After big-canvas forays into the troubled mind of Howard Hughes and the ethnic clashes of 19th-century New York, Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Departed, is a visit back to the dark margins of contemporary gangsters, violence, and betrayal. Except this time around, he has a new partner in crime — Jack Nicholson. Combined, the two men have made more than 80 films, and have earned 19 Oscar nominations. And yet, as strange as it seems, they’ve never worked together. In their new cat-and-mouse thriller, Nicholson plays a sadistic Boston Irish Mob boss, with Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio as a pair of rookie cops whose loyalties aren’t what they seem, and relative newcomer Vera Farmiga as the woman caught between them. In other words, The Departed is signature Scorsese — a return to, and a riff on, the films that built his legend. We sat down with the 63-year-old director to talk about Nicholson, superhero movies, the Rolling Stones, and why even he has a hard time getting movies made these days.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why has it taken so long for you and Jack Nicholson to work together?
MARTIN SCORSESE: I know, 40 years! I first met Jack when I was shooting The Last Waltz, and he came on the set. I remember him complimenting me on Taxi Driver: ”You guys really took it to the limit on that.” I’d meet him now and then in Europe and Hollywood, but we never actually sat down and looked each other in the eye and said let’s work together.
Didn’t he initially turn you down for The Departed?
Yes, but Jack works a certain way. Even when he was declining the role, he was talking about certain things he would do with the character. You have to decipher him. So we decided to jack up his character and then he said, ”Okay, I’m interested.” His character is a man with power who has all the drugs in the world, all the money in the world, all the women in the world, he can do anything, mutilate people. He’s like God. And he’s still not fulfilled.
Did he add dialogue of his own?
Yes, so did Matt. But that’s what I’ve always done. There’s a big scene at the beginning of Mean Streets with Keitel and De Niro in the back room of the bar. De Niro makes up this whole speech — it’s really a bravura performance — and it’s all improvised. That scene made the picture. Taxi Driver was a very tight script and one scene was improvised: De Niro in the mirror.
The opening of this film is very GoodFellas — Nicholson’s sinister voice-over and the Rolling Stones’ ”Gimme Shelter.” Right away, you know you’re in Martyland…
That’s the way the script was written by William Monahan. The narration at the opening by Jack, it takes us right into it. I thought, Yeah, I’ve kind of done it before, but the interesting thing here is the voice-over doesn’t come back after the beginning. It puts you into the world and it leaves you there.
What about ”Gimme Shelter”? You’ve used it before in GoodFellas and Casino. What is it with you and that song?
I guess I’m repeating myself. [Laughs] The riff at the beginning of ”Gimme Shelter” is dangerous. You know something’s going to happen. Also, there is no shelter in this film. Nobody has shelter. When I was thinking of the music for this film, I was sitting in a traffic jam on 57th Street. And I saw a beat-up car with a guy behind the wheel with long hair screaming along to ”Gimme Shelter,” slamming his fists on the steering wheel, and I went, ”That’s it!”
You’ve made three films in a row with Leo. Is he your new De Niro?