How Martin Scorsese Directs a Movie: The Techniques Behind Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and More

How does Mar­tin Scors­ese direct a movie? Younger film­mak­ers have been study­ing at his feet try­ing to fig­ure that out for more than four decades. Now in his late 70s and boast­ing a name that has long since become a byword for the Amer­i­can auteur, Scors­ese con­tin­ues to direct a major fea­ture (along­side almost equal­ly numer­ous doc­u­men­taries and shorts) at a much younger film­mak­er’s pace. This year saw the release of The Irish­man, the lat­est chap­ter in Scors­ese’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with Robert De Niro that began back in 1973 with Mean Streets. This ambi­tious new film has prompt­ed Scors­ese fans to look back at the direc­tor’s career, trac­ing the lines that run through his both vig­or­ous­ly enter­tain­ing and high­ly idio­syn­crat­ic body of work.

Stu­dio Binder, whose primers on the direct­ing styles of Quentin Taran­ti­no and Wes Ander­son we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, has pro­duced a thor­ough break­down of what makes a Mar­tin Scors­ese Pic­ture — as their open­ing titles have announced since Rag­ing Bull — a Mar­tin Scors­ese Pic­ture.

In a break­down of Scors­ese’s tech­niques, film­mak­er SC Lan­nom high­lights how he builds flawed char­ac­ters, links cam­era move­ment to emo­tion, makes ener­getic edit­ing deci­sions (in col­lab­o­ra­tion with his long­time edi­tor Thel­ma Schoon­mak­er), uses char­ac­ter-dri­ven cam­era place­ment, builds “authen­tic and edu­ca­tion­al worlds,” com­pos­es movies to the music he has in mind, pairs mon­tages with voiceovers, and makes use of “extreme sound design.”

Of course, none of these descrip­tions con­vey the vis­cer­al impact of Scors­ese’s films at their best. You can get a taste of that in the Stu­dio Binder “Direc­tor’s Chair” video on Scors­ese at the top of the post, which assem­bles exam­ples of how he uses his roots in Ital­ian New York, cre­ates char­ac­ters on the edge (Taxi Dri­ver’s Travis Bick­le being per­haps the pro­to­type), builds “authen­tic worlds,” and keeps both the music and the edit in mind while direct­ing. These meth­ods are most clear­ly appar­ent in his hit “gang­ster movies” like Good­Fel­lasCasi­no, and The Depart­ed, but oth­er milieux — the time and place of pro­fes­sion­al box­ing, of Jesuit priests in 17th-cen­tu­ry Japan, of crooked 1990s stock­bro­kers, of Jesus Christ — have also proven amenable to the Scors­ese treat­ment.

Scors­ese’s faith­ful­ness to the real world, or at least the real world as he sees and feels it, is exceed­ed only by his faith­ful­ness to the world of cin­e­ma. While he usu­al­ly deals with real­is­tic sub­ject mat­ter, he does so with every trick in the styl­is­tic book: not just musi­cal mon­tages but sequences of slow and fast motion, freeze-frames, and zooms all meant to bring you, the view­er, into the emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence of his char­ac­ters. “Scors­ese knows how he wants you to feel, and he is a ‘dirty fight­er’ of cin­e­ma who will pull out all the tricks to get you feel­ing that way,” writes Lan­nom. “The dif­fer­ence between him and say, Michael Bay, is that Scorsese’s sto­ries, mes­sages, and gen­er­al approach is much more mature.” Indeed, Scors­ese can some­times seem to be one of the last grown-ups in Hol­ly­wood, but one whose love of cin­e­ma burns as intense­ly as it did in child­hood. For that rea­son, a new Scors­ese movie — rather, a new Mar­tin Scors­ese Pic­ture — will always be an event.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Film­mak­ing of Mar­tin Scors­ese Demys­ti­fied in 6 Video Essays

What Makes Taxi Dri­ver So Pow­er­ful? An In-Depth Study of Mar­tin Scorsese’s Exis­ten­tial Film on the Human Con­di­tion

Mar­tin Scors­ese Explains the Dif­fer­ence Between Cin­e­ma and Movies

Mar­tin Scorsese’s Very First Films: Three Imag­i­na­tive Short Works

Mar­tin Scors­ese Reveals His 12 Favorite Movies

11-Year-Old Mar­tin Scors­ese Draws Sto­ry­boards for His Imag­ined Roman Epic Film, The Eter­nal City

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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