Shutter Island: Interview with Director Scorsese

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Oscar winning director Martin Scorsese says it was his first read of the Shutter Island script that hooked him. “I didn’t know anything about the story and I started reading it at about 10:30 at night and I needed to go to bed because I had to get up early the next day, but I found I could not put the script down and was constantly surprised by the different levels of the story,” he recalls.

He felt an instant link to the story’s mix of classic thriller genres, from shadowy noir to boldface horror. “This is the type of picture I like to watch, the kind of story I like to read,” Scorsese explains. “Over the years, I think I’ve stayed away from certain kinds of pictures that emulate the style that I find nurturing in a way, but these are the kinds of films I go back to and view repeatedly. I’ve always been drawn to this sort of story. What’s interesting to me is how the story keeps changing, and the reality of what’s happening keeps changing, and how up until the very final scene, it’s all about how the truth is perceived.”  He continues: “But more than the way the story is told or the setting, for me, it’s really about what happens to the character of Teddy, which I found to be very moving. That was the emotional connection.”

Producer Fischer:: “Learning that the script evoked for Marty Scorsese thoughts of the same old Weimar-period horror film that it did for me was overwhelming. Yet, I wasn’t surprised. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a film that always bore some similarities in my mind to Shutter Island. It’s a film that Marty admires and one of many he would reference throughout shooting. From this point, things started moving very quickly. The things Marty saw in the story and all the levels he found in the material made the project so much richer than any of us had ever imagined.”

Scorsese’s approach utilized the noir-like surfaces of Kalogridis’ adaptation to get at the deeper micro-dynamics and psychological machinations of the characters, fusing richly cinematic visuals with underlying emotions to lure the audience out on a thrillingly fragile edge along with Teddy Daniels. Right from the start of production, the director inspired cast and crew with a series of nighttime screenings of films, both legendary and obscure, that touched upon the themes and styles woven through Shutter Island.

Among Scorsese’s choices were Preminger’s Laura; Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 dark noir tale of double-crosses, Out of the Past; Edward Dmytryk’s 1947 thriller Crossfire, about the murder of a Jewish soldier after WWII; Nicholas Ray’s 1952 police drama On Dangerous Ground; Karl Malden’s 1957 directorial debut, Time Limit, an intensely psychological courtroom drama about an American soldier facing a court martial; Orson Welles’ 1963 The Trial, the screen adaptation of Franz Kafka’s surreal tale of a man inexplicably detained for an unknown crime; John Huston’s wartime documentaries San Pietro and Let There Be Light, the latter about returning soldiers suffering from what was then dubbed “shell shock”; influential horror films including Robert Wise’s The Haunting and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents; and several of the Val Lewton films so essential to Scorsese’s appreciation of the horror thriller genre, including the shadowy The Seventh Victim, about a woman searching for her missing sister amidst a Satanic cult.

An essential documentary was also included in the lineup: Frederick Wiseman’s controversial and, at one time, banned 1967 movie exploring the treatment of inmates at a hospital for the criminally insane called Titicut Follies, which gave the cast and crew a harrowing insight into what asylums were really like in the ‘50s and ‘60s, before modern reforms improved conditions and made patients’ rights a priority. Set inside the Massachusetts Correctional Institute for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, the film unflinchingly depicted a treatment facility in which patients were stripped naked, chained to their cell walls, force-fed and deprived of basic human dignity. The film would have a major impact. Soon after its release, public outrage was so widespread that a class-action suit was brought against Bridgewater, which in turn led to permanent changes in the way state institutions were run across the country.

“Watching Titicut Follies allowed the cast and crew to see firsthand the kind of world the film would be portraying,” notes Scorsese. “It was a very powerful experience for all of us.”

Leonardo Di Caprio

 To play a character so tightly wound, yet about to unravel in just a few days’ time, the filmmakers had one actor in mind from the start: three-time Oscar nominee Leonardo DiCaprio, who has grown up on the screen to become one of today’s most distinctive leading men. “When we approached Marty we instantly began thinking about Leo as well, first because he was so right for the part, but also because of his incredibly successful collaboration with Scorsese,” producer Fischer says.

Scorsese wholeheartedly backed the choice. “Having worked with Leo on Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed, I thought immediately that he should do this,” he says. “We have a way of working together now and I had faith and trust in him as an artist to achieve the many psychological and emotional states that Teddy has to reach, and to transform throughout. Have I seen him do this before? Not to this level, I think. As he gets older, he goes deeper and deeper.”

DiCaprio on Scorsese

DiCaprio was also drawn to reuniting with Scorsese. “The one thing I don’t think people understand about Scorsese is how much he believes in the actors he hires and how much he depends on them doing their homework before they show up on the set,” DiCaprio comments. “He’s a master filmmaker and he knows how to navigate the human mind and portray things about the human condition, but he lets the actors really dictate what he puts up on the screen.”

The core of his preparation, though, was a series of long, explorative talks with Scorsese. “Marty loves to discuss everything at great length,” notes DiCaprio, “which helps you become even more specific about who your character is and more believable on the screen. We would discuss the scenes almost like forensic detectives, going through the details with a fine-tooth comb, and that’s one of the most interesting, challenging, scary and fun parts of making his movies because, by the time you’re on set, you’re really committed to something.”

Mark Ruffalo on Scorsese

Mark Ruffalo was inspired by Scorsese’s enthusiasm. “This film was like a playground for Scorsese’s virtuoso filmmaking,” muses Ruffalo. “It’s full of fantasy sequences, flashbacks, period elegance, altered states, film noir and the supernatural, as well as a great character drama. He gets to do everything he’s always loved about film.” He continues: “One of the wonderful things about working with Marty is that he truly does love actors, and he loves to create a work environment with a big playing space where you can take things in many different directions. It was a very collaborative process. We all sat down and talked about the characters. We also talked about mythology, history and, most of all, about films, using the classics for character insight and a sense of the noir style. There’s a lot going on in every frame on every level, and I think that makes for a very satisfying movie experience.”

Also joining in the experience was Oscar winner Ben (“Gandhi”) Kingsley, who takes on the role of the brilliant Dr. Cawley, who psychoanalyzes Teddy and Chuck’s every move even as he engages them to find his dangerous, missing patient. Scorsese had long hoped to work with Kingsley and was thrilled the role suited him so well. “Ben was a natural for me because of his focus, concentration and compassion. That is what’s so important about the character of Dr. Cawley – his level of dedication and his ability to find something human in his violent patients,” says the director.

Taking on the key role of Teddy’s wife Dolores is Oscar nominee Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain). Williams did not hesitate to jump into the unusual character. “It’s a really challenging role, which always appeals to me,” she says. She admits the part got under her skin more than she anticipated. “Playing Dolores was a lot to go through,” she continues. “It’s like being in a nightmare you can’t wake up from and it keeps changing and getting darker and darker as you go with the current.”

Patricia Clarkson

Scorsese of Clarkson: “Her scene with Leo in the cave is one of my favorites in the picture. She is like the Oracle of Delphi. It’s this ritualistic encounter almost like an old myth. Yet, Patricia plays this character straightforwardly. There are no tricks in there. She just has got such range as an actor.”

Clarkson was deeply intrigued by her character’s role in the grand structure of the story. “She’s another twist and turn within the film who operates on several levels,” she notes. “When you hit my character, you think she might be the one who will provide the truth, some solace, the endpoint of the journey, but then you find out that there are many more twists to come. That’s what’s so beautiful about the writing in both the novel and the screenplay.”

Emily Mortimer

For Emily Mortimer, her role too was irresistible. “Rachel is a fantastic, daunting role because you never see her sane in the movie,” she comments. “It was also exciting to enter this daring, Gothic, 1950s world Marty conjured up, to journey back into the style of the movies made back then. What I love most about the movie is that it poses a question we all ask ourselves sometimes: Am I mad or is the world around me mad? It jars your sense of what’s real and what isn’t, and Marty worked that perfectly.”

Scorsese was equally enamored of Mortimer’s performance. “The way she plays Rachel is very moving. I found myself believing her and her reversal in the role makes it really chilling.”