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Martin Scorsese's 10 crucial tips for filmmakers

“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” – Martin Scorsese

Plastered on every film studies wall around the world, this quote from legendary director Martin Scorsese is perhaps history’s most famous statement regarding filmmaking advice. A basic, straightforward nugget of knowledge that happens to be totally true. In many behind the scenes videos, you can see that fractions from the area of the shot is an individual holding a boom mic, manipulating the special effects, or just standing with a coffee cup, though this of course doesn’t matter. What we see in the finished scene is the frame, and nothing else. 

Martin Scorsese is happy to dish out advice to budding filmmakers more than most, lending a helping hand into an industry notoriously tricky to enter into. This should come as no surprise from a director with a vocal duty to protect the future of filmmaking, stating: “Movies touch our hearts and awaken our vision, and change the way we see things. They take us to other places, they open doors and minds. Movies are the memories of our lifetime, we need to keep them alive.”

For more wise words, check out our list below which collates 10 of the greatest tips he has provided for future filmmakers:

Martin Scorsese’s 10 tips for filmmakers:

1. Take time to consider your opening credits

A student-led credit sequence often comes to life in one of several predictable ways, the most popular being someone waking up, snoozing their alarm clock and starting their morning routine. 

“In that case don’t do that, in that case put white on black, put some music over it and it’s even nicer…then get the story started because you’re wasting story time,” Scorsese states. Continuing, he says: “Credit sequences are sometimes more important than the movie because they present the picture in a certain way.”

Consider a more unique way to open your film that supports the story, your viewers will thank you.

2. Be adaptable

Film sets are stressful places that can often throw up unexpected challenges, from wet weather to spatial restrictions, therefore being adaptable is paramount to making a successful film, and pulling off a successful shoot. 

Speaking in 2017, Scorsese noted that he wanted to shoot Silence in a particular way, though when he arrived in the beautiful landscape of Taiwan, he realised the environment was “speaking” to him in a way he couldn’t have foreseen, and adapted to a new way of shooting. On the same shoot, he wanted the dust to float across the screen, though only had mud to work with, eventually using mist to recreate his vision. 

The lesson? Sometimes the shoot won’t go your way but you must adapt the vision of the scene in your head. 

3. Allow yourself to become inspired

Every filmmaker should have in their mind a distinct vision and inspiration to draw from, whether it’s a specific filmography, a book or a painting. Allocate your creative spark and thrive from its energy. 

Speaking in an interview regarding his 2011 film Hugo, Scorsese mentioned that he surrounds himself with the films that inspire him to keep in touch with his innate “creative impulse”, with Georges Méliès and his film A Trip to the Moon being a direct influence on the director. 

Don’t be afraid to let these inspirations fuel you, as fellow director Jim Jarmusch famously said: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams.”

4. Let your actors improvise

Allow for improvisation, or better still, work with your actors to devise a stronger script, just like British director Mike Leigh does with his cast members. 

Improvisation has led to some of cinema’s greatest moments, many of which are attributed to Martin Scorsese, including Robert De Niro’s famous “you talkin’ to me” speech in Taxi Driver, as well as the dialogue of his own mother round the dinner table in Goodfellas.

In 1996, Scorsese discussed this with Conan O’Brien and talked about the genius of De Niro in the film, allowing him to improvise created one of the films most memorable moments, commenting: “I knew it when he was doing it that it would be something special”.

5. Embrace your mistakes

Unfortunately, mistakes do happen. Even if you plan everything to the minute, and create a plan A, B, C and D, mistakes are unavoidable, but sometimes it can be worth embracing these errors, you may just find a better performance as a result. 

Take the scene in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, for example, when Sharon Stone’s ‘Ginger McKenna’ is crying on the bed. During the scene, the camera is bumped slightly due to an error behind the scenes, though Scorsese believed that Stone’s performance was so strong that he kept the mistake in the film. Removing such a minor technical detail was not worth also replacing the performance of Stone. 

As it happens the mistake is barely registered by audiences…

6. Become inspired by everyday life 

Films are usually all about reflecting the reality you see in everyday life, whilst giving it a strong narrative and exciting characters. Therefore, taking inspiration from everyday conversations and interactions is a simple, yet effective way to create great dialogue and strap your audience in for a realistic journey.  

Scorsese reveals this dialogue throughout his whole filmography, though this is particularly clear in 1988s The Last Temptation of Christ in which he asked his actors to speak in regular speaking voice instead of the poetic verse of The Bible. This was done to better portray the reality of the horrific situation and bring the audience closer to the characters. 

It’s a simple decision that works wonders for the film itself. Such a lesson is easy to transfer to a budding filmmaker’s cache. 

7. Thrive on your limitations 

Raising money for your film is perhaps the hardest part of the whole filmmaking process, particularly for independent filmmakers looking for a way into the industry. One of the most important lessons Scorsese teaches us is not to rely on this figure. 

“I think there’s only one or two films where I’ve had all the financial support I needed. All the rest, I wish I’d had the money to shoot another ten days,” Scorsese states. A ‘perfect film’ is not possible to make, there will always be something that would make the film better, therefore embrace your limitations and rise above them. 

Some of cinema’s most impressive filmmakers utilised a tiny budget to achieve their vision, just look at Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 movement

8. Take into account your personal story

“Write what you know” is the very first thing you’re told when writing a screenplay, a quote thought to be attributed to Ernest Hemingway that teaches writers to pull from their own experience in life.

It makes sense. You’re not going to write a film about a brain surgeon whilst knowing nothing about brain surgery (unless you’ve done mountains of research). Scorsese pulls inspiration from his past, specifically from his childhood in New York and his relationship with Catholicism, though also applies this same thinking to the tone of his films, commenting: “I’m not interested in a realistic look ‐ not at all, not ever. Every film should look the way I feel.”

9. Treat everyone equally on set

No one likes a massive ego on set, those bullish characters who act like the film is theirs and no one else’s. As the filmmaker, it is your job to treat everyone equally on set and create a creative mood in the process.

Despite having worked with some of Hollywood’s largest personalities, the director is known for his fair treatment of all his actors on set. Such will create a calm and enjoyable working environment. As Chloe Moretz commented regarding her time working on Hugo: “I think it’s really the mood that he makes on the set… He makes everyone feel equal, no matter who you are, no matter how big you are, no matter how famous you are, no matter how iconic you are… you feel equal to each other.”

10. Respect the Silence

The art of silence is a tricky one to pull off. As a rising filmmaker, you may fear the intimacy of a moment of downtime and silence, eager to get the pace of the film going again. Through sound design, and particularly, when to use no sound at all, can be one of the most valuable strings to your bow. 

Discussing one of the final scenes of his classic boxing epic Raging Bull, Scorsese notes that, “After a while, we had so many sound effects, we always talked about pulling them out of the track and letting things go silent. Again, like a numbing effect as if you were hit in the ear too many times”. 

By maintaining silence and pulling the camera ever closer to De Niro’s opponent, Scorsese manages to create a strange, untamed terror. One of impending demise.

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