February 4, 2019

Martin Scorsese's Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers

Martin Scorsese behind the scenes of The Silence
Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese has made his mark on filmmaking with a career that stretches across 50 years and multiple genres.

Beginning with the short films he made while attending NYU and branching quickly into impactful, gritty films like the 1973 breakout hit Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese soon gained a reputation as a passionate director with a talent for making raw, character-driven films that examine guilt, violence, Italian-American identity, and corruption. He currently the has the most Oscar nominations of any living director, with eight to his name.

He is also a self-proclaimed film lover and cares deeply about preserving film. He is the founder of both the Film Foundation and the World Cinema Project.

His latest project was just announced this month. While we wait for his next masterpiece, let's examine some key directing advice from this influential storyteller.

1. "You gotta be serious about making a picture."

In 2003, Scorsese appeared in a tongue-in-cheek American Express commercial that poked fun at his directing style. In this clip, Scorsese explains why the ad works so well, even while it's supposed to be funny. He says you have to be this serious and hard on yourself, even about something as lighthearted as a birthday party shoot. So approach even your most goofy work with dedication and the goal of utter perfection.

2. Think about how you see scenes, and use perspective and cuts to translate that vision.

Scorsese says he does his best to get the audience to see exactly what he wants them to see through a clever use of framing, cuts, and perspective. The point of view matters in filmmaking, and helps the audience experience the story on an emotional level, through the eyes of the characters.

Scorsese compares this shooting style to grabbing the audience members by the head and "forcing them to see things, by different cuts and camera moves, the way I see them." Don't forget your own eye when you're directing, because this will help you create a distinct filmmaking style. No one else sees things the way you do.

3. Consider your opening credits sequence.

One mistake a lot of indie or beginner filmmakers make is feeling the need to create a slow-paced or pointless opening credit sequence. Scorsese says that credits sequences should be like movie posters. They present the film and set the tone.

By the same token, Scorsese says he gets impatient if title sequences are unimaginative or don't add anything to the movie. He says if you're not going to do anything dynamic with your opening credits, go for simple white text on black....boom, done.

And, as just a general piece of advice, aspiring filmmakers should not try to put in opening credits just because they think it's obligatory. Don't make viewers sit through five minutes of names. Get to the good stuff! It's what everybody wants.

4. Even if you have an idea for shooting a scene, be open to changes.

In this 2017 seminar at the American Film Institute, Scorsese admits that he had planned to shoot Silence with a certain plan in mind, but then realized that the landscape was "speaking" to him in a way he hadn't expected. He made changes accordingly.

He also talks about meeting unexpected challenges during shooting: in one scene, he wanted dust, but there was only mud to work with. Some serendipitous mist allowed him to rethink the shot. What he teaches us here is that even if you have a particular vision, sometimes some quick thinking will be necessary to better work with your environment.

5. Visual literacy is important.

It's pretty obvious, but Scorsese is an incredibly visual storyteller. In this interview, he discusses different visual styles and how they impact everything in a film, from emotion to pacing. He talks about lenses and editing in particular, and several visual inspirations for his own work.

Understand that visuals are an integral part of a filmmaker's vocabulary, and an understanding of visual impact will help you express yourself better.

6. "Make your own industry."

Scorsese famously came up in film with a group known as "the movie brats," which included other directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Brian de Palma, and Steven Spielberg. These young filmmakers took over Hollywood after the collapse of the studio system and created a generation of emotional, realistic films that are now recognized as classics.

This background probably leads him to give the following advice, which is basically to make what you want to see, at the budget you have, and create the communal experience for yourself.

7. The inspiration is everything.

As we can see in this CBS Sunday Morning interview, Scorsese surrounds himself with the films that inspire him in order to stay in touch with the original "creative impulse" that led him to become a director in the first place. In fact, early French filmmaker Georges Méliès was such an inspiration to Scorsese that he made the 2011 film Hugo.

Of course, this is a bit of a genre departure from the crime and violence normally featured in Scorsese's films, but because the story, history, and visuals spoke to him so strongly, it was a project he pursued. So if there's an idea that speaks to you and provides a creative spark, pursue that wherever it might take you.

8. Sometimes all you need is a static camera.

In this discussion about Goodfellas with Jim Jarmusch in 2006, Scorsese talks about why he let the camera be still, the origins of storytelling, and how that can be translated to film.

Scorsese says that, much like listening to someone telling a story around a campfire (which he mentions at around the nine-minute mark), you can leave the focus on an actor without fancy camera work. He also says that this allows the honesty of the character to come through more fully. Don't be afraid to hold a shot for greater impact.

9. Hold on to authenticity.

In a message to the Doha Film Institute, Scorsese talks about viewing young filmmakers' short films and being impressed by their authenticity.

The advice is brief, but so important. Hold on to your authentic voice and point of view, and nurture it. Don't try to be like anyone else.

10. Let your actors improvise.

Ending with an oldie but a goodie, in this 1996 appearance with Conan O'Brien, Scorsese reveals that some of his most iconic lines came out of improvisation. This ties back, to some degree, to the previous tip about authenticity. Both actors in the scenes described were coming from authentic places, which is probably why their lines resonated so deeply with audiences.

These interviews barely scratch the surface of Scorsese's directing prowess. What other tips have you learned from watching Scorsese's work?     

Your Comment

3 Comments

No one cares about authenticity anymore.

If you write a script, a solid one, that is authentic in any way it'll be shot down.

Too many mixed messages in the film industry.

February 5, 2019 at 10:33AM, Edited February 5, 10:33AM

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Justin Gladden
Producer
397

Unfortunately, there are artists and there are entertainers...rarely someone from the artist camp makes it and you have brilliant work. My opinion, stay Gung-ho, do your thing and live and die by the consequences.

Stay Gung-ho
Gung-ho WeiRdo

February 5, 2019 at 10:49AM

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Nathan Karimi
Writer/Director/Podcaster
15

As an independent filmmaker, I think it's always important to take advice, knowledge, inspiration and anything you can from the greats, without letting it transcend your own style and belief system regarding the art of film making. That said, I have my own contributions to a few items on this list.
1. "You gotta be serious about making a picture."
This is deeper than you think. It's got to be all that you think about. Of course, I have a phrase that I refer to with my cinematographer on set called creative 100, that's when I've established 100% of my creative vision in the frame, that is ideal. As an independent filmmaker though, time is not always on your side. Whenever we're shooting, it's usually a 3 day rental weekend and that's all the time we have to shoot say, a 25 page script. Sometimes I find myself saying, okay we're at creative 85, lets run. This is usually on the back of the AD yelling at us to get on schedule.

3. Consider your opening credits sequence.
This has never been important to me but I guess there is a point. Usually I've only put end credits on.
4. Even if you have an idea for shooting a scene, be open to changes.
These changes aren't usually so inspired on an independent film set as much as they are required. Time, space, the limitations of your non-actor friends trying to act are the elements that I find you have to work around. There's a balance to keep, you don't want to destroy the confidence of your "actors" if they're not hitting their mark by running the scene 76 times. You also don't ever have the luxury of 75 takes to perfection when you're on a time budget, hell, half the time or more I'm paying for the rentals myself and I can't afford another weekend.
5. Visual literacy is important.
The only way to achieve this is to take pictures, walk around the city, country, town that you live and try to understand the natural flow of the world and then alter it to your creative fashion. Visual literacy is no doubt important. It's important to remember that unique vision should not be confused with visual illiteracy.
6. "Make your own industry."
DAMN RIGHT! We're forced to do this as independent fillm makers and that's why I've created the brand Gung-ho WeiRdo! We're all Gung-ho, we're usually all WeiRdos and we love cinema, what else is there to say. Gotta work with what you have.
7. The inspiration is everything.
I would argue that habit transcends inspiration. That said, show me an independent filmmaker who is uninspired and I'll show you a commercial director. hehe, sorry guys and gals, got to do what you got to do but if you're not inspired, you don't stand a chance
8. Sometimes all you need is a static camera.
It's so true. Sometimes, in tight spaces, trying to light, and block, that's all you can have.
9. Hold on to authenticity.
This is my personal rule #1 #2 #3...#99 and #100...If you're not authentic, you're a thief. Listen, we're all weird, we don't want to be doctors, lawyers, air traffic controllers, we want to record our dreams, add audio and subject dark rooms full of people to them.
10. Let your actors improvise.
I think this one is worth trying but in my personal experience, actors have been my greatest struggle. When you're an independent filmmaker in a non-filmmaking city, you find that actors leave for LA, for Atlanta, NYC, etc. to find work and God bless them and their journey but, when you're left with people who don't have the time or the drive or the habit or the passion to memorize their lines, I dare say they are not actors and without actors, you have to rely on other methods of story telling that will allow for less than good performances from the men and women on screen parading around as "actors." I know this is harsh but come on, you can't fake it as an editor, you can't fake it as a writer, you can't fake it as a cinematographer, why the hell should actors be allowed to fake it. memorize your lines ladies and gentleman...and then...only then, will I let you improvise.
**side note, sometimes if they don't memorize their lines, your only hope is to let them improvise.**

Like the rant? Check out the podcast: Gung-ho WeiRdo: Trying to Make a Movie
https://thenathankarimi.com/podcasts/

Stay Gung-ho!

Gung-ho WeiRdo

February 5, 2019 at 10:48AM

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Nathan Karimi
Writer/Director/Podcaster
15