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Shutter Island - Martin Scorsese interview

Shutter Island

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MARTIN Scorsese talks to us about some of the reasons he chose to direct Shutter Island and why creating the film’s memorably chilling score presented its own set of challenges.

He also talks about working with Leonardo DiCaprio and Max Von Sydow, his passion for old movies – and especially Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and what he feels about being labelled America’s greatest living director…

Q. What was the real motivation for doing this: the emotional and psychological subject matter? Or the chance to mix up genres and ideas from the golden age of Hollywood gothic horrors and psycho-dramas?
Martin Scorsese: Well, I think it’s really both… and in that order. The first element that I connected with was the emotion. Sorry, that’s how it goes. I felt very empathetic for the character, sympathetic for the character, overwhelmed by the nature of the story of his character. It’s a hard film to talk about because I don’t want to give anything away but that, along with the vocabulary of cinema’s past and gothic literature… that, to me, opened the door and was really enticing. I don’t know how else to tell the story except to utilise that vocabulary: the rain, the darkness, the mansions, the framing, etc, the lighting and that sort of thing.

Q. Does the fact that you’re always hailed as America’s greatest living director put pressure on you?
Martin Scorsese: [Smiles] All I can do is try to do the best work I can. I need to work, I like to work… although I complain about it, but I do like it – and I just need to make the best film I can. I can’t think in… how does one put it? In terms of awards… it’s nice when the films are recognised, but when you’re in the thick of battle, you just try to get through it and try to make something of it that allows you to say years from now: “Yes, I directed that film…” And to be happy with it. And so you try your best. Sometimes you go in with one thing, with one desire and come out with something else. In the case of The Aviator it was to create a Hollywood spectacle, but by about the second or third week of shooting you just want to literally survive it. Because don’t forget, I also go through the editing process too, and when the film is released I have to talk about it. So, I take all of that very seriously.

Q. Can you talk about the influence of Sam Fuller and Shock Corridor on Shutter Island?
Martin Scorsese: Sam Fuller and Shock Corridor can only be conjured as a mantra. Shock Corridor is a classic work of art – it’s unique. It comes from the unique experience of being Sam Fuller and yes, there’s always that element of Shock Corridor hovering around the picture, but never specifically. In fact, I didn’t even screen it because it’s in us. It’s in me anyway. It’s in me. It was a way of conjuring up support just by saying the name, Shock Corridor, as I was going to shoot. Poor Sam [Fuller]…

But the first film I showed Leo, Mark Ruffalo and Sir Ben was Laura, Otto Preminger’s film, to get a sense of the war-ravaged hero… world-weary so to speak, the body language of Dana Andrews, the man who falls in love with a ghost. Then we screened Out Of The Past, Jacques Tourneur – the trap, the puzzle, the mystery, the beauty and the poetry of that film. Then there was Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie too. But primarily Out of the Past – for noir. Let There Be Light, the John Huston film. The Steel Helmet… we showed for the nature of the soldier. There were many others for points of reference. But primarily it was very interesting… the Dana Andrews character [Det. Lt. Mark McPherson] in Laura, because of the way he moves through the frame. His shoulders are down, he never looks anybody in the eye; there’s that wonderful scene when he just takes over her apartment, loosens his tie, makes himself a drink, looks at the portrait and the doorbell rings… [laughs]

Q. How surprising or daunting is it to work with Max von Sydow as an actor and as a director?
Martin Scorsese: Obviously talking about cinema history, because he made cinema history along with [Ingmar] Bergman, of course, and the other filmmakers he worked with, but he’s one of those figures in cinema history. He sort of transcends the films that he’s in. He’s also international in that sense. He becomes Max von Sydow. It’s not Max von Sydow from The Seventh Seal or Max doing a small part in Wild Strawberries, or The Magician (The Face) or The Exorcist or any of the later films. Even Needful Things… he plays a wonderful character in Needful Things. It’s simply this extraordinary presence – and simply is an odd word to use there. But it’s literally something that you can’t strip away. And you can’t tell the difference. Even in the last scene we did with him, on the last day of shooting, where he confronts Leonardo in the hallway [laughs]. It was very interesting, very interesting.

Q. The film is unsettling and the score is obviously a key element of that. How complete is your vision of the final film before you start shooting and how much do you rely on the input of others?
Martin Scorsese: The tone of the picture and the atmosphere was in my head and in my blood in a way once I’d decided to make the picture. I had to find my way through that to choose, select, emphasise certain visual elements and sound. Ultimately, that’s when I call in my collaborators – and that’s Bob Richardson on camera and Dante Feretti on production design. Again, I’d show them references… I Walked With A Zombie, we’d look at some Polanski films, Bigger Than Life by Nicholas Ray, The Wrong Man by Hitchcock, Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire… many, many different types of pictures that have a similar… there might be one shot in it that I want to discuss with them – but at least they’re reference points. It’s a constant process of pulling together the imagery and all the influences.

I was rather shaken by all the green trees. I always am. It gets me. I don’t want to be funny about it but I am. I loved seeing all the westerns, but I had asthma and couldn’t go anywhere, but I loved watching them in Technicolor and seeing the cowboys and the landscapes of Monument Valley and you’d see the forests of the Anthony Mann films and think, ‘wow, that’s fantastic’, but I could never go there! But this time we did it on this thing. Actually, I was rock climbing on this film at 7 in the morning. It was quite unique! But in any event, the colour of the leaves disturbed me so we had to work on that. On the other hand, I didn’t want to drench it in a kind of depressing tone.

For me, the key image is the boat coming through the fog at the beginning. It’s something I imagined and liked and I guess there are other references in other films I make – the similar type of image. But I think it’s interesting, it’s breaking through the mystery, or maybe it stays in the fog… we don’t really know. Where is he at the beginning of the film, who is he? [That’s if] you go back and see the picture again. There are a lot of good questions there but I think that Richardson was really, really remarkable and Dante worked very well with the existing place that we had, Medfield, which was an abandoned hospital for the criminally insane that had been pretty much abandoned at this point. The creation of the island, or the impression of the island, as it changes in the mind of the character also came in to play… there was another very important collaborator, Rob Legato, on special visual effects. And then ultimately there’s Thelma Schoonmaker, who keeps me focused during the editing of the picture.

Shutter Island

Q. And how was working with Robbie Robertson?
Martin Scorsese: Robbie Robertson was the other one I called upon for the music. Just something real quickly, as much as I admire film scores – and you know how much I’ve collected every film score – and I’ve been extremely lucky to work with Elmer Bernstein, Howard Shore over the years, but I’ve always imagined films with my own scores, because I don’t come from that world or that period of filmmaking. And so how could I make up my own score on a film like this where it isn’t necessarily made up of popular music from the radio or the period; it isn’t necessarily classical music. But what if it’s modern symphonic music?

And so Robbie Robertson came up with this idea of modern symphonic music and so I thought, let’s at least try it as an experiment and so he started sending me CDs and different pieces of music. I mention Venusberg Music by Wagner and Charles Ives, of course, but they were still part of an older world. We went further… we went ahead with demanding Ingram Marshall, John Adams, Morton Feldman, [Krzysztof] Penderecki… we just went on and on like that. But the second batch, when I started to fit it in, and then ultimately sync different pieces of music to different pieces of action, then we reworked all the music and mixed it in different ways to make the score. And that went on for eight months or so.

Q. What about the foghorns at the beginning of the film?
Martin Scorsese: Oh, the foghorns… even the foghorns, they’re all brass. It’s something by Ingrid Marshal called Fog Tropes. It’s not a sound effect. It’s an actual piece of music. If you listen to what’s going on after he has a flashback about his wife you’ll hear… it sounds like the humpback whales in a way. But it’s all music. And we use it again later, too.

Q. I was thinking about Hitchcock’s Vertigo and whether there is an analogy in the relationship between yourself and Leonardo DiCaprio that’s similar to Alfred Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart? Is there a relationship between director and star that influences your choices?
Martin Scorsese: Vertigo is probably my favourite Hitchcock film and probably one of my favourite films of all time. It’s a film that I’m obsessed with. I saw it on its first release in vista vision, projected in vista-vision, at the Capitol Theatre in New York. That moment when the nun comes up in the end… it’s just an extraordinary shot. But the entire film, even though I didn’t fully understand it when I was 15, it’s a film I kept revisiting. And it was of course taken out of distribution for a long period of time. It was only shown in LACMA in LA in the mid ’70s, and everybody flocked to it: Brian DePalma, Spielberg… all of us went to see this Hitchcock retrospective. It was the only way we could see it, except on TV, cut up, but it’s one of those ones that I live with and by. Whenever it’s on Turner Classic Movies I watch it.

I happen to have a beautiful technicolor print of it… a 35mm cut of it, that’s just beginning to go vinegar but you can still screen it, so you can see the real colour. I helped support the restoration of the picture, beautifully done by Robert A Harris. And so, it’s very important… the musical score is very important. Also, John Williams has put on concerts of Bernard Herrmann’s music… and to sit on the stage. I introduced each section – whether it was Psycho or Vertigo – but to sit on the stage and be enveloped by the love theme from Vertigo is just an experience. To be enveloped by the instruments and to be taken into that vortex and into the dreamscape of this obsession is just something that is the very basis of cinema and life.

I don’t know… Stewart’s performance in that film is an ultimate performance, particularly as he’s realising in the last 15 minutes of the film what’s really going on, that gesture of his when he loses her a second time is just an extraordinary thing. I didn’t have to see the film again. It’s a beautiful film and that’s a very nice thing to say about the Jimmy Stewart’s performance, because it’s a beautiful performance through out. And it’s an interesting performance as well. I don’t really know where I am when I watch the film. I can’t tell you exactly where the centre of the film is. I sort of let it take me every time. I only realised when I last watched it that she writes him a letter and explains the whole thing. I was shooting at the time. She explains everything in the letter and I’ve seen the film hundreds of times. So, if a film surprises you or an actor does something that you think is new, I find it inseparable from what I do.

Read our review of Shutter Island

Read our interview with Leonardo DiCaprio