Martin Scorsese is on publicity overdrive when we meet. He’s in London for two days before flying to Berlin for the world premiere of his new film Shutter Island, a ’50s-set thriller with a Hitchcockian B-movie flavour that reunites him with Leonardo DiCaprio for their fourth film together after Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed.
Scorsese sits deep in the sofa, his trademark thick-rimmed glasses on his nose, a small embroidered ‘MS’ on the belly of his shirt. He’s a model of polite efficiency but there’s also a hint of turmoil in his talk, as if the dark themes of Shutter Island have rubbed off on him, or vice versa.
Shutter Island looks like it was fun to make...
I thought it would be a fun picture to make. But it turned out to be rather disturbing. But that’s the nature of filmmaking. You just never know.
We’re going to quote something back to you that you said in 1976 during an interview about Taxi Driver...
You dismissed the idea of realism on film, saying, ‘Every film should look the way I feel.’
Oh, hey, I still agree with that.
How did that apply to Shutter Island?
I’m not feeling so great! I’m not. My personal life and my family is good, thank God. But, no, Shutter Island reflects how I feel.
Even back to the choice to film Dennis Lehane’s dark novel?
No. But once I read it, I had to do it. It was like a moth to the flame. It’s a chance to go deeper with a character, to walk a tightrope stylistically and to deal with parts of myself, parts of being human, that other projects didn’t allow me. I may not want to go there, but I’ve simply got to go there.
The film has a major twist at the end. Until then, it’s something of a shaggy-dog story, keeping us hanging to the end.
But that’s life, isn’t it? It may very well be life, for all we know. I don’t mean to be sitting here being so glibly philosophical, but as you get older… What is? And who is? And who are you? It’s Alice in Wonderland. Who… are… you? That’s the caterpillar, remember? Why is it so disturbing when the caterpillar asks her that? I remember showing it to my daughter when she was five, six years old. She did not like that caterpillar saying, ‘Who… are… you?’. But it’s interesting with this film because all the clues are there through the entire picture and I think, without giving away too much, if you see it and you don’t know anything, and you do at least find it satisfying by the end, you might then want to go back and see it a second time or a third time.
It recalls several of Hitchcock’s films – The 39 Steps, North by Northwest.
The 39 Steps, maybe. But I showed my colleagues his The Wrong Man. The main character in that is innocent, but he feels guilt for who he is. This interests me. I was raised Catholic and I’m interested in that aspect of ourselves. It has to do with guilt or a concept of original sin, if it exists. All these aspects always come to mind. It’s who I am and what I do. I try to be hipper but I can’t.
You’re hip enough.
No, I’m not! [Laughs]
Does being hip concern you?
I think that listening to other people’s opinions and being open-minded to other ways of thinking concerns me.
You fear being conservative?
Yeah – because as you get older you may not want that many changes, but one has to be open-minded about so many things. Particularly when you have younger children. And if by reading or by somehow coming into contact with other ways of thinking, whether it’s philosophical or historical, you can enrich your life.
You enjoy working with familiar faces. Not just Leonardo DiCaprio, but also your editor and your director of photography.
We know each other very well. They know what I’m capable of, probably more than me. They know where to push, how far I can go with certain aspects. They just know. And even if I’m maybe reticent or rejecting at first, they know that it takes me my own time to come round to certain things. I’ll either reject or accept, or explore further. That’s kind of fun. That’s really what it’s about.
Where do you watch movies?
A screening room, part of the editing facilities I have. Very state-of-the-art; a very big screen. It’s very difficult for me to go to theatres these days. Also, when I did go a few years ago, the nature of the audience, the noise – it’s not taken seriously. And it hurts. I mean comedies too. There’s an attitude, there are phones going off, people talking. It’s crazy.
Here are some of our favourite products of repeat actor-director partnerships.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese: The Departed (2006)
Great set-up, great cast, and Scorsese’s first really great film since Casino. Plus, Leonardo finally convinces as a grown man. He has a beard and everything.
Johnny Depp and Tim Burton: Ed Wood (1994)
This brilliant biopic of the world’s worst director has loads of classic moments. Maybe our favourite is Béla Lugosi (Martin Landau) profoundly telling us to ‘pull the string’ as a herd of charging buffalo is superimposed over him. Although Johnny Depp dolled up in drag comes a very close second.
Uma Thurman and Quentin Tarantino: Pulp Fiction (1994)
It’s tough choosing which Tarantino/Thurman tie-up is best, but Thurman’s iconic role as Mrs Marsellus Wallace wins out.