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.

Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
10 Monster Facts About Pacific Rim
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Legendary Pictures took a gamble on Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 monster/robot slugfest. Since it wasn’t based on a preexisting franchise, it lacked a built-in fanbase. That can be a serious drawback in our current age of blockbuster remakes and reboots. The movie underperformed domestically; in America, it grossed just over $100 million against its $180 million budget. Yet Pacific Rim was a huge hit overseas and acquired enough fans to earn itself a sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising, which arrives in theaters this week. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the movie that started it all.


Idris Elba in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Warner Bros.

One foggy day in 2007, Beacham—who’d recently moved to California—was walking along Santa Monica Beach. As he looked out at the Ferris wheel on the city’s eponymous pier, he pictured a looming sea monster. Then he imagined an equally large robot gearing up to fight the beast. “They just sort of materialized out of the fog, these vast godlike things,” Beacham said. He decided to pursue the concept further after coming up with the idea of human co-pilots who’d need to operate their robot as a team, which added a new thematic dimension.

“I didn’t know I had something I wanted to write until I realized these robots are driven by two pilots, and what happens when one of those people dies? What happens to the leftovers? Then it became a story about loss, moving on after loss, and dealing with survivor’s guilt," Beacham said. "That made the monsters scarier because now you care about the people who are in these robots.”


Pacific Rim was picked up by Legendary Pictures and handed over to director Guillermo del Toro. A huge fan of monster cinema, del Toro enthusiastically co-wrote the final screenplay with Beacham. Sixteen concept artists were hired to sketch original robot and creature designs for the film. “We would get together every day like kids and draw all day,” del Toro told the New York Daily News. “We designed about a hundred Kaijus and about a hundred Jaegers and every week we would do an American Idol and we would vote [some of] them out.”


In “Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats,” the tenth episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's sixth season, Charlie Day’s character gives us a darkly comedic monologue about rodent extermination. Little did the actor know that the performance would open a big opportunity for him. Impressed by the rat speech, del Toro offered Day the part of Dr. Newton Geizler, Pacific Rim’s socially-inept kaiju expert. “He said to himself, ‘That’s my guy. That guy should be in my next movie because if he killed rats, he can kill the monster,’” Day recalled during an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. On the movie set, del Toro often joked about how much he enjoys It’s Always Sunny. As a way of repaying his director, Day helped get del Toro a minor role in the series.


Most of the film’s special effects were computer-generated, but not everything was digital. For the robot cockpit scenes, del Toro had his team build the interior of a full-scale Jaeger head. The finished product stood four stories tall and weighed 20 tons. And like a Tilt-A-Whirl from hell, it was designed to rock around violently on its platform via a network of hydraulics. Once inside, the actors were forced to don 40-pound suits of armor. Then the crew strapped their feet into an apparatus that Charlie Hunnam has compared to a high-resistance elliptical machine.

Certain shots also required del Toro to dump gallons of water all over his exhausted, physically-strained stars. So yeah, the experience wasn’t much fun. “We saw every one of the actors break down on that set except for the female lead actress Rinko Kikuchi," del Toro said. "She’s the only actor that didn’t snap."


Del Toro wanted Gipsy Danger, his ‘bot, to have the self-confident air of a wild west gunslinger. To that end, he and concept artist Oscar Chichoni developed a swaggering gait that was based on John Wayne’s signature hip movements. The Jaeger’s Art Deco-like design was influenced by the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.


Hailed as the “fortieth greatest guitarist of all time” by Rolling Stone, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello rocked the MTV generation with hits like “Bulls on Parade” and “Killing in the Name.” Pacific Rim bears his mark as well. The film’s lead composer was Ramin Djawadi, whose other works include the Game of Thrones theme. Wanting to add a “rock element” to the Pacific Rim soundtrack, he and del Toro reached out to Morello. The guitarist didn’t need much persuading.

“When they asked me to put some giant robot riffs and screaming underwater monster licks on the film score, I was all in,” Morello said. Djwadi was pleased with the rocker's contributions to the project. As he told the press: “Tom’s unique style and sounds really defined our robots.”


A definite highlight of this movie is Gipsy Danger’s duel with the winged kaiju Otachi in downtown Hong Kong. Both characters were computer-generated, as were the majority of the streets, cars, and towers in this epic sequence. However, there is one moment which was at least partly realized with practical effects. Gipsy punches through the wall of an office building early in the fight. We see her fist rip through a series of cubicles and gradually decelerate until it lightly taps a chair with just enough force to set off a Newton’s Cradle desktop toy. For that shot, effects artists at 32Ten Studios constructed a miniature office building interior featuring 1/4-scale desks, cubicles, and padded chairs. The level of detail here was amazing: 32Ten’s staff adorned each individual workspace with lamps, computers, wastebaskets, and teeny, tiny Post-it notes.


Rinko Kikuchi in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Audiences reacted strongly to Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori, who inspired an alternative to the famous Bechdel test. Some critics praised the culmination of her relationship with Raleigh Beckett (Hunnam). Although it’s common practice for the male and female leads in an action flick to end their movie with a smooch, Mori and Beckett share a platonic hug as Pacific Rim draws to a close. Del Toro revealed that he shot three different versions of that final scene. “We did one version where they kiss and it almost felt weird. They’re good friends, they’re pals, good colleagues,” del Toro said.


At the end of the credits, there’s a tribute that reads: “This film is dedicated to the memories of monster masters Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda.” Harryhausen passed away on May 7, 2013—two months before Pacific Rim’s release. A great stop-motion animator, he breathed life into such creatures as the towering Rhedosaurus in 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

Ishiro Honda was another giant of the kaiju genre, having directed Rodan, War of the Gargantuas, and numerous Godzilla films. Del Toro has great respect for both men. When Harryhausen died, the director said, “I lost a member of my family today, a man who was as present in my childhood as any of my relatives.” He also adores the Japanese monster classics and says he’d love to see a Pacific Rim-Godzilla crossover someday. Maybe it’ll happen.


If you’re not familiar with the practice of “Sweding,” let us fill you in: The 2008 comedy Be Kind, Rewind is about two co-workers at a VHS rental store who accidentally erase every tape in stock. Hoping to save their skins, they create ultra low-budget remakes of all the films they’ve destroyed using cardboard sets and cheap costumes. It’s a process these guys call “Sweding” as a ploy to convince everyone that their (unintentionally hilarious) knockoffs were produced in Sweden. Since Be Kind, Rewind was released, Sweding has become a legitimate art form.

When Pacific Rim’s first trailer debuted in 2013, YouTubers Brian Harley and Brodie Mash created a shot-for-shot, Sweded duplicate of the preview. Instead of state-of-the-art CG effects, their version used toy helicopters, duct-tape monster masks, and an ocean of packing peanuts—and del Toro loved it. At WonderCon 2013, he praised the video, saying that it inspired the editing used in Pacific Rim’s third trailer. Harley and Mash happened to be at the same gathering. When del Toro met the comedic duo, he exclaimed “I loved it! My daughters loved it, we watched it a bunch of times!” Then he invited the Sweding duo to attend Pacific Rim’s premiere in Hollywood.

Evening Standard/Getty Images
Pop Culture
Stanley Kubrick Photography Exhibition Opening at the Museum of the City of New York
Evening Standard/Getty Images
Evening Standard/Getty Images

Stanley Kubrick will forever be known as one of the most important film directors of the 20th century, but he started his career in the 1940s as a photojournalist for Look magazine. Now, the Museum of the City of New York will host a photographic exhibition of Kubrick’s early work, featuring 120 pictures from his time as a staff photographer at Look from 1945 to 1950.

Much of Kubrick’s work at the time revolved around daily life in New York City—the clubs, the commutes, and the sports. Some of his most notable pieces while at Look were his photo features on boxers Rocky Graziano and Walter Cartier, the latter of which became the subject of Kubrick’s first film, a 1951 documentary called Day of the Fight.

“Turning his camera on his native city, Kubrick found inspiration in New York's characters and settings, sometimes glamorous, sometimes gritty,” the museum wrote in a press release. “He produced work that was far ahead of his time and focused on themes that would inspire him through his creative life. Most importantly, his photography laid the technical and aesthetic foundations for his cinematography: he learned through the camera's lens to be an acute observer of human interactions and to tell stories through images in dynamic narrative sequences.”

Titled "Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs," the exhibition will detail the different themes that inspired Kubrick’s work, as well as guide patrons through his Look tenure, including both published and unpublished work. One of the exhibit’s goals is to provide an “examination of the direct connection between Kubrick the photographer and Kubrick the director.”

"Through a Different Lens" runs from Thursday, May 3 through October 28, 2018 at the Museum of the City of New York.


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