Martin Scorsese: The Virtuoso

From Prokofiev to Patsy Cline to the Rolling Stones, the music in a Martin Scorsese picture is intimately connected to the man

The Hollywood Reporter: You're one of a handful of directors who really acts as your own music supervisor on your movies.

Martin Scorsese: I guess the "music supervisor" term has come into usage, what, in the past 20 years? So many films now are creating scores based on recorded music. I started my own usage of that type of score, where the recorded music or source music becomes the score, with "Mean Streets" back in 1972. You could go back even further, to "Who's That Knocking at My Door," which is 1968. I did it there, too.

THR: Would 1970's "Woodstock" fall into that category as well?

Scorsese: Well "Woodstock" was (Michael) Wadleigh's film, and I was one of the editors, so I don't count that. That's more of a "music film." (1978's) "The Last Waltz" is a music film, (2008's) "Shine a Light" is a music film. But the actual usage of recorded music, whether it's Tommy Dorsey or Chet Baker or the Rolling Stones, it's kind of a part of my DNA as a filmmaker.

In fact, I had done a little black-and-white 8 mm film when we were kids, 18 or 19 years old. It was a very silly and childish film, but what I did at that time was create a soundtrack in which, as we projected the film, my friends and I would switch records on a record player. And of course it was different sync every time you screened the picture, but it ran the gamut from (Sergei) Prokofiev to Django Reinhardt and Hot Club of France, with a side trip to Lonnie Donegan. That's the way we were seeing the world at that time.

My problem over the years has been the nature of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the Golden Age of the studios having a certain sound to it -- you know, great composers like Elmer Bernstein, Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rozsa, Dimitri Tiomkin, Erich Korngold and all that. When I started making movies, I was from outside of Hollywood. We were working in a different world, and reflecting a different world. Therefore, to automatically go for a type of score that would be more associated with the great old Hollywood films, the great Hollywood that we all loved, was something I was not comfortable with. I didn't know if it was warranted.

THR: And it involved contracting an orchestra.

Scorsese: Yes, and I didn't know how to do that. I also didn't see the world that way, although I loved their scores. I experience things because of growing up in New York. Just walking in the streets, I hear music all the time. I see music. It's very much in counterpoint to what's going on around me. I grew up that way. Music was coming from everywhere: radios, jukeboxes, bands playing in the street, strolling minstrels.

So in a way, the characters I was working with at the time, in "Mean Streets" or in "Who's That Knocking" or in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More," these people listened to music on the radio, and had records. It was part of their lives. But with Travis Bickle, the character that (screenwriter) Paul Schrader created in "Taxi Driver," he was isolated, and therefore I felt it really needed a score, because I tried to make the film from his perspective. And so the score could only be -- at that time -- it could only be by one man, and that was Bernard Herrman.

THR: Let's jump ahead a little bit. On 2006's "The Departed," you included a Roy Buchanan song, his rendition of "Sweet Dreams," over the end credits. Did that come directly from you?

Scorsese: That's a song I've been trying to find a place for since the middle of the '70s. Paul Schrader played it for me once, "Sweet Dreams" by Patsy Cline. I loved the song. I used it in "Casino," and I used Patsy Cline's version in "The Departed," in the body of the film. "Sweet Dreams" is like a theme that goes through the picture. The downbeat in the beginning of the song, the way Buchanan plays it, is so melancholy and so powerful that I thought, here's a perfect place for it, at the end of this movie -- so I put it there.

On "The Departed," I worked closely with Howard Shore. We worked out a way of approaching the musical score by referencing two movies in my head. Obviously there were a lot of elements of the subject matter -- betrayal, particularly in the cemetery scene at the end of the picture -- that referenced (Carol Reed's) "The Third Man." I said, what about a stringed instrument? What about a guitar -- not a zither, but a guitar.

And then there's another film, by Irving Lerner, called "Murder by Contract" that had a very simple guitar theme based on the "Third Man" idea. It was about a hitman. A B-movie, excellent film.

THR: So this was a cinematic reference via the music.

Scorsese: Exactly. The themes of "The Third Man" and "Murder by Contract" are very similar. The themes I explored in "The Departed" were very similar to those films, so we used that. I thought, let's use the idea of a tango. It's a dance of death for these characters, a fatalistic kind of gaze in a way. Howard came up with the themes and the score of the film in that way, and ultimately used different textures of strings -- metal guitar strings as opposed to organic ones, different kinds of electric guitars, acoustic guitars -- all of these elements played in the making of themes in that picture.

THR: Is the Band's Robbie Robertson a sort of ad hoc music supervisor for you?

Scorsese: Over the years, very much so. We're working together on this new film ("Shutter Island"). We started working together on "Raging Bull." He was very helpful on that, although the music used in "Raging Bull" is music I grew up with, that my father had on 78s. The Brazilian song "(Nao Tenho) Lagrimas," "Big Noise From Winnetka," "Drum Boogie," the Ink Spots, and Ted Weems' "Heartaches" -- all those pieces were from records I grew up with. Robbie was very helpful in creating the background music that we used in the Webster Hall dance sequences and also at the Copacabana Lounge. We did our versions of Harry James' "Flash" and other songs. He became our music associate.

That relationship carried over to "The King of Comedy," but a lot of the music on "King of Comedy" was buried under the dialogue. He also introduced me to Peter Gabriel, who wound up doing the score to "The Last Temptation of Christ."

Robbie did an interesting thing on "Casino." He suggested George Delerue's theme music for "Contempt" (Jean-Luc Godard's "Le Mepris"), which I did use in the film. I mixed Ginger Baker's drum solos with that. And also I used Elmer Bernstein's theme from "Walk on the Wild Side." But "Contempt" is more important because the subject matter and the mood of the film are very similar to what was happening to the characters in "Casino." So Robbie was very key in guiding me to those places.

THR: What is your overall philosophy about music and the movies?

Scorsese: If you turn the soundtrack off, the movement of the image on the screen is like music. It's (like the) pacing, rhythm and emotional impact of music. Add the soundtrack, and it's complicated in a way. It gets more dense, and it's an even greater experience. That, coupled with a notion I have that in a sense music is the purest art form, elevates cinema for me to another level completely.

THR: In a sense, as a director you are both a composer and a conductor.

Scorsese: If I could play music!