Martin Scorsese’s Masterclass: Martin Scorsese Teaches Filmmaking
I’ve been a fan of Martin Scorsese since the television show, Amazing Stories, and the episode he directed, Mirror, Mirror. It’s a short piece about a horror writer that claims (on television) to never be scared; then sees a phantasm only visible to himself in the mirror intent — he believes — upon killing him. Initially set in his modern, chrome-on-white decorated home, the shadows soon lengthen and deepen to keep pace with not-so-gradual descent into madness.
This is my takeaway, my gift from Mr. Scorsese.
“So if you are intrigued by movie making as a career, this isn’t the class for you. But if you need to make movies — a movie — if you feel like you can’t rest until you’ve told this particular story that you’re burning to tell in moving images and sounds, then I could be speaking to you … I’m going to give you some practical advice along the way, but the most important thing I can convey to you is that you always have to find your own way.”
My biggest challenge in writing for this Masterclass was remembering to stop and take notes — I was captivated by Mr. Scorsese and found myself enthralled. He is a wise man, with a razor-sharp memory — he recounts the smallest details from his childhood, quotes and expands on Socratic Method, tosses out a plethora of names of people he has worked with, effortlessly recalls the details that first captured his attention in a film from years ago. His stories are engaging, entertaining, and he has very little issue with chuckling on-camera if he finds something amusing. He is down-to-earth, practical, and his creative passion for his work and the history of cinema is right there for all to see.
“The point is that the creativity with cinema, like any real art form, is you really should know the old work that has gone before, the old masters. And I do think you should know it, meaning you should be exposed to it. You should see and experience them, as best you can. Do not look at them to learn from them. Look at them to see if it speaks to you, if you’re interested at all, if you’re curious. It’s not a matter of, I’m going to learn something from watching all the Max Ophuls. I’m going to learn — it’s a matter of your response to it. You’re aware that that is out there. You’re aware that’s part of the medium you are using. And so, in a way, even if you reject it, you have to know what you’re rejecting, I think. And it’s to learn from the old masters… So all of this is about understanding the value of cinema itself and recreating it constantly, recreating constantly from yourself, okay?”
Some time is devoted to his childhood, and the beginnings of his love for film, and continues on with his own education at NYU and how they began to make films.
“The filmmaking that I tried to do, particularly when I first started out, was stories that came from my own experience, or subject matters that interested me only, or solely, I should say. And that slowly developed into other projects or stories — scripts, even — that I was able to work with interests or concepts from other writers. But primarily, really the story has to come from me.”
In one lesson, Mr. Scorsese describes how he essentially wrote storyboards as a child, then tried to explain them to his friends. They complained that they were incomplete, that they jumped. He didn’t have words to express at that time that the action was taking place between these shots and that you had to imagine the work produced by equipment that wasn’t there. It wasn’t until many years later that he got his hands on that equipment, got to work with and experience that trial and error that so often happens.
“I wanted to see what that equipment gives me, but I still have to direct the equipment and know what the equipment is capable of and what I can use it for. So this is a very important point… The shot is a value in and of itself. No matter what you shot it for, it may not matter. It may not matter ultimately. It takes on its own life. It takes on its own intention, and it takes on its own essence in a way. And this is something that you can’t teach. You have to just do it.”
Mr. Scorsese talks at length about color, and the impact it had on him growing up, watching the progression from black and white to three-color and so on. He learns to use it to create drama, which I think is most aptly expressed (in brief form) in Michael Jackson’s music video Bad, which Mr. Scorcese directed.
Several lessons are devoted to walking the viewer through his progression in learning what worked and what didn’t, and along the way, he consistently emphasizes that if you have this passion to tell this story, you find a way.
“And so this is something I think can be, if not learned, can coexist with the necessity of making the film. You deal with it. You — if you don’t know something, ask. Try it. You know, learn as much — you may forget it afterward, but you learn a little bit each time a little more. But it’s something that shouldn’t stop you. If there are certain elements of the actual production, or how to get an image on screen or how to tell a story, you’ll find your way through.”
He credits the audience as a teaching medium, as well as a major motivator to do good and thorough research on a subject, but warns not to get too hung up on the ‘rules’ or the tangents that research can lead you off on.
“The rules of the world of the picture reveal themselves as you develop it. So your research into the way of life for the period, or the particular customs and habits of a particular part of the world, are going to be something that you must feel comfortable with, something that you can rely on, something that gives you the bedrock of the picture. But again, it’s really important not to let the research lead you away from what sparked you making the film in the first place.”
Mr. Scorsese recounts needing to find a balance between pure research and the instinct of actors as well. When the right actor is found for a part, he has found that they can give an unexpected dimension to a character and that their contributions can be critical to the success of a film.
“And I always say that casting is 85% to 90% of the picture for me. So all of you who are just starting out, I want to repeat, again, insist on what you want. And don’t settle for close enough or second best. And don’t imagine there’s a shortcut. It’s meeting the people, spending time with them, talking with them, then putting them together with the other actors. That’s a key thing. And see how the other actors respond.”
And then that chemistry is there, he encourages directors to let things often evolve from spontaneity, if the time can be afforded. Some of his most memorable work, he says, comes from the most unusual happenstances, and even if it takes a while to get there.
“Sometimes you think something is dreadfully wrong and later when you look at it in the context of a cut, it might work. There are things I know don’t work immediately, but you shoot them. You just shoot them, because it’s a process for the actor to go through that.”
And that didn’t only apply to work with actors. Often, the same rules applied to a specific location and advised to take the challenges head-on as positively as possible.
“This happens a great deal — constantly being surprised by the actual location itself and the limitations. Then you have to figure out how the limitations can become advantages, become something else. So it’s always best — if you’re not building a set — to go to a location and spend time there. The only important thing, the only thing that really matters, is what it’s going to look like on the screen.”
And once you have something to put on the screen, what then? How do you promote it? How to make sure it is seen and acknowledged? I found his anecdotes amusing and was surprised at what he sometimes had to go through to get his work known.
“You had to let the audience know that the picture is out there, so you find that particularly at that time, you could have input in the trailers, coming attractions. You certainly could have input in the posters, in the publicity campaign. You’ve got to be part of all of it… So the key is you have to let people — if you want people to see it, you’ve got to let them know it’s there.”
Mr. Scorsese’s best advice on how to know if making films is what you should be doing and how you should do it, delivered in his own tongue-in-cheek:
“So there are different ways to — everybody has a different process. Ultimately, though, you do have to look at it when it’s finished, or you think it’s finished, and it’s never finished, right? It’s never finished.”
Martin Scorsese’s Masterclass: Martin Scorsese Teaches Filmmaking is comprised of 30 lessons that span over 4.5 hours and includes workbooks to download in pdf format.
Martin Scorsese is an award-winning filmmaker that has been working in the industry for over 60 years. His credits include feature films such as: The Wolf of Wall Street, Hugo, The Departed, The Aviator, Gangs of New York, Casino, The Age of Innocence, Cape Fear, The Grifters, Goodfellas, New York Stories, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Color of Money, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver. His documentaries include: The 50 Year Argument, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Public Speaking, A Letter to Elia, Shine a Light, Life Itself, Surviving Progress, Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies, Lightning in a Bottle, Lady by the Sea: The Statue of Liberty, The Soul of a Man, Michael Jackson: Number Ones, and The Last Waltz. He has also produced and/or directed a number of TV shows, including Vinyl, Boardwalk Empire, The Blues, and Amazing Stories.