Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese tells Mark Kermode about his new 3D film, Hugo Cabret, his movie-mad childhood in New York - and how directing the acclaimed drama Boardwalk Empire opened his mind to the epic freedoms of television.
I've always liked 3D," declares Martin Scorsese breezily, his brown eyes twinkling from behind the trademark black-rimmed glasses which seem larger (and more impressively varifocal) in real life. "I mean, we're sitting here in 3D. We are in 3D. We see in 3D. So why not?" He smiles at me like it's the most obvious thing on Earth, his face alive with boyish enthusiasm (even though he turned 68 last week), his well-groomed silver-grey hair lending an air of statesmanlike authority. I smile back, my heart full of anxiety about the "future of cinema" in the post-Avatar stereoscopic 21st century, wondering whether my hero would look quite so imposing wearing the 3D specs that we'll all to have wear to watch his new movie.
Raised in Queens and Manhattan's Lower East Side, the son of second- generation Sicilian immigrants (a seamstress and a clothes presser), Scorsese grew up during the first wave of 3D, which threw up titles like House of Wax, Creature From the Black Lagoon and Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder. A somewhat sickly child and sometime altar boy, he devoured movies from an early age, declaring once that "movies and religion" had been his whole life. "That's it. Nothing else."
In the early 1970s, having served his apprenticeship under exploitation maestro Roger Corman, Scorsese revolutionised popular cinema with edgy films like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, inspired as much by the French nouvelle vague and Italian neo-realism as the great traditions of British and American cinema. Although his recent movies have been far more financially profitable (The Departed, The Aviator and Shutter Island all cleared the $100 million mark at the US box office) these early classics remain Scorsese's defining works, along with Raging Bull, King of Comedy and Goodfellas, all of which similarly showcased an extraordinary creative relationship with leading man Robert De Niro.
Riding the same generational wave that produced "movie brats" such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma, Scorsese made movies that had a hip counter-culture cache and - crucially - an authentic pop sensibility.
"Popular music formed the soundtrack of my life," explains Scorsese, who has littered his movies with iconic rock cues, from unforgettable uses of Jumpin' Jack Flash and Be My Baby in Mean Streets to a cameo appearance by members of The Clash in The King of Comedy. In 1976, he documented The Band's farewell concert in The Last Waltz. The movie, released two years later, defined the "rockumentary" genre, and inadvertently gave birth to the ultimate rock parody This Is Spinal Tap.
In 1980 Raging Bull brought him his first Oscar nomination for best director, an accolade that would be repeated for The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York and The Aviator (Age of Innocence earned a second screenplay nod).
When he finally won an Oscar for The Departed in 2007, it was widely accepted that the long-overdue award was as much an apology from the Academy for failing properly to honour his past glories as a plaudit for his deft remaking of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs. As the oft-snubbed Scorsese himself said as he accepted his award: "Could you double-check the envelope?"
Growing up among "gangsters and priests", Scorsese outdid even Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola as the definitive cinematic chronicler of the American underworld with hard-hitting movies such as Goodfellas, Casino and Gangs of New York. Yet now he is confounding expectations with an adaptation of Brian Selznick's child-friendly "historical fiction" book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret - his first film to be made in 3D, which will be released worldwide in a year's time.
Hugo Cabret has been described by Selznick as "not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel or a flip book, but a combination of all these things". Will Scorsese's film, which reteams him with Aviator screenwriter John Logan and features (among others) Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, Ray Winstone and Sacha Baron Cohen, be as hard to categorise? It certainly seems so.
Set in Paris in the 1920s, the tale centres on a 12-year-old "orphan, clock-keeper and thief" who "lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity". An encounter with an eccentric girl and the owner of small toy kiosk in the train station sets in motion a mysterious adventure involving a stolen key, a treasured notebook, and an enigmatic mechanical man (or automaton) - with the real-life figure of cinematic pioneer Georges Melies providing the crucial link between inventive fantasy and historical fact.
"It's really the story of a little boy," explains Scorsese, "but he does become friends with the older Georges Melies who was discovered in 1927, or 1928, working in a toy store, completely bankrupt. And then he was revived in a way, with a beautiful gala in 1928, in Paris. And in my film, the cinema itself is the connection - the automaton, the machine itself becomes the emotional connection between the boy, his father, Melies, and his family. It's about how it all comes together, how people express themselves using the technology emotionally and psychologically. It's the connection between the people, and the thing that's missing - how it supplies what's missing."
This is a central preoccupation for Scorsese: the ability of cinema as a mechanical process to somehow plug into the human heart of an audience. And it is perhaps this fascination, with the interface between technology and transcendence, that is the real clue to his interest in 3D. Just as Melies was a magician who used clockwork illusion to conjure emotional responses, so Scorsese's foray into modern stereoscopy seems ironically to hark back to the birth of cinema and the moment when the moving image became the primary art form of the 20th century.
At the end of a tough day's filming at Shepperton studios, Scorsese seems genuinely fired up about the possibilities of the 3D format. "Every shot is rethinking cinema," he enthuses, "rethinking narrative - how to tell a story with a picture. Now, I'm not saying we have to keep throwing javelins at the camera, I'm not saying we use it as a gimmick, but it's liberating. It's literally a Rubik's Cube every time you go out to design a shot, and work out a camera move, or a crane move. But it has a beauty to it also. People look like ... like moving statues. They move like sculpture, as if sculpture is moving in a way. Like dancers ... "
Whether or not Scorsese can do with Hugo Cabret what Hitchcock did with Dial M for Murder and find a way to use 3D (rather than letting the 3D use him) remains to be seen. But he is clearly entranced by challenges and themes of Hugo Cabret, and says that the new technology with which he's working puts him in mind of Picasso and Braque and how inspired they were by the early cinema of Melies and the Lumiere brothers.
He describes cubism as being somehow an artistic response to the advent of cinema, pointing out that "a painting can't turn" and observing that "if you look closely at some of the portraits from cubism at the time, you'll find a portrait of a woman that is really a projector".
Again and again he returns to the idea of cinema being a machine that somehow "fills the gap" in people's emotional lives, bringing flesh and blood together through the movement of celluloid through a projector. "Very often I've known people," he muses, "who wouldn't say a word to each other, but they'd go to see movies together and experience life that way."
As somebody with such a profound sense of cinema, it's surprising that some of Scorsese's recent successes have been on television, a medium which he has credited with providing "what we had hoped for in the mid-60s ... this kind of freedom and ability to create another world" with the luxury of "the long form of developing character in a story". Most notably, his project for HBO, Boardwalk Empire (currently screening on Sky in New Zealand), has become a popular and critical hit.
Created by Terence Winter, the writer behind The Sopranos, the show is described by Scorsese, who is executive producer (he also directed the first episode), as "an epic spectacle of American history or, I should say, American culture".
Set in prohibition-era Atlantic City, the series perhaps provides the missing link between Gangs of New York and Goodfellas, documenting the period in which "the good intentions of prohibition [ironically] allowed crime figures of the time to become organised - to become more powerful".
Despite the rather distant historical setting, Scorsese assures me that the period is surprisingly familiar to him. "To me, it's as if we're talking now about the 1980s or late 1970s," he says. "That was like yesterday to me. The 20s in my head were always very present because my parents always referred to it: the music, the people, the clothes. I know all the songs from that period; I know all the films. We knew it all. And so it was a natural transition. But you know I really was fascinated with the idea of working with Terry Winter and these guys, and taking these characters over 13 hours, developing them, developing their story, the complications of corruption in American politics."
In the wake of the success of Boardwalk Empire, screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi has been hinting that a TV prequel to Goodfellas is also in the pipeline, a prospect which Scorsese admits "is possible. I don't know yet. But we're talking to [Goodfellas producer] Irwin Winkler about it."
Meanwhile, Public Speaking, Scorsese's new documentary about New York writer and commentator Fran Lebowitz (hailed by some as a latterday Dorothy Parker) premiered on American TV last month. Having started her career as a columnist on Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and served as contributing editor for Vanity Fair, Lebowitz is captured in Scorsese's film in conversation at New York's the Waverly Inn and on the city's streets, holding forth on subjects ranging from gender, race, celebrity culture, smoking bans, and the election of Barack Obama. After which there'll be Living in the Material World, a film about George Harrison, which continues Scorsese's longstanding interest in the much-maligned rockumentary format that he helped pioneer.
As for the big screen, Scorsese's most recent film, Shutter Island, a throwback B-movie bug-house shrieker featuring Gothic asylums, sinister psychiatrists, and crashing lightning storms, is being touted as a major awards contender. It was Scorsese's fourth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio, who seems to have replaced De Niro as the director's favourite muse. When DiCaprio announced his involvement in Clint Eastwood's forthcoming biopic of J. Edgar Hoover, he confessed to feeling like he was "cheating" on Scorsese.
As our interview ends, I wonder whether film or TV currently presents the most creative opportunities for the director. He's clearly enamoured of the narrative freedoms offered by long-form TV drama, and seems able to get any number of small-screen projects (whether drama or documentary) off the ground without difficulty.
Yet as someone who remains obsessed with the "sound of the sprockets" and the "feel of 35mm", and is still sufficiently young at heart to take a late-life leap into big-screen 3D, doesn't he flinch at all from the aesthetic limitations of the small screen? Wouldn't Boardwalk Empire, for example, be better on the big screen, in the cinemas that first fired his imagination?
"Well, you know," he smiles wryly, "it is made for what I guess you would call the small screen. But we made it like a film, an epic B-film in a way. And you know what? Those small screens aren't that small any more!"
1942 Born on November 17 in New York City, the second of two sons. His parents were the children of Sicilian immigrants who worked in New York's garment district. Intending to be a priest, Scorsese entered a seminary in 1956 before becaming interested in film-making.
1964 Graduates from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts with a Master of Fine Arts in Film.
1965 Marries fellow NYU undergraduate Laraine Brennan, with whom he has a daughter, Catherine. The pair divorce in 1971.
1967 Makes his first feature film, the black and white I Call First, with fellow NYU alumni Harvey Keitel.
1973 Collaborates with Robert DeNiro for the first time in Mean Streets, a career breakthrough for both men.
1976 Taxi Driver earns him four Oscar nominations and wins the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Enters into his second and briefest marriage to writer Julia Cameron. The couple have one child, Domenica, and divorce the next year.
1979 Marries actress/model Isabella Rossellini, whom he divorces in 1983.
1980 Has his first two Oscar wins for Raging Bull.
1985 Fourth marriage is to producer Barbara Da Fina, his collaborator on Goodfellas. They divorce a year later.
1987 Directs Michael Jackson's iconic Bad video.
1988 Sparks worldwide religious protests over The Last Temptation of Christ.
1993 Attempts his first period romance, The Age of Innocence, a critical success but a box-office bomb.
1997 Releases Dalai Lama biopic Kundun, causing problems for the planned Chinese expansion of its distributor, Disney.
1999 Marries Helen Morris, his collaborator on the companion book to Kundun. The couple have a daughter, Francesca, who appears in The Aviator and The Departed.
2002 Commands his biggest budget ever, $100 million, for Gangs of New York, his first collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio.
2006 Wins Best Director at the Oscars for The Departed after five previous nominations.
2010 Earns his best box office figures ever for Shutter Island.
- OBSERVERBy Mark Kermode