NEW YORK (AP) _ It’s back to the ‘hood infested with hoodslums for Martin Scorsese. This time, the neighbourhood is South Boston, and the hoodlums are Irish-Americans.
But "The Departed" may seem like anything but a departure for the filmmaker who’s always been best in gritty urban settings with dodgy denizens ("Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas"). That’s why Scorsese says he had a "love-hate relationship" with his latest picture, "finding myself sucked into it … and kicking at it at the same time, getting angry, because I’ve been there. But then, that forced me to go deeper."
"I wasn’t wholehearted about it at first," he told The Associated Press. "It was a slow process of really thinking about: Could I try it? What would I do that would be different? Why should I go back to do a genre that I’ve done many times?"
Finally, he was won over by William Monahan’s script. "There’s a sense of despair, there’s a sense of a kinda post-Sept. 11 despair about the film, which is very interesting, countered by this extraordinary humour. And primarily it’s all about loyalty and betrayal _ every scene is about loyalty and betrayal. And they’re all lying. And their lives depend on it. Their lives depend on it!"
The powerful cast is led by Jack Nicholson as psychopathic crime boss Frank Costello (a character inspired by fugitive mobster Whitey Bulger, who’s on the FBI’s 10 "most wanted" list _ his photo right below Osama bin Laden’s on the agency’s website). Matt Damon co-stars as the boy who Costello virtually raised and becomes a mole in the Massachusetts State Police; Leonardo DiCaprio plays an undercover cop who infiltrates Costello’s crew. Supporting actors include Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen, all as state police officials.
Moral conflicts abound, which fascinates the director who once pondered the priesthood. "Look at the world today. Even more so now, we don’t know who’s telling the truth about anything. I mean, the man next to you could be ready to kill you," Scorsese says. Long before terrorists and real or imagined WMDs forced their way into our consciousness, Scorsese’s interest in ethical conundrums developed while growing up in New York’s Little Italy.
"It comes from a loyalty, first of all to your family, immediate family, then a loyalty to friends _ and hopefully their loyalty to you," he says, recalling how his father would return from work in the garment district and tell the "worst stories" about disloyalty. "The worst thing that could befall a person was that a friend turns on you, or a family member who you love … turning on you."
Even though his parents weren’t big on reading, he dipped into the work of the ancient Greeks, Euripides and Aeschylus, who focused on the characters’ inner lives and motives. Among the ways Scorsese went "deeper" in his newest film was letting Nicholson improvise, leaving DiCaprio to react to things he didn’t know were coming. That helped with backstory and character development.
"I also wanted to keep layering the film with more subtext, more subtext," he says, even down to a small allusion like having John Ford’s "The Informer" playing on the television in one scene and hearing "Frankie, Frankie, your mother forgives me."
"Well, nobody gets forgiven in this one. Nobody!" Scorsese says.
"Good doesn’t exist anymore," he adds, "so there’s not any sinning. They’re not even sinning. So what can be forgiven? … Because everything is like Moral Ground Zero."
Scorsese says he wanted "the Costello character to really permeate the whole picture" _ and he indeed casts a huge shadow as Nicholson offers a deliciously vicious villain. In the beginning of the movie, Costello says: "I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me." Which sounds a lot like a movie director _ but not Scorsese.
"You can’t control to the point where there’s no life in it _ for me, for my films. There are other filmmakers who approach things very, very differently. I spoke recently to Hong Sang-soo, the South Korean filmmaker, who pointed out that he writes a 30-page treatment and in the morning before he shoots the scene he writes the dialogue," he says, sounding intrigued by that approach. "In any event, you try to control the environment. But the problem is, I learned early on … you have to let it go. And sometimes I don’t know where it’s gonna go."
Scorsese takes in stride the oft-talked about fact that he’s never won an Oscar after five directing nominations (two for screenwriting).
"I guess it’s all right. I’m disappointed of course. But you don’t make pictures to win Oscars."
He always maintained that his movies don’t lend themselves to Oscar sweeps. But his actors reap lots of nominations from his movies _ surprisingly, especially for those who think of Scorsese as the Auteur of Manly Man Cinema, more women than men: 11 (including Cathy Moriarty, Lorraine Bracco, Juliette Lewis, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Diane Ladd, Jodie Foster, Sharon Stone and Winona Rider). At least five of his actors have gotten Oscar nods (including DiCaprio and Alan Alda) and three have won (De Niro, Paul Newman and Joe Pesci) while two women have taken home a statuette (Ellen Burstyn for best actress in "Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore" and Cate Blanchett for "The Aviator").
"I didn’t feel so bad in the ’70s because, I mean, ‘Taxi Driver’ is a tough movie and ‘Raging Bull’ was a tough one. I didn’t expect those films to be up for Academy nominations. I was pleased that it just got there _ because it meant I could get other pictures to make and that there were people taking me seriously in Los Angeles and wanted to make movies with me. It was a little hard with ‘Goodfellas,’ even because my parents wanted me to have it so badly. But, eh, this is life. So that’s it; let’s just move on and continue making the films that we want to make and maybe something will hit. But you don’t make it for the Academy." And who knows? Maybe Scorsese, who turns 64 on Nov. 17, will peak in his 70s, like Clint Eastwood.
"The past 10 years he’s done the best work. I mean, I look to him as an inspiration," Scorsese says. "Kurosawa worked till he was 82, 84 years old.