He was just a boy when he first saw Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and it was from that point on that cinema opened to him “many different worlds”, says Martin Scorsese who decades later draws on that experience in his new film Killers of the Flower Moon. Scorsese, viewed by many as one of the greatest filmmakers in the world, said he knew about Indian culture after seeing Jean Renoir’s 1951 Kolkata-set The River. But Pather Panchali was a turning point.
“I happened to love The River but it is seen through the prism of another culture,” Scorsese told PTI.
And then came Pather Panchali, the 1955 classic set in rural Bengal.
“So from that point on, cinema opened to me many different worlds. I wonder what it would be like to be a colonised person and a wide part of a colonised world that you live in,” he said in response to PTI’s question in a group interview on whether his new film will resonate in countries like India with a colonial past.
The 80-year-old said he saw a dubbed English version of Pather Panchali on television in New York.
“… And I said, ‘Wait a minute, those are the people I usually see in the background of other films. What’s the difference here?’ “The difference is that this film is being made by them, the real people, and I’m being introduced to another culture and another way of thinking, a whole life and the universality of it all. How we all are, basically the same as human beings,” Scorsese said in the virtual interaction from New York.
The makers of classics such as Taxi Driver and The Departed said he has always been interested in other cultures and the way people think in different parts of the world, a philosophy that inspired him to alter the script of Killers of the Flower Moon.
The original story, an adaptation of the book of the same name by American journalist David Grann, revolves around the birth of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and its investigation into a series of murders of the Osage people, a Midwestern Native American tribe of the Great Plains, after oil is discovered in Oklahoma, US, in the 1920s. It’s a true story.
Old favourite Leonardo DiCaprio was set to play an FBI investigator probing the killings but Scorsese decided to flip the narrative late into the production and tell the story from the point of view of the Osage people.
The character is now played by Jessie Plemons, who comes late in the story. DiCaprio, who has appeared in a series of Scorsese films, including Gangs of New York and The Aviator, is Ernest Burkhart, one of those complicit in the murders masterminded by William King Hale, played by Robert De Niro, another long-term Scorsese collaborator.
The director said he used the story of the Osage people to represent almost all the indigenous people in the world who were “taken advantage of”.
“(I said) so let’s stay with the heart of the people in the story, the indigenous ones. The people who can be considered colonised to a certain extent, or worse, (people who) have been taken over, eliminated or pushed away completely,” he said.
Scorsese, an Italian-American, said the first wave of the people who came to America were the English, Dutch and German in descent and the Protestant work ethic “was to eliminate what was there and make it fresh and make it new, make it another West”.
“…Make it Europe without religious wars, without all the problems that they were running away from.” The filmmaker said he wonders what America would have been if Asians had come to the country.
“What if it was Eurasia? I don’t know. Obviously, America would be very, very different. The problem would be still dealing with the people who were there, their culture and their survival. I found telling the story through the eyes of the Osage made it something really special. I think it broke down a lot of barriers for us,” he said.
Fifty-six years after he made his first film, Who’s That Knocking At My Door in 1967, the still going strong director said every exercise in filmmaking is a “humbling experience” as it teaches him that he knows nothing.
His filmography includes Mean Streets, The King of Comedy and Age of Innocence.
“What I learned after making Raging Bull was that ultimately I had to start all over again and that became The King of Comedy. And, in a way a humbling experience, because I learned, in a good way, ignorance again. I learned I didn’t really know. I thought I knew, but you never know exactly what the nature of this organism, this film is going to be,” he said.
A lot, according to him, depends on the kind of people one collaborates with. He said he has worked with Thelma Schoonmaker, his editor of many films, for the longest time.
“She’s an old friend and we trust each other implicitly. So she’s a strong collaborator who’s dedicated to me and the film, not the studio, not the producers,” he said.
With every film, Scorsese said, the goal is to find a new way of dealing with the narrative.
“Sometimes (it’s) a story without a plot. There’s a difference between story and plot. I like plots, but I find them rather tiresome to create. I’ve tried many different things, you don’t necessarily say ‘I’m gonna go and try something’.
“It just needs to find the visual and aural way of how the story should be told through your heart. And that also means editing or not editing. When not to cut, camera moves or no camera moves…” The filmmaker said he is constantly grappling with “the very essence of stories”, something which appears simple but is not.
“I am always finding that there’s always something to learn. In fact, there is everything to learn. But you can’t go out to say I am gonna learn. It happens while you’re doing it,” he said.
Killers of the Flower Moon, which in May earned rave reviews following its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, is scheduled to be released in India on October 20. It also stars Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Tantoo Cardinal, John Lithgow, and Brendan Fraser.