‘Sin is fun!’ Martin Scorsese on brutality, love – and his rebirth on TikTok | Martin Scorsese

I have been talking to Martin Scorsese for two minutes and apparently the interview is already over. We’re discussing his most recent movie, Killers of the Flower Moon, which has been nominated for 10 Oscars, including a record 10th best director nomination for Scorsese. But he has been promoting the film since last April, he says. “For the most part, the reaction to the film is beyond encouraging. It’s very, very appreciated. However, I think I want to get back to making something as soon as possible. Like now. Right now. Today.”

Then he makes to get up from his chair and walk off. “Yes, right now. I’m going to leave right now.”

Er …

He sits back down and laughs heartily. “Nothing personal, nothing personal,” he says, as I barely suppress my relief. “No, it’s just that they say: ‘Well, you need to take a rest.’ Really? Time is an issue. Existence, non-existence, is an issue. So, alors, as they say.”

At an age when most film-makers would be retired or winding down (he turned 81 last November), Scorsese still has much to do – and the energy to do it. He almost seems to be ageing backwards. He continues to turn out ambitious – and epically long – movies: Killers of the Flower Moon is nearly three-and-a-half hours; its predecessor, The Irishman, was even longer. And he’s still desperately busy with other stuff: making documentaries and TV shows, producing other people’s movies and, as pretty much the last survivor of New Hollywood’s 1970s golden age, generally carrying the torch for the cause of cinema.

And on top of all this, against all expectations, Scorsese has found the time to become a social media star. “Apparently, I’ve been forced to engage with the TikToks,” he says, amusedly. This is thanks to his 24-year-old daughter, Francesca, who has been co-opting her obliging dad into her posts. Here’s Scorsese trying to guess the purpose of certain items, from an eyelash curler to a menstrual cup (“A flagon?”); here he is being tested on gen-Z slang (he gets a few wrong but, basically, he slays); here he is screen-testing a prospective new muse to replace Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio – who turns out to be the family dog, Oscar. The father-daughter duo’s dynamic is so endearing, they were hired to make a Super Bowl ad for the website company Squarespace.

On the set of Killers of the Flower Moon with Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone and Robert De Niro. Photograph: Courtesy of Apple

Francis Ford Coppola recently described Scorsese as “the world’s greatest living film-maker”, and now he’s making 30-second sketches for the socials. “It’s kind of fun, actually,” he says. “There’s something about suddenly breaking through all this artifice of being properly interviewed or being presented in certain events, and suddenly there we are at home with the dogs all over the floor, in pyjamas and people laughing.”

He’s in a relaxed mood – smartly attired as always in a tailored shirt and blazer, but informal and chatty. He’s stopping by in London on a European tour that also includes a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican, and, in a few days’ time, an appearance at the Berlin film festival to collect a career-achievement Golden Bear.

Making a three-and-a-half-hour movie isn’t that hard, Scorsese suggests – he’s done it plenty of times before, after all. Killers of the Flower Moon – based on the true story of how white outsiders systematically murdered members of the Native American Osage tribe after they struck oil on their land in the 1920s – was six years in the making and took almost 100 days to shoot. It wasn’t easy, he acknowledges, shooting in sweltering Oklahoma, with Covid restrictions in place and with period sets, cars, costumes, horses and scores of extras to marshall. But he’s not complaining. “By the time you get on set, you tend to eliminate from your mind all the pitfalls, the uncomfortable nature of shooting, the aches and the pains as you get older, how many naps you need to take – you forget all that and you think you’re going to go on and do it very quickly, or at least, efficiently … and it doesn’t happen,” he laughs again. “And so you slog through it.” He prefers shooting in the cold, he says. “If it’s colder, you shoot faster.”

Killers was still something of a risk for Scorsese, though. Not economically – it was backed by Apple, after all – but politically, in that it excavates a shameful, unambiguously racist episode of American history (the story also takes in the white-supremacist 1921 Tulsa race massacre, which happened just 65 miles away), at a time when many rightwing culture warriors are fighting to keep such histories buried. “Well that’s why it should be made,” he says simply.

DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. Photograph: Paramount Pictures/Sportsphoto/Allstar

“I didn’t do that intentionally: ‘Now we’re going to expose the corruption and the baseness of untethered capitalism, which we know to be terrible.’ I tried that with The Wolf of Wall Street [his 2013 rise-and-fall of a 1990s stockbroker], but as a kind of angry shout about it, with humour. And then what happened is that Trump was elected.”

Movies don’t often influence real life straightforwardly, Scorsese seems to be implying – yet many of his seem to have seeped into the culture in deeper ways. Not least because of his primary areas of interest: men, male power, male relationships and, in particular, men’s capacity for violence.

He says he is unfamiliar with the concept of the “Scorsese bro” – the type of male film fan who admires his macho, violent “drugs and guns” movies at the expense of his other works. Many of them – Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Wolf of Wall Street and especially Goodfellas – are regarded as masterpieces, but, I suggest to him, often these movies take the point of view of the (overwhelmingly male) perpetrators of the violence, rather than the victims. Killers of the Flower Moon is no exception, it must be said. These men usually get their comeuppance, but thanks to Scorsese’s frenetic, snappy, visceral film-making style, their lifestyles often look kind of cool. As Scorsese puts it himself: “Sin is fun.”

With De Niro on the set of Goodfellas. Photograph: Ronald Grant

“That’s pretty much all I’ve been interested in, I think,” he admits, “in terms of the perpetrators.” He looks to the side and pauses for a long time. “It’s a very complicated issue because it goes back to my childhood,” he finally says. He’s thinking about his postwar upbringing in Little Italy, the area of lower New York City where his Sicilian grandparents settled, along with hundreds of other Italian immigrants. The guns and gangsters were not movie fiction there: they were part of everyday life, as were the poverty, violence, Catholicism – notions of morality, of sin and guilt. He studied to become a priest, before being opened up to the world of movies, literature and music. His hard-up parents were “trying to toe the line, morally”, he says, “just to be able to survive with some kind of dignity in a world which was really corrupted on many different levels”. As for the perpetrators, he says he’s fascinated by what makes people criminals. “Can we become perpetrators?”

He hints at the fact that he has made mistakes in his own life: “Am I a person who comes in and makes moral judgments on how other people live? No. I lived that way.” But my attempts to lead him further down this autobiographical road are gently deflected. Scorsese has been married five times. He left his first wife, Laraine Marie Brennan, in 1971, not long after she had given birth to their daughter, Catherine – by all accounts he chose career over family. There were three short-lived marriages – to Julia Cameron, Isabella Rossellini and Barbara De Fina – and relationships with actors including Liza Minnelli and Ileana Douglas. He has been married to his current wife, Helen Morris, since 1999. Scorsese also went through a period of cocaine addiction, which resulted in hospitalisation and, you could say, the box office failure of his 1977 musical New York, New York, starring De Niro and Minnelli. He would rather talk about such events through the prism of his films: “I can’t make things like that if I don’t feel those things.”

Ellen Burstyn and Diane Ladd in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Photograph: Warner Bros/Sportsphoto/Allstar

As for the Scorsese bros, “there is always going to be a group who will only see the brutality of the film, and what they think is thoughtless violence,” he says. With movies like Goodfellas, “the point I was trying to make was, let’s understand the attraction and the enjoyment of evil. And so you may say, ‘Now you’re having it both ways.’” He smiles. “Possibly.”

These issues are still pertinent today. Taxi Driver, especially, seemed to home in on a kind of lonely, alienated, disempowered, resentful male identity that has only grown since. De Niro’s character was the prototype “incel”, or potential mass shooter, or domestic terrorist; he’s a type we now all know. Taxi Driver also foresaw the media’s role in muddying the moral waters around such characters, as did The King of Comedy, with De Niro as a failed standup who resorts to kidnapping (the recent Joker movie, which struck such a nerve, was almost a mashup of these two movies, going so far as to cast De Niro as a talkshow host). Like any good auteur, Scorsese was following his instincts, rather than those of the industry, he suggests. “We just gravitated towards these characters and these stories. When I was making them, I felt I should be there, rather than being hired and finding yourself in a place where you don’t want to be.”

Scorsese as the ‘Silhouette Watching Passenger’ with De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The violence spilled off the screen in the case of Taxi Driver: John Hinckley Jr – driven by his obsession with Jodie Foster, who starred in the movie, and emulating De Niro’s antihero – attempted to assassinate the US president, Ronald Reagan, in 1981. It’s an episode Scorsese has grappled with ever since. “Did I like what happened? No. Did we feel that we were right in making that film? Yes. Is violence ultimately the deciding factor in what makes a man a man? I don’t think so.”

There are outlets for male rage other than violence, Scorsese suggests. Rock’n’roll, for example. He has made many music films over his career, from his classic 1978 concert movie The Last Waltz to documentaries about Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, George Harrison, the history of the blues, even Michael Jackson’s extended Bad video (though Jackson’s attempts at male rage are pretty laughable, it must be said). Perhaps film-making is another outlet. Steven Spielberg reportedly remarked how Scorsese let De Niro’s character in Mean Streets “go over the top and lose control so that Marty can remain in control. I think [De Niro] is just wonderful as a sort of extension of what Marty might have been if he hadn’t been a film-maker,” Spielberg said.

Scorsese has also explored other themes in works: spirituality, for example, in Kundun (on the early life of the Dalai Lama), The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence (his next movie will be A Life of Jesus, set in the modern day and adapted from a story by Shūsaku Endō, who also wrote Silence – and it will be short, Scorsese has promised). He has made comedies, such as After Hours or his family-friendly 1930s Parisian adventure Hugo.

And when Scorsese has put women to the fore, the results have usually been positive – from Pretend It’s a City, his recent Netflix series on the quintessential New Yorker Fran Lebowitz, right back to 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More, for which Ellen Burstyn won the best actress Oscar as a single mother yearning to become a singer. Burstyn hand-picked Scorsese to direct it on the strength of Mean Streets. I read Scorsese a quote from an interview where she talked about meeting him for the first time. Burstyn said to him: “This film is about a woman, and there was only one female role in your picture [Mean Streets], and I couldn’t tell from that if you know anything about women. Do you?” Scorsese replied: “No, but I’d like to learn.”

With Lily Gladstone on the set of Killers of the Flower Moon. Photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon/Courtesy of Apple

“I still like to learn!” he says. “I’m learning. I really am.” He has many female colleagues, he points out, including Thelma Schoonmaker, who has worked with him for nearly 60 years, and won three Oscars for editing his films. He has produced films by female film-makers including Joanna Hogg and Josephine Decker. And for the past 30 years, he has mainly read fiction by women, he says.

Which brings us to one of Scorsese’s least typical but, for my money, most accomplished pictures: The Age of Innocence, released in 1990 and based on the novel by Edith Wharton. It is set among the ultra-rich families of late 19th-century New York and rendered with a sumptuous, sweeping grandeur. There are no guns or drugs but this society is every bit as violent beneath the surface. Daniel Day-Lewis’s suave social climber is ultimately outsmarted by his two lovers, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder. In other words, it’s a movie about men failing to understand women.

Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis in The Age of Innocence. Photograph: Columbia/Allstar

Scorsese’s family life is now full of women. As well as Francesca, he has two older daughters (aged 58 and 47), and two young granddaughters. “It’s a very different thing, having children at a late age. It teaches you a lot,” he says. He’s not just talking about TikTok. “It teaches you a great deal about love.”

Ultimately it doesn’t matter about gender differences, he says. “I try to find who we are as a human being, as an organism, what our hearts are made of. That’s what I think I’m looking for. Let me put it this way: I’m still curious.”

Killers of The Flower Moon is available on Apple TV+.

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