Martin Scorsese: On Raging Bull, Robert De Niro, Movies, and More

Richard Schickel is a film critic, filmmaker, and movie historian who has written more than thirty-five books, including Clint Eastwood: A Biography and The Disney Version. He is, as well, the director-writer-producer of thirty documentary films, among them "Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin," "Woody Allen: A Life in Film," and "Shooting War." He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the British Film Institute Book Prize, the Maurice Bessy Prize for film criticism, and the William K. Everson Award for Film History. He lives in Los Angeles. Here, he shares an excerpt of his latest book, Conversations with Scorsese, with Signature. Visit Richard Schickel's website here.

RICHARD SCHICKEL: You spoke earlier about the limits of friendship and loyalty. Yet around this time a friend did come through for you. I'm talking about Robert De Niro and his determination that you make "Raging Bull." This was coming at a time when you were very ill and were, if we're to believe Peter Biskind's book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, part of a fairly heavy drug scene.

MARTIN SCORSESE: The only good thing about the drug use is that it was very obvious in my case. And I just had to go to that brick wall. Nobody was going to tell me otherwise, whether it was a rock 'n' roller, or a studio executive, or an actor. People can try to guide me, but I always have to go my own way.

RS: The only reason I bring it up is because it's part of the public record of your life.

MS: Right. After "New York, New York" I was exhausted to the point where a number of people were worried about my health. I said, "Don't worry, I'm fine." And then after the Labor Day weekend in Telluride, at the film festival, I got back to New York and suffered a total collapse. That's when I finally went to the hospital, and that's when De Niro came to visit and asked if I wanted to do the film. Really, we had been working on it since Taxi Driver. I realized I had nothing else to do. I had exhausted all the possibilities. Even my friends were all going off on their own. I was alone. And it was time to go back to work. And what I discovered - it's in "Raging Bull" and it's in the other pictures later on - is that I had to come to terms with something.

RS: What did you come to terms with?

MS: The fighting with myself. You get to the point where you just get used to yourself: that's who you are, just get on with it.

RS: Stop there. What were you fighting in yourself? I mean, you were a talented kid. You had done pretty well for a young guy.

MS: I have no idea. Really.

RS: Were you fighting the past in some sense?

MS: Probably the past, I guess. I didn't trust myself. I'm not talking about art; I'm talking about myself as a person. I've surprised myself too many times in the wrong way.

It's how you treat people around you, how you treat yourself. And then you say, If you make a little bit of peace with yourself, you might be better with the people around you, too. That's all it is. Maybe it's maturing to a certain extent, but I don't think I did. You just get older; you're a little more tired.

RS: Was this tied in to people firing you, or saying you were too damned ambitious?
Was it pushing yourself to succeed when people thought you already had, given your age, your experience? Or was it that you were pressing against their low expectations for you while you had high expectations?

MS: I don't really know. I mean, I just wasn't comfortable with myself, who I was, what I was trying to be. Was I trying to be a movie director, or a filmmaker? A director in the style of Hollywood, or a filmmaker in the style of Europe? I mean, I didn't fit either place. I still don't. It's about how you're trying to express yourself. You've got this need to do something, and sometimes it's crazy. People say, Oh, you're taking yourself too seriously. But I can't help it. Out of the seriousness comes the humor, too.

RS: It's perhaps not so apparent to the people around you as it is to you.

MS: Maybe, but it is absolutely hilarious at times to me. The gambles I make - I seem to have this need. I try to do other things. I wish I could do many things - like write music. But making movies is the only thing that there seems to be a need for on my part.

RS: "Raging Bull" seems to be your common-consent masterpiece.

MS: I don't know.

RS: You don't think so?

MS: I don't know. I really have no idea.

RS: Set aside its masterly qualities for a minute. There's no doubt you were coming back with it, so to speak, even though most of us didn't know you'd been away.

MS: I was coming back. But I collapsed on that movie, too, during postproduction. And that wasn't from drugs. That was just from exhaustion - walking pneumonia, apparently. Later, on "King of Comedy," Jerry Lewis would make me laugh, which made me cough, and then the bronchial asthma would start. Then he would say, "Would somebody get a goddamn ambulance over here," and make me laugh more.

I was dragging myself through each day on "King of Comedy." But I kept pushing, pushing the envelope, seeing what would happen in terms of the work.

RS: Did it do your work any good?

MS: No, I don't think it did. And I don't look at it as heroic. I just woke up one day and I had survived. That's it. It's nothing to be proud of.

RS: It obviously didn't do your health any good.

MS: No. But, as you know, my whole life I had been reliant on asthma medication. My whole speech pattern is based on that. It's very fast, and there's no breathing, the breathing isn't right.

RS: Does the asthma medicine juice you up?

MS: Not really.

RS: You're saying medicine, doctors, were second nature to you, just part of your life.

MS: I have friends who say, I'm not going to a doctor, I don't care what a doctor says. Me, I went to doctors all the time. I felt doctors were interesting.

RS: Let's look at the specifics of "Raging Bull." What I love about that movie is its utter refusal to explain Jake LaMotta. I mean, with your first glimpse of the film, you think it's a genre movie, that it's going to be like "Somebody Up There Likes Me."

MS: I didn't know anything about boxing. On TV, or in the movie theaters, where they'd show the fight on the weekend, the fights all looked the same. All from one camera angle. I didn't know what the hell was going on. I didn't understand it. It was sports, which took me out of the picture.

RS: What I mean to say is that it's a modernist film, even though it looks like it might be part of a classic Hollywood genre.

MS: I never thought it was genre.

RS: There never is one of those explanatory scenes - where we learn his father beat him or his mother didn't like him.

MS: I saw too many of those films that came out in the fifties, or late forties, when Freudian psychology was coming in, and every movie explained everything. "Knock on Any Door" [a tragic 1949 history of a juvenile delinquent], and there's Nick Romano.

You can't explain a human being with one Freudian term. On "Raging Bull," I said let's take all that out. I don't want to do any of that. As you know, I was totally resistant to that picture. But Bob seemed to know that it was a picture that was very appropriate for me to do. My old friend Mardik Martin, a very sweet guy, was working on the script, but I gave him no supervision. It was a very traditional script. We went about it in a very conventional way. Jake starts out as a young man, goes through his whole life to the end. And I wasn't satisfied. I had no intention of making that picture, none. And I was having my own problems at the time, too; I was finishing "The Last Waltz."

Yet De Niro was very, very persistent about "Raging Bull," despite my misgivings.
I had had a lot of problems with myself on "New York, New York," and I wasn't even sure I should work with him again at that point. It wasn't a matter of what he did, it's a matter of how I was feeling about the whole actor-director process. I had wanted to do "Mean Streets," "New York, New York," "Taxi Driver." And the next picture I felt strongly about was making "The Last Temptation of Christ." And so I felt, Can I do this? Can I go through this process? But I tried to do another version of the script, and it still wasn't right. Eventually, we agreed that if anything could come of this, Paul Schrader was the one who could write a script for us. Paul, to his credit, accepted the challenge one night over dinner. He said, "I will give you six weeks. I will give it to you in six weeks."

Paul, of course, had his own career. He was about to go shoot a big movie; I think it was "American Gigolo." He had come off "Blue Collar," all these really good films. And "Taxi Driver" won the Golden Palm in Cannes, a Scorsese-De Niro picture with Paul's name scarcely mentioned. These things get a little touchy at times. He didn't have to do this for us.

RS: I understand.

MS: But it was just what we needed in terms of structure. He started the picture in the middle. He had the scene at the end in the jail which was very interesting, he did a whole thing with masturbation in there. I thought that was interesting. But I still was not determined to make the movie. There was a meeting with Irwin Winkler and me and Paul and Bob. They got into an argument, because Paul was going away. He said, "Look, I did this as a favor. I've got my own things to do." Rightly so. "I'm not doing the second draft." By that point I was sort of watching from the side. Irwin somehow worked it out. There were a lot of things in the script that I still was not focused on, though; I was still having my own emotional and physical problems. So I wasn't at the top of my game. And, quite honestly, I wasn't that enamored of the script, though there were two or three scenes I really liked. Bob had his own feelings about the script.

It wasn't like "Taxi Driver," which Paul delivered finished, complete. You hardly had to do anything with it. Amazing. This was something different, something he was doing for us as a favor. So we had one more meeting with him, and he said, Look. Go ahead, do it your way. Rewrite it yourselves. You should try this, you should try that. Or he would say, I would suggest doing this, combining two characters, making them one. But do whatever you want. And so, basically, that's what we did. The whole sequence of events is very different from the original script that Paul gave us. But the structure is there. What Paul did was blast through that logjam.

Then Bob came to say, "Look, we got the script. Let's work on it." He took me to Saint Martin for, like, two and a half weeks - and we wrote ten pages a day, improvised together. I wrote it all in longhand on yellow pads that I still have. Since then, he's said, You know, there is no script. But there is a script, and it was used by the studio. It's referred to in the book Final Cut by Steven Bach. Everything in that picture was worked out between me and Bob on a little audio tape recorder on the island. We even had an assistant with us, and she would type out the pages at the end of the day. We would work it out in the morning. I'd write pages in the afternoon. She would type them. And we'd go have dinner. There were no phones. It was total concentration. Everything was done at that little table with that silly cabana umbrella, and we're looking out at the ocean.

We had a little golf cart, and we drove into town to have dinners at these small places, and we just talked and talked and talked and talked and talked. And we were totally alone. We saw only two people that we knew while we were on this island. One night we're having dinner and [New York Times film critic] Vincent
Canby is sitting over there.

RS: No kidding?

MS: [Laughs.] I said hello. We were just waving. Another day, who's walking on the beach but Marco Ferrari. I said hello to him, and that was it. For me it was sort of like a spa, like "8 1/2," where I completely cleaned out. I was in good shape, given a clean bill of health by the doctors, finally. And I thought, Okay. You know what? Maybe Bob's right. Maybe this is the right picture to make. Let's go.

RS: Now let's talk about the film you made.

MS: As I said, when Schrader came into it, he started the film right in the middle, with a man who wanted the title, and couldn't get it because he wouldn't play ball with the wiseguys - not necessarily because of any moral indignation, but because he didn't want to share his money with them. He's going to get hit in the ring and these bastards are coming in and taking the money. They do it with everybody, the character thinks, but why should they do it with me? I'm tougher than they are. What can you say about a guy like that? You're not giving the audience any reason to like him. He's not being magnanimous, he's not being enlightened about it.

RS: It extends everywhere else. He doesn't see the world clearly. It extends to the woman he apparently loves. It extends to his brother, where he makes these horrendous accusations that he's slept with his wife. Does that come not out of this particular familial situation but out of the fact that life is so tough that no explanation of it can possibly

MS: That anger and that rage was at the level of my grandparents. They didn't know how to take advantage of the American way. All they could do was try to have some dignity and respect within the neighborhood. And that was the struggle of my father, too. My father always wore glasses. He finally told me why. He said his eye was bad because his father slapped him in the head when he was about five or six. I asked why. He said: "I said something that lacked respect."

So they were just lucky to get where they were. And that's the nature of poor people. It has to do with simply trying to hold on to those old values. But Jake's a character who can't hang on to those values because of how he feels about himself. He's in the dressing room and he says something like "I did some bad things in my life." It's this extraordinary guilt that he has, and this anger he has, that he acts out of. We did it as honestly as possible. And it had aspects of my family in there, yes, even though I couldn't fully explain it.

"Raging Bull" also represented something new to me: an acceptance of where I came from. Having made "New York, New York," a film that was not received well, I went through a rough period in my life. I came out the other side, and I said to myself, Wait a minute, I can't deny who I am or where I came from. So I embraced my parents again, and they became a part of my life in the films, too. My father's in "Raging Bull." My mother acted in a lot of the films. They were on the set to help me remember who I am and where I'm from. So I'd been harboring a lot of anger and rage, and I think it just explodes in "Raging Bull."

Learn more about Conversations with Scorsese here.

Excerpt from Conversations with Scorsese, by Richard Schickel.
© 2011 by Richard Schickel, reprinted with permission of Random House, Inc.