Thursday, December 22, 2016


If people could have been allowed to hang from the rafters at the Egyptian Theater the early evening of December 2, 2016, they would have hung on for dear life to witness the conversation between cinematic royalty: Oscar-winning filmmaker Martin Scorsese and Oscar-winning producer Irwin Winkler.

Photo courtesy of Deverill Weekes
The two gathered for a Q&A lead by writer/director Jim Hemphill to discuss their 40-year collaboration that began with the 1977 musical drama New York, New York, with Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli, and is still going strong with Scorsese’s recent passion project Silence, which opens December 23.

The SRO crowd was filled with those Scorsese fans who have been following the influential filmmaker since his early days of 1973’s Mean Streets and 1976’s Taxi Driver to young fans and aspiring filmmakers who study every frame of his films.

Scorsese, 74, and Winkler, 85, seemed almost like an old married couple during the enjoyable conversation, especially when they discussed the genesis of  the musical theme from New York, New York.

“We had hired Kander and Ebb to write the special material,” said Winkler. “Kander and Ebb played us a little, very rhythmic small tune. And Marty insisted that they rewrite it and rewrite it until we got this song.”

Scorsese quipped: “I though you insisted.”

“What’s that? replied Winkler,

“I thought you insisted,” said the director.

“I’ll take credit for it,” quipped Winkler.

Winker noted a producer has several challenges making a musical.

“You’re making two films at the same time. You’re making a drama and you’re making a musical. So there’s rehearsals for the drama and rehearsals for the musical. One starts dipping into the other. You have production problems. But the goal, really, was to make a film that would move people and that was entertaining at the same time.”

People, added Winkler, think producers are “always really interested in following the budget. Basically, my philosophy is let’s try to make the best film we can and unless the studio can’t buy it at all, you just keep going."

And that’s what they did with 1980's Raging Bull, Scorsese’s masterpiece about prizefighter Jake La Motta for which De Niro won the lead actor Oscar.

The studio, said Winkler, didn’t want to make Raging Bull. “As a matter of fact, we once had a meeting with the two heads of the studio at the time, Marty, Bob, and myself. They came up to tell us they were not going to make the film.”

One of the studio heads even told them: “Why would we make a movie about a cockroach?” recalled Winker. “Isn’t that the word he used?

Scorsese nodded.

“I thought Bob De Niro was going to kill him at that,” said Winkler.“But Bob’s response was very simple. 'He’s not a cockroach.'”

The extras used in the fighting sequences came from assisted living and old age homes. “Marty was very cooperative about it,” said Winkler. “We’d bus the old folks in. I had Marty stop we could auction off radios and televisions. Everybody had to get their meds at 4 p.m."

Scorsese’s masterful 1990 gangster flick GoodFellas, with De Niro, Ray Liotta, and an Oscar-winning Joe Pesci, had a horrible test screening in Santa Monica.

“We had 34 walkouts in the first scene,” confessed Winkler of the iconic opening, in which Pesci takes out a huge butcher knife to kill a foe that was locked in the trunk of the car.

“It was biblical,” added Scorsese. "It was a procession. The knife is a retractable knife! Well, for some reason nobody expected the body to be the trunk. The people were laughing and all of a sudden he takes out this big knife. They scream. On the first stab they would scream. The second stab it got worse. And on the third, I turned to [editor Thelma Schoonmaker] and said, 'Oh god, how many more stabs? And she said seven more. I said oh no!’’

“A hundred and some odd people walked out,” noted Winkler. "By the end Marty walked out and look at us and said, I’ll see you at the bar at the Beverly Hills Hotel. And there we went. But we got the film we wanted.”

And the two feel that they have made the film they wanted with Silence, based on Shusaku Endo’s novel. Set in 17th-century Japan, the film revolves around two Portuguese Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) on a dangerous journey to find their mentor (Liam Neeson) who committed apostasy as a result of being tortured.

Scorsese and Winkler were joined by producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Driver, Garfield, and Japanese actor Issey Ogata.

Winker recalled when he visited Scorsese on the set of his 2011 film Hugo and the two began talking about Silence, which Scorsese had been wanting to do for two decades.

“We decided we would do it together,” said Winkler.

As far as casting, Scorsese met with Ogata in Tokyo. “He became this character right in front of me,” recalled the filmmaker. “And in the case of Adam and Andrew, you could see their soul in their faces, their eyes. You take a shot of a face…this is cinema. It’s movies. The eyes really tell you everything. I mean the dialogue is important of course, but it’s really the face. You can tell if the soul is there of the actor.”

Veteran journalist Susan King wrote about entertainment at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years (January 1990 - March 2016), specializing in classic Hollywood stories. She also wrote about independent, foreign and studio movies and occasionally TV and theater stories. She received her master's degree in film history and criticism at USC. After working 10 years at the L.A. Herald Examiner, she moved to the Los Angeles Times.