6 Filmmaking Tips From Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese directing

In his review of Mean Streets, Roger Ebert claimed that Martin Scorsese had the potential to become the American Fellini in ten years. It probably didn’t really take that long.

Scorsese is a living library of film, but he isn’t a dusty repository of knowledge. He’s a vibrant, imaginative creator who might know more about movies than anyone else on the planet, and that makes him uniquely qualified to be both prolific and proficient.

Over the course of his career, he’s created indelible works bursting with anger, violence, fragility, care, and wonder. Never content to stick with one story mode, he’s run the gamut of styles and substance. So here’s a free bit of film school (for filmmakers and fans alike) from our American Fellini.

Never Stop Looking For Inspiration (Because You’re Gonna Need It)

Scorsese: One night I was watching late-night films on . . . I think it was on Showtime. There was this film called Yeelen [1987]. The picture had just started at 2:30 in the morning, and the image was very captivating, and I watched the whole thing. I discovered that it was directed by Souleymane Cissé and came from Mali. I got so excited. I had seen Ousmane Sembène’s films from Senegal-he was the first to put African cinema on the map, in the ’60s-but I hadn’t seen anything quite like this . . . the poetry of the film. I’ve seen many, many movies over the years, and there are only a few that suddenly inspire you so much that you want to continue to make films. This was one of them.

Spike Lee: So you’re telling me that Martin Scorsese, the father of cinema, needs inspiration to make more films?

Scorsese: Well, it gets you excited again. Sometimes when you’re heavy into the shooting or editing of a picture, you get to the point where you don’t know if you could ever do it again. Then suddenly you get excited by seeing somebody else’s work. So it’s been almost 20 years now with the Film Foundation. We’ve participated in restoring maybe 475 American films.

That’s from a conversation in “Interview” magazine between Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese where an important distinction is made. It’s easy to see master filmmakers as endless wells of imagination, but stone sharpens stone, and that well needs to be replenished. The key? No matter how natural a storyteller, no matter how much experience, there will always be a need to find that creative spark.

You’re Never Going to Get the Money You Want

“I think there’s only one or two films where I’ve had all the financial support I needed. All the rest, I wish I’d had the money to shoot another ten days.”

This might seem obvious, but there’s also something freeing about knowing deep down that there will be very real limitations on trying to achieve.

The flipside for fans is to keep in mind that most filmmakers (or at least Scorsese) always creates a final product that could have used more time and more money to make just a bit better. Perfection is out of reach, but excellence is not.

Your Personal Story Matters

Scorsese’s movies are reflections of his past and his personality. He draws a lot of script pages – specifically from his time growing up in New York and inside Catholicism – from intimate experiences and curiosity. That doesn’t simply apply to subject matter. It also applies to tone:

“I’m not interested in a realistic look – not at all, not ever. Every film should look the way I feel.”

Curiously, in that same interview with Ebert, Scorsese discusses his use of non-realistic elements – including the fabled 48 frames per second used to make De Niro in Taxi Driver look “a monster, a robot, King Kong coming to save Fay Wray…”

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A veteran of writing about movies for nearly a decade, Scott Beggs has been the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects since 2009. Despite speculation, he is not actually Walter Mathau's grandson. See? He can't even spell his name right.

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