10 Filmmaking Tips from Scorsese, Coppola, Soderbergh, and De Niro


Sunday was like an all-you-can-eat buffet for movie buffs at the Tribeca Film Festival, which took over New York’s Beacon Theater for back-to-back, star-studded events: a 90-minute, career-spanning talk between filmmakers and long-time collaborators Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, followed by the premiere of Francis Ford Coppola’s new Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut, and a Q&A between Coppola and yet another great director, Steven Soderbergh. Your correspondent attended both events, and plucked out a few words of wisdom for you budding filmmakers and storytellers.

Don’t be afraid to steal.

Few filmmakers are ripped off as frequently (or blatantly) as Martin Scorsese, but he doesn’t seem to mind – because the encyclopedic director does it himself. “I have seen many films,” he explained, “and in a way, there are certain styles that I… it’s not easy to mimic, or to use another word, steal. There’s no such thing, because it comes out your way. It’s an interpretation of an inspiration from a lot of great cinema of the past, that I still find inspiring.”

Embrace the accidents.

Apocalypse Now was one of the most notoriously troubled productions in movie history, but it taught Coppola that as the film was falling apart around him, he had to make the best of the cards he’d been dealt. “In filmmaking – and in life – extraordinary things happen to you,” he said. “And it’s up to you to make them be positive. Because the good news is that there is no hell, but the quasi-good news is, this is heaven. So make it be heaven! It’s up to you! Terrible things happened on that movie, but we had heart, and it’s heart that gets you through these situations. Heart, and your talented colleagues.”

Enjoy the meditation of communication.

Coppola and co-star Marlon Brando’s days-long trailer talks have become part of the Apocalypse folklore, but Coppola insisted that those talks were helpful: “What he talked about was so fascinating, his perspective in life was so fascinating… He talked about termites, and he talked about short-wave radios, and he talked about Chinese immigrants on the beach. Fascinating, fascinating stuff!” Some of it didn’t make it into the movie directly, he said, but it all helped establish their relationship.

De Niro had similar memories of shooting The King of Comedy with Scorsese in 1982. “I remember you and I had these long talks in the camper,” he recalled, “and I realized Jerry [Lewis, his co-star] would be waiting, and Jerry’s older than us… I felt that I was not being sensitive about his situation, but we kept getting in these long conversations.” But Scorsese also valued that time: “Sometimes it wasn’t really about the film, but the thing is, that’s part of the work. It’s really, it’s like a meditation, to pull away from everything else, and you get focused again. I find that it’s a very important part of the process.” That said, he admitted, “it’s better if you kind of… figure it into the day, in terms of length of time.”

Dig the movie out.

“If somebody were to come up to me,” Soderbergh told Coppola, “and say, in one line, I’m gonna direct this movie, give me something, tell me something that I can use, when I go make this movie. I would say: Know what you need, and know when you’ve got it.” But in a case like Apocalypse Now, he wondered, “How do you even begin to know that when you’re shooting shit like this?”

“You’re looking for life,” Coppola replied. “You’re looking for something that’s alive. And even in this gigantic collection of events and things, there’s always the life – in the actors, in the moment, you’re looking for the film. It’s really like Michelangelo’s old thing, you just cut away everything that’s not part of the fabric. You look for the movie as it’s already there, trying to talk to you.”

Keep it simple.

When Scorsese was planning King of Comedy, he said, he decided to eschew the fancy camera movements and stylistic exercises that had, until then, been part of his directorial personality. “I was going to pull back and redefine what the narrative through camera is,” he explained. “This film is very reliant on dialogue and relationships of people in the frame. And I shot it as simply as possible. I wanted to recreate in my head, a reset button on how to make a movie – or how to tell a story, I should say.”

But that was merely the first time he’d done that on a full-film scale – even a baroque filmmaker like Scorsese knows when the lean back. His talk opened with a scene between De Niro and Harvey Keitel in their first film together, Mean Streets; it’s a famous, and famously improvised, back-room discussion of the De Niro character and his outstanding debts. “I remember specifically, the ‘American shot’ – right below the knee, the two-shot – you can see it in any Howard Hawks film,” Scorsese explained. “And overs [over-the-shoulder close-ups]. That’s it. Don’t get in the way in those kinds of scenes. Try not to get in the way, and trust the actor. Trust the face up there on the screen.”

Trust the actor.

Coppola agrees. “There’s this nonsense, people say, Oh that director got a great performance,” he fumed, animatedly. “You don’t get a great performance out of the actor, because the actor does the great performance. You’re just the coach. You’re there to say a useful thing at the right time, or provide that one little thing that helps click for the actor. The actor is the flesh-and-blood person doing it.”

Take your actors’ suggestions – and make them work.

That vital scene from Mean Streets, Scorsese said, was not even in the script – it was a De Niro suggestion, borne out of their rehearsals before production. “Bob said, ‘You have to show how hard he is taken in by Johnny,’” he recalled. “And so you came up with an improv, and I wrote down those notes in a little book; it wasn’t in the script. So we went to the last day of shooting, it was 24 days or 25 days, and then I begged Jon Taplin, who was our producer, to give us another two hours to shoot this. And I’d forgotten the book! He had to remember everything from four weeks earlier.”

Don’t be afraid of risks.

“Everyone knows when something is phooey-baloney and when it’s real and authentic and alive,” proclaimed Coppola. “It’s just that sometimes the real, authentic, alive thing is not commercial, you think. Or is not gonna work, or they’re not gonna like it. But that’s not the way to do it. If you want to make art, you also have to be comfortable with risk, and take a chance that you know best. I’ve been asked by big shots, how do you make a movie that’s a critical success and makes a lot of money? And I say, the one word you don’t wanna hear: risk. You can’t make art without risk, any more than you can make babies without sex!”

You can only please yourself.

De Niro spent a lot of time with New York characters and tough guys during the lengthy pre-production period for Raging Bull – friends of subject Jake LaMotta, boxing aficionados, and so on. “One of the guys was Norman Mailer,” Scorsese recalled. “Another group I did not belong in. You think you do, and then all of a sudden, no, lemme get the hell out of here before I make a worse fool of myself.” Later in the process, in the midst of struggling with how to shoot the film’s boxing scenes, Scorsese and Mailer’s paths crossed again. “I saw him somewhere, and told him, ‘Yeah, Jake LaMotta film’s coming along, and I’m not gonna do any of the fights.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘No, that’s the whole point! He’s a great fighter, you have to put the fights in!’”

Scorsese took the advice to heart, crafting the film’s distinctive and stylized bouts. “Two years later, I meet him somewhere again, and as he was leaving I said, ‘Hey Norman, I put the fights in, thanks to you!’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, it was the only thing I didn’t like in the picture.'” The director laughed, but understood: “Because you don’t see the fight. You see what he sees, you experience what he experiences, you hear what he hears. You don’t see the genius of the moves, that’s the thing. I just didn’t go for it.”

Keep it personal.

All of these filmmakers have had roller-coaster careers, veering between hits and misses, sometimes capturing the pulse of moviegoers, sometimes going wildly out on a limb, seemingly all alone. But Coppola wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I have this one life to lead,” he announced, “and the fact is, I feel each one of us is a billion-to-one shot, that that sperm got together with that egg and every one of us is unique. So to make art that doesn’t reflect your personal feelings is pointless. I don’t know what kind of an exercise that is! You’re obligated to make art that reflects your personality.”

The Tribeca Film Festival continues through Sunday, May 5. All photos by Jason Bailey, Flavorwire.