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Q&A: Jonah Ray On Finding Hidden America and Hosting Mystery Science Theater 3000

Jonah Ray has made a career out of poking fun at pop culture. In the past decade, the stand-up comedian has worked behind the scenes (as a writer and/or producer) on hit projects like The Rotten Tomatoes Show, SuperNews!, and The Soup. He also co-hosts the weekly live comedy show-turned-Comedy Central series The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail with Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani. But he’s just getting started.

On June 2, Ray’s new travel show, Hidden America, made its streaming debut on Seeso. Except it’s not a travel show at all. Well, not really. A send-up of the “dude travels to a new city, meets some locals, and eats strange food” series that now seem to occupy half of every channel’s programming schedule, the comedic series sees Ray traveling all across the country to uncover untrue facts about each new city he visits.

While viewers are already raving about Hidden America, which is produced and directed by Troy Miller via Dakota Pictures, Ray is hard at work on his next big project: taking over hosting duties on the upcoming Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot. mental_floss chatted with Ray about fake facts, drinking beer with Kim Jong Un, and what we can expect from the new MST3K.

So let’s talk about Hidden America: It’s a fake travel show, but its foundation lies in what is a very real moment in travel television programming right now with shows likes Parts Unknown. How and when did the idea for the show originate?

I kind of had this inkling of an idea of a travel show, because I was obsessed with Anthony Bourdain. I love Bourdain’s shows so much, both No Reservations and Parts Unknown. I watched those shows all the time and I loved that they took such a cinematic approach to making these shows. And then, of course, there are all the other ones that are just no good.

Bourdain kind of nailed it and yet there are all these other guys who think they can do the same thing and that’s what I love. I love the narcissism of these guys who think they can also do what Bourdain does. And that’s kind of where I had this idea in my head. And then I saw the Alan Partridge special Welcome to the Places of My Life, which is this brilliant special Steve Coogan did under the character Alan Partridge. I was just kind of like, “I should do like a travelogue-style show.” I loved the idea of a guy that’s no good at something trying so hard to be cool and be intellectual.

So many of these travel shows are doing the same thing, which isn’t really even traveling so much as sending some guy to a city and forcing him to eat elephant testicles.

Exactly. I would like it more if they shot it well. Just give us some nice deep focuses on those elephant testicles.

For you, what’s the absolute worst trend in travel television right now? The thing that you really wanted to replicate with Hidden America?

I wanted to replicate the personality type that does the travel show more so than the specific travel shows. I do like the idea of someone going, “To find out about a place, you need to talk to the people.” Because any time you go to any city, every person you talk to is going to have a different take on that city. 

And I hate the idea of, “We’re going to go here and we’re going to have a disgusting meal because it’s what real people eat!” Fried food and this and that, and it’s always so condescending.

You really did travel to each of the places you showcase in the show. How did you prepare for each episode?

We wrote as many fake facts as we could with what we knew. I didn’t want any of the writers really digging deep into any actual facts. I wanted to have a real surface-level amount of information and then just drive it home as if you’re an expert on the topic. That’s my favorite kind of stuff. Like in the New Orleans episode we say Fat Tuesday started as the eradication of overweight residents, but has since grown into this celebration of sorts. I like fake facts a lot. I’m a big fan of that stuff. We knew these real surface-level things, but we didn’t want to know much else than that.

Are you someone who likes to travel? I imagine you do a lot of it for your work, but is it something that you enjoy doing in your free time?

I love traveling. I grew up in Hawaii, which is a travel destination in itself, but I never got to go on road trips growing up. I never got to really see a lot of what we call “the mainland,” so the ability to see these small towns or small cities—it’s stuff that I saw on TV and movies growing up that look nothing like what I was used to in Hawaii. So I love being able to travel. But I don’t like the process of flying, because I’m 6-foot-5 and it is a huge inconvenience to get on a flight. It’s not comfortable at all and if I want to sit in a seat that has room for me I have to pay extra, which seems to be kind of insulting and discriminatory, but what are you going to do?

For you, who’s the worst kind of traveler? There are the obvious ones, like the chair kickers and the person who leans back and crushes your laptop and inner organs. Who’s the worst person on the plane?

Chatty people. The people who don’t know when to end the conversation, or they start the conversation right when you sit down and they kind of keep it going. For me, plane time is a time to just shut down and catch up on some movies. I don’t like not being able to just walk away from a conversation. I mean, you’re on a plane and you can’t go, “Oh, hold on. I’ve got to make a phone call.” You can’t do any of that stuff.

Unless you want to be in the bathroom for six hours.

Exactly. The only time I really liked someone who was talkative with me was when I had just gone through a ridiculous breakup the day before and was just in complete emotional distress. And this old lady asked me how I was doing and I just told her about the entire breakup, and she talked to me about it the entire time. So, in that case, I was what I hated.

She’s probably still telling people about it, and hasn't flown since.

Yeah. “These hipster nerds are just going to talk about their breakup.”

What’s the one American city you think everyone should visit at least once during his or her lifetime?

Oh, man that’s a tough one. It’s a toss-up. Austin is my favorite city, just because it’s fun and it’s a great little area of the country. And I have an affinity for Seattle. But I would say New Orleans, because it’s essentially our Montreal. It’s our kind of “foreign city” existing within our continent in this country. I’ve never seen or heard or even smelled anything like New Orleans.

How did you decide on which cities to feature on the show, or did the location itself not really matter so much?

A lot of it was that it had to have a lot of visually stunning things we could catch. What’s kind of got these big things that everyone knows about that we can then subvert or comment on within our ideas for scenes and sketches. We also didn’t want any of the cities to be too similar; we had Nashville on our list, but it was a bit too similar to stuff we would probably do in New Orleans or Austin, so we wanted to avoid it for this season. We wanted everything to have a different feeling.

We almost did San Diego, because it would’ve been really cheap to do L.A. and San Diego, but they would’ve been too similar. They’re too sunny. And we wanted each episode to have a stark contrast from the one before it. I also really wanted to do Reno because I think it’s the most depressing city in the world, but none of the writers had really been there before and it was kind of hard to describe how sad it is.

What’s the atmosphere like when you’re shooting? The show is obviously very carefully produced and scripted, but do you leave a lot of room for improvisation or happy accidents?

Oh, yeah. I think that’s really key when you’re shooting comedy. You want to do two cameras. You want to do cross-coverage. Because when an idea is in your head it’s perfect, and then you start writing it down and, every step of the way, it gets ruined a little bit more from what it was in your head.

We had a scene written for our New Orleans episode that was completely different from what we ended up improvising and finding within the scene because we had such a great improviser, Chris Trew, in there … You never want to expect that to happen though, because then you’ll really run into some dangerous territory.

Since the show is being distributed online, did that give you a lot more freedom in terms of how far you could push things in what you can do and say?

Seeso was really great. We didn’t really have to worry about sponsors or commercials pulling out or anything like that because it’s a paid service. So, like HBO or any other paid network, we were able to kind of do what we wanted. They only backed out on a couple of things and that was a little kid having a semi-automatic weapon and me wearing a Nazi uniform, which are totally understandable and very separate bits.

When it comes to comedy, for you personally, where do you draw the line between what’s funny and what’s over the line? Do you have any rules or parameters for yourself?

I try not to. But I’m not the one to say where the line is. I’m an upper middle class straight white male. It’s not my place to say that something is too offensive. I just kind of have to go as far as I think is funny and wait for the slap on the hand, which could easily happen in our L.A. episode, where I say a couple of horrible things. But it’s one of those things where it’s not for me to say. I’m the man. I’m the problem. I’m not allowed to say what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.

You started your career as a musician, correct?

Well, to say “career” and “musician” is a misnomer. I was in some punk bands where I lost a lot of money and brain cells. But yeah, I started playing in music—punk bands—growing up until I was about 19.

Which audience is a tougher crowd: a comedy audience or a musical audience?

Comedy, because a music crowd can be there and not pay attention, and so it doesn’t really matter how you do. Some people are just going to be there drinking and talking with their friends. The comedy crowd is there and they’re paying attention. And if they’re not giving you anything and they’re paying attention, that’s the most hurtful blade of them all.

Who are the comedians who first or most inspired you?

Mel Brooks, Joel Hodgson, Weird Al Yankovic, and Norm Macdonald.

Because you brought up Joel, I get to talk about Joel.

Believe me, all I want to do is talk about Mystery Science Theater. Even if I didn’t have the job, it’s all I’d be talking about anyway.

I’m sure there’s a lot you can’t tell me, which is exactly the stuff I want to know. Tell me everything you can and cannot tell me about Mystery Science Theater.

Well, right now we’re in the writing process. And there are a lot of amazing writers and we’re just kind of flying through these just horrendous movies. You’d like to think it was easy. Growing up and watching the show, it’s like, “I could do this,” but there are a lot of things you realize they never did and how clever they were with the opportunity to riff on movies. Because you can’t just go, “Boring,” or “This sucks,” or anything like that. When a guy is walking across the field for these 20-second shots for the third time in 10 minutes and you’ve done your first joke about a long walk, then the second time he’s doing it you’re like, “Oh, here I’ll just sing a song,” as if he’s singing a song. And then, for the third time he’s just like, “Oh, God. This movie is so incapable.”

You have to pay attention to every detail, including the stuff that people aren’t noticing.

Yeah. And you have to come up with new angles, because it’s so easy to be repetitive. That’s why everyone that works on that show is an absolute comedy genius. The way they’re able to keep it fresh throughout one movie and throughout a season, where you’re not just hearing the same references and jokes all the time. It’s always new and it’s always another angle, and sometimes it’s callbacks or a similar style joke, but man, they really do such great work and it’s been really neat to be in that process, too. Sometimes you’ll have the perfect line to say after someone’s line, but it just doesn’t fit. It just won’t fit because the other character starts to talk too soon. Me and Baron Vaughn, who’s the new voice of Tom Servo, were talking the other day and he’s like, “Man, I think we underestimated how much work this was.”

How many times, on average, do you have to watch a single movie to finish the writing process?

The way we’ve been doing it is we get together and we just kind of slowly trudge through about 10 minutes and that’ll probably take us about five hours. And that’s kind of going through it, writing riffs for 10 minutes, going back and fitting them in, and then going back and trying to pick the ones that we like and that are also different enough. You can’t have a bunch of jokes in a row where it’s us doing one of the character’s voices. Sometimes it has to be a comment joke.

And you’ll be at the MST3K reunion show this month?

Man, I’d be there even if I wasn’t performing. That thing is going to be so crazy … RiffTrax just put out a shirt with my name on it and I started to cry.

Going back to Hidden America: People keep comparing you to Anthony Bourdain. He just drank beer with Obama in Vietnam for his show. How are you going to top that?

We’re going to drink beer with Kim Jong Un in South Korea. How about that? Can’t wait to do that next season.

Hidden America is currently streaming on Seeso.

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30 Facts About Your Favorite Martin Scorsese Movies
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

In the pantheon of iconic American film giants, Martin Scorsese gets to sit at the head of the table and carve the turkey. In a career spanning 50 years, he has created some of the most visually spectacular and quote-worthy material ever put on celluloid. To celebrate the auteur’s 75th birthday, here are 30 facts about some of your favorite Scorsese movies. Ready? Great… now go home and get your #@$%ing shinebox!

1. MUCH OF THE MEAN STREETS BUDGET WENT TO ITS SOUNDTRACK.

Clearing songs for 1973's Mean Streets ate up almost half of the film's $500,000 budget. Staying true to his well-documented love of rock, Scorsese used tunes by The Ronettes, Eric Clapton, and The Rolling Stones for the soundtrack. “For me, the whole movie was 'Jumping Jack Flash' and 'Be My Baby,'" the director said in Scorsese on Scorsese.

2. LAURA DERN HAD A TINY ROLE IN ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE.

Future Oscar nominee Laura Dern made one of her earliest, albeit uncredited, appearances toward the end of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Working alongside her mother, Diane Ladd, Dern—who was seven years old at the time—played a little girl eating a banana-flavored ice cream cone at Mel’s Diner. It took 19 takes to get the shot, which required Dern to consume 19 ice cream cones. Impressed by the budding actress, Scorsese told Ladd that “if she doesn’t throw up after [19 takes’ worth of cones], this girl is ready to be an actress.”

3. THE “YOU TALKIN’ TO ME?” SCENE FROM TAXI DRIVER CAME FROM BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN.

Robert De Niro improvised that whole paranoid monologue, including what would become the movie’s most famous line. (The film's screenwriter, Paul Schrader, later said, “It’s the best thing in the movie, and I didn’t write it.”) De Niro got the line from Bruce Springsteen, whom he’d seen perform in Greenwich Village just days earlier, at one in a series of concerts leading up to the release of Born to Run. When the audience called out his name, The Boss did a bit where he feigned humility and said, “You talkin’ to me?” Apparently it stuck in De Niro’s mind.

4. MUCH OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK WAS IMPROVISED (WHICH MAY HAVE BEEN ITS DOWNFALL).

In 1977, Scorsese released New York, New York. What was meant to be an epic musical turned out to be one of the director’s biggest bombs, due partly to the fact that the normally very regimented director decided to take a more improvisational approach to the film. “I tried to have no idea at all what I was going to do, as much as possible, on the day of shooting—as opposed to having a fairly strong idea of what I was going to do,” he said. “I was really testing the limits … I had a very chaotic style, on purpose, on New York, New York. And I found it didn't work for me."

5. A LOT OF FAMOUS CINEMATOGRAPHERS WERE INVOLVED IN THE MAKING OF THE LAST WALTZ.

The seven 35mm camera operators who shot The Last Waltz, Scorsese's 1978 concert documentary, included Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter), and László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces). Scorsese and Robbie Robertson (who also served as a producer) came up with a 300-page shooting script of diagrams and text that assigned the camera positions with the music lyrics and cues. According to the film's production notes, it was the first music documentary made on 35mm.

6. JOE PESCI WAS RUNNING AN ITALIAN RESTAURANT WHEN SCORSESE AND ROBERT DE NIRO APPROACHED HIM ABOUT RAGING BULL.

Joe Pesci had been a professional actor and musician (he sang and played guitar) off and on since childhood, but he called it quits in the 1970s. His 1975 Broadway show with comedy partner Frank Vincent (whom he would later recruit to play Salvy in Raging Bull) had closed after a week, and his first movie, 1976’s The Death Collector (also featuring Vincent), was a flop. But Robert De Niro happened to see that film in 1978, and was so impressed by Pesci’s performance that he pitched him to Scorsese. The two tracked Pesci down and called him at his restaurant to coax him out of showbiz retirement to co-star in Raging Bull.

7. SCORSESE INITIALLY DIDN’T SEE HOW THE SCRIPT FOR THE KING OF COMEDY WOULD WORK AS A MOVIE.

Robert De Niro passed Paul D. Zimmerman’s script for The King of Comedy on to Scorsese, hoping that he could interest him in directing it. "I didn't get it," Scorsese later admitted. "The script is hilarious. But the movie was just a one-line gag: You won't let me go on the show, so I'll kidnap you and you'll put me on the show.” Eventually, he came to see how it could be turned into a feature.

8. GRIFFIN DUNNE HAD TO GIVE UP, WELL, PRETTY MUCH EVERYTHING TO STAR IN AFTER HOURS.

In order to capture the desperation and paranoia to play word processor Paul Hackett in After Hours (1985), Scorsese gave star Griffin Dunne some very specific instructions. “I was at a symposium with Marty Scorsese and he said, ‘I really had to be hard on Griffin for this part. I said, no sex, no going out, none of it,’” Cher told People at the movie’s after-party. “It must have worked,” she added. “He’s so good at being frustrated.”

9. IT WAS PAUL NEWMAN WHO APPROACHED SCORSESE ABOUT THE COLOR OF MONEY.

Walter Tevis had written the book The Hustler and its sequel, The Color of Money, yet Paul Newman didn’t care for the adapted screenplay to the latter. So Newman went to Scorsese, as he was a fan of his work, particularly Raging Bull, which he felt had a similar tone to what The Color of Money should be.

10. SCORSESE GOT THE IDEA FOR GOODFELLAS WHILE SHOOTING THE COLOR OF MONEY.

In a rare moment of downtime on The Color of Money set, "I read a review of [Nicholas Pileggi's] Wiseguy ... and it said something about this character Henry Hill having access to many different levels of organized crime because he was somewhat of an outsider," Scorsese told Rolling Stone. "He looked a little nicer. He was able to be a better frontman and speak a little better. I thought that was interesting, because you could get a cross section of the layers of organized crime—from his point of view, of course. So I got the book, started reading it and was fascinated by the narrative ability of it."

11. THE FAMOUS “FUNNY HOW?” SCENE IN GOODFELLAS WASN’T IN THE SCRIPT.

The most famous (and certainly the most quoted) scene in Goodfellas comes at the beginning, when Pesci's Tommy DeVito jokingly-yet-uncomfortably accosts Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) for calling him "funny." In addition to being the driving force behind the scene on screen, Pesci is also responsible for coming up with the premise.  

While working in a restaurant, a young Pesci apparently told a mobster that he was funny—a compliment that was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response. Pesci relayed the anecdote to Scorsese, who decided to include it in the film. Scorsese didn't include the scene in the shooting script so that Pesci and Liotta’s interactions would elicit genuinely surprised reactions from the supporting cast.

12. STEVEN SPIELBERG TRADED CAPE FEAR TO MARTIN SCORSESE FOR THE RIGHTS TO SCHINDLER'S LIST.

Scorsese was set to direct Schindler's List, but was apprehensive about making it after the controversy surrounding his previous two films, Goodfellas and The Last Temptation of Christ. At the same time, Steven Spielberg was set to make Cape Fear, but decided that he "wasn't in the mood" to make a movie about a "maniac." So they traded projects. Spielberg had Bill Murray in mind to play Max Cady. Scorsese had other ideas.

13. THE CASINO OPENING TITLES WERE DESIGNED BY THE LEGENDARY SAUL BASS.

Saul Bass is certainly the most famous (and possibly the only) well-known designer of opening credit sequences, with more than 50 to his name. If there was a movie in the '50s or '60s with distinctive opening titles, odds are good that it was Bass's work, often in conjunction with his wife, Elaine. (Among them: Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest, West Side Story, Spartacus, and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.) Bass did the titles for Scorsese's Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, and Casino, which turned out to be the final film of his career. He died five months after the film opened, at the age of 75. 

14. GANGS OF NEW YORK WAS 32 YEARS IN THE MAKING.

Scorsese read Herbert Asbury’s 1928 nonfiction book The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld in 1970 and immediately thought it would make a good movie. He didn’t have any money or clout yet though, so he had to wait. He bought the movie rights to the book in 1979, and even got a screenplay written around that time, then spent the next 20 years trying to get the project off the ground.

15. THE DEPARTED IS A REMAKE.

While Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan claim they did not watch the 2002 Hong Kong action movie Infernal Affairs before making The Departed, the two films share more than a few similarities. Infernal Affairs director Andy Lau unsurprisingly prefers his own film, saying of The Departed, “Of course I think the version I made is better, but the Hollywood version is pretty good too.” 

16. “GIMME SHELTER” IS SCORSESE’S UNOFFICIAL GANGSTER THEME SONG.

Before The Departed, Scorsese had previously used the Rolling Stones song in Goodfellas and Casino. It seems Billy Costigan loves the Stones, too; the CD that he mails to Sullivan is housed in the case for the Rolling Stones album Exile on Main Street.

17. MEAN STREETS TOOK ITS TITLE FROM A RAYMOND CHANDLER ESSAY.

Originally titled Season of the Witch, the film’s name was changed to Mean Streets from a line from Raymond Chandler’s 1944 essay “The Simple Art of Murder.” Writing about the art of storytelling and plumbing the depths of humanity, Chandler wrote. “In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

18. DE NIRO WANTED TO MAKE RAGING BULL AS A PLAY, TOO.

This was in early 1978, before it was even written as a movie yet, when De Niro was collaborating with Mardik Martin to adapt LaMotta’s memoir, while simultaneously trying to convince a noncommittal and increasingly drug-addled Scorsese to take on the project. De Niro’s idea was to stage it as a Broadway play (to be directed by Scorsese), and then, during the run of the show, spend the daylight hours shooting the movie. De Niro liked the idea of the day’s filming influencing the way they performed the play that night. But Martin’s script wasn’t yet ready for either medium, and Scorsese was in no shape to do it then anyway. 

19. SCORSESE WAS WORKING ON NEW YORK, NEW YORK AT THE SAME TIME HE WAS MAKING THE LAST WALTZ.

Scorsese was supposed to be in New York editing the Liza Minnelli/Robert De Niro musical drama when he was in San Francisco preparing and shooting The Last Waltz. According to Scorsese, New York, New York producer Irwin Winkler was "very upset" when he learned this.

20. CHANDELIERS FROM GONE WITH THE WIND WERE USED ON THE LAST WALTZ.

The performance recorded for The Last Waltz was designed by Boris Leven, who has served as production designer on West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). Leven created a backdrop inspired by the films of Luchino Visconti (Death In Venice, The Leopard), borrowing props from the San Francisco Opera's production of La Traviata and chandeliers designed for Gone with the Wind. Robertson wasn't sold on the elaborate decor. He told Leven, "Chandeliers? I don't think that's going to go over with Neil or Bob or the rest of the musicians. These people don't do chandeliers, Boris."

21. THE FIRST SCENE SHOT FOR GOODFELLAS WASN’T DIRECTED BY SCORSESE. 

As you might know, the business of filming is rarely chronological—directors tend to jump scenes for cost, scheduling, and efficiency reasons. For Goodfellas, the scene that broke shooting ground was the intentionally low-budget Morrie’s Wigs commercial, which plays just before Henry and Jimmy hassle Morrie about a debt near the beginning of the film. To get the feel of the commercial right, Scorsese contacted Stephen R. Pacca, who had created his own ultra low-budget ads for his replacement window company, to write and direct the Morrie’s Wigs ad. 

22. REESE WITHERSPOON BLEW HER CAPE FEAR AUDITION. SO DID DREW BARRYMORE.

"It was my second audition ever," Witherspoon said in 1999. "My agent told me I'd be meeting Martin Scorsese. I said, 'Who is he?' Then he mentioned the name Robert De Niro. I said, 'Never heard of him.' When I walked in I did recognize De Niro, and I just lost it. My hand was shaking and I was a blubbering idiot.''

Drew Barrymore auditioned for the role, too, but believed she overacted for one of Scorsese's assistants. In 2000, she called the audition "the biggest disaster" of her life and said that Scorsese thinks she's "dog doo-doo" because of it.

23. GEORGE LUCAS HELPED WITH SCORSESE OUT WITH AN ELEPHANT PROBLEM FOR GANGS OF NEW YORK.


ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

The Star Wars creator, then working on Attack of the Clones, had visited the massive set in Rome and told Scorsese that it was probably the last of its kind, that such large re-creations would be done on computers now to save money. Lucas’s know-how in such matters came in handy later, when Gangs needed an elephant and none of the animal wranglers in Italy were able to produce one in time. So Scorsese called his old friend Lucas and asked for help: “We’re effed," Scorsese told Lucas. "We don’t have [an] elephant! Tell us how to shoot it!” Lucas, an old pro at such things, guided them through the process of filming without the elephant and having it digitally created later. It’s the only thing in the movie that’s completely computer-generated. 

24. SCORSESE WAS INSPIRED TO CAST GWEN STEFANI IN THE AVIATOR AFTER SEEING HER PICTURE ON THE SIDE OF A BUS SHELTER.

The Marilyn Monroe-inspired pictures, taken by Herb Ritts for a Teen Vogue cover, caught Scorsese's eye. Stefani told MTV the story, as she heard it from DiCaprio. “Martin Scorsese’s driving in New York City and he sees my Teen Vogue cover on the side of a bus stop shelter. And he’s like, ’Who’s that girl? Let’s get her!’ I had Leonardo DiCaprio tell me the whole story in Martin Scorsese’s voice, so it was pretty bizarre.” Stefani portrayed Jean Harlow; it was her first film role. 

25. BERNARD HERRMANN DIED JUST A FEW HOURS AFTER RECORDING THE MUSIC FOR TAXI DRIVER.

Scorsese was lucky to get Bernard Herrmann, a Hollywood legend who had scored Citizen Kane, Psycho, Cape Fear, North by Northwest, and dozens of others. Herrmann wrote the Taxi Driver score and conducted the recording sessions himself, finishing in Los Angeles on the evening of December 23, 1975. He retired to his hotel and died sometime during the night, officially Christmas Eve morning, at the age of 64. He was posthumously nominated for an Oscar. 

26. DANIEL DAY-LEWIS WAS TRAINED BY REAL BUTCHERS FOR GANGS OF NEW YORK, BECAUSE OF COURSE HE WAS.


Miramax

Ever the Method actor, Day-Lewis first took lessons from two Argentine brothers with a butcher shop in Queens, then from a master butcher specially flown in from London.

27. SCORSESE THREATENED TO TAKE HIS NAME OFF OF RAGING BULL OVER ONE MINOR SOUND ISSUE. 

Very late in the post-production process, when the film was due to premiere soon and Scorsese was still tinkering with the final sound mix, producer Irwin Winkler gave him a drop deadline: All work would cease at midnight on a certain night, and that would be it. When the hour arrived, Scorsese was obsessing over one minor line of dialogue someone says to a bartender —“Cutty Sark, please”—which he didn’t think was audible. Winkler told him too bad, we’ve got to send this thing out. Scorsese declared that if Winkler released the film this way, he wanted his name taken off it as director, because it no longer reflected his vision. Winkler said, “So be it.” Like all good producers, he knew that sometimes you have to let an overtired director throw a tantrum and say things he doesn’t really mean. Sure enough, Scorsese recanted sometime later.

28. SCORSESE AVOIDED AN X RATING ON TAXI DRIVER BY MAKING THE BLOOD LOOK MORE BROWN THAN RED. 

Scorsese desaturated the color in the film’s gorier scenes, rendering the blood less realistic and more like a black-and-white tabloid newspaper (without actually being black-and-white). Not only did it fit the lurid tone he was going for, it soothed the nerves of the ratings board. 

29. CATE BLANCHETT DID HER HOMEWORK FOR THE AVIATOR.


Miramax

At Scorsese's request, Blanchett watched all of Hepburn's first 15 movies for The Aviator. Blanchett also screened Hepburn's 1973 interview with Dick Cavett, read a memoir about her, took golf and tennis lessons, and took cold baths just like Hepburn. On June 29, 2003—the same day that Blanchett arrived on set for the first time—Hepburn passed away. "I picked up the paper thinking, 'Isn't it odd that Katharine Hepburn's on the cover?'" Blanchett recalled. "She had such a remarkable life, and then with her death, she was even more present in everyone's mind."

30. WE MAY NEVER KNOW WHAT THE REAL SAM “ACE” ROTHSTEIN ACTUALLY THOUGHT OF CASINO.

Lefty Rosenthal—the inspiration for Sam Rothstein, who died in 2008—said he only ever saw Casino once. If that's true, it was the screening of a rough cut that was also attended by Nicholas Pileggi. Pileggi sat with Rosenthal—they were the only ones in the screening room—and said Rosenthal's reaction was positive. But near the end of his life, when an interviewer mentioned that, "You only saw Casino once—and you don't like the movie," Rosenthal replied that "It lacked the detail of what I did. There are scenes where the Rosenthal character repeated the same thing twice. I would only tell you to do something one time—that's all I needed. And there was that scene that still angers me when I think of it—I never juggled on The Frank Rosenthal Show. I resent that scene. It makes me look foolish. And I only did that TV show [at] the behest of the chairman of the board of the Stardust so that the public would realize I was a decent guy and not a mobster as portrayed by the media covering us at the time.” Did Rosenthal change his mind over time? Did Pileggi misinterpret his initial reaction? We'll never know.

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15 Things You Should Know About Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe’s enchanting floral still lifes are now a deeply ingrained part of American culture—so much so that they often eclipse her other colorful accomplishments. For a more complete portrait of the artist, who was born 130 years ago today, brush up on these 15 little-known facts about her.

1. FLOWER PAINTINGS MAKE UP A SMALL PERCENTAGE OF O'KEEFFE'S BODY OF WORK.

Though O'Keeffe is most famous for her lovingly rendered close-ups of flowers—like Black Iris and Oriental Poppies—these make up just about 200 of her 2000-plus paintings. The rest primarily depict landscapes, leaves, rocks, shells, and bones.

2. SHE REJECTED SEXUAL INTERPRETATIONS OF HER PAINTINGS.

For decades, critics assumed that O'Keeffe's flowers were intended as homages—or at the very least, allusions—to the female form. But in 1943, she insisted that they had it all wrong, saying, “Well—I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.” So there.

3. SHE WAS NOT A NATIVE OF THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST.


Joe Raedle/Getty Images

O'Keeffe was actually born on a Wisconsin dairy farm. She'd go on to live in Chicago; New York City; New York’s Lake George; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Amarillo, Texas. She first visited New Mexico in 1917, and as she grew older, her trips there became more and more frequent. Following the death of her husband in 1946, she moved to New Mexico permanently.

4. HER FAVORITE STUDIO WAS THE BACKSEAT OF A MODEL-A FORD.

In an interview with C-SPAN, Carolyn Kastner, curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, explained how the artist customized her car for this use: "She would remove the driver's seat. Then she would unbolt the passenger car, turn it around to face the back seat. Then she would lay the canvas on the back seat as an easel and paint inside her Model-A Ford."

Painting inside the car allowed O'Keeffe to stay out of the unrelenting desert sun, where she painted many of her later works. The Model-A also provided a barrier from the bees that would gather as the day wore on.

5. O'KEEFFE ALSO PAINTED SKYSCRAPERS.

While nature was her main source of inspiration, the time she spent in 1920s Manhattan spurred the creation of surreal efforts like New York With Moon, City Night and The Shelton with Sunspots.

6. O'KEEFFE IMMERSED HERSELF IN NATURE ...

While in New Mexico O’Keeffe spent summers and falls at her Ghost Ranch, putting up with the region's hottest, most stifling days in order to capture its most vivid colors. (The rest of the year she stayed at her second home, located in the small town of Abiquiu.) When she wasn't painting in her Model-A, O'Keeffe often camped out in the harsh surrounding terrain, to keep close to the landscapes that inspired her.

7. …WHATEVER THE WEATHER.

The artist would rig up tents from tarps, contend with unrelenting downpours, and paint with gloves on when it got too cold. She went camping well into her 70s and enjoyed a well-documented rafting trip with photographer Todd Webb at age 74. Her camping equipment is occasionally exhibited at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.

8. SHE MARRIED THE MAN BEHIND HER FIRST GALLERY SHOW.

"At last, a woman on paper!" That’s what modernist photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz cried when he first saw O'Keeffe's abstract charcoal drawings. He was so enthusiastic about this series of sketches that he put them on display—before consulting their creator.

When O'Keeffe arrived at his gallery, she wasn't pleased, and brusquely introduced herself: "I am Georgia O'Keeffe and you will have to take these pictures down." Despite their rocky beginnings, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe quickly made amends, and went on to become partners in art and in life.

9. O'KEEFFE AND STIEGLITZ WROTE 25,000 PAGES OF LOVE LETTERS TO EACH OTHER.

When the pair met in 1916, he was famous and married; she was unknown and 23 years his junior. All the same, they began writing to each other often (sometimes two or three times a day) and at length (as many as 40 pages at a time). These preserved writings chart the progression of their romance—from flirtation to affair to their marriage in 1924—and even document their marital struggles.

10. SHE SERVED AS A MUSE TO OTHER ARTISTS.

Thanks in part to Stieglitz, O'Keeffe was one of the most photographed women of the 20th century. Stieglitz made O'Keeffe the subject of a long-term series of portraits meant to capture individuals as they aged, and she made for a striking model. Though he died in 1946, the project lived on as other photographers sought out O'Keeffe in order to capture the beloved artist against the harsh New Mexican landscapes she loved so dearly.

O'Keeffe later wrote:

When I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me—some of them more than sixty years ago—I wonder who that person is. It is as if in my one life I have lived many lives. If the person in the photographs were living in this world today, she would be quite a different person—but it doesn't matter—Stieglitz photographed her then.

11. SHE QUIT PAINTING THREE TIMES.

The first break spanned several years (the exact number is a matter of debate), when O'Keeffe took on more stable jobs to help her family through financial troubles. In the early 1930s, a nervous breakdown led to her hospitalization, and caused her to set aside her brushes for more than a year.

In the years leading up to her death in 1986, failing eyesight forced O'Keeffe to give up painting entirely. Until then, she fought hard to keep working, enlisting assistants to prepare her canvas and mix her oil paints for pieces like 1977's Sky Above Clouds/Yellow Horizon and Clouds. She managed to use watercolors until she was 95.

12. AFTER GOING BLIND, SHE TURNED TO SCULPTING.


By Alfred Stieglitz - Phillips, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although her vision eventually made painting impossible, O'Keeffe's desire to create was not squelched. She memorably declared, "I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.” O'Keeffe began experimenting with clay sculpting in her late 80s, and continued with it into her 96th year.

13. SHE'S THE MOTHER OF AMERICAN MODERNISM.

Searching for what she called “the Great American Thing,” O'Keeffe was part of the Stieglitz Circle, which included such lauded early modernists as Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Paul Strand, and Edward Steichen. By the mid-1920s, she had become the first female painter to gain acclaim alongside her male contemporaries in New York's cutthroat art world. Her distinctive way of rendering nature in shapes and forms that made them seem simultaneously familiar and new earned her a reputation as a pioneer of the form.

14. SHE BLAZED NEW TRAILS FOR FEMALE ARTISTS.

In 1946, O’Keeffe became the first woman to earn a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Twenty-four years later, a Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective exhibit introduced her work to a new generation. Fifteen years after that, O'Keeffe was included in the inaugural slate of artists chosen to receive the newly founded National Medal of Arts for her contribution to American culture.

15. SHE WASN'T FEARLESS, BUT SHE REJECTED FEAR.

O'Keeffe was purported to have said, "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."

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