Career Breakthroughs: Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is one of the most widely known and acclaimed film directors on the planet. But he didn’t become so successful overnight. This is a look at his early life and career leading up to the film which made him widely famous. 

Martin Scorsese is an Academy Award-winning filmmaker, best known for his gritty crime dramas and use of religion in his films. His most famous films include Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and The Departed. His films are often set in his home city of New York, and he has a long working relationship with actors such as Robert De Niro, Leonard DiCaprio, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel. In addition to his successful feature films, Scorsese has a long history of making documentaries and concert films. 

Scorsese’s Italian-American heritage comes through strongly in his films. In many ways, his upbringing has influenced his style as a filmmaker. From a young age he became enamored in all sorts of different types of film from old-style Hollywood epics to French new wave and Italian cinema. Scorsese rose to fame during the 1970’s as part of the New Hollywood movement, where his attributes of a filmmaker came to be appreciated. 

But becoming one of the most respected filmmakers in the world doesn’t happen without hard work. This is the story of how Scorsese’s success came about as a result of a challenging childhood and listening to the advice of some important mentors….

In The Beginning… 

Martin Charles Scorsese was born on November 17, 1942 in Queens, New York. His parents were first and second-generation Italian immigrants, and worked in New York City’s garment district. Martin’s father, Charles, liked to dress nicely, and this reportedly gave the family’s landlord the wrong ideas about how he earned his money. Because of this (and other grievances) the family was evicted from their home when Martin was young and they went to live with Martin’s grandparents in a crowded apartment in Little Italy (lower Manhattan). 

As a child, Martin suffered from severe asthma. He required regular medication and even slept in a special tent. This affliction prevented him from participating in sports and playing outside like most children his age. Instead, he sought comfort from the hectic streets of his neighborhood in quieter places. Raised as Catholic, religion became an important part of his life and he could often be found in church. It was his local priest who introduced him to cinema, and Scorsese fell in love. As a result, his family would often take him to the movies, and he became obsessed with a television program which would show foreign films. 

Starting a Career…

However, at this time in his life, religion remained most important to the young Scorsese. He enrolled in an all-boys Seminary-prep High School, and planned on becoming a priest in the Philippines after he graduated. However, because of bad grades he was unable to get into Seminary. Instead, he chose to attend what would later become NYU’s College of Arts and Science to study English. At first he saw the arrangement as a temporary one, and intended to return to religion. However, his experience in college changed him. Scorsese graduated with a B.S. degree in English, and then decided to continue his studies at NYU by pursuing a master’s degree in Film.   

During this time, Scorsese began training under professor Haig Manoogian. Under Manoogian’s guidance, Scorsese released several critically-acclaimed short films. In 1966, his short film It’s Not Just You, Murray! won the Directors’ Guild award for best student film at the New York Film Festival, and his 1976 film The Big Shave made a big impression. Manoogian helped Scorsese finish his first feature film, a student film called Who’s That Knocking at My Door? After graduating, Scorsese worked as an assistant director on the documentary Woodstock. In 1971, he moved to Hollywood to pursue more opportunities in the film industry. 

The Breakthrough…

During this time, Scorsese became friends with many of his peers which would also become famous for their films, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Brian De Palma. He met John Cassavetes who inspired and encouraged him to keep working. These connections landed Scorsese his first professional director job working with Roger Corman to make Boxcar Bertha. Through Corman, Scorsese learned how to make films on a low budget. However, this 1972 film was not a success. As a result, Cassavetes convinced Scorsese to make his own film, based on his life experiences. He saw the potential in Scorsese, and didn’t want him to waste his time making other people’s films. 

Scorsese co-wrote a script for an original film with Mardik Martin, based on a continuation of the story from one of his short films. Scorsese was able to secure financing for this film, and Roger Corman agreed to distribute it. The film became Mean Streets, which introduced Scorsese to longtime collaborator Robert De Niro. Upon release in 1973, it received very high praise from critics and was commercially successful in theaters. The film made Scorsese famous, and allowed him more flexibility on the types of projects he would get to work on. Following the success of this film, Scorsese went on to direct a documentary about his parents, and then released Taxi Driver in 1976, which became a huge hit and firmly established Scorsese’s star power. 

Check out the previous installment of this series: Career Breakthroughs: Keanu Reeves


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Managing editor. Fascinated by the history of film. "Film can teach us just as well as it can entertain us, and the things we learn from film can be much more beneficial to our lives than the short-term entertainment we extract from it."