Last night at the Cannes Film Festival, Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy played to a glittering crowd at the new Palais des Festivals, appearing as the prestigious opening-night entry in the competition. Back at home, however, the film has been a box-office disappointment, grossing just over $2.5 million nationwide. (It closed after two weeks in Washington.)
“You’re crazy if you try to make a film guaranteed to make money,” says Scorsese resignedly, “I think the only way to market this film is on the track record Robert De Niro and I have, and on the plot line. All pictures eventually rely on word of mouth.”
Scorsese’s New York roost is the top two floors of a thoroughly gentrified building on Manhattan’s Lower West Side, a few blocks’ walk from the Little Italy of his youth.
There’s all the audio-video gear (including an outsize screen) anyone could want, and what looks like a year’s supply of neatly racked Italian table wine. The director himself is diminutive (a poster of Napoleon overlooks the living room) with intimidatingly large, dark eyes. He talks with his elbows on the table, gesturing seldom, but punctuating his talk with quick smiles and expressive archings of his eyebrows.
The rattled, obsessively jealous husband Scorsese played from the back seat of Robert De Niro’s cab in Taxi Driver has given way to a calmer but perhaps sadder figure who, at 42, recently underwent his third divorce (from actress-model Isabella Rossellini).
It’s commonplace to cite Scorsese’s preeminent status—artistically, if not commercially—among American directors. From his brilliant work at New York University Film School (Who’s That Knocking at My Door in 1969) and his Hollywood debut (Boxcar Bertha in 1972 ) he catapulted right through the cult ranks into auteur status with Mean Streets in 1973. Succeeding years brought Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver, New York, New York, The Last Waltz and Raging Bull. The King of Comedy continues his pursuit of personal themes of guilt, obsession and an undercurrent of violence in American life.
Scorsese does not appear to be happy, as man or filmmaker, as he prepares for his next challenge—adapting Nikis Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ for the screen. We began by discussing the long gestation period for The King of Comedy.
Q: You first read Paul Zimmerman’s script for The King of Comedy in 1974. Since then your celebrity has increased and your work has been linked to the fantasies of people like John Hinckley Jr. What spurred you to finally make this film?
A: I wanted to explore a change in values, a change in what’s become important in life to a lot of Americans. This society, in the last 20 years, has started to feed on celebrity, and for the wrong reasons. It’s a kind of media phenomenon, but it goes all the way back to … I’ll never forget seeing newsreels of Al Capone signing autographs for an old lady before getting on a train. Today John De Lorean makes a moral mistake, but it’s widely perceived that his only mistake was getting caught. We reward people just for the sake of becoming known, becoming notorious, and that’s crazy.
Q: Johnny Carson turned down the offer to play the Jerry Langford part. Jerry Lewis used to sub for him on The Tonight Show in the summer. Why use that particular type, a talk show host, as your focus point?
A: A Johnny Carson, in this case a Jerry Langford, has an incredible rapport with his audience. It’s night, an intimate hour. It’s a new form of celebrity, that intimacy. He’s your friend, in your house every night. You’re not in his, though, and that’s the problem the movie deals with. I’m not criticizing that celebrity; I’m looking at the other side of the coin, the audience side.
Q: You’ve said that this is an autobiographical film, that there’s a part of you in both Rupert Pupkin and Jerry Langford. Other characters in your film have had Rupert’s hunger for recognition.
A: Oh yes, it’s in Raging Bull, in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, in Mean Streets especially. That ambition to be recognized starts out as something good. This film is intrinsic to fantasies De Niro and I had as kids, to be in movies. Where Rupert lives—in Union City—I lived there a while when I first got out of NYU. The city was right there, the Empire State Building, but there was that river in between. There was the frustration of having a goal set in front of you that you could never really get at.
Q: It’s a very interesting pivot point when Rupert’s fantasies start to be acted upon. When he shows up at Jerry’s country home, it takes a while to realize it’s actually happening.
A: That’s kind of accidental, but it’s an accident that works. I liked the idea that when he really starts acting out his fantasy you still think it’s a fantasy, but this time it’s for real. I wanted to show all the dreams as looking totally real, because dreams of that nature are very real to you. You fall asleep and imagine an argument, or a love situation, you don’t see them through oil filters or slow motion.
Q: You recently said that the fun part of filmmaking is largely gone for you, and what remains is the obsessive, lonely part. How do you see your life parallelling Jerry Langford’s?
A: One thing nobody understands is what it’s like to do this work, of network television or of making a film, and how many people, even close friends, get insulted when you don’t return a call, or when you do it’s to say you can’t have dinner. Some directors may be able to fit in dinners, to fit in a lot of people. I can’t. I have to be alone a lot. And that’s dangerous, because you wind up being totally alone.
Even the kind of family of two or three people you may form around you can’t fully understand. If he’s busy, why is he reading a book, looking at that film on television? Why is he talking to that person on the phone for an hour? Or why is he sitting there for four hours, by himself and doing nothing, not saying a word? It’s all work.
Q: Because you need to be gestating ideas in a general way?
A: Not only that, but doing something that, in your mind, pertains directly to your work. I couldn’t tell the people at Warner Brothers specifically why I had to be watching Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, directed by Seth Holt, before I made Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. But I did. People might say, okay, that’s artistic license, but nobody understands, not even the people closest to you.
Q: I think you and De Niro, as an artistic team, are seen as very reclusive and private.
A: Our thing is like a cloistered situation, it’s virtually religious. De Niro and Harvey Keitel, they work like monks. One may not like it particularly, but I don’t know any other way.
Q: Did you make The King of Comedy now partly at De Niro’s urging?
A: Yes. We had some projects plotted out after Mean Streets. One of them was Taxi Driver, and also New York, New York and Raging Bull. We had to do Raging Bull early enough to be sure to get him at a physical peak in his life, able to perform in the boxing ring and to put on all that weight. The King of Comedy was the last one in that program, and he said, “Why don’t you do that right away, before you do Last Temptation of Christ, because it can all be done in New York, relatively easy.” But there’s no such thing as easy.
Q: But De Niro was a full collaborator throughout the shooting?
A: Most importantly, he helped me cast it. We’ve gotten to rely on each others’ feelings about certain things, and about people. One key thing was—could he accept Masha a neurotic, rich Langford fanatic looking, not fat and ugly, which would be the cliche’ for this unloved character, but looking like Sandra Bernhard, with this interesting sexiness about her. We had her read with Bob, the scene in the street where they argue over the money, and she had a certain attitude we found very refreshing.
Q: You and De Niro met with Jerry Lewis in Las Vegas, and he was eager to do it. Was it hard to keep him reined in, as Langford?
A: No, because he had a good understanding of Langford. He knows how to be a star in that sense, to hold back. At certain points in the shooting, yeah, you’d be going, “Less, less, less.” But we basically got all the kinks out in the first week, which was when we shot the opening scene with all that pushing and yelling. A little later when you see Rupert and Langford laughing in the restaurant–that was real laughter between De Niro and Lewis.
Q: There are some very subtle psychological struggles seen onscreen in King. Which scene was the hardest to get?
A: Well, the scene where Shelley Hack who plays a production assistant has to tell De Niro that his tape is good, but not good enough, and he’s saying, “I have to disagree with you,” etc. We shot 27, maybe 30 takes one day, maybe 12 more the next day. None of them was bad, and maybe another director would have said, “Okay, she’s bitchy, and Rupert’s impossible.” That’s easy. But I wanted one that would be honest, in terms of the subtleties of that scene.
Q: Some people have compared the picture to a horror film. Is that partly in the camera moves?
A: I would tend to follow the characters, to move the whole camera and track, rather than panning from a fixed point. When Langford is running away from Masha in the street, we shot some of that hand-held. It was bumpy-looking, but effective. Sometimes you build tension by remaining on a certain character, like when Shelley Hack turns away from Bob and goes back down the hallway, the camera pans with her, then it pans back, and Bob is already walking back and sitting down. It gives a strange feel.
Q: It would seem that filming The Last Temptation of Christ will present an entirely different set of problems. Adapting a novel about a divinity, the question of whether De Niro’s available….
A: Well, it’s Jesus who’s integral, not De Niro. Paul Schrader’s script is a distillation of the book, an impression of the book. The film will deal with the human nature of Christ, and of the people around him–the failings and the temptations. The faith of Jesus is dealt with like the faith of Abraham—in terms of someone who’s been asked to do a major, incredible task by God. And he doesn’t know whether he wants to be involved with this. It’s mainly dealing with his handling of the mission. Whether that mission is divine or not is not the case being tested in the film.
Q: Mixed in with the autobiographical elements of The King of Comedy is a rather stringent morality. How much impact are you hoping to have on people’s behavior?
A: That morally “corrective” aspect was part of my motive in making it, but overall it’s extremely personal in nature. Just as it’s crazy for some people to say that we actually advocate someone trying to get into show business as Rupert did, you never say, “I’m gonna make this film so people start acting differently.” You try to understand the characters and the subject matter as deeply as you explore yourself, and make the characters and their actions as honest as possible. If you portray a villain with conviction and honesty, it starts people thinking.
Some people really agree with his line, “Better to be king for a day than schmuck for a lifetime.” Some people find themselves cheering that, and then maybe they go home and think differently—“I was just cheering for a guy who could be a murderer.”
A murderer might say, “Better to be king for a day….” A murderer might say that, or even worse, a politician.