by Shep Morgan
Growing up on the streets of New York’s Little Italy gave director Martin Scorsese first-hand insight into a dark underworld—one often seen in his films. Now, the Academy Award® winner tackles 1920s Atlantic City for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
Martin Scorsese’s passion for making movies has defined his life. At 67, the diminutive, fast-talking, Oscar-winning Hollywood legend with the trademark bushy brows is working harder than ever at what he loves most: crafting unique and powerful visions for the big screen. Now, he’s venturing into new territory, taking a major step into television drama as a producer of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. The new series is set in Atlantic City in the 1920s, when Prohibition was transforming the ocean resort into a city where corrupt politics and organized crime met to keep the bootleg liquor flowing.
Scorsese, who also directed the pilot for Boardwalk Empire, says it reminded him of that other gambling mecca he had explored in Casino. “I think Atlantic City was sort of the forerunner of what Las Vegas became, he says, a place where there were no limits to how far you could go.”
A certified winner in his own right, Scorsese is not afraid to admit that it hasn’t come easy for him. “I’ve felt that every picture in the last twenty-odd years was a learning experience for me, meaning that I got through it, he says. Each time it’s been traumatic. Goodfellas was rough, Casino was very tough and so were Bringing Out the Dead and Gangs of New York. Doing Shutter Island put me on a very trying emotional and psychological journey, not to mention the physical hell that we went through. I was filming in a forest in wind and rain. That wasn’t fun for someone who is a city boy.”
Martin Marcantonio Luciano Scorsese grew up in New York’s Little Italy. “He was a frail, asthmatic kid, and he remembers, I was sort of prohibited from too much strenuous activity so I ended up going to a lot of movies—from Duel in the Sun to Sunset Boulevard and The Bad and the Beautiful. That’s when I fell in love with cinema.”
When Scorsese wasn’t in a theater, he was watching a different kind of drama on the mean streets of his tough neighborhood. We were a block away from the Bowery, which was full of derelicts and criminals, he says. “The church was preaching love and compassion, but I didn’t see much of that on the streets. I always wondered how you could reconcile the good with the bad. I’m still always wondering what the hell really makes up a human being, the negative and the positive, the dark and the light, the violent and the non-violent.”
Those themes were played out in some of Scorsese’s most powerful movies—from Goodfellas and Casino to Gangs of New York and The Departed which went deep into an underworld of gangsters and tough guys, a theme he revisits in Boardwalk Empire.
“Part of my environment was organized crime, there’s no doubt about that,” he says. “I drew on it, but I think I offended some of the people I grew up with by putting the bad guys in my films. I still hear from my old friends complaining about it. But it was a fact of life.”