Exclusive: Martin Scorsese on ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ the American Dream and his new film about Jesus
This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.
Jolted awake by his burning conscience, Charlie Cappa, a young, square-jawed Italian-American in a white tank top, wipes his forehead, crosses his darkened bedroom (a crucifix hanging on its back wall) and examines his face in the mirror. It is 3 or 4 a.m., but the time does not matter. Cappa, played by Harvey Keitel, is up and his sin is ever before him, to quote the psalm. In Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” he spends his time hanging around a bar, acting as a small-time mafioso, covering for his good-for-nothing friend and contemplating “the pain in hell” he may endure if he does not turn his life around.
“You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets,” Scorsese says in a voiceover in the opening seconds of this breakthrough film, a rollicking, in-your-face, shock-to-the-system shot with such immediacy and tinged with such guilt that it feels more alive than you have ever been. (And never one to absolve himself, the then-31-year-old director, in a brief cameo, kisses a gun and fires it out a car window during the deadly climax of the film.) The introduction of a confident, cinematic live wire who, over the next several decades, would become the most influential director in American film, “Mean Streets” is an essential text establishing the core themes—greed, guilt and what God’s got to do with it—that would distinguish Scorsese’s filmography over the next half-century.
There is a direct line from Scorsese’s early work to his latest feature, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” in which the sins of this country’s past and the crimes of a murderous gang out for the Osage people’s wealth tell a sickening, yet distinctly American story about who we are and how we got here. In a wide-ranging interview about the film and its influences, the Oscar-winning director spoke with America about the myth of objectivity in cinema, the history of the American western, the distinction between justice and mercy, and—as he sees it—the impossibility of learning from history. This interview has been edited for style, clarity and length.
Ryan Di Corpo: For over 50 years—through “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator,” “The Irishman” and now “Killers of the Flower Moon”—you have demonstrated a persistent interest in American myths and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. After all this probing, are you any closer to understanding America? Or are you ultimately left with more questions than answers?
Martin Scorsese: I think I understand something more [about America], and I think that has a lot to do with what Europe was and still is to a certain extent. The constant wars, the constant oppression, the constant difficulties, using religion as an excuse—all of this going on until finally people said, “There’s a whole new continent. Let’s get outta here. Let’s get to this new continent. It’s wide open, we can do anything and there’s freedom. We can have freedom.” And ultimately with the quote, “revolution,” unquote, we had that freedom, with no official religion or church overseeing how we’re to live in our government system.
This seemed like a paradise. And you have all this open land and suddenly it becomes Manifest Destiny. [You had people arguing:] “Oh, there are people on the land, but you can work deals with them. If you can’t work deals with them, it’s gonna be a problem. No, then, you’ll have to kill them. But we’re meant to be here. God has given us this land.”
But I think the bottom line [in America] has always been the economic drive to make money. That’s the culture, I think. It seems throughout history, they talk about the advances and the transcontinental railroad and all that, but behind all that is to make more money—at anybody’s expense. That’s the key thing. What is success here? Success is making money, and if you can’t make money, at least it’s winning at any cost. That is the American dream. The value of the culture is distorted, then. I think that’s what I’ve learned over the years reading more about history and reading more about European history, Asian history.
‘When a society is not based on a moral foundation or spiritual foundation, then the corruption sets in easily.’
This is what kept me going through the shoot [of “Killers of the Flower Moon”], learning more and more about this. [The antagonists] just care about how much money they’re gonna make. Why not? Who’s gonna stop them? There’s nobody really to stop them.
In a way, [American] society is not based on morality. When a society is not based on a moral foundation or spiritual foundation, then the corruption sets in easily and makes you think you’re doing the right thing. Because that’s how everybody else thinks.
You talk about America not being based on a spiritual foundation. And in a recent interview with GQ, you discussed your Catholic faith. You’ve walked away from it, come back to it, investigated it, perhaps fought with it. But I think you would say it’s a part of you, a part of your earliest sense of identity. You said to GQ: “I have to find out who the hell I am.” So, Mr. Scorsese, who are you? And what does your Catholic faith have to say about it?
[A long pause.]
My Catholic faith is about my Catholic faith—meaning the struggle for faith, dealing with acquiring faith, of living with faith even through periods of doubt. And this is a struggle from which everything else emanates, I think. And maybe you’ll never know who the hell you are, but maybe you’ll find out bits and pieces of yourself along the way. But it has to do with believing in faith, really.
I work closely with our mutual friend, Father James Martin, on L.G.B.T.Q. ministry. Why did you agree to executive produce “Building a Bridge [a documentary about Father Martin’s ministry] a few years ago? Did you have any connection to Father Martin’s work?
Yes, I’d read some of his books. Some members of my family are part of the L.G.B.T.Q. community. We worked on “Silence” together. That’s when I first met [Father Martin]. But I just knew the difficulties, the brutality of life around L.G.B.T.Q. people back in the early ’50s, growing up. A couple members of my family were gay, and I saw what they went through and what they still go through.
I knew them as good people. How do you explain it? You just know them as a person. What their preferences are, how they’re made, what their DNA is—I don’t know. It’s who they are. I came from a world where the way you “change” an L.G.B.T.Q. person is you beat them up. Growing up, I felt for them, particularly during the AIDS crisis.
Last May, you met with Pope Francis at the Vatican and announced that you were “imagining and writing a screenplay for a film about Jesus.” Can you tell us anything about this project? Why make another film about Jesus in addition to “The Last Temptation of Christ”?
I’m thinking in response to what Pope Francis wrote about and the idea of making Jesus accessible, not putting Jesus on a wall or in a painting or in a stained-glass window. Jesus immediate, with us now, right in the room as we speak. And dealing with the accessibility of who Jesus is and continues to be in our lives. Hence, I’m thinking of a film that might be partially modern day, partially ancient, I’m not quite sure. We’ve come up with a script, myself and [longtime collaborator] Kent Jones. I hope to be shooting some of it in April to get it going.
But it wouldn’t be a usual, straight narrative of the life of Jesus in any way. It would be something that makes us think of Jesus in the present. And in a different way, too. Some of it would be based on what Shūsaku Endō wrote in his bookA Life of Jesus. I thought it was really interesting how he comes about it from an Asian point of view to make us see Jesus in another way, and how it pertains to our lives now. And how it’ll always be something at the crux of our lives.
Let’s get back to “Killers of the Flower Moon.” You’ve spoken extensively about your personal connection to Italian neorealist cinema, the postwar artistic revolution that the French film critic and theorist André Bazin called “an aesthetic of reality.” In “Killers,” there is both a brute realism and a contrasting artifice—especially at the end. How did you view this dichotomy between realism and artifice, truth and lies, in the film? Is there a neorealist aesthetic at play here?
I wonder what “neorealist aesthetic” really means at this point. I think there’s a confusion when one talks about neorealism, associating black-and-white, grainy images with reality. Black-and-white, grainy images, at the time, were made because that’s all the technology allowed. So people often think, “Well, it looks realistic because it looks like a newsreel.” Well, 70 years ago that’s all there was. But if the newsreels were able to have been shot in color, they would have been. In fact, John Ford shot some in color, and George Stevens, of course.
I think the sense of black-and-white as reality is more artificial than color. And so, for me, the implication of the words “realist aesthetic” is that they could be perceived, in the wrong way, as a lack of imagination—shooting just what’s there. But just what’s there is something that you have to compose and you have to create. You have to block it with people: the body language involved, the elements of movement inside the frame. So that, in a way, what I was trying for may be misinterpreted as something that’s realistic, but in reality, it was a kind of observation.
But when you observe, you have to place the camera in a certain place, which means you make an aesthetic decision. That is not realist. You have to make certain choices. So that, ultimately, what appears to be objective, maybe, as opposed to subjective—to have the landscape work for you, to have actors’ bodies work for you, to have the props work for you, to have the sky work for you, that’s all a decision. And maybe if those images give the impression of being “realistic,” I would prefer they be thought of as objective because, ultimately, what we tried for was an accumulation, an accumulated effect of what appear to be simply “realist images.” The accumulation of those scenes as they build and build and build until the picture gets tighter and tighter like a grip on the audience. The way it gets tighter and tighter like a grip on the characters. And that is done through artifice. It looks objective, but there’s no such thing. There’s no such thing.
‘With every generation, there’s an obligation to guide and to teach.’
It was a matter of pulling back and not intruding with the camera or not intruding with the composition. There’s such a thing in film editing called non-editing. It’s when you don’t make a cut. And so, ultimately, with the length of the picture, I was able to fall into a pattern or a design, I should say, where there are these scenes that were done in an objective way, as much as possible—which took in the landscape, which took in the interiors of their houses, the furniture, the plates on the table. All of these things become stylistically powerful by the accumulation of their detail by the last hour of the picture.
So in terms of subjectivity, you are always making choices. In reference to some of the major voices of neorealism—Visconti, Rossellini, De Sica—you’ve written, “They didn’t look away from harshness and violence—quite the contrary. Rather, they dealt with them directly.” In making “Killers,” did you feel perhaps an artistic or even a moral responsibility to deal with the violence in the most direct terms, whether that was objective or subjective?
I think you’re right. The word “honesty” comes to mind, visually, and where we stand in relationship to the action in the frame. How can I just present this? The violence is so strong. There was no need, necessarily, to try to embellish it in any way. When we talk about [the neorealist directors] not looking away, well, I tried to not look away either. Does that mean it’s neorealist? I don’t know, quite honestly. But there’s no doubt that that influence has stuck with me, particularly from “Raging Bull,” but not necessarily “Casino,” into “The Irishman.” And, of course, this film, “Killers.” There were direct lines—particularly from Rossellini’s films—into “Raging Bull.”
In a recent press conference, you said all Americans bear some guilt for the Osage murders, and more broadly, the genocide of Native Americans. And you said, “Yes, I’m part of the system. Yes, I’m European American. And yes, I’m culpable.” It’s the word “culpable” that struck me as a Catholic. Is this film about your own sense of guilt? Was making it a kind of penance?
I don’t know. It’s an interesting question. I kind of discovered it as I was going along—my own culpability. I knew it was there, because I grew up thinking the world was as it existed around me. I didn’t know the history. As I grew older and had some experiences, particularly making films and going around the world, I began to see things differently. And a lot of the suffering that takes place is based upon our systems that we brought in from Europe to America, and the suffering still continues. And therefore, I am culpable.
Historically, many American westerns have depicted Native Americans as a kind of uncivilized enemy, an existential threat to the white settlers. Even in classics. In “Stagecoach,” the Apaches are the murderous enemy; in “The Searchers,” it’s the Comanches, and so on. But there were also films—the shockingly bloody Vietnam allegory “Soldier Blue” comes to mind—that portray Native Americans simply as victims of settler violence. In what ways does “Killers” both reference and subvert these classic American westerns? Or do you see it in those terms?
I don’t know if [“Killers”] references them at all. I grew up on the western; it was one of my favorite genres. It’s true, when I delve further into the history, many of the silent films starred Native American actors or Native Americans. And they were the heroes, in many cases. But between World War I and World War II, the mythology was created of the individualist in the West, the mythology of the good guy who comes in and “civilizes” a land according to his or her background. And in which case you have to have the “villain,” who are the people saying, “You’re taking our land.”
It fed into a mythology which became the western genre, with some of the best westerns made in the ’40s and ’50s. And as young people, that’s what we thought [the American West] was, completely. It’s not to play down the violence on both sides, but one has to go to the core root of the problem and understand the violence on both sides. And the films reflected that. The films from the ’40s and ’50s particularly reflected the European-American point of view.
There was an attempt in the early ’50s in Hollywood to make a series of films that were pro-Native. They were made at MGM, at Warner Brothers, at Fox. The key ones were made by Delmer Daves, an excellent director, particularly “Broken Arrow”—with Jimmy Stewart and Debra Paget and Jeff Chandler—which was the first one I saw in Technicolor. It had Native American rituals. For the first time, I saw [the Native Americans] not as marauding killers. There was this whole other thing [the studios] were trying to do. “Devil’s Doorway,” a black-and-white film made by the great Anthony Mann, another great director like Delmer Daves; “The Last Wagon,” by Delmer Daves; “Apache,” with Burt Lancaster, [directed] by Robert Aldrich. And there were a number of films where the Native was portrayed as heroic, not the “noble savage” à la Rousseau, but a real human being.
You get even a sense of this—although they didn’t plan on this, I think—in John Ford’s “Fort Apache.” There’s a meeting between Colonel Thursday and Cochise right before the battle starts. And Pedro Armendáriz is the soldier who has to do the translation. And Colonel Thursday, played by Henry Fonda, is so offensive. Watch the intercutting of those three faces in that scene. All of your sympathy and empathy goes to Cochise. That’s an extraordinary scene.
However, the real impact of these films was to change the image of the Native American. The big problem was that they were all played by white actors: Robert Taylor, Jeff Chandler, Burt Lancaster, Charles Bronson. “Drum Beat” was another one by Delmer Daves, where they really tried to deal with the problems of what we had done with the Native Americans. So, for me, I had those films in mind, too, as we were making “Killers.”
I also found that a film like “Soldier Blue,” as well made as it is, and other films of that period seemed to be atrocity films. At the end of “Killers,” it’s what William Hale says in jail. He says, “Oh, there’ll be an outcry for a little while. Then people will forget.” We’ll have an outcry about the massacre in “Soldier Blue.” We’ll have an outcry about the massacre at Wounded Knee, et cetera, et cetera. There’ll be some trouble here and there, but people will forget. And then we’ll just move on.
I thought to explore how people could all live together and be best friends and still kill each other.
I think films like [“Soldier Blue”] that tried to do that sort of thing, as well-meaning as they were, were consumed by people who already agreed and maybe felt good about themselves watching it. Because they put in the time and said, “Yes, it’s terrible, what we did. Isn’t that awful?” And they could move on with their lives. There’s no fundamental change. So the idea is to present the Native Americans as human beings, as people, with pros and cons, with weaknesses and strengths.
I mean, Mollie [Kyle] and Ernest [Burkhart]—they love each other. They love each other. She stayed with him until the end, until after the trial.
The complexity of the relationship between Mollie and Ernest is what fascinated me, ultimately, in making the film. The bad guys are the bad guys. And, by the way, the bad guys—played by [Robert] De Niro and a bunch of others—are [characters] who keep saying, “Oh, we love the Osage.” And they do. But [those characters are also saying about the Osage people] their time is over, and also they don’t know the value of money. Again, European thinking. I thought to explore how people could all live together and be best friends and still kill each other.
The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel famously said that we can learn nothing from history. And at the end of the film, as you’ve referenced, when the Osage people’s trauma is reduced to a half-hour radio play, it’s a real narrative slap in the face. And it sure feels like we as a country haven’t learned anything. Is that your point about history?
Well, I’ve lived to be 81 now and I can tell you I don’t think we have. With every generation, there’s an obligation to guide and to teach. Until you’re suffering yourself—like with climate change—until you’re experiencing it yourself, then there might be a change. Because it happened in the past, is it accessible? Is it accessible to a person who’s 10 years old or 15 or 20 right now? I don’t know if it is. It’s the past. This is something I think we have to understand and not expect people to learn from history. I don’t see how you can.
With the politics of the world—a tendency towards democracy as opposed to authoritarianism, slipping back and forth in time—things go in cycles. Read the last 60 pages of War and Peace. I like what Tolstoy says about time and history there.
I recently read a comment you made about the film “Salvatore Giuliano,” directed by Francesco Rosi, as being “made from the inside.” Now, in Rosi’s case, the setting is World War II-era Sicily. In “Killers,” it’s the Osage lands in early 20th-century Oklahoma. How did you make (or could you make) the film “from the inside” when its history and culture are foreign to your own personal experiences? Who or what helped?
It’s a very good question because I was thinking about it this morning and I realized, of course, I could make it from the inside, but not as an Osage. I’m not Osage. I’m not Native. Can I make it from the inside as a human being? Yes. Can we make it from the inside as an exploration about [how] corruption creates evil? Yes. It happens to be the white European in this case. And that’s where our entry into the story was. All I could do with the Osage Native American, and the Indigenous people in general, was to try to be as authentic and as respectful as possible to them and their culture, to their suffering and who they are. But the story is really about the evil that comes from the other side of the picture, played by [Leonardo] DiCaprio and De Niro and all the others. It’s really more about that. It’s about how they’re affected by it.
‘The entryway for me [in ‘Killers’] was the play of evil and how it asserts itself and how it becomes normal.’
We’re working on another [film] now called “A Pipe for February,” written by Charles Red Corn, which deals with the same period but totally from the Osage point of view. It’s [adapted from] a terrific book. But really the entryway for me [in “Killers”] was the play of evil and how it asserts itself and how it becomes normal. The complicity, this was the key.
Is there any real way for us to avoid complicity, considering that there’s always going to be a situation like you’ve described where there’s an injustice taking place and we might justify it or feel comfortable in our privilege? Can we really escape complicity?
Let me put it this way: It seems that we should be capable of trying to right the wrong, as best we can, and be part of the right side of it. But on the other hand, to know that we may fail from time to time. [That] doesn’t mean we should stop. It means we should go back in and try again, really. But it’s to become aware of the injustice around us. Justice is one thing and mercy is another. These days we always talk about justice and mercy. I talk about mercy and justice.
What’s the difference for you?
If someone is in a situation where he or she has to be judged, they have to deal with justice. But at the same time, there should be mercy in that judge’s mind. I have family members who have gone to jail, so I know. And people say, “Oh, they’re no good,” but it’s still my nephew, it’s this, it’s that. And this person may have some problems to deal with. One has to understand a little bit more about who the people are rather than just lockin’ ’em up. I’m not talking about serial killers. I’m talking about the average poor guy who doesn’t know what else to do. We say, “Well, they should be part of society,” but maybe they need a different kind of help.
This is where a lot of the Catholic charities come in that people don’t hear about and are extraordinary. But I do think mercy is very important. The offender has to deal with what they’ve done. They have to make some sort of reparation, in a way, to society. But I do think mercy is key.