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Scorsese & De Niro, Together Again

On one fateful night in the early ‘70s, Martin Scorsese met Robert De Niro at a party. That casual encounter would lead to one of modern film’s most enduring collaborations. Scorsese’s girlfriend at the time, Sandra Weintraub, recalled that the two friends were notoriously private from the beginning. “What they did together, they did in private. Definitely no women allowed.”

When Scorsese was ready to direct Mean Streets, the script he’d written in film school, he cast De Niro in the lead role. One night, after a screening of a rough cut, Scorsese, De Niro, Sandra Weintraub and a few others went out to dinner for what Weintraub assumed would be a group discussion of the film. However, as she later reported, De Niro and Scorsese disappeared into the men’s room for two and a half hours and hashed it out between themselves.

Their collaboration on Mean Streets (1973) attracted the critical
acclaim and national attention that launched Scorsese’s career, and
after he directed Ellen Burstyn to a Best Actress Oscar in Alice
Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), he reunited with De Niro for Taxi
Driver (1976), which elevated both Scorsese and De Niro to legend
status. But after the critical failure of New York, New York (1977),
combined with a failed marriage and drug problems, Scorsese became
depressed and physically ill.

Then Robert De Niro approached Scorsese about making a movie from the
memoir of boxer Jake LaMotta. As Scorsese recalled, “I was in the
hospital on Labor Day weekend in 1978, and De Niro came to visit me and
he said, ‘You know, we can make this picture.’ I was in pretty bad
shape, but I found myself saying, ‘Yeah.’” In fact, Scorsese has
credited De Niro with saving his life by insisting that he make Raging
Bull. Fortunately, Raging Bull (1980) earned Scorsese his first Academy
Award nomination, which gave Scorsese the confidence make The King of
Comedy (1983). Scorsese spent the rest of the ‘80s working with other
actors, but he reunited with De Niro for 1990’s Goodfellas, and the
energy of their reunion catapulted them forward into making Cape Fear
in 1991.

Scorsese has a real respect for De Niro’s acting talents. “I always say
to actors, ‘The hardest thing you can do in a movie is sit down and
talk to somebody,’” said the director. “Yelling and ranting and raving,
sometimes that’s very easy to do. The real communication between two
people, the subtlety… I think Brando and De Niro broke through there.
They made realism a virtue. Brando created that style, and De Niro
moves ahead with it. They have emotional depth – they’re not just
walking through a scene having their faces photographed.”

“Bob and I have known each other for a long time now, so there’s a kind
of shorthand between us,” Scorsese said. “The guiding is done way, way
before we get on the set. We do some rehearsals, but not that much.
With Bob, it happens a lot in costuming, in trying on clothes. We just
hang around. We start talking. He feels one thing, and he puts on a
shirt or puts on a pair of pants. Those become our character
discussions. On the set, we’ll talk in the morning in the trailer,
sometimes not even about what we are going to shoot. It’s a preparation
that works.”

Scorsese’s favorite editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, has had a unique
opportunity to watch the two filmmakers working together throughout
their careers. “When Marty and Bob work together, they don’t want
anybody near, because they experiment so much – they sort of think
that’s embarrassing,” Schoonmaker revealed. “I think just because they
like that absolute freedom to say whatever they want to each together,
they don’t want to have to worry that somebody may overhear them and
misunderstand them. You know what I mean? So I think it’s just as
simple as that. It’s funny because listening to any of their
conversations would be valuable, you can be sure. But they just prefer
to have that absolute freedom, that they don’t have to worry about
whatever they say.”

Scorsese understands that the intimacy between himself and De Niro can
alienate others, but he defends it as absolutely necessary. “The best
collaborations I had in my life were with De Niro,” Scorsese said. “A
lot of people don’t understand when I say, ‘Please leave the set.’
‘What’s this? Genius at work?’ No – it’s distracting. Some of the stuff
I used to do with Bob was so personal, and, for the actor, so painful,
that the only way he could do it was with me, and nobody else,
watching. He could make some mistakes. And very often those mistakes
wouldn’t be mistakes at all. It’s the searching process. Intimacy and
trust is the thing.”

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese got back together once more after
Cape Fear to make 1995’s Casino, but since then they haven’t worked
with each other in over a decade. However, they will be putting their
bond of trust to the test again soon for 2008’s Frankie Machine, in
which De Niro will star as a retired mob hit man who gets lured back
into his old profession.

Peter Biskind, “Slouching Toward Hollywood,” Premiere, 11/91
Chris Hodenfield, “You’ve Got To Love Something Enough to Kill It: The Art of Non-Compromise,” American Film, 3/89
Graham Fuller, “Martin Scorsese,” Interview, 11/91
Ian Christie & David Thompson, Scorsese on Scorsese, Faber & Faber, 2003
David Morgan, “Interview  With Thelma Schoonmaker,” Millimeter, 1991

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