'The Scorsese Machine': Amazing 1990 Documentary Shows Rarely Seen Side of a Master Director

Thelma Schoonmaker/Scorsese1990 was a very good year for Martin Scorsese. After making a diverse group of films in the 80s, he reunited with Robert DeNiro for Goodfellas and later that year shot a segment for New York Storiesan anthology film of three shorts by Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Francis Ford Coppola. During the editing, the French documentary series Cinéma, de notre temps (or, The Films of Our Time) filmed a 45-minute documentary on the director, and it's a fascinating glimpse into his life, personality, and working habits as he edits his short with long-time collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker. Click below to hang out with one of cinema's best, and most personable directors.

With his first couple of films, Scorsese established himself as master of a gritty New York, the Little Italy of his childhood and the Mean Streets not usually featured in films about the Big Apple. Not only were his films raw, they felt real -- like he knew what he was talking about and was able to capture it on film. Beyond that, he had a unique style informed by his voracious visual appetite (Scorsese knows more about movies than almost anyone.)

The 1980s saw Scorsese make five very different films: the surrealist yuppie nightmare of After Hours bears little resemblance to, say, The Last Temptation of Christone certified masterpiece in Raging Bull, a film so singular it's practically a genre unto itself, his first "Hollywood" movie The Color of Moneyand The King of Comedy, a brilliantly disturbing and -- just weird little movie starring Robert DeNiro in quite possibly his most amazingly awkward performance ever.

Scorsese next reunited with Robert DeNiro in 1990 for Goodfellas, an instant success and classic, and 23 years later widely considered one of the best films of the last century:

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=YH-7he92XfI

It was in the afterglow of this success that Cinema de notre temps came to New York to produce an episode on him, entitled The Scorsese Machine. The director came to New York without a specific agenda:

Labarthe filmed Scorsese soon after the “scandal” of The Last Temptation of Christ had begun to die down. Not sure which approach to use for the film, Labarthe and his crew simply went to Scorsese’s office and began shooting him moving around, watching rushes, etc. At the end of the first day’s shoot, Scorsese asked whether or not Labarthe was going to ask any questions; “No,” Labarthe replied, just speak whenever you feel like it.

At the time, Scorsese had just finished directing his segment for the anthology film New York Stories. His entry, Life Lessons, is based loosely on Dostoevsky's short novel The Gambler  (which, in an aside, was written at breakneck speed by Dostoevsky in order to avoid losing the rights to all his works, a situation brought about by his own severe gambling problem.)

It is a downright lighthearted film by Scorsese's standards -- the story of a respected Soho artist, played by Nolte, and his relationship with his assistant/girlfriend (Rosanna Arquette,) and the intersection of money, sex and power in the New York art world:

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-iNtrs1UPY4

Instead of a traditional TV documentary on a famous director, we are instead treated to what's more akin to a fly on the wall look at Scorsese's life as he works in his New York offices, takes phone calls, talks, and cuts the film with long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker (it's amazing to watch someone operate a flatbed editing machine so nimbly, considering that to use one efficiently is like learning to play a piano that's also a piece of heavy industrial equipment.)

Scorsese is one of the best talkers in movies, able to hold forth on almost any topic in cinema, and his personality is genuinely winning, because you can sense his enthusiasm.

This is a great documentary, and well worth watching if you're a fan of Scorsese or a lover of cinema, because it offers that rarest of things: a look into the daily working habits of one of the masters.

It is truly instructive to see how Scorsese works around the office, his habits, and his relationship with Schoonmaker. There are tons of behind the scenes docs that show movies being filmed, but shooting is almost always the shortest segment of a film's production, and the most intense; the rest of the time is spent doing everything that gets you to those few weeks or months, and it's fascinating to watch Scorsese in this process.

We also almost never see a director in the editing room, and since his relationship with Schoonmaker has shaped so many of his films, watching them together is fascinating.

What do you think of this style of relaxed documentary, and what lessons do you think an indie filmmaker could take away from watching Scorsese off the set, going about the daily business of being a filmmaker?

[via Cinephilia and Beyond]

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Thank you for this. I'm a huge martin scorsese fan. My personal favorite scorese film is raging bull...followed by goodfellas. Then Taxi Driver. Scorsese reminds us that it doesn't matter which camera you use for the film. It's how you use the camera. What's in the frame and what's left out. The camera angle. And most important how you tell the story.
Then later this year scorsese is releasing his new film wolf of Wall Street which is his 5th collaboration with Leonardo dicaprio. I can't wait :) I read that film was shot with the arri Alexa and the arri flex


August 15, 2013 at 10:57AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Interesting, I thought "The Wolf of Wallstreet" was shot on film, so I looked it up, on IMDB it says they used both, it will be interesting to see where and when they used each system, perhaps for different time periods?

August 15, 2013 at 11:56AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Matthew Rogan

Thank you for drawing my attention to this. André S. Labarthe was a friend and contemporary of the French New Wave directors and shared both their passion for cinema and their cinéma vérité approach to documentary. It's a style that might seem a bit slow and oblique by today's standards, but as you say in your article, it gives you a real insight into Scorcese's personality and working methods in a way that a more linear documentary might not be able to do.

August 16, 2013 at 5:56AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM