Martin Scorsese Urges Commitment to Art Over Algorithms: "It's All an Illusion"

Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino at Santa Barbara Film Festival - H 2019
Courtesy of Getty Images

With 300 guests on their feet delivering the night’s final standing ovation at the Kirk Douglas Award ceremony at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Martin Scorsese made his way to Ritz-Carlton Bacara ballroom stage, got a kiss on the cheek from presenter Leonardo DiCaprio and took his place behind the podium.

Before delivering an acceptance speech, the night's sole honoree had a couple of questions for his audience. “Well, you know, I … where can I begin?” asked the 76-year-old in that signature Scorsese way. “I could begin with Kirk Douglas. Can I talk about Kirk a little?”

The crowd answered with a smattering of applause as a sign of approval, and a few black-tie-clad guests even shouted “Yes!” for extra confirmation. It was not necessary. No one would have objected to talk of the legendary man whose name was printed on the trophy courtesy of the night’s host, the Santa Barbara festival. Scorsese was being honored with the fest’s 14th annual Kirk Douglas Award, and so talk about Douglas he did.

He didn’t make any direct mention of the back-and-forth about his criticism of Marvel movies or his recent essay in The New York Times — at least from the stage — but he did open up on how he first fell in love with film at five years old, how DiCaprio gave him a “new lease on life” and why the industry should ignore algorithms and business calculations. But first, it was all about Douglas.

“He really had a very profound influence on me,” Scorsese explained at the event, presented by Belvedere vodka and notable for being a high-profile stop on the awards circuit, and one that always precedes the actual SBIFF, scheduled for Jan. 15-25. (Fest director Roger Durling and board president Lynda Weinman also delivered remarks at the event, which was attended by notables like Carol Burnett.) He said how in the late 1940s and early 1950s, cinema was “very essential” to his life, primarily because he had asthma and thus wasn’t allowed to run or play ball. “So, they put me in a room, and they took me to the movies.”

At that time — after World War II — Scorsese said the “mood of the films being made and the kinds of pictures people wanted to see” was changing. So were the stars onscreen.

“There was a whole group of post-war actors, but there was one in the group who really stood out. … It was Kirk Douglas,” he continued. “The thing about this guy is that you couldn’t pin him down.” Scorsese went on to back up his assertion by listing the range Douglas displayed as a gangster in Out of the Past, a fighter in Champion, as a cultured English teacher in A Letter to Three Wives, as a monster producer in The Bad and the Beautiful (its poster has hung on Scorsese’s wall for 30 years) and as a washed-up star in Two Weeks in Another Town.

He loved the latter two films so much that Scorsese said he and frequent collaborator Robert De Niro attempted to pull together remakes for years. “We were obsessed with these pictures,” he noted, explaining that they tried different writers like Richard Price and Paul Schrader. “Somehow it all developed and found its way into The Irishman. That, in a funny way, is our version of what Kirk, [Vicente Minnelli] and all those guys did.”

More about Douglas. Scorsese also name-checked his films The Vikings, Lust for Life, The Juggler, Spartacus, Strangers When We Meet and Man Without a Star. “The thing about Douglas was that he seemed to live in all these films, in all these worlds. You couldn’t pin him down. He brought this very special quality. He had a very strong intensity … a strong desire to not be constrained by any conventions and certainly not limitations of the script, I can tell you. He went deep, deep into the emotional core … and this, kind of set him apart from the others.”

A compliment that has long followed Scorsese — and been used to set him apart from the others — is a fierce loyalty to frequent collaborators both behind and in front of the camera. He paid special attention in his speech to the most recognizable ones, De Niro and DiCaprio. Scorsese explained that with the former, whom he has known since they were about 16 years old, there’s “an incredible trust” that has developed after doing so many films together. Their collaborations include iconic films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York, New York, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, Cape Fear and Casino. Their latest is Netflix’s The Irishman, now in theaters, which also stars Al Pacino, who was on hand to divide up presenting duties with DiCaprio.

Scorsese recalled the night when he first met Pacino back in the day. It was after a dinner he had with his parents and Francis Ford Coppola, who had an affinity for Scorsese’s mother’s lemon garlic chicken. After dinner, Coppola and Scorsese went to NY’s Greenwich Village to see a production of Israel Horovitz’s play Rats directed by Pacino. “To be able to work together with the [De Niro and Pacino] now with this picture, it's a real blessing,” he continued of their first collaboration together. “Benediction; a sense of something coming full circle and I hope it’s not the last.”

Pacino, from the stage, said they’ve known each other for the duration of their respective careers, almost 50 years, but “never quite found the right thing to work on” until now. “The experience of working with Marty was more than I hoped it would be and much more. For an actor, he makes you feel safe. That’s very important for an actor because you’ve very vulnerable when you are performing. You are almost childlike. You’re exposing things in yourself and you need someone there who you trust. You push things in different directions. He is so easy to trust because you know he is in control of his craft,” said Pacino, who then got a call on his cell phone from his son that he didn’t pick up. (“It drives Marty crazy when it goes off while we’re filming.”) “He sets the stage for you, like a tightrope walker. Marty is a net, he sets it up and he’s there so you can do crazy things. It’s why he gets some of the greatest performances on film.”

Scorsese credited De Niro with introducing him to DiCaprio after the two actors made This Boy’s Life together in 1993. “He called me, he never does this, and said, 'You gotta work with this kid, he’s really good.'” So they met up and it changed both of their lives, thanks to creative partnerships on such films as Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street and the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon.

“For the past 20 years, he’s given me as a filmmaker, creatively, a new lease on life. I can tell you that. Because I see the same kind of commitment in Leo that Kirk Douglas had. He was inspired in turn by Bob and Al’s generation who was inspired by Kirk’s generation.”

In his remarks, DiCaprio was inspired to share about Scorsese’s collaborative nature. “One of the most remarkable things about Martin Scorsese — besides being one of our greatest filmmakers — is the generosity that he exudes to everybody on set, from his creative team to his crew and especially the actors that he works with. He treats each and every one of us as a real collaborator, and that is not easily said. You can say you’re a collaborator, but Marty truly wants to know what you have to say as an artist. These collaborations have been forged through the years. They’re strong, symbiotic relationships with Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci and dare I say myself. Through the years, these collaborations have become more like his alter egos, his muse, or more like his family.”

DiCaprio then recalled the day nearly 20 years ago when he first “had the honor of stepping foot” on a Scorsese set for Gangs. “I was 25 years old and I remember through the mastery of Dante Ferretti I was walking around these sets, it was like a mass scale caravansary that had popped up. He created New York’s Five Points suddenly before my eyes all within the walls of the very historic Cinecitta Studios in Rome. I knew at that moment my life and my work would never be the same. Working with Marty became almost like an encapsulated ecosystem that vastly enhanced my knowledge and appreciation for cinema as an entire art form historically. He quickly became much more than a director, he became collaborator, a mentor, a friend and a guide through the history of our shared cinematic past.”

DiCaprio then turned his attention to the present to open up on his reaction to Scorsese’s latest, The Irishman. “With his latest film, Marty has once again reunited with some of his most iconic collaborators,” he said of the epic, which casts Pesci, Keitel, Pacino and DeNiro, the latter of whom anchors the story as Frank Sheeran, a truck driver turned top hitman. “It plays like an elegy. It’s a movie about looking upon what you’ve left behind and squaring up with all of it, but for me, what’s more astounding about this film, in my mind, Marty transcends his own signature genre and creates a film that methodically transforms itself into an exploration of our very own universally shared mortality. The film is absolutely breathtaking.”

DiCaprio then said as a whole, Scorsese’s “body of work will be revered for centuries and generations to come.” With that, he welcomed to the stage the man of the evening. In closing his own speech, Scorsese turned his attention to the threats facing the current generation of storytellers in a streaming world of corporate behemoths and often controversial algorithms. “I realize that commitment and dedication to the art form are always rare so, you know, when you see it, this incredible commitment and dedication, please don’t take it for granted. Today, it's a new world, of course, and we have to be extra vigilant. Some actually believe that these qualities that I’m talking about can be replaced by algorithms and formulas and business calculations, but please remember it’s all an illusion because there’s no substitute for individual or artistic expression, as Kirk Douglas knew and as he expressed through his long film career.”

With that, Scorsese opened and closed his speech with talk about Douglas, and in return Douglas showed up in a surprise taped appearance to congratulate the night’s sole honoree. Or, rather, to rib on him a little. “I’m very glad to be here tonight to introduce you to a very big director, Martin Scorsese. He’s a great Hollywood director, and I forgive him for not using me in Raging Bull or Taxi Driver or Cape Fear. De Niro? OK, but I would have been great,” joked the 102-year-old, who was repped in the audience by Cameron and Kelsey Douglas. “Martin, you’re a wonderful director but a terrible actor. Leave the acting to me. I’m happy tonight you receive the Kirk Douglas Award. I’m proud of you, Martin. When you do your next movie, I’m available.”