Conversations-with-directors books can go one of two ways: Either the directors want to analyze their work, or they don't. Those who do either obscure the films with trivial esoterica or — as is the case with Martin Scorsese, in Time film critic Richard Schickel's new book, Conversations With Scorsese — illuminate their choices with a pragmatic instinct verging on the intimate, as though they were discussing not shots and lenses but their own biography.

We met Schickel at his house in West Hollywood to talk Scorsese, his films and the politics of interviewing arguably America's greatest man of cinema.

L.A. WEEKLY: Is there an argument to be made against Scorsese?

RICHARD SCHICKEL: David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary, is a little on the fence. David feels that Marty's films run on the romantic fantasies a lifetime of moviegoing has made vividly real to him, but that they lack the ideas and themes that fully support those fantasies. It's hard, as I think my book makes clear, for settled, WASPY guys like David — and me — to embrace Marty. Our values and experiences are so different from his. But, obviously, over the years, he has won me over.

Was it tricky handling the movies that don't work for you?

In general, I admire his work. Of course I don't like the Liza Minnelli musical [New York, New York], but who does? Mean Streets … there's something about it that doesn't take me. That may not be the movie's fault. That may be my fault. Shutter Island, I think it's a mess of a movie. On the other hand, it's probably his most successful film, dollar-in, dollar-out.

I wouldn't assault him. I would just sort of gently hint that I didn't like this or that. But he understands that in the end movies are a matter of taste and it's OK if you don't have the same taste he has. Marty has an interesting ego. If you don't like his movie, or if you have criticisms with aspects of a movie, that's OK with him.

One of the pleasures of this book is that it's really a back-and-forth, a conversation.

I emerged from all those hours of interview quite liking him. He does have a sense of humor about himself. He does know he could be a little bit of a nut job, a little compulsive about things, but that's OK. That's what makes him Marty.

You've known each other for a while, but did anything surprise you this time around?

He's somewhat more relaxed than I would have anticipated. He's not always that wildly hyperverbal Marty. But really, I wasn't prepared for the openness. We didn't have any pre-agreement about what was OK or wasn't. He didn't refuse to answer anything.

I think part of it was because we worked mostly at night. Marty's not a morning person. So most of our interviews would start at around 8 o'clock at night, and they might end at 1 in the morning. No matter how sharp you are, at nighttime you're in a different mood. You tend to be more expansive. I think that worked to my advantage.

And in terms of his own personal taste?

He has an utter inability to say anything bad about any movie. I'd say, “You know, this is a turkey, Marty,” and he'd say, “Yeah, yeah, I know. But there's this shot in the third scene … ” It's almost comical. I think that's the little kid in awe of the image on the screen, buttressed by the fact of how he knows how difficult it is to make a good movie.

Reading the book, it seems Marty the little kid is so much a part of Scorsese the man. His childhood has stayed with him.

After all this interviewing I can't fully explain how very important his childhood was in shaping him. He was a sickly kid with his asthma, growing up in a very violence-prone neighborhood; he would not have been able to defend himself if they came after him.

And is that the origin of all the betrayals we see in his movies?

He overtly says it over the course of the interview. The whole business of his father not being of the criminal element but being able to talk to them, able to smooth things out. His father probably taught him caution: “Be careful. Don't get out of line.” There are these stories Marty tells about a kid who fucked up and these Mafia guys take him to the backroom of a social club and give him a talking-to. That sense of, “They're all watching.” You don't see them watching, but they are watching. It's very important to Marty.

It goes beyond the gangster movies, [to something] like The Age of Innocence.

He says in the book those people were as controlling as the Mafia. I like that film. I think it's very nicely done. I do think he's a very wide-ranging filmmaker. I think sometimes he must willfully do something other than a crime movie.

That's the most stunning thing about Scorsese, and I think the strongest argument for him. The secondary line of his career — movies like Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Last Temptation of Christ, After Hours — is as impressive as his main line.

At one point in the interview, he says something like, “Can we talk about something other than Raging Bull and Goodfellas?” He wants to talk about Kundun; he wants to talk about Age of Innocence. In a way, people shorthand him. They say, “It's all gangsters.” He's actually made far more non-gangster films than gangster films.

Right. When Scorsese first came to Hollywood, he really wanted to be a studio guy and do it all, like a Michael Curtiz.

That kind of came true, didn't it? He is a genre filmmaker, but a personal genre filmmaker.

You've got to think he's achieved everything. What's left?

Well, he has this picture he's been trying to get on about Jesuit priests in Japan. The Silence. He and Jay Cocks have been working on that script for something like a decade, off and on, and I think he's getting close to doing it. He's had trouble because [financiers] think they can't sell a movie about Jesuits in the 17th century in Japan. It seems to me that Marty has long since earned the right to do whatever he fucking wants. It's sort of deplorable to me that filmmakers of Marty's stature have to put up with that. It should be, “Hey, look, we can't really take that budget. You're going to have to squeeze X millions of dollars off of it. If you can do that, make the movie.”

What is it he loves most about making movies? When is he the happiest?

He may be at his happiest when he's finished the film and he's sitting there with Thelma [Schoonmaker, Scorsese's longtime editor]. He loves mixing films. That's when his compulsive tendencies can go indulged with little expense to the studio. The ability to endlessly screw around with the thing. I think he could do that forever.

Conversations With Scorsese (Alfred A. Knopf) is out now.

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