Martin Scorsese looks back over life and career at Montclair Film event

scorsese njpac


Stephen Colbert interviews Martin Scorsese at NJPAC in Newark, Oct. 27.

He’s talkin’ to me?

Oct. 27 at NJPAC marked the 14th time that Stephen Colbert has interviewed a celebrity to help promote and fundraise for the Montclair Film Festival. He has sat down for cozy, public one-on-ones with everyone from Daniel Craig to Meryl Streep.

But this guest left him a little starstruck.

“I don’t think it’s ever been a greater honor than it is tonight with Martin Scorsese,” he told the nearly sold-out audience. “Please don’t tell Meryl Streep I said that.”

This night certainly felt a little special. After an introduction by Gov. Phil Murphy, a lively montage of Scorsese classics — from his breakthrough “Mean Streets,” in 1973, to this year’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” — unreeled. The dapper octogenarian then strolled onstage to a standing ovation.

“That’s a lot of movies,” he admitted, after settling into an armchair.

It is, and one short evening wasn’t long enough to truly cover them, or explore the director’s busy life. But the two men managed to hit all the touchstones — Catholic guilt, an Italian-American upbringing and favorite pizzas, “Goodfellas” and “Raging Bull” and “Taxi Driver.”


Stephen Colbert interviews Martin Scorsese at NJPAC in Newark, Oct. 27.

Strongest were Scorsese’s memories of a New York City childhood, growing up poor and sickly with asthma. A move to the leafy suburbs was out of the question, and not just because of the money. “I was allergic to everything green,” he said.

So, to get him away from the dirty city air, his mother started taking him to the movies. The first one he remembers is the fervid 1946 melodrama “Duel in the Sun,” with Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones.

The sexy film had been condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency but, Scorsese joked, his mother used her son’s asthma as an excuse. The movie theater, she explained, was the only safe place they could go.

That picture started a love affair that would grow to encompass almost any kind of film — shimmery black-and-white noirs like “Out of the Past” (“I saw it on a double feature with ‘Bambi’ ”), stylish Technicolor dreams like “The Red Shoes.” Later, as a teenager, he would haunt the Greenwich Village arthouses, catching the latest imports from Italy, France and Sweden.

It didn’t help his asthma but it kept him off the streets and out of trouble; he remembers a neighborhood kid from the time, Bobby De Niro, who ran with a rougher crowd. It also fed a passion for cinema, which would lead Scorsese to film school at NYU. In 1973, his third feature, the rough-and-tumble “Mean Streets,” played the New York Film Festival.

His mother came to the premiere. She was proud, but embarrassed by the four-letter words in the dialogue.

“I just want you to know one thing,” she told people in the lobby. “We never used that word in the house!”

“Mean Streets” featured De Niro as the manic Johnny Boy, and began what would be a career-spanning collaboration; “Killers of the Flower Moon” is the duo’s 10th film together. Scorsese attributes the success of the 50-year partnership to mutual trust — and understanding.


Martin Scorsese at NJPAC.

“He’s the only one in the business who knows who I am and what I come from,” the filmmaker says.

After “Mean Streets,” their work together would only grow and deepen. Although his mother never did quite approve of most of the material — “My mother always said, ‘Make something nice!’,” Scorsese remembered with a laugh — audiences didn’t complain.

Well, that’s not quite true. The commercial failure of “New York, New York” in 1977 sent the director into a tailspin of depression and reported substance abuse. (“I almost died,” is as close as he would come to talking about that time, and Colbert didn’t press.)

And the by-now beloved “Goodfellas” barely survived a disastrous sneak preview in 1990. The first scene — with the nearly indomitable Frank Vincent finally getting finished off in the trunk of the car — sent people fleeing for the exits.

“It was like the Exodus from Egypt,” Scorsese remembers. (After the screening, he and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker cut the number of times you saw Vincent get stabbed.)

Colbert didn’t ask about the times when Scorsese’s films — “Casino,” “Taxi Driver” — ran afoul of official censors, or the religious protests that dogged “The Last Temptation of Christ.” The long, ugly fights with studio head Harvey Weinstein over the final cut of “Gangs of New York” were only briefly alluded to.

But this was meant as a celebratory evening, complete with a “Legend of Cinema” award from the festival (and another standing ovation).

And the affection was evident from the start. As audience members filed in, selections from Scorsese soundtracks — Bernard Herrmann’s brooding “Cape Fear” score, Joni Mitchell’s performance from “The Last Waltz” — played over the sound system. A table onstage held various sentimental tchotchkes — a toy taxicab, boxing gloves autographed by Jake LaMotta.

Once the interview was underway, an admiring Colbert took a respectful back seat, dialing down the jokes and keeping questions to a minimum. Mostly, he just let the filmmaker talk — which, with a subject as loquacious as Martin Scorsese, is usually the smartest and safest thing to do, anyway.

So the director spoke about his favorite pizzeria — maybe. (He namechecked Angelo’s in Manhattan, but also noted it was conveniently across the street from his old office. (“I don’t go below 57th Street anymore,” he said with a shudder. “The traffic.”)


Stephen Colbert at NJPAC.

He talked about “Killers of the Flower Moon” and admitted his hesitancy about tackling a Western after so many great ones had already been made. He noted that the 1920s setting and characters made it easier for him. “They have cars, so I felt comfortable with that,” he said. “They had horses, but I didn’t get too close.”

He talked about Golden Age stars he’d have loved to work with (Barbara Stanwyck, Spencer Tracy). He mentioned a project he’d like to tackle soon — an adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s novel, “Home.” He said that, although he left it to others to define what a “Martin Scorsese film” meant, he realized that many of them have explored the same themes.

“Can a person change?” he asked rhetorically. “Can a person be forgiven?”

Those are questions, he said, that go back to his childhood, growing up in a neighborhood where men in dark suits huddled in dim social clubs and drew their power from fear, or violence — or, sometimes, just human weakness.

“Where I came from,” he said, “I knew a lot of people who were actually very decent people who were forced to live bad lives. And so I wonder, what we are as human beings — what is human nature?”

As the evening drew to its close, Colbert, a fellow Catholic (“Altar boy — 11 years!” he bragged), grew more serious. As Scorsese grew older — he turns 81 in November — how had his feelings about religion changed, Colbert asked. Did he still wrestle with concepts like guilt and redemption and Original Sin?

The filmmaker acknowledged his relationship with the Catholic Church hadn’t always been easy. “I had problems with the institution,” he said. “I wanted to get past the rules and dogma.” But, he said, no matter what he stripped away, something deeper always remained. Some search for meaning always persisted.

“Faith,” Scorsese said, “is like trying to find your way in a dark room, feeling your way around. And then, you hit that light switch.”


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