The Dreams of Martin Scorsese
This story first appeared in the November 25 issue of The Hollywoood Reporter magazine.
A recurring Martin Scorsese nightmare goes like this: He is told that he must start shooting a movie. But he isn't informed what the movie is. He doesn't know what it's about or who the actors are. He only knows that the producers are pushing him to get this thing started, now. A dutiful artist, Scorsese dives in with help from frequent first assistant director Joe Reidy, only to notice that standing to the side of the set is a very famous older director. This mystery director is someone real, and great, but Scorsese, upon waking, never remembers who it is. The guy's presence unnerves him, and he says so to the producers. "Don't worry," he's told. "He's just here to observe. It's your thing."
"But I knew that he was probably going to take over what I was doing," Scorsese continues in hushed tones. "And slowly but surely, they say, 'You know, if you could just sit down, we'll let him handle this scene. …' "
Scorsese guffaws at the anxiety-drenched punch line and shakes his head. He's able to see the humor in it. At least it's not the dream where he speaks to his late mother, or the one in which his long-departed bichon frise Zoe, who often sat in his lap while he directed Goodfellas, is found bloodied in the street -- both of which are more likely to bring him to tears. But it's undeniably a rich vision to be bouncing around the subconscious of a 69-year-old artist who long since has established himself as one of the greatest filmmakers of the modern era.
The anonymous dream director could be Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Michael Powell, Satyajit Ray, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir -- any of the icons Scorsese has revered and chased with his art for decades. But the insecurity on display is clearly tied to what he and his fellow '70s visionaries felt was a "denigration" of their film-school origins by the previous generation of self-made greats -- the same men and women whose work he's made it his life's mission to preserve. It's no doubt also tied to that greatest of mysteries: What legacy can he himself hope to leave behind?
Sitting in the downstairs family room of his Upper East Side brownstone on a crisp Sunday afternoon in November, Scorsese is as buoyant and thoughtful as always. He's just grabbed a quick nap. His wife, Helen Morris, a producer, is upstairs. Their soon-to-be-12-year-old daughter Francesca is at a friend's. His West Highland terriers Flora and Desmond are sequestered in the kitchen (but only after he's given each a playful rub). And he's enjoying the briefest of breaks from putting the final touches on the 3D effects in his latest film, Hugo, opening Nov. 23.
If Scorsese were to have that terrible dream today, the man looking over his shoulder could be Georges Melies, one of the fathers of the moving image and a weighty personal and thematic presence in Hugo. In the movie, which takes place in 1931 Paris, Melies is a neglected and bitter old man, an enthusiastic innovator whose magical work has been forgotten and destroyed, only to be rediscovered through his encounters with a young orphan named Hugo Cabret. Based on Brian Selznick's Caldecott-winning 2007 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the $100 million-plus 3D movie is a grand slam of Scorsese preoccupations: the transformative power of cinema, its unique ability to connect people, the need to preserve old movies and the truth that an artist's legacy lives in those who treasure the work. Over the years, Melies has become a mystery himself, and even film buffs often don't have a grasp of just how profound his contributions to cinema were, despite their efforts to piece together the scraps of his legacy. In this, he could not have better cultural archaeologists than Selznick and Scorsese.
"I loved that all of human history was for him the history of film," says Selznick, who first talked cinema history with the director in London before filming began. "Of course, Scorsese has been responsible for restoring the lost legacies of groundbreaking filmmakers. He is in the position of pointing the way for the public, showing us who has been forgotten and overlooked."