Martin Scorsese and the American Underground

Listen to a 27-year old Martin Scorsese talk about curating New York City's inaugural Movies in the Park film series, as well as his thoughts on the direction of the New American Cinema.

At the time of this 1970 WNYC interview, Scorsese was still a relative unknown: his first feature, Who's That Knocking at My Door, was theatrically released only one year prior, and he had just one editor and producer credit for 1970's Woodstock.  An outspoken proponent of a new form of filmmaking, it would only be a few years until he became a household name with films like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), and The Last Waltz (1978).

During the course of the interview, Scorsese describes the aesthetically transformative nature of 1970s film technology: lighter-weight cameras with synchronous sound, along with affordable film development, meant artists could create more spontaneous works and abandon the narrative conceits of classic Hollywood cinema. In his now familiar cadence, he explains:

Filmmaking is an immediate means of expression, meaning that you can send [your film] to a laboratory and get it back like magic within five hours…suddenly you start making a film and you get it shown even if you have to show it in your loft to your friends and family…The underground, or what you call the underground now…the kids coming out of the university, literally coming out of the streets, [are] just picking up their camera [and making films].    

Scorsese admits that what filmmakers were doing wasn't new, but rather their techniques were an extension of the work already begun by a previous generation of filmmakers like Len Lye, Ed Emshwiller, Shirley Clarke and Kenneth Anger – artists he calls “the grand old masters of the underground”. 

1970 was an exciting time to be an American filmmaker. The public had become weary of bloated Hollywood epics and Scorsese was well-placed in an era that exalted the auteur. This interview offers a rare glimpse into a riotous time in American film from a filmmaker at the very beginning of a celebrated career. 

Artists in the City aired each Sunday afternoon at 4:30. The series is designed to introduce you to some of the professional artists who are doing exciting things in the communities and neighborhoods of New York. Doris Freedman is the host.

WNYC letter to Martin Scorsese July 16th, 1970

(Correspondence from the WNYC Archive Collections)