Fifty years after fighting for his life, the 74-year-old director talks overcoming an epic lawsuit, starving actors and a death on set to bring his passion project — a Japanese novelist’s masterpiece — to the screen: “I was blind, and now I can see.”
In 1978, Martin Scorsese nearly died. Years of hard living and drug abuse finally had caught up with the filmmaker, and yet he continued to push himself, until one day, he collapsed. “After finishing New York, New York, I took chances,” he says. “[I was] out of time and out of place and also in turmoil in my own life and embracing the other world, so to speak, with a kind of attraction to the dangerous side of existence. Then on Labor Day weekend, I found myself in a hospital, surprised that I was near death.”
At age 35, he was fighting for his life. “A number of things had happened,” he continues. “Misuse of normal medications in combinations [to which] my body reacted in strange ways. I was down to about 109 pounds. It wasn’t only drug-induced — asthma had a lot to do with it. I was kept in a hospital for 10 days and nights, and they took care of me, these doctors, and I became aware of not wanting to die and not wasting [my life].”
Alone in that hospital, occasionally visited by such friends as Robert De Niro, the director thought back to his roots as a Catholic growing up in New York’s Little Italy, the son of two garment workers, a boy who had fallen under the influence of a charismatic priest and at one point considered becoming a seminarian, only to be thrown out of the preparatory seminary because he never could make it to Mass on time. All these years later, “I was stunned by the realization of my naivete and denial,” he says. “I prayed. But if I prayed, it was just to get through those 10 days and nights. I felt [if I was saved] it was for some reason. And even if it wasn’t for a reason, I had to make good use of it.”
Half a lifetime later, 74, has returned to that spiritual crisis and used it as the underpinning of another story, of men facing their own such challenge in a very different time and place, 17th century Japan.
Based on Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel and starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson, Silence charts the physical and emotional journeys of two Jesuit priests who travel from Portugal to Japan in an attempt to win converts — only to be persecuted for their beliefs.