At 71, Martin Scorsese is considered among the greatest of American filmmakers. Back in the 1960s, however, the future director of Taxi Driver, Gangs of New York, and The Departed was just another film student at Washington Square College, now known as New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In May, Scorsese, whose latest project is the documentary The 50 Year Argument, returned to his alma mater to give a funny, heartfelt commencement speech. Here are five pieces of wisdom from the filmmaker, whose full speech was posted online yesterday.
1. You can’t rely on success. Even the great Scorsese doesn’t always feel secure in his success. He admits that he still has anxiety-filled dreams, including one in which legendary film director Rouben Mamoulian takes his place on a film. “The thing is, your position is never secure. Not even when you’re sleeping,” he jokes. “So what you have to make secure and guard with your life — because it is your life — is the same pure creativity that brought you here [to film school], and that brought me here too.”
2. Don’t ‘follow your dream.’ “I never liked the inspirational value of that phrase,” says Scorsese. “Besides being sentimental, it’s beside the point. Dreaming is a way of trivializing the process, the obsession that carries you through the failures as well as the successes, which can be harder to get through.” If you’re dreaming, says the filmmaker, that means you’re asleep, and it’s “imperative to always be awake to your feelings, your ambitions, and don’t get hung up on the consequences.”
3. The work of other artists will help you through times of self-doubt. Scorsese describes his “lifelong trajectory” as a series of highs and lows, praise and rejection. The way to keep things in perspective, he says, is to keep in mind “the work you do that you’re proud of,” as well as “the work of other filmmakers or other artists that deeply inspire you.” The director names the 1959 John Cassavetes film Shadows (below) and the 1963 Elia Kazan film America, America as two that inspired him and helped him persevere in his filmmaking.
4. Disappointment can be a great teacher. The director relates two encounters from early in his film career that might have crushed his spirit. One was a disappointing meeting with his hero Elia Kazan; the other, a potential investor telling him he had no talent. “There’s a way that the force of disappointment can be alchemized into something that can paradoxically renew you,” Scorsese reflects, saying that both incidents ultimately made him tougher and more resilient.
5. Keep pushing your own limits. After directing nearly 60 films, Scorsese says it’s “still exhilarating” when something comes together in a new way. “Every day is a rededication,” he tells the students. “Painters, dancers, actors, writers, filmmakers, it’s the same for all of us. Every step is a first step. Every brush stroke is a test. Every scene is a lesson. Every shot is a school. So let the learning continue.”