Martin Scorsese discusses 'The Red Shoes'

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This week, a restoration of Martin Scorsese’s favourite film, ‘The Red Shoes’, begins a run at BFI Southbank. Joshua Rothkopf spoke to the legendary director about one of British cinema’s all-time great films

Last month, Martin Scorsese, 67, took time out from editing a documentary on British cinema and inspecting some colour film stock – ‘Yep, a typical Saturday’ – to talk about his love for ‘The Red Shoes’. A romantic fantasy about a doomed ballerina, the 1948 film, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, has been restored with the help of Scorsese, whose own ‘Shutter Island’ is due for a release in February. ‘The Red Shoes’ enjoys an extended run at BFI Southbank throughout this month. Here’s what Scorsese had to say.

His first impressions of ‘The Red Shoes’

‘When did it catch on here in New York? 1950? So I must have been eight or nine. I remember abstract impressions of colour and movement. Later, it became a very intense psychological vortex of passion, like a whirlpool sucking in the lives and souls of these characters. I was intrigued by the obsession, the need to dance. To be an artist. I guess it all comes down to that wonderful exchange early in the film when Anton Walbrook confronts Moira Shearer at a cocktail party. “Why do you want to dance?” he asks, and she answers, “Why do you want to live?” There’s no choice about it. The look on his face is extraordinary.’

How the film inspires him

‘Over the years, if I’ve found myself weakening, it’s not that I summon up the exact atmosphere and experience of seeing “The Red Shoes”, but that determined state of mind has definitely become part of who I am. I feel that this movie has given myself and plenty of other filmmakers the courage to keep going. It’s about directing. But it’s also about a dedication to what you do. You may not do it well [laughs], you may do it very well. But no matter what it is, you have to do it. And often, that’s a dangerous thing, not only to you, but to the people around you.’

The magic of the film’s colour

‘No, the colour in the movie isn’t realistic. But it reflects the heightened world of the ballet, of theatre. Colour is always something that is going to be an aesthetic comment, no matter how you do it. When you see “The Red Shoes” from the centre of the tenth row, you get submerged in a kind of reality, so to speak. You see these extraordinary close-ups of these people’s faces, with this amazing make-up on their eyes and red, red lipstick. It’s so blunt. Halfway through our screening at Cannes, the audience spontaneously applauded. I’ve never seen the print looking this good.’

How ‘The Red Shoes’ influenced ‘Raging Bull’

‘The movie hasn’t inspired me shot by shot. But the idea of whether your determination is going to take you off the cliff and you perish? That’s “Raging Bull”. It’s funny: when Michael Powell saw some 8mm test footage of De Niro sparring in 1978 or ’79, he said, “You know, it’s interesting, this sparring, but there’s one thing wrong.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “The red boxing gloves are too red.” I said, “You’re absolutely right.” That was one of the reasons we decided to make it black-and-white.’

Why I still champion Michael Powell

‘“Peeping Tom” destroyed Michael Powell’s career, and I helped get that film re-released. There was a dismissal of his work. A great deal of it had to do with the style of filmmaking coming out of England in the 1960s, excellent pictures like “This Sporting Life”. A new realism, yes, but the filmmakers had to eschew what came before them – a shame. We went about reclaiming those films. I even had an Anton Walbrook (who plays the Russian ballet master in “The Red Shoes”) Cossack shirt – yes, a velvet one. I still have it [laughs]. It’s a little warm. I think it had to do with the lack of central heating in England.’
The Red Shoes’ plays at BFI Southbank from Fri Dec 11-Dec 30 with an accompanying exhibition on the Mezzanine level until Jan 31 2010.

Read our review of the re-release here

Author: Joshua Rothkopf


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Daniel Cooper
Daniel Cooper

There's a nice book about the making of the film The Red Shoes focusing on the costumes by the leader of the 1940s Parisian couture movement, Jacques Fath, whose designs, more than Dior and Balmain at the time, brought a completely contemporary sensibility and shocking elegance to fashion in France but also for the first time to the best American stores. http://theredshoes.info



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