Issue 8: Feature Article—The Fact-Based Films of Martin Scorsese (Part 2)

In the first of our two-parter of the fact-based films of Martin Scorsese, we provided a short filmography of his relevant works. Our second part takes a closer look at some of these films and discusses why he’s able to bring real life stories and characters to life on screen so memorably…

Whether or not you’re a fan of his films, there’s much to learn from Martin Scorsese. His films are not so much ‘made’ as ‘crafted’; each with its own feel, theme and morality. There are common threads, of course, and recurring elements, but when you read about the processes of bringing such films as Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Gangs of New York to life, you realise just how much effort the filmmaker (and his collaborators) pour into each scene.

What first attracts Scorsese to a project often seems to come down to finding a personal connection to the material. Indeed, the filmmaker himself says: “…In my own work, the subject matter usually deals with characters I know, aspects of myself, friends of mine – that sort of thing.”

In any discussion of characterisation in Scorsese’s films, the obvious reference is Raging Bull (1980). After all, this is a film in which the protagonist (real life boxer, Jake LaMotta) is basically unlikeable and unsympathetic. The film is about La Motta’s struggle to find some kind of redemption and peace within himself. Scorsese made it at a time when he was going through some personal turmoil, leading him to comment:

“At the end of [Raging Bull]… I left Jake LaMotta’s character more at peace with himself than I was with myself. And I was hoping to get to that moment that he was at the end of the film. That moment where he’s looking at himself in the mirror. I was hoping to get there myself. But I hadn’t made it. So it’s a matter of living through the cinema, I think.”

Scorsese on Raging Bull

So, it’s not a case of being drawn to the world the film takes place in, or even the sporting subject matter. Again, referencing Raging Bull, he says: “Robert De Niro wanted to make this film. Not me. I don’t understand anything about boxing.”

Yet, what a film he made. A film about a character – in this instance, a character seemingly beyond redemption – finding the humanity buried deep within, and, in the process of understanding this character and reconciling his compulsions and self-destructive actions, finding redemption within oneself. The filmmakers dredged up enough sympathy within La Motta to give audiences something to latch on to – even if it’s only the perverse pleasure of seeing a greatly talented man self-destruct and alienate those around him.

Similarly, with gangster epic, Goodfellas (1990), for us to want to spend three hours with these violent criminals, we need to find something to like about them and to be lured into their world. In this case, the charismatic ‘fellas offer wide-eyed Henry Hill a chance to be ‘a somebody in a neighbourhood full of nobodies’. We, the audience, see the story as Hill, an outsider who gets to belong and become somebody. Who can’t understand and/or relate to that?

Characterisation was more of a challenge with The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), as it deals with the debauched antics and fall from grace of uber-rich stockbroker, Jordan Belfort. However, far from being a subtle character piece, like it not, this film goes full throttle, depicting Belfort’s over-the-top partying, drug-taking and bedroom antics (with 569 f-words thrown in too).

For all these films, it’s also worth noting that Scorsese (and his actors) had the benefit of the direct involvement of the real life protagonists – La Motta, Hill and Belfort – to help bring their fictional counterparts to life and add crucial detail.

While we’ve looked briefly at the importance of characterisation, both for the audience and the filmmaker himself, the bottom line is that film isn’t theatre. A character study like Raging Bull, however compelling, needs to be supported by the other components that make film a visual (and aural) medium.

With regard Raging Bull, even if we’re not all familiar with the film, most of us have seen the balletic fight sequences, shot in black and white. While brutal, the boxing sequences take on a dreamlike, even ethereal, state until we’re brought back to grim reality with animalistic grunting, the thud of bodies being pounded and the blood dripping off the ropes. In the film, the boxing ring becomes the place where La Motta is ‘punished’ and eventually crucified for his earthly sins, so Scorsese manages to incorporate religious themes into the unlikely realm of the boxing ring.

Likewise, in Goodfellas we are drawn into the exciting, dangerous and, this time, appropriately technicolour world of glamour and crime, a world enticing enough to seduce young Henry Hill (and us). Note the use of music too, a constant feature in Scorsese’s film, with the tracks selected mirroring the actual music popular at the time. For more on this, take a look at last issue’s analysis.

Referring to this issue’s analysis, Gangs of New York (2002), which sets a largely fictional narrative against a historical backdrop, Scorsese describes the film as “more of an opera than history”. While this comment acknowledges the fictional element, it is interesting to note the lengths to which Scorsese and his collaborators went to in order the achieve a faithful rendering of the film’s 1860s New York setting, engaging the services of a historical consultant, professor of history and even an archaeologist to ensure that the Five Points area (a crime-infested slum at the intersection of five streets) we see on screen, is just how it was back in the nineteenth century. The fictional characters also interact with actual figures from the time, including political kingpin, Boss Tweed. In addition, there are lots of other elements at play that feature in the film and inform the story, including immigration, the Civil War, political wrangling and social welfare issues.

If you’re interested in the ‘history film’, it’s a useful exercise to read up on the making and genesis of Gangs of New York as an example of just how far everyone involved went in order to create this work of ‘authentic fiction’. This was a 25-year labour of love, especially for Scorsese, who said that he “knew almost immediately” that he “wanted to make a film about the world described in [Herbert] Asbury’s [1928] book” when he read it back in 1970.  Of the finished film, Scorsese says:

“We composed a personal story that revolved around the classic theme of revenge. We based some of our characters on real life people and created others. We also took dramatic licence by moving a few dates and places.”

Scorsese on Gangs of New York

While we’ve been referring to these films as if it was Scorsese alone who came up with the idea, wrote the script, played every part, and edited every frame. Of course, in order to realise his vision, he needs to surround himself with the best technical and creative talent, behind and in front of the camera. On this level, Scorsese benefits greatly from the long-term working relationships he’s formed – including the likes of actors Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, and writer, Paul Schrader. He also benefits from being a direction that people want to work with. However, a film need a a clear visions and Scorsese is one of cinema’s most respected ‘visionaries’.

Of course, not all his film hit the mark, but when he gets its right more often than not the result is a screen classic.

Next time, we move on to Oliver Stone with a tale of two of his presidential fact-based films.

Issue 9 of RSL is out on 14 September.