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Travis Bickle
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Everything you need to know about Martin Scorsese

As the BFI celebrates Scorcese Day and launches an entire season dedicated to the director's work, we explore a career in film spanning five decades

Martin Scorsese has been a key name in modern auteurship for 53 years. His common thematic preoccupation with violence, guilt, divinity, decline – and the Rolling Stones - has made many of his films cult classics. This popularity has also earned the filmmaker his own season at the BFI. 

From January to February 2017, a complete retrospective of the director‘s work is running alongside 20, personally-selected classics restored by his Film Foundation and World Cinema Project, while Taxi Driver and Goodfellas find themselves back in cinemas across the country.

Known for his fast-paced shots and sharp editing, his style helped influence an entire generation of young filmmakers as well as polarising viewers along the way. With his new film Silence opening to critical acclaim, showing he is as relevant as ever, we've collated some of the most interesting aspects of his life and filmography. Now, go and get your shine box.


Scorsese is a vocal supporter of young filmmakers (he christened Wes Andeson “the new Martin Scorsese” after seeing 1996‘s Bottle Rocket) and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is just one of many would-be heirs that the director has taken under his wing. Gomez-Rejon admitted that Scorsese was the person that “turned him onto film history”, an interest demonstrated to full effect in Me, Earl and the Dying Girl’s parodied odes to cinema’s classics. 


The full music video for Michael Jackson’s iconic 1987 track was an 18-minute, Marty-directed epic. MJ – starring alongside a young Wesley Snipes – returns home from an expensive boarding school to commit petty crimes with his old friends and prove to them just how bad he is. Scorsese’s entire cut was shown in full as a CBS prime time special and credited with contributing to Jackson’s edgier new image.


Scorsese’s an encyclopedia when it comes to cinema – his erudition is equal parts scholarly, equal parts jaw-droppingly obsessive. The 74-year-old's wisdom on the history, theory and production of film is second to no-one in the industry. For him at his most sensei-like, see his 85 Films You Need To See To Know Anything About Film, or A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, a 225-minute documentary on everything you could possibly ever need to know about cinema in the US – and then some.


Since appearing in 1974’s Mean Streets, Robert De Niro has starred in a grand total of eight Martin Scorsese movies. Together, they have given life to some of modern cinema’s most iconic characters. Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, Raging Bull‘s Jake LaMotta, Goodfellas‘ Jimmy Conway, Cape Fear’s Max Cady; as a duo, De Niro and Scorsese are responsible for film’s greatest counter-cultural incarnations. Although they haven‘t worked together since 1995’s Casino, the director still sends Bobbie scripts of films of potential projects – that’s how much he trusts his opinion. Keep an eye out for The Irishman: word on the street says a reunion is on the cards in 2018.


Ellen Burstyn won the Academy Award and BAFTA for Best Actress for her role as the titular character in the 1974 comedy drama Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. She was instrumental in getting the film made, too. Burstyn found the script and, after seeing Mean Streets, personally sourced Scorsese to direct – though only after quizzing him on his understanding of the opposite sex. “I liked your film very much, but this is a film I want told from a woman’s point of view. I can’t tell looking at your film if you know anything about women,” she told him. Scorsese‘s response? “I’d like to learn.”


Much of Scorsese’s work is a direct response to relationship with the multifaceted nature of faith and belief. Young Marty had planned to become a priest before pursuing a career in movies, though his fascination with divinity was never usurped. Instead, it became an integral part of his cinematic canon, with Scorsese using his relationship with Catholicism as a vessel to explore themes such as guilt, repentance, masculinity and power –  Silence being the most recent example. “My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else,” he once quipped. 


The 1990 gangster epic is a pop-culture staple. It has it all: sex, drugs, violence; the cars, the clothes. Goodfellas doesn’t just stand the test of time; despite its two hours, 28-minutes duration, few other films remain so totally and utterly rewatchable. It’s a sprawling, stylish study on the combustibility of a mob at the height of its powers, in which its ensemble – Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco – have never been better.


Scorsese subverts the notion of integrity and principle; even his most irredeemable of characters are acting on a code of honour – regardless of its taint. Gangs of New York’s Bill Cutting’s brutality is informed by hardened nationalist intention, while The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin’s psychopathy is oddly sympathetic when recognised alongside his unwavering desire to make it. Even Tommy DeVito, one of cinema’s nastiest pieces of work, can conjure a disjointed kind of sympathy when you see his eyes light up at any kind of respect or recognition.


A 12-year-old Jodie Foster played child prostitute Iris in Taxi Driver with a nuanced, antithetical performance way beyond her years. Due to the subject matter, producers had the child-actor meet with California’s child welfare department prior to film, as well as assigning her an on-set welfare worker. According to Foster, their main role was making sure she wasn’t on set when De Niro said a “dirty word”.


Pesci represents peak Scorsese – his performances are a living personification of the motifs that the director has spent an entire career exploring. Pesci’s characters (Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Casino) are a one-man exploration of the tainted machismo; unpredictable, erratic and constantly on the verge of violent irascibility. However, if it wasn’t for the director, Pesci might have given up acting altogether before catching his break. The actor hadn’t worked in film for four years and was running an Italian restaurant when he received the call from Scorsese about Raging Bull. One year later, he had an Oscar nomination.


In 1992, avant-garde band King Missile shared the track Martin Scorsese. It’s a short, snarling ode, that sees frontman John S. Hall express his admiration for the eponymous director while hypothetically subjecting him to copious amounts of torture. Speaking on the song, Hall explained it was written following a hotel room viewing of Goodfellas. “We get into the van and I say to Roger Murdock ‘He makes the best fucking films.’ And Roger says, ‘I just want to shake him,’ and made a shaking motion with his arms and I wrote 'Martin Scorcese' right there in the van.”


Studying the timeline of his filmography, you can identify the recipients of Scorsese's three, separate infatuations: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro and then, finally, Leonardo DiCaprio. After first collaborating on 2002’s Gangs of New York, Leo has appeared in five of the director’s films, displacing his predecessor as chief muse. According to reports, the two will come together again for his next film The Devil in the White City, in which DiCaprio will play a charismatic doctor-turned-serial killer.  


Scorsese is the godfather of the mob movie, with Goodfellas, The Departed and Casino sitting pretty as some of the genre’s finest ever hours. It’s a fascination born from his Little Italy upbringing; for Scorsese, the mafia is a canvas through which to explore every inch of fragile masculinity. His gangster films are about pride, power and an inability to deal with the loss of either through anything other than violence.


A playful approach to chronology is often deployed within the the director's universe, with many of his films opening with a scene from the middle or end of his characters‘ arcs. A dishevelled, overweight Jake LaMotta at the beginning of Raging Bull frames it as a tragedy from the offset, while the opening violence of Goodfellas introduces you to the brutality New York’s criminal underbelly without space for desensitisation. If Tarantino’s use of the non-linear timeline contributes to the stylised hyperrealism of his movies, then Scorsese’s only grounds his further, anchoring us to the realities his characters inhabit.


When it comes to the Academy Awards, Scorsese and Oscar statues have a mixed relationship. The filmmaker has been nominated eight times, but only came away victorious once, with a Best Director for The Departed in 2007. Only William Wyler and Billy Wilder boast more nominations than Marty. 


In Scorsese movies, the location transcends the role of place, becoming a character in itself. NYC is a central figure in many of his stories (Gangs of New York was never about the gangs, was it?) while Southside Boston moves in conjunction with its inhabitants’ sleazy goings-on in The Departed. For the best examples, see Cape Fear and Shutter Island; Scorsese chooses a threatening habitat in which to depict moral depravity and ­– be it the city, town or coast – provides it with an overtly starring role in his films.


“I don’t really see a conflict between the church and the movies, the sacred and the profane,” said the director on film and religion. “I believe there is a spirituality in films, even if it’s not one which can supplant faith … It is as though movies have answered an ancient quest for the common unconsciousness. They fulfil a spiritual need that people have to share a common memory.” In his own words, the reason Scorsese was able to abandon the seminary in favour of the director’s chair was due to the similarities he recognised in both disciplines as quests for the crafting of collective memory.


Scorsese was recovering in hospital from drug addiction when a young De Niro finally convinced him to tell the story of boxer Jake LaMotta. The result is a gruelling, bloody case study; a visceral epic that bubbles with rage, regret and feral emotion, for which many consider to be De Niro‘s finest hour. The real star, however, comes in the form of an 18-year-old Cathy Moriarty, who goes toe-to-toe with her co-star as LaMotta’s wife Vicky.   


The perfect song can make a scene. Think “Little Green Bag” in Reservoir Dogs, “Lust For Life” in Trainspotting, “Mysteries Of Love” in Blue Velvet, “Fight The Power” in Do The Right Thing. Scorsese’s choices are similarly iconic, be it “Shipping Up To Boston” in The Departed, “Be My Baby” in Mean Streets, or, his personal favourite, “Gimme Shelter”, in Goodfellas, The Departed and Casino respectively. The director picks his songs as an audible counterpoint to what’s happening on screen; usually, you‘ll find some of cinema’s goriest confrontations paired with some of songwriting’s most poignant moments. It gives a haunting, operatic quality to the barbaric.  


Mohawked and aviator-clad, Travis Bickle is the most famous product of the Scorsese-De Niro love-in. For many, he still haunts as a reflection of tainted society; detached, alienated and grappling with pent-up fury, Bickle is one of cinema’s most enigmatic anti-heroes. According to Scorsese, the infamous “you talking to me?” ­speech was an ad-lib entirely of De Niro’s making. With only a week left of shooting and no dialogue for the scene, Scorsese asked his lead to say something to himself in the mirror. Recalling the improvisation, Scorsese said: “It was like a jazz riff. Just like a solo.”


Scorsese taught a class called Sight and Sound at NYU, which was attended by young filmmakers Oliver Stone and Spike Lee. Speaking on his teacher, Stone said: “He always looked like he’d not had enough sleep because he’d probably been up the night before looking at all the films on TV. That’s the only way we could see them back then unless you went to a museum. Understand, there was no such thing as video. He would stay up pretty late to watch these old classics on the local channels.”


When it comes to post-production, Scorsese is a quiet master. Casino was the first ever feature film to use rendering, integrating the gaudy technicolour of a 70s era Las Vegas strip at night into live-action action footage in 1995. Since then, he’s remained subtly at the forefront of visual effects; reports claim that The Irishman will feature a digitally de-aged De Niro. “Imagine seeing what De Niro looked like in The Godfather 2 days, that’s pretty much how you’re going to see him again,” claimed producer Gaston Pavlovich.


Upon The Wolf of Wall Street’s release people were surprised – it was a full-blooded comedy. For a director that prefers his humour in the form of a pre-melee punchline, or situations that only elicit a snigger because it beats crying, the 2013 was flat-out funny. From Mathew McConaughey’s improvised chest-beating to Leonardo DiCaprio discovering the ‘cerebral palsy phase’, the film is a glorious, sex and drugs-fuelled romp that’s excessive on everything.


For one of the best displays of cinematic foreboding in recent memory, check out The Departed. All of the main characters that have met their maker by the film’s closing credits are haunted by a sinister ‘X’ throughout the film, foreshadowing their impending fates. The recurrent ‘X’ appears in shadows, signs, railings, graffiti, in what is a chillingly masterful display of visual literacy.


Silence was 28 years in the making. Known for his ‘passion projects‘, the 74-year-old will often work for years to get films made. In Silence's case, it was a lack of financing, distributors, breaches of contract and scheduling commitments that contributed to the film’s long gestation, with a previous incarnation boasting Daniel Day Lewis, Benicio Del Toro and Gael García Bernal in place of Liam Neeson, Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield respectively. “As you get older, ideas go and come. Questions, answers, loss of the answer again and more questions, and this is what really interests me,“ Scorsese explained. “Silence is just something that I'm drawn to in that way. It's been an obsession, it has to be done... it's a strong, wonderful true story, a thriller in a way, but it deals with those questions.”


One of Scorsese’s many stylistic trademarks is the ‘fast dolly zoom‘, an in-camera effect that alters the field of view by pulling the camera angle away from the subject while zooming the lens in. As a director infatuated with the idea of power, the dolly zoom becomes overt characterisation as a display of subject significance. It looks great, too.