Martha Pinson is one of the unsung talents behind some of the finest and most important films of the last three and a half decades. A filmmaker herself, as script supervisor she has worked on eight projects apiece with Martin Scorsese and the late Sidney Lumet, and she has also worked with the like of Oliver Stone, Milos Forman, Brian De Palma and Peter Yates. She started her career just as New York was attracting a bevy of great filmmakers. In the second of a two-part interview I talk to Martha about working with Oliver Stone and Peter Yates, the challenges and joys of script supervising, and making the transition to directing.  

Part 1 can be read here.

How was working with Oliver Stone on WALL STREET? (1987)
I went in with a very positive attitude because I loved PLATOON (1986) and SALVADOR (1986) and knew Oliver wrote them as well. And here was another great script. He is such a smart, uncompromising director. In my interview, he asked what my biggest flaw as a script supervisor was and I answered, ''The wise-ass remark.''  I related how on a previous job (a commercial) I’d commented on a take everyone liked, ''It looks like a fire drill.'' Everybody looked at me as if to say, ''Shut up.'' Oliver didn’t seem to mind that. I got the impression he likes people who are brash and fearless. We got along great. I think he grew to trust me because he knew I'd always tell him the truth. I would have worked with him again except it would have meant travel and I had a son in school in New York. 

How do the filmmakers you have worked with differ in their feelings towards improvising or ad-libbing?
It depends on the writer, the director, and other things. In some instances, directors and actors know not to mess around because the script has such beautiful rhythms and language. But sometimes there's a sense that doing ad-libs or trying out some different versions of a scene might be constructive and fun. I've been involved in both situations and both are valid. Sometimes the funniest line or most memorable action in a movie is an ad-lib.

How was working with Peter Yates on THE HOUSE ON CARROLL STREET (1988)?
I was, once again, delighted to get the call to work for a director I admired so much.  BULLITT wowed the world back in 1968. And, though my son was only 2 years old, I jumped in. I was also eager to work with the director of photography, Michael Ballhaus, because I loved his cinematography on the Fassbinder film DESPAIR(1978).  It was a terrific experience in part because Peter and Michael were so kind. The three of us lived in the same neighborhood and I had a ride to work everyday. Wow, that never happens. We had a great team, worked hard, and everything went well. Staging and shooting in the ceiling of Grand Central station, where Mandy Patinkin’s character had to fall through, was amazing.  

What do you enjoy the most about script supervising? 
I don’t think too much about enjoying things. It’s a job; I have to know everything and prevent a mistake that my colleagues - smart professionals - may have glazed over on. I work under extreme pressure, locked in deep concentration, for long hours. I enjoy collaborating with brilliant, dedicated people. I enjoy finishing a scene and knowing it’s good, that it will cut.  I like the creative aspect of shooting in that we show up in the morning with words on paper, actors, and a camera. And, by the end of the day – BOOM - we have a scene; we have a movie that is going to be seen and enjoyed by a lot of people. So much of what that scene is, what it conveys, the emotion it sparks, is due to the work of the entire crew and cast – on that day. I enjoy playing on the team, joking with the guys. I enjoy that everyone knows they can come to me with any question they have. I enjoy their smile when I answer and they can get on with their work. I like math and some of the questions and concerns are basically about geometry – eye lines, camera angles, transforming a three-dimensional reality to a two-dimensional screen. I enjoy working with actors. They are constantly struggling to create and grow, to make a fiction convincing. They literally have to become someone else and I’m in awe of them. They almost have to live in another world. It’s so challenging and I try to be supportive.  

What have been some of the most rewarding experiences?
It’s rewarding to be creative and appreciated and that comes in many forms -- an exchange with an actor thanking me for something, a comment from a producer, anyone. Also, it’s fun when I come up with an idea that is used in the movie – suggestion of music for the sound track, a way to fix a shot or a problem with a story point. I have a natural temperament to collaborate. I am the child of an engineer and spent many happy hours as a kid doing math problems with my dad after dinner. I loved building things, borrowing his drafting tools to draw floor plans. I grew up collaborating with a brilliant man so I’m a natural with that transaction. I am inspired by the magic of movies and love making them. 

What are the most challenging aspects?
The hours are long, so everyone gets tired. Night shoots are tough, as are early calls, extreme cold or heat, and noisy locations. You have to be very prepared and sensitive to the pressure that other people are under. Actors are worried about their performance. Directors have to constantly evaluate if the shoot is going well or not and also field calls from the studio. The assistant director might be freaking out because we’re falling behind. There's a lot of paperwork, which can be boring. Hostility from someone, such as an insecure actor, is horrible. Sometimes a person is really difficult and just after we wrap, they check into the Betty Ford Clinic. And then I realize, ah, it wasn’t something I said.  

Can you recall a particularly stressful experience?
I once learned from a colleague, regarding an actress’s attitude to me: ''She hates you 'cause you’re pretty. She doesn’t want you on her set.'' Apparently, she wanted to get rid of me but the director refused and I finished the film, supporting him and the team. Knowing this was spooky. Sometimes jealousy and resentment - the usual work politics - are daunting. But it’s better because we are freelance. We can get through it and then not accept another job with a person who is difficult.  

Where do you usually sit or stand during filming?
I'm usually right next to the director. Since the late '90s we've had the big monitor setups, the video village area, where the director and I usually sit. But before that I’d always be standing next to the camera, under it on an apple-box, on a ladder, or I'd be in a spot where the dolly move was going to end. The director, boom operator, still photographer and myself were right there, moving as needed but finding a perch. Now, in video village, we have a couple of chairs next to the monitors. I need to be ready and composed because I'm right there with the director. If something needs to be discussed with another person, I walk away so I'm not disturbing the director, who needs to concentrate. Even recently, regardless of the monitors, I work right next to camera if I'm needed to cue lines or observe details. The key for me is to be agile and mobile, able to jump in.  

Do you feel a particular affinity for New York filmmakers and stories given that you've worked with the likes of Lumet, Scorsese, De Palma and Stone?
I moved to New York to make movies and be closer to my family, so naturally I  worked on all these New York movies. Later, I didn't want to travel because my son was in school here.  Lucky for me, New York blossomed as this incredibly gritty, romantic, diverse location. It was a coincidence of time and place. A lot of great, skilled crew people stuck with it and proved we could do anything that was asked here. Over the past few decades we’ve built a huge thriving industry here. Hats off to Bloomberg and the NYS Film Commission. It would have been much more difficult without the tax credits. 

I like the New York vibe. I grew up in rural New  Jersey, and I moved to New York in my 20s, after a few years in Boston. I  probably have a more romantic view of the city than those who lived here their whole lives. My dad’s engineering firm was near Grand Central Station and coming to meet him there was so cool as a kid. Also, as a teenager I'd get on a bus and come to Greenwich Village, watch a couple of Bergman movies, and buy some hippie jewelry. I love this area, and I love going to myriad locations all over the 5 boroughs to shoot. I love the stories, the culture, and the streets of New York.  

How do you deal with it when you have issues with the content of a film you're working on?
There have been a couple times when I’ve read a script and explained to the production manager that I did not respond to the material. Of course, I knew if one of my favorite directors was doing the film it would have to be interesting. Often, I would not be able to read the script before being hired so the decision depended on who was directing or producing. If I didn’t feel comfortable, I would not take the job. It didn’t seem fair to go in with a negative attitude. That’s the last thing they need. Very often a script involves a vehicle accident, a death, something desperate or violent. Fortunately, it is always very clear that the vehicles and stunt actors have been secured and planned very carefully for safety.  Nevertheless, though I’m not religious, I’d find myself saying a prayer for the safety of all before a stunt. With fights and blood, there is an easy detachment because the blood is fake and poured on, the scars are done in makeup. It’s all rigged so we are usually more in awe of what’s been created and planned than repelled by the fictional action. Often gunfire is added in post-production. As far as difficult, repellent scenes, well, I can detach and do my job, have compassion for all involved, and know that it will be over in a few hours usually. The rest of the shooting crew would take the same attitude and we’d carry on, hold up our end. Sometimes with a scene involving nudity, I’ve found that it is somewhat of a comfort to an actress to have another woman standing there and not just men.

When you watch a film you've worked on are you able to divorce yourself from the experience of making it and just enjoy it? 
When I see a film I've worked on for the first time it is a bit intense. I can get a migraine thinking about what different shots and takes were used, what was left out and what is different. Even watching a film I haven't worked on can be an odd experience.  Working on films takes something away from being a regular viewer. You simply know too much and it's not an awe-inspiring escape anymore. Because of this, I didn't go to many movies for a while but I'm getting back to them now. 

You've directed short films yourself and you're developing a new feature to direct.  How long have you harboured ambitions to direct?
Oddly, I didn’t actually “harbor” the ambition much in advance. I was asked to do it and liked it. In the late 90s, two writer friends asked me to direct their plays - full length, off-Broadway productions. It was wonderful and I could use the visual, artistic, and cinematic tools I’d learned on set to make something special in terms of staging, sound, visuals, and lighting.  I then directed a short about basketball, based on my friend Stephen Martin's play – 'Don’t Nobody Love the Game More than Me' (2002), which did well. I kept going, getting more work done as it came my way. I was also putting my son through college. I had been a writer, wrote eight scripts while he was at school, but I found it hard to sell them. I’m not a producer, nor do I wish to be one. So it seemed like directing would be a job whereas with writing you had to sell your work. Once my son was old enough to be on his own more, I thought, ''OK, I can try that.''  I had previously thought you had to be really rich to direct, an heiress, or have a father or husband with a lot of connections and money. I didn’t see that in my life. I thought a film was a risky investment so couldn’t see asking people for a lot of money. I never had a film school background. I’d applied to film school but was rejected. I should have probably applied to five or six more schools. I just never gave up entirely on work that was more expressive and creative for me. I took in wheelbarrows of applications for grants and funding. I encountered resistance regarding directing episodic TV:  an executive producer once asked me: ''Why do you want to be a director? I have directors lined up around the block. You are a great script supervisor.  That’s something useful.'' Getting an assignment as a TV director is very tricky, I discovered, and I became discouraged about that after some efforts did not pan out. Of course, there’s a lot of negativity, failure, rejection; it’s normal because of the competitive nature of the business. It’s like professional sports in that way and we have to accept that. And keep going. The process also lets me practice leadership. 

How supportive has Martin Scorsese been in your ambition to direct?
He’s been amazing, so generous. Even in the past, he read several of my scripts, watched my short; he is supportive of other filmmakers. He very graciously agreed to come on board as an executive producer on a film I was asked to direct in the UK, TOMORROW. That’s about the coolest thing anyone could ask for.  

Can you talk about some of the short films you made?
My shorts have been great fun, interesting. I love choosing the material, scouting locations, planning the look and tone, rehearsing with the actors, creating a shot list and hitting it full on with a great DP and small crew. Being on set and creating the film moment-to-moment is thrilling. It’s fun and inspiring to constantly try to outsmart the forces that interfere with what I want to accomplish on the day. 'Don’t Nobody Love the Game More than Me' won many prizes and aired on PBS/Independent Lens. I’ve collaborated with actors and others who have asked me to direct a short, a pilot for a series, a multi-camera shoot of a live performance, and a mini-doc for an album release for them and I have been happy to take on these projects. I directed the short 'It’s Not Saturday' (2011) for a VisionFest (a great NYC film festival) filmmaker challenge project – five days, five pages, five minutes – go!  It was a wonderful experience and I was able to cast a brilliant jazz saxophonist, Alex Han, in the lead. Currently, I have several feature film and television projects in development, some from scripts and treatments I’ve written or co-written, others from scripts by my friends and colleagues. I find it’s necessary to have lots of them because the timeline of any one is so uncertain.  

What skills that you learned as a script supervisor helped you in your directing?
Everything. Staging, blocking, coverage, shot lists, pace, camera moves, all the tools, talking to actors, the mechanics of production, knowing what everyone does, and the dynamics of leadership. Knowing what shots I need, what I’d like but can combine or compromise if time is running out. Knowing the intricacies of the best eye-line for a shot given the likely cutting pattern. Knowing lenses, cutting, and time and money issues. I also developed a strong stance that the people who are working for the shot, who might not have a glamorous job, are extremely important to the success of my work and my day. I always consider the time, hours, and conditions I expect them to work under. I always emphasize safety and I always pay the crewSomething the average person doesn't see is the sheer amount of work that goes into every film - the creativity, devotion, contribution and hard work of the crew. Every person is thinking, building, working, creating, designing, executing, making decisions, showing up early, and getting home late. They are not just bored employees soaking up the benefits. I am reminded of a chat I had years ago ...  Some guys were sitting on a bench having lunch in a park where we’d been setting up and shooting since 7:00am near the city courthouses. They said they’d been watching us out the window of their office and had never seen people work so hard. The guy added: ''We work for the city. We don’t do very much.''  Ah, must be nice. 

As script supervisor I didn’t do much scouting. I love scouting locations as a director and know it cold that the location has to not only be interesting visually and express the reality of the story - it has to be good for sound and access for equipment and crew. The new areas for me as a film director, which I did practice as a theater director and writer, were the initial stance on the work - script analysis, interpretive choices, and character with the actors.  Selecting the colors, the artistic references, talking to the DP, the designers, the casting director, that was new to me when I started directing.  

Has directing made you appreciate what goes into filmmaking even more?
Definitely, so much time and effort goes into choosing the material, casting, script revisions and finance. I am very grateful to take on these new challenges and see my taste, vision and judgment put into play.   

I spoke to Martha by telephone on 20th July 2013 and also by email correspondence during May and June 2014. I would like to thank her for her time.

(1) Martha directing (c) Paulo Caserta
(2) With two year old baby Jack Carroll (c) David Dunlap
(3) With James Cagney on the set of RAGTIME (1981) (c) Bob Penn
(4) With Sidney Lumet at the Mexico location for POWER (1986) (c) Kerry Hayes
(5) In a scene from POWER (1986) with Richard Gere (c) Kerry Hayes
(6) On the set of DEATHTRAP (1982) with Michael Caine (c) Louis Goldman
(7) Martha on the set of I'M NOT RAPPAPORT (1996) (c) Martha Pinson
(8) With Sidney Lumet on the set of NIGHT FALLS ON MANHATTAN (1996) (c) Adger Cowans

MARTHA'S CREDITS WITH SIDNEY LUMET: Prince of the City (1981), Deathtrap (1982), Daniel (1983), Garbo Talks (1984), Power (1986), A Stranger Among Us (1992), Night Falls on Manhattan (1996), Gloria (1999).

MARTHA'S CREDITS WITH MARTIN SCORSESE: 'Bad' (1987), New York Stories (1989, 'Life Lessons' segment), Bringing Out the Dead (1999), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006), Shutter Island (2010), 'Boardwalk Empire' (2010, pilot), Hugo (2011).

Special thanks to Ricky Barnett of IIWYK.  


Martha Pinson is one of the unsung talents behind some of the finest and most important films of the last three and a half decades. A filmmaker herself, as script supervisor she has worked on eight projects apiece with Martin Scorsese and the late Sidney Lumet, and she has also worked with the like of Oliver Stone, Milos Forman, Brian De Palma and Peter Yates. She started her career just as New York was attracting a bevy of great filmmakers. In the first of a two-part interview I talk to Martha about her early filmgoing years, how she got into the film industry, the responsibilities of script supervising, and working with Scorsese, Lumet, Forman and De Palma.   

What were some of the formative films for you growing up?
One of the first films that blew me away was GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), which I saw in a re-release when I was about 12. As a teenager, I was crazy about Bergman, especially THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) and SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (1955), and Truffaut, especially THE 400 BLOWS (1959) and BREATHLESS (1960), which he wrote. I also loved  Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (1961). They were revelations. From TV watching I loved the classics: The Marx Brothers, Looney Tunes, and Little Rascals, and the series “Maverick” with James Garner. Also, some greats were revived on Million Dollar Movie, such as YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942). As I explored movies at revival houses and film societies I enjoyed more classics, such as the work of Orson Welles, Michael Curtiz, and Alfred Hitchcock. Some favorites were THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), CASABLANCA (1942) and THE LADY VANISHES (1938). In college and my early twenties, Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST (1970)and Altman’s MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971) captivated me. I became a big fan of the work of Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Milos Forman, Brian de Palma and Peter Yates (BULLITT, 1968). It was crazy cool that I soon would later have the opportunity to work with them.  
How did you get into the film business?
As a child I loved art, and I continued into high school with that, especially sketching and painting. I started 'my career' in film and theater in the art department, creating sets and props for our school productions. For example, I painted a giant dragon mural for 'The King & I.'  I developed a love of modern dance and became a film buff. I always loved literature, philosophy, French, and history. In college at Vassar in the late 60s, I studied Shakespeare, Greek drama and creative writing. Also, I attended and loved a Film Society that had been set up by the cinematographer Nestor Almendros when he taught there years before. After college I had no options, no job and no prospects. It was the early 70’s and there was 12% unemployment in Boston, where I lived at the time. Honors from Vassar College counted for nothing. I studied Modern Dance and worked part time. I also went to Europe and practiced my French, and saw the mosaics in Ravenna and other great things. I even thought about going to law school.  

Finally, a job selling tickets at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, Massachusetts appealed to me because I realized that movies combined all the arts I loved. And the job included a pass to all the local art & revival theaters – awesome!  The Welles was an art-house theater not unlike The Film Forum in New York. It turned out that it was the hippest place in the world. People like Neil Young, Fassbinder, Orson Welles and Vincent Minnelli came. Bob Marley did a concert at our adjacent restaurant. I was soon in charge of publicity and some advertising chores. We launched a lot of films. I even went to Cannes in 1975 and picked out HESTER STREET, an indie directed by Joan Micklin Silver, which we did really well with. I’d write press releases, run press tours, invite people to screenings and parties, and design promotional brochures. It was a small salary but really fun and creative. This is a cool story ... I did a press tour for Orson Welles when we opened F FOR FAKE (1973) and he generously spoke to a packed audience of film buffs and fans at the theater.  A guy asked, ''Mr. Welles, how would you define a good director?'' Welles replied, ''A good director is one who finishes a film.'' Classic. Directors whose films I helped launch told me, because we were so successful, ''You have to work for me.'' That’s how I started in production.  I worked as a production assistant but it was too random and unpredictable for me, and there was too much yelling. It seemed the only real job for a woman on a film set in those days (mid-70s) was script supervisor. People suggested it; I read about it; it seemed possible. My mentor said I picked it up faster than anyone he’d trained. People said I had a photographic memory. I had no idea. I loved that it was a union job and I could live on the salary and take time off to write and have a family. I suppose I timed it well and I had the education and visual and language skills that were appreciated. My secret weapon was I was good at math.  I was calm and quiet by nature so that helped. 

What are the responsibilities of a script supervisor?
A script supervisor is a key assistant/adviser to the director on set. We make sure that the film will cut together, and we are considered the representative of the editor during shooting. We create a literal breakdown and maintain continuity of all elements. For example, an actor might have sixty different wardrobe changes; props get moved around and changed. Everything is shot out of sequence. Script supervisors are where the buck stops on all this, and we communicate with all the departments to catch errors and answer questions. We're charged with remembering every detail in a scene as it happens and what has been established on camera so far. An actor might ask ''Martha, which way did I turn?'' I will answer as we keep rolling. We also have to advise the team if we are missing any shots or coverage, or if there are issues with eye-lines, lens size, matching and so on. We make sure the dialogue is covered and correct. Information from the set gets passed on to the editor, and we inform him/her what the director likes or dislikes about each take and setup. We also contribute to the daily production report. We are the memory of the production.  

Before you began working on movies what on set experiences did you have?
I worked as a script supervisor on the PBS miniseries THE SCARLET LETTER (1979) and I got a lot of experience. It was a 200-page script, four hours of television. I was hired on a provisional basis because I was new, but I finished the shoot and even co-edited an episode. I also did some shorts, commercials, and two movies-of-the-week as script supervisor:  BRESLIN'S NEIGHBORHOOD (1979)and MAYFLOWER: THE PILGRIM'S ADVENTURE (1979), which starred Anthony Hopkins. The editor on MAYFLOWER, Eric Albertson, told me my notes were the best he’d seen in 15 years and that he had told everyone in New York. After that, the phone was ringing, and Brian De Palma's production manager must have heard about me because he asked me to work on DRESSED TO KILL (1980).  

Was it daunting working with a director as big as De Palma for your first feature film? How was that experience?
I was of kind in awe of De Palma but I don't think I was intimidated, which is interesting. I knew the job and what was required on a daily basis. I wasn't scared until I read the script! I was shaken up, just from reading it. I knew it would be a hit so I was excited going in.  Because I was still pretty new, during the shoot there were a couple of things I might have noticed if I’d had more experience. And people did tease me a bit. I had to prove myself and overcome skepticism regarding my knowledge and abilities. I was fortunate in that De Palma knew exactly what he wanted, so my job was easier in a sense. He had designed a beautiful shooting plan for the movie. It would have been harder to work for someone who was new himself. The job was to pay attention and not let anything escape me. Brian was terrific, and is all about the work, as am I.  
What was the experience of working on RAGTIME (1980) with Milos Forman like?
By the summer of 1980, when I got the call, I had done a couple of big films in New York and I guess I was on the radar of the production team. I was a big fan of HAIR (1979) and loved Doctorow’s novel 'Ragtime' (1975) so I was delighted to do the film. I said yes and dove in.  We shot in New York in the summer and early fall, then moved to London for 10 weeks at Shepperton Studios. RAGTIME was dazzling, complex, and beautiful, and I enjoyed it.  Milos and his DP, Miroslav Ondricek, were brilliant and fun, and the cast was amazing: James Cagney, Mary Steenburgen, Mandy Patinkin, Howard Rollins, Norman Mailer, Samuel L. Jackson, and more. It was a long shoot and there was a lot to keep track of and I suppose I 'grew up' a bit in the process, learning to shoulder more responsibility and pressure and to work far from home. It was an honor to work with Milos Forman. One time he said to some of us crew that he liked it if his colleagues were smarter than him. We took the compliment knowing full well there was no chance – he is so smart, we were not even close. I learned a lot about elaborate, complex coverage of scenes. I was witnessing the work of a very accomplished and passionate director. The film was also incredibly beautiful and historic. Every set, costume, and hairdo was special. John Graysmark was production designer, Patritzia von Brandenstein was art director, and Anna Hill Johnstone was costume designer – the best! I remember one day, it was so hot on our set that the candles were melting, literally bending over. RAGTIME had vast and varied elements and Milos just kept going with a great spirit. A funny thing I remember is that the crew would watch dailies with Milos and Miroslav in a screening room after work. Sometimes a heated exchange in Czech would start between them and it sounded like there was trouble. Yipes! Those of us on the crew would sit there, not understanding a word and silently praying that whatever was wrong was not our fault. One time I heard my name in the middle of the intense exchange.  Panic. When the shot ended, Milos asked me why we had not done a certain scene along with the ones we just watched. I replied that the scene in question was a night shot, different lighting from the daylight scenes screened. Phew, that was fine. I had a wonderful time working with Milos and he asked me to do AMADEUS (1984) with him later. However, they were shooting in Prague and I was about to get married in New York. That was my priority and I didn’t want to delay things.  
How about Sidney Lumet?
I loved his films: THE PAWNBROKER (1964), SERPICO (1973), DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975). Wow! Sid was such a brilliant, earthy, aware person. I was really excited to work with him, and luckily we just clicked. We did eight movies together. Sid also signed on as adviser/consultant on a project I was developing to direct, which was extremely generous.  One of the remarkable things about Sid was that he always did two, or sometimes three, weeks of rehearsal prior to shooting. It was six hours a day, no fooling around, and he prepared for the shoot as if he was getting ready to open a Broadway play. Well, there was some fooling around because Sid loved to do vaudeville jokes. He had a table read with the whole cast, then talked about the script and broke it down. He'd show photographs of the locations and talk about the history and backstory of the characters. People asked questions and everybody got to know what Sid was thinking. He’d progress to working with smaller groups of actors on each scene, going over motivations, marking the dramatic beats, and blocking the action. Different levels and interpretations in the performances would be tried, and the staging adjusted. We'd work in a big, empty rehearsal hall. The assistant directors would tape off the dimensions of each set, and we'd have basic props brought in. Details that would make a big difference in the daily schedule would get ironed out.  I'd report to production every day what had been changed and/or decided. On the last day of rehearsals we'd do a run through for the director of photography so he could see the staging and often pre-light the sets. Sid believed that actors lost energy if they were waiting around too long. He wanted to bring them in and be ready to start shooting quickly. He didn't want to rehearse, try to find the scene, while a hundred crew people were standing around. He also liked to make decisions when he could envision the film more as a whole. For him, that was before the shoot. He felt he'd be less objective when tired from getting up early, the grind of the shoot days.   

Can you remember a particular experience that sums up his ethos?
One day on A STRANGER AMONG US (1992), we were filming a major car stunt and other action in the midtown diamond district, with a guy crashing into the back of a truck and people running everywhere. It was a whole day's filming on one block, all set up in advance, with four cameras. We did 48 setups before lunch and went home. That's what preparation can do. The producers would tell Sid ''You can take a little more time if you like'' but he'd say ''No, it's fine.  I'm good.'' It was something deep in him that he liked to move along. He might have done another take and tried alternate versions but he was decisive, had a vision, and went with it.  
Your first of eight collaborations with Martin Scorsese was on the Michael Jackson 'Bad' video (1987).  That must have been quite an experience. What do you enjoy the most about working with Scorsese?
'Bad' was a fantastic experience. I didn't work that closely with Michael Jackson, but I liked him; he was extremely prepared and a nice, gentle soul. Marty is a genius, as everyone pretty much knows. And he’s funny. He's intensely passionate about his work and getting it right; if the slightest thing is off in the composition or framing, he notices it right away and makes an adjustment. I was amazed by his knowledge of films. He’d reference a specific shot from a great film and we’d all be standing there in awe, trying to picture that shot. He’s warm and supportive to the actors, and very engaged. Of course, I am not there for much of the prep and communication with the actors. I see the results on set, which are astounding. He knows about art, history, and so many things besides film, so it's an education just to be around him. He’s also collaborative and wants input from people he trusts, and that in turn inspires everyone. He is completely prepared, annotates the script with every shot he wants - in order, described, numbered, diagrammed. He and his DP’s get up every day and do shots that don’t even seem humanly possible. They're astounding. Working with Marty, I've experienced a constant sense of wonder when I see what has been designed - the sets, the costumes, and then the approach to the scenes. Nothing is just all right or obvious. There is always a unique and imaginative approach. That applies to every set, every scene and every sequence, every day. Marty makes use of every tool available to a filmmaker and takes each one beyond the accepted into a new, expressive realm. 

Part 2 can be read here.

I spoke to Martha by telephone on 20th July 2013 and also by email correspondence during May and June 2014. I would like to thank her for her time.


(1) Martha directing (c) Paulo Caserta
(2) Martha and crew on the streets of New York for WITHOUT A TRACE (1983) (c) Holly Bower
(3) Portrait of Martha (c) Lou Jones
(4) Milos Forman at the Jersey Shore location for RAGTIME in 1979 (c) Martha Pinson
(5) Martha and Sidney Lumet on the set of POWER in 1986 (c) Kerry Hayes
(6) Martha with Martin Scorsese and Nicolas Cage on the New York location for BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999) (c) Philip V. Caruso

Special thanks to Ricky Barnett of IIWYK.


James Gray is the auteur filmmaker behind works such as THE YARDS (2000), WE OWN THE NIGHT (2007), TWO LOVERS (2008) and the recent THE IMMIGRANT (2013). His films are delicately paced thrillers or dramas interested in human behaviour and the role fate plays in our lives. Beloved by French critics and someone who can count Martin Scorsese as an admirer, Gray's films elicit interesting reactions from critics. I spoke to James about his upbringing, his films and how personal THE IMMIGRANT is to him.   

What kinds of movies influenced you the most growing up?
I saw a ton of movies growing up and got a great cinematic education. The network of revival houses which were available in New York back in the late '70s and '80s were pretty astonishing. By the time I went to college I was in the very fortunate position of having seen way more films than practically everyone in my class. For example, you could go to Times Square at the Hollywood Twin and see RIO BRAVO (1959) or THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940). You could go to the Thala and see AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD (1972)and FITZCARRALDO (1982) on a double bill. I can say that APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) was a very important film for me because I was ten or eleven at that time, and I had never seen anything like it. I had only seen the likes of STAR WARS (1977), JAWS (1975), ROCKY (1976) and the KING KONG (1976) remake. The next year, RAGING BULL (1980) came out and that was my introduction to what I call 'cinephelia'. Thanks to the mini-series 'Shogun' (1980) that my father loved, the household got a VCR, and I used that as an excuse to record movies off of Channel 13 public television. We rented movies from the Photomat chain, and the first movie we ever rented was THE GODFATHER (1972). I also remember renting A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). My introduction to film was really early '70s American cinema but through that I discovered who those filmmakers stole from. For example, you could see the influence of Visconti in Francis Ford Coppola's work, so I discovered THE LEOPARD (1963), ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (1960) and SENSO (1954). Coppola also had an obsession with Kurosawa, so I saw THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) and all the other Kurosawa films. One reason I love RAGING BULL is that it introduced me to the Robert Wise movie THE SET-UP (1949). These films were my film school before film school. I remember that these films were very formative for me as a teenager, and also Fellini's films, particularly from VARIETY LIGHTS (1950) to 8 1/2 (1963). It was a new world for me, and all of this gets in the blender of the brain.

Were you thinking of LA STRADA (1954) when you were making THE IMMIGRANT?
THE IMMIGRANT is a complete rip-off of LA STRADA until the last third, where my movie isn't as dark. Even though I adore LA STRADA, the idea that I wanted to pursue was a little different - that there is the possibility of redemption and no-one's life is meaningless, beneath contempt or unworthy of our examination. I personally don't mind ripping off anybody. Everybody does it. Fellini ripped off Chaplin. Look at what Giulietta Masina is doing in NIGHTS OF CABIRIA. (1957). It's so Chaplin-esque. This whole idea of the perfect, bittersweet, beautiful ending was something Chaplin mastered and it became Fellini's mantra.

The ending is more hopeful than I anticipated, especially compared to most of your previous films.
Ric Menello, the co-writer, and I talked about the ending at great length. We tried to achieve both the bitter and the sweet, and we didn't want to bludgeon the audience with a miserable, dark ending. On the other hand, we didn't want an ending where she won the Lottery and it's all been a bad dream. Menello kept saying ''We're doing Shakespeare'' and he directed me towards some of the Shakespearian histories, which he knew chapter and verse. I had read 'Henry IV, Part 1' and 'Part 2' in college but I didn't really remember them because it had been twenty years. In the plays, Prince Hal is the King and you're happy for him, but he still tells his buddy Falstaff ''I know thee not, old man'' and casts him off. It's bittersweet. Here Marion's character, Ewa, gets her sister back but she will forever be haunted by her experiences. Similarly, Joaquin's character, Bruno, is a survivor and will probably be okay, but he's in love with Ewa. He'll always miss her. The idea of the final shot of the movie is an extension of this. It's not presenting anything vague, because you know where they are both going, but it's somewhat ambiguous.

How did you achieve that final shot technically?
It was in the script from the very beginning. It's all visual effects. Looking out of that window, you would have seen a bridge, so it's green screen and a plate we shot of the boat. The reflection in the glass was shot at an entirely different location. Visual effects basically married the image.

What were your intentions with the Joaquin Phoenix/ Marion Cotillard relationship in THE IMMIGRANT?
I said to Ric when we started out ''What's interesting to me is if we could examine a co-dependent relationship but in a period setting.'' Co-dependency is a modern psychological idea which actually comes from Alcoholics Anonymous, but it doesn't mean that it didn't exist until the post-War period. Menello particularly got on to the idea that this co-dependency would be bad for the both of them. They are locked in this awful embrace which involves Marion's humiliation but also her salvation. And Joaquin's salavation too.                   

By the end of the film I felt that Marion's character was not as innocent as we thought, and Joaquin's wasn't as evil. 
I'm so happy that you got that. That was very much the intention of it. I mean, she said she was raped on the boat, but maybe she even traded sexual favours. We don't know. She has a very steely idea of what she needs to do, and possibly given the right certain circumstances, maybe you or I would have done what Joaquin did and exploited her for his gain. We really don't know what we're capable of. He's doing everything he can to survive. He clearly feels terrible about it. The truth in the end is that he DID get her what she needed.

How do you feel about the critical response to the movie?
It's been very strange in some places. I didn't expect such a wonderfully divisive reaction to the movie. It's actually been very positive in the United States, especially at the New York Film Festival. Other places, like England, hated the film. You never know when you make a film what the reaction is going to be. I expected people to either love it because it was a rip-off of LA STRADA, or hate it because it was hokum, but people seem to love or hate it for completely unpredictable reasons. The only thing that you can ask is that people try to see what you attempted to do. If they can see that shard and understand what was attempted, then I'm happy. What I was trying to depict here were lives that go on in a fashion we are not even sure about. As a filmmaker all you can do is to try to be as true to yourself as possible, and let the chips fall where they may. If there's any filmmaker to look up to in that respect it's Stanley Kubrick. I remember the reviews for BARRY LYNDON (1975), and they were terrible. When I was a kid I would go to the library and look up old movie reviews, and I found that critics got it right a lot, but they also got it wrong a lot too.

Given Ric Menello's passing, looking back at the film must be bittersweet in itself.
The movie haunts me. I had an incredibly good time making it. I loved the actors. The movie is very personal to me. And it was the last film I was lucky enough to do with Ric. That was a great part of the experience. Now that he's gone, and the movie is over, I have to let go of it, and it's not that easy for me to do. I loved him profoundly and spoke to him for hours every day. There's really nobody I miss more. I think about him constantly, almost like I want to reach for the phone and call him, but I can't. I just keep hearing all the times I told him to go to the doctor in my head. He would tell me ''I have problems with my chest.'' I'd say ''You have to go to a doctor. I'll have a car pick you up. Don't worry about the money.'' But he would never go.   

How do you think filming at the real Ellis Island informs the film?
It was an amazing experience. I was the happiest I have ever been on a film set. You have to realise that my whole family came through there in 1923. We couldn't shoot there in the day because it's a museum so we had to shoot everything at night, blasting all the light through the famous beaux-arts windows. It wasn't as easy as it sounds because the Great Hall is on the second and third floors and we had to get cranes up there and put them on barges. We had to get eight hundred extras in period garb from Lower Manhattan and ship them to the Island. It was nuts. We there at 2am shooting this stuff. I have to say, standing there, where assuredly my grandparents had stood within ten or fifteen feet of me way back when, I couldn't help but get a chill down my spine. It definitely informed the actors' performances knowing that they are in that space. The Caruso concert was a real event that was used as entertainment for the immigrants. Ric said ''We have to put the Caruso concert in the movie.'' I was so happy we managed to do it. We got this guy (Joseph Calleja) who is considered the new Caruso to come from Malta to sing this Puccini. He sang it live with the orchestra playing, in the Great Hall. Can you imagine that? Francis Ford Coppola on THE GODFATHER, PART II (1974)and Elia Kazan on AMERICA, AMERICA (1963) weren't lucky enough to go to the real Ellis Island because back then it was completely dilapidated. We were the first movie to shoot Ellis Island for the real thing. It was the thrill of a lifetime really.

Do you see THE IMMIGRANT as kind of the end of a cycle? The film could be telling the origin stories of characters from your other films, beginning with LITTLE ODESSA (1994).     
I hadn't thought of it like that, but I guess you're right. It was not part of my conscious design. Certainly Ric and I never discussed that when we were writing it. But I can see it now. It's a very personal movie like I said. My grandparents are in one of the photographs in the locket that Ewa is holding. One of the stores is called Hurwitz's, which was my mother's maiden name. There's a lot of that stuff in the film. The whole idea of not knowing how to eat a banana comes from my grandmother, who didn't know when she came to America and just bit into one when she was given one. We had a deleted bit where Ewa studies the spaghetti and says ''I'm not eating that. It's bloody worms.'' This is what my grandparents initially thought spaghetti was.

Was it a cathartic or educational experience making a film that could be about your ancestors?
My grandparents were actually remote to me because they didn't speak any English, even to the day they died. They spoke Russian, and in the house, Yiddish. They didn't integrate into American life and maintained their outsider position. To be honest, I never really liked them. They would come over and tell me stories about a country of which I understood about twenty per cent. I was never interested in talking to them, which of course now I realise was a very ignorant and heartbreaking position to take. Imagine the stories they could have told me. Making the film absolutely put me in their position. I suddenly realised that they came to this country all alone, they couldn't speak the language and they lived in a place about 250 square feet that probably had rats and typhus. They were alienated, and the area in which they lived had all kinds of characters you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley.

What kind of childhood did you have?
I lived in a crummy, semi-detached row house in Queens, in the Flushing area, with my mother, father and brother, whom I still talk to every day. It was not too far from where the Mets play baseball. It's still in New York City but you can see the skyscrapers from a distance, so there's a kind of melancholy and pathos. I had a pretty miserable, complaining and neurotic childhood.

Your films are often set in small, cramped rooms. Is this a direct influence of your childhood?
It's all wound up in the films unconsciously now I think of it. My experiences were as a pale-skinned child in a cramped, claustrophobic set of quarters, and also movie theatres, small houses and hallways. I wish my parents had taken me horseback riding or sailing but it didn't happen.
Was WE OWN THE NIGHT more of a challenge being a more epic film?
Truthfully, I felt it was considerably easier because I wasn't brutalised by a rapid shooting schedule. THE IMMIGRANT, for example, was 32 days and TWO LOVERS was 29 days, whereas we had 48 days on WE OWN THE NIGHT. It felt like we had a year, and it was great because we could explore a little bit.

The car chase in that film was extraordinary and not something one would expect from you.
There was an executive at Warner Brothers called Lorenzo Di Bonaventura who said to me ''We want you to do a cop movie for us but you have to have a car chase.'' It's very difficult to do an original car chase. I was driving on the 101 freeway in LA during a rainstorm and I almost got into a terrible accident. It was very dark and the windshield was covered with water. I thought ''There has never been a car chase that has involved weather as a major ingredient.'' It felt consistent with my intention to make a film that was about both the environment and fate playing a big role in our lives, and how our actions only reflect our inability to change our situations at hand. That's a very Greek, epic idea, and operatic. 

What do you love so much about opera?
My first ever opera as an adult was The Merry Widow at The Met, when I was 23 or 24. I remember thinking ''This is an incredible experience.'' As overblown and as melodramatic as it was, it felt like it was going for a greater truth, an emotional truth. It didn't try to adhere to the reality of a given situation. It was so beautiful, and it moved me very much. I have a subscription to LA Opera and I go as much as I can. If I don't see a particular production, I get pretty miserable.  

What usually hooks you to a project?
It's always starts with the character. What does the person want? What is the situation that the person has found him or herself in? It never stems from the look of the film, or a technical challenge, the style, or whether I have repeated myself.

Would you agree that your films seem to draw from the same pool but from different angles and with different results?
Yes, the intent has always been to try and craft a filmography where the same story is being told in some ways over and over again, but that they change and become slightly different as I change as a person. By the time I make my tenth film, hopefully it'll be completely different from my first film. Making films is really a process of discovery about yourself because it's a very selfish, narcissistic endeavour. You really have to deceive yourself into thinking that you're so important that you deserve all the resources you get. One has to be crazy really to dedicate the time and energy and deep personal care necessary to make a movie.

Were you daunted at working with such established actors as Maximilian Schell and Vanessa Redgrave on your first film LITTLE ODESSA?
I was nervous with them initially but when I realised that we had common ground, which was the characters and the thematic and emotional ideas, it kind of went away. I'd be lying to you if I didn't admit to being daunted. I was 23 when that film started, and I didn't know what the hell I was doing, which is abundantly clear to anyone who has to sit through the movie. I haven't seen it in full in about twenty years. I saw the first five minutes in 2010 and I hated it so much I had to leave. It just felt like such a young man's movie.  

It took six years for for your next film THE YARDS  to get made and released. What do you feel you have learned from your various struggles?
It was a big struggle to get THE YARDS finished. It's been a real struggle to try and maintain my integrity as a filmmaker. The film industry is not structured for that, it's a business that is only interested in making as much money as possible. I've learned that you have to live moment to moment and find the joy in the making of the film. You can't control anything at the end, or who will love or hate it or what your fights will be. You realise that nothing else matters, even the appraisal of the film. Knowing that even a film like VERTIGO (1958) suffered ignominy when it originally came out teaches you that you have to have tunnel vision in what you're doing.

You have now made four films with Joaquin Phoenix. Do you pretty much write films with him in mind now?
Ric Menello and I definitely wrote TWO LOVERS and THE IMMIGRANT with him in mind. Joaquin is as close to a genius as I have ever dealt with. He has such an amazing understanding of human emotional lives and behaviour. Joaquin also brings danger to any role he plays, which is as high praise as I can give any actor. He's also just a remarkably generous, beautiful person. I can't say enough good things about him but that's obvious, I've made four films with him and I hope to make more. 
How did you cast Marion Cotillard in THE IMMIGRANT?
I met her one night at dinner with Guillaume Canet, who I worked with on BLOOD TIES (2013). I thought she was amazing. She looked like a silent film actress, like Lillian Gish or someone. I felt the thing to do was to do a period film with her. I was very impressed because we were arguing over a particular actor and she threw a piece of bread at me as if to say ''You're an idiot.'' Marion is very temperate but she has great will. They are two qualities you need for Ewa, her character in THE IMMIGRANT. She's wonderful in the movie. It's interesting that her casting brought with it its own baggage in France. She is such a star in France and a lot of it is because of her work with Dior. There was this idea of 'The Dior girl starts to act.' Over here we just see her as a great actress.
How did you decide on the look of the main characters?
Lewis Hine did a photograph called 'Russian Jewess and Baby', and that's what we based Marion's look on in the movie. I based Jeremy Renner's character on a real life person called Ted Anneman who died in much the same way as Renner's character does in the movie.  
You've spoken about the influence of Greek tragedy and opera on your work, but how much of your own worldview is reflected in your films?
I think they indirectly, good or bad, reflect my worldview. LITTLE ODESSA, for example, was a very bleak film because my mother had just died from cancer and I was finding it very difficult to live in this world. THE IMMIGRANT reflects a lot of darkness but also an understanding that maybe life isn't all terrible, and that at some point you have to stop fighting the current and simply do the best you can. Having children changed my worldview. It's a lot more anxiety, constantly being worried about them, but having children fills you with a very profound love. It has been tremendously rewarding and moving watching them grow up. I hope that it will add a more hopeful ingredient to my films, because all in candour, I think that's a flaw in the work. Not with THE IMMIGRANT though, I feel that's there's a sufficient tenderness and hopefulness at the end.   

I spoke to James on 7th March 2014 by telephone and would like to thank him for his time.