Martin Scorsese on The Red Shoes, Boardwalk Empire, and Casting His Sinatra Biopic

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Photo: Getty Images

Arriving at the Film Forum on Friday is a new, impressively restored print of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's classic 1948 film The Red Shoes, about a tenacious ballerina torn between a lover and her art. On Tuesday, Red Shoes superfan Martin Scorsese — who oversaw the movie's seven-year restoration process — hosted a screening at the DGA Theater. We spoke with him before the film about Shoes, his upcoming HBO series, Boardwalk Empire, and whether the star of his planned Frank Sinatra biopic will sing.

How did The Red Shoes influence you?
I think a lot of the people who have asked me this question are very young, and they don’t know the kind of films that we saw when we were young. Because there was no rating system, you’d go see a Western and it was playing with Sunset Boulevard, you know what I’m saying? The Big Heat with Fritz Lang ... it affects you, in a way. It reflected a different world. So we accepted all kinds of images of other cultures. And, of course, The Red Shoes represents another culture. What really stuck with me, besides the provocation of the film, the intensity and the passion of the picture, was the fact that it has more to do with the need to create something — whether it’s dance, music, painting, acting, or, in my case, we just started making pictures. There is an obsession — you don’t know why you want to, but you want to, and you may not be very good, but you have to do it anyway.

Have you made any progress on the casting for your Sinatra biopic?
Not yet, but my next step with the project is, when we go to California for the opening of Shutter Island, to have meetings about it there. Which will be in February, I think. I’ve sort of gone on to these other projects — I’m working on a documentary about George Harrison. And finishing up a pilot with my editor, the pilot for Boardwalk Empire, which is the series for HBO for next year about the 1920's Atlantic City.

What inspired you to take that on?
We’ve always, for the last fifteen years, talked about doing a series that has to do with history and the history of the underworld, politics, the corruption, and also the noble effort of Prohibition. Because it wasn’t all bad — it was well-intentioned. It wasn’t all bad coming out of the period of, like, Gangs of New York, where people were just dying in the streets of rotgut liquor.

Prohibition was important in kick-starting the women’s movement ...
That’s in our first scene. It is a temperance-union meeting and the treasurer of Atlantic City, Steve Buscemi, is talking about how his father was a terrible drunk and how he had to help his family survive. "Thank God we live in a country where tonight is the night Prohibition is being put into effect as law. And soon we might just have such a forward country as to give women the vote!" And all the women are applauding and then, of course, he goes out and takes a drink afterward. [Laughs] But the Sinatra thing, I hope to really start having meetings when I go to open the film [Shutter Island]. Leo certainly ... Naturally I really like working with him.

What will the Sinatra movie be like?
The interesting thing about the Sinatra script — which is by Phil Alden Robinson — is that it spans his life from being a young child to his twenties, his thirties to his late seventies

So it starts out with him in New Jersey as a little boy?
No it inter-cuts everything throughout time.

So it starts out with him old and flashes back?
Not really, no. Got to find another way to do that. All those things came to mind, but have been done too much.

With the Dean Martin biopic you'd once planned to make, you had very specific ideas for who would play the Rat Pack (John Travolta as Sinatra, Hugh Grant as Peter Lawford, Adam Sandler as Joey Bishop, etc.). Will you have any of those actors finally play those roles in your Sinatra movie?
I’m not sure now. That was almost ten years ago and the people we were thinking of are older. The casting is a very tricky thing, because you can't say, "You’re going to play Sinatra, you’re going to play Dean Martin," because who can play them, you know? You have to do something else, you’re not going to find that yet.

Will the actor playing Sinatra sing?
I'm not sure yet, but I would think since there's no one who can sing like Sinatra, you have to use his voice.