Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on why Raging Bull almost didn't happen
The Tribeca Festival closed out its 2021 edition with a screening of the 1980 classic Raging Bull on Sunday night. Before the screening, director Martin Scorsese and his longtime collaborator Robert De Niro looked back at their Oscar-winning film in a pretaped conversation moderated by Leonardo DiCaprio, who is currently shooting Scorsese's next film Killers of the Flower Moon with De Niro in Oklahoma.
"We just had a terrific time," said De Niro of making the biographical boxing drama (which also stars Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty), adapted from Jake LaMotta's 1970 memoir, Raging Bull: My Story, before going on to praise the director. "Marty is... very easy about stuff, listens, lets you do what you want and if it's wrong — not even wrong — he suggests another way of doing it... Our experience has been special in that we've been able to go all these years and come up with stuff. Sometimes I come up with stuff, sometimes it's ideas Marty has. We've been very fortunate."
Scorsese elaborated on their relationship, saying, "There is trust there, and I think that carried over and was tested and tested through many years."
The duo has been collaborating for more than 50 years, churning out projects like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver in the 1970s, The Irishman in 2019, and the upcoming Apple original Killers of the Flower Moon. But when De Niro first brought the idea of Raging Bull to Scorsese, the filmmaker wasn't convinced — he actually thought boxing was boring.
"Right before, we'd done Taxi Driver, so I was interested in anything he'd present to me, but... I wasn't affected by the book at all," Scorsese said. "Also, nothing against sports, but having had severe asthma and [being] told I couldn't run, I couldn't do this, I couldn't laugh... I was very sheltered and it kept me from any team sports, which is sad in one way, but on the other hand it made me focus on imagination. I went to a lot of movies."
Despite his initial hesitation, and after being hospitalized following a major health scare, Scorsese came around to the idea of making Raging Bull, realizing he could relate to LaMotta's story after all. "I was lost in way, so I had to start all over again," said the director. "It was a rebirth in a way."
Determined to distinguish his film from other boxing movies of the time, Scorsese found new ways of shooting from within the ring. "In a lot of other boxing films, the camera's outside the ring and you see through the ropes," he explained. "I said, 'What if you're in the ring and you're the boxer? How do you see things and hear things?' We stretched time — we had to use some slow motion because some things were so fast — but pretty much all the shots were invented while we were shooting it. The camera was in the fist at one point."
De Niro, who took a gastronomical tour of France and Italy to gain 60 pounds to play an older LaMotta, would go on to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as the troubled boxer. However, while making the movie, both he and Scorsese were unsure if it would be a success. "We didn't know how well it was going to do, but we knew it would be special," said De Niro. "No matter what, it would be special. It just could not not be because of everything we put into it."
Scorsese echoed the sentiment. "We felt good with it," he said. "It wasn't even good or bad — it was experienced. For me, it was a culmination of everything I desired to do, and I made it as if it was pretty much the end of my life… [a] suicide film. I didn't care what happened to it. I didn't care if I made another movie. In a way, it wiped me out, meaning that whole style of filmmaking. I had to start all over again. I had to learn again. Every day on the shoot was like, 'This is the last one, and we're going for it.'"
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