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Book Excerpt: How Martin Scorsese Utilized “Unreal” Filming Techniques for ‘Raging Bull’ Fight Scenes (Exclusive)

For his book 'Raging Bull: The Making Of,' author Jay Glennie went to all of the key surviving members of the cast and crew — with encouragement from Robert De Niro — for the secrets behind the groundbreaking film.

“I heard some things.” So goes a memorable line from 1980’s Raging Bull, the iconic black-and-white biopic about boxer Jake LaMotta, one of nine collaborations between actor Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese. Forty-one years later, English author Jay Glennie can say the same thing. For Raging Bull: The Making Of, a large-format book made with De Niro’s cooperation, Glennie spoke with all of the film’s principal figures — including De Niro, who won the best actor Oscar for his turn as LaMotta; Scorsese; Joe Pesci, who played LaMotta’s brother and manager; actress Cathy Moriarty, who played LaMotta’s wife; writer Paul Schrader, producer Irwin Winkler and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. This exclusive excerpt reveals Scorsese’s inspiration for filming the fight scenes and his and De Niro’s relentlessness in realizing their vision for the film. — SCOTT FEINBERG

An average day would begin with De Niro asking Scorsese, “What do I do in this shot?”

“In this shot, you get hit.”

On to the next setup and De Niro would ask, “What about this one?”

“In this one, you get hit!”

Scorsese felt that Jake LaMotta’s willingness to take punishment within the ring was him repenting for sins he had made outside of it. “He could take punches more than anybody because he had an abnormally hard skull. Punch and get punched until the adversary got tired out.”

LaMotta always maintained that he was playing “possum” with his opponent.

De Niro did not let up for a minute. At the end of a hard day’s filming, he and Moriarty would make their way back to their hotel, and some miles out De Niro would ask the driver to pull over so that he could run the rest of the return journey.

“He is one of the most disciplined people I have ever met,” declared Moriarty.

De Niro’s job was basically to take an often brutal hit in most scenes

Scorsese felt that the fights “embroider the movie” and he wanted to shoot them “unlike other fight scenes in movies.” He asked himself myriad questions, hoping to find the answers.

“What if we stay inside the ring?”

“And what if the interpretation of the fight is subjective; it’s what the fighter sees or what he hears? How he perceives sound, image, physicality and everything you can think of.”

LaMotta (right) advising De Niro and the crew during the shoot.

A decision was made. As much as possible, the camera would never film outside the ring. De Niro and LaMotta’s “vision becomes your sensibility. In other words, what he perceives in the ring,” reported Scorsese.

The only time we are out of the ring during a bout is when the Fox fight is thrown, and when Jake is taking a beating from Laurent Dauthuille, that is until Jake turns on him and begins to destroy Dauthuille. “At that point the camera comes flying down and through the ropes on a crane. No CGI or video assists back then either,” explained Scorsese. Scorsese felt the viewer had to feel that rush, reminiscent of attending a rock concert, whereby your perceptions change, your hearing and visuals are altered, time has stretched — you have no idea where you are.

At the end of a take, Jake LaMotta would often enter the ring to give his thoughts and little insights as to how the scene was being shot. Makeup creator Michael Westmore recalled LaMotta saying on more than one occasion, “Nah, it didn’t happen like that … he never touched me.”

Scorsese had given over long hours to storyboarding the bouts. He knew what he wanted to achieve, but if De Niro and Scorsese thought the scene merited LaMotta’s fresh input, the choreography and tone would be shifted slightly.

Scorsese approached each fight scene differently. However, as the director maintained, “the bottom line was I wanted the fight scenes to express what they meant for Jake.”

He went on to say that the approach to how he would film the fight scenes was inspired by his work on New York, New York (1977) and The Last Waltz (1978). “With The Last Waltz, we stayed with The Band and the other performers. We stayed on the stage. We get right in there. Like a musician. We didn’t show the audience. The opposite of what they did at Woodstock. I don’t want to see the audience, I want to see the performers, which refers back to Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day. So I’m looking at The Last Waltz and it struck me that this is what we had to do with Raging Bull. And when we see three body punches, or two left hooks, we break them up as if they are bars of music, like certain scenes on New York, New York or The Last Waltz. We were choreographing a dance.

“But what really solidified it in my mind was the ballet interlude from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. Rather than seeing a proscenium framed ballet performance, as if we were sitting in an audience, the film takes us to another realm where we experience what the ballerina experiences and feels as she dances. It’s very, very complex to achieve. It is like a dream sequence, more a hallucination, in the performer’s and fighter’s mind.

“This approach led to various ‘unreal’ filming techniques — the idea of doubling the ring and stretching it, as we stay inside the ropes.”

Photos showing all angles of De Niro sporting Jake LaMotta’s broken nose, as re-created by makeup artist Michael Westmore

Filming the fight scenes was calling for patience. Due to the intricate nature of the work, often only two or three shots would be filmed a day and the production was falling behind schedule. The five weeks set aside for shooting in Los Angeles was being eaten up. The film was now in its sixth week, and Scorsese met with his producers, who were rightly a little concerned at the rate of progress.

Pesci would never forget an example of Scorsese’s forensic attention to detail. Despite a packed arena he had spotted something not to his liking, and not in keeping with his vision for Raging Bull.

“Cut!” Scorsese shouted.

“It was unreal,” marveled Pesci. “He had spotted a guy all the way up at the back who was wearing a watch that was not period. That is the guy you want directing a movie. He is incredible, and I have never forgotten that. It teaches you a lot and moves everyone up a level.”

In between takes, De Niro would not let up his intensity. He had a punching bag placed in the ring and would pound it and work up a sweat, so when Scorsese was ready to shoot, he was prepped and ready to go.

“It was a great idea,” remembered Scorsese. “The bag would be placed at the side of the camera and when we were ready to roll, you’d hear the continuing punching of the bag, and then Bob would jump into frame, sweating, you know, so he’d come in already heated, bang, ready to go.”

This story first appeared in the April 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.