applause, I couldn’t help feeling that I just witnessed an average episode of the Actors Studio, without the depth.