Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat…
We love Martin Scorsese. We in the filmmaking community. The audience community. The No Film School staff. The world at large.
Marty is a national treasure and has helped us all treasure the history and art of cinema.
We LOVE Marty!
But his recent comments and New York Times Op-Ed, combined with his epic mob movie The Irishman, leave him seeming out of a touch, off base, and...let’s just say it…hypocritical.
But because we love Marty, we want to give him the benefit of the doubt here. Let's take the time to open this discussion between the NFS team and the community at large. We’ll lay out both sides of it as we’ve seen it, so please let us know where you stand and what you think.
Because let’s all be honest here… this Marty situation has been a flashpoint for conversation for a while here and it’s about time we laid all the pieces on the board and figured some stuff out both as filmmakers and as film lovers.
Martin ScorseseCredit: Tim P. Whitby, Getty Images
Marty Is a Hypocrite
I’m not here to defend the honor of Marvel movies or big franchises in general. In fact, Martin Scorsese is correct. The nature of the major blockbuster franchise based on popular IP has completely changed the game in terms of theatrical releases.
He’s also right that it comes from a place of major studios looking to minimize risk.
Look, he’s right about a lot of things! He’s Martin Scorsese!
But where the hypocrisy sneaks in is when you consider his own major release… The Irishman.
Just at first blush, consider that his comments target large budget VFX laden features based on previously published IP with star-studded casts.
Which is precisely what The Irishman is.
OK… to be fair that’s not his entire point. He’s talking about movies that take creative risks and explore the soul, not ones that take you for a thrill ride.
The Irishman certainly does the former and NOT the latter.
But there are a few things going on here. Martin Scorsese didn’t have an easy time getting The Irishman made, but he still did get it made to the tune of 150 million dollars.
Being familiar with the No Film School Community, and the lives of so many filmmakers trying to make it work, we can’t help but think about how much a single storyteller could do with $1 million. Even $500,000.
There are maybe 50 $1 million movies we’d love to see from new voices taking risks, as Marty says.
But the issue doesn’t really end there.
Scorsese’s other main concern is the notion that films belong in theaters and not streaming.
'The Irishman' (2019)
Now I say this is a theater-going devotee, a lifelong cinephile, a person who counts trips to see black and white, silent, and foreign classics in revival theaters among his most fun outings.
But nowadays, filmmakers NEED streaming platforms. That’s actually where risks can happen. The filmmakers I know and hear from are just happy to get on a platform and hope to direct eyes there.
Martin Scorsese is a national treasure and a man who has done more for cinema and cinema preservation that I or anyone I know can ever hope to.
But up and coming filmmakers have to be concerned with EVERY possible platform. We can’t follow his lead and only want theaters, or in his case just want MORE theatrical showings. We have to be satisfied with limited runs or single screenings.
For all his good intentions, something about Scorsese’s comments comes off as entitled, hypocritical, and tone-deaf.
And not because there is anything wrong with being critical of Marvel movies or any movies for that matter. Personally, I strongly dislike Marvel movies and have long chalked it up to "not being my cup of tea."
Many people love them.
What comes off as irksome about Scorsese’s commentary isn’t that he dislikes some things or thinks they are bad for the business, but in the process, he side-swipes some of the changes to the model that have made good content possible for audiences and more platforms available for creatives.
Streaming services give us more places to "find our niche," whether we are watching films and TV or making them.
The Irishman is hugely expensive for what it is, all because it wants to give roles meant for 20 and 40-year-olds to 75-year-olds.
That’s… almost a precise conflict to what Scorsese says he cares about.
Consider this salient point made by our own Charles Haine on the NFS podcast: Robert De Niro truly hit the big time when he played a young Marlon Brando.
There is, of course, a whole other problem, which is that filmmakers are out there hungry to tell new stories, new kinds of stories, with new talent. Scorsese says he wants that and he feels bad for them, but he’s delivering the same goods he delivered over two decades ago.
At the end of the day, Martin Scorsese is his own Marvel brand. Maybe he can’t secure funding as easily, maybe he can’t get quite as big a release and budget. But he can get all those things just the same, to perform precisely the cinematic experiment he wishes to.
The cinema he wants to see is out there and so are the filmmakers and his best move is to continue to use his massive power and influence to help them get seen on as many platforms as possible.
Behind the scenes of 'The Irishman' (2019)Credit: Niko Tavernise/Netflix
Marty is NOT a hypocrite
Now the counterpoint.
Scorsese himself has been a champion of many an upcoming filmmaker, and an executive on many projects that might not otherwise see the light of day
The Irishman itself was a movie that struggled to find financing for a very long time. Scorsese and De Niro looking long and hard, and only finally found hope in Netflix, who would help foot the bill for the expensive FX work required.
A movie that attempts to cast 70-year-old men as 20 and 40-year-old men is taking a massive risk. One that might not age well itself.
Marty called the film an "experiment" himself, and at times it really does feel like one more akin to something George Lucas would try, just to see if he COULD.
One wonders if in a few years time seeing 70-year-old De Niro and Pacino spar with men half their age physically and verbally, will seem any less laughable than Jar Jar Binks.
Don’t underestimate how extremely strange it is to see De Niro playing 20. First off, we know exactly what he looked like at 20, and he didn’t look like this.
Secondly, his 70-year-old body has to go through a lot to approximate how a younger man would move and it doesn’t quite work. It leaves us somewhere in the uncanny valley.
Particularly when he’s physically violent. It just…. doesn’t look right.
Joe Pesci is also playing younger than himself but older than De Niro, calling the younger De Niro “kid” at times.
It’s just hard to buy the notion that De Niro is ‘kid’ to anyone, let alone his famous peer Joe Pesci.
So all that is to say: The Irishman is no slam dunk. It’s not The Avengers. Not even close. It’s a huge risk and the cost of all this money was to try and go where no film has gone before. The fountain of youth!
Whether or not it works is sort of side-stepping the point here, which is: does Scorsese put his money where his mouth is? Is he a risk-taking filmmaker or is he the status quo, eating up available funds with the types of content people expect to see and limiting chances for truly new voices?
In using Netflix, even if he isn’t thrilled about a limited theatrical run, Scorsese is also helping young filmmakers in that he’s lending more credibility to the digital streaming release.
'The Irishman' (2019)
Where does it leave us?
Let’s just take a moment to talk about the movie itself.
The Irishman is oddly meta in all this.
It’s about a man looking back at his past, looking back at how the world shifted beneath his feet and how he had a front-row seat to "the day the music died" so to speak.
That is to say, Frank Sheeran was, according to his own account and what was portrayed in the film, present during the last hey-days of the mob in America, but also part of a key moment, still shrouded in mystery, that ended the era.
I’m talking of course about the disappearance of Teamster Union President Jimmy Hoffa.
But looking deeper at The Irishman, it’s also covering some other familiar ground. The Kennedy assignation, for example, looms large as a story point. As it has in so many movies made by boomers about the turbulence of the 1960s.
Which brings us back to Scorsese.
In an eerie parallel to what Sheeran and his friends lived, has Scorsese also lived through the final halcyon days, and witnessed first hand the end of a certain era in cinema?
When Marty burst onto the scene in the 1970s, there was a second golden age in American moviemaking. For a brief moment, filmmakers were a prized possession and their voices, ideas, and risks took center stage in the business.
But this wasn’t the case prior to that era, nor has it been since.
When Scorsese laments the changes to movies, he is in part lamenting the disappearance of the extremely rare circumstances that led to his amazingly unique and prolific career.
Almost like a baby boomer wondering what happened to the middle class in America. (Martin Scorsese though is technically OLDER than baby boomers by 2 years, FWIW.)
What they seem to be missing is there wasn’t really one prior to them, and there won’t really be one after them.
Which is where the resentment really comes in.
Behind the scenes of 'Taxi Driver' (1976)
Young filmmakers today, or even ones a little older, don’t get a lot of choices about how many weeks their features will be in theaters. Just like social security might not last until they are the right age to collect it.
Working directors today have to take a stab at the next iteration of a Marvel film, or TV series because that’s what is available to them at the higher levels of the industry.
For many of us, a feature being on a streaming service is a goal. Not a disappointment. A feature showing in a theater is a treat. Not an expectation.
Of course, we are not Martin Scorsese, but part of how we as a culture and an industry got Marty in the first place was due to unique circumstances.
And this applies back to talent on screen, as well. Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci were all part of an explosion of character actor types in leading roles. This is not a pattern that has continued much outside of that unique era.
Wouldn’t it behoove the industry if someone like that was found to play young Frank Sheeran?
That’s part of how we got Robert De Niro.
In my personal opinion, there are hints of hypocrisy in Scorsese’s comments taken alongside the film, but ultimately the movie pushes to do something weird and unique, which will open up more possibilities for filmmakers from a creative standpoint. He is still taking risks, pushing boundaries, and he only can speak to the state of cinema as he understands it and wishes it to be.
This is his reality. It may not be ours. It may not be yours.
What can we do with the tools he’s introduced? What will you do with them? What do you think of it all taken together and do you resent Marty or not?