Martin Scorsese on the Impact of Mean Streets

March 2, 2011 A DGA 75th Anniversary Event

While introducing the recent event Martin Scorsese: the Impact of Mean Streets, DGA President Taylor Hackford described how he similarly aspired to shoot his first feature film in New York as depicted Scorsese’s seminal 1973 film. His ambition was quashed due to budgetary concerns.

“I argued I wanted to capture the true authenticity of this city’s gritty street life, like Marty had captured so brilliantly,” Hackford recounted to the packed audience at the DGA Theater in midtown Manhattan on March 2. “To my utter shock, I was told that Marty had shot all but one week of his film in Los Angeles.” The room erupted in laughter.

“Tonight we honor a cinematic giant,” said Hackford, describing Scorsese’s career that includes six DGA Feature Film Award nominations, a DGA Feature Film Award and an Academy Award for Best Director for The Departed, a DGA Dramatic Series Award for his pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire, the Filmmaker Award at the inaugural DGA Honors Gala, and the Guild’s highest artistic honor, the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.

Hackford’s welcome was followed by a preview of upcoming 75th Anniversary events from DGA Sixth Vice President Vince Misiano who also spoke of how pleased he was to be a part of this evening because, “I’m a director with a lot to learn and Martin Scorsese is a gifted teacher.” Misiano also referenced the personal impact Scorsese’s films had on him with a nod to his own “‘Uncle Peanuts’ who got pulled in on the Lufthansa heist” featured in Scorsese’s Goodfellas. He then turned the proceedings over to the evening’s moderator, director Richard Linklater, one of the generation impassioned to take up the craft by Scorsese’s films.

Linklater dubbed the semi-autobiographical Mean Streets “the patron saint of independent filmmaking,” adding, “It’s the kind of film that says, ‘Go do this.’” After the screening, he sat opposite Scorsese onstage and queried him on his influences.

Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, said Scorsese, was one of many Italian films that incited him to mine the rich material in the Italian-American enclave where he grew up in New York. Robert De Niro’s Mean Streets character, Johnny Boy was fashioned on Scorsese’s uncle, Joe the Bug, and the movie’s violent ending stemmed from an actual neighborhood shooting. “It was that kind of world,” said Scorsese, “where anything could happen.”

Mean Streets, noted Linklater, also stood out for its textural rock soundtrack, shadowy lighting, and innovative cinematography. The handheld camera moves, made possible with a state-of-the-art Aeroflex, explained Scorsese, imparted the film’s edgy, sensual look. “Key was the lightness of the equipment,” said Scorsese, noting that some current camera lenses “are bigger than all the equipment in Mean Streets.”

The hardest part was shooting in his old stomping grounds, where, Scorsese confided, he had to ‘grease the wheels.’ He donated $300 to an Italian-American social club to film exteriors. He used the hallway of a tenement to stage a shoving match. Only the old building’s fuses kept blowing. So the takes went into the night, pissing off the residents, who started yelling in Italian. Scorsese recalled that the janitor hollered back, “Go to a hotel, the kids need to finish!”

Scorsese has been a member of the DGA since 1971.

-- By Ann Farmer

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