The Art of Martin Scorsese

An interview with the 2013 Jefferson Lecturer

HUMANITIES, July/August 2013, Volume 34, Number 4

After Martin Scorsese delivered the 42nd Jefferson Lecture in April, he sat down with parting NEH Chairman Jim Leach for an interview. They talked about Scorsese’s upbringing, his films, and the culture of film he passionately works to preserve.

JIM LEACH: I want to ask you about place, which, of course, is important to setting your movies. But do you personally think place is important?

MARTIN SCORSESE: To me, place is not just important, it’s a necessity. I spent the first few years of my life in a place that, in my child’s mind, was like a paradise, but actually is a very small, working-class environment out in Queens called Corona, at that time heavily Italian American.

We had to move back to New York, to the neighborhood where my parents were born. It was a shock for me at six or seven years old to move away from this very quiet, idyllic place to basically the Bowery, the Lower East Side.

So, place made a big difference. It was frightening, then it became exciting, and it was still scary at times. I saw all of life there in two blocks really, including the dereliction on the Bowery, which permeated my world, more so than the church, and also a kind of underworld.

Add to that I couldn’t really participate in the actual street life because I had very bad asthma. I became someone who was taking notes, in a sense, involved, but in a more intellectual capacity, observing the theater all around meBut it was real. People would say, well, this sounds like melodrama. Certain things happen in a melodrama, but it happened. That was the life. That’s the way it was. It still is that way in many communities.

And so, if you get the truth in that, then it becomes some- thing that can have meaning to all levels of society and all communities, all cultures. It has to do with the specific in the microcosm.

LEACH: I totally identify with what you’re saying. I was a young Midwesterner and very athletic. I played three sports in college, and then, as I ended graduate school, I got a terrific arthritic affliction and suddenly was on crutches for two years. It changed my personality. I went from being very outgoing to being much more observing.

SCORSESE: My parents said they had no choice but to move back from Corona. They had to move back to the buildings they were born in, these buildings on Elizabeth Street. They said, okay, now go to school around the corner. The school was the St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral School with the Sisters of Charity. Prior to that, I had no religious training.

I found some comfort in the old cathedral of St. Patrick’s, and, of course, some comfort in the movie theater. My parents took me to the movies. I saw Ace in the Hole by Billy Wilder, which is about cynical journalism, Sunset Boulevard. Yes, there were musicals and westerns, but the westerns ranged from Shane to Winchester ‘73, which was a very disturbing film, a psychologically disturbing picture.

The films in the early fifties made such an impression on me, and they were very, very strong dramatically. Then comes this ten-year period, the decade where the Legion of Decency Code was breaking down. So you have Otto Preminger making Man With the Golden Arm. You have Elia Kazan’s films. Anatomy of a Murder even, which, in the court scene, used sexually explicit language. Lawyers were candidly talking about adultery. Up until that point, it hadn’t been allowed.

Life was playing out, up there on the screen, granted through a prism. I know it wasn’t real, yet—how should I put it—the emotions were real, and the ideas were real. The ideas were the major thing, whether it was 12 Angry Men, or any of the films that Stanley Kramer produced, Inherit the Wind, for example. Whatever you think of these films artistically, the themes were interesting.

And these films are a part of where I am from. I carry them with me. Where I was really from was very provincial in a way, and the thinking at times was primitive, but often very practical. Very practical. A peasant culture really, a culture that really didn’t know how to take advantage yet of what it was to be in America, didn’t know how to take advantage of the education, didn’t trust.

LEACH: Tip O’Neill used to say that all politics is local, and I think there’s a corollary to that now, which is that all local politics are affected by global events. With international distribution and the rise of more global perspectives, have your movies moved beyond the local?

SCORSESE: No. It seems that, if anything, it’s made me more specific to the places I know. I think in being true to that, we can be more true to human nature. I know now that my movies will be shown around the world. Back around the mid nineties, I didn’t think that, and certainly in the seventies we didn’t think that, absolutely not.

In some movies, the place is much more internal. On this picture, The Wolf of Wall Street, there’s only one scene on Wall Street. They work out of Long Island in the town of Lake Success. What do you really see? You see them. It’s their faces and their behavior.

They could be in this room. They could be in the street. They could be in a restaurant. They could be on a plane. They could be in Geneva, which is one scene. If you can make $21 million in an hour and a half on the phone, you’re not going to be worried about where you are or what the people around you are thinking.

In the case of Hugo, we created our own world. Not only our own version of Paris, but the whole idea of the birth of cinema, and magic, and the young boy who couldn’t really participate in anything, and looking through the face of the clocks. But decisions had to be made there.

We did all this research, learning about whatever is left of the major train stations in Paris. And we make a combination of them. Then we look at the clocks. They have Roman numerals. But Hugo can’t look through Roman numerals. We can’t see his eyes. Arabic! Those clocks didn’t have Arabic numerals, but no one realizes that. So, the numbers are wrong. But that’s a world we created.

LEACH: You didn’t read a lot as a kid, but in interviews you’ve mentioned authors like Dostoyevsky and Graham Greene. And you made The Age of Innocence into a movie. Is it hard to take a novel and turn it into a movie? You obviously have to reduce words, but do you have to change the story?

SCORSESE: I could take two examples from film history. One of them is To Have and Have Not, Howard Hawks with Bogart and Bacall. The novel was adapted a couple of other times—The Breaking Point with John Garfield and The Gun Runners with Audie Murphy. Hemingway said the first, To Have and Have Not, was not his story at all.

The Breaking Point, which Michael Curtiz directed, may be closer to the actual novel. It’s quite a good film. But To Have and Have Not is the one—for film lovers—that’s resonated over the years. Everybody knows it immediately when they see images from it. But it has very little to do with the book.

Now, in the case of von Stroheim and McTeague, Frank Norris’s book, he made a film called Greed back in 1924. And because of his obsessive nature, he pretty much photographed every page, and the film turned out to be over five hours long. They cut it down to a three-hour version, then a two-hour version. And, finally, they burned everything else. They just destroyed the rest.

That’s the closest example in film history to literally filming a novel. He did make some changes. In McTeague there’s a scene where McTeague gets married. And in the book there’s a lumberyard next door and they ’re sawing wood, which has an irritating sound and gives a kind of bad feeling during the marriage ceremony. It’s an indication of things to come. Well, it’s a silent film. So von Stroheim decided to make a funeral outside, also a harbinger. He translated the sawing of wood into something visual.

I tried in The Age of Innocence to deal with the language. I like the way it was written, and had Joanne Woodward read the text, a female narrator, which was questioned at the time. Who is she?, they asked me. Who is she? She’s the storyteller. That’s who she is.

I tried to play with the sound of the words, the distance that she had with her language, but at the same time to present it alongside the powerful emotions that she was commenting upon.

LEACH: In your Jefferson Lecture, you talked about “angle.” There’s an artistic dimension of it, but there’s also an interpretive dimension. Does the angle change the story?

SCORSESE: In a documentary, you’ll find that each historian has his or her own take. It’s a tone of voice. It’s an aside. It’s two worlds. And sometimes it’s very subtle, and it leaves a taste in your mouth.

LEACH: It says something about yourself as well as the other person.

SCORSESE: Yeah. There’s no doubt, I think, that how you place the lens and the size of the lens, how much you leave in the frame, how much you leave out, shapes the story. One of the greatest joys is framing a scene, and it’s also probably the hardest thing to do. There are times when it’s very difficult to decide what to leave out. I always found it much harder in non-urban areas to frame a shot.

LEACH: Is it like sculpture? People say sculpture is all about carving space.

SCORSESE: It is carving space. A sculptor looks at a block of marble. I guess you really have to learn about the cracks in the marble, where the life is in there. And you have to chip away at this thing, and sometimes take an axe to it. Other times, you have to finesse it and massage it and I don’t know, sort of polish it. Which is what Thelma Schoonmaker and I do in the editing. The editing for me is really everything.

LEACH: Is music separate from the visual, or is it integral to the visual?

SCORSESE: Somehow, for me, it combines. It goes back to being a child and listening to records. My father had a collection of 78s, and this is the late 1940s, basically big band music and that sort of thing. My uncles also gave me music to listen to, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, or Stephen Foster, or Mascagni’s intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana, which I wound up using in Raging Bull. They hated rock ‘n’ roll when it came out. I was twelve or thirteen then, so it hit me at the right time.

Music somehow created a kind of state of mind, where I imagined abstract images and movement, a lot of movement. That’s the key. Even when I was doing Wolf, I locked myself in and put some music on, and tried to imagine certain scenes around the room.

Even just the angles. The angles, you know, it’s kind of exciting and a bit daunting when you go there and you have to make up the angle on the spot. It’s a test. It’s all a test, but it has an energy to it. I was talking to Roman Polanski in Paris about a year or two ago. I was talking about his last film, The Ghost Writer, and I said that last shot is remarkable. He said, always start with the last shot. It tells you the story visually. Then I know where to go. That’s his style.

Where the camera decides to make you look is the philosophy of the storytelling, the visual storytelling. John Ford would be more like How Green Was My Valley, or The Grapes of Wrath, or The SearchersThe Searchers, the great western. You play out this very, very American conflict of racism against this extraordinary prehistoric background in Monument Valley. So he doesn’t have to move the camera that much. When he does, it makes a definitive statement. But the statement is already there in the style.

Movie poster for "The Searchers"
Photo caption

Movie poster of The Searchers (1956), directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne.

Mary Evans/ WARNER BROS / Ronald Grant / Everett Collection

Welles loved to move the camera. He loved that wide angle lens, 18 millimeter. You’re on some sort of amusement park ride with the motion and psychological impact, like in Kane or in Ambersons or in The Lady from Shanghai. He does an extraordinary sequence in the hall of mirrors at the end of that film.

But, for me, it has to come from music and the lack thereof. In other words, silence is important. In Raging Bull, we never really thought too much about the sound effects until Frank Warner and I worked on it with Thelma Schoonmaker. Frank Warner, a great sound effects editor and creator, came up with ideas of how these punches would sound and tried to imagine what it would sound like to a fighter in the ring. Imagine being in a ring, being pummeled, and you do it once a day, twice a day, sometimes with sparring. I couldn’t believe it when I saw what these men do. And what does it sound like to them?

We tried so many different things. Then, at one point, Frank looked at us and says, there is no sound. I said, you’re right. Take it all out. Take it out. You go into a whole meditative state and then, wham, the sound comes back in. What is it like to pass out in that ring? What is it like to be knocked down and all of a sudden . . . what does “all of a sudden” mean? How do you interpret “all of a sudden” visually and orally, because there’s a referee over you saying you’re out?

You say, what happened? What are you talking about I’m out? You’re on the floor. You’re on the mat. You see, that’s why you’re out. There is too much sound today in movies. Because of this remarkable technology now, the digital, we can do anything. But do we really need all that? Now the audience expects a certain kind of ambient sound; otherwise, they think something is wrong. That’s what they ’ve been taught to expect. But ambient sound can cover your dialog, if you’re not careful. The whole thing becomes so technically oriented, because so many different kinds of refinements have become possible, that you can lose sight of the basics that need to happen.

When my wonderful sound crew did this beautiful job on the sound in Hugo, I didn’t go in that mixing room for two days, well, because they ’re playing it back and forth until they get it right. Do you know what that’s like, back and forth eight hours a day? And very often, I try to strip away. I say, well, do we really need that sound? What’s this sound? What’s that sound? And I’ve found that over the years with the digital we have more of that.

Silence is so important. It makes a big difference. And I’m afraid that audiences in America unfortunately expect sound from first frame to last frame, and I think they expect music, too. And music in the past twenty years has been used to let people know what to feel.

LEACH: Have you been affected by any artists outside of the realm of film?

SCORSESE: Yes. I guess the first art that I was exposed to was religious art, plaster saints in the church, and then literally the great masters, pictures being discussed in class. I remember in third grade being shown Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and that led us, me and a few friends, to go up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We were fascinated by Dalí, and then Mondrian later at the Museum of Modern Art.

A lot of this found its way into The Last Temptation of Christ. There’s a crucifixion scene which was copied directly from this painting by Antonello da Messina. There’s a lot of references to the frescoes of Signorelli, which showed up later in Bringing Out the Dead. I don’t know if it worked there.

For Temptation of Christ, we had Caravaggio, of course, La Tour for the light, and Hieronymous Bosch, whose painting of Jesus carrying the cross we actually copied directly at 120 frames.

Around the time we made Taxi Driver, there was a film made by a guy named Jack Hazan called A Bigger Splash, and it was about David Hockney. I thought it was fascinating. And I screened it for Michael Chapman, my cinematographer. There was something about the way Hazan shot David Hockney ’s paintings, and also the way the paintings, particularly the ones in Los Angeles, had, well, “flatness” is the wrong word, but it was a direct composition, and it just lent itself to establishing shots. And if you look at Taxi Driver, a lot of the establishing shots are head-on, and it came from the simplicity or what looked like simplicity to me of the Hockney angle.

New York, New York, of course, had a lot to do with the popular art of the forties, particularly Hollywood and the Vargas Girls and that sort of thing. Very, very clear, the color.

In The Age of Innocence we even replicated paintings, one by Whistler and one by Sargent. There’s a scene in the ball at the beginning of the film where the camera tracks and pans, and we literally place—for our own enjoyment—figures from the paintings in the compositions as the camera just went by them.

For Gangs of New York we looked to engravings of the period. Prior to the draft riots, hardly anything was written about that place downtown, that tip of Manhattan. It was only after the draft riots that people began to take notice. Articles were written. Social workers went down there. Then that died out again. And then Jacob Riis went down there to photograph. When they saw the photographs, that’s when people started again trying to rehabilitate that area.

For Raging Bull, we certainly had in mind the George Bellows painting of Dempsey and Firpo. I grew up with that painting. Everywhere in my neighborhood, they had reproductions of it in luncheonettes and the soda fountains.

LEACH: Well, let me ask you about your philosophy. You were raised Catholic, of course. Do you think man is inherently sinful and in need of redemption?

SCORSESE: I don’t know if I any longer accept the idea of an inherent sinfulness in human nature. I think in the process of living, we may need redemption just from being who we are. But the idea of original sin, that we are already guilty to begin with, is obviously in the films I make and in who I am.

But over the years now I’ve been thinking maybe that isn’t the case. Maybe it’s the question of what human nature is. Is it intrinsically good or bad? And if there is nothing and we are in a world that’s meaningless, why should there be any good at all? Nothing has any meaning anyway.

Well, then we create meaning. If so, it has to do with your relationships with the people around you and caring for other people. It’s the microcosm again, how you affect the people around you, good, bad.

My father was very strong about that. He wasn’t very religious, but a lot of people we knew felt this way. They didn’t trust the government or the church. And you could say, well, it’s kind of tribal. It may be, but it has to do with, yes, you are your brother ’s keeper. You really are.

And, at this point, your brother is not just the person in the next room. It’s everyone around the world. If there’s any hope for any of us, that’s something that has to be in our children.

LEACH: You have had the good fortune to work with method actors like Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis.

SCORSESE: Ellen Burstyn, too, was very much in the Actors Studio.

LEACH: Yes, of course. But what is method acting and what has it brought to your films?

SCORSESE: Method acting has to do with the mid-century break in acting style, and that has to do with Kazan and it has to do with Brando. I never saw Kazan’s theater work. I never saw A Streetcar Named Desire because I was too young to even see the film version.

Now, when I was telling you about films like Sunset Boulevard, and Winchester ‘73, or other great films of the early fifties, no matter how much emotional and psychological truth I was finding in those films, or how much they were speaking to me, everything changed when I saw On the Waterfront. It was as if somebody had taken a camera and moved into my neighborhood or my apartment where I was living with my parents. In the film they’re Irish American, but it doesn’t really matter. The faces are real. The faces look like people in my family. And, suddenly, I saw ourselves up there on the screen.

And so everything after that was split. There was the beautiful art of acting, which could be anywhere from Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, to Sir Alec Guinness, James Mason, Sir John Gielgud, all of that, Olivier, which we enjoyed tremendously. But then there was what I knew to be truth, like there was no camera there.

That led to the development of the independent cinema here in New York and John Cassavetes. You see Shadows and Faces. There’s no camera in the room. This was the road for me to take, trying to capture something that could only happen once on film, something natural.

And this comes from the actor. Therefore, you have to have patience, and you have to have the love. You’ve got to love them.

I was saying this the other night, with Jerry Lewis at the restoration of The King of Comedy. Jerry ’s now eighty-seven, Bob De Niro was there, and we were talking about the film. My mother is in the film. She plays Bob De Niro’s mother off camera. So my mother knew Bob very well. My son’s friend. She would say Bob is like my other son, and Harvey Keitel is like my other son.

We’re not making films with big actors, you know. We were making films as friends, in a way, with all that entailed, the good and the bad.

But then Jerry was thrown into that, and he’s a pro. He taught me about paying for time. His attitude was, you’re paying for my time. I will be here. Utilize me if you can. If you’re not going to, please tell me. Please don’t make me wait all night, but if you want me to wait all night, that’s what you’re paying for.

There was kind of a clash with our casual attitude for making films. It’s a little different in Taxi Driver because Paul Schrader had a very, very tight script, and we didn’t really have to discuss that character very much.

There’s a picture of De Niro and me talking that’s been used a lot. We’re sitting on the edge of a freezer in a sandwich shop or whatever. And he’s talking to me and I’m listening. We’re talking about private things. We’re not talking about the film.

I had to do a scene with him in the film. I was in the back of a cab, and he taught me a lot by not moving his head. I had to look at him, and he just wouldn’t turn. And I realized, oh, as an actor, it has to be real, he has to have a real reason to turn his head.

The actor is so important. I know, when you’re talking about something as important as acting, it’s easy to make it sound like it’s the only thing. Of course, a good script helps. And some people even think the director makes a difference. But, yeah, the acting is a really big factor.

LEACH: Is directing a comedy radically different from directing a drama? Do you approach these differently, and do you use different kinds of people, different kinds of actors?

SCORSESE: Well, I’ve been lucky over the years that the actors that I’ve worked with have a great sense of humor, an ironic sense of humor, too. As I say, sometimes it can be so miserable that it’s funny. You’re in a terrible situation. The more you complain, it’s only going to get worse.

I don’t think I can do a Bringing Up Baby or a film like His Girl Friday, which is a wonderfully funny film. The comedy in films I directed comes out of human nature. It comes out of misunderstanding, which happens every day, and with enjoyment of the humor that comes out a situation. At one point in Goodfellas, Joe Pesci tells his friend, “make some coffee,” and he goes in the room and shoots this person. And as he’s leaving, he says, “make that a coffee to go,” and the guy is leaving with the coffee pot. He goes, “What are you doing with the coffee pot? Put it down.” That’s a joke. That’s a joke. “Put it down.” It comes out of a situation or a total misunderstanding with language. In the case of After Hours, it’s a device. It’s a game where he loses his money and he has to get uptown. It’s like a maze that he’s in and he can’t get out of it.

But in the case of The Wolf of Wall Street, the humor comes out of their enjoyment. They ’re doing bad things, and there’s a tension that I hope to get with the audience itself, as they find themselves maybe enjoying some of what these guys are doing and checking themselves for that. What’s in us that makes us enjoy this?

LEACH: Have you ever watched an audience have a reaction that wasn’t what you expected?

SCORSESE: Yes. Taking myself very seriously, I made this six- minute film called The Big Shave. It was for the avant-garde film festival in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium, and they gave us some money for it. It was 1967, the war was on. And I had this fellow shaving himself, and he starts to cut himself and bleed everywhere, but he keeps going, and then finally cuts his throat.

Now, this is what Amos Vogel told me when he showed it at Knokke-le-Zoute. I wasn’t there. He said the reaction was amazing. People were angry. People were laughing, and I think laughing out of the horror of it, maybe.

And then finally we showed it at the New York Film Festival here with the Godard film Weekend. And again, the reaction was hilarity. And I said, hmm, I guess it’s funny.

LEACH: Do you make a point of speaking up to audiences, speaking down to audiences? Does that enter your thoughts?

SCORSESE: I’m just telling a story, but there’s a danger of underestimating the audience. The audience knows. They know ahead of you. I’ll tell an actor, don’t give them that look. Don’t move that eyebrow. You’re going to give away the next three scenes by that look. Or using a certain shot that you may fall in love with. It tells the audience what to think or what to expect in the next two or three minutes of the picture.

You have to screen the picture a lot to get a sense of the storytelling. Do they understand certain things? We look at the comments, and my editor tells me, you know, out of these twenty points, these three keep coming up. What do we do?

We’ve had an average, in the past twelve years of screening the film at least twelve to thirteen times, with an audience that writes out cards, before releasing it. And sometimes we do it in an actual preview. Other times it begins with associates and friends, and then friends of friends and so on. It’s dangerous because the film can get out all over the Internet. Also you have to make sure that there aren’t people who happen to be writers or other filmmakers, friends of friends who might say something when the film is not even finished. In the case of Hugo, it was enjoyable because we brought in a lot of children. That was kind of fun.

You have to get an audience that at least is open-minded and is there to help. We need constructive criticism, and a little breathing room to make it as good as it can be, but there’s this frenzy to pass judgment and move on to the next thing—even before the present thing has had a chance. There are all these people rushing to say, oh, yeah, I’ve seen it. They want to top you and scoop you even before the film comes out.

LEACH: As you look back, are you dissatisfied with any of the movies you’ve made?

SCORSESE: When I started, when I did Mean Streets, I had to get that done because it came from me and what I knew. But I also thought that I could be a Hollywood director. But by the time I did Taxi Driver, I realized that was not going to happen, and, hence, Raging Bull was sort of a finalizing of all of that.

But I don’t think I ever really get satisfied with anything, unless it’s maybe a music film because you didn’t write the music. And if you present it a certain way, like The Last Waltz, or the documentary we did on Bob Dylan, or the one we did on George Harrison, there’s a kind of satisfaction in watching it because it’s really about them. It’s their work.

But not any of the features. I just think they ’re done. It’s almost like backing out of a room defending yourself, and then you slam the door and you’ve made it out.

Wait a minute, do you want to see it? No. I see maybe the opening night, and I see bits and pieces on television. I’ve shown my young daughter only a few of my films. Obviously, I can’t show her the heavier films dealing with the underworld or the boxing picture. But she’s seen Kundun and The Age of Innocence and The King of Comedy.

You think you’re going to capture something, and you try everything. Everything. I mean, how you work with people, how you get them to do something you want or they get you to do something, and then you use it a certain way. What I do with my editor, Thelma, what we do with my producers. You all work it. You work it whether it’s having dinner, whether it’s being somewhere, whether it’s late night phone calls. It’s always work, work, work. It all has to do with creating this “something.”

In the case of this Wolf movie, it’s maybe the frame of mind. At one point his father tells him—Rob Reiner plays his father—he says, you act as if you want something you get it immediately. You have to show some restraint in life. And Leonardo DiCaprio looks at him and says, why should I show restraint? Why? Do you know how much money I make? Now, take that.

LEACH: That’s tough.

SCORSESE: But the point is, at the age of twenty-two years old, twenty-three, why should I show restraint? Let’s get into that mindset and let’s create the world around it, everything, every shot, every piece of music, every line of dialog, every bit of foul language, everything you can think of, and put you in that mindset. And that’s what we’re fighting right now to try to get. Once you do it . . .

LEACH: You don’t want to see it.


LEACH: Can I tell you about a famous actor who felt the opposite way?

SCORSESE: Who was that?

LEACH: Well, I have a niece, Leslie, whose best friend, at the age of nine, was a girl named Amanda Deaver. And I’ve never been to Camp David, but Leslie went there with Amanda and her father, Michael Deaver, and Ronald Reagan, whom she adored. I asked Leslie what was her favorite part and she mentioned eating popcorn and watching movies after dinner with Amanda, Mr. Deaver, and the president. And what did they see? “Only movies with the president in them,” she said. Did he like watching his own movies? I asked. “Oh yes,” she said, “he would smile and repeat his lines.”

SCORSESE: That’s wonderful. You know, there’s a lot of actors, particularly coming out of the Hollywood tradition, who enjoyed it, and why shouldn’t they enjoy seeing themselves on screen? I still think his best performance was Kings Row. And his last one that he did with John Cassavetes that Don Siegel directed, The Killers. But Kings Row is a remark- able performance and a strong picture. But everything else, a lot of the other films that he made, you can see him enjoying himself.

LEACH: How big was the transition from silent to talkies? How did it affect comedies?

SCORSESE: It all became verbal. The comedy stars in the thirties were Laurel and Hardy, thankfully, and W. C. Fields, and the Marx Brothers. Then after the war or during the war, Abbott and Costello, which was really language, old vaudeville routines. And then postwar it’s Martin and Lewis, which was a kind of manic craziness and kind of reflection of the freedom after the war.

LEACH: Two foils.

SCORSESE: Yeah, exactly. But in the silent era, it’s all physical and visual comedy: Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Charley Chase, all these people we’re restoring. There’s a lot of them that are being restored. It’s quite remarkable seeing these on a big screen.

Young people, when I show it to them, they ’ll ask, Do they talk in this movie? I say, they don’t talk in this one, but you might find it interesting. And they do.

Black and white still of Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan sitting on stoop
Photo caption

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921).

© Moviestore collection Ltd / Alamy

LEACH: I’ll bet.

SCORSESE: The great silent dramatic films really worked extraordinarily well. I mean, they still do if you’ve seen them restored, meaning at the right speed, the right tint and color, because everything was in color, but toned and tinted. In any event, they did have their own international language. Murnau wanted to use title cards in Esperanto. He said, this is the universal language, cinema. And then when sound came in, it changed again completely.

LEACH: The movie industry is America’s greatest presentation to the world in terms of public diplomacy. For instance, Charlie Chaplin was truly universal. You didn’t have to translate it into any language.

SCORSESE: Norman Lloyd, who was a great actor and producer, he worked with everybody: Hitchcock and Welles and Chaplin. He’s in his nineties now. He was just talking on television the other night on TCM, and he was saying that Chaplin is universal, probably the greatest, because he kind of told the story of the immigrant. And anywhere around the world people could identify with it.

LEACH: Well, we thank you.

SCORSESE: Thank you.