The Museum of the Moving Image has been celebrating and exploring filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s life, work, and his passion for cinema since December with a terrific exhibit drawing extensively from Scorsese’s own collection of key production material, objects from his childhood, behind-the-scenes images, and large-scale projections of scenes from his work and more. For the final weekend of the exhibit, MOMI put on a full-blown retrospective of his work over two days featuring the lesser-seen, more personal Scorsese films, “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies,” “My Voyage to Italy (Il mio viaggio in Italia)” and docs like “No Direction Home” and “The Last Waltz.”

However, it was the impressive panel after the screening of“Silence” that brought a special salute to the exhibit in its entirety, which included cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, screenwriter Jay Cocks, who along with co-writing “Silence,” also co-wrote “The Age of Innocence” and “Gangs of New York,” longtime collaborator Academy-award-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and finally Scorsese himself, 30 minutes late thanks to an unexpected traffic collision in Queens.

silence-04515r2 Martin ScorseseClocking in at 161 minutes of immersive disconcertion where the fabric of faith is unraveled thread by thread and then, in a quiet yet brutal way, knotted back together, Silence tells the story of the last two Jesuit missionaries to enter seventeenth century Japan. Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, the film is a departure from the Scorsese of “Goodfellas” and “Casino” and is instead slowly paced and painfully restrained in its raw cruelty, reminiscent of “The Last Temptation of Christ,” while re-examining the age-old themes that preoccupied our antihero in “Mean Streets” and Scorsese himself throughout his life. Based on Shusaku Endo’s novel, the film, like its subject, was a test of faith and devotion and took over twenty-five years to be made.

Moderated by MOMI’s Chief Curator David Schwartz , the evening started by acknowledging the recent passing of cinematographer Michael Balhaus before starting the conversation with Jay Cocks and then visiting each guest, as a weapon in the Scorsese arsenal, with a question before the man himself took the stage.

Cocks began the evening discussing his difficulty completing the first draft of the script. “I’ve learned one lesson in life, only one but it’s a pretty good one. When Marty says do you want to do something, you say ‘you betcha,’ he explained. “Because it’s always an adventure and always fulfilling in ways you don’t expect and he always gets more out of you than you knew you had in you.”

silence-02088r“I found the book extraordinarily difficult,” he admitted. “The translation is difficult, the narrative voices of the book are very difficult, there are three of them in first person, third person and these objective documents. The book was deeply unsettling to me in a way I didn’t really understand. Looking back, I think it was unsettling to me intellectually and spiritually but while I was working on it it was upsetting practically.”

Cocks confessed that he didn’t know what he was doing and “was lost in the swamp of Japan.” The screenwriter explained that the film deal eventually fell apart and his agent told him to stop working on it, but he said, “I can’t do that, I have to finish for Marty.”

And Cocks said it took him years to get right without much direction. “Marty never tells you, ‘gee, I don’t think this is really good’ or anything like that,” he said. “You basically get two reactions. ‘Boy, this has great stuff,’ which means you keep your job or ‘Well, it was a noble effort.’ That means you call your agent.”

silence-01840rA new riff on the ending of the book unlocked the entire picture not only for Cocks, but for the filmmaker. “From that point on Marty was with me all the time in the room. In a way, it’s a movie about faith. It was an act of faith on my part, my faith in my friend Marty who got me through this.”

Transitioning from the written word on the page to the challenges and aspects of the shoot, Prieto took the microphone about how he got involved in the project. “When we were finishing ‘Wolf of Wall Street,’ on the last day of the shoot when we wrapped he told me that he wanted me to shoot his next movie and I knew that was going to be ‘Silence’ which was extremely exciting for me. It is a dream project still, I love this film. So that is how it started, and of course in between we shot the pilot for ‘Vinyl,’ which was completely different to this, which was also very exciting to me to jump genres.”

Eventually, Scorsese turned up and with his arrival came the flurry of rapid thoughts, intelligence, and insight that he is known for. When speaking of what drew him to the text and the idea of apostatizing, Scorsese explained, “Because of the major contradiction of the action and the meaning,” he began. “It took 23 years for us to be able to put it on paper but if the action says one thing and in the case of the apostasy, I would think it’s denial of what he believes [at least] for others to see.”

“There is no way to know what the priests felt and what they really meant in their apostasy, but in the story, denying his faith and extinguishing his faith, creates his faith.”

silence-martin-scorsese-andrew-garfield-silence-01638“When discussing the color schemes of the film and the realness to each frame, Scorsese replied, “We didn’t want to make it beautiful. When people tell me they think the film was beautiful it usually means they didn’t like it.”

When considering the performances and the kind of director he is, Scorsese explained, “It’s hard when you are working with Leo [DiCaprio] for a while and then ‘Hugo,’ and then when I was working with Bob DeNiro in the 70s’, I mean I got used to a certain kind of thing so when you work with new people you have to learn again. I am not a director of actors that way, I never took any acting courses, I don’t know theater I just feel it as I go and so it was a group effort so to speak with us on set between the Japanese interpreters. Andrew Garfield had about a year before we shot, so he was able to make another film first. He really threw himself into the research.” Scorsese further explained that a priest he employed, “put [Garfield] through the spiritual exercises. He did the full thirty days. It’s like sense memory and a lot of people only made it two weeks, three days and stop.”

The filmmaker then went on to describe Adam Driver’s own similar preparation for the role. “It’s pretty psychologically difficult and emotionally difficult to get through,” he said of the spiritual exercises. Driver spent less time on them, but went in a physical direction instead. “Adam had some of [the training] too, but Adam lost 51 pounds, I didn’t realize he was going to lose that much.”

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Schwartz used the end of the evening to discuss the timeliness of the film finally arriving nearly 30 years after it began.

“It’s interesting [because] It could have been made four, eight years ago. One can take away preconceived ideas about that part of our nature that yearns for the spiritual, because the material and scientific only go so far.”

“Especially scientific,” he continued. “You learn everything and then there is always more to learn. Different cultures seek comfort spiritually… so you have to get passed that in a way and find the heart of it and the heart of it is in doing it yourself. It’s living [faith]. I don’t quite know what to say about any of that. I don’t know how one lives it. You can only try.”

“Even at the end of ‘Kundun’ [1997], the Indian guard says [to the Dalai Lama] ‘Are you the Buddha?’ and the Dalai Lama tells him, ‘No when you see me, see a person who is trying to be a good man.” And that’s a start. It’s interesting that this film came out now. It does open up dialogue is what I hoped it would and including religious institutions, especially about doubt being a part of faith.”

The evening ended approximately four hours after it began – a fitting conclusion to a thought-provoking event that the exhibit and the film “Silence” merited.

  • timmy t

    Any chance his MOMI talk will be online?