De Niro isn’t the only legend De Palma came up with— a shot in De Palma, a documentary by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow that opened today at Angelika Film Center—shows the director posing with his old pals George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese.
The so-called “movie brats” are the subject of a fun bit of Hollywood lore that resurfaced last night when an audience member brought up a story popularized by Quentin Tarantino. Introducing Taxi Driver for SkyMovies, Tarantino relayed a “Hollywood legend,” which he admitted may or may not have been true, about how Columbia Pictures demanded that Scorsese recut the film so it would get an R rather than an X.
Here’s how Tarantino told the story:
The legend goes that Scorsese stayed up all night drinking, getting drunk with a loaded gun. And his purpose was, in the morning he was going to shoot the executive at Columbia for making him cut his masterpiece. And it turned out to be a vigil all night as Scorsese sat there with a loaded gun in his lap and some of his fellow filmmakers and friends came and talked to him and commiserated with him and tried to talk him out of it. And apparently this lasted all night long. I’ve heard stories that literally all of them grew up that night because they realized how serious Scorsese was at the prospect of what he was going to do.
Ultimately, Tarantino recounts, Scorsese decided to desaturate the color in the final shootout to make the blood less disturbing.
Asked last night whether the story was true or just an exaggeration, De Palma responded, “This is the problem when you get old”— meaning he couldn’t remember exactly what happened. The audience laughed and De Palma clarified, “I remember very distinctly being in the screening room and seeing these jerk-offs saying, “Ah, you gotta take that out, ya gotta take…’ And Marty is just dying because they were chopping up his movie.”
De Palma, who introduced Scorsese to De Niro and also gave the director Paul Schrader’s script for Taxi Driver, said he didn’t want to be quoted on it because he wasn’t sure his memory was accurate, but: “I remember seeing this thing and saying this has got to stop. So I remember talking to [New Yorkercritic] Pauline Kael and arranging a screening for her to see it, I think in Chicago, and I said to Marty, ‘Send the picture and let [Kael] look at it. Once they know she’s seen it and she starts talking about it, this is going to be over.’ And that’s, as I recall, that’s what happened.”
Okay, but what about Scorsese plotting to go Travis Bickle on a studio exec? De Palma didn’t address that part of the story, but a definitive account appears in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. According to Peter Biskind’s history of ’70s Hollywood, Scorsese called De Palma to his Mulholland Drive home along with fellow directors John Milius and Steven Spielberg. Was Marty drunk? It’s uncertain, but according to Taxi Driver co-producer Julia Phillips, he would often pop ‘ludes and drink Dom Perignon in the cutting room.
Spielberg recalls that Scorsese, after being told to recut the film, “pointed a finger at Stanley Jaffe and said, ‘He’s the head of the studio he’s the guy I’m angry at, so I’m gonna get a gun and shoot him.’ He wasn’t serious about it, but he was relishing the rage, and he wanted us to share his anger.”
The book goes on to describe how Phillips took a print to New York to show Kael. When Jaffe found out that the Times critic had seen a cut of the movie and loved it, he flipped out—so much so that Scorsese, afraid the print would be seized, had to sneak it off the lot. In the end, however, Scorsese agreed to desaturate the color in the finale and eliminate a few frames that showed blood spraying from severed fingers.
Of course, De Palma has also had his run-ins with the MPAA and the studios, as we noted in our writeup of the new documentary. And he has gotten himself into trouble off-screen as well. Last night, he explained it with typical candor: “When you work in such a duplicitous profession, you want to tell it like it is. But you can’t, because you’ll never work again. So, the best interviews I used to see were guys in the Hollywood old age home.”
It became evident that De Palma wasn’t kidding about telling it like it is when an audience member asked, without waiting to be called on, “Which of your films comes closest to your original vision, in terms of making it? And then also, which of your films are you most proud of?”
“Ay ay ay,” De Palma groaned. “These are not good questions.” The audience erupted into laughter. “I mean, you know– what do you care?”
He joked, “Get to Know Your Rabbit, fabulous– which you probably haven’t even seen.”
Correction, June 10: The original version of this post was revised to correct Pauline Kael’s affiliation.