Martin Scorsese and Celina Murga

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 7)

On a mellow summer afternoon, Celina Murga sits under a vast, old tree on the grounds of a derelict 19th-century insane asylum outside Medfield, Massachusetts. She talks about her experience as film protégée to Martin Scorsese. Suddenly the squawks of walkie-talkies bounce across the landscape; moments later a sleek, black town car whizzes by, affording us a glimpse of thick, silver hair through the back window. “Marty,” Murga says happily. “They must be ready to shoot.” Scorsese is filming Shutter Island, based on Dennis Lehane’s best-selling psychological thriller about a U.S. marshal, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who investigates an isolated hospital for the criminally insane and finds himself trapped in a labyrinth with no exit in sight.

Martin Scorsese and Celina Murga

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 7)

An Interview with Celina Murga early in the mentorship during filming of Martin Scorsese’s next feature filmShutter Island.

What interested you most about participating in the Rolex Arts Initiative?
Martin Scorsese was one of my masters when I was a student. So the possibility of becoming his protégée was like a dream come true. On the other hand, what I found really interesting in the programme is the possibility of meeting people from other disciplines, too. I think it’s nice because you can focus on your own work and your own discipline during a year, but at the same time you have the possibility of connecting and being in touch with the other protégés. It’s like opening new doors.

Have you ever had a mentor before?
Not in this formal way, but I consider the director of the film school where I studied, Manuel Antin, a mentor. Of course, it’s not the same way of working as here, but he was very clever and open-minded in the way he runs the school…I also think that certain film directors were my mentors in a way, like Godard. Of course I learn from many films, but I remember the day that I saw Godard’s first filmBreathless, and it changed my mind completely.

What was your first impression of your mentor?
My first impression was the interview I had with Martin in February. He had this big amount of energy. And of course I was very nervous because I was going to meet this famous director. I was sitting outside his office, and the first thing I saw was his foot coming [laughs] because he has a glass door. He came out and said ‘Hi’ to me and he made a joke. So then I was so relaxed, and within a minute I felt as if I was talking with a normal person. He’s very generous with his knowledge, and I really enjoyed that hour that I had with him. He knows so many directors and he has these amazing stories to tell. And on the set too; most of the time I sit next to him.

How do you think your work is similar to or different from your mentor’s?
I found some similarities in our way of working, in this very obsessive way — obsessive in a good way — and in how he’s very concentrated during the take. He’s observing every detail of the image. That’s something I enjoy a lot, and I really care about everything in the image. [Celina then points out that Scorsese’s films are on a much bigger scale than her own films.] But the very personal and passionate way he works, I feel akin to that. And the way he cares about actors, I care about actors too. I think they are very important in my work, and I enjoy very much working with actors.

Do you think that your mentor’s guidance will change your approach to your work?
I hope so, in a way. If I have the opportunity of working and being near another person in a close relationship like this one, it has to give me something. I don’t want to change too much because I like my work, but maybe instead of ‘change’, the right word is ‘adding’: I’m excited about doing this because it’s the possibility of having new experiences and having this addition from someone who is so different in a way, culturally.

Martin Scorsese and Celina Murga

A year of mentoring

Shared lenses (Chapter 3 of 7)

“My films are 180 degrees away from the type of picture Celina makes,” Martin Scorsese says. “With some exceptions —Raging BullandGoodfellasare two —they’re very direct narratives.” Featuring vivid characters and settings, noisy conflict and sudden eruptions of violence, all of it leavened by inspired flashes of humour, they come at you head on.

By contrast, Celina Murga is a stealth artist — Scorsese calls her work “oblique” — and in her unobtrusive way, she shares her mentor’s originality. Low-key and deceptively casual, her movies sneak up on their subjects and their audiences, too, until you’re thoroughly hooked.

Despite their different ways with narrative, Murga cites Scorsese as a key influence when she was in film school in Buenos Aires. Another was independent American director John Cassavetes, whose pictures also influenced Scorsese when he was a student in New York in the 1960s. For all their vivid action, Scorsese’s movies are no less character-driven than Murga’s.

She has found commonalities with her mentor in the course of theShutter Islandshoot, sitting side by side in the director’s tent as he monitors the action on video and confers with his cinematographer between takes. “We both work in this very obsessive way,” she says. “He’s also very concentrated during the take, observing every detail of the image. That’s something I really care about as well.”

Martin Scorsese and Celina Murga

A year of mentoring

Human at the core (Chapter 4 of 7)

Scorsese has mentored budding film-makers in the past, but the Rolex protégés are young professionals with substantial accomplishments to point to. “This is another level,” he says. “Celina has made two feature films.”

Scorsese chose her as his protégée after watching her second film, A Week Alone. A thread of tension, subtle but ominous, runs through the film, gathering strength through unusually forceful details as it builds toward an explosive, dramatic climax.

“I hadn’t seen Ana [Murga’s first film] yet, but about 40 minutes into A Week Alone, I realize I’m caring about these young people,” Scorsese says. “I didn’t know how that happened and that’s good. I was fascinated by the small things that reflect the enormity of what they’re going through and what they have yet to encounter in life.”

In a shooting diary she kept for the French film journal, Les Cahiers du Cinema, Murga calls Scorsese “the iconoclast inside the system”. She might well say the same of herself. It is coincidence that the movie Scorsese is making during their mentoring year is one of his high-profile commercial projects, with a budget to match. He thought it would be interesting and useful for her to witness the central problem of working on such a scale, namely, to keep the massive film-making machinery ticking, while never losing sight of the human story at its core.

Murga’s diary reads: “Today it’s raining a lot, all day, raining and raining. We talk about filming dreams, nightmares, hallucinations. The realm of reverie. [Scorsese’s] idea is to film them as directly as possible, like they were real…His intention is to convey ambiguity: it must not be easy to clearly distinguish between the realm of the real and the realm of reverie. That, I think, places you more within the point of view of the main character, Teddy. That makes me think that many of [Scorsese’s] films tend to do that, to create deformed realities, which generate the sensation of nightmarish worlds. For many of his characters reality is a nightmare being lived out.”

With eloquent acuity, that entry makes clear where her film-maker’s heart lies and her mentor’s heart as well, not in the neatly executed plot twists of an ingenious thriller, but in the intimate portrayal of human experience.

As for the prospect of getting involved with high-tech, big-budget movies, Murga laughs and says: “I don’t imagine myself doing this kind of shooting. In fact, for my next film I'm planning to have a smaller crew than in Una Semana Solos [A Week Alone]. I think it’s good for me to make it simple, more connected to the story I’m trying to tell.”

Martin Scorsese and Celina Murga

A year of mentoring

Sanctum Sanctorum (Chapter 5 of 7)

Scorsese gave Murga two more gifts in their year of working together and they may have been the most valuable of all. He advised her as she produced successive versions of the treatment for her next film, and he invited her to watch as he and his legendary editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, began the months-long process of cutting and shaping Shutter Island. This was an unprecedented act of trust and respect.

Later, when I ask Scorsese why Murga was welcome where others were not, he cites, not for the first time, what he calls her quiet confidence and ability to listen and, above all, to understand.

As for the treatment for her next movie, it feels like another advance for Murga as a film-maker. Among other things, the story is set in a rougher world, not unlike those in some of Scorsese’s films, and it involves a patricide. Between the first and second drafts, she moved the killing off-screen, a decision Scorsese applauded.

“It was amazing to see how his mind works,” Murga says. “As he talked, he was ‘editing’ scene after scene. He suggested moving around some sequences and scenes. In the new combination of scenes and images, the film became much more powerful and moving. He was really enthusiastic about the new version and surprised at how much progress I’d made.”

Pointing out that Murga already has her own way of seeing the world, Scorsese says: “I’m just trying to encourage her vision, to encourage the way she speaks visually. I like other ways of telling stories [that are different from my own]. It gives me hope that I can find a new way of telling a story on film. This is the other thing about a mentor/protégé relationship: The mentor gets as much inspiration as the protégé.”

Extracted from an article written by Karen Durbin for Mentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2008/2009 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Karen Durbin is the film critic for the American edition of Elle magazine, and regularly contributes articles on film to the Sunday edition of The New York Times. Her work has appeared in many other publications. Before becoming a film critic, she was editor-in-chief at the Village Voice.

Martin Scorsese and Celina Murga

A year of mentoring

After a year with the master (Chapter 6 of 7)

Celina Murga talks about her year as a Rolex protégée

What do you think you’ve learned and gained from your year of being mentored in the Rolex programme?
Talking to Marty about my next film really helped me. Unlike my first two movies, the world of this new story is very near the kinds of worlds you see in his films, so I learned a lot. He talked about [his films] Casino and Goodfellas and the idea of treating the way the characters live as normal, not to emphasize anything.

How helpful did you find sitting with Scorsese during the Shutter Island shoot?
Very helpful. Marty’s generous with his knowledge; he likes to share what he knows. When he’s at the monitor, most of the time we sit there with his screenwriter and script supervisor. Between takes, he likes to talk, mostly about films and directors he’s known but other things too.

Did he talk about why he makes one decision or another?
Yes. Of course he has his notes, and he knows what he wants to do, but it’s amazing to see how they really build the scene in that moment. Also, when no one is shooting, he and the assistant director and the director of photography Robert Richardson discuss alternatives so you find out new ways of making the shots. I loved being able to observe the way he works with his crew, how he trusts them and they build the film together.

After this year, when you go back into the world of your work, you’re going to be seen as, among other things, Martin Scorsese’s protégée. Do you think that will change things?
Yes, but I like to stay in the present and not have expectations, although sometimes I have them anyway. You can get frustrated if you have very big expectations or very specific ones. Directors all have inside them the urge to control everything [laughs].

Martin Scorsese and Celina Murga

A year of mentoring

Interview with the mentor (Chapter 7 of 7)

Interview with Martin Scorsese

The Rolex Arts Initiative requires a serious time commitment and you are extraordinarily busy. So what made you accept the invitation to be a mentor?
When I was a film student in New York in the early 1960s, I won a scholarship to spend five days in California observing the making of a television show. While I was there I asked to be an observer on the films of certain directors, but it just wasn’t done at the time. So I said to myself that if I ever get in a position to offer that to young people, I would.

How has this worked out in practice when you invite young people to work with you?
I find that if the protégé knows how to behave on set, this is where they really get the education. If they know how to observe and know the right questions to ask, only at the right time. I would have been a terrible protégé, asking too many questions all the time.

On location with Shutter Island, you gave Celina Murga a great opportunity simply by keeping her by your side as you monitored the action from the director’s blue tent.
Oh, those horrible blue tents!

They don’t look horrible, they look wonderful, like a royal pavilion.
They look wonderful but they remind me of a quote by Stanley Kubrick. When they asked him what’s the most difficult thing about film-making, he said: “Getting out of the car in the morning.” Because you’re going into the tent – the place where all the decisions are made!

Celina is a delightful person, and at the same time, when it comes to her work, she has a kind of ruthless drive.
A director has to have that – we’re desperate people! We’ll do anything to get it done. But seriously, there was an inner strength and a very sure quality about her, a very healthy confidence. Whether she questions herself or not, she’ll invariably stay on the right road to whatever project she’s trying to create.