Fifty years after fighting for his life, the 74-year-old director talks overcoming an epic lawsuit, starving actors and a death on set to bring his passion project — a Japanese novelist's masterpiece — to the screen: "I was blind, and now I can see."
In 1978, Martin Scorsese nearly died. Years of hard living and drug abuse finally had caught up with the filmmaker, and yet he continued to push himself, until one day, he collapsed. "After finishing New York, New York, I took chances," he says. "[I was] out of time and out of place and also in turmoil in my own life and embracing the other world, so to speak, with a kind of attraction to the dangerous side of existence. Then on Labor Day weekend, I found myself in a hospital, surprised that I was near death."
At age 35, he was fighting for his life. "A number of things had happened," he continues. "Misuse of normal medications in combinations [to which] my body reacted in strange ways. I was down to about 109 pounds. It wasn't only drug-induced — asthma had a lot to do with it. I was kept in a hospital for 10 days and nights, and they took care of me, these doctors, and I became aware of not wanting to die and not wasting [my life]."
Alone in that hospital, occasionally visited by such friends as Robert De Niro, the director thought back to his roots as a Catholic growing up in New York's Little Italy, the son of two garment workers, a boy who had fallen under the influence of a charismatic priest and at one point considered becoming a seminarian, only to be thrown out of the preparatory seminary because he never could make it to Mass on time. All these years later, "I was stunned by the realization of my naivete and denial," he says. "I prayed. But if I prayed, it was just to get through those 10 days and nights. I felt [if I was saved] it was for some reason. And even if it wasn't for a reason, I had to make good use of it."
When Scorsese emerged from that dark night of the soul, like the blind man in the Bible, he felt the scales were removed from his eyes. "[In the New Testament], they were all complaining about Jesus, that he hangs out with publicans and tax men and whores," explains the director, "and the man says, 'All I know is, I was blind and now I can see.' "
Half a lifetime later, Scorsese, 74, has returned to that spiritual crisis and used it as the underpinning of another story, of men facing their own such challenge in a very different time and place, 17th century Japan.
Based on Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel and starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson, Silence charts the physical and emotional journeys of two Jesuit priests who travel from Portugal to Japan in an attempt to win converts — only to be persecuted for their beliefs.
Twenty-eight years in the making, the $46.5 million film (which opens Dec. 23) has gone through multiple script drafts; has seen various stars come and go, including Daniel Day-Lewis, Benicio Del Toro and Gael Garcia Bernal; and has faced challenges that nearly killed it on several occasions, "an extraordinary Gordian knot of legal problems and issues," says Scorsese.
The resulting film will test Paramount's marketing skills as it seeks to persuade audiences to embrace a two-hour-and-40-minute tale that centers on the human capacity for suffering and redemption and asks viewers to enter not only Scorsese's imaginative realm but also his spiritual one. "I'm a believer with some doubts," he says. "But the doubts push me to find a purer sense of the other, a purer sense, if you want, of the word 'God.' "
Silence came to Scorsese in the midst of the cacophony surrounding 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ, his adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' controversial novel, which posits that Jesus was tempted to come down from the cross and live as an ordinary man.
Whatever the director had hoped to achieve with that picture — a spiritual dialogue, perhaps — faded amid the barrage of criticism and even death threats from religious hardliners. And yet it was through this movie that he received an unexpected gift.
"We screened a rough cut of Last Temptation to the religious groups and others who were complaining about the film but hadn't seen it," he recalls. "We went to a hotel here [in New York] and had a little private dinner, and Archbishop Paul Moore Jr. of the Episcopal Church was there with his wife. And as he was leaving, he says, 'There's a book I want to send to you.' "
The book was Endo's novel, which blended real-life figures with loosely fictionalized ones in its account of missionaries Sebastiao Rodrigues (Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Driver), who come to Japan in 1639, searching for their predecessor, Father Cristovao Ferreira (Neeson), who is rumored to have "apostatized."
Scorsese was too drained by Last Temptation to finish the novel then, but he returned to it in August 1989 and decided to buy the rights, even though its meaning proved elusive to him. "I was taken by the moment of apostasy," he says, "but I didn't quite understand the epilogue," when the book follows Rodrigues over many years after he has been tortured and freed. "I thought it would be interesting to write a script."
Based on his interest, an offshoot of Italy's Cecchi Gori Pictures paid $700,000 for the option and hired Scorsese, along with his longtime collaborator, Jay Cocks (Mean Streets), to develop a screenplay. Legal documents indicate they received $250,000 for their services, with an additional $150,000 due if the project moved forward. But Cocks searched in vain for the story's emotional core.
"I was flummoxed," he says. "I immediately crashed into a creative crisis. I had a real struggle finding a thematic through line, but the deal was made, and I started writing."
When he finished, he knew the screenplay wasn't quite right. "Marty didn't say his ultimate criticism, 'Well, that's a noble effort,' " notes Cocks wryly. "That's when you know you've f—ed up, and I didn't get that." Still, it was apparent the screenplay lacked a dramatic heart, and he moved on to other projects, while Scorsese turned to 1995's Casino and 1997's Kundun.
Gianni Nunnari, then the president of Cecchi Gori, brought in other writers. "There was a period of time when maybe you were trying to refresh it or find other ways," he says. "But that was much, much after Jay did his draft."
Michael Gordon (300) took a shot, and so did Nicholas Kazan (Reversal of Fortune), who agreed to work for scale on the condition that he be paid in full later. Their participation would cloud issues of chain-of-title that subsequently would dog the picture. But for now, as far as Scorsese was concerned, Silence went quiet and only briefly was revived in 2003, shortly after Gangs of New York, when he and Cocks discussed tackling it again.
"I had to re-convince Jay," he says. "The night at the Academy Awards [when Gangs was nominated for best picture], I remember us embracing, and I was relieved. [I took] a deep breath and said, 'OK. Now Silence.' And we both laughed."
Their laughter proved premature. Throughout, there had been questions surrounding who truly owned the underlying material, not least because the novel had been filmed once before, in 1971, by Japan's Masahiro Shinoda. That ownership became the subject of a venomous dispute between Nunnari and Cecchi Gori, who parted ways and then sued each other in 2008 over the spoils of their years together.
"It was about who's getting what — 'You did this, you did that,' " says Nunnari, possibly understating the bitterness of the battle and the hostility several of the players still feel toward him for the emotional and financial roller coaster it caused them.
The problems were compounded when Cecchi Gori Pictures faced financial problems, and they became even worse when one of the company's owners, Vittorio Cecchi Gori, was sentenced to prison for issues related to the company's bankruptcy. By the time the courts awarded Cecchi Gori the rights, Scorsese had committed to other ventures, and in 2012 the company sued him for "intentional and negligent misrepresentation."
According to the suit, Scorsese repeatedly asked to postpone Silence so that he could direct such films as The Departed (2006), Shutter Island (2010) and Hugo (2011), even though he faced financial penalties each time. The suit was triggered by Cecchi Gori's discovery that he was preparing yet another film, The Wolf of Wall Street. It demanded more than $1.5 million in damages.
At the time, the director's lawyers said he already had paid more than $3.5 million in penalties. Niels Juul, who then served as CEO of Cecchi Gori, notes: "It was not Cecchi Gori Pictures he gave $3.5 million to. He gave it to Nunnari."
Says Scorsese, "I don't remember [the details]. All I know is that, whenever anything happened, I'd ask my manager and my agents and my lawyers to please make sure we did not lose the project. And they would go back into this morass of complications and try to work it out."
In January 2014, he and Cecchi Gori settled out of court. The latter agreed to free up the rights to the novel; the director committed to make Silence after Wolf. His dream project finally was a go.
Or at least it would have been, if the money had been in place. Regardless of the lawsuit, no one had resolved the conundrum of financing. Initial budgets projected a cost of $100 million, an astronomical number for a period piece shot in Japan.
Scorsese and Cocks at last had written a screenplay they liked, but the money to shoot it ebbed and flowed. Even with such stars as Day-Lewis and Bernal attached, it failed to get made because either the money or the director was unavailable.
"In 2009, we came close," says Scorsese. "[The Departed producer] Graham King paid for a location scout in Japan, and we went to Nagasaki [and] met some 'hidden Christians' — there's maybe 200 or 300 left, and they practice Christianity based on what the hidden Christians from the 17th century left them, and their language is a combination of Portuguese, Japanese and Latin."
Despite this, the movie seemed doomed until September 2010, when Goodfellas producer Irwin Winkler visited Scorsese on the Hugo set and asked about Silence.
"I said, 'What did you ever do about that script you had for so many years?' " recalls Winkler. "And he said: 'I haven't been able to get it done. Why don't we do this together?' "
Winkler plunged in. "We spent three or four years looking for financing," he says. "Generally, everybody said no. I called all the studios, all the independents. We had to search high and low and couldn't find anybody to put up any money. France's MK2 expressed great interest, and we spent six months with them, but they decided to pull out. That was very, very disheartening."
Then, out of the blue, Winkler received a call from producer-financier Randall Emmett.
A one-time assistant to Mark Wahlberg, Emmett had made dozens of films, from 2000's Escape to Grizzly Mountain on. Flush with funding from Dubai, the filmmaker and his partner, George Furla, were eager to work with Scorsese and persuaded him to trek to Cannes, where in May 2013 he and his partners romanced foreign-sales agents. Stuart Ford's IM Global agreed to pay $21 million for foreign rights; Emmett's backers committed to $25 million more; and Paramount came on board as the domestic distributor.
Everything looked like a go — until a large chunk of the money fell through, right before shooting was due to commence in early 2015. With the crew in limbo, Mexican financier Gaston Pavlovich and his partner, Dale Brown (who already were investors), agreed to replace the missing millions.
The budget was locked at more than $46 million, and filming was all set to begin.
Where the movie would be shot had remained in flux until deep into its history.
"We scouted New Zealand, we scouted Vancouver, we scouted the Pacific Northwest," says Scorsese's producing partner, Emma Tillinger Koskoff. "We did budgets for all these places because to shoot this movie in Japan, it would have been close to $100 million. But we also got a great tax credit in Taiwan [and decided to shoot there]."
As Scorsese moved into heavy preproduction, some of the finest actors of the day traipsed into his midtown Manhattan offices to audition.
"It was incredibly nerve-racking," says Garfield, who then was completing The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
He was hired with a year to go before the actual shoot, turned down everything else and immersed himself in the literature of the Jesuits, meeting regularly with Father James Martin, a priest who served as an adviser on the movie.
"He gave me spiritual direction as if I were a Jesuit in training," says Garfield. "It became a very personal journey for me, a dual journey: It was me and Rodrigues, walking together, so that I could allow the events of the story to affect me in the way that a young, ambitious, intelligent, articulate, learned Jesuit would respond to being dropped into the front lines of the battle for Christianity."
With Driver cast as the other lead missionary, the two young actors were sent to a Jesuit retreat in Wales, where Garfield completed the arduous Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.
"It's almost like a 12-step program," he explains. "In fact, it's the basis for a lot of 12-step programs, a longform meditation and prayer spent imagining the life of Christ, story by story, gospel by gospel, and sitting with his teachings, sitting with him as he discovers who he is in the wilderness, and really meditating upon his life and even crucifixion."
By the time of the shoot, he says, "I was filled up with all this information and all this longing to spread the teachings of Christ, which I truly started to adore."
Adoration turned to horror two weeks before the start of principal photography in January 2015, when a construction worker was killed. "The studio where we were shooting had a backlot and various different sets that we were repurposing for our needs," says Koskoff. "The studio told us one of the structures we wanted to use was not sound. We hired an independent construction company to come in and make it safe. They had an accident, a horrible, horrific accident — they were shoring up this building and a scissor lift clipped the side of the roof, and the structure toppled and killed a man and seriously injured two other people. It affected everybody who was on the film tremendously."
Nothing the production faced came close to that nightmare, but the shoot was hardly easy. Turbulent weather, inaccessible locations and the difficulty of accurately researching the past tormented the filmmakers.
Some of that pushed Scorsese's team into areas that few living historians could tell them about.
"In the original versions of the script, there was a term like 'the samurai comes and arrests him,' " says Marianne Bower, Scorsese's researcher and a co-producer on the movie. "One of our consultants said, 'Every time they refer to a Japanese official as a samurai, you'll need to be more specific about the rank and file of the samurai because there is a hierarchy.' So we had to go through that process of learning what the different ranks were."
Language was another issue. "The script for the Japanese characters went through a two-part process," says Bower. "It was first translated into 17th century Japanese, and then we had Japanese historians and language consultants adapt that into a version that a modern audience would understand."
The experience was physically tough on Scorsese. It was hard "physically getting to the location, constantly walking up mountains," he admits. "I had a bodyguard who would sometimes carry me [because it was] so steep, and you had to be very careful where you placed your foot."
Nor did the semitropical climate help. Once, the heat reached record temperatures. "I remember almost passing out, and everybody just stripped and kept shooting," he adds. The next day, the temperature plunged and "we were buffeted by winds and rain. It was a typhoon, and we shot in the typhoon."
Koskoff remembers getting a 4 a.m. call warning her that they were in the middle of a lightning storm: "The makeup tent had blown off the side of the mountain, and our entire infrastructure was destroyed. We had 400 extras in buses sitting on the top of a mountain with lightning and thunder, and we just had to sit it out."
Logistics were complicated by Scorsese's desire to shoot in continuity, and they were made trickier still by having a crew that spoke a multitude of languages, and rarely the same one. Hardest of all was the challenge the cast faced in losing a massive amount of weight.
"I think I lost 51 pounds," says Driver.
The fasting, adds Garfield, "does things to your mind, especially when you're on location in Taiwan, not knowing anybody. I would have about three hours' sleep a night and have dreams and visions of the greatest meals of my life with the closest people. It's very isolating and lonely and creates a spiritual hunger and a longing for comfort and connection."
That connection only began to be restored when the shoot wrapped in May 2015. Garfield traveled alone to Northern California's Big Sur, contemplating the sea and his thoughts, unwilling to return to the world he had known for several days. But Scorsese had to dive in to the editing, which consumed him for nearly a year and a half.
In late November, he began to show his picture for the first time, and then at the end of the month, he flew to Rome with his wife, Helen, two of their daughters and some key members of the movie team, to screen the film for about 200 Jesuit priests at the Vatican.
In a private meeting with Pope Francis, Scorsese gave him a copy of the Madonna of the Snows, based on a Japanese scroll painting revered by the hidden Christians.
"We talked about the film and the fact that Andrew had undergone the Spiritual Exercises," he says. "I told him, the next thing [for Garfield] to do was get ordained — but instead he got me. That got a big laugh. We were naturally nervous, but he was just disarming and put us at ease. He gave us rosary beads and said, 'Pray for me.' It was really moving. He blessed my wife and told me he hoped the film would bear much fruit. And I said, with his inspiration, yes."
Meaningful as that was, it paled beside the screening for the Jesuits.
"[That] was remarkable," says Cocks. "[There was] a hush throughout the film, laughs of recognition that surprised us and tears at the end. The film had a great spiritual impact on all there, which is what we had hoped and dared to expect."
More than anything, it was an affirmation for Scorsese of why he had tackled the material in the first place. "The act of working out these themes rekindled in him certain very deep seeds of his own faith that he very seldom articulates," says Cocks. "He found not only a certain challenge in this: He found a separate peace."
This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.