‘To me, Manhattan is the universe’: Scorsese and De Niro reunite on stage

<span>‘People ask how we work together’, Martin Scorsese said on stage with Nas (left) and Robert De Niro during the Tribeca film festival.</span><span>Photograph: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival</span>
‘People ask how we work together’, Martin Scorsese said on stage with Nas (left) and Robert De Niro during the Tribeca film festival.Photograph: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival

On paper, it had a certain Mad Libs quality to it: the Tribeca film festival programmed a fiftieth anniversary screening of downtown classic Mean Streets, with star and festival co-founder Robert De Niro on hand for a Q&A along with director Martin Scorsese – the curveball being that those questions were asked by none other than rapper, lifelong New Yorker, and evident film buff Nas.

Related: Mean Streets at 50: Martin Scorsese’s personal, powerful masterwork

The seeming incongruence faded away pretty quickly, and not just when Nas recalled shooting his Street Dreams music video as scrupulous homage to the Scorsese/De Niro joint Casino. (“Growing up, Goodfellas taught us a lot,” he added. “It was helpful.”) He set the stage for the event by expressing everything Mean Streets means and has meant to him, part of the longstanding mutual admiration between gangster cinema and hip-hop. As a restless young man in search of a dollar wherever he could get it, he saw an aspirational figure in De Niro’s hot-tempered hustler Johnny Boy, and as a budding artist using the modest means available to convey his raw vision of authentic drama at street-level, he came to see himself in Scorsese. The film, released exactly one month after Nas’ birth, “taps into something fundamental about the city’s essence, the hustle, the spirit,” he said.

A humbled Nas played grateful hype man to the living legends joining him for the afternoon, effusing, “It’s Marvin Gaye, it’s Sinatra … These guys, they’re top-tier.” And to watch the pair of longtime collaborators talk about their careers – well, mostly Marty, De Niro was his characteristically terse yet polite self – it’s still easy to see why. Reading interviews with Scorsese, it’s plain to see that he’s eloquent and passionate and comprehensively knowledgeable, but actually seeing him pull the memories and factoids out of thin air is its own marvel. Asked a simple question about how he remembers the New York that he turned into his living set, he conjured poetry: “I never thought of it as one place. To me, Manhattan is the universe.”

Scorsese famously shot his breakout picture around the sidewalks and dive bars of Little Italy, the neighborhood that raised him, “a world that was very primal, that had to do with blood and trust and loyalty,” as he tells it. Without explicitly making the connection between struggling white ethnic and Black populations in New York, the unstated premise of the event’s unlikely mashup, Scorsese pointed out that the principles and crises he put onscreen have universal reach. “No matter the immigrant experience, it generally follows the same pattern,” he said. “Who are we, in this country? What are we?”

Nas took particular interest in the logistics of working with and around real-deal wiseguys, asking if Scorsese’s crew needed, ahem, special permissions from local leaders. De Niro perked up and explained that they didn’t just seek their approval: “We had gotten some of the neighborhood guys in it!” Scorsese was quick to clarify that some of the “consultants” were too upper-echelon to allow themselves to appear on film: “You gotta watch where you put the cameras!” he laughed.

Any notion that he got a friendly break due to his bona fides in the area was quickly dispelled, too, the criminal element having rightly reasoned that if Scorsese took off, he’d ditch them for Hollywood. “There was no romantic sticking-together,” he said. “We had to pay everyone. We had to contribute to the San Gennaro Society. I’m not gonna say anything else!”

The shoestring budget of $650,000 is as much as part of Mean Streets’ myth as anything else, a scrappy independent production that got Scorsese a foothold in the big leagues. “I didn’t even think it was going to get distributed,” he confessed. “I just knew the cinema was changing in America.” He took what he could from his environment, in particular the music that would define not just the film’s aesthetic, but the technique he’d continue to refine for the rest of his life. The jukebox soundtrack was inspired by hot nights spent sleeping on fire escapes just to keep a little cooler, when a kid could overhear a medley of city noise blending rock’n’roll, doo-wop, golden-oldie crooners, and Italian opera. “It became the soundtrack to our lives,” Scorsese said. “We couldn’t imagine a quiet moment.”

At 81, Scorsese comports himself onstage like a living archive, eager to share the several lifetimes of experience he’s somehow jammed into one. He paid homage to his mentor Roger Corman, the B-movie maestro that got a young Marty started with Boxcar Bertha and helped him find financing for Mean Streets. One anecdote recounted a Christmas dinner at Brian De Palma’s house; another involved the great John Cassavetes, who was a valuable sounding board in his insistence that Scorsese not “cut a goddamn frame” from a playful-tense exchange between Johnny Boy and Harvey Keitel’s Charlie. The fidgety energy De Niro displayed in that scene was inspired by a colorful neighborhood character who went by Uncle Joe Bug, the kind of motormouth who could always talk his way out of trouble. “He was lovable, and he got away with so much because of his charm,” Scorsese said. “That’s one of the great things Bob did in the film.”

The bond between these two singular talents and steadfast friends was the final topic of discussion, an enviable partnership Nas likened to the dynamic between rapper and producer. This strand of conversation brought out the most animated De Niro, clearly more comfortable boosting his people than talking about himself.

“Marty’s always been not afraid to try things,” he said. “We’d talk about parallels in our experiences that we could then put into the film.”

His finest moment came when Nas asked if he had any white-whale role he wishes he’d booked. “I feel that I’ve been lucky and done OK,” our greatest living actor deadpanned.

Both men recognize how rare and precious a relationship like theirs is in a notoriously cutthroat business, and to share in a little of their rapport felt like a gift. Now and for the foreseeable future, they stand as the gold standard for all actors and directors – and, as it turns out, rappers – seeking their muse. “People ask how we work together,” Scorsese said. “I can’t tell you! It’s very personal.”