Fall 2019


Wise Guys

Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino talk movie obsessions, director heroes, process and violence as catharsis

Illustrated by André Carrilho

Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino are born storytellers, not just in their movies—which bear each director's unmistakable stamp—but in their deep-seated appreciation for the medium. While they hail from different generations—Scorsese was among the first wave of film school grads in the mid '60s, and Tarantino's rise coincided with the indie film revolution of the early '90s—their passion and knowledge of cinema place them on equal footing. No genre escapes their grasp, whether it's prestige studio releases or B-movie potboilers, splashy musicals or noirish thrillers, art-house fare or spaghetti Westerns. They've been dining on this grand buffet all their lives, and it shows in their own work, in the characters they've created, and the lens through which they view the world. This is a particularly conspicuous year for both filmmakers: Tarantino's Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood has galvanized critics and audiences alike since its debut at Cannes, while anticipation runs high for Scorsese's The Irishman, for which the director has spent considerable time in post dealing with digitally de-aging his leads. The two sat down for the DGA Quarterly to talk directors, influences and violence as catharsis, among other topics. This is an edited version of their conversation. –Steve Chagollan

(Illustrated by Sean McCabe)

Martin Scorsese: I just finalized the last cut on (The Irishman).

Quentin Tarantino: I get a situation when I kind of get down to that very, very end, where it's like, "Let's try this" and "Let's try that." But we get to that one spot and then I go home that night and I think, "You know, that was horrible. I've got to put it all back in the next day."

MS: This has taken over three months because, in a funny way, this particular film I didn't really screen that much because the last six months have been dealing with the de-aging.

QT: Yeah, yeah.

MS: And so we're doing that and it's quite intense. And so the ending is like two shots and I put another shot in. Then, [I'm thinking], "Wait, does it need that medium shot? Maybe we would just stay with the wide shot." So we tried that a few times, and then a couple of friends said, "Didn't you have another shot in there?" I said, "Yeah, maybe that's better." But the thing was, that in so doing, it changes the length of the last wide shot.

QT: Well, let me ask you a question about the movie you're doing now because you're dealing with, I think, the longest canvas you've dealt with. It's quite a few hours, right?

MS: Yeah.

QT: So how has that affected you as far as pacing is concerned?

MS: Interestingly enough, I figured out the pacing on the page this time with the script that [Steven] Zaillian [wrote]. And then—this is a complex situation because of the fact that it's being made with Netflix—it kind of stretches the length. In other words, I'm not sure if it had to be, for example, a two hour and 10 minute movie. Or could I have been at four hours?

QT: Right, yeah.

MS: I'm not certain as to the ultimate venue, so I made it pure in my head in a sense like, "What if it's just a movie? What if it's got to be as long as we feel or as short as we feel?" And, because the nature of the characters—basically, one character is telling the story in flashback at the age of 81.

QT: Uh-huh.

MS: And when you get to my age, Quentin—and you get a little slower, a little more contemplative and meditative—it's all about thinking of the past and about [the characters'] perception of the past and so, by the third shot in the picture,
I felt it in the editing. And I said, "Let's see where it takes us and play to a few audiences and see how they tolerate it or not."
So we kept saying, "We should try this and that." And also the nature of the computer-generated stuff we were doing gave us a certain pace.

QT: Yeah, yeah, okay.

MS: It's a quieter pace. It still has violence to it, it still has humor. But it comes in different ways. It's the old story: The more pictures you make, the more there is to learn.

QT: You know, Marty, I'll tell you an interesting story that I'm going through right now, and I thought it would lead to a very good question about you and movies, so let me go with this.
Right now, I'm working on a book. And I've got this character who had been in World War II and he saw a lot of bloodshed there. And now he's back home, and it's like the '50s, and he doesn't respond to movies anymore. He finds them juvenile after everything that he's been through. As far as he's concerned, Hollywood movies are movies. And so then, all of a sudden, he starts hearing about these foreign movies by Kurosawa and Fellini…

MS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

QT: And so he's like, "Well, maybe they might have something more than this phony Hollywood stuff."

MS: Right.

QT: So he finds himself drawn to these things and some of them he likes and some of them he doesn't like and some of them he doesn't understand, but he knows he's seeing something.

MS: Uh-huh.

QT: So now, I find myself having a wonderful opportunity of, in some cases, rewatching and, in some cases, watching for the first time movies I've heard about forever, but from my character's perspective. So I'm enjoying watching them but I'm also [thinking], 'How is he taking it? How is he looking at it?' I always like to have a good excuse for just throwing down into a pit of cinema, so that brings me to ask you: When was it for you that you started being lured away from what you considered Hollywood movies, and started becoming more adventuresome and going outside of your neighborhood to actually see some of the other foreign films that you'd been maybe reading about?

MS: Well, it's a great question because my first seven, eight years or so of my life we were in Corona, Queens. And then my father had to move back to Elizabeth Street (in Lower Manhattan's Little Italy), the street he and my mother were born on, because of some problems with the landlord. And so I was thrown into what looked like the Dead End Kids [or] Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery, you know? [laughing]
But prior to that, probably because of the asthma, [my parents] would take me to the movies all the time. So I saw Duel in the Sun, [that] was the first one. And then The Wizard of Oz, The Secret Garden, noirs like The Threat, [by] Felix Feist. Did you ever see that?

QT: Yeah, yeah. Loved The Threat.

MS: And so and [Robert Wise's] Blood on the Moon. [William Seiter's] One Touch of Venus. [We] had a little television set, a 16" RCA Victor, and my grandparents would come over on a Friday night because they were showing Italian films for the Italian community. And the films were [Vittorio De Sica's] Bicycle Thieves; [and Roberto Rossellini's] Rome, Open City and Paisan.

MS: And so at 5 years old, I saw the reaction of my grandparents crying watching Paisan and I heard the language that was the same as they were speaking. And so I knew there was another kind of cinema, but it wasn't the movies.

QT: Yeah.

MS: The first film I saw about Hollywood was [Billy Wilder's] Sunset Boulevard.

QT: Right, yeah. [laughing] Very dark view of Hollywood.

MS: And so in a sense, they were codified—the truth was coming through a different code, and a different culture in a way. And it didn't make them any less [important] from the European films I saw. But there was something that affected me when I saw those Italian films on that small screen that I never got past, and so that changed everything.
That really gave me a view of the world, the foreign films. It made me curious about the rest of the world, apart from the Italian-American Sicilian community I was living in.

QT: So did it even open you up to New York, in a way—reaching those other cinemas, going outside of your neighborhood, searching out those places?

MS: It was more than that. Because it was really going into America, outside of the little village that I grew up in.

QT: Oh, yeah, I get you.

MS: It was scary. There were a lot of bad areas, so you'd go with some friends. Did you ever go to the 42nd Street when all the movies were playing at that time?

QT: You know, I never made it. As a matter of fact, the first time I ever went to New York was for one weekend of casting Reservoir Dogs. Now understand, I wanted to go to New York since the minute I heard that there was a New York and watch a New York cinema [bill]. But no one ever took me when I was a kid, and I couldn't afford to go when I was old. So we're casting the movie and Harvey Keitel was like, "I can't believe we're not going to give the New York actors a shot here." And I go, "Well, we can't afford it." He goes, "Well, I'll tell you what. I'll arrange for a weekend of casting through a casting director and I'll put you and (producer) Lawrence Bender up, and I'll fly you out." So we had one weekend in New York casting. And when we come in from the airport, it's like in the morning, and we're just kind of driving through New York to get to the hotel, I think it was the Mayflower…

MS: Yeah.

QT: And I'm literally like, "OK, I've been wanting to go to a Times Square cinema my whole life. The first thing I'm going to do, as soon as we get done with work, I'm going to go to the Times Square, I want to go see whatever is playing." And Harvey goes, "Quentin, no you're not. In a week or two, you could do that, but you can't do that tomorrow. You're too new." [Scorsese is laughing throughout this story.]

MS: He was so right. And also the weird thing is that that was changed in the '50s. We'd go up but you'd have to have about four guys with you. And you go and they were showing every film you can imagine. There were no sex films. It was all regular Hollywood films.
We'd go up there and it was a dangerous place, you know, it was crazy. And they would show, you know, The Elusive Pimpernel, directed by [Michael] Powell and [Emeric] Pressburger and on the same bill, Ulysses with Kirk Douglas, and beautiful Technicolor prints. But, across the street, they had Halls of Montezuma [and] To the Shores of Tripoli.

QT: Yeah.

MS: Two films. One (Halls) I think is a Lewis Milestone, the other [Bruce Humberstone], and so they were beautiful Technicolor films. Right? They showed them black and white! [Tarantino laughing] And we'd go in the place, God knows what was going on in the balcony—there were fights, all kinds of stuff—but we went anyway. All of the prints were black-and-white prints, of like (John Ford's) Drums Along the Mohawk—black-and-white!

QT: [Laughing] Now, I had that experience in Downtown L.A., the Metropolitan Theatres there, it was the Cameo and the Arcade (both on S. Broadway). They were the all-night ones. As a matter of fact, I remember—I think it was in '82 because they never got an L.A. release—I remember that movie that Ralph De Vito did, Death Collector, which was Joe Pesci's [first film]…

MS: Yeah, that's how we got Joe for Raging Bull.

QT: Well, I heard it was playing at the Arcade. And I go, "Wow," it was like right after the Raging Bull. I go; that's the movie. The only way to see it was to go there at four in the morning. I'm not going to go there at eight at night.

MS: Death Collector, Bob (De Niro) saw it on CBS. He said, "I saw this thing on TV, and this guy is really interesting," so we got a print of it. That's how we looked at it, you know?

QT: It's a good film. When I actually saw it. It was like, "Oh, wow, this is like an exploitation version of Mean Streets."

MS: You're right! [laughing]. Now the repertories are gone, of course, so, it's a different thing entirely.

QT: Well, just so you know, I own a repertory theater out here in Los Angeles, the New Beverly, and we do great with your films.

MS: Oh, thank you.

QT: And we only show 35 or 16 [mm]. And we have a full trailer collection.

Martin Scorsese is flanked by Al Pacino and DP Rodrigo Prieto on the set of The Irishman. (Photo: Niko Tavernise)

New York vs. L.A. School of Cinema

QT: When I think of New York filmmakers, I think of you, Marty. I think of Sidney Lumet. I think of Woody Allen. But also, you're part of the New York New Wave, which was the '60s. You had the '60s shoestring guys, like you and Jim McBride and Shirley Clarke and Brian De Palma. I'm interested in that whole concept of the New York New Wave, and you guys more or less being inspired by the can-do spirit of the French New Wave. Give me a camera in sync and I'll attach it to this car and away we go.

MS: Or put it in a wheelchair and just go—a cameraman and a wheelchair and that's your dolly shot.

QT: Right.

MS: The New York thing sort of came out of postwar. There were very few films still being made in New York. [In] the studio system, of course, you had the factory. Why go to New York when you have everything you need in the studio? So what I think changed it was, of course, again, Neorealism, which was shooting out in the true actual locations.

QT: Yes.

MS: Slipping into film noir, like [Jules Dassin's] The Naked City and [Otto Preminger's] Where the Sidewalk Ends and everything else, even Force of Evil, [Abraham] Polonsky's film.

QT: Yeah.

MS: [They had] shots of New York, which were amazing. George Cukor, A Double Life, all these films, they actually started to take the cameras into the streets.

QT: Yeah.

MS: And New York was not a shooting [destination] at that time. You had this traffic, there's people that have work to do, they'd walk in front of the camera, they don't want to be told anything. They were hiding the camera in different places and, ultimately, it was the American avant garde, the films Jonas Mekas curated in the mid-'50s, Cinema 16. Amos Vogel, Jonas Mekas, Shirley Clarke [with] The Connection...

QT: Yeah.

MS: (Clarke's) The Cool World. She shot it out in the streets. The man who really broke it, of course, was Cassavetes with Shadows.

QT: Yeah, he's the godfather of that, exactly.

MS: Once I saw Shadows, I looked at my friends and said, "Well, there's no more excuses." As long as you have something to say, we can do this. They were using a [16mm] Éclair [camera], which was smaller and lighter. And that was the go-to move because we saw you were able to do it and you didn't need the machine—good, bad or indifferent—of the West Coast.

QT: But the interesting thing about the New York New Wave, especially when compared to either Neorealism or the French New Wave is, I'd say, in the French New Wave movies, they're all taking place in the same town. At any point in time, Anna Karina's character from [Godard's] Vivre sa vie could bump into the piano player in [Truffaut's] Shoot the Piano Player. I mean, that could absolutely happen.

MS: Exactly. Yeah.

QT: Whereas the New York New Wave, on the other hand, stuck to their neighborhoods. And showed us a very multifaceted version of New York. You wouldn't imagine the characters in The Cool World bumping into characters in [Scorsese's] Who's That Knocking at My Door or the Greenwich Village hippies from [De Palma's] Greetings. They're not going to exist in the same frame.

MS: No, no, no, those were different countries. We would never go to 110th Street. I don't know what they do up there. I don't care. It's a different world.
When I went to Washington Square College in 1960, NYU as it's known today, I just went to the corner of Houston and Elizabeth where I lived and made a left, six blocks. That was it. I was in another planet. And then it balanced both. [In] Mean Streets, [they] were kind of both in there, in a way: the outside world and the inside.

QT: I watched, fairly recently, Who's That Knocking at My Door. And one of the things that cracks me up on it is, because I know what a fan of [John Ford's] The Searchers you are, and so you had a whole big scene [on the Staten Island ferry] where [Harvey Keitel's character is] talking about [The Searchers]…

MS: I had to do it, I know.

QT: It is my favorite scene in the whole movie. In fact, of the New York New Wave, your film was the most New Wavy looking. It looked a little bit like the French New Wave movies.

MS: Yeah, the black-and-white… But yeah, you're actually right. No doubt there was an influence of the French New Wave, and Bertolucci really; Before the Revolution was a wipeout. And Pasolini; for me, Accattone is the best of all of them, and somehow it translated. I loved what they did with the perforations on the film.

QT: Yeah.

MS: The frames, you know—when you look at a frame and you're editing with celluloid—ah. It's sublime. You could cut right on the edge of the frame. You'd go two frames and pull one out. I mean they were doing it, and we started doing it ourselves and experimenting.
It was what my old teacher, Haig Manoogian, said when we were shooting these short films at NYU at the time, and we'd get into an editing problem. We'd say, "But Truffaut said when he's cutting a film going one way, he recuts it to go another way." And my professor said, "That's nonsense. He wouldn't do that." Yeah, but we had this shot. He goes, "Listen, the point is that you may shoot a shot for a certain reason and then later when you're in the editing process and things aren't working…" It's like the monolith in [Kubrick's] 2001. You know, you touch the monolith and you take a shot that had nothing to do with that scene…

QT: Yeah.

MS: …And it works in another place and means something else. He said, "You learn about the value of the shot itself." The shot itself takes on its own life, and you can see that in little frames, 16 or 35, it didn't matter.

QT: It's funny you're saying that because actually one of my favorite things with me and my editors is basically when we cheat and get away with it, and it's as obvious as the nose on your face.

MS: It's so obvious. There's a scene in Shutter Island with this woman who's in the insane asylum and [Leonardo DiCaprio's character is] interrogating her at a table, very nice woman, and she's talking about [how] she had killed her husband with an ax. And there's a shot over her shoulder—which is a very Hitchcock kind of thing; she has a glass and she takes a sip and puts it down; and cut back to Leo, he's interrogating her; come back to her; and then another shot over her shoulder where she takes the glass and goes like this and puts it down and there's no glass in her hand.

QT: Uh-huh. [laughs]

MS: Well, she was rehearsing. But I said, "Let's do that." You think there's a glass there. And hence, the whole story: what's true, what isn't true, what is imagined.

QT: Oh, that's perfect.

MS: Cheating is…

QT: It's a very honorable thing to do. You just have to pull it off.

MS: That's right. It takes on its own life. Things you'd think would never cut together, do. [Then] things you think are just going to be beautiful cut together—a disaster.

QT: I'm wrapping up my publicity tour on (Once Upon a Time…) and I get questions like, "What was the most difficult scene for you to do?" I guess my real answer to that question usually is, if I've got a big set piece I'm getting ready to do, and it's Tuesday and we start it on Wednesday. And half of the reason I'm doing the movie is to do this sequence, which I've watched in my head so I see it. And now, if I don't do it at least as good [as I see it] in my head, I will at least be the [only] one who knows that I didn't do it.

MS: That's right. Exactly.

QT: And it's sort of like me testing my talent. Am I going to hit the ceiling on this one? Am I not as good as I think I am? And just before those days, those sequences, are always my most anxiety-filled, because I want them to be great and I'm at the bottom of the mountain right now and I'm looking up. I know once I start climbing, I'll be fine. But I've got to start climbing. You have to get through that…

MS:[laughing] It's true, and it's total anxiety, bad dreams, everything. Get in there in the morning. Nasty, arguing, complaining. And then I want to get started.

QT: On those mornings, I am the nastiest. I am like, "Don't bother me."

MS: "Don't come near me." [laughing] I go outside the trailer. I'm very nice to everybody. I go in the trailer, there's my AD and my producer, my assistant, and they get it. And then the DP comes and they all get it. And I usually complain about the traffic or there's something wrong with my teeth or I don't know what. "Can't do a damn thing around here," you know.

QT: Yeah.

MS: But in any event, it is that incredible thing that I always talk about: How do we get these concepts up here, out through all this equipment, through that lens, with the glass, and how do we get these dreams in our head? It's so ephemeral.
Once you start to make them physical, we may lose part of what we're feeling up here, what we want to express. It's very tricky.

"I'm interested in that whole concept of the New York New Wave, and you guys more or less being inspired by the can-do spirit of the French New Wave."–Quentin Tarantino

QT: It's an interesting double-edged sword which, I think, is why we have the anxiety, because, on the one hand, we've got this perfect movie in our head, but we don't want that. We want to create something better than that because we don't have those actors in our head.

MS: Exactly.

QT: You've got to constantly [be] making the cuts with the music and this and that and the audience ooh'ing and aah'ing. Yeah, we can maybe do that. But it's got to have a heartbeat.

MS: That's right.

QT: But I still want all that ooh'ing and aah'ing.

MS: Yeah, I know. I know, I know. And that's the tension. That's the incredible tension. And people say, "Well, if you hate it." It's not that I hate it.

QT: No, it's not hating.

MS: It's what we do.

QT: It's actually the most invigorating thing in my life. But it doesn't mean I don't have trepidation.

MS: Oh, God. But you know, you've tried your best under the circumstances: with the DP, with your actors, with the weather, with how you're feeling, with that location, with that shooting schedule. Unless, you know, some people go back and they reshoot a lot of stuff that they really need.

QT: Yeah, it seems like cheating to me. There is an aspect of, "No, you've got to pull it off in the time—either one that you said that you were going to [meet], or while everyone's all there to do it. Even if you go over, it's still…

MS: That's right. It's like a prize fight.

QT: Anybody could just do an unlimited thing…

MS: Yeah, no, a prize fight. You've got certain rounds. You've got to get in there and you've got to keep going and that's it. I mean, I did shoot four extra days, I think, on The Departed. But what I did there, we were changing it so much in the middle of the film when we were shooting. I kept working with [screenwriter] Bill Monahan and everybody rewriting stuff. It got so complicated that, at one point, my continuity person said, "Where do you want this new scene [that] just came in?" I said, "Put it in the middle with everything else. [laughing] I'll figure it out later." Sure enough, in the end it was like we were wrangling six wild horses, me and [editor] Thelma [Schoonmaker]. And then finally, we put it all together and we realized, "Okay, we need this and we need that."

QT: Yeah, that makes sense, absolutely. I would have to think, though, that when it comes to what I was describing about leading up to that big section, feeling trepidation, I would imagine that you probably felt that way leading to the big action climax of Taxi Driver.

MS: It was every day on Taxi Driver. It was supposed to be a 40-day shoot and we went 45 days and they were very, very upset with us—really upset, angry, coming down, phone calls. It was a nightmare. And I must say, the energy you see in the frames—and I designed that whole shootout sequence very carefully—there was a good kind of anger that kept us going.

QT: Yeah.

MS: It took a lot out of us, but it was like being in a battle. It was fight, fight, fight, all the way through everything. It's like everything you did was a battle to get the shots you wanted, how you wanted it. We were just trying to fight the time.

QT: Yeah.

MS: But it had a crazy energy to it. Because of that, we were like commandos.

QT: That makes sense, in particular that cathartic action scene and pulling it off, because it's, on one hand, operatic, even Japanese style to some degree.

MS: Yeah, yeah.

QT: But also more realistic than anything I'd ever seen in just a normal, go-to-the-movies kind of movie theater experience. That ending has got to be cathartic. That brings all these elements together. Also, you're giving us an end to a movie. We've watched this guy in his apartment forever and now this it, the fuse has met the bomb basically.

MS: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. The thing was, [Paul] Schrader wrote that and it was very, very personal. And he had imagined—I'm putting words in his mouth I guess—but the impression I got was he wanted it more Japanese and more stylized. And he, I believe, said he would have wanted more blood on the walls. I said, "But I'm not Kon Ichikawa. Or [it's not Kurosawa's] Sanjuro

QT: Yeah, where you trigger the sprinkler system basically.

MS: I watch those things. I said, "I can appreciate it. I love it. But every time I try to do it, it comes out another way." Because where I come from, Quentin, when I saw violence or the threat of violence, it was very real.

QT: Yeah.

MS: Very serious and there were great repercussions. And, you know, problems that dealt with that, whether it's a slap in the face or a look, even, boom!, people just stopped, and you could be dead the next minute. You don't know. I just did it the way I imagined… as if it would happen realistically.

QT: I heard you say at the time that you were kind of disturbed that audiences were thinking [of the scene] cathartically but, to me, it seems like it is made to be cathartic.

MS: But I didn't know that. I thought it was a special passion project that had to be made because we all had those feelings. I had feelings of this disconnect and this rage. But the rage, I mean, ultimately, we don't cross that line that [the title character] Travis crosses. But we understood it and we didn't have to say much about it.

QT: Yeah, yeah. You just didn't know how much you would actually tap—how deep the vein was.

MS: I thought nobody was going to see the film.

QT: So my question, in Taxi Driver, it's like I'm sure the reason the movie, when it came to actually getting made (at Columbia) because it is vaguely similar enough to Death Wish

MS: (Producers) Michael and Julia Phillips, who had just won the Academy Award for The Sting, were really pushing the picture and working with the people at Columbia—at that time it was David Begelman—and they got it made. But [the studio] did not want to make it, and they made it very clear every minute.

QT: Oh, really. [laughing]

MS: Every day. And especially when I showed it to them, they got furious, and [it] also got an X rating. And I always tell the story that I had a meeting with Julia and myself and the Columbia brass. They looked at me. I walked in, ready to take notes. They said, "Cut the film for an R or we cut it. Now, leave."

QT: Jesus!

MS: I had no power at all. There's nothing I could do. I came up against a monolith, and the only people who were able to pull it through were Julia and Michael. But meetings, talks, and then, of course, dealing with the MPAA to shave and trim a bit here and there. Again, because, in doing the shootout, I didn't know how else to present it. Maybe knowing that some of it was artifice, I didn't realize the impact of the imagery. So I cut two frames and walked out.
I mean, the violence, it's catharsis, it's so true. I felt it when I saw The Wild Bunch.

QT: Well, that's an interesting thing. For instance, I feel a catharsis at the end of Taxi Driver.

MS: And the character (in Taxi Driver), 80% or 90% of it was De Niro himself.

QT: Absolutely.

MS: With that look on his face and his eyes.

QT: It's interesting because the thing about it is, you, De Niro and Schrader made a choice to look through Travis' eyes. [De Niro] went inside of Travis. This is a first-person study. You're seeing the world through his eyes. So if he's a racist, you're looking at the world through the view of a racist.

MS: Right, exactly.

QT: Nevertheless, though, in Travis' one-against-all stand against the pimps, I'm on Travis' side. I mean, if we're not supposed to root for him even a little bit, then there would be no point in making the prostitute underage.

MS: No, you're right, that's something that Schrader had in that script with her being underage, and Harvey improvised some of those lines about, you know, when Bob goes up to him in the doorway on 13th Street and says, 'I'm hip,' but (Harvey) goes—

QT: 'Yeah you don't look it.' I've got to say I love that movie and I love that sequence in particular. Usually, if you're talented enough, you get enough happy accidents you can never count on, so it all balances. But I think one of the great ones to me in the history of cinema is (Harvey Keitel's) Sport flicking that cigarette off of Travis and you see an explosion of sparks.

MS: The sparks. Harvey did it. "Bang!" You know, "Go back to your fucking tribe." You are so right about that, you know, because I grew up in places where I saw that happen in gatherings or a dance or something, and a fight breaks out. Before it breaks out, there's always that cigarette. A spark. "Oh, here we go." It's one of those [situations] where you know it's going to be a war and that's the signal, you know.

Quentin Tarantino captures his Once Upon a Time leads Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio through the viewfinder. (Photo: Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Referencing Other Director in Their Own Movies

QT: From time to time, if I'm in a really cool cinema bookstore, I like picking up a critical essay book on a director that I haven't watched their films that much. And I'll just kind of start reading about them and that will lead me down the road to another filmmaker's work. And so I was in Paris for our one weekend of shooting in France for Inglourious Basterds, and they had this wonderful cinema bookstore by Rue Champollion, where all the little cinemas are, and I hadn't watched a lot of Josef von Sternberg's movies. So I picked up one book about him and I liked it so much I got another book. I eventually got his autobiography, which I thought was hysterical. I don't believe a word of it, but it's very funny.

MS: [Laughing] I know, I know.

QT: Not a word. So I started watching some of his movies, and I was actually kind of inspired by his art direction.

MS: Yes.

QT: So I started, and now I do it at least a couple of times per movie, but on Inglourious Basterds, it was set up to do this Josef von Sternberg shot where you take all of the art direction and put it in front of the camera. And you dolly shot through the art direction as you follow your lead character—all the candles and the glasses and the clocks and the lights and just create one big line and then put a track line in there and then have your character go like this. So that is officially a Josef von Sternberg shot.

MS: I have a thing with tracking parallel to the action—just tracking it, like four people are standing there. Instead of tracking this way, it just goes straight this way and I think it comes from… there's a scene in Vivre sa vie where the guy says, "I want a Judy Garland record," and she goes across the record store to find the record and then the camera just comes back with her. There's an objectivity to it that is like a piece of music really, like choreography, but also the objectivity of this, I should say the state of their souls in a way—it doesn't want to get too close.

QT: Yeah.

MS: But the one I really tried to—I tried to capture it in many films. I can't do it but it doesn't matter. It's the fun of doing it. There's one shot in (Hitchcock's) Marnie where she's about to shoot her horse. And it's an insert. And it's her hand with a gun and the camera is on her shoulder and it's running. The camera is moving with her and the ground is going this way and I've done it in practically every picture. There's something, the inevitability of that that she hasn't—somehow it looks [like] I've put the actor on dollies…

QT: Yeah.

MS: The camera floating up. I'll never get it right because Hitchcock did it. But it's so much fun to do.

QT: I've had a situation like that that I've done for like the last three movies. And this movie is the only time I think I've gotten it right. And it's not even for one of his movies per se; it was from the trailer to [Sam Peckinpah's] Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and the way they cut the trailer is you see Kris Kristofferson like in 24 frames a second doing tumbles and rolls as he's shooting, then [James] Coburn's in the hideout and bullets are all around and he's running in 24 frames a second, somersaulting and shooting and then it cuts to people getting shot in slow motion.

MS: Yeah.

QT: And then it cuts back to Kristofferson—24 frames, bam, bam, bam. And then it cuts to him hitting the ground and falling at 120 frames.

MS: Wow.

QT: I've tried that juxtaposition and doing it that way. I tried that in Django and I didn't pull it off. I tried it in Hateful Eight during a shootout and it worked but it didn't work that way.

MS: [laughing]

QT: But, when Brad Pitt beats the fuck out of this one Manson guy in (Once Upon a Time…), I finally pulled it off. His punches are 24 frames, the guy's impact into the powdery dirt is 120 frames.

MS: That's great. Oh, the powdery dirt, you're right, it pops up—ah, that's fantastic.

QT: Yes.

MS: I always think of the powdery dirt.

QT: The blood on the sweaty face—

MS: That's great. I can never do it but the little Mexican boy in [Sergio Leone's] Once Upon a Time in the West and when it's revealed that his brother is being hanged.

QT: Oh, yeah, yeah.

MS: And he's on his shoulders and he falls to his knees when he's shot with the dust. I tried.

QT: Oh yeah—impossible.

MS: I tried even it in Last Temptation of Christ; didn't work. Mary and Martha came, Jesus is coming to raise Lazarus. It didn't work. We were in Morocco. Harvey was with me. We couldn't get it. Never do. Maybe it's the dust. I don't know what it is.

QT: Yeah, it's that hard dust. Right? You need that Spanish [dust]. You need Almería dust.

MS: Spain. Oh, God. That's hysterical.

"How do we get these concepts up here, out through all this equipment, through that lens, and how do we get these dreams in our head? It's so ephemeral."–Martin Scorsese

Working with DGA Teams

QT: In the last couple of movies [Tarantino's longtime 1st AD William Paul Clark is among the first to see a screenplay], because I know he's going to do it— while he's here. And so those first five or six people, I invite over to the house to read the script. It's a big deal.

MS: I've worked with wonderful ADs for a long period of time. Worked with Joe Reidy, who was terrific. He helped with so many [movies], from Color of Money all the way up to Shutter Island. And he was even—him and [DP Michael] Ballhaus are the ones who laid out the entire Copacabana shot [in Goodfellas]. And Chris Surgent [2nd AD on Gangs of New York and Bringing Out the Dead]…

QT: Yeah.

MS: Then I worked with Adam Somner, who is really terrific, on Wolf of Wall Street. And, since then, David Webb who [was] with me in Taipei doing Silence [and was on] Vinyl and, of course, Irishman. Yeah, Irishman, which I found that the AD is really like [a] co-producer in a sense. They're like my right arm. And so I've been very lucky in these past 25 years to be dealing with them.

QT: I just watched New York, New York a few months ago with my wife. She had never seen it. Now, whenever I watch it, I don't even think about watching the theatrical cut. I always watch the "Happy Endings" cut.

MS: That's the right one. Yeah.

QT: But it breaks my heart that you felt the need to cut it out before the theatrical release. And I get it. I can [also] see that it would even be one of the reasons that you made the movie, for the opportunity to do the "Happy Endings" number.

MS: That's the key reason, yeah. I think what had happened at that point was… Sorry, go ahead.

QT: Well, you're backed up against the wall. 'What do I do?' OK, well, this will take 20 minutes out of it.

MS: I was experimenting so much with the film and by the time the editing was coming to a close, everybody always commented how wonderful that sequence is, etc. And they said, "Sometimes you have to cut out the best thing to make it work." And so I did. And it was almost like [I] was really punishing myself for the whole situation, really. I never meant that that should be out and, in a funny way, too, when we put the film back together a couple of years later, the "Happy Endings" [sequence] gave the audience a kind of appreciation for the relationship and they got a happy ending because the ending is not happy in a sense.

QT: You've also got a really smooth filmmaking thing there where it shows Francine's (Liza Minnelli) journey from Broadway to movies, because it starts with (De Niro's character Jimmy) going to the Broadway show and then it ends with him being in the theater watching the movie version.

MS: Watching, yeah. That was very specific, you know, it was inspired by [the] "Born in a Trunk" [number in George Cukor's A Star Is Born] and it was inspired by the "Girl Hunt Ballet" [number in Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon]—all these sequences that would stop the movie and suddenly a whole other film would appear. And that was one of the main reasons for making the picture, really, to be able to explore that and work with the great [production designer] Boris Leven and [DP] László Kovács and, I mean, the design of it was beautiful.

QT: I'm always curious, especially when it comes to filmmakers whose work I've studied, you hear about different iterations that could have happened with [one of] their movies. That brings me to [an aspect of] Mean Streets that I've never heard you talk about, when you went to Warner Bros. to do it and the period of time that Jon Voight was going to play Charlie. Will you explain how it didn't happen?

MS: Well, it's a delicate issue because, around that time, I got to know Jon Voight in Los Angeles a little. Harvey Keitel, all of us together, and it was constantly, "What if so-and-so's in it? Maybe we can get financing. What about this? What about that?" And Voight was a wonderful actor and so we talked about it for quite a while. And he was really thinking about it. I went to his class one night and there I found Richard Romanus and David Proval and cast them [in Mean Streets] from his class. And then, you know, I spoke to Harvey about it because it was written for Harvey.

QT: Yeah, yeah.

MS: And Harvey told me, "Look, you've got to get the film made. And I understand, maybe if he does Charlie, I could do, you know, Johnny or whatever." We were working out something. And I said, "You understand that I've got to get this made." And even Barry Primus, we were talking about Barry doing it. And it was a matter of getting the financing, really. Damn good actors. And the night came finally when I had to shoot some background shots for the San Gennaro Feast, and we were based on the corner of Umberto's Clam House, where Joey Gallo had been killed six months earlier. And I was on a roof, I remember, and I was about to put a coat on Harvey and go in and shoot. But they said, "You know, Jon wants to talk to you one more time," Jon Voight. So I went downstairs to make a phone call and he said, "I'm really sorry. I just can't do it." I said, "OK." I thanked him, hung up. I went up to the roof, I said, "Put the coat on. Let's go. It was written for you, and that's the way God has worked out."

QT: I had another story like that. I make Reservoir Dogs and I'm making a movie for Live Entertainment, which was the video arm of Carolco at that time.

MS: Oh, God, yes.

QT: And so it was like, we're not even guaranteed a theatrical release. It's like, well, "If it's really good, we'll release it. We'll see." So I'm ready to lock picture and Ronna Wallace, who was the head of the company—I had been kind of working with her No. 2 guy, which was Richard Gladstein—she was just like, "Well, these guys have been working really hard to get it ready for Sundance so let's not lock yet. And she's actually trying to be nice, like maybe I need another week or something. No, I don't need another week so it doesn't seem so nice. I went to lock. But she says, "Send a print to New York. I want to watch it." So we sent the print to New York, and she comes walking into the screening room with Abel Ferrara. And so Sally Menke, my editor, was like, "Oh my God, they're going to take the movie away from Quentin…"

MS: That's where they hit you, yes.

QT: Okay. So now they weren't doing that. She's just bringing a filmmaker she's also worked with that year to watch it with her, and say, "What do you think?" And so—I wasn't there—I hear about this story. They're watching the movie and then, when it's all over with, Abel Ferrara goes, "Ronna, it's great. Lock it. Release it!" And he just walks out of the room. And that was that.

QT: So God bless him.

MS: Great! I have a screening going on right now; it's supposed to lock in tonight. The CGI took six months. So I'm going to go over there right now.

QT: Well, good luck. Break a leg and this has been so much fun. Thank you for doing this.

MS: You, too, thank you. I'll see you soon, I hope, if you come to New York.

QT: I definitely will. It's my pleasure.


Two prominent directors from shared experience discuss craft, approach, collaboration and the state of the business, with DGA Quarterly as a fly on the wall.
More from this issue
The latest DGA Quarterly is the Conversations issue, featuring discussions about filmmaking history and craft between directors Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, Pamela Fryman and Mark Cendrowski, Kasi Lemmons and Ed Zwick and Bo Burnham and Olivia Wilde.