For over 40 years, Richard Schickel has written about the history and stars of Hollywood. In 1965, he began his career in film criticism at Life. When the magazine folded, Schickel moved to its sister publication Time, where he remained until 2009. Throughout the years, his articles and reviews have been featured in nearly a hundred magazines and anthologies. Currently, Schickel writes for the blog, Truthdig.com.
When not writing about films, Schickel has been making them, directing documentaries about the movie industry. His films include the Emmy-nominated projects The Men Who Made the Movies (1973), Minnelli on Minnelli (1987), and Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey (1994). As his official biography notes, Schickel is a master at examining the American movie-making tradition. Among his documentaries, he has crafted 20 profiles of great American directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Steven Spielberg. In addition, Schickel has provided DVD commentaries for a number of films, including Dirty Harry, The Hustler, On the Waterfront, and Unforgiven. The historian has also lent his film expertise to lectures at Yale University and the University of Southern California’s School of Film and Television.
One of Schickel’s greatest accomplishments is his award-winning restoration of Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One, which added nearly 50 minutes cut from the film’s original release. Of course, he is no stranger to awards. Having held a Guggenheim Fellowship, Schickel has also been awarded an honorary degree from the American Film Institute and the British Film Institute Book Prize. For his service to film history, he has been given the William K. Everson Award from the National Board of Review, and the Telluride Film Festival’s Silver Medal.
Some of Schickel’s most well-known projects come from the 37 books he has authored. Among his publications are The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney (1968); D.W. Griffith: An American Life (1984); Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity (1985); and the memoir Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip: Movies, Memory and World War II (2003). Within his circle of filmmaking friends, Schickel has found inspiration for the books Clint Eastwood: A Biography (1996), Woody Allen: A Life in Film (2004), and Conversations with Scorsese (2011). In Conversations, his latest publication, the author talks with the title director about each of his films, from Boxcar Bertha to Shutter Island. The result is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of Scorsese, one of this generation’s greatest filmmakers.
Josh Armstrong: As you said to Martin Scorsese, “Let’s begin with the basics.” At what point did you know you wanted to write about films?
Richard Schickel: I can’t even remember really. I’d written some about movies in the early ’60s. I did a picture book about movie stars, for example, and stuff like that. I was hanging around at Life magazine, doing some freelance work there. They started a review section and asked me to write reviews about books and movies. It just sort of took hold. It was convenient for them to have somebody regularly looking at the new movies, with an eye to reviewing them. I was a fairly young freelancer, so it was a nice, steady gig. I proceeded from that point. Life was a big magazine at the time – one that was noticed by the public and other publications. So my career developed out of pretty casual circumstances.
JA: What was your very first job as a writer?
RS: That goes back to college days. I wrote a little for The New Republic and some smaller, Liberal-ish magazines. Then I moved to New York and took two or three staff jobs with magazines. I went freelance, sometime in the early ’60s.
JA: How did you go to Time from Life?
RS: Well, Life folded. Time, of course, was the sister publication at Time Incorporated. The managing editor of Time called me up and asked me to move the act over to Time, which I did. It was pretty easy.
JA: You’ve obviously worked hard to gain a respected reputation as a film critic. But today, everyone can become a film critic – or at least they think they can, thanks to the internet. How do you feel about that?
RS: On one hand, I think, “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” It doesn’t make any difference to me how many people want to write movie reviews. On the other hand, it also seems to me that, although there are good writers on the internet, there are also a lot of not-so-hot writers on the internet. I don’t pay any attention to that. It is rare for me to read a review on the internet. It’s even rarer for me to read reviews in general. There are certain reviews I see in the publications I read ‘” New York Times, L.A. Times, New Yorker, etc. I’m familiar and comfortable with those writers. Some of them are my friends, in fact.
A lot of the discussion about movies doesn’t particularly interest me anymore. I write reviews on pretty much a weekly basis for Truthdig.com. It’s very agreeable; it’s very low key. It’s pretty much what I want to write about, at any kind of length that I care to write. It’s almost like a little hobby of mine to write those reviews. It’s not the main thing I do in life, but it’s agreeable. It allows me to go to screenings and sound off a little bit.
JA: It sounds almost as if your appreciation or love for film criticism has decreased. Do you think that’s the case?
RS: I don’t see any particular decline in the craft or any particular huge advances in it. It is what it is. It’s been around a long time. I think it’s useful in the sense of orienting the public to what’s new and keeping the discussion open. It’s a minor business, but it’s fine. I have no objections to movie reviews, obviously.
JA: Let’s talk about some of the books you’ve written. First of all, which one is your favorite?
RS: The Elia Kazan biography.
JA: What is particularly special about that one for you?
RS: I was an admirer of Kazan’s work for all my life. His first film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – I was a pretty young guy when that came out, but I liked it. I just found it an agreeable and rather moving film, so I followed his career and eventually met him. I did a television program about him, which was an extremely pleasant experience for me. We stayed in touch and saw one another, especially if I was in New York. When he won his honorary Oscar, I made the little film clip presentation that accompanied his receiving that award.
I found him extraordinarily likable. Before he died, I think I signed up to do that book with his permission. I found the writing of it pleasurable and, in a certain sense, easy for me to do because I felt a real connection with Elia. It was just an entirely enjoyable process. I think the product is very good if I do say so myself.
JA: I agree! One thing that shocks me though: I did not realize you created his Oscar montage. How did you get that job?
RS: Oh, I’d been doing those for a number of years.
JA: Really? That’s one thing about you I didn’t know.
RS: I mean, I haven’t done them lately. That is the last one I did. But the producer of the show in those days was a friend of mine, and he turned to me to do one on Kurosawa. I did seven or eight of those, I think. As part of my television life, it was a logical extension of what I’d already been doing, in terms of doing films about filmmakers, genres, actors and so forth. It is a large part of my life, and it was then.
JA: One of your most well-known books is The Disney Version, which dismantled a lot of folks’ view of Walt Disney.
RS: I think that’s kind of an exaggeration. In a sense of all that happened, it was probably the first lengthy consideration of Disney that wasn’t absolutely starry-eyed. It presented some aspects of his career and personality that were a little darker than most people thought. So it seemed shocking at the time. It’s still in print, which is pleasing to me; it’s never been out of print since it came out in 1968.
It’s a book I like and enjoy. But I don’t think it was all that negative about Disney. It simply pointed out a few dark patches in his personality and in his life. But in some sense, I admire Disney. He was very much a self-made man. He had a real entrepreneurial genius. Some of his products, especially his later products, struck me as overly sentimental and not trying. The earlier films – most notably, I think, Pinocchio – are really wonderful movies. I think he just became more and more populist in the lesser sense of that word. Again, the whole move into theme parks – enormously successful obviously but, to me, not very enjoyable and a little bit like selling out to the lowest common denominator. But that’s just my opinion. He’s a major American figure. There’s no question about that.
JA: When you’re going to write a book, how do you decide which person to write about?
RS: I don’t know that it’s an entirely conscious decision. Stuff happens. For example, I’m quite good friends with Clint Eastwood, so it was logical to write a biography of him. Last year, I wrote a consideration of his films in kind of an over-sized format, but that was just logical. We’re pals. It’s pleasurable for me to write about him, so that’s not a difficult decision for me to make. Other books come up sort of the way that Kazan’s did. He interested me, and he was likable to me, so why not do that book? That’s almost the argument – why shouldn’t you write that? It’s so logical.
The book I suppose I most self-consciously took on was the D.W. Griffith book. It’s never been one of my absolute favorite books. But at the time, there was a huge hole in movie history. Nobody had really written a serious biography of D.W. Griffith. He was foundational in terms of the movie business and, to a degree, the art of the movies. So I took that on, just because it seemed like a good thing to do. I came to not particularly like D.W. Griffith, as I wrote the book. But it’s a serious book. When I look back at it now, I’m sort of glad I did it. It remains definitive, I guess. Nobody’s really come along and written another book about D.W. Griffith, of any great substance. Again, that was a more conscious, almost careerist decision on my part. I suppose that’s why I remain a little dubious about it, as opposed to the Kazan book or other books I’ve written.
JA: You also do documentaries. When you think of a subject, what makes you decide whether you’re going to do a documentary about it or write a book about it?
RS: Those are pretty separate kinds of decisions, especially in television. People nowadays come to me and say, “Here’s an idea we have for a documentary. Would you be interested in doing it?” Then I decide on the basis of, “Oh yeah, that person or that idea has always interested me, so I’ll do it.” Or vice versa. Really, I don’t bring anything to the party. For just an abstract example, I’m not fond of the work of Robert Altman. If someone asks me to do a documentary about him, I would pass on it. I would just say, “You need to find somebody who has a more passionate regard for Altman than I do.” But I have a lot of interests in the movie world. I would say it’s more likely than not that if someone comes to me with a notion, I would say yes. It would be fun to concentrate on that person or that idea for a few months, just because I haven’t done it before.
JA: You’re friends with several folks whose movies you’ve reviewed. Does that ever create a conflict?
RS: A long time ago, I decided I could not review Clint Eastwood’s movies. So I haven’t done that in two decades, or something like that. Yeah, there are issues there. It would be less true of a documentary film. But in terms of writing a book, there are certain people I would shy away from, and there are certain people I would not feel comfortable reviewing.
JA: Is Martin Scorsese one of them?
RS: I suppose now he is, yeah, because I’ve done some books on him. Prior to that, I knew Marty from the days when I lived in New York. We were always friendly. He became for me kind of a go-to guy when it came to television, because he’s capable of speaking on almost any movie’s subject volubly and interestingly. As I say, I think I used him in four or five television shows; then I made a television show four or five years ago.
But this is typical of the way things happen: I was having lunch with my publisher, I guess three or four years ago. I had dropped off at Marty’s office on some errand or other, and mentioned that to the publisher when we sat down for lunch. They have a Conversations series at Knopf. My publisher said, “We’ve always wanted to do a Conversations book with Marty.” So I said, “If you want, I can look into that, because I think he might be up for it.” It turned out he was, and we just did it.
I mean, there are books I have actively pursued – ideas of mine that I wanted to tuck into. The Kazan book would be a good example of that. It originated with me, and I went ahead and did it. Then again, sometimes it’s like the way the Scorsese book was. If I hadn’t had that lunch right after seeing Marty, it might not have ever happened.
JA: When you pitched the book to Scorsese, what was his initial reaction?
RS: He was fine with it. I think he was at a stage in his life where he felt it might be nice to sit down and have a series of conversations about his life and career. Again, it was propitious. Maybe two years earlier, or two years later, it might not have happened. He might have said, “I’m busy. Let’s do it a couple of years from now.” A lot of luck goes into a career like mine. You’ve got to stumble into things.
JA: What was the schedule for the interviews? Did you say to him, “Okay, we’ll discuss Gangs of New York and The Aviator on Monday, and No Direction Home on Tuesday”?
RS: No, it wasn’t that formalized. We did a series of interviews spread over a couple of years because I live in L.A., and he lives in New York. The logistics of it were sometimes difficult to manage. I can’t remember how many sessions we did – probably a dozen or so. We did them in off hours. A lot of that interviewing was done at night, after his day was over and my day was over, whatever I was doing in New York. A lot of the interviews were done at the Waldorf, because he was living there while waiting for a new house that he’d bought to be renovated. We’d begin at 8:00 or 8:30 and wander on through the night until sometimes 12:30 or 1:00.
I would always have some kind of agenda when I went in, like you said. “Tonight, maybe we’ll talk about Gangs of New York.” But it was really very free-flowing. Stuff would come up, and we’d diverge into talking about that instead of what I thought we might talk about. Eventually, keeping track of what I had and what I still needed to get, we covered everything.
JA: Was there a temptation to also interview him about his acting roles?
RS: No, I don’t think those are terribly important to Marty. The roles just come up, like the one in Taxi Driver. He had someone else in mind to do it. But that actor had another job he couldn’t get out of. So they just stood around. I think Bob De Niro said, “Why don’t you do it, Marty?” There are a lot of accidents in movie-making. A problem arises and gets solved in some way. I don’t think it was a long-standing dream of Marty’s to appear in that scene. It just kind of happened that way. There’s a lot of happenstance in movies.
JA: I’m such a huge fan of his, I wouldn’t have minded reading an interview with him about his American Express commercials.
RS: I think there are a couple of sentences in the book about that. I remember asking him. I don’t know if it made it to the final cut of the book or not. But for a lot of his career, Marty was not as well-compensated as comparable directors were. He has these habits of putting his money into the film foundation or even into his own movies if he’s running short on the budget. He’s rather generous about that kind of activity. It came up on Gangs of New York. They were running out of money. He just put his fees into completing the movie as best he could.
I think when Marty gets a shot at something like the American Express commercials, he’ll do it just because he’s running short of dough at the moment. That’s much less true nowadays than it was. But there was certainly a period of time where he was sort of scratching for money. He admits that cheerfully because it’s not that he wastes his money on high-living or anything like that. He has priorities that sometimes require his financial backing.
JA: Right. In the interviews, how did you balance being his friend but also being a journalist?
RS: Well, the book is called Conversations. It is literally a conversation more than it is an interview. There have been a number of books where various film scholars have taken their tape recorder to Marty and asked him a bunch of questions. The difference between this book and those books is, we pretty much meet as equals. Our knowledge of film history and film aesthetics is comparable. I think that’s the difference between this book and other books that are heavy on interviews with Marty.
Also, his knowing me, and my knowing him, it’s much less formal. There’s a lot more give and take in our conversations than there would be if I were a total stranger to him. That all makes a difference.
JA: How did your friendship with Scorsese begin? Who introduced you to him?
RS: It was back in the ’70s. There were a bunch of us critics or filmmakers around New York. It was the same period I got to know Woody Allen. New York, in some ways, is a small town. You are bound to meet other people in your field.
I can’t remember the first time I ever met Marty. We actually tried to figure that out in one of the interviews. I think I was doing The Men Who Made the Movies series, and I was running a lot of pictures at home at night. I think I mentioned to Jay that I was going to be running one of the Howard Hawks comedies. I said, “Would you like to come along to see it?” This was before the days of DVDs and all of that. Running a picture was a big deal. You had to haul out a projector and put up a screen and all that. Jay said, “Sure. Can I bring Marty along?” That may be the first time we actually really met. I’d met him casually before that. At least that’s Marty’s recollection of the first time we were in a room together, in a sort of informal and casual setting.
JA: What do you think drives him to be such a perfectionist with his films?
RS: Marty has a compulsive and obsessive kind of personality. That’s just his nature. He probably was like that when he was a kid in Little Italy. He laughs about it sometimes. He understands that sometimes he just cares too much. You let Marty loose on a dubbing stage, and he’ll go forever because it fascinates him. He feels he improves the film in that post-production context. You really have to almost physically stop him and say, “Look, the deadline is next week. You’ve got to turn over the picture.” And that’s what stops him. But no, I don’t think we’re dealing with anything but some intrinsic part of Marty’s nature, when we’re talking about his kind of work.
JA: Is he a perfectionist in general or only in filmmaking?
RS: No, I think he’s a perfectionist in most things. You don’t just turn off something that’s so deeply ingrained in you. It’s going to extend to scheduling a meal, scheduling a screening, whatever. It’s just the way he is.
Everybody is the way they are. If you would compare him to Clint Eastwood, Clint is much more casual. He’s probably much more open to what an actor might bring to a scene. He’d say, “Yeah, why don’t you try that?” I don’t think that’s exactly the way Marty would direct an actor. That is Clint’s nature, but Marty has an opposite nature.
JA: What is Scorsese’s opinion of himself as a director? Does he view himself as talented as most people view him?
RS: That’s a difficult question. Yeah, I would say Marty has a pretty firm sense of his own worth. But I don’t think it’s maniacal. I think he’s anxious. I don’t think he ever begins a movie saying, “This will be a slam dunk; this will be easy for me.” I don’t think he ever thinks in those terms. Again, he is what he is. He will devote himself, heart and soul, to any movie he undertakes.
He’s always got a lot of stuff in development. There are always reports in the paper that he’s going to do a Frank Sinatra biography, or he’s going to do this, or he’s going to do that. I think that’s part of what he had to do when it was harder for him to get the pictures he most wanted to direct up and running. He likes to have, I think, four or five things in development. Maybe he’s working on a script; maybe he’s working on a treatment. Maybe he’s hoping to do a film, but something is going to intervene and cause that project to be put back.
But there are projects of his that you can almost tell, one day, he will make because it means a lot to him. The movie about Christ is just something he really, really wanted to do. He nursed that along for well over a decade. That was important to him. He might have diverted his energies to something that needed to be done sooner for whatever reason – a studio’s need or his need or whatever. But there are pictures he will do.
He has a movie now called Silence that’s been a project long in development. He and Jay Cox have been working on that script for at least a decade, off and on. That’s a meaningful picture to him, and he will get that done. Maybe pretty soon, or maybe not pretty soon. But I know that’s a picture he cares deeply about.
JA: A lot of people wonder why he doesn’t work with De Niro more nowadays. Any thoughts on that?
RS: They remain very good friends. They’re in constant touch. I think both of them would like to do something. But De Niro would not have fit particularly well in most of Scorsese’s recent projects. What would there be for De Niro to do in, say, The Aviator or something like that? It’s a question of finding the right piece. But I don’t think there’s any demeaning relation in their friendship.
JA: Of his upcoming projects, which one are you most excited about?
RS: I don’t know what he’s going to do next, actually. It might be Silence. But I just don’t know. He’s got to finish the thing he finished shooting in England in January. That will take up most of the rest of this year. Again, I think it depends a lot on circumstances. If someone says, “Here’s the money. Go do that one,” he’ll go do that one. But I just don’t know.
Actually, in the last two or three months, I’ve been a little out of touch with him. We finished the book. I tied off on other projects, and he’s finishing his picture. So I haven’t seen him in a while. There’s nothing to be made of that. It’s just circumstance.
JA: Absolutely. How about your next projects? What do you have planned?
RS: I have a lot of stuff to do. I’m doing a lot of promotion for the book in the next month or so. I’ve got a couple of things I’m almost certainly going to be doing with Steven Spielberg over the summer and into the fall. One is a book project, and the other is a television project. Probably those would be the projects I turn to next.