Martin Scorsese is talking about vocations. It’s s a subject he knows something about, having studied at a seminary when he was a young man. In the end – as history and an armful of awards can attest – he decided to be a film-maker rather than a priest, but as he himself points out most firmly, a vocation does not necessarily have to be a clerical one.
“Vocation is very special,” says the legendary director, who at the age of 14 entered Cathedral College Seminary in New York with a view to entering the priesthood. “I entered the seminary because I had a mentor – Fr Principe his name was. He was down in the Lower East Side and he had a great effect on my life from the ages of 11 to 17. He was a major influence on a lot of us kids in those days, he’d give us books by Graham Greene and Dwight Macdonald and many others, and he opened my eyes to a lot intellectually.
“I also saw him working with the guys in the Lower East Side and I saw him play out compassion. But I also saw a toughness to him, which he needed because the streets there were tough. I wanted to be just like him, so I went into the preparatory seminary to do what he was doing.”
Once in the seminary, however, he says that he quickly gained a different perspective. “I didn’t know what a vocation was at that time, I hadn’t lived, and I didn’t get it at all. But what I realised once I was there was that you can’t devote yourself to a way of life and call it a vocation just because you want to be like somebody else. It has to come from you.
“I didn’t make being a priest – in fact, I was ejected from the seminary. But then I thought: when one has a vocation, does it have to be clerical? Can’t you act out those tenets of whatever you believe in your own life without wearing a priest’s collar? And that’s something I have been struggling with – and trying to deal with as best as I can – for my whole life since then.”
The New York-born son of film actor Charles Scorsese and his wife, Catherine (née Cappa), he is fiercely proud of his Italian heritage, and, as a film-maker, indelibly marked by his Catholic faith.
“It’s always in you,” he shrugs. “My search for faith has never really ended from when I became aware that there was such a thing as faith and started to look at how it’s acted out in your daily life. It’s in Mean Streets and it’s in Taxi Driver and it’s in Raging Bull, ultimately. And then The Last Temptation of Christ was a major step for me in trying to come to terms with these themes, these ideas of the Incarnation of Christ – what does it really mean?”
The Last Temptation, the unconventional and sometimes shocking tale of the events leading to the Passion and Crucifixion, was released in 1988. Startling as it was, it made a profound impression on the then Episcopal Archbishop of New York, Paul Moore, who sought out the director for a meeting.
“We had a great conversation about faith and life and the application of one to the other. And he said to me, ‘I have a book for you’, and a day or two later I got it in the mail. It was called Silence. And I couldn’t start to make the film then because I had to go do Goodfellas. But I knew as soon as I read the resolution of the book that this was something I was going to have to work on, because it would make me go deeper into the questions I’d been struggling with.”
Silence, based on the novel of the same name by the Japanese writer Shusaku Endo, is a story set in 17th-century Japan of two Portuguese Jesuit priests, played by Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield, who travelled to that country, braving danger and persecution along the way, in order to find their missing mentor, played by Liam Neeson. It is a film that Scorsese says he has been trying to get made ever since he read the book 25 years ago. “I wasn’t readyto write the script at first,” he admits.
“I thought I understood it but when I tried to write it we really couldn’t figure it out. And then this happened in life and that happened, and every few months I’d keep checking it out and making more notes, and the more that time went on the more the picture clarified in my head.
“The subject matter was so intriguing to me – it’s about life and faith and what is selflesslessness, and how do you act that out? All these thoughts came into my mind, and when finally I was able to pull the script together, it felt like the end of a pilgrimage.”
Interestingly, neither Adam Driver nor Andrew Garfield is Catholic. Scorsese says that the off-screen religion of the actors was among the last of his considerations. “The key was, they were excellent actors. I had a couple of other actors I wanted to cast in the film, wonderful actors. At one point one of them looked at me and said: ‘I am not moved by this material. I am not religious.’ I said: ‘It doesn’t have to do with religion – it has to do with existence!’ But he said: ‘I just don’t buy any of this, so I wouldn’t know how to interpret it.’ But both Adam and Andrew were ready to take the journey with me.’’
It was not an easy journey for either young actor, particularly as they were required to starve themselves to a near skeletal state in order to portray their characters’ sufferings. “The amount of weight both of those guys lost!” Scorsese says, shaking his head in admiration. “We had a nutritionist and everything, but it was something. It got to one point where I was wondering, why don’t they seem to be listening to anything I say? Didn’t I just tell them to go off-camera and they were still there? Well, it turned out they were completely delirious because they were starving.”
For Andrew Garfield, at least, the privations were well worth it. “This one was a no-brainer as far as I was concerned,” he says. “Even though it was challenging and difficult at times, it was an opportunity I was not going to say no to. I learned a tremendous amount from this movie. I spent the year before we shot it working with a Jesuit priest in New York City – a man called Fr James Martin, who became my spiritual director and still is – who guided me through the life of a Jesuit and the spiritual exercises they do.
“This was an incredibly transformative experience for me because it was a time where I really got to explore what it is to live a spiritual life. It was a beautiful time, really. And working with Marty is amazing. He is 70 and he’s still like a kid in terms of the energy and vitality he brings to everything he does.
“I know that when he was a teenager he wanted to be a priest. But given that that didn’t work out, I thank God he became the person he became in film.”
Gabrielle Donnelly is a freelance journalist. Silence is released in Britain on January 1