California, October 30, 2003. Inside the old Queen Mary, now a
permanently docked tourist attraction, a film crew awaits its
By Ariel leve.
The original interiors of this majestic
ship are perfect for the era being filmed today. The year is 1928.
The party scene being shot takes place in a Hollywood nightclub.
The film is The Aviator, which tells the story of Howard Hughes's
early years. An eccentric billionaire industrialist, Hughes was
the first mogul to make a $1m movie. He also dated Katharine Hepburn,
Jean Harlow and Ava Gardner, and pioneered aviation before receding
into a delusional, self-imposed exile. The director is Scorsese,
Mr, or Marty, not Martin. The star is Leonardo DiCaprio.
On set, champagne glasses are filled with
ginger ale. Period hors d'oeuvres are set on trays - egg salad
on white bread. The art-deco bar is packed with crew and extras
- men in tuxes, women in flapper dresses. They chat while the
shot is set up. The women are shown how to hold their cigarettes
and glasses the way they did in the 1920s; a bartender is told
how to pour. Scorsese sits just offstage, watching the video monitor,
examining what works in the frame. He is aware of the minutiae
The first rehearsal is about to begin and
DiCaprio arrives. Broad-shouldered and tall, his blond hair dyed
dark brown, he is Howard Hughes. Scorsese comes out and his presence
is momentous, like the Wizard of Oz emerging from behind the curtain.
There is a subtle shift among the extras, as if they're secretly
hoping for his attention. Scorsese talks to DiCaprio, then he
looks around. The crowd is too neat: they need to loosen up. Wardrobe,
make-up and hair appear and they "take it down" - he
wants the crowd looking more wrinkled and sweaty; this is a wrap
party, a wild celebration in full swing to mark the completion
of Hughes's landmark 1930 movie, Hell's Angels.
"Picture" is called. Take one,
and shooting begins. The music is loud; DiCaprio says his lines.
Take two. This time the music stops mid-scene and the crowd mimes
in silence, so the dialogue can be heard. Between takes, DiCaprio
has a cigarette. He paces, then sits on a crate as he is fussed
over by the women from hair and make-up. He speaks slowly, offers
amiable small talk. He can be overheard saying that the hottest
place he's been is Djibouti.
Two women dressed as devil girls stand on
the bar in red sequined outfits. One of them, impatient for shooting
to start again, practises swinging her tail. Scorsese had seen
photographs of women in these costumes from the 1920s and decided
he wanted some. The budget stretched to two.
A final brush of powder over DiCaprio's
nose, a dip inside the corner of his eye, and it's take three.
The same thing as before - mimed laughter, the devil girls shimmy,
then "Cut!" Scorsese comes out and speaks to the cameraman.
Then disappears again. DiCaprio stays focused, motionless, faintly
uttering lines of dialogue under his breath. The lights have heated
the room. A woman comes over and holds a tiny fan up to his face.
He doesn't blink.
On and on they go: take six, take seven.
A break for lunch, his main meal. Scorsese only sits down for
20 minutes because "getting energy back after eating"
is a problem. Then it is more of the same. The scene is shot from
different angles. More rehearsals. With every new angle, the lighting
is changed. He doesn't allow distractions. It's all part of his
meticulous nature, which includes, on this rare occasion, allowing
the journalist onto an otherwise closed set to observe what goes
into the process. Finally, the required ambience of excess, elegance
and glamour is captured. The emotional, organisational and physical
commitment required to achieve this one shot has been astounding.
This entire day will amount to less than 30 seconds of film. It's
no wonder this movie will cost more than $100m. On and on it has
gone, all day long. It isn't over because Scorsese is satisfied;
it isn't over because he's got exactly the shot he wants: it's
over because it has to be, the schedule is tight. There's no on-off
switch with Scorsese.
One year later. It is a brisk November afternoon
at an elegant restaurant off Central Park in Manhattan, and the
director, named affectionately by one star the "Ever Ready
bunny", is expected. His assistant arrives first; she wants
to ensure he will be comfortable. Scorsese doesn't frequent trendy
establishments and he doesn't seek to be noticed. He's earned
the prestige of recognition, but avoids it. You will never hear
him say "Do you know who I am?" to get the best table,
or read about him in the gossip columns. He is a private man and
will want a private table. This is not about exclusivity - he
single-mindedly prefers to focus on the details of film-making.
He walks in. At 62, he is pulsating with
energy; it fills the room. And he speaks like a machinegun, rattling
out words like bullets. His assistant leaves behind a mobile phone
so he can keep track of the time. He is told he must be somewhere
at three o'clock and he nods. He explains that the phone is new
and mainly for his family to reach him. It doesn't ring once:
everyone understands he is at work. His fastidiousness extends
beyond his work. He is wearing a navy-blue blazer and a custom-made
pinstriped shirt with his initials stitched into the cloth just
above the belt. His square-rimmed glasses amplify a distinguished
look - tasteful and civilised - far from the chaotic "mean
streets" of Little Italy in New York, where he grew up. Despite
his frenzied schedule, he remains stylish and fresh. He has just
finished the mix of the film and is working on the end credits.
His next stop is California, where he will finish the colour correction.
This part of the job is especially nostalgic for him, as it reawakens
a childhood spent watching Cinecolor films. But he is dreading
the trip to LA, because the man who has just made a film about
a pioneer of aviation has a love-hate relationship with aircraft.
"I'm terrified. Hate it. Hate it. I don't like to be bounced
in the air. Dropping thousands of feet? But I am attracted to
it. The seduction of airplanes, how they look."
So why, after a career that has spawned
classics such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, Casino,
and Gangs of New York, did he choose the well-worn story of Howard
Hughes, the man who built industries but died in dishevelled obscurity,
obsessively locking himself away for fear of being infected by
humans and bacteria? "Speed," says Scorsese. He relates
to Hughes's addiction to going faster, higher, sooner. Scorsese
is also a driven man: his foot is on the accelerator as he packs
as much information as possible into his mind and work. "What
I was interested in was this energetic guy willing to try anything.
He was crazy about speed - he wanted to be the fastest man on
the planet. He was extraordinary." Scorsese, who relishes
sitting alone with his thoughts in a cinema, connected with Hughes's
sense of isolation. He also related to the young Hughes's conflict:
the near-heroic desire to push back boundaries, handicapped by
an obsessive-compulsive insecurity.
Scorsese grew up with severe asthma. Even
laughing, he says, could bring on an attack, so he was always
told to be careful, which fostered a fear of physical activity.
Unable to play sports, going to the movies was his escape. "There
was a protective feeling I had in that movie theatre. I wished
I could have pushed through the fear the way he did." Scorsese
admits he still feels fear, just as he still feels driven.