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Martin Scorsese is a fighter: Battles with cocaine, death threats"¦ and Liza Minelli?

by Adam Horowitz

I've been reading Peter Biskind's scrumptious chronicle of 1970s Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and one thing I've learned is that even in that wonderfully liberated climate - with the old studio system collapsing and hippie visionaries seizing power - becoming a successful filmmaker and then staying a successful filmmaker was as hard as ever. A great case in point: Martin Scorsese.

Today the bushy-eyebrowed maestro is in his fourth decade directing, having long proven himself as one of our greatest filmmakers. But Scorsese's rookie years were no cakewalk. Beset with obstacles of all kinds (some of his own making), it's a credit to his determination that he was able to overcome them. The following are 9 things young Marty the dreamer had to contend with.

Coke smuggling, conflict with the Manson family and 7 more after the jump...

Battle #1: Extreme Asthma

content01.jpgScorsese has suffered from chronic asthma ever since he was a boy, but it worsened considerably when he moved from New York to L.A. in 1971. The effects were debilitating: he was in and out of the hospital continuously; he couldn't step foot in a room if someone inside it was smoking; he was forced to keep an oxygen tank by his bed. Worse still, he was prescribed cortisone that made his body blow up (it made him so embarrassed that he'd remain fully dressed on the sand while all his friends skinny-dipped). He also had to take constant puffs from an inhaler which affected him like speed "“ he'd rattle on relentlessly about movies to anyone who'd listen.
Describing his situation, he says, "I never really got much sleep at night because of waking up coughing. I had mounds of tissues around the bed in the morning. By the time I got past an attack in the middle of the night, I took an asthma pill and fell into a really deep, peaceful sleep, it was time to get up again. So I was a little cranky, never quite all there. Wherever I went, I was always late."

Battle #2: A fear of 11s (and the pouch of charms around his neck?)

B0005ZVGH6.01-A3CDPEGSIQM61V._AA280_SCLZZZZZZZ_.jpgDuring the 70s, Scorsese had a panoply of phobias and superstitions, some rooted in his intense Catholic upbringing, others sprung out of his own tortured psyche. He was terrified of flying and would always clench a crucifix in his fist during takeoff. His unlucky number was 11, which meant he wouldn't travel on the 11th, he wouldn't take flights whose digits added up to 11, and he wouldn't take a room on the 11th floor of a hotel. He also carried a gold amulet to ward off evil spirits and he wore a pouch around his neck filled with lucky charms.

Battle #3: Lack of confidence in his work

After high school, Scorsese went to the seminary to study for the priesthood, but soon decided to follow his true passion, enrolling in the film program at NYU. The two movies he felt most inspired by were Citizen Kane and Shadows (John Cassavetes's landmark independent film). After struggling for four years to complete his first feature, Who's That Knocking at My Door? (financed in large part by his dad, and starring a young Harvey Keitel who was working as a court stenographer at the time), Scorsese didn't know how well the movie would be received or who might see it. One of his friends arranged for Cassavetes himself to take a look at it. Amazingly, the legendary director loved it: "This movie is as good as Citizen Kane. No, it's better than Citizen Kane, it's got more heart." When Scorsese heard the praise he almost fainted.

Battle #4: Lack of confidence with women

180px-Scors_2.jpgScorsese, never considered an Adonis by any measure, always felt insecure around women. Even when he became famous, that just seemed to make things more complicated for him. His friend Mardik Martin described his curious predicament: "He had to be "˜Martin Scorsese' for him to deal with a woman, but then he worried she would only like him because he was "˜Martin Scorsese.'" A catch-22, indeed. Scorsese probably would've benefited by meeting more women with taste like that of his second wife Sandy Weintraub. Describing her first glimpse of Scorsese, she says, "I thought Marty was just the cutest thing I had ever seen. He was chubby and he had long hair and no neck, and was shorter than me." She immediately approached him and asked him out to dinner.

Battle #5: The Censorship Board

The ending of Scorsese's brilliant 1976 film Taxi Driver is very violent and bloody; in one shot, a man gets his fingers blown off in full visual detail. Afraid that the picture would be dealt an X rating, Columbia Pictures wanted Scorsese to revise the ending completely, to cut out all the violence. Scorsese was enraged at the suggestion.

Afraid that the executives would seize the print, he locked it in the trunk of his car and snuck it off the lot.

Eventually he agreed to cut a few frames of blood spray, but more significantly, he suggested desaturating the colors in the scene, making the blood look a little less red. The ratings board was satisfied with this and awarded the film an R. Ironically, Scorsese was very happy with the desaturation, it was something he always wanted to try. He felt that with the colors muted the scene became even more shocking!

Battle #6: Death threats

250px-Taxi_Driver_still_3.jpgTaxi Driver was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and Jodie Foster for Best Supporting Actress. Before the Awards, Scorsese received a death threat stating that if "little Jodie" were to win "for what you made her do in Taxi Driver" Scorsese would pay with his life. As it turned out, "little Jodie" didn't win and no attempt on Scorsese's life was made. But several years later, when John Hinckley, Jr., was arrested for attempting to assassinate President Reagan "“ his crazy motive being to impress Jodie Foster - many became convinced that it was Hinckley who'd sent that death threat to Scorsese four years prior. Incredibly, at the same time, Scorsese was also receiving death threats from members of the Manson family after he was asked to play Charles Manson in a made-for-TV movie. (He declined the offer.)

Battle #7: Cocaine and its emotional toll

cocaine-addiction.jpgShortly after Taxi Driver opened, Scorsese started getting heavy into drugs, mostly cocaine (but also Quaaludes and alcohol, to help him come down from the coke). He initially used cocaine as a creative tool, but he quickly realized the drawbacks this presented. "At first you felt like you could make five films at once. And then you wound up spending four days in bed every week because you were exhausted and your body couldn't take it."

But soon addiction took over and there was no looking back. At the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, while giving interview after interview, Scorsese ran out of cocaine and found it impossible to continue.

"No more coke, no more interviews," he declared. Unable to score in Cannes, he quickly dispatched a private plane to Paris

to bring back a new supply. Meanwhile, Scorsese's personality was transforming for the worst. "I was always angry, throwing glasses, provoking people, really unpleasant to be around," he recalls. "I always found, no matter what anybody said, something to take offense at. I'd be the host, but at some point during the evening I'd flip out, just like when I'm shooting." As one might expect, he began to alienate some of those closest to him.

Battle #8: Cocaine and the physical toll

Scorsese describes the above period as a two-year abyss from which he barely came out alive. He makes no bones about it: it was about self-destruction. In his words: "It was a matter of pushing the envelope, of being bad, seeing how much you can do. Embracing a way of life to its limit. I did a lot of drugs because I wanted to do a lot. I wanted to push all the way to the very very end and see if I could die." He almost got his wish that August when he and his friends were sold some "bad coke." It interacted with his asthma medication and other prescription pills, and caused him massive internal bleeding. This was his wake-up call, and thankfully he heard it and went straight. (Interestingly, Scorsese says that gaining this insight into his own self-destructive tendencies enabled him to make his next masterpiece Raging Bull.)

Battle #9: Scorsese's battle with fidelity

a_Liza-Minnelli-02.jpgOne of the movies Scorsese worked on during his coke-fueled period was New York, New York, a musical starring Liza Minelli. Minelli was also struggling with drugs at the time and even though they were both married Scorsese and she carried on an open affair with one another during the production. What's more, Minelli at the same time was carrying on an affair with Mikhail Baryshnikov as well! For Scorsese, of course, all this didn't matter much. "I was making love to different women," he says, "but I didn't find that very interesting." As we already know, his true love was movies.

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11 Magical Facts About Willow
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Five years after the release of Return of the Jedi (1983) and four years after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), George Lucas gave audiences the story for another film about an unlikely hero on an epic journey, but this time he had three Magic Acorns and a taller friend instead of a whip and gun to help him along. Willow (1988) was directed by Ron Howard and starred former Ewok and future Leprechaun, Warwick Davis.

Over the past few decades, Willow—which was released 30 years ago today—has become a cult classic that's been passed down from generation to generation. Before you sit down to explore that world again (or for the first time), here are 11 things you might not have know about Willow.

1. IT WAS WRITTEN FOR WARWICK DAVIS.

In an interview with The A.V. Club, Warwick Davis revealed that George Lucas first mentioned the idea for the film to Davis’s mother during the filming of one of the Ewok TV specials in 1983, in which he was reprising his role as Wicket. Lucas had been developing the idea for more than a decade at that point, but working with Davis on Return of the Jedi helped him realize the vision. “George just simply said that he had this idea, and he was writing this story, with me in mind,” Davis said. “He didn't say at that time that it was going to be called Willow. He said, 'It's not for quite yet; it's for a few years ahead, when Warwick is a bit older.'" The role was Davis’s first time not wearing a mask or costume on screen.

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED MUNCHKINS.

Five years after he mentioned the idea, Lucas was ready to make his film with Ron Howard directing and a then-17-year-old Davis as the lead. The original title was presumably inspired by the characters from L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the subsequent Victor Fleming film.

3. IT WAS CRITICIZED FOR BEING A COPY OF STAR WARS.

Having thought of the two worlds simultaneously, Lucas may have cribbed some of his own work and other well-known stories a little too much for Willow, and some critics noticed. “Without anything like [Star Wars’s] eager, enthusiastic tone, and indeed with an understandable weariness, Willow recapitulates images from Snow White, The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver's Travels, Mad Max, Peter Pan, Star Wars itself, The Hobbit saga, Japanese monster films of the 1950s, the Bible, and a million fairy tales," wrote Janet Maslin of The New York Times. "One tiny figure combines the best attributes of Tinkerbell, the Good Witch Glinda, and the White Rock Girl.”

Later in her review, Maslin continued to point out the similarities between the two films: “When the sorcerer tells Willow to follow his heart, he becomes the Obi-Wan Kenobi of a film that also has its Darth Vader, R2-D2, C-3P0 and Princess Leia stand-ins. Much energy has gone into the creation of their names, some of which (General Kael) have recognizable sources and others (Burglekutt, Cherlindrea, Airk) have only tongue-twisting in mind. Not even the names have anything like Star Wars-level staying power.”

4. IT WAS THE LARGEST CASTING CALL FOR LITTLE PEOPLE IN MOVIE HISTORY.

Lucas has previously cast several little people for roles in Return of the Jedi, and there were more than 100 actors hired to portray Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. But, according to Davis, the casting call for Willow was the largest ever at the time with between 225 and 240 actors hired for the film.

5. THE DEATH DOGS WERE REAL DOGS IN COSTUME.

The big bad in the film, Bavmorda, has demon dogs that terrorize Willow’s village. The dogs are more boar-like than canine, but they were portrayed by Rottweilers. The prop team outfitted the dogs with rubber masks and used animatronic heads for close-up scenes.

6. IT WAS THE FIRST USE OF MORPHING IN A FILM.

While trying to use magic to turn an animal back into a human, Willow fails several times before eventually getting it right, but he does succeed in turning the animal into another animal, which is shown in stages. To achieve this, the visual effects teamed used a technique known as "morphing."

The film’s visual effects supervisor, Dennis Muren of Industrial Light & Magic, explained the technique to The Telegraph:

The way things had been up till that time, if a character had to change at some way from a dog into a person or something like that it could be done with a series of mechanical props. You would have to cut away to a person watching it, and then cut back to another prop which is pushing the ears out, for example, so it didn't look fake ... we shot five different pieces of film, of a goat, an ostrich, a tiger, a tortoise, and a woman and had one actually change into the shape of the other one without having to cut away. The technique is much more realistic because the cuts are done for dramatic reasons, rather than to stop it from looking bad.”

7. THE STORY WAS CONTINUED IN SEVERAL NOVELS.

Willow has yet to receive a sequel, but fans of the story can return to the world in a trilogy of books that author Chris Claremont wrote in collaboration with Lucas between 1995 and 2000. According to the Amazon synopsis of Shadow Moon, the first book picks up 13 years after the events of the film, and baby Elora Danan’s friendless upbringing has turned her into a “spoiled brat who seemingly takes joy in making miserable the lives around her. The fate of the Great Realms rests in her hands, and she couldn't care less. Only a stranger can lead her to her destiny.”

8. THERE IS A MISSING SCENE CONCERNING THE MAGIC ACORNS.

Hardcore fans of the film have noticed that there is a continuity error that involves the Magic Acorns Willow was given by the High Aldwin. During an interview with The Empire Podcast, Davis explained that in a scene near the end of the film, he throws a second acorn and is inexplicably out after having only used two of the three Magic Acorns he had been given earlier in the film. Included in the Blu-ray release is the cut scene, in which Willow uses an acorn (his second) in a boat during a storm and accidentally turns the boat to stone. Davis says that his hair is wet in the next scene that did make it into the original version of the film, but the acorn is never referenced.

9. JOHN CUSACK AUDITIONED FOR THE PART OF MADMARTIGAN.

Val Kilmer in 'Willow' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Val Kilmer famously played the role of the reluctant hero two years after played Iceman in Top Gun (1986), but he was not the only big name to audition for the role. Davis revealed in a commentary track that he once read with John Cusack, who in 1987 had already starred in Sixteen Candles (1984), Stand by Me (1986), and Hot Pursuit (1987).

10. THERE IS A NOD TO SISKEL AND EBERT.

During a battle scene later in the film, Willow and his compatriots have to fight a two-headed beast outside of the castle. The name of the stop motion beast is the Eborsisk, which is a combination of the names of famed film critics, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

11. THE BABY NEVER ACTED AGAIN.

A scene from 'Willow' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

As is the case with most shows and films, the role of the baby Elora was played by twins, in this case Kate and Ruth Greenfield. The IMDb pages for both actresses only has the one credit. In 2007, Davis shared a picture of him posing with a woman named Laura Hopkirk, who said that she played the baby for the scenes shot in New Zealand, but she is not credited online.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images

Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
Getty Images

Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
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To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
Getty Images

During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
Getty Images

David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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