When you’re dealing with a director like Martin Scorsese, there is undoubtedly no stone left unturned when he is making a movie. A perfectionist at heart, Scorsese has built a reputation on creating masterpieces in visceral subtlety, and his filmography can stand toe to toe with any of Hollywood’s greats. It makes the idea of asking the great man for the favourite of his own films a toe-curling proposition.
Well, that would certainly be the feeling we would have if the conversation involved anyone else, but truth be told, Scorsese has never been shy about cinema. One director absolutely besotted with his craft and cinema as a whole, Scorsese has never been afraid to share his favourite films, be they his favourite Foreign films or 50 favourite British films of all time. It meant, in 2015, Scorsese was happy to share iconic scenes that changed his legacy in Martin Scorsese in 10 Scenes.
Released in 2015, the book pays no mind to Scorsese’s most recent film The Irishman which may well have vyed for inclusion in the book. However, a scene from another gangster classic starring Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, his 1990 epic Goodfellas, takes the top spot as Scorsese’s most cherished scene from his career. The scene in question? The iconic Copacabana one-take shot, which he describes as a “ballet”.
“The culmination of [Henry Hill’s] life, his status, would be represented by the treatment he received at the Copacabana,” recalled Scorsese, leaning on his own time in similar circles. “When I was growing up, it was the height of sophistication in the adult world. The culture I was in when I was 11 years old, it was the Fifties, the headliners at the Copa were Frank Sinatra, Martin and Lewis – the greats of American showbusiness. It inspired me – the New York humour, all of it culminated there. Also, the influence of organised crime was at its height in the Fifties. The decline started in the Sixties. So this was something – it was like being allowed to enter the halls of Valhalla as an important person.”
“Particularly getting a table in the front,” the director continued as part of an excerpt from the book provided to Shortlist. “When we were younger, we would always get a table right at the stage, and it was fantastic – at least until the wiseguys showed up. Then a table came in front of us, and another one, and another one, and we couldn’t see a thing. It was constant – we would see the table flying in the air and just think, ‘Oh no, here it comes.’ That’s why, in the shot when the table comes into frame with the tablecloth on it, it’s very important in the camera movement, the way it directs the eye.”
With so many moving parts, the scene was a tough task for any director. “All of [the scene] was extraordinarily difficult, but I had a great assistant director, Joseph Ready, and a determined and enthusiastic cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, and a terrific crew,” concluded Scorsese. “We start the shot outside, when Ray Liotta gives the keys to the parking attendant, then we cross the street, and we go past the line of people waiting to get in then go inside. It took all day.
“First in the morning, we did one shot with Bobby, the singer, and there was a song when the Champagne is sent,” continues the Casino director. “Then we laid out the different places where little vignettes would take place, where certain people would be, the people he’s constantly giving money to until he finally makes his way through the kitchen, and it opens up into another world. The maître d’ is there, in a blue jacket – he was the actual maître d’ of the Copa in the late Sixties, and he just beckons them over.”
In the full excerpt, Scorsese continues to drool over his work and how it effortlessly blended his vision with the narrative, even if it was a difficult piece of work: “I do draw satisfaction from it, of course, but when we were doing it the enjoyment – and the key word is enjoyment – was to just try to get it done. We didn’t think it would be anything that would rival anything another filmmaker had done, any other long takes that meant something.”
“We put things in that appeared and disappeared, things that spoke about how far Henry Hill had come, and how it meant something – it meant something,” confirmed Scorsese. “In terms of plot? No, but it has to do with tone and atmosphere, and a kind of justification of its existence. He’s on top of the world, as Jimmy Cagney would say.”
Below, you can watch the Copacabana scene play out, knowing that it resides as the one Martin Scorsese, the director of so many great films, is most proud of.