On leave from ''Gangs of New York,'' the director discusses letterboxing, old movies, and ''The Sopranos''

By Troy Patterson
Updated June 21, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Martin Scorsese: Harry Borden/IPG/Matrix

Martin Scorsese has lobbied Congress to protect filmmakers’ rights, coaxed Kodak into creating more durable film stock, and supported the restoration of more classic movies than you can shake a ”Cahiers du Cinema” at. He also directs. Scorsese will release ”Gangs of New York” — an epic about the meanest Manhattan streets of the mid-1800s — in December, so he ought to be busy and anxious: ”Gangs” has been a quarter-century in the planning and, at a reported $90 million, nearly twice as expensive as any picture he’s made before.

But his passion for film history is such that he recently took a day off from editing to hype the Philips wide-screen campaign — an effort to spread the word (apparently not as obvious as a film buff would hope) that home viewers should watch movies as their directors envisioned. We chatted the maestro up about pan-and-scan butchery, his influences, and a certain letterboxed HBO hit.

You didn’t make a wide-screen movie until 1991’s ”Cape Fear,” which you reedited for TV yourself.
Well, anamorphic wide-screen, yeah. [That is, with an extreme aspect ratio of 2.35:1.] I’d wanted to use it from the very first, and I just couldn’t because I knew [the studio] would have to redirect the film for television.

Is there any single example of cropping for TV you find especially barbaric?
The pan-and-scan version of ”2001: A Space Odyssey” is a great calamity. A disgrace. A great sin in a way.

You think of this as a moral issue.
Well, yes…we should have some respect for where we came from and what our culture is.

And yet you grew up watching movies on TV.
A black-and-white 16-inch TV. I saw my first Italian films on TV. I was 5 years old. I saw ”Paisan” and ”Open City” and ”The Bicycle Thief” and ”Shoeshine.” A 5-year-old can’t tell the difference [in composition]; those movies affected me in a whole ‘nother way. They were in Italian. The people in the films were speaking the same language my grandparents and my parents spoke. Yet I was American…I’ve always felt split between Hollywood cinema and European cinema.

You often watch old movies for research when you’re editing. What have you seen for ”Gangs of New York”?
I looked at a [1951] Anthony Mann noir called ”The Tall Target.” It’s about a Pinkerton detective on a train between New York and Baltimore, going to Washington in 1860 or 1861 when Lincoln was just elected, and Lincoln being on a train and being a target for assassination, which is a true story…. [And] 1958’s ”The Big Country.” William Wyler. That picture because of the way he used landscape. And it has one of the most extraordinary one-on-one fight scenes ever in film, between Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck.

Do you watch ”The Sopranos”?
Not really. When it first became famous, I watched like one or two episodes. I can’t — I just find that I dealt with that world in ”Mean Streets” and some of it in ”Raging Bull,” certainly in ”GoodFellas,” and very much in ”Casino,” and I…I don’t know if I can get myself around somebody else’s vision of it. I need to move on.

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