Exclusive: Martin Scorsese discusses his faith, his struggles, his films and "Silence."

Martin Scorsese, the acclaimed filmmaker, has completed a film about 17th-century, Portuguese Jesuits ministering in Japan, based on Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence. The film, to be released this month, stars Liam Neeson as Father Cristóvão Ferreira, a Jesuit who recants his faith after undergoing torture, and Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as two younger Jesuits, Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe, respectively, whose mission is to find their mentor. They, too, find themselves submitted to torture and struggle with whether to apostatize.

Early in this interview, Mr. Scorsese spoke about his childhood as a Catholic schoolboy educated by the Sisters of Charity on the Lower East Side of New York, his brief stint at a minor seminary, his love for the church, which he said took him out of the “everyday world,” as well as his early fascination with Maryknoll Missionaries. “I loved what they had to say,” he said about the Maryknolls, “the courage, the testing and the helping.” This interview took place in Mr. Scorsese’s office in New York on Nov. 8 with James Martin, S.J., who served as an adviser to the film. This part of the conversation, edited for length and clarity, focuses on the creation of “Silence” and Mr. Scorsese’s own spiritual journey in making the film.

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James Martin, S.J.: When did you run across Silence, the book?

Martin Scorsese: I wound up at Cardinal Hayes [High School in New York] within two to three years [of leaving the minor seminary] and it gave me a structure and a focus. Somehow at that time also, around 1959 or 1960, the possibility of making films became very real. The whole industry changed. You could make independent films on the East Coast. It wasn’t that way before. So I wound up at Washington Square College, and the passion found its way into the films. “Mean Streets” has a very, very strong religious content to the picture, and the premise really, and to a certain extent “Taxi Driver” and certainly “Raging Bull,” though I didn’t know it.

Right around that time, I had gotten involved with [Nikos] Kazantzakis’s book The Last Temptation of Christ. I wanted to make that. By 1988, when that was finally made, and it was about to be released, there was a great deal of an uproar, and we had to show the film, the film at that moment, to different religious groups to show what it was, rather than arguing about it without having seen it. One of the people was Archbishop Paul Moore of New York, Episcopal, and he came to a little meeting afterwards at a small dinner we had. He felt that the film was, as he said, “Christologically correct.”

He said, “I’m going to send you a book,” and described some of the stories in [Silence], and he described the confrontation, the “choices,” the concept of apostasy and faith. I received the book a few days later, and in 1989, a year later, is when I read it.

By the time I did “Goodfellas,” I had promised the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa to be in a film of his called “Dreams.” He wanted me to play van Gogh.

So I was 15 days over schedule on “Goodfellas.” The studio was furious. We were just scurrying to finish, and Kurosawa was waiting for me in Japan. He was 82 years old, and he had just finished the majority of the shooting, and he had only my scene to shoot and he was waiting. Two days after shooting that film we flew to Tokyo and then to Hokkaido, and while I was there I read the book. Actually, I finished it on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto.

So you read Silence in Japan. This is in 1989?

1989. August, September. That’s when I thought, “This would be an amazing picture to make at some point.” At first I didn’t think so. At first I didn’t really immediately know, while I was reading the book, how to realize it, make it real, stage it, because I didn’t know the heart of it. In other words, I wasn’t able to really interpret it. And I think it took all these years. Because I tried writing a script right away, around 1990. Jay Cox and myself, in 1991, were able to get [the rights], and we were going to make the film right away; and we got halfway through the script, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I just didn’t know.

Then I got sidetracked doing other films: “Age of Innocence.” I owed a film to Universal. I had to do “Casino,” wound up doing “Kundun,” which also was a way of working some of this out. In the meantime, I was always going back to the book. What’s important to understand is that from 1989 to 1990 to 2014, or ’15, when we finally got to shoot the picture, there were many legal problems, and it was a Gordian knot of intricacies, a complicated mess, a legal mess, and so it became more forbidding to do the picture. Some of the people involved wound up in jail. It was not for reasons of dealing with “Silence,” but other business practices.

Finally, there were a number of people who worked it out, but it took many years to try to understand, or feel comfortable with, how to visualize the picture, and how to deal with the last sequences of the film. Not just the confrontation at the end, but the epilogue.

You said it took you a while to understand the “heart” of the book. How would you describe the heart of the book?

Well, it's the depth of faith. It’s the struggle for the very essence of faith. Stripping away everything else around it.

The vehicle that one takes towards faith can be very helpful. So, the church—the institution of the church, the sacraments—this all can be very helpful. But ultimately it has to be yourself, and you have to find it. You have to find that faith, or you have to find a relationship with Jesus with yourself really, because ultimately that’s the one you face.

Right. Father Rodrigues is very free by the end.

Yes. He is. But it doesn’t negate in my mind those who choose to live a life according to the rules of an institution, of the institution of the Catholic Church, or however one proceeds in their life with their own beliefs. But ultimately they can’t do it for you. You’ve got to do it yourself. That’s the problem! [Laughs.]

And the invitation.

And the invitation, and it keeps calling you.

It does. Every day.

It keeps calling you, and it’s in the other people around you. It’s in the people closest to you. This is what it is, and you suddenly get slapped in the face by it, and you say, “Wake up!”

But the shock is, without describing the ending of the movie, that the character finds that what he is about to do, or what he does, is antithetical to what probably all of Christian culture in Europe thinks should be done.

That’s right. That’s what was so compelling about telling this story. Because how could you support that? Or how could you champion his choice, his decision? Then you say: “You put yourself in that place. Think about the weakness of the human spirit. The weakness of humanity.” And I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it over the years myself too. I’ve experienced it with people making the same mistakes over and over again, and there are only certain people around them going to help them or be with them. It’s a test. The problem is like in “Mean Streets,” the character Charlie chooses his own penance. You can’t do that. [Laughs.]

Often God gives it to you, or life gives it to you.

Yes. When you least expect it.

Right.

And it becomes an annoyance, and you really say: “No. That’s it.” [Laughs.]

Right. It’s not the cross. I said to my spiritual director once, “This is not the cross that I would choose,” and he said, “Well, if it’s the cross you choose, then it's hardly a cross.”

That’s right, because it’s comfortable to you! [Laughs.]

Right.

And that’s what fascinated me about the decision he makes. It’s such a sweeping decision too. It’s very clear what he does. Yet he has it solely in him. It’s there in his heart. And it’s there in the book, I know.

You have this book that means so much to you spiritually, you’re able to work on it and now you see the result. What is that process like for you spiritually?

Ultimately, it becomes like a pilgrimage. It’s a pilgrimage. We’re still on the road and it’s never going to end. I thought it would for a little while, but once I was there, I realized no. Even in the editing room, it’s unfinished. It will always be unfinished.

Ultimately, it becomes like a pilgrimage. We’re still on the road and it’s never going to end. Even in the editing room, it’s unfinished. It will always be unfinished.

It’s easy to make a pilgrimage the way I want to make a pilgrimage [laughs], but it wasn’t easy to make the pilgrimage. It’s not easy to make the film, and there were a lot of sacrifices. They can't even be fixed in a way, some of the things that happened personally, so there were a lot of sacrifices to make the picture. Whether it’s a good picture or not is up to other people, but for me the spirituality helped to a certain extent, and it’s something that I would want my children to feel comfortable with in the future.

Christian spirituality in general?

Yes.

What you mean by saying the movie is still unfinished?

Well, there are parts of the book I wish I could have shot that we chose not to, that I would have like to have realized, but it’s a different form. Literature is very different from the visual image and the moving image. So could I have done it page by page almost? It’s almost trying to reach a point in which you pull things away rather than putting things in, and hopefully the things that are in resonate. But the resonating? I’d like to make a film just on one of those vibrations, so to speak. So for me I don't want to finish it. It’s been way over schedule too. I can say that now, but it’s time to finish it. It’s time to finish it, and it’s just time to let it go out there and people see it. That’ll be good, and take what comes. But it’s almost a very private thing.

Of course. Now, when you read the book there were some scenes that I’m sure that are very moving to you and that really affected you on a very deep level. When you see your film what kind of reaction do you have to those scenes?

There are a few scenes in the film that affect me. There's no doubt. The one of the martyrs in the ocean.

That’s a beautiful scene.

While we were there you could feel it. When we were shooting it, I’m telling you, you could feel it.

What could you feel?

You felt the beauty and the spirituality of what was trying to be enacted. You could feel it through the actors. Through Shinya Tsukamoto and Yoshi Oida, Andrew and Adam, it was gut-wrenching and sad and beautiful. Those caves were beautiful. When we went on location just to check those caves, when we were in there, there was a woman in there meditating. It’s a special place. So we spent a lot of time there, and it was comforting, in an odd way. It was very moving. And when I see it on film, yes, I get some of that.

What do you think someone without faith would take from this film?

Look, we know that there will be a lot of people that are going be scathing, I would think—those without faith. The problem is the certitude, particularly in the modern world; because with technology, we always think...well, I imagine that no matter what point in time, particularly from the Industrial Revolution on, you must have thought that this was the best we can ever do.

In other words, this is the best of all possible worlds and we're so advanced. And maybe we're not.

But with the technology and the possibility of explaining spirituality through chemistry of the brain, all of this, I think some people would be extremely hostile to it, or at least point out maybe the negative aspects of the “mission,” so to speak. And there have been so many films, so many books on that, going back to “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” In any event, this goes beyond that, I think. This goes to the very essence of the gift that they brought.

My sense is that for someone without faith, they are brought along on Father Rodrigues’s journey; and he’s a good person, and the Japanese Christians are good people.

They are. Yes.

My sense is that by the end the viewer is with Father Rodrigues, and experiencing it with him, and suffering with him. So it’s less of a portrayal of the missionary that is just from the outside in, and more from the inside out.

When you talk about why did it take me so long to be able to attempt to put it on the screen, that’s the issue: the inside out. It wasn’t the obvious story. It really was deeper, as I was saying yesterday to somebody. They’d asked again about “Last Temptation.” They said, “Do you think this was a direct offshoot?” I said, “Well, no. ‘Last Temptation’ was where I was at that time in my own search, and that left off on one track, and this took up another track. This went deeper.” But I realized after that film, for myself, that I had to go deeper, and it wasn’t going to be easy. I don’t say I have gone deeper. I’m just saying that I had to try.

That’s interesting. You mean deeper in terms of it being more stripped away?

Yes, but also to the very understanding of what compassion is about.

Yes, because in the end it’s about the relationship between him and Jesus.

Yes.

You had an early fascination with missionaries. You came into contact with this book about missionaries. You planned to do the film for years and years, and now you’ve finally realized this beautiful project. How has the making of the film influenced your faith life or your spirituality?

Well, I think it’s forced me to look at it very closely. That’s an easy phrase. But it’s to contemplate it and to accept that if I’ve gotten to a certain point it's mainly because my life may be ending. Also, there are people around me that are very close to me, and I’m finding that they actually, not intentionally, but they, plus this story, seem to clarify for me what life is. And it’s like a gift in a way.

Can I live up to it? I don’t know. I honestly don’t think so, but what you do is you keep trying. Just keep trying. That’s the thing.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
James Sullivan
11 months 1 week ago
Beautiful interview. Thanks JM. I can't wait to see SILENCE--
Joe Gutekanst
11 months 1 week ago
If I may ask, where does the background music during the first part of the interview come from? Is it from the movie soundtrack? Thanks!
Leonard Villa
11 months 1 week ago
The end of this novel brings up many issues: Romans 3:8 indicates that one may never do evil so good results. Not everyone has the grace of martyrdom. The Donatist crisis in the Church was the unwillingness of some Catholics to think forgiveness was available to the number of Christians who surrendered to the persecutors. They were simply traitors. Contra Scorcese it's not what "all of Christian culture in Europe" thinks should be done but what the Gospel indicates should be done in the face of bloody persecution? St. Francis Xavier had a dim view of the"Christian culture" of his day vis a vis the need to preach the Gospel and save souls. You can read his remarks in the Liturgy of Hours for his feast day on December 3. Someone also pointed out what a different approach or ending Bolt's" A Man for All Seasons" had to martyrdom and the duty of the Christian. How much does Endo's novel and the movie reflect the angst and uncertainties and spiritual crises and lack of faith of our own age rather than what the Gospel and the Catholic Faith and the sacrament of Confirmation proclaim and dare I say demand?
IGNACIO SILVA
11 months ago
I devoured Endo's seismic novel in 2 days. Because of the film's trailer & Scorcese's interview I already had faces attached to the characters and a deeper understanding of Japan's XVII Century ways, not to mention more appreciation for the challenge of bringing this novel to film. Endo's rich third person writing & descriptions of nature intersperse the first person narration creating an immediate and unexpected transition from dark, humid, and sticky to terrifying. In first person Fr. Rodrigues' struggle with faith is our own but exponentially. I surmise Scorcese was able to capture this in cinematography and Garfield's full symphony of acting. I highly recommend reading the novel before watching the film for the first time. The film should be watched at least twice. Maybe, maybe then, we'll better understand Jesus' "Eli Eli lama sabacthani" and apply it to our own experience.

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