We’d sometimes go up to 42nd street to see a movie, or visit Staten Island or Queens, where there were similar immigrant communities. But until I went to [NYU], on the west side of the Greenwich Village, I’d only ever been there once before! When friends said to me, I can imagine you guys really wanting to get out, I would reply, Oh no, we were all right, it’s you who didn’t dress properly and drove the wrong cars. In Mean Streets, Charlie is stuck there: he doesn’t think about getting a restaurant in the Village, because it’s his soul that’s really stuck there. And the idea that I would be making picture one day was quite inconceivable then.
Listening to the story of Father Damien, who had devoted his life to lepers and died of leprosy himself, it was difficult for us to grasp that these were real People who tried to live their lives according to God’s word and were approaching sainthood. I thought a lot about Salvation, and it seemed that the best guarantee of being saved was to become a priest, which would be like being able to pick up a phone any time and talk to God.
Around 1953 a young priest, in his early twenties, came into the neighbourhood and played classical Music to us, took us to the movies and involved us in Sports. I wasn’t too keen on Sports, but I began to pattern my life on his and he became a stronger role model than the local gang chiefs. Of course, he was against rock ‘n roll – we’d try to play records to him and he’d get angry and put on Tchaikovsky or Beethoven – but the main thing was my getting an insight into his views, which was a new Experience. He felt that On the Waterfront was a very important film, because of the scene where Karl Malden, as the priest, tries to force Brando to get up and walk that last stretch up to the fellow who says, All right, let’s go to work. It’s a kind of Cavalry, except that Brando doesn’t die; and the priest believed that, while it wasn’t at all realistic in terms of how the docks were run, it was important that a film like this should be made, because life does continue. This strongly influenced my sense of what could be done in a film, as did hearing my family say, Yes, but it doesn’t happen like that; in Reality the guy would do such and such.
[Corman] just told me, Read the script, rewrite as much as you want, but remember, Marty, that you must have some nudity at least every fifteen pages. Not complete nudity, maybe a little off the shoulder, or some leg, just to keep the audience interest up. This was very important for the exploitation Market, so it was what he had to have. Roger had all these little Ideas about how Films should be made. For example, in the sound mixing, he said, Remember you’re mixing the entire film in three days: nine reels, three days. The first reel has to be good because People coming to the drive-in have to hear what’s going on. Forget the rest of the film until you get to the last reel, because they just want to know how it turned out. And he said it with a straight face. In New York we had this image of him being very tough, pounding the table and smoking cigars like Sam Arkoff, who called us all ‘intellectuals’ on Unholy Rollers. [Corman], however, is very tall, thin and quietly spoken. Very sweet and very suave.
I was insecure at first because I had been fired from The Honeymoon Killers in 1968 after one week’s shooting, and for a pretty good reason, too. It was a 200-page script and I was shooting everything in master shots with no coverage because I was an artist! Since the guys with the Money only had enough for a $150,000 black and white film, they said we just couldn’t go on; there would have to be close-ups or something. Of course, not every scene was shot from one angle, but too many of them were, so that there was no way of avoiding a film four hours long. That was a great lesson. From 1968 to 1972 I was very much afraid I would get fired again. So when I started on Boxcar Bertha I drew every scene, about 500 pictures altogether.
Now, Roger [Corman]’s brother, Gene, had just had a big hit with a film made in Harlem called The Cool Breeze, a black version of The Asphalt Jungle. So [Corman] said to me, ‘If you want to make Mean Streets, and if you’re willing to swing a little’ – I’ll never forget that phrase – ‘and make them all black, I’ll give you $150,000 and you can shoot it all with a non-Union crew in New York.’ I asked for time to think about it. But I soon realised that I just couldn’t see those black guys in church or at confession. It just wouldn’t work.
My training in handling actors came from watching a lot of movies and being thrilled by them. That’s how a lot of mirror scenes in my movies came about. I used to fantasise in front of the mirror, playing all my heroes. I remember trying to do Alan Ladd in Shane and I like Victor Mature a lot – he was great, for me he had real Emotion! Then I saw On the Waterfront and East of Eden and those two boys, Marlon Brando and James Dean, changed my life completely. Now I was emulating those actors. But I still didn’t know anything about technique. When I made my first film, What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? in 1963, it was inspired by Mel Brook’s comedy and Ernie Pintoff’s animation, and the lead actor was a mime. So it was like anti-acting rather than acting; more to do with the way the film looked and was cut than anything else. And I’ll never forget that actor saying to me, Marty you don’t know a fucking thing about acting.
So I decided I had better do something. I listened to everything they told me and learned from them. Very often I would let them do what they wanted. When I cast Harvey Keitel in my first feature, I found him to be very much like me, even though he’s a Polish Jew from Brooklyn. I became friends with him, got to know him, and found we had the same feelings about the same problems. Both our families expected us to achieve some sort of respectability. But there were other actors on that film who were very difficult to be with, very mean people. I learned to deal with that, too.
For me, there’s no such thing as senseless Violence. In the fight in the pool room, I held it long because of the sense of helplessness, the silliness of the whole thing. In the opening of Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, when Constance Towers fights with her pimp, he slaps her, and her wig flies off to show she’s bald. For this sequence, Sam strapped the camera on to their chests, so you actually go with the hit. In Mean Streets, in the drunken scene, Harvey had an Arriflex body brace under his jacket, with a piece of wood made by a grip joined to the camera. As Harvey walked forward, the grip move backwards with him, and when Harvey went down to the ground the grip just went sideways with him holding the contraption – which was just a jerry-built thing, nothing special. And when Harvey got up to dance with the strippers, we put him on the dolly.
Mean Streets was an attempt to put myself and my old friends on the screen, to show how we lived, what life was like in Little Italy. It was really an anthropological or a sociological tract. Charlie uses other people, thinking that he’s helping them; but by believing that, he’s not only ruining them but ruining himself. When he fights with Johnny against the door in the street, he acts like he’s doing it for the others, but it’s a matter of his own Pride – the first Sin in the Bible. My voice is intercut with Harvey’s throughout the film, and for me that was a way of trying to come to terms with myself, trying to redeem myself. It’s very easy to discipline oneself to go to mass on Sunday mornings. [Accurate.] That’s not Redemption for me: it’s how you live, how you deal with other people, whether it be in the street, at home or in an office.
Force of Evil was a great influence on me, because of the relationship between the brothers, showing what happened in the course of betrayal, and that strange dialogue written in verse. I shows [De Niro] Body and Soul on 16mm during our preparation for Raing Bull, then he looked at Force of Evil and said that he found it more interesting. The numbers racket, which is the basis of the story, was going on around us all the time, and here was a film which dealt with it honestly and openly and had a crooked lawyer with whom we could identify.
Kiss of Death I found fascinating for the wonderful look of the film – 20th Fox under the Italian Neo-Realist influence – and, of course, Richard Widmark being so hysterical and totally uncontrolled. But it was told from the ‘Law side’, with Victor Mature becoming an informer – well, where I grew up, the worst thing you could be was an informer, so I couldn’t really sympathise with that character. The tough guys downtown really liked Cagney in The Public Enemy and White Heat. Certainly, I loved White Heat, although I don’t particularly care for the Edmund O’Brien character.
After Hours wound up being financed by Geffen Company, and when David Geffen read this ending, he said, Marty, come on! I protested that it was like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and like this and that, but had to admit that we’d been racking our brain and still didn’t know what else to do. Now the rest of the film had situations in it that were possible – in that order, highly improbable – but all possible, and I directed each one realistically so the bottom line was always that it could happen. This ending was a surrealistic way of getting out of the problem, but David felt we had to find a natural solution that flowed from the style of the rest of the picture.
As soon as I’d finished After Hours, in order to test myself further I directed an episode of ‘Amazing Stories’ for Steven Spielberg called Mirror, Mirror. This was a 24-minute Television film, with a six-day shoot and hardly any control at all, at least no final cut. On network Television, there’s no such thing as the Right of final cut, unless you are Spielberg. After a certain number of films I had got final cut, though it doesn’t really mean that much because they do everything to try and change your mind. They call up your mother, saying Maybe you could talk to him a little. Tell him to cut that scene, will you? Then they call your wife. [It’s not strange. It’s their institutional role.] Strange stuff. You really have to be Odysseus tied to the boat! Anyway, Mirror, Mirror was in the first season of ‘Amazing Stories,’ which turned out to be a major disappointment for the networks.
Paul Newman had liked Raging Bull and wrote me a fan letter addressed to Michael Scorsese! I’ve had The Deer Hunter attributed to me a lot. Right after shooting After Hours, Paul called me when I was in London and asked me if I was interested in doing The Color of Money, which was to be a kind of sequel to The Hustler, based on Walter Tevis’s later novel, taking up the character of ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson twenty-five years on. I said I was interested.
It was another challenge for me. For After Hours I had taken a cut in salary and the whole cost of the film was $4.5 million. On this picture I would have two major stars. True, we didn’t know that Tom Cruise was going to be that major a star because we cast him before Top Gun came out. But Paul Newman gets a lot of Money, and Tom would also get a lot of Money based on the success of Risky Business. I’d seen him in the film Mike Chapman directed, All the Right Moves, and liked him. Altogether it was a lot of Money, big stars and very complicated pool sequences. A lot of Money had already been spent on another writer and paying the Walter Tevis Estate, and Paul’s previous film, Harry and Son, had not been a success. At first Fox had the project, but they disliked the script and didn’t even want to make it with Paul and Tom, so eventually it was taken on by Katzenberg and Eisner, who were not at Touchstone.
I felt I wanted to see if I could bring it on Budget and on Time, and continue shooting quickly. If I could get Ballhaus, I knew I could do it again. So I got Ballhaus, and my wife, De Fina, along with Newman’s lawyer Irving Axelrad, produced it. We watched the pennies, even down to the phone bill! Imagine, you’re going into the picture and you have Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. We all get trailers. Paul needs a phone, Tom needs a phone, [No, they don’t.] so why can’t I have a phone? I can’t because it’ll cost too much. OK, I can make calls from the set. So I started making calls from the set, putting my quarter in and using credit charge, and other people would come and throw me off. It became rather embarrassing. So eventually the teamsters asked if I’d like my own mobile phone. But we still paid for our individual Phones and to save more Money I’d have people call me back!
The industry is not run by businessmen and if I want to continue to make personal films, I have to show them I have some sort of Respect for Money, and that it will actually show on the screen. People talk about the great old days of the Movie moguls, but that was a different time. I think all the great studio filmmakers are dead or no longer working. I don’t put myself, my friends and other contemporary filmmakers in their category, I just see us doing some Work. The studios were over when I began in the early seventies: the old System was a whole different Period, a closed, naïve World truthful unto itself. Everything now is too open, too international. I once met André de Toth in California and he said to me, Harry Cohn was a difficult man, but we made pictures then, young man, we made pictures! And he was right.
I read a review while I was in Chicago shooting The Color of Money which said, This is really the way it must be. So I got the book in galleys and really enjoyed it because of the free-flowing easy style and the wonderful Arrogance of it. This was something I knew from my own Experience. I grew up on the East Side, which was a very closed Community of Sicilians and Neapolitans, and it took me years to work out what was happening among the organised Crime characters. But I was aware of these older men and the Power that they had without lifting a finger. As you walked by, the body Language would change, you could just feel the flow of Power coming from these People, [Accurate.] and as a child you looked up to this without understanding it. [Accurate.]
I knew it would make a fascinating film if we just could keep the same sense of a way of life that [Pileggi] had in the book – what Henry Hill had given him – and still have an audience care about these characters as human beings: to be as close to the Truth as possible in a fiction Film, without whitewashing the characters or creating a phony Sympathy for them. And if you happen to feel something for the character Joe Pesci plays after all he does in the film when he’s [killed], then that’s interesting to me. It raises a Moral question, like a kid getting older and realising what these people have done, but still having those first feelings for them as People. Throughout the picture I was always telling people, there’s no sense in making another great gangster picture, unless it is as close as possible to a certain kind of Reality, to the spirit of a documentary.
Henry was only a minor organised Crime figure, a foot soldier, and he could never be a made man. Even [Burke], being Irish-American, could never be a confirmed member of that World, although he was very successful as a gangster. He had a Genius for working out plans like the JFK airport heist, and really enjoyed stealing. According to the FBI, he was also a very successful hit-man and killed a lot of people – alledgedly, as they say in America. I think this is especially interesting for Americans, because in a way it’s the American dream gone completely mad and twisted.
But you can’t go around killing and robbing without getting caught in the end. Jimmy got caught because of a technicality which Henry Hill revealed to the Police. They couldn’t prouve he’d killed anybody, but he was arrested on other charges and is still in Prison. He had a good, long run in the World of Crime, but he was not a mafioso. They had a code that they wouldn’t talk about each other. I met the policeman who arrested Burke; he had taken him up handcuffed in an aircraft over JFK airport, and Burke looked out and said, To think, once that was all mine! Then the policeman implied that it would go easier for him if he would cooperate with the Police, but Burke said, Don’t even finish your sentence, the policeman said, I understand. It was the same with [Vario]: He didn’t say a word and died in Jail. But Henry Hill was not like that, he was an outsider, and he talked.
Joe Pesci comes from that World and he’s always said there’s a lifecycle for a wiseguy: maybe eight or nine years before the revolving door starts and they go in and out of Jail. At first it’s so fast that it almost explodes, but once they start to go in and out of Jail it goes on for maybe twenty years and Jail becomes part of the lifestyle.
I liked the book’s detail very much. So the film is more about tangents, things off the point rather than the point itself, because I find that’s more interesting. In a sense it was an Experiment to see what would happen, building up to Henry’s last day as a wiseguy, when he’s under pressure from all sides. This was the hardest part to do. I wanted to create for the audience – people who have never been under the influence of anything like cocaine or amphetamines – the state of Anxiety and the way the Mind races when on Drugs. So when Henry takes a hit of coke, the camera comes flying into his eyes and he doesn’t know where he is for a split second. It’s impossible for Henry to recognise what’s important and what’s not. He’s selling Drugs against Paulie’s orders – not because [Vario] takes a Moral stand against Drugs, but because he doesn’t want to be involved with anyone who could send him to Prison, which is exactly what happens. There’s a helicopter chasing him, which could be the FBI – we don’t know and neither does he – and the correct stirring of his tomato sauce seems just as important. After a while on Drugs and under these pressures, you become functionally insane and that’s your downfall.
Though I’m moved by The Heiress, it is based on a play, and the three acts are what makes it satisfying. The conflicts are played out in traditional Dramaturgy: Characters talk in a room and confront each other, all in dialogue. I wanted to get away from this three act approach. Over the past ten years in Hollywood, you find studio Executives saying things like, The script is good but we need a new act two, or act three just isn’t there. Finally I said to a bunch of students, Why are we using the term acts when the damn thing is a movie? Now I like Theatre, but Theatre is Theatre is Movies are Movies; they should be separate. We should talk about sequences – there are usually five or six sequences in a film, which are broken up into sections and scenes. I screened a few films for Elia Kazan in 1993, including East of Eden and Wild River – neither of which he had seen since he had made them! We discussed them afterwards and I found that he too had been trying to get away from conventional theatrical Dramaturgy. With The Age of Innocence, I wanted to find a way of making something literary – and Americans are cowed by the Tyranny of that word – and also filmic.
For me, there’s got to be a way that I can Experiment and just keep Working. Not every picture you make is necessarily going to come totally from the heart. I’m trying to make films in the mainstream, in the System – and yet stay true to the way I see things. My definition of a director is one who could flourish in the old studio system, who could do a really professional job on whatever script he is given. I prefer to be the filmmaker, as being a director is a really hard job, to find the energy to feel for material that doesn’t originate from you. I would include, in terms of what I mean by originating from me, material that I need, like Edith Wharton’s book. But every now and then I’d like to continue making a picture like Cape Fear, to keep working on the technical aspects of my Craft, and try to combine style from the old days with my own interests and obssessions.
The first newspaper article Pileggi shows me was about the Police covering a domestic fight on a lawn in Las Vegas one Sunday morning. And in that article, this incredible ten-year adventure that all these people were having slowly began to unravel, culminating in a husband and wife arguing on their lawn, with her smashing his car, the Police arriving, and the FBI taking pictures. As you work back to the beginning, you find this incredible story with so many tangents and each is just one more nail in the coffin. It could be the underboss of KC, Anthony Piscano, constantly complaining that he always had to spend his own Money on trips to Las Vegas and never got reimbursed. Or it could be that unrelated homicide that made the Police put a bug in the produce market that Piscano kept in KC. Even they’ve forgotten about it, but it picks up all his complaining and alerts FBI around the country to all these names. They’re surprised to hear the names of the Vegas casinos being mentioned in a KC produce market. What’s the connexion?
Then, quite separately, a court decrees that Phillip Greene’s former Business partner, Amanda Scott, should have her share of the Money as a partner of the president of the Tangiers Hotel. But instead of settling with her, the mob shot her, which also really happened. This then brings Police attention to their front man, the President, although he was in no way involved in the decision to kill her, and begins to realise what’s going on, although there’s nothing much he can do about it. And then you have [Rosenthal] and [McGee] and [Spilotro], all very volatile characters. I just thought it would be a terrific story.
Pretty much everything is based on real characters. Piscano is Carl DeLuna, who kept all those records. Mr. Nance, who brings the Money from the casino to KC, is based on a man named Carl Thomas, who was recently killed in a car crash. Mr. Green, the Tangiers President, [Rosenthal], [McGee], [Spilotro] and his brother – these characters are combined and some things happened in Chicago are placed in Vegas. We had some legal problems about being specific, which meant saying ‘back home’ instead of Chicago, and having to say ‘adapted from a true story’ instead of ‘this film is based on a true story’.
What interested me about Las Vegas was the idea of excess, no limits. People become successful there like in no other city. Recently there’s been a spread of new casinos all around America, which reflects desperation, when People think that with one throw of the die their whole life will be changed.
IT’s also the Old Testament story: Gaining Paradise and losing it, through Pride and through Greed. That was the idea: Sam is given Paradise on Earth. In fact, he’s there to keep everybody happy and keep everything in order, and to make as much Money as possible so they can take more on the scheme. But the problem is that he has to give way at time to certain People and certain pressures, which he won’t do because of who he is. When People warn him about Ginger, he says, I know all the stories about her, but I don’t care; I’m [Frank Rosenthal] and I can change her. But he couldn’t change her. And he couldn’t the muscle – [Spilotro] – because if you try to control someone like that, you’ll be dead.
I knew Louis Prima had to be there, but for the splendour of the destruction of this Sin City it has to be Bach. Because the old Vegas is being replaced by something that looks seductive, kiddie-friendly, but it’s there to work on the very core of America, the Family. Not just the gamblers and the hustlers and the relatively few gangsters who were around, but now it’s Ma and Pa Kettle. While the kids watch the pirate ride, we’ll take your Money.