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'Can A Person Change?': Martin Scorsese On Gangsters, Death And Redemption

Robert De Niro (from left) stars with Al Pacino and Ray Romano as a mob hit man in Martin Scorsese's <em>The Irishman.</em>
Robert De Niro (from left) stars with Al Pacino and Ray Romano as a mob hit man in Martin Scorsese's The Irishman.

Growing up in New York City's Little Italy, as a kid, filmmaker Martin Scorsese spent a great deal of time surrounded by images of saints and martyrs at St. Patrick's Old Cathedral.

"Those images certainly stayed with me," he says. As did the sermons, which often focused on "death approaching like a thief in the night. You never know when. You never know how."

Scorsese attended seminary school with the intention of becoming a priest but was expelled when he was 15 for being a class clown. Instead, he went on to become a noted filmmaker, directing Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Casino and more.

Scorsese's latest movie, The Irishman, stars Robert De Niro as a truck driver and World War II veteran who becomes a hit man for the mob. Like many of the director's previous films, The Irishman features backroom deals, shootings and explosions. But Scorsese says the film is also an expression of his "religious beliefs or concerns or obsessions" — particularly in the way it explores morality and what happens to gangsters at the end of their lives.

"I realize gangsters are bad," he says. But, he adds, "Can a person change? And can a person be redeemed? ... What are we capable of?"

Interview Highlights

On the opening sequence of The Irishman, which takes place in an assisted living facility

The opening shot of Irishman, in a sense, played itself out by listening to ... "In the Still of the Night." And when I heard the song, I just knew we had to be floating down the hall at this assisted living facility and wind up on this old man sitting in a chair. I get it.

Martin Scorsese (center) has been nominated for an Academy Award for best director for<em> The Irishman.</em> The film is up for 10 Academy Awards, including best film.
Niko Tavernise / Netflix
Martin Scorsese (center) has been nominated for an Academy Award for best director for The Irishman. The film is up for 10 Academy Awards, including best film.

I knew that ... it would be compared to the long take in Copacabana in Goodfellas. But it didn't matter, because ultimately, it's been 20 years, and so I've spent a lot of time in these places and hospitals and emergency rooms and assisted living places ... [with] people having difficult times in their lives and also people at the end of their lives. I know the routines. I know what it's like in the middle of night in the hospital while you're waiting because a patient is very close to you. What do you do? You just sit there. Nurses go by. The light changes. Lives go by. Beds go floating by. And all these lives, we know nothing about them. They just become old and gone. And it's a whole life has gone by, in a way. ... But it's the mood and tone of those places that I spent a lot of time in.

On watching movies as a kid because of his asthma

I couldn't really play sports or anything like that. ... My parents are old-fashioned ... and [if] the doctor said, "Don't do this." You didn't do it. And that was it. ...

The school was right around the corner on Mott Street, and for lunch, I [would] just go home. My mother was working, so I [would] just go in and there was a sandwich waiting for me, or whatever. And maybe there was a film on channel 11 in the afternoon. And certainly after 3 o'clock I had that apartment to myself. It was amazing.

I saw [Jean] Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. I saw [Jean] Renoir's Diary of a Chambermaid. I saw The Southerner. I became fascinated by Renoir because his father was this great painter ... and I saw these pictures of the paintings in school. I thought it was amazing. Especially if the film had subtitles.

On how the flop of his 1977 film, New York, New York, led to him feeling stuck in his career

With the failure of New York, New York ... I felt the creativity was just punched out of me. ... It was an experiment, a curiosity, to try to find if I could ever care enough to get back on the set. ... I didn't care anymore. And I had to find if I can make another film. ... I think you have to be totally committed to it and you have to put everything on the line, whether it's your house, your relationships, everything, to really feel that you can make this picture, to say what you want to say. ... And so I didn't feel that anymore.

On what he believes about death now

It sounds rather naive, I guess, but the point is that I do believe in something beyond the material. I do believe in this machine we're in, this body, wouldn't be the same without the spiritual part of it, whatever that is. And people would say, "Well, that's the brain and synapses." Yes, but the brain is just a piece of meat, in a sense. There's something that happens that's transcendent. I'm talking about trying to find a moment of that. I think it approaches sometimes when we create something and we feel something from what we create that gets us close, I think, to a sense of transcending the material. And if we go there and stay in that space of transcendence, maybe that's where we wind up. Of course, we don't know, because it's probably the same place we were before we were born.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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