How Michael Powell’s Advice Saved ‘Goodfellas’ and Stopped ‘Raging Bull’ from Shooting in Color

In David Hinton’s new documentary “Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger,” Martin Scorsese talks about the profound influence the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had on him.

A young, asthmatic Scorsese grew up largely an indoor child when American films weren’t licensed to television, so he feasted on the duo’s great British films like “The Red Shoes” and “Tales of Hoffmann.” Co-written and narrated by Scorsese, “Made in England” makes direct connections between a Powell and Pressburger film like “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” and Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” and “Raging Bull.” In one remarkable sequence, Hinton even crosscuts between Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) from “Taxi Driver” and Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) from “The Red Shoes,” as Scorsese narrates, “They’re both characters on the edge of things, listening, observing other people, always on the verge of exploding.”

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According to Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who was married to Powell, her late husband’s influence went beyond what Scorsese took from repeatedly studying his films. After Scorsese helped bring Powell to the U.S. in the 1970s, the British filmmaker became an increasingly constant presence on Scorsese’s set and in the editing room. While on the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, Schoonmaker told IndieWire about some of Powell’s specific advice that influenced “Raging Bull,” “After Hours,” and “Goodfellas.”

According to Schoonmaker, Powell was an enormous fan of Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” and when he visited New York, he asked to be shown different locations where the crime drama had been filmed. Robert De Niro, “Mean Streets” co-star and fellow Powell admirer, accompanied Scorsese on the tour of the old neighborhood.

“When they stopped to see where Bob was training to become Jake LaMotta (the boxer De Niro portrays in ‘Raging Bull’) and fight as a middleweight, Michael was looking at Marty studying videos of how Bob was training in order to design the camera movements and everything in the fights,” said Schoonmaker in her Toolkit interview. “Michael said, ‘There’s something wrong with the red gloves.’ And Marty said, ‘You’re right, I used to watch fights with my father on kinescopes.’ They would go see the fights in black and white in movie theaters. So he decided to shoot [‘Raging Bull’] in black and white. That was a major, major gift from Michael.”

Powell and Schoonmaker started to get together romantically when she went out to Los Angeles for the 1981 Academy Awards, where she won the Best Editing Oscar for “Raging Bull.” By the time Scorsese was prepping “After Hours” (1985), Powell had moved to New York and became a reliable bouncing board for the director.

AFTER HOURS, Cheech Marin, Griffin Dunne, Tommy Chong, 1985, (c)Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection
Cheech Marin, Griffin Dunne, Tommy Chong in ‘After Hours’©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

“One of the most important [suggestions] Michael gave us was the ending for ‘After Hours,’ because we didn’t have a very good ending. At the end of it, Cheech and Chong steal Griffin Dunne, who’s now encased in a plaster sculpture, and drive off,” recalled Schoonmaker. “But it wasn’t a strong enough ending, and some people said, ‘Oh, they should get in a balloon and fly off.’ Michael said, ‘No. He has to go back to the hell we found him in at first, where he’s training somebody to use a computer. What he really wants to do is write the great American novel. He has to go back there.’ And that’s what Marty shot.”

Powell died in February 1990 before “Goodfellas” premiered that September, but that film exists in part due to Powell’s belief in the project.

“Marty couldn’t sell ‘Goodfellas’ because the studios kept saying, ‘You have to take the drugs out,’” said Schoonmaker. “And he said, ‘I can’t take the drugs out. That’s the story of the movie.’ And he was getting very, very depressed.”

When Schoonmaker relayed the difficulties to Powell, he quickly became concerned that Scorsese must hold onto his creative independence. According to Schoonmaker, Powell was shaped by his own battles with producers like Alexander Korda, which is covered in “Made in England.”

Martin Scorsese, Michael Powell, Thelma Schoonmaker
Martin Scorsese, Michael Powell, Thelma SchoonmakerCohen Media Group

“Michael was fiercely concerned about Marty’s artistic rights because of what he had suffered himself,’” said Schoonmaker. “So Michael said, ‘Read me the script.’ I read him the script, and he said, ‘Get Marty on the phone.’ And I did. And he said, ‘Marty, this is the best script I’ve read in 20 years. You have to make this movie.’ Marty went in one more time and [got it made]. Michael didn’t live to see it, unfortunately, but he was very important in getting that movie made, and understanding what a great piece of art it was.”

“Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger” opens at the Quad Cinema on July 12 in New York and Landmark’s Nuart in Los Angeles on July 26.

A retrospective of Powell & Pressburger’s films is playing at MoMA in New York through July 31 and will come to the Academy Museum in Los Angeles July 18 through August 19.

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