Martin Scorsese grew up in New York’s Little Italy and made his first films in the late 1960s. He redefined what was possible in movies with such classics as Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990).
Scorsese directed Robert De Niro in his Oscar-winning performance in Raging Bull, which received eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director, and is widely considered a masterpiece of modern cinema. He went on to direct The Color of Money (1986), Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993), and Casino (1995) among other films. The ensuing decades included films such as Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006) – which won Scorsese his first Best Director Oscar – and more recently, The Irishman (2019), where he reunited with De Niro.
Scorsese’s combination of artistry, charisma and generosity continues to inspire filmmakers and audiences all over the world.
Keeping creativity alive
Have you ever had a mentor?
I always tell the story about orientation day at the Communications Department of Washington Square College in the early 60s. This gentleman got up and spoke for about an hour with such passion and energy about cinema and about expressing yourself with visual images and telling stories with pictures and the development of the history of cinema. I never heard anyone speak that passionately, like a zealous preacher in a way. I became part of the cult in a sense right from there, and I said: “This is the place I want to go to; I want to study under him.” That’s how it happened.
His name was Haig Manoogian, a teacher of film at Washington Square College, which is now NYU. He pushed us, cajoled us, beat us down, then built us back up again. He set a fire in our hearts, and gave me the greatest gifts of all. Much greater than technical knowledge because he inspired me to acquire my own knowledge, and to believe in myself. It’s one of the most precious gifts I ever received, and I give thanks for it every day of my life.
He inspired me to acquire my own knowledge, and to believe in myself. It’s one of the most precious gifts I ever received, and I give thanks for it every day of my life.
But as well as inspiring you, he also transferred his vast film knowledge, yes?
I remember going to his class, once a week, about three or four hours because he’d show a film. I had to hang onto every word because he went very quickly. He would get on this little stage and start going through the history, mentioning names, films, showing clips of the life of an American fireman and intolerance and that sort of thing. And so you learn about parallel editing, you learn about the development of sound, you learn about German expressionism.
Whether or not he intended it, he did provoke you. But by arguing with you and by being very clear in his opinions, it made you clearer, able to find a way to discuss and defend and to support your argument.
What satisfaction do you get from being a mentor?
As a mentor, you’re experiencing the art through the student. And somehow that comes back to you. And there’s an incredible satisfaction, the fact that you’re able to make someone else flower, in a sense. I always get excited by all the young people coming up to me and suggesting they want to make a certain kind of film and I guide them as best I can. When I see whatever they do, it means something to me [knowing] I had a little bit to do with that. It keeps me alive creatively.
If they go further off than where I thought they were going to go, that’s fascinating. I may not like all of it, but I had the ability at that time to help shape something. The beauty of it is maybe five years later, you see something they did that you had nothing to do with, but you were possibly involved because you had helped them in their first films. It re-inspires you to make your own work.
Or, if not the inspiration of how to do something, because that’s very subjective, more the inspiration of the work itself. A person going through this process and delivering something to many people so that they could find out more, or at least be immersed in what it means to be a human being. That’s really what it’s about. Now some may be more successful than others, but some of the less successful ones still have value. It’s about the value of the work.