One of the New Hollywood directors that changed the face of American cinema in the 1970s, Martin Scorsese still rides high in the public consciousness. Every time one of his films comes out, it's an event. Amazingly it was not until 2007 that he finally won the Best Director Oscar, for The Departed. Now the conversation about whether he'll win a gold statue has been replaced by a more cutting question: Is Scorsese still turning out good films?
Shutter Island, Scorsese's latest outing, is his fourth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio. It's based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, the author who wrote Mystic River, which was turned into a movie by that other much-acclaimed elder statesman of American directing, Clint Eastwood. His hair is whiter than ever, but the suits that look as if they've been borrowed from a wise guy remain the same. Scorsese may be small in size, but he remains large in stature; his machine-gun, rat-a-tat talking style makes listeners hang on every word as he veers off into his own world.
In Shutter Island, DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a detective who is sent to a mental institution in 1954 to investigate the disappearance of an inmate confined for killing her three children. The audience's sense of foreboding is only deepened by the fact that the heavyweight actors Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow play the asylum's resident psychiatric doctors. Mention psychiatry to Scorsese and he's off on one of his rapid-fire responses. Should attempts even be made to cure the criminally insane? "It's such an interesting, devastating issue," Scorsese says. "You are never going to get the patient calm or non-violent with one drug or a quick fix. It's a one-on-one situation with the doctor and the patient."
The director - who has made 21 feature films and 14 documentaries in a career spanning more than four decades - always seems to have an information-heavy addendum to his responses, as if he is lecturing students. So it's no surprise when he adds: "The other tragedy is that in America, at least in the 1980s, President Reagan closed up all the institutions in favour of Medicare, trusting the patients to take the medication themselves. But they're not going to take the medication, are they? They ask: 'Why should I?' They question authority. They hear voices, you know. A lot of people do. If you actually hear that voice, you don't think you're crazy. Somebody is actually telling you something, so you don't take that pill. In the meantime, it gets worse, and where do you put them? On the street?"
Shutter Island is full of more twists and turns than a bowl of spaghetti. How much audiences love the film will depend on whether or not they buy the big twist. It's as if Scorsese woke up one morning and decided to make a M Night Shyamalan movie. With the story, the director, as he often does in his films, revisits his childhood in the Italian district of Manhattan around Mott Street. Living with his parents in a small apartment overlooking the hubbub of the metropolis clearly made a lasting impression on the man.
"I was eight years old in 1950," he says. "We were the working class, not people who read books - conservative working class. My parents had gone through the Great Depression and the Second World War, so there was quite honestly an economic boom. The cars were getting bigger and, more importantly, the fins of the cars were getting bigger. And in the Lower East Side, the only guys who had big things were wise guys."
Yet the fear and foreboding depicted at the asylum in Shutter Island is clearly associated with his schooling: "The nun would tell us at school that any low-flying plane could be delivering that bomb," he says of the days at the start of the Cold War. "So every time we'd hear a low-flying plane we would be terrified. I'm sitting there in third grade and Sister Gertrude, who was then the principal of the school - she was very much like Meryl Streep in Doubt - all of a sudden would say on the loud speaker: 'Attention please: take cover!' You'd jump underneath the desk and then you'd find out it was just a test."
The parallels with life today and fears about terrorism are clear. "It's very real now," Scorsese says. "It's taking that mentality and stretching it. It's like a universal civil war; it could be the person next to me, so naturally it causes an extraordinary distrust. The only thing to do is more education, and cinema can be a big help in this way. One of the ways we are doing that is through the World Cinema Foundation."
Scorsese has an encyclopaedic knowledge of movies. In his office, a few floors above the Directors Guild of America in New York, the walls are adorned with movie posters, mostly from the Italian masters. There is a swish cinema where he watches movies, and it's said that he used to employ people to record films on television so that he had an unparalleled collection of films. The foundation has become Scorsese's big project apart from making movies. Its restoration of classic films has been an enormous benefit to fans of cinema, and it ties into his belief that cinema can unite people globally.
"I learnt to be curious about other cultures through film," he says. "I came from a European culture, too, being Italian and having the mentality of a Sicilian villager. On television, I saw Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali. It was dubbed into English, and I could totally understand what was going on. All the films I'd seen about India and other colonised countries had always been done by the coloniser, and now this was about the people in the background. I totally could understand these people and see them as human beings and not a cultural threat."
He says this was why he was so excited about joining the board of the Tribeca Film Festival when it started in downtown Manhattan in 2002. He saw it as a unique way of getting Americans to understand more about the Middle East and Africa. Scorsese attended the inaugural Doha Tribeca Film Festival last year, where a version of the Egyptian classic The Mummy that had been restored by the World Cinema Foundation was screened.
On one of his tangents, Scorsese reveals that Jean Renoir's The River, a film he watches at least twice a year, is being restored at the moment. Finally, the conversation returns to Shutter Island and the inevitable use of DiCaprio as a star. Scorsese can't hide his admiration for his charge. "Leo is always playing the scene in the moment," he says. "I don't want to give too much away about the twist. Is it a memory? Dream? Is any of it real? I just thought the key thing in the film was to make the audience, if you don't know the story, believe in Leo and for him to play it straight."
At the very least, Scorsese is passionate about his latest project, which he admits may not have been the case a decade ago when he followed a "one movie for the studios, then one movie for me" policy to ensure that he'd continue to get work. "I like to take risks, and as you get older you want to conserve energy. "Because of the type of film I want to do, I might not be able to get everything I want to do on screen."
That may also be because Scorsese is already attached to a number of projects. He's in post-production on a documentary about the Beatle George Harrison, and announced that his next film is likely to be an adaptation of Brian Selznick's children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Matt Damon is rumoured to appear in it). Benicio Del Toro and Gael Garcia Bernal are set to star in his adaptation of Shusaku Endo's novel Silence, and a biopic on Theodore Roosevelt is also being planned. Hopefully, there will be a lot more Scorsese event movies before the consummate New Yorker decides to slow down.