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New York: A Documentary Film | Article

Interviews: Playwrights/Filmmakers

Martin Scorsese

One of America's most critically acclaimed filmmakers, Scorsese has directed dozens of films. Born in New York City in 1942, he grew up in the tough downtown neighborhood of Little Italy, which later provided the inspiration for several of his films. Scorsese graduated from Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, and received both his bachelor's and master's degrees from New York University, where he wrote the script for what became his first feature film, WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? Since then he has made such films as MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, and GOODFELLAS.

On Village Life On Elizabeth Street:
"What was happening at 232 Elizabeth Street was that people from one town in Sicily were coming in and staying in that one building so that 232 became Cirmina, which is a beautiful town outside of Palermo that my mother's mother comes from. Now 241 across the street, the same thing was happening but mainly with people from Pulizi, which is also outside of Palermo but higher in the mountains. That's where my father's father comes from. So they were across the street and my mother said that when she met my father, there was a problem because they were different nationalities. She used the phrase "different nationalities," in reality it's just from different villages."

On The Neighborhood:
"In our neighborhood, there were only Italian-Americans basically. There was one woman on Elizabeth Street in the butcher shop directly across from 241. She's still there, she's 90 years old, she's still cutting meat. It's Mary the Butcher. You should go there and interview her. She is tough spitting, been there 60 years. She's something, she was in my first movie, I put her in my first film, Mary the Butcher. My mother goes to shop there still, up until a couple of months ago, she used to go there. Also you knew with the meat, you knew the meat was fresh. You'd see the meat being ground properly into chopped meat. You were going to check out the vegetables. It was like a living organism in a way. It was like the actual village life -- I didn't realize it at the time, but it was like a village in Sicily. There was one place, Mr. Torminelli's, -- Mr. Torminelli's was a grocery store, small but I'll never forget, I would go and have lunch there, I would go and order a sandwich at lunchtime to bring it back to school. I will never forget the barrels filled with olives and the rind, the smell of that. And the extraordinary smells when you walked into that grocery store of the spiced ham and all the other cold cuts and that sort of thing, and the tuna fish salads that he made."

On His Grandmother's Window:
I will never forget that view from the window sill. Life had to go on, you know. We would look and we could see the other people directly across the street, directly in their windows, especially if it was summer. You could see what was going on, you would know if they were having a fight, you would hear what they were saying -- I mean, very often in the buildings, if there was a fight, a family fight, invariably other friends of the building would come in -- other people from other apartments, to try to calm people down because it could get very, very hysterical. I mean people just living on top of each other. But from that window you could see everything. I used to watch Mary the Butcher cutting the meat. In fact I opened WHO'S THAT KNOCKING? with that shot from my grandmother's window. We shot in her apartment. There was a little luncheonette right next door. I think her name was Mary too. She was really nice. And I would go in there after school and play the juke box in the early 50s -- Perry Como, the theme from ANNA, that Italian film by La Tuada, music like that.

On Lighting:
"I was saying as a joke the other day that I love film editing, I know how to cut a picture, I think I know how to shoot it, but I don't know how to light it. And I realize it's because I didn't grow up with light. I grew up in tenements. It doesn't make a tenement a bad word. It sounds like the slums and everything. But it was really a neighborhood. It was like a village. It was kind of a very strong life force. But at the same time the light was all artificial. So I didn't know. You know, I didn't know where the light would come from when I went to shoot films. And the films I usually wind up doing are urban films anyway. So the light usually is -- you turn the light on. That's the lighting for the picture. But the thing about it is that I was always aware of the streets at night. Looking out the widow or coming home at night. And in 1964, they changed to the halogen lamps. But there was something romantic about the streets at night before the halogen lamps, and haunting, almost at times a little melancholy, and at times exhilarating, very exhilarating."

Wendy Wasserstein

Born in Brooklyn, and a graduate of Mount Holyoke and The Yale School of Drama, Wasserstein was an award-winning playwright. Her plays include "Uncommon Women and Others," "Isn't it Romantic," and "The Heidi Chronicles" which won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award among others. She has written screenplays, books, and essays, and was a contributing editor for NEW YORK WOMAN and HARPER'S BAZAAR.

On Humor:
"Is there a New York humor? Yes, but I think it's a different kind of humor than one thinks, I think it's not definitely that euphemism for ethnic humor, be that Jewish, Italian, African American, Korean. I think what it is is a worldly humor, it's a sort of "gotcha" humor."

On The Theater Community:
"When you work on Broadway still there is this whole community of people who are working on Broadway, and you go to Sam's Restaurant and there are all the people from the shows, all the chorus people and that's what they do. You know, you see each other. For me as a playwright, you write a play, you're alone in a room for a year or whatever and then, suddenly, downstairs are the wig people and the set people and all of that. And it's extremely different than working on movies. It's a much tighter community. It's also the history of Broadway and who else has been in your theater and what other play has been there and who's across the street. My first play on Broadway was "The Heidi Chronicles" and across the street was Jerome Robbins's "On Broadway,". and I thought, "This is extraordinary!" That was great. And the day our play closed, "A Few Good Men" was playing across the street and I remember they hung out a sign across the window to say goodbye to us and I thought: This is like this whole community that's going on there. There you are in New York and here's this whole legend and it's this street that's throbbing."

On Opportunities For Women In New York:
"This has been the place where you could come as a woman and have an independent life. You could come here for whatever reason. You could come and be a playwright, you could come and marry a millionaire, you could come here and be a secretary, you could come and work for a fashion magazine; it was a place where you could come and at least be a person. When I was growing up I'd always look -- is there a woman in this picture? Is there somebody that you could say, "Oh, I'd like to be like that." And I think in New York there was always that somebody. I was reading this illustrated history of Brooklyn and there was the first African-American female doctor in Brooklyn Heights in the turn of the century and I thought: Who was this? How did she do this? This is really interesting."

Tony Kushner

On Diversity:
"I grew up in a small Southern town, and there were white people and black people. Coming to New York to go to Columbia, every time I went into the subway I was absolutely astounded because you see people from all over the world who actually live here -- who aren't just here as tourists. So the sort of United Nations feeling of the whole city, which has been true of the city for at least all of this century, and to some degree for at least the last 150 years, is incredibly thrilling to me."

On Personality:
"I don't think of the city as being coldhearted at all, I mean, if there is a New York personality that all New Yorkers share, I think some of its chief characteristics are loquaciousness and articulateness, eloquence, intelligence, a degree of belligerence and toughness, a sense of humor, and an S&M component. Everyone is proud to the degree for which they suffer by living here, and there's a sense that you have to have what it takes."

On How The City Works:
"This city is an example of a fantastic and completely unworkable variety of cultures, and consciousnesses, and generational differences, and sexual preferential differences, all living together in one place and forming a peaceable kingdom, a workable government, a real democracy, and creating a city that is genuinely an exciting civic space."

On The Theatricality Of New York:
"The place is completely artificial except for Central Park, which is of course artificial but disguises its artificiality, which makes it in a funny way not theatrical. The streets of New York are entirely man-made and unmistakably that, so you feel as though you're on some sort of presentation platform whenever you're out on the streets. I mean that's the thing about Hollywood sets of New York City -- they never really look like New York City, but in point of fact they are exactly the same thing as New York City itself, they are a construction meant to look like a construction. It's an artifice representing an artifice, because the city is entirely artificial and that is theatrical -- that one's surroundings are sort of real and in a certain sense not real because that which is artificial has about it the quality of an illusion. There's something very dreamlike about it and very paradoxical. For me, that paradox is the theatrical paradox, in that it's sort of real and not real at the same time, that it seems permanent and completely impermanent, that it's very apparent and on the surface, and also full of depths and hidden things and recesses and boxes."

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