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OBSESSION : Martin Scorsese Eats, Sleeps, Breathes and Dreams Movies, Shot by Shot

September 23, 1990|T. J. ENGLISH | T. J. English is the author of "The Westies: Inside the Hell's Kitchen Irish Mob," published this year by G. P. Putnam

"I really can't imagine Marty doing anything other than what he's doing," says Winkler, who produced "GoodFellas," Scorsese's 12th and latest feature. "It's like that line in 'Taxi Driver': 'There never was any hope for me.' With Marty, it was preordained."

PACING BACK AND FORTH in his Times Square office, Scorsese is mildly unsettled. Not upset, mind you, or annoyed or even uneasy. Unsettled. The source of his discomfort has to do with a press preview screening of "GoodFellas." It was a couple of months prior to the film's release, and as far as Scorsese is concerned, the film was an unfinished product. Most of it was there, of course--the brooding cinematography, the 1950s and '60s period detail, the music. Even the editing was completed.

So what was missing? One thing: a finished version of the title credits.

"For me," says Scorsese, in his inimitable staccato delivery, "credit sequences are sometimes more important than the movie, because they present the picture a certain way. They promise something."

Judging from Scorsese's movies, his concern for credit sequences is obviously genuine. Who could forget the home movie and typewriter titles of "Mean Streets"? Or the luxurious cutout Manhattan skyline that adorned the titles for "New York, New York"? Or, most triumphantly, Jake La Motta shadow boxing to the strains of Pietro Mascagni at the beginning of "Raging Bull"? But listening to Scorsese, you get the impression that whatever he's working on at the moment, that's the most important thing in the picture. Whether it's pre-production, the rigors of actually shooting the movie, the editing, the music, or one of the last and most taken-for-granted elements of movie making, the title credits, to Scorsese it is the one thing that could make or break the film.

For many viewers, it is this perfectionism that makes Scorsese's movies so watchable. His "story boards," or frame-by-frame drawings, for the terrifying climactic shoot-out in "Taxi Driver" show a loving attention to detail. Excitedly, he talks of the pleasure--the self-discovery--of editing "Raging Bull" with his long-time collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker. And he fondly remembers the fun he had devising elegant camera moves for "The Color of Money" with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who also worked with him on "GoodFellas."

Scorsese's office is amazingly neat; every note pad and pencil has its place. There are three VCRs and a TV against one wall, a bookshelf containing bound volumes of scholarly film periodicals against the other. The walls are dotted with photographs--two of Scorsese with his good friend Robbie Robertson, former leader of The Band, who starred in Scorsese's rock 'n' roll documentary, "The Last Waltz." There are also framed movie posters of "The Kiss of Death," "The Shanghai Gesture" and "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," the penultimate movie by his late friend and mentor, Michael Powell. Dominating the room, mounted on the wall above his desk, is an ornate fresco depicting Christ's crucifixion.

Much has been written about Scorsese's neurotic, rapid-fire mode of conversation. Even his own publicist warns interviewers to take along a good tape recorder and an extra set of batteries. But nothing quite prepares you for it. Scorsese's words flow out in a torrent, intense, sometimes blustery. He is not a pontificator in the manner of an Orson Welles; he is constantly probing, trying to communicate his emotional connection to whatever he may be talking about at the moment. His mind is lively and quick, and sometimes his speech struggles to keep up.

These days, Scorsese appears reasonably content. Of course, there are the expected anxieties that come with opening a $25-million movie, especially one that exhibits Scorsese's usual commercially risky approach--harsh, disturbing violence; absence of plot, and a two-hour-and-20-minute running time. But for the man who was almost crucified by fundamentalists for making a movie about Christ, "GoodFellas" promises a smooth ride.

Based on Nicholas Pileggi's 1985 nonfiction book, "Wiseguy," "GoodFellas" is a panoramic view of underworld life, spanning three decades. Focusing on a group of low-level tough guys and racketeers from a section of Brooklyn known as East New York, it covers terrain familiar to the director, whose portrayals of working-class life in New York have long since become the standard for other filmmakers. To facilitate his vision, he cast many people he has worked with before, including his frequent collaborator, Robert De Niro.

"I always knew I would return to this subject matter," says Scorsese, who made his low-budget gangster classic, "Mean Streets," more than 18 years ago. "When Pileggi's book came out, I read it from front to back; it was the most authentic thing I had read on this way of life. So I thought, hey, there's no sense in me doing another picture about this way of life unless I can approach it in a unique way."

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