What Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ Teaches Us About Filmmaking [light spoilers]


So, Martin Scorsese’s nearly thirty-year passion project, Silence, has finally been released. Silence had been in development with Scorsese since 1990 when he signed a written agreement to direct the adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name. Scorsese was given the book as a gift by Archbishop Paul Moore after a screening of The Last Temptation of Christ and Scorsese read it a year later in Japan while he was working on Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams.

Join me as I take a look into the production of Silence. This is not a review; this is what Silence teaches us about filmmaking.

The film follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests during the seventeenth century as they make their way to Japan in search of their mentor who may have renounced his religion. This is during a time in Japan when the aftermath of an uprising called the Shimabara Rebellion caused much religious persecution against Catholics in southwest Japan. It was illegal to teach Catholicism and because of this, many Catholics continued to practice Christianity in secret (Wiki). They even began to model their small statues on Buddhist deities like this statue of the Virgin Mary modeled after Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, which was known as Maria Kannon.

The anime series Samurai Champloo takes place during this same period and Fuu’s father was one of these “hidden Christians” (Wiki).

Silence was originally slated to follow Scorsese’s Kundun in 1997, but Scorsese decided to direct a few other films first. And then in 2004, which Scorsese pushed back further to make The Departed and Shutter Island.

The film was delayed again in 2011 when Scorsese postponed Silence yet again in order to make Hugo (Wiki). Scorsese had apparently made a deal with Cecci Gori Pictures, who was to finance the film, that he would compensate them in order to direct The Departed, Shutter Island, and Hugo before Silence. Cecci Gori Pictures was allegedly supposed to receive, [quote] “$1 million to $1.5 million per film plus up to 20 percent of Scorsese’s backend compensation” (Wiki). Cecchi Gori Pictures sued Scorsese in 2012 alleging that they didn’t receive payment for Hugo and that Scorsese directed The Wolf of Wall Street before Silence (Wiki). Scorsese denied that the claims reflected the original agreement and denounced the whole thing was a “media stunt.” The suit was settled in 2014 for an undisclosed amount (Wiki).

Having this project on the horizon for so long, in a way, shaped what the film would become. Of course, just based on circumstance, it is a substantially different film than if Scorsese had done it in the late 90s, but it also seems to have evolved along with Scorsese himself. In an interview with Deadline before production started, Scorsese said, “My initial interests in life were very strongly formed by what I took seriously at that time, and 45-50 years ago I was steeped in the Roman Catholic religion. As you get older, ideas go and come. Questions, answers, loss of the answer again and more questions, and this is what really interests me. Yes, the Cinema and the people in my life and my family are most important, but ultimately as you get older, there’s got to be more. Much, much more. The very nature of secularism right now is really fascinating to me, but at the same time do you wipe away what could be more enriching in your life, which is an appreciation or some sort of search for that which is spiritual and transcends? … Silence is just something that I’m drawn to in that way. It’s been an obsession, it has to be done and now is the time to do it. It’s a strong, wonderful true story, a thriller in a way, but it deals with those questions” (Deadline).

Allegedly, there is a specific shot in the film that Scorsese has had in his mind since he made Mean Streets (Interview Magazine). I’m not sure what the shot is, but the idea that he has waited for the perfect moment to fulfill this idea that has been floating around in his head for so long feels analogous to that of the film itself.

The film was shot mainly in Taiwan “from January 30 to May 15, 2015” (Wiki). When asked why it took so long to get going, producer Irwin Winkler told The Hollywood Reporter that it was mainly due to budget. He said, “It was very, very expensive, and it was budgeted, because it takes place in 1670 in Japan. We got lucky and found out about Taipei, and in and around Taipei and Taiwan, we found great, great locations. The prices were very cheap, and we were able to make it for a price. And all the actors, Liam Neeson, Adam Driver, everybody worked for scale. Marty worked for scale, I worked for under scale. We gave back money” (THR).

So what can we learn?

First, Collaborating with Actors.

In a lot of movies that miss the mark, it often seems that the actors are considered merely talking props, but an actor is also a writer—not necessarily the dialogue, but the delivery and how the character is explored. The actors breathe life into the characters and when there is a strong creative relationship between the actors and director, the actor is no longer just a tool, but another creative mind to collaborate with. The two main characters of the film are played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver. When asked what it was like to work with Martin Scorsese, Driver said, “You expect to go there and your impulse is to be, ‘Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.’ He doesn’t want you to do that. He hires you for your ideas and wants you to take ownership of it. It’s really inspiring to work with someone who’s accomplished so much and is the tip of the pyramid and is still turning to you and wants your ideas and opinions” (Interview Magazine).

I think this is a common misconception about a lot of legendary directors. Because directors are often credited with full authorship of a film, it is naturally assumed that everything that is great about their film is solely their doing, when in reality, these great directors surround themselves with creative minds so that they can use the talent and ideas of these artists to make their film better.

Andrew Garfield said about working on the film, “Every time me and Marty would try to get to the bottom of its themes and what the character is going through, we would wind up talking for two to three hours, and every time there would be five minutes of silence at the end because we had exhausted the conversation and had no answers, only more questions. Then he’d look at me and go, ‘Okay kid, until next time…’” (The Playlist).

Scorsese asked Garfield and Driver to lose a substantial amount of weight for the film. Both of them were already fairly skinny and each lost around fifty pounds—thirty pounds before shooting began and another twenty during production (Telegraph). In an interview with Noah Baumbach, Driver said, “When the movie begins, the characters have been traveling for two years, from Portugal to Macau, sailed around Africa. There’s disease and shortage of food. They’re already kind of depleted when they get to Macau before their last leg to Japan. There’s a lot of storytelling happening off camera. When we come in, the stakes are already so high, and then we continue to lose weight. [Scorsese] wanted to see that physically… And that visual part of the storytelling, I don’t think I’ve ever taken it to the extreme before. It’s an interesting thing. You’re so hungry and so tired at some points that there’s nothing you can do—you’re not adding anything on top of what you’re doing. You only have enough energy to convey what you’re doing, so it’s great. There are other times where a scene’s not working and you don’t have the energy to figure out why it’s not working” (Interview Magazine).

The actors are part of the mise-en-scene, and for an actor to change their appearance in such a drastic way lends a profound authenticity to the film that will survive as long as the film does.

Number two, finding the right style.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto had also worked with Scorsese on The Wolf of Wall Street and they are teaming up again for Scorsese’s 2018 crime drama, The Irishman. Rodrigo shot Silence with anamorphic lenses, which is usually fairly noticeable around the edges of the frame, but he used a [quote] “relatively new set [of] anamorphic lenses that are perfect in the sense that they do not distort the image” (No Film School). Silence is a major stylistic departure from The Wolf of Wall Street and Rodrigo’s photography is no exception. For Silence, Scorsese more or less abandoned the flashy camerawork that is prevalent throughout many of his previous films. In an interview with No Film School, Rodrigo said, “From the beginning, we talked about the restraints in terms of shooting. Marty is known for his elaborate cinematic language; designing complex shots comes naturally to him. He felt this story required a simpler language. This doesn’t mean that shooting wasn’t extremely technical and challenging—the shots are quieter visually. There were only certain instances where the camera is in a strange position or a sudden camera movement” (No Film School).

In an interview with Gold Derby, Rodrigo said that, when working with Scorsese, the first thing Scorsese does is create extensive shot lists for every scene, which he then shares with both Rodrigo and the assistant director. They go into a room and talk “scene by scene” about their ideas and what they imagine. Occasionally, Scorsese will sketch out a specific shot if it better explains what he is looking for, but most of the shot list is made up of written descriptions or simple diagrams. They sometimes have to change things around when they arrive on location depending on where they are shooting, but for the most part, this shot list is the film. They never shoot coverage because there is always a planned emotional reason behind each shot (Gold Derby).

Scorsese did rely on some visual inspirations for the look of the film. Sometimes the inspiration came from another film like in the scene where Rodrigues travels on a small boat at night. The look of this scene was inspired by a similar scene in a Mizoguchi film titled Ugetsu. We can see how the fog and moonlight provide a strange theatrical quality that creates a sense of dread and mystery much like in the scene in Silence. For Silence, they got that theatrical quality by shooting the scene in a large water tank—in fact, it was the same water tank that Ang Lee shot most of Life of Pi in. The tank is pretty much outdoors, which complicated some of the fog effects, so to achieve a similar look to Ugetsu, they used CG to create the look of an ominous creeping fog (No Film School).

Another source of inspiration were Baroque paintings including those by Diego Velázquez, Jusepe de Ribera, and Georges de La Tour, and these paintings weren’t necessarily for direct references like with Ugetsu, but more for the way the subjects are lit in paintings of this time period. Scorsese’s researcher, Marianne Bower did extensive research into what life was like for the Jesuits and what it was like during the 1640s. Of course, this affected things like the set design, but it also affected the lighting. There is a scene toward the beginning in a large church where the two young priests meet with Father Valingnano to discuss Father Ferreira. This church was built for the film on a backlot in Taipei and was made to look like Saint Paul’s Church in Macau, which still exists, but only the front of it—the rest has collapsed (Dante Ferretti Interview). For the scene in the church, Rodrigo wanted to get that side-lit look that you often see in Baroque paintings, but the church only had one window and it was behind Father Valingnano. Because of the desire for authenticity in the lighting, Rodrigo couldn’t make it appear that there were any light sources other than that window. So Rodrigo had to make it appear as if the light was bouncing off the wall to get the look he wanted (Gold Derby).

There is one painting that is referenced in the film as it appears in Rodrigues’ visions of Jesus. This painting is by El Greco and they didn’t decide on it until the post-production process.

You’ll notice that the first act of the movie has a cool blueish look to it, but as they get deeper into Japan, the tone changes to more of a warmer goldish color. This was mainly due to Scorsese wanting the inspiration for the look of the film, after the priests travel to Japan, to be based on Japanese screen paintings from the Edo period. The screens these artworks were painted on were usually gold or tan in color (Gold Derby).

Rodrigo had said that Scorsese wanted the apostasy scene near the end of the film to look brown or amber. To achieve this look, the entire scene was lit only with fire (no moonlight), which would represent a subjective version of hell for Rodrigues (Gold Derby).

Rodrigo also said that they shot on film instead of digital to achieve the colors they wanted, but also to have the texture of the film grain [quote] “help the feeling of air,” which I imagine was meant to achieve a tactile quality that would affect the audience beyond sight and sound (Gold Derby). You can really almost feel the humidity in some scenes. That said, they did shoot digital for the night scenes so they could light them only with candles or torches and pushed the digital ISO to 1600—this way they would get a decent amount of grain that would match the film stock (No Film School).

Number three, creating a meaningful setting.

Dante Ferretti, did the production design for the film. Scorsese wanted everything to be absolutely authentic to the point that, while shooting in Taiwan, they brought in specific plants indigenous to Japan to decorate the scenes (Gold Derby). As you’ll notice, nature and sweeping landscapes are very important to the look of the film. Quite often there will be a horrible torture or execution scene among the natural beauty of the landscape. And most of the time, the torture and executions actually use nature to maim or kill. Rodrigo said that the shots were purposefully composed this way and he alluded to it symbolizing the presence of God among some really horrific scenes (Gold Derby).

Scorsese: “The landscape itself, said a great deal. And so, placing the actors within that landscape—placing the different figures, so to speak. It revealed itself to me while I was preparing the picture. Getting some experience from shooting a couple of TV pilots to move fast. I began to strip away things there too—not needing a certain angle, not needing an extra angle here, concentrating on what the landscape- what the hillside looked like…”

The score of the film is also very understated. Scorsese, didn’t want the score to impose emotion on the viewer, but rather let the viewer experience the emotion based on the events. We don’t get any traditionally “sad” or “inspiring” music—instead the music tends to go by unnoticed, as it doesn’t dominate what we hear. It sort of acts as just another instrument of the environment. Because of this, the sounds of nature almost act as a score in and of itself. The film begins and ends with an overture of crickets, cicadas, waves and other sounds of Japan.

All of these locations were real, including the hot springs and many were very difficult to get to (TheMovieReport). Sometimes the production had to trek up hills and mountains far from the road. The weather also provided some problems—there was a typhoon and even an earthquake during production. As many problems as weather caused, it was also responsible for some happy accidents. Like in a scene where a samurai comes to town offering silver to those who would reveal hidden Christians—they were setting up a new angle when all of a sudden, the mist came in, so Scorsese had them shoot immediately without rehearsal to capture the procession coming out of the mist. Of course they had to reshoot what they had shot prior to the mist the next morning (TheMovieReport).

The crucifixion scene was originally supposed to be on the beach, but when they got to the location, Scorsese saw the waves crashing the cliffside and spontaneously decided that the scene should move to that very dangerous area. For the closer shots of the waves hitting the crucified men, they shot in the same large water tank they shot the boat scenes in (TheMovieReport). It was still pretty dangerous, because when they started generating waves, they couldn’t immediately be stopped.

I just want to briefly mention the use of props in the film. The icons and trinkets have a great deal of importance for the characters. In the film, the Japanese government, in a way, treats the hidden Christians as addicts and the priests as dealers. We see Rodrigues handing out hand made crucifixes and beads from his rosary. From a filmmaking standpoint, the props in the film are a perfect way to visualize the motivations in accepting the religion as well as denouncing it. The villagers feel the need to externalize their faith by keeping these small religious items.

And repeatedly Christians are revealed by the small Christian items they keep and hide. I am curious how much of this is for the benefit of the audience, especially when you consider what the final shot of Rodrigues communicates to us about whether or not he lost his faith. Stepping on the religious art is a really cinematic way to communicate someone denouncing god. Once it is set up, nothing has to be said from then on. We know that a character is abandoning their faith if they step on the item. It also works structurally as a way to revisit the concept and test the characters, but also as a way to reveal character based on whether or not they will step on the art or whether they will continue to step on the art.

The very first screening of the film was in Vatican City at a 50-seat theater in the Vatican’s film library screening room. It is uncertain if Pope Francis attended the screening, but Scorsese did have a 15-minute meeting with him before the film was shown in which they spoke about the Jesuit missionaries in Japan (Variety). Reportedly, the pope has read Endo’s novel. Scorsese gave the pope some framed pictures of hidden Christians in Japan and this “reproduction of an ancient image of the Virgin of Nagasaki” (Variety).

Thanks for watching! I wanted to make sure to get this video out in time for the wide-release, so stay tuned because I’m also working on the Monty Python and the Holy Grail video you voted for. And if you’re new here, please hit that subscribe button now because there are plenty more videos on the way for cinephiles like you! Thanks again for watching!