In Martin Scorsese’s 1980 magnum opus, Raging Bull, the self-destructive boxer Jake LaMotta goes from the greatest to a washed-up parody of himself, clinging to his memories of the good ol’ days. For the director and star Robert De Niro, looking back on the film from the present day could have been tempting fate, a couple of ageing men reminiscing about their younger years via a movie illustrating the hazards of just that.
At this year’s closing night for De Niro’s own Tribeca film festival, during an hour-long pre-recorded conversation that preceded the evening’s screening, there was a slight hint of the rueful in the way he and dear pal “Marty” discussed the experience with emcee Leonardo DiCaprio. “Our way of making movies went down,” Scorsese proclaimed, citing the massive financial failure of the pricy Heaven’s Gate that same year as a sign that the party was over for creative talents in search of studio carte blanche. “The kind of thing we were doing was too much trouble for, ah, what they would reap from it.” De Niro clarified: “Money.”
But the mood was jovial overall, both on Battery Park’s well-manicured Oval Lawn in New York as well as the Oklahoma function hall where the three heavyweights conducted their back-and-forth, a brief jaunt from the shooting location for their upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon. They all seemed energized by the thrill of movie-making as De Niro and Scorsese took us through the full lifespan of Raging Bull, from the project’s earliest conceptualization to its legacy decades out. Though that story really begins years before either one would step on set, when “Marty and I knew each other as kids in different areas of Little Italy”, as De Niro recalls it. Though they weren’t all that tight, they had a mutual friend who “ran with both crews” while they were making mischief around the Alto Knights, a “quote-unquote ‘social club’” frequented by “wiseguys” back in the 50s. “We were just kids, hanging around,” Scorsese said. “That was it.”
Their shared background made De Niro a logical choice once Scorsese started casting their joint breakout Mean Streets, the film-maker explaining that “you knew the people I was writing about – the names, the behavior, the clothes they wore.” A tender trust soon flowered between them, solidifying as they undertook the “hot and crazy” street shoots for Taxi Driver soon afterward, during which their own extras would blend in and vanish among the real-life Times Square sleazeballs they were supposed to be imitating. Scorsese articulated his admiration for his longtime muse by singling out one moment’s choice from the production, when De Niro’s gun-toting psychopath Travis Bickle stops for a moment before going to kill a pimp played by Harvey Keitel. In that pause, the viewer is left to wonder whether he’s hesitating, meditating or just waiting. “It was surprising,” Scorsese said. “And so moving.”
De Niro carried around LaMotta’s memoir for years, while the former fighter worked as “a bouncer at a strip joint on 7th Avenue”. (“It wasn’t great literature, but something about it had a lot of heart,” De Niro said.) The actor thought he’d found his next challenge, but lifelong indoor kid Scorsese didn’t see himself making a sports picture. A childhood with severe asthma drove him to the embrace of the movies over athletics, and it wasn’t long before he found boxing “extremely boring” due to the lack of variety in camera angles. But he appreciated the fire behind the scenes, the betting and yelling and desperation inherent to a form of public entertainment oriented around brutality.
By his adulthood, a different roadblock stood between Scorsese and his eventual masterpiece. Protracted drug use had left his health in a fragile state and led to a hospital stay on Labor Day 1978, when he remembered thinking that “I didn’t know if I could be inspired to make another movie.” He would ultimately accept this “rebirth, in a way”, and retreat to the island of St Maarten with De Niro for a marathon writing session. The tropical locale with “no telephone, no television, nothing” made it easy to concentrate on work, but this wasn’t really Scorsese’s style, either. “For me, this was also bad!” he laughed. “Water, palm trees – I like looking at them, but in person …”
From there, the story of Raging Bull’s making is mostly public knowledge, but Team LaMotta shared some choicer tidbits from their recollections of the time. De Niro recounted his visit to his character’s real-life wife in Florida, where she showed him black-and-white home movies that they’d reproduce almost exactly for inclusion in the film. He made mention of the heavenly sounding “gastronomical tour” through France and Italy that added between 15 and 18 pounds to prepare him for the latter half of his performance, as the bloated, nostalgia-drunk LaMotta. Scorsese rattled off the impressive laundry list of visitors he entertained at his 57th Street apartment while editing the film there, a procession of cinema royalty including Nagisa Oshima, Sam Fuller, Werner Herzog, Jean-Luc Godard and Sergio Leone. On one particularly raucous night, John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands swung by around 11pm with bowls and bowls of pasta from the nearby Patsy’s. “I think they’d been imbibing a bit,” Scorsese chuckled, describing their “big reactions” to the film “getting spaghetti everywhere”.
Carbonara or no, it’s hard not to have a big reaction to a film so charged with personal agony, as Scorsese channeled all his pain into a character defined by his gluttony for it. That this was beyond go-for-broke film-making, more a matter of life and death, formed the parting sentiment with which he left the gathered crowd before the film reminded everyone in attendance of its unimpeachable powers. Scorsese and De Niro survived, and made it out the other side hailed as geniuses, but that was never a certainty. “I made it as if this was the end of my life,” Scorsese said. “Over. Suicide film. I didn’t care if I made another movie … In a way, it wiped me out. I had to start all over and learn again. Every day on the shoot, ‘This is the last one, and we’re going for it.’”