Martin Scorsese Facts
Born: Queens, New York
Best Known For: Taxi Driver, New York New York, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Mean Streets, The Departed, Casino, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Gangs of New York, The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese is a living cinema legend, known as much for his film preservation as for the gritty gangsters of his action pictures. In 1980, he founded the Film Foundation, restoring nearly 700 films to date. His latest project is this year’s Silence, starring Adam Driver and Liam Neeson as Catholic priests facing persecution in 17th-century Japan in an adaptation of the Shusaku Endo novel. And his '70s-set, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll music-industry miniseries Vinyl, featuring Bobby Canavale, Olivia Wilde, Ray Romano – as a coke-snorting record company exec – and Andrew Dice Clay, kicks off its 10-episode HBO season on Februrary 14.
But the real gem in the Scorsese oeuvre this month is a movie that is as relevant today as it was on the day of its release 40 years ago on February 8, 1976: Taxi Driver.
The film stars De Niro as its troubled Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle, who drives a taxi by night and hopes to save a young prostitute (Jodie Foster) from the New York streets. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture; won the Palme d'Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival; was ranked 52nd on its AFI's “100 Years...100 Movies” (10th Edition) list; and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1994.
Scorsese and Schrader appeared with the cast at the Paris opening of La Cinémathèque Française’s “Martin Scorsese” exhibition last year, describing the grueling shoot on the gritty, mean streets of New York.
Situated prominently in front of the Paris exhibition was an actual Checker cab like the one De Niro drove in Taxi Driver. Scorsese revealed how he settled on the Checker for practical reasons: The sound men would get in the trunk and Scorsese and his cinematographer, Michael Chapman, would crouch on the backseat floor and use available light to shoot.
Fun fact: If it weren't for some uncanny Oscars serendipity, Travis Bickle would have been played by Jeff Bridges.
Schrader explained: "Taxi Driver was as much a product of luck and timing as everything else. It was still a low-budget, long-shot movie, but that's how it got made. At one point we could have got the film financed with Jeff Bridges in the lead, but we elected to hold out and wait until we could finance it with [the newly Oscar-endowed] De Niro."
Scorsese elaborated: "In 1974, De Niro was about to win the Oscar for The Godfather Part II. Ellen Burstyn won an award for my movie Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and Paul had sold The Yakuza to Warner Bros. Michael and Julia Phillips, who owned the Taxi Driver script, had won an Oscar for The Sting and figured they had enough power to get the film made, though in the end, we barely raised the very low budget of $1.3 million. In fact for a while, we even thought of doing it on black-and-white video!"
Scorsese's Partnership with De Niro Hit Its Zenith with Taxi Driver
Scorsese met De Niro through director Brian De Palma, who had worked with the then-20-year-old actor in 1963’s The Wedding Party (released in 1969). Their first collaboration was on 1973’s gangster film Mean Streets, which starred De Niro and frequent Scorsese collaborator Harvey Keitel as small-time New York crooks. It was considered Scorsese’s breakthrough movie and he would go on to make some of his greatest films with De Niro, including Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Cape Fear. (The two have so far made nine films together.)
"You Talkin' to Me?"
Taxi Driver is a masterful nightmare vision of a deranged vigilante's descent into insanity set in a seedy world of New York lowlifes. So that he didn’t have to dress the set, Scorsese filmed during a sweltering summer heat wave and a garbage strike – there was already trash everywhere. A feeling of dread and alienation is heightened by Bernard Herrmann's eerie final score (finished the day he died), which blends a romantic and somewhat sleazy surface with a darker and potentially violent undercurrent.
Among other sources, screenwriter Schrader referenced the diaries of would-be assassin Arthur Bremer, who shot and paralyzed governor George Wallace in 1972.
Taxi Driver was cited by the media as a key influence on John Hinckley Jr.'s assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan March 30, 1981, saying that he was trying to impress Jodie Foster with his action.
To get into the twisted psyche of Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro obtained a cab driver's license, and would drive around New York for a couple of weeks before returning to Rome to resume filming on Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900.
De Niro reportedly lost 35 pounds and listened repeatedly to a taped reading of Arthur Bremer’s diaries. He told an interviewer years later, "There are underground things about yourself that you don't want to discuss. Somehow these things are better expressed on paper or on film."
According to Schrader, the iconic "Are you talking to me" speech was not scripted but improvised by De Niro. At the Paris exhibit the screenwriter commented: "In the script it just says 'Travis speaks to himself in the mirror.' Bobby asked me what he would say, and I said, 'Well, he's a little kid playing with guns and acting tough.' So De Niro used this rap that an underground New York comedian had been using at the same time as the basis for his lines.
(Warning: This and other clips contain strong language)
And while the film has been labeled as an exercise in violence, Scorsese said that that is not the message he intended. "I was shocked by the way the audiences took the violence. I saw Taxi Driver once in a theater and everyone was yelling and screaming at the final shootout. When I made it, I didn't intend to have the audience react with that feeling. Movies don't kill people. People kill people. I do not regret having made Taxi Driver. Nor do I believe it was an irresponsible act – quite the reverse. Bob and I are at one on this."
A longstanding rumor has it that when a Columbia Pictures executive imposed cuts on the film to get in an R rating instead of an X, Scorsese stayed up all night with loaded gun agonizing over a plan to kill the executive (or himself, as variations on the legend go). He decided instead to desaturate the color of the blood in the final scene to merit the R.
Director Scorsese, screenwriter Schrader and leading man De Niro on the set
Martin Scorsese exhibit coming to New York
The Paris exhibit will open in America later this year (Dec. 2016, though exact dates are TBD) at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. Photographs, posters, storyboards, costumes and some of the director’s personal effects are on display to offer visitors the chance to see his inspirations and working methods.
Taxi Driver Storyboards
And finally, here's the director in his own movie:
Image sources: Everett, Cinematheque Francaise