Photograph by Michele Asselin for TIME
TIME movies

How Scorsese Made a Film That Went Against Hollywood’s Rules

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Michele Asselin for TIME To film Silence, 27 years in the making, director Scorsese and cinematographer Prieto had to find a common language.

By Hollywood's current rules, the Oscar-nominated film Silence shouldn't have gotten made. How Martin Scorsese and Rodrigo Prieto did it anyway

Because we tend to think of film as a director’s medium, cinematographers–the craftspeople who understand that visual textures and moods can affect moviegoers deeply and mysteriously–don’t get much love. The director-cinematographer union is one of the most essential partnerships on any movie, but it’s also something of a secret puzzle, a dialogue in a language that can slip between the cracks of words. The most astonishing feats of cinematography are also sometimes among the least flashy, essentially the result of putting technical skills to work in the service of synesthesia. Science and numbers are enlisted in the service of color, light, feeling. How do you convey, for example, the very texture of the air? In 17th century rural Japan, no less?

That’s what cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto pulls off in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a picture that, by all reasonable logic of how movies get made these days, shouldn’t even exist. Scorsese wanted to turn Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel Silence into a film when he first read it, in 1989. Stories about the suffering and spiritual crises of Portuguese missionaries ministering to persecuted Catholics in Japan weren’t an easy sell then, and they’re even less so now. But for Scorsese, who grew up Catholic and has always in one way or another tackled spiritual themes in his work, the idea of turning Silence into a movie was like a talisman carried in a pocket, an idea he carted around with him through the years and more than two decades’ worth of films.

Every director wants a hit–it buys him or her, among other things, a bit of leverage and freedom in terms of what gets made next–and in 2013, Scorsese had one. His semi-based-on-true-life tale of scoundrelous traders, The Wolf of Wall Street, became massive, bringing in nearly $400 million globally. The time was right, finally, for Silence. The picture he has made with Prieto at his side–along with veterans like editor Thelma Schoonmaker and production designer Dante Ferretti, with actors Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver in the leads–is a radiant exploration of what it means to believe in the grace of God, or of anything. Its multilayered visual splendor hasn’t been lost on the Academy, which nominated Silence for Best Cinematography.

Yet this picture that almost wasn’t has not–yet–found its place with audiences. Even movies that seem to exist outside of time are subject to the injustice of the opening-weekend box office tally. After a limited opening in December, Silence grossed a little less than $2 million in its first weekend in wide release, in mid-January. But no one–not even the people who made it–can know what a film might mean to audiences in the years to come. In an era when blockbuster-style digital effects have pretty much bigfooted the world of movies, an intense, ruminative picture like Silence is a challenge to the currently accepted notion of what a movie spectacle should be.

What, exactly, does 17th century Japanese air look like? Prieto captures it–having shot Silence mostly on film, using digital cameras only for certain scenes–as something both fleeting and definitive, like the whisper of a brushstroke on a silk scroll. As he puts it, “That’s something that film allows you to do. It allows you to play with the air.” Getting Scorsese and Prieto in a room together is itself a quiet spectacle: the two were in Los Angeles for the American Film Institute Awards luncheon, in January, at which Silence was honored as one of the organization’s movies of the year. When they arrived at the room designated for our interview, Prieto had the framed AFI citation tucked under his arm, swathed in protective bubble wrap. In their discreetly tailored dark suits–one of them tall, the other less so–they could have been ambassadors for the concept of the telling detail. And later, in conversation, they would sometimes finish each other’s sentences or even start new ones for each other: “How’d you do the moonlight thing again?” Scorsese at one point asked Prieto.

Because creating artificial lunar majesty was yet another of Prieto’s jobs on Silence, which was filmed in Taiwan, often in unpredictable weather, in a setting of rocky coastlines, mist-laden forests and magisterially jagged mountains. The landscape is integral to Silence’s story of two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Driver), who volunteer, fervently, to travel to Japan, where Christians are being persecuted. They’ve received news that their mentor, Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who had been doing missionary work in the country, has caved in to pressure from the Japanese authorities and apostatized–in other words, disavowed his faith. What they find when they reach Japan both defies their expectations and unnerves them: the devout Christian peasants who greet them–people who have been almost literally driven underground for their faith–can hardly believe this blessing, that they finally have genuine priests in their midst. Rodrigues and Garupe find themselves tested in radical and sometimes horrific ways as they’re forced to recognize that doubt is an essential component of faith.

That resplendent, unforgiving landscape could also be a metaphor for the trial of getting a movie made. It helped that Prieto and Scorsese had worked together twice before, first on The Wolf of Wall Street and then on the pilot for HBO’s 1970s-era rock epic Vinyl. “Even the first day I met Marty, he made me feel comfortable,” Prieto says. “I had nothing to lose, we’re going to meet, maybe he doesn’t like me. If nothing happens, I continue my life.” But he was understandably eager to work with Scorsese, one of the ’70s filmmaking mavericks who’s still doing vital work. “I’ve always really loved the way he designs his movies. So whenever he talks about a scene, the way he wants to shoot it, I just suck it up immediately.”

In advance of every movie he makes, Scorsese–like many directors before him, most notably Alfred Hitchcock–prepares a storyboard in which he maps the look of the picture, drawing every shot as he envisions it. He’s been doing this since the age of 11, when he drew an elaborate storyboard for an, alas, imaginary CinemaScope feature called The Eternal City, an extravaganza set in ancient Rome and featuring detailed panels of helmeted centurions and assorted robed officials engaging in various acts of deceit, betrayal and rapprochement.

Scorsese’s insistence on thinking everything through in advance makes a cinematographer’s job easier, though nothing is ever set in stone. It can’t be, because so much of filmmaking is problem solving, particularly when vagaries of weather, or even just shifting light, enter the picture. Besides, all working relationships between directors and their cinematographers are different, and even when a director-cinematographer duo work together on another movie–or on many more movies–the nature of that relationship shifts with the material.

That has been as true of pairings like Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, The Last Emperor), Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Children of Men) and Woody Allen and Gordon Willis (Annie Hall, Manhattan) as it is of Scorsese and Prieto. Scorsese is something of a serial monogamist when it comes to cinematographers. He has made distinctive-looking pictures with Michael Ballhaus (Goodfellas, The Departed), Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and Robert Richardson (Bringing Out the Dead, The Aviator). Each of those movies has its own specific, identifiable look: think of The Aviator’s split-personality glow–half glistening Hollywood dream, half sepia-pearl paranoid nightmare–or of Taxi Driver’s raw, feverish view of New York as an insomniac, unblinking city. Yet we think of each as, indisputably, a Scorsese movie.

How, exactly, does that work? There’s no conclusive way to parse Scorsese’s relationships with his various cinematographers other than to suppose that each brings a set of special and specific gifts to him–and his openness to these gifts is key. At the same time, his storyboards, which he prepares once he has a sense of how he wants to approach a movie, shutting himself away in a hotel suite for about 10 days until they’re done, provide a road map to his way of thinking. Prieto loves the day Scorsese finally sits down with him to explain the shot list. “That day for me is one of my favorite parts of production with Marty,” he says, “because he’ll explain his process of why he wants to do that medium shot, or why does the camera move? Or is it completely static? Are we tight or are we wide, and why? No shot is random.”

Those storyboards also give Prieto a sense of the movie-to-be as an organic whole. “Marty thinks a lot also in terms of editing. It’s not just covering a scene in the regular sense of wide shots and close-ups. He really does think about the end result, once it’s all put together. Listening to that process helps me understand how he’s picturing it, and I can translate that into images. Not just shots, not just the framing or the camera movements, but the emotion behind it.” Knowing why Scorsese chose “a specific language for the camera,” Prieto says, helps him to grasp the mood of a scene so he can figure out the appropriate lighting for it.

Silence is, in visual terms, a much quieter picture than many Scorsese has made. Thematically it has a great deal in common with The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese’s superb (and controversial) 1988 adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel about Jesus’ spiritual trials. But, in terms of style, it’s possibly most in line with 1997’s Kundun, his luminous, poetic film about the 14th Dalai Lama (shot by Roger Deakins, most frequently associated with the Coen brothers and the lensman behind movies like No Country for Old Men and O Brother, Where Art Thou?). In one sequence, Rodrigues, driven half-mad by an incipient crisis of faith, stares into a pool of water and sees the face of Christ–as painted by El Greco–staring back at him. In another, a trio of peasants, all faithful Catholics, are crucified on a beach at low tide. Their deaths occur slowly as the waves lash at them, drowning them not in one merciful plunge but in minute-by-minute misery. The scene is sustained and intense, with no bold camera moves, no extreme editing. There is, of course, editing in Silence–there’s a reason Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker is considered one of the greatest in the business and is just generally adored–but the ultimate effect is one of stillness and contemplation. The eye has plenty of time to drink everything in because the camera, too, appears to be taking its time.

Yet that visual quietness demanded a specific kind of rigor. Scorsese has, Prieto explains, “done so many movies with powerful camera moves, this sort of explosive cinema language, which was not quite appropriate for this movie. It became apparent that this story required a whole different way of shooting. It was pretty organic.” It also meant that, because so much of Silence was shot outdoors, in natural and thus unpredictable settings, the light would change rapidly. “And each location had certain characteristics,” Prieto says. “Some places we couldn’t access with any lighting equipment at all. For those places we ended up doing dusk for night, shooting in the last moments of ambient daylight, which means minutes, very short minutes.” To shoot just one sequence could take days. Making sure the light would look continuous and natural throughout a scene was a challenge.

In a movie that uses very little CGI, even in postproduction–Prieto’s preference when possible–nature is its own special effect, working on its own schedule. There’s nothing to do but to bow to her. Though parts of the story take place in small, enclosed spaces, like huts, caves and prison cells, the overarching natural arena prevailed. There were times when Scorsese had planned a visual in a very specific way, only to arrive at the shooting location and realize that nature had other ideas. “Very often, I’d have another shot planned. And [Prieto] would look at me and say, ‘Look what we have here,'” Scorsese says. “The landscape took over.” Though fog was created for some scenes, generally, it just showed up. “Often we simply had to stop and say, Let’s shoot in this fog and this mist,” Scorsese says. Prieto jumps in to complete the thought: “It worked very well for the story–a lot of it is about hiding.”

No matter how carefully a shoot is planned in advance, there is probably only one reliable truth in filmmaking: depending on the choices and compromises a filmmaker has to make on any given day, the movie will become its own creation. Improvisation is essential to filmmaking, and to cinematography in particular. Some of the most astonishing cinematic effects result from Encyclopedia Brown–style problem solving, or from simply seeing the accidental artistry in a mistake.

Old-school, early-Hollywood cameramen–people like Gregg Toland, James Wong Howe and Lee Garmes, all revered, rightly, by modern-day cinematographers–developed effects, often by trial and error, that now help define what we think of as classic Hollywood filmmaking. But the younger cinematographers who came of age in the new Hollywood of the late 1960s and early 1970s had even more freedom to experiment, and to mess up. The late Conrad Hall–one of the most respected cinematographers of the past century, known especially for his trenchant but subtle camerawork on the 1967 In Cold Blood–once said he took particular credit for “helping make mistakes acceptable” to studio heads and to audiences. For instance, the occurrence of a lens flare–in which light strikes the lens at an angle that results in streak or blot of light on the image–used to mean that a shot was spoiled, until cinematographers like Hall decreed it an effect. That’s the sort of thing, Hall said, “that nobody would dare do without getting fired in the slick old days.”

Still, while it’s one thing to think on your feet as an individual, a cinematographer and a director often have to think as one, particularly when there’s a problem to be solved. Let’s say you need moonlight. Even if there is a moon in the sky on the night you need it, and even if it’s exactly the moon phase you want, shooting at night is extremely difficult. (Prieto used digital cameras for many of the nocturnal scenes in Silence.) As it turns out, Scorsese’s plan called for a scene featuring a samurai ceremony held in the moonlight. Filmmakers sometimes have to play God–and so Prieto created his own moon on the outdoor set by stringing hundreds of compact fluorescent bulbs around a metal base. In the theater God himself wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Even if he could, he wouldn’t be likely to take offense at anything he sees in Silence. The picture’s somber beauty is humbling–its ruggedly carved mountains and brushy trees, its cloud-dotted skies and quasi-mystical leafy forests, make you feel small in the scheme of creation. “Beautiful. Muddy!” Scorsese says of the locale. “The mud itself becomes quite beautiful,” he says. “Everything! I’m not an outdoorsman. I’m known for my hypochondria and asthma. I’m known for being an urban person, Manhattan. I lived here in California for 10 or 12 years, but that’s about as far as I got into the country.

“So for me, being placed in caves and thunderous waves hitting–I didn’t even understand quite about high tide. How come this is getting high? What’s going on here? Oh, I see, the moon! I get it, I get it! I mean, I’m a New Yorker. I began to really appreciate the elements.”

One of the recurring motifs in Silence is that of the faithful Catholic peasants succumbing to the demands of the ruling shogunate, renouncing their faith by stepping on the fumi-e, a small plaque embossed with a religious image. As you watch the film, the sight of their muddy, sandaled feet, sullying the sacred, induces a kind of trancelike despair. The mud itself gets very real. “Normally I complain,” Scorsese says. “But here I said, ‘Nope!’ I got out of the car, and I couldn’t even move my foot because of the mud. I began to get slightly irritated. I said, ‘No, this is what you’re doing. This is who we are, and this is what we do, and this is what you wanted to do. So let’s just physically get through it.'”

It bears noting that Scorsese is 74; the Mexico City–born Prieto is 51. “Marty really was like a general there, in the trenches. That was very inspiring for of us, the troops. We saw the lengths that he would go to, of discomfort. And we thought, If he’s doing that, we have to go 10 times further.”

Even when the two men are just sitting side by side, there’s a protectiveness in Prieto’s posture toward Scorsese. No sooner had the interview started when a rackety banging resounded from the room next door: someone at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills had chosen that precise moment to begin tearing down a wall, or so it seemed. Prieto jumped up and left the room to investigate. A cinematographer’s job, roughly outlined, involves lighting, coloring, framing the shots, adjusting the exposure and moving the camera. A cinematographer is generally a manager of people and budgets as well. And for efficiency’s sake if not just out of outright courtesy, he or she must have the set ready just as the director likes it–and Scorsese is notorious for demanding silence on the set.

You could say a cinematographer works all kinds of magic for a director, much of it achieved through mundane and routine tasks. And although cinematography involves so much more than just producing pretty pictures, if achieving the correct and desired effect also results in a beautiful image–that’s part of what we go to the movies for, isn’t it? Nature in Silence looks both real and hypnotically surreal at once. At times its wild-colored skies and raggedy seacoasts look so mind-alteringly vibrant that they resemble the glorious matte paintings–backdrops painted on glass–of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, a Scorsese favorite.

Even when movies are shot on film, there is always some digital fiddling in postproduction, even if it’s just something as basic as color correction. The questions had to be asked: Was any of the visual glory of Silence attributable to some painted or otherwise artificial effect? Was any of nature’s magnificence enhanced digitally after the fact, to make it look, well, more magnificent on film?

Director and cinematographer begin speaking at once, like excited school kids ready with the answer. Scorsese can barely keep from leaping out of his chair: “It was real! The clouds were real! It was amazing!” And what he says next explains why, at age 74, anyone would want to keep making pictures as demanding and near heartbreaking as Silence was, a project that took 27 years and $46.5 million to complete. “It was,” he says, “like being in a movie!”


This appears in the February 20, 2017 issue of TIME.

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