The characters are not people, but rough drafts of simplistic character-traits, and the actors (game as they all are) cannot create something out of nothing.
Martin Scorsese's new movie, "Bringing Out the Dead," is one of his best. That means a lot when you are arguably the greatest active American director. The film, which opens Friday, stars Nicolas Cage as a paramedic whose runs through Hell's Kitchen are like a bus route through Dante's Inferno.
I telephoned Scorsese earlier this week, plunging once again into his rapid-fire Walter Winchell dialogue. To deconstruct his verbal riffs into the forms of a traditional interview would lose the music. Here are some of the notes he hit:
1. "The first things I thought of, when I read Joe Connelly's book, were Nic Cage's face and his eyes. His uncle Francis (Coppola) had us meet a few years ago. You know, you meet some people sometimes, you don't wanna spend five months with them on the set, you know what I'm saying? Well, this guy seemed to be polite. He was a nice guy to be around, and then Brian de Palma told me he was great to work with. I know his films over the years. He's inventive and he goes from an expressive style, almost like silent film, like Lon Chaney, whom he adores, to something extremely internal. So I thought immediately of Nic for this."
2. "Some people keep asking, 'Gee, New York looks a little different now.' And I say, 'But you're looking at the surface. This is not about New York. This is about suffering, it's about humanity. It's about what our part is in life.' This whole thing about how New York is changing, getting better. It goes in cycles. Some people are saying, 'The movie is representative of New York in the early 1990s. It's different now.' I say it's not so. We were there; we were shooting in that area. They were out; they were there ... those people. And if some of them aren't on the streets, believe me, they gotta be someplace. I saw some of the places where they are. You don't wanna know. It's like underneath the city in a hole. Under the railroads. It's the end of life. It's the dregs. It's down. You can't get any lower."
3. "The Nic Cage character has three co-pilots, a different partner every night. John Goodman is probably in the best shape. Goodman basically worries about where he's gonna eat, takes a few minutes off, takes a nap. Ving Rhames, he gets religion. But the thing about Ving's character is that you can't make him work more than two nights, or he gets overexcited. And then, of course, the Tom Sizemore character, he's a paramilitary, he's in there. He knows what to do when he gets there, but he freaks out from time to time."
4. "The people they're carrying in their ambulance, I saw it like that the Bowery. I saw it happening to some of the people in my old neighborhood. I grew up with them, in a way. Some of them, when they weren't drinking, were kinda nice. They worked for people in the grocery store. But when they got drunk, there was no dealing with them. And people would just become frustrated and hit them. I saw it happen all the time."
5. "That title, 'Bringing Out the Dead' - Joe Connelly chose that title with a sense of humor. It's based on a reference to 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail.' You remember? 'Bring out your dead,' John Cleese tells them. He takes out one person, and the guy says, 'I'm not dead yet.' He says, 'Don't be a baby. Come on.' Remember, he puts him on the cart? He says, 'He's very ill. He's gonna die any second.' "
6. "When I read the galleys of the book I told (producer) Scott Rudin, who gave me the book, 'the only man who could write a script of this is Paul Schrader.' (Schrader also wrote Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver,' 'Raging Bull' and 'The Last Temptation of Christ.') The last scene that Paul wrote, it's not that way in the book. Nic says, 'Rose, forgive me. Forgive me, Rose.' And she says, 'Nobody told you to suffer. It was your idea.' And when Schrader wrote that, I said, 'Oh - of course.' And that's the connection between us. We never really discuss it, but over the years, we've had this similarity to each other. I said to him, 'It's so beautiful. And you're right, because you can't forgive yourself. You want everybody else to forgive you.' We're tied to each other with this sort of thing."
7. "When you bring somebody back to life, you feel like God, you are God. But one has to get past the idea of the ego and the pride. Hey, the job isn't about bringing people back to life, it's about being there, it's about compassion for the suffering; suffering with them."
8. "Right after we finished shooting, another guy fell on a fence in New York. This happens all the time. Every few months there's an impaling like that. We shot in the emergency room in Bellevue on the ground floor; we built the set down there. A few stories above, one of the doctors had a section of the fence they took out of the man, as a showpiece in his office. That was the incident that inspired the scene in the movie."
9. "Helen (Morris, his wife, a book editor) told me last night there was a big deal on the Web about the New York Times walking out of the movie. But it wasn't a critic. It was Bernie Weinraub, their Hollywood columnist. And I said, well, Bernie, I know him a little bit. He liked 'Casino.' He hurt us very badly on 'The Age of Innocence' in an article he wrote in the Times where he complained about us having a big budget on 'The Age of Innocence,' and he hit Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer for not taking less than their usual fee. By the way, they did take less, I don't know how much, but they did. We were compared unfavorably to 'The Remains Of The Day' and pictures like that because they're made for a good price, and we were wasting money. And that was it. They gave us $32 million; we went a little bit over, but not a lot, and $32 million was the average amount for a film being made at that time. If somebody wanted to give us $30 million, and somebody else wanted to give us $32 million, I'd take the 32."
10. "I'm still going to make 'Dino,' the Dean Martin picture, with Tom Hanks. We're gonna hopefully do it right after 'Gangs of New York,' which I've been trying for years to get done. Jay Cocks and I have been rewriting the script since January. We got Leonardo DiCaprio, we may have Bob De Niro to play the archvillain, hero-villain, whatever. It's taken 10 months to make the deal, mainly because it's a lot of money in the film, and you gotta be careful and you have to get the right amount of star power in it. It's only become real since Monday of (last) week. We're ready to go. And then deal with 'Dino' right after, I hope. Tom Hanks and I were speaking about it only a couple of weeks ago."
Captain's log: eight fifth graders, one adult, one James Cameron movie.
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