6 Filmmaking Tips From Martin Scorsese

By  · Published on September 30th, 2015

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…”

Click here to read on…

Watch These 85 Movies (and Then Watch More)

When Fast Company interviewed Scorsese after Hugo’s 11 Oscar nominations, they got more than they bargained for. The director referenced 85 different movies during their conversation, pulling out specific lessons and influences from all. A lot of criticism was lobbed toward the list because of what it doesn’t include, but this is the stuff that simply popped off the top of his head. Is there any doubt that these 85 flicks are a good starting point or that there are 850 more worthy of learning from?

At any rate, Apocalypse Now and Arsenic and Old Lace make a hell of a double feature.

Treat Everyone Equally On Set

“I think it’s really the mood that he makes on the set… He makes everyone feel equal, no matter who you are, no matter how big you are, no matter how famous you are, no matter how iconic you are… you feel equal to each other,” ‐ Chloe Moretz on Scorsese

This is indicative of the kind of working environment that one of the best directors on the planet creates. He can ensure that a teenage girl feels comfortable and equal to the most seasoned person on set (which might just be him).

Scorsese once talked about the idea of delegating care to people like doctors and paramedics (in regards to Bringing Out the Dead). That we farm out empathy so that others can singularly be responsible for taking care of others, and how we had to resist the urge to close ourselves off to those feelings. That connection to other people. He also talks often about bringing kindness to everything he makes. It may seem a bit touchy-feely, but the results speak for themselves.

Don’t Be Afraid of Hands-On Research

Get in the taxi with Robert De Niro driving. Take a ride-along on an ambulance. Have the experiences that will help make your story sing.

What Have We Learned

From Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore to Taxi Driver to Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed and Hugo, the best lessons from Martin Scorsese seem to come loud and direct from the way he makes his movies. They explore and question, all while celebrating the sheer magic of cinema. Even the violence has a kind of care behind it, a deeper look into the melted mind of a troubled man or the dark heart of a corrupt underground.

Next: 6 Filmmaking Tips from David Fincher

It’s funny, then, that Scorsese once famously named 85 movies that influenced him, because as a director, he’s given us 31 himself. Here’s hoping for at least 31 more.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.