For Martin Scorsese, the older he gets, the more at home he is in the past.
Look at his new film — “Shutter Island.” It’s set in 1954. A filmmaker already known for his film biographies (“Raging Bull,” “The Aviator”), he has a Sinatra biography he wants to shoot. And “Silence,” his next project, is about Jesuit priests in 18th century Japan.
“I like the recreation of aspects of lost worlds, lost times,” Scorsese says. “We forget these other times and how much knowing what happened then can tell us about our present time. We need to know the past to live the present, create the future.”
Named in poll after poll, in magazines from Total Film to Empire and Entertainment Weekly as the cinema’s “greatest living filmmaker,” Scorsese won his Oscar for directing “The Departed,” the sort of film he’s most associated with — a crime picture with gangsters, crooked cops and rackets. But Scorsese, 67, has embraced history throughout his career, from Civil War-era New York (“Gangs of New York”), to Gilded Age Manhattan (“The Age of Innocence”), Jazz Age New York (“New York, New York”), to Biblical Jerusalem (“The Last Temptation of Christ”).
“Shutter Island” allowed Scorsese to recreate the 1950s, with flashbacks set in World War II during the Holocaust. And ever the film historian, he paid homage to Alfred Hitchcock (“Vertigo”) and producer Val Lewton’s Jacques Tourneur-directed horror films as he did so.
“‘Cat People’ and ‘I Walked with a Zombie’ — terrible titles, but beautiful works of film poetry, both made in the early 1940s. These two have a mood and tone and atmosphere and poetic dimension that make them timeless.”
In “Shutter Island,” based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, a federal marshal (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes to an island prison hospital off the coast of Massachusetts where a prisoner has escaped. His uncertainty over what is going on in the place is amplified by dark shadows in his own past — his war memories, the recent death of his wife and children. Scorsese saw an opportunity to do a paranoid thriller set in a paranoid age.
“I was very, very young — just 12 or 13 in the mid-50s — but I lived through that era. I was very aware of the paranoia. We expected to be bombed any day. I was part of that generation of schoolchildren who were ordered to take cover under their desks from an H-bomb attack.”
At 67, Scorsese is looking back in more ways than one. He’s putting the finishing touches on a documentary about the late Beatle George Harrison, to go along with his earlier blues and Bob Dylan documentaries and concert films “The Last Waltz” and “Shine a Light.” And he threw a little weight behind Showtime’s upcoming Roaring ‘20s series, “Boardwalk Empire.” He directed the pilot and as Steve Buscemi, one of many name character actors to join the cast, put it, “When you hear Scorsese’s involved, you sign up. No questions asked.”
“We recreated Atlantic City in the ‘20s. Fun!” Scorsese gushes. “I was born in ‘42, and by 1954-55, there was this big resurgence of interest in the ‘20s — in the culture, on TV. They were a time of epic changes in the culture, a new openness in conflict with this ‘intention to do well’ with temperance unions and Prohibition, good societal impulses that turned out to be a very bad choice to make.”
So what might on the surface be another gangsters-with-guns picture from the master is actually him recreating another “lost world.” After that, and finishing up the Harrison documentary, it may be feudal Japan for “Silence.” Or maybe he’ll get to make a variation of his long-planned Rat Pack biography — “Sinatra.” And alas, he just grudgingly had to back out of a planned young Teddy Roosevelt film biography, another piece of history he wanted to jam onto his crowded plate.