In 1980, Martin Scorsese unveiled his seventh film to the world, the biographical drama about the tumultuous life of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta. Based on LaMotta’s memoir Raging Bull: My Story, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning two, including Best Actor for Robert De Niro’s role as the troubled boxer.
His previous film, critical and commercial failure New York, New York (1977), also starring Robert De Niro as the lead alongside Liza Minnelli, was a distinctive departure from Scorsese’s major success, 1976 crime drama Taxi Driver in what is yet another De Niro collaboration. New York, New York combined musical drama with romance, yet critics were not impressed by Scorsese’s attempt at creating something new.
In fact, the failure of the film prompted Scorsese to want to give up filmmaking completely. Yet Robert De Niro’s insistence that the filmmaker should adapt LaMotta’s autobiography into a film led Scorsese to make Raging Bull in one last attempt to prove to himself and the world that he was capable of making another good film.
It is an incredible thing Scorsese listened to De Niro, as Raging Bull proved the director to be one of the best of his generation. It was a major success and encouraged Scorsese to keep making movies. Since the release of Raging Bull – arguably one of the best films of all time according to many critics – Scorsese has graced us with many more astounding films, such as Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995) and The Irishman (2019).
But, below, we’re delivering into the behind-the-scenes stories from raging Bull.
Five incredible stories from behind-the-scenes of Raging Bull:
The scriptwriting process was unusual
Screenwriter Mardik Martin was originally called in to write the screenplay for Raging Bull, however, De Niro was not impressed with the version of the film Martin presented. Thus, Taxi Driver’s screenwriter Paul Schrader was welcomed into the project in 1978 to rewrite the script. Despite production company United Artists liking the changes made to the script, there were worries that the film would be Rated X and would struggle to find an audience.
Instead, De Niro and Scorsese took writing into their own hands, jetting off to the Caribbean island of Saint Martin for three weeks to significantly change the film’s script. Bringing along the company of an assistant with extensive knowledge of boxing, the trio came back with a completed script, which Scorsese would write on yellow legal pads.
Robert De Niro is the reason for the film’s existence
After reading LaMotta’s 1970 autobiography Raging Bull: My Story, De Niro became obsessed with the idea of the memoir being adapted to the big screen. He thought the book wasn’t great, however, he recognised the potential within the events of the boxer’s life that could make a great film. Scorsese actually had little interest in creating the film due to a significant disinterest in sports. The director stated that he “didn’t know anything about boxing” and didn’t understand why De Niro was so interested in La Motta’s story.
However, after Scorsese’s near-death experience following much substance abuse, including cocaine, alcohol, and Quaaludes, his hospitalisation due to internal bleeding made the director realise how much he did not want to die. De Niro discussed the prospect of the film while at Scorsese’s bedside, and the filmmaker finally began to understand the resilience of Jake LaMotta, leading to his agreement to make the film.
Jake La Motta was disgusted with himself when watching the film
Despite turning down the chance to play himself in the film, La Motta was still hugely involved in the filmmaking process. He helped to train De Niro for the role, setting up three boxing matches for De Niro to anonymously take part in while preparing for the film. The actor actually won two of these matches, proving himself to be a dedicated and ideal actor for the role of Jake.
Yet when it came to watching the film, La Motta struggled to make it through the 129-minute depiction of himself. The film showcases the abuse that La Motta subjected his wife and family to, yet when the boxer asked his wife whether she thought the film was accurate, she claimed that “you were worse.”
Robert De Niro temporarily held the world record for most weight gained for a movie
De Niro seemed to channel La Motta a little too well, earning himself the title of champion during the filming of Raging Bull. However, it was not in relation to boxing, but weight gain. Until Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Full Metal Jacket saw Vincent D’Onofrio gain seventy pounds for his role as Private Lawrence, De Niro was the supposed champion, halting the film’s production for four months in order to gain sixty pounds for the scenes of an older, downfallen La Motta who had piled on the pounds.
To achieve this, De Niro visited his favourite Italian pasta restaurants that he had eaten at while filming 1900. The number of carbs he consumed did the trick, so much so that Scorsese, an asthmatic, was concerned due to the similarity of De Niro’s breathing to his post-asthma attack. De Niro was adamant that he would take the role seriously, and because he was in his mid-thirties, saw this as his “one chance”.
Many scenes had to be cut in order to tame the film’s violence
When Paul Schrader was in charge of writing the second draft of Raging Bull, the production company thought that his ideas were intensely emotional. However, much of Schrader’s script was also simply too intense, and there were fears that too much violence at the beginning of the film would turn audiences off.
The infamous steak scene which features an argument between La Motta and his first wife Irma was originally written with extra horrifying details added to the scene. Instead of La Motta knocking over the table in frustration, Schrader had the angry boxer kick his pregnant wife. Scorsese decided this was too much for an opening scene, and scaled back the violence that Schrader proposed.