Newsmaker: With The Irishman, Martin Scorsese returns to the gangster genre, but with a Marvel movie budget
Few directors can command the kind of creative and budgetary freedom that Martin Scorsese does. The master filmmaker makes a grand return to the gangster genre with The IrishmanUpdated: Oct 12, 2019 12:07 IST
Martin Scorsese has said that if he hadn’t become a filmmaker, he’d have been a priest. Directing movies, for him, is an act of devotion; of honouring traditions; of faith in his own abilities and in others’.
One of the most enduring Hollywood stories about Scorsese (popularised by Quentin Tarantino, never one to let the truth get in the way of a good story) is about how, after being told to recut his classic Taxi Driver to avoid the dreaded ‘X’ rating, Scorsese stayed up all night drinking, with a loaded gun in his lap. The next day, Tarantino said giddily, Scorsese intended on going to the offices of Columbia Pictures and murdering the executive who’d ruined his movie. Fans of Taxi Driver would no doubt have realised by now how close this incident came to resembling the events of the film, in which a lone anarchist attempts to assassinate a presidential candidate.
Both Scorsese and Taxi Driver have re-entered public consciousness in recent weeks, with the release of the comic book film Joker, whose bleak cynicism is directly inspired by Taxi Driver, and the arrival of The Irishman, Scorsese’s grand return to the genre with which he is synonymous.
Slated for release on Netflix on November 27, the gangster epic reunites Scorsese with perhaps his greatest muse, Robert De Niro. The Irishman also serves as only the fourth time that De Niro and Al Pacino’s parallel careers will convene on screen, after two certified classics (The Godfather: Part II and Heat) and one glorious dud, 2008’s Righteous Kill.
Although he rarely writes his own screenplays, Scorsese is one of the last remaining auteurs in American cinema. Alongside Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, no other filmmaker can afford the sort of budgets and creative freedom that Scorsese routinely commands. He is one of only a handful of directors who can attract major movie stars to appear in his films, regardless of the significance of their roles. He even convinced his Goodfellas star Joe Pesci to come out of retirement for The Irishman.
So it wasn’t surprising to learn that Scorsese has no patience for the Marvel movies that everyone seems to love these days. Those films are defined by their indistinct identities, created by a visionary producer (Kevin Feige) and not by trailblazing filmmakers. There are exceptions, of course, but Scorsese belongs to an entirely different generation of American moviemaking. He received death threats after directing The Last Temptation of Christ; he was forced to spend his own money to complete The Aviator after it went over-budget by $500,000; he was banned in China for making a picture about the Dalai Lama; and he still lives with the knowledge that Taxi Driver was partially responsible for inspiring a lunatic to try and assassinate Ronald Reagan. That’s too much guilt for a Catholic boy from New York.
The Irishman, like Gangs of New York, The Last Temptation of Christ, and his last film, Silence, has been a passion project for Scorsese. With breakthroughs in cutting-edge digital de-ageing technology, and the arrival of Netflix, Scorsese could finally afford to realise his vision, reportedly at a cost of $160 million – that’s about as much as Marvel shelled out to make Spider-Man: Far From Home.
It’s Scorsese’s most expensive movie ever, and it certainly would not have been greenlit were it not for Netflix’s ‘subscribers-first-profits-later’ approach to producing films. The filmmaker would be the first to credit De Niro, and subsequently Leonardo DiCaprio, for providing the necessary clout to get some of his most ambitious movies made. Had it not been for De Niro, Scorsese said in an interview, no studio would have had the courage to make Taxi Driver, or Raging Bull. Indeed, The Departed was intended to be a ‘dirty B-movie’, but the studio insisted on beefing up its budget after DiCaprio and Matt Damon jumped on board.
The budgets may have increased in the last decade, but Martin Scorsese still directs like there’s no tomorrow; often juggling multiple projects at any given time and latching onto whichever seems the most likely to get made. This is one of the reasons why he waited over 20 years to make Silence, which ended up bombing.
Scorsese is a true dying breed. And a part of him recognises this, which is perhaps why he has dedicated his time and energy to the preservation of old films, and by extension, the rich cultural history of his country. It’s a good thing then that he didn’t become a priest. ‘God’ has a better ring to it.
Scorsese’s non-gangster movies
-New York, New York - Scorsese followed up Taxi Driver with another New York story; a lavish musical that juggled fantasy with hard-hitting social realism and starred Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli.
-The Age of Innocence - As much a New York movie as any of his other classics, this decadent period romance, starring Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer, proved that Scorsese is a born filmmaker, not one to be bound by genre.
-Kundun - The visually dazzling and profoundly poetic Kundun, a film that tells the Dalai Lama’s story over two decades, might be forgotten to the mainstream, but visit any cafe in Tibetan refugee colonies in India and you’d see its poster occupying the prime spot on their walls.