Martin Scorsese, Sir Ben Kingsley and Leonardo DiCaprio on Shutter Island

Michael finds out more about Shutter Island, from the mouths of Messrs Scorsese, DiCaprio and Kingsley...

Shutter Island, the latest film from Martin Scorsese, is released today. Last month, the director sat down with cast members Leonardo DiCaprio and Sir Ben Kingsley at a press conference in London to chat about this dark, psychological thriller.

Ever the film buff, however, Scorsese was just as keen to gush about his myriad influences, the awe-inspiring career of Max von Sydow, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in the process delivering a mini-lecture on what is one of his favourite films.

Mr Scorsese, what appealed to you most about the project? Was it the emotional and psychological subject matter, or the opportunity to mix up genres?

MS: I think it’s both, and in that order. Really, the first element that I connected with was the emotion. Sorry, that’s how it goes! I felt very empathetic with the character, very sympathetic with the character, overwhelmed by the nature of the story of his character. And, this is a hard film to talk about… for those who don’t know the story, I don’t want to give anything away.

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That, along with the vocabulary of the past of cinema, and the nature of Gothic Literature. That opened the door, and was really enticing. I don’t know how else to tell the story other than to utilise that vocabulary – the rain, the darkness, the mansions, the framing, the lighting, et cetera.

Sir Ben, this is your first time working with Scorsese. How did that work out? And how did you approach your character?

BK: Receiving a phone call from Martin Scorsese… First, you stand, phone to your ear. Then, given it is our first time together, it’s wonderful to jump in the deep end. There is no shallow end, with Marty, but, to jump in the deep end is an immense privilege, because you sink or swim, and Mr. Scorsese trusted that I could swim, which is great.

And, having heard his persuasive, affectionate voice on the phone, I read the script with great delight, and liked to seek for the narrative function of the character in the bigger piece. Where he can serve Leo, where… like in a Shakespeare play, like in our dreams too, everyone is an extension of the centre. And I suppose my contribution, and it seemed to have Marty when we worked, was the bringer of unconditional love, and to have that rather delicate mandate to be shared with Marty, I know that he directs with love. That is the process. The emotion, the empathy, the sympathy.

Mr. Scorsese, you are often hailed as the greatest living film director…

MS: I didn’t say that, just remember that!

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How does that reputation affect your approach?

MS: All I can do is do the best work I can. I need to work, I like to work, although I complain about it, but I do like it. And I just need to make the best film I can.

I can’t think of… I’m sorry, but I just can’t think of… how would one put it, award periods… I mean, it would be nice if the film was recognised, but, once you’re in the thick of battle, you just try to get through it, and try to make something of it that you feel that I can say, ‘Yes, I directed that film,’ years from now. And be happy with that film.

And so, you try your best. Sometimes you go in with one thought in mind, and one desire – in the case of The Aviator it was to make a Hollywood spectacle – but quickly, by the second or third week of shooting, you just want to survive it! [laughs] You want to literally survive it because, don’t forget, I go through the editing process, too. And then, of course, when the film is released, we have to talk about it. So, I take it very seriously.

Mr. Scorsese, could you please talk about the film Shock Corridor, and the influence that Samuel Fuller had on the film, if any?

MS: Sam Fuller, on this film… Shock Corridor… can only be conjured as a mantra, because you cannot… Shock Corridor is a classic work of art, and it comes from the unique experience of being Sam Fuller. Yes, there’s always that element of Shock Corridor hovering around the picture, but never specifically. In fact, we didn’t even screen it, because it’s in us – it’s in me, anyway.

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It was a way of conjuring up  support, by just saying the name Shock Corridor as we were going to shoot! [laughs] Or Sam!

But, no, the first film I showed Leo and Mark Ruffalo and Sir Ben was Laura. Otto Preminger’s film. In the sense of the war-torn, war-ravaged hero. World-weary, so to speak. The body language of Dana Andrews. The man who falls in love with a ghost.

Then, I showed Out Of The Past, Jacques Tournour. The trap, the puzzle, the mystery. The beauty of the poetry of that film, and Tournour’s work on Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, too. But, primarily, Out Of The Past and Laura… and Let There Be Light, John Huston.

The Steel Helmet, we showed, the nature of the soldier. And many others. For points of reference. But primarily, it was interesting, the Dana Andrews character in Laura, because the way he moved through the film, his shoulders were down, and never looked anybody in the eye. And that wonderful scene where he just takes over her apartment. Loosens his tie, and makes himself a drink. And looks at the portrait and the doorbell rings. [laughs]

Mr DiCaprio. We’re used to seeing you in intense dramatic roles. Are we ever going to see you lighten up in more comedy based roles?

LDC: Lighten up in general? Well. I don’t know, really. I just respond to what I read, and what I’ve read in these roles are characters that have moved me emotionally in some respect. And it’s very much a throwback to what moved me in cinema at a very early age.

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These are the types of characters that I felt emotionally connected to, and that’s inexplicable. And I think you never really feel that you’ve arrived there, or felt that you’ve done that role that satisfies that. So, I’m driven to be able to some day, in my mind, emulate or try to get close to the great masterworks of great performers that I’ve seen in cinema from years past. And I don’t know if that hunger will ever be… that thirst will ever be quenched.

I don’t know, I would love to try other genres, and I look forward to doing them. It just depends on what moves me emotionally.

What was it like having Max von Sydow working on the film?

MS: Of course, obviously, talking about the reference to cinema history… because he made cinema history! Along with Bergman, of course, and the other filmmakers he worked with. But, he is one of those figures in cinema history that transcends the films that he’s in. He’s also international, in a sense. So that he becomes in and of himself, Max von Sydow.

It’s not Max from the Seventh Seal, or Max doing a small part in Wild Strawberries. Or The Magician… or The Exorcist, or any of the later films. Even Needful Things, where he plays a small character in Needful Things. It’s simply this extraordinary presence.

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Mr. Scorsese, the film has a very distinct tone, made by the music especially. How complete is your vision of the final film, before the film starts shooting, and how much do you rely on the input of others?

MS: The mood and tone and atmosphere of the picture was in my head, and in my blood, in a way. Once I decided to make the picture, and I had to find my way in that mood to choose, select, to emphasis certain visual elements and sound. Ultimately, that’s when I call in my collaborators. Bob Richardson on camera, Dante Ferretti on production design. And so, again, I show them references. I Walk With a Zombie… I show them other Val Lewton films… And films like The Trial, we’ll look at some Polanski films. We’ll look at Bigger Than Life, Nick Ray, The Wrong Man, Hitchcock, Crossfire, Edward Dmytrych. Many, many different types of pictures… there might be one shot in it that I want to discuss with them, but at least they’re reference points.

It’s a constant process of pulling together the images. I was rather shaken by all the green trees. I always am. I’m allergic to… I don’t want to be funny about it… it’s always been… I love seeing, when I was a kid, I loved to see Westerns, because you could see the outdoors. But I had asthma. I couldn’t go anywhere! I’d go to the movies, and they’d be in Technicolor. And you’d see the cowboys, and you’d see the landscape. Monument Valley. You’d see forests in the Anthony Mann films. Wow, it’s fantastic. But I could never go in there! Seriously! But we did it, we did it on this thing.

At one point I was rock climbing, at seven in the morning, which was quite unique. But, the colour of the leaves disturbed me, so we had to work on that.

Robbie Robertson was the other one I called upon, for the music. Primarily, because, he’s always talking about… As much as I admire film scores, and I’ve collected every film score, and Bernard Herrmann I was very lucky to work with, I was extremely lucky to work with Elmer Bernstein, Howard Shore over the years. But I always imagined films with my own score, because I don’t come from that world, that period of filmmaking.

So, how can I make up my own score on a film like this, where it’s not necessarily being made up of popular music from the radio or the period… But what if it’s modern symphonic music? And so, Robbie Robertson came up with this idea of modern symphonic music… What if we create our own score? And so he started sending me CDs of different pieces of music. I mentioned music by Wagner, and Charles Ives… but we went ahead with Ingram Marshall, John Adams, Morton Feldman, Penderecki, Ligeti…

Then, we work all the music, and mix it in different ways to make the score. Oh, and the foghorns at the beginning of the film, it’s really something called Fog Tropes, it’s all brass. It’s an actual piece of music.

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Mr. Scorsese and Mr. DiCaprio, we’ve touched upon Hitchcock as an influence here… And I’m thinking of Vertigo here… I was wondering if there was a parallel between your relationship and the relationship between Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart. Is that a comparison we can draw?

MS: Vertigo is probably my favourite Hitchcock film, and one of my very favourite films of all time. And it’s a film I’m very obsessed with. I saw it on its first release, in Vistavision! Projected in Vistavision, at the Capitol Theater in New York.

At the moment the nun comes up at the end, in Vistavision, it’s just an extraordinary shot. But the entire film, even though I didn’t understand it when I was 15… it was a film I kept revisiting. And it was a film that was taken out of circulation for a long time, and was shown only at LACMA, in LA, in the mid-70s. Everybody flocked to it, Brian DePalma, Steven Spielberg, all of us. It was a Hitchcock retrospective. And that was the only way to see the picture, except on TV, all cut up, with commercials and sequences cut out.

But in any event, it was a film… it’s one of those I live with and by. Whenever it’s on TCM, I watch it. I happen to have a beautiful Technicolor print of it. 35mm, that’s just beginning to go vinegar, but you can still screen it. So you can see the real colour. I helped support the restoration of the picture, beautifully done by Bob Harris. 

So, it’s very important, the musical score is very important. Also, with John Williams he’s done concerts of Bernard Herrmann’s music. And to sit on the stage to introduce each section, on Psycho, or North By Northwest, or Vertigo… but to sit on stage and be enveloped by the Love Theme from Vertigo is just an experience, to be taken into that vortex, and to be taken into that dream state. This obsession. It’s something that is the very basis of cinema. And life. 

I don’t know if we… Stewart’s performance in that film is an ultimate performance, particularly as he realises in the last 15 minutes of the picture where he realises what’s going on, and that gesture when he loses her a second time. It’s just an extraordinary thing. And, I didn’t have to see the film again. Did I ask you see that, Leo?

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LDC: No, actually, I saw that one on my own.

MS: I screened it for a number of people. I’ve screened it over the years many times. I screen my old Technicolor print. It’s still holding on! And that’s an interesting film, too, another one where I don’t really… Like Out Of The Past or I Walked With A Zombie or Cat People… Another one where I know the ending, I know the beginning kind of. But I don’t really know where I am every time I see the picture.

In other words I can’t tell you that’s directly the centre of the film. I let it take me every time. I just noticed this time that she writes him a letter and explains everything to him. I think we were shooting this film, and it was on TCM, I said – she explains everything in the letter! – and I’ve seen this film countless times.

So, if a film surprises you, or a story or an atmosphere, or a mood, or an actor does something, and you constantly think it’s new… I guess it’s me…. I find it inseparable from what I do.

Shutter Island is released today. Read our review here.