Scorsese once said...
“I never thought about it in terms of money. For me, it was desperation. It had to be done.”
And it is that desperation that transformed a young boy, passionate about filmmaking, into one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
Best Director for The Departed (2007)
Martin Scorsese was born November 17, 1942 in Queens, New York to Charles and Catherine Scorsese, and older brother Frank. Before he began school, the Scorsese family moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in Little Italy. Growing up, Scorsese suffered from asthma, so he was unable to partake in rigorous physical activities with his peers.
Raised Catholic, he filled his spare time either at the church, or going to the movies. Watching the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Powel and Pressburger, and John Ford, Scorsese’s after school activity soon turned into a deep love for cinema, and with that a great respect for the spectacular audio-visual medium of storytelling.
Although he loved cinema, his first career ambition was to join the seminary. He had a mentor who was a Catholic priest, and he served as an inspiration to Scorsese, an image of who he wanted to be in his life. So, at the age of fifteen he enrolled in preparatory school. However, after only one year he was asked to leave. Looking at his mentor, he thought he knew who he wanted to be, but at such a young age he couldn’t quite grasp the level of commitment that went with priesthood, and how the purpose of that life is purely to serve others.
This experience taught him that you can’t do something just because you want to be like someone else. The desire and the passion has to come from within.
And so, applying his mentor’s lessons in a personalized direction, Scorsese made the decision to pursue filmmaking.
After his graduation from an all-boys high school, in 1960 Scorsese officially began his filmmaking journey, attending New York University, pursuing a degree in film communication. While getting a valuable education on navigating the film industry, Scorsese was also greatly inspired by one of his professors, Haig P. Manoogian. Scorsese found himself somewhat overwhelmed by the process and scale of film production, so Manoogian helped to build his confidence and learn to use cinema as a means of self-expression.
While still at NYU Scorsese directed his first two short films What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in This Place? and It’s Just Not You, Murray!, which were both exploring dark themes. One, a psychological thriller about a man’s obsession with a picture of a boat on a lake, which causes him debilitating anxiety, the other a story of a mobster looking back on his life. It’s fascinating how even at such an early stage in his artistic development, he was already so clear about the types of stories he wanted to tell.
The Big Shave (1967) - A Scorsese Short
Not long after, Scorsese came up with an idea for another short film, starring a young Harvey Keitel, originally called Bring on the Dancing Girls. The story was about a young Catholic, Italian-American, J.R. (played by Keitel), and his group of friends living in New York. Two years later, Scorsese had graduated from college and turned this idea into his first feature film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (originally called I Call First). It evolved into more of a psychological drama and romance between J.R. (Keitel) and a girl (played by Zina Bethune). The story documented the ups and downs of their relationship following J.R.’s fluctuating mindset regarding the girl’s virginity and his Catholic sense of morality.
Again, Scorsese was finding his voice and igniting themes in his film that would later become more prominent in his more mainstream productions, and even creating characters that would continue on into his later film Mean Streets.
Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967)
While Who’s That Knocking at My Door didn’t garner Scorsese any widespread acclaim, at the time, it did catch the eyes of film critic Roger Ebert, and more importantly it brought Scorsese to the attention of a group of young filmmakers. Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg brought Scorsese into their clan, a supportive environment that spawned connection and creativity. In fact, it was Scorsese’s friendship with Brian De Palma that led to his meeting Robert De Niro, who would go on to be the star of a number of his films, even dating to 2019 in The Irishman.
Beyond the connections and bond that these men shared, they also had a habit of passing scripts along. That being said, when Paul Schrader wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver, he originally took it to Brian De Palma to direct. But, feeling that the film was more of Marty’s taste, De Palma passed it on, and Scorsese went on to direct one of his most infamous films to date.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Although it brought many great things, rising to fame at an early age ravaged Scorsese, emotionally. Into his thirties he grappled with crippling depression and a cocaine addiction. After a nearly fatal incident, Scorsese found himself on the precipice of death. It was in the hospital, while recovering from internal bleeding, that Robert De Niro showed him the story of Raging Bull. De Niro gave him the opportunity to make a choice.
He could either let the depression and addiction consume him, or he could find himself again and use his inner demons to fuel his storytelling.
So that is what he did. And he went on to make an Academy Award winning film, with Robert De Niro winning for Best Actor and Thelma Schoonmaker for Best Film Editing.
Raging Bull (1980)
Over the course of fifty four years, Martin Scorsese has directed twenty five feature films, and counting, films which have procured twenty Oscar wins in total. I think it’s safe to say that Scorsese is going to go down in history as one of the greats. But, that’s not to say he didn’t have his struggles.
The psychological torment that he dealt with almost cost him his life, but he didn’t let it overcome him.
Instead, he channeled his pain and suffering into his stories.
He found stories that resonated within him and he made them not for fame or fortune, but in order to satisfy a deep desperation. It’s not to say you can’t be a filmmaker without that quality, but I do think that desperation to tell a story is the key to movie magic.
Don’t tell stories that you think people want to hear. Find a story that is compelling to you and that you have to tell. Let yourself have so much passion for a story that it makes your stomach hurt, or it feeds the fire in your soul and makes it feel like it’s going to explode.
Channel that fiery passion and make your movie, because that is the story that the world needs to hear.
Follow Hannah on Instagram: @hannahwagner3932
Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.