"Forever a Student of the Art": Martin Scorsese Celebrated by Robert De Niro, Emma Tillinger Koskoff and More Friends

2:45 PM 1/22/2020

by Rebecca Ford

A dozen collaborators of the 'Irishman' director — the most nominated living helmer in Oscar history — share new stories that reveal what makes him a master.

Casino Still - Photofest - H 2020
Universal Pictures/Photofest

With his ninth Oscar nomination, for The Irishman, Martin Scorsese is the most nominated living director in Academy history. And for his 26 features, he?often has worked with the same collaborators, from actors Harvey ?Keitel and Robert De Niro to longtime casting director Ellen Lewis and producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff. Nearly a dozen of his friends share new stories that reveal exactly what makes him a master.

  • Robert De Niro

    "Marty is very open to trying things, not just with me but with every person he works with. That's just the way he is. He's very receptive, and that creates a kind of confidence in people, so they know that even if they come up with a bad idea or not a great one, it's OK. It's all about trying things."

  • Pablo Helman

    "Marty said to me, 'I fall in love with the characters. It takes time to know their strengths, their weaknesses, what makes them human and interesting. They speak to me, and I spend my time making the audiences love them as I do.' Great lesson: The more you love the characters, the more they speak to you."

  • Harvey Keitel

    "Sometimes I think that we're two cowards taking each other's hand and struggling forward. … I remember when he invited me to see a cut of the student film we were making at NYU, Who's That Knocking at My Door. The religious icons of his childhood worship were plastered on the screen inside a church, and over those sacred dear images of his, he blasted the title song. I'd never seen anything like that before."

  • Ellen Lewis

    "Jonah Hill was so enthusiastic about working with Marty that he wanted to read for The Wolf of Wall Street. Five minutes into the audition, Jonah paused, asking if the room was a little hot or if it was just his nerves. It turned out the air conditioning was broken and Marty immediately leapt into action to find another room so that Jonah was more comfortable. One of the things that is so important about casting is sensitivity to the actor, and Marty shares that mind-set."

  • Christopher Peterson

    "Marty's greatest strengths as a director and a collaborator are his ability to communicate and willingness to share his abundance of knowledge and experience. He also has a frighteningly accurate memory and capacity to retain information — nothing goes unnoticed — with an incredible attention to detail and appreciation of everything visual."

  • Sandy Powell

    “One of the most impressive things about Marty is his encyclopedic knowledge of film history. In any discussion, there will always be film references, however obscure. While working on Gangs of New York, my first film with Marty, he sent me an entire film to watch to see the direction of a stripe on the collar of a man’s shirt.”

  • Rodrigo Prieto

    "He somehow charms us all to do whatever it takes to give him what he wants and then more. When we were scouting for Silence, we were looking for a place on a beach to place three crosses, and he looked over at a rocky formation with waves crashing onto the rocks and said: 'There, that is where we should put the crosses.' We all looked at each other, knowing it was too dangerous to put humans in that spot. But we knew we had to figure it out somehow. After countless meetings with our stunt people, special effects team and visual effects, we came up with a way to give Marty what he wanted by using a huge water tank that created waves, and through clever VFX, placing the action in the middle of the rocky area. Marty just has a way of telling his team what he would like to see that makes it impossible for us to say, 'It can’t be done!'"

  • Robbie Robertson

    "Marty is gifted with a bold imagination and always open to breaking the rules. But this originates with a phenomenal knowledge and memory of movies — forever a student of the art. Working on the soundtrack for Casino, there were a couple of scenes where the music just wasn't working. I asked Marty if it was OK to use the score from another movie. I suggested a piece by Georges Delerue from Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt. Marty said, 'Of course. It's like an homage to Godard.' The music worked and solved our problem."

  • Thelma Schoonmaker

    "In The Irishman, there is a scene where Al Pacino, playing Jimmy Hoffa, is confronted by Tony Provenzano, a younger mobster played by Stephen Graham, who was in awe of Pacino. After the first take, Graham said to Marty that he didn't know if he could do the scene because he was so intimidated by Pacino's great reputation as an actor. Marty said, 'Insult him.' And Graham did — as his and Pacino's argument heated up, he dared to say to Pacino: 'Lower your voice.' Pacino's reaction to this incredibly daring statement was at first to be taken aback, but then, as Marty knew would happen, he rose to the occasion and the argument got even better."

  • Bob Shaw

    "Marty has the greatest shooting vocabulary of any director. He has almost total recall of everything he has ever seen. When we were making the pilot of Boardwalk Empire, he referenced the film Pete Kelly's Blues. It had something to do with the way light filtered through slats in a wall. It was a tiny moment in a not-especially-memorable film. When we were working on Vinyl, he made a reference to something that I don't even recall in The Fortune Cookie, a comedy that most people have forgotten. In many cases, it's not even a shot but can be just a texture or color that he remembers."

  • Emma Tillinger Koskoff

    "Nothing is too small — everything is important. But he also knows that movies are made with people, lots of people, that we're his collaborators, and he's asking us for our best in order to help him make the best film he can, so he makes everyone feel valued and necessary. And then, of course, you see the finished film and you realize that he's holding a whole vision together in his mind the whole time, that what you were seeing on the set was one thing, and where it fit and how it worked in the final picture is something completely different."

    A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.