08 October 2014, 10:39
1786 |

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.

Moonlighting as  a bartender
Moonlighting as a bartender

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.

From left to right: Martin Scorsese,  Harvey Keitel and Mardik Martin
From left to right: Martin Scorsese, Harvey Keitel and Mardik Martin

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.

Mardik in the streets  of London
Mardik in the streets of London

A Dance to Remember
Despite the success, he felt himself as a stranger throughout his life in Iraq; he was an expatriate from Armenia and in America, an immigrant from Iraq. “Probably because of this, the story of Rudolph Valentino was so familiar and close to me. He came to the U.S. almost at the same age as I did and also had a very difficult path in the beginning, doing whatever he had to, before fame came to him.” Unfortunately, the biopic about this legendary actor of silent film directed by Ken Russell with another famous emigrant, Rudolf Nureyev, playing the leading role, had little success. But this failure did
not prevent Martin from becoming one of the most respected writers of his generation.

Mardik is convinced that the main problem with bad screen scenarios is that their authors draw inspiration from other movies, forgetting about real life. To collect such “life” information, he spared no effort and time. He would stop his car by New York hookers, offering them a hundred dollars for a talk with the recorder on. “Some of them flatly refused, it seemed too strange an opportunity to get a hundred bucks without sex!” Even the thousands and thousands of traps that can cause you to mess up and not deliver your whole creation to the audience, but only three or four right points.”

Mardik’ ability to communicate with people also came in handy during the filming of the documentary, The Last Waltz about the rock group, The Band. In the beginning, it was Scorsese’s intention to just shoot their last concert for video archives. But during the montage editing, an idea was born to turn the material into a documentary. Mardik tooled up with the audio recorder, and soon a new feature film was ready with the music performances interspersed with talk by musicians and guests, Bob Dylan as the most famous of them. Today, the film is regarded as a classic of the concert film genre. Even before the completion of The Last Waltz, Mardik, Scorsese and De Niro again joined forces to shoot a musical about post-war New York and received the largest budget then amassed for a new film – $15 million. “It was very difficult to write and film it,” reminisces Mardik.

“I don’t even remember how many times exactly we rewrote the script. But just the simple fact that we were shooting a musical about New York for MGM gave us a boost!” The film, however, did not have much success – small ticket sales and unflattering reviews. Even Liza Minnelli, who played opposite De Niro, did not save it. But the film did give something to the world: the unforgettable song “New York, New York” that soon entered the repertoire of Frank Sinatra and began its own life. Their next joint project turned into perhaps the best film for all three.

Robert De Niro and  Martin Scorsese at  the filming of  Raging Bull
Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese at the filming of Raging Bull

Raging Bull
“To tell you the truth, I hate boxing,” the screenwriter smiles, remembering the time when his best known film, which also became his last completed project, was created. The idea of Raging Bull was offered to the friends by De Niro, who came across the autobiography of the famous 1950s
boxer, Jake La Motta. The team set to work. To begin, they watched films about boxers, and it was decided to avoid the clichés – a talented athlete, the gangsters, the problems with his wife, a happy ending, and so on. Mardik spent the next few months talking to La Motta himself and anyone else who had the slightest connection with the life and career of the nicknamed “Raging Bull.” He set a goal to make it as real as possible. However, after a year of work and three drafts, he grew really tired. “I was too long submerged into this world and needed someone with a fresh and rational outlook. ”Taxi Driver scriptwriter Paul Schrader came to help and assisted in completing the text.

It Is Difficult to Be God
Immediately after writing Raging Bull, Mardik was ordered to do another script. Insomnia was about the wild bohemian life of the late 1970's – the filmmakers, rock musicians and other creative personalities. Following his own main rule, the screenwriter based his work on real life. But when the text got to an agent, Mardik was warned about imminent scandal – people would recognize themselves, and they would not be happy. The script was put on the shelf. Then came the comedy Strike and Hide. For the first time, Mardik ventured into producing. The director was one of the new generation of
filmmakers, Peter Bogdanovich. The process advanced to the planning stage, but eventually there was no funding. Another script was about a famous photo reporter, a master of criminal news that Widgey and Mardik had been working on for two and a half years. In some cases, the writer himself created his own problems: “I had a chance to fix the draft of Brian de Palma’s Carlito’s Way. But somehow, when the three of us were sitting with the producer in his house, I remembered his Scarface and went on explaining why this was a bad movie. De Palma froze for a moment, and then, without saying a word, went into the bedroom and closed the door. It turned out he was mortally offended, because Scarface was his favorite film. I was close to getting back into the big leagues but opened my mouth at the wrong time.”

In 1988, when he completed a script called Rock ‘n’ Roll History (which also did not get to a filming location), Mardik was already at the bottom: he failed to handle fame and the stressful life of a Hollywood artist, a side effect of which were drugs. And while Scorsese was able in time to turn from the harmful ways and plunge again into work, Mardik couldn’t do it. His pregnant girlfriend had left him, he had no money, no scripts were sold, and his once loyal friend Scorsese was busy with his own successful career. “Of course, it was sad to lose everything I had, but it turned out to be the time when I gave up drugs forever,” recalls Mardik.

Soon he also gave up attempts to write a new script and decided to share his experiences and knowledge with novice writers. From 1990 to this day he has been teaching at the School of Cinematic Arts of the University of Southern California. “I'm old, I do not have enough energy to get back into the business, but my students are achieving a lot and have essentially replaced for me the work in movies and family. It is now their turn to play God and create worlds.”

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