01 November 2012, 13:00
29586 |

Playing God

The end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s came as a turning point for the American movie industry. It was the time when a new generation of daring young artists emerged – those who decided that movies should be made differently and who were later dubbed Easy Riders and Raging Bulls after the iconic films of that epoch. The creators of Raging Bull – director Martin Scorsese and his devoted comrade-in-arms – screenwriter Mardik Martin – were right in the center of this Hollywood maelstrom.

Invitation to a Dream

 

Having fled their native land after the Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey, the ancestors of Mardik Martin settled in Baghdad. Life for the Armenian family in this big, noisy and hot Middle Eastern
 city was far from ideal. Mardik once said that the years he spent in Baghdad were “like a nightmare you could hardly see the world through the dust
and endless stream of cars and camels.” But the unattractive reality had its advantages – big screen movie theaters. On hot Baghdad nights, the boy went to the roof of their house and, before falling asleep, watched movies shown in an open-air theater across the street. The screen revealed to him a glamorous life of thrilling adventures, fearless heroes and chic beauties. Mardik once even wrote a letter to film star Esther Williams, saying he was prepared to leave Baghdad and swim across the ocean to live with her. Strange as it may seem, his letter was answered – in the form of a photograph with her autograph.
“Back then for me it was an invitation to a dream, and I knew I had to be there,” Mardik says in recollection. 
So, the goal was set. The first step to its implementation was a courier job at the Baghdad distribution office of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The film reels passing through Mardik’s hands were often missing several frames at the end of the
day – the future scriptwriter had cut them out as
a souvenir. Later there was a long journey across the ocean and life in Manhattan. The formal 
reason for his departure was to evade being drafted into the Iraqi army, but it was assumed that the eighteen-year-old Mardik would be studying to be an economist. And indeed, for a couple of years, he attended business school, moonlighting as a waiter in a restaurant. But after the revolution, his father’s shop in Baghdad had been confiscated, and Mardik had to make a living for himself, with some help from local Armenians.

Armenian-Sicilian Clan

 

Mardik did not forget his long-standing dream and the “invitation” to Hollywood. One day, having said goodbye to the prospect of becoming an economist, Mardik joined the newly-opened film department
at New York University. Mardik chose a major in screenwriting, and his first tutor was his compatriot Haig Manoogian. Soon the teacher advised another talented student, novice director Martin Scorsese, to work together with Mardik.

“We quickly found a common language, largely because of our roots,” Scorsese recalled many years later in the 2008 documentary Mardik: Baghdad to Hollywood. “My family came from a small village in Sicily; Mardik was from Armenia. We, the young people from places far distant from New York, were very comfortable together.” Soon the tandem began working on the documentary Italianamerican. Scorsese’s parents became main characters in the film. “Mardik managed to get my folks talking to such an extent that after a while they completely forgot about the camera,” says Scorsese.

LA Confidential

 

Mardik’s debut in a full-length feature film came earlier than Scorsese’s – in 1971. Although the drama Revenge Is My Destiny had little success, he received
a fee of $10,000 for the story of a Vietnam War veteran, written in six weeks in Miami. But the real breakthrough came two years later, after the release of Mean Streets. Before beginning to work on this film, Mardik and Scorsese had written dozens of unrealized scripts – from dramas and historical plots to a parody on Swedish porn. But with Mean Streets, everything was different, and the friends set to work in earnest. Even the lack of normal working conditions did
not stop them. Neither Mardik, hosting relatives
from Iraq, nor Scorsese, who already had a wife and daughter, could use their home for work. So they wrote the script in the car, periodically jogging in the snowy streets to a nearby cafe for a cup of coffee and warmth.
Mean Streets was like a documentary – the viewers saw on the screen, if not themselves but definitely regular folks just like them. Characters in the
film (the main roles were played by then virtually unknown Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro) used ordinary language, spoke about topics that ordinary people talk about and popular songs played behind the scenes. After the premiere in New York City,
the life of Mardik Martin, as well as the lives of Martin Scorsese, Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, drastically changed.
A couple of years later the whole company found themselves in the very heart of the Hollywood machine – the offices of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Los Angeles. Mardik became a staff screenwriter. He not only wrote, but he had to read everything that came to the studio. It all seemed incredible. “If someone told me when I was 15 that in 20 years I'd be working at MGM, I would have said the guy was nuts,” reminisces Mardik.

 

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