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Shambhala Sun | January 1998

The Making of Kundun (2) 

 Kundun seems like a surprising twist in the career of Martin Scorsese, arguably Americaís greatest living director. But freelance writer Douglas Barasch discovered that from Casino to Kundun, Martin Scorsese reflects deeply on the human condition.

Douglas Barasch: What was it about the screenplay for Kundun that appealed to you?

Martin Scorsese: What appealed to me first of all was the idea of making a film on the Dalai Lama. Heís an ideal to all of us around the world as a person who emphasizes the spiritual.

Douglas Barasch: What was your particular contribution to the way the story was told?

Martin Scorsese: To sharpen the conflict from the middle of the picture onónot just the Chinese invasion, but what would the Dalai Lamaís behavior be to sustain the spiritual and political life of Tibet? Would he stay in Tibet or go? Take Tibet with him to the outside world and win that way, even if it takes 40 or 50 years? The idea was sharpening that conflict of what will be the best for his country. And when we say his country, we donít mean just politically, we mean the spiritual world, Tibetan Buddhism.
Prior to that, the first half of the story was just to establish the world of Tibet, from his point of view. That was the key thingófrom the childís point of view. The film is focused on his life from the age of two to eighteen, and from his point of view as a child, we could lightly touch upon events which are extremely complicated historically, politically, even spiritually. We see them through the eyes of a child, and when he says, "I want to know," the adults say, "Itís not for your ears." So we donít get into the specifics of the situation, but you know that it wasnít really all Shangri-la. You have the inference of what that culture may have been like at that time.

Douglas Barasch: Usually in a traditional dramatic structure you have a central figure with interpersonal relationships that involve conflict. Was it a challenge to create personal conflict for the central character?

Martin Scorsese: I think traditional drama enters the picture halfway through when the Chinese invade. Obviously everything is at a crisis point. But the drama there is not exactly the traditional one either. Thereís no antagonist. Thereís a protagonist, but thereís no antagonist specifically. Maybe itís Mao.
But thatís later in the film. Up to that point, I was just interested in creating a world. Then comes the element of a Chinese invasion, which begins to undo that world. Hopefully, the audience will stay with it through the first 45 minutes of the picture and wonít look for characters that are going to cause difficulty. There are conflicts around the boy, but we donít know the details. Thereís even, possibly, a little bit of a conflict between the father and the boy. I wasnít really interested in that as part of the story, but itís interesting to see his relationship to his father and his mother. Itís very different.

Douglas Barasch: Do you present Buddhist philosophy in the film?

Martin Scorsese: Ideally, itís shown in the way the people behave. I have learned you canít explain everything. You stay with the people, and if you care about the people, you go on their journey with them.
I was dealing with the details, rather than the major ideas. I always started out with the boyóWhat is he doing? How much does he know? What is he thinking? What aspect of the teachings has he got to at this point? Very often, the Tibetans had to show me what their behavior would be in a particular scene, and certainly what the rituals would be like. I already had angles planned, but I would improvise and work with them. I was being put into their world, you see, not the other way around.

Douglas Barasch: Did you feel you had to avoid getting mesmerized or absorbed into exotica?
Martin Scorsese: Itís always a danger, itís always a danger, yeah.
Douglas Barasch: Some will argue itís easier to draw out a spiritual theme in a setting thatís secular.

Martin Scorsese: Thereís no doubt that in most cases more interesting films are made about the spirit, whatever that is, from the everyday world, or from a profane world. Thereís no doubt.
I tried to do it in Mean Streets, for example, and even in Casino. I mean, the beginning of itóhe walks out the door of that restaurant with that salmon-colored jacket on, and you know youíre in for a ride. The use of Bachís "Saint Matthewís Passion" when the car blows up, and this guy is flying through the air, was meant to provoke the audience into a kind of satiric look at the madness and destruction that follows. So it was for the audience to say, okay, weíre all gonna go to hell for three hours. Letís go, Iím with ya, Iím with ya. Letís all go to hell, you know? And while weíre doing it, letís play Bach and really go down in style!
Iím always drawn to underworld subject matter, because I find it to be a great microcosm of what goes on in what we like to think of as the "real world," you know? Which I donít think there is any. Also, people are more honest, in a way. But Iím thinking about the underworld of the last century, and of the early part of this century. Up to the fifties, I like it very much. Iíll always be drawn back to stories about that period of time, especially in New York. I like that.

Douglas Barasch: There is a paradox between your admiration for the nonviolent as expressed in Kundun and the saturation of violence in most of your films.

Martin Scorsese: Oh, yeah. But Iím reporting on that world. Itís simple. I grew up in a very tough environment. Very, very tough. Violence was a key form of expression. And itís just a microcosm for the whole worldóthatís all it is. Iíll report it as I see itówhen theyíre committing the violence, revelling in violence, because thatís part of human nature.
Thatís what interests me: how could we be that way? Read St. Augustine when he went to the arena. He was afraid to go back, because he liked it. You know, itís part of our nature. Why? If we continue to go that way, thereís not gonna be any of us left. But why should there be? Dinosaurs became extinct, too.

Douglas Barasch: What are the defining moments of Kundun for you?

Martin Scorsese: I donít know. Something special is happening in the Dalai Lamaís enthronement scene. I canít put my finger on it, I canít tell you in words, but I know that when you drop the scene or you cut it way down, you lose emotional impact. I canít say why or what, but thereís something about the music, and the way the gifts are being presented to him, and the fact that heís now sitting on that throne, and he is enthroned.
I also like very much when he realizes heís got to leave Tibet, and he comes into his little hallway, and he says, "We have a journey to make, and itís very sad, and I do not know what will happen." Something like that. I like that, because itís very interesting when that boy says those lines: I do not know how it will end, it is very sad. I like that.
And a lot of other things. I liked everything. I made the movie, I like the picture. I mean, what can I say?

Douglas Barasch: What was your experience meeting the Dalai Lama?
Martin Scorsese: I met him through Melissa a number of times. I felt very good around him. I felt relaxed, and a very kind and compassionate aura around him. Not egotistical, and pretty much down-to-earth and realistic.

Douglas Barasch: The filmmakerís perspective cannot be reverential or hagiographic. Did you have to resist that tendency when you were making Kundun?

Martin Scorsese: No.

Douglas Barasch: The Dalai Lama comes off as an impotent figure through much of the film, but you have said the film shows the strength of his nonviolence.

Martin Scorsese: The Dalai Lama, in choosing to leave, makes his point very powerfully. Some Westerners would say, stand and fight. Thatís debatable, you know, itís debatable. The destruction of Tibet is maybe inevitable, the way many other cultures have been destroyed over the history of time. But there was the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and a culture was still sustained in the Diaspora, a very, very important culture. The same thing could be true of Tibetan Buddhism. But without the Dalai Lama leaving, that couldnít have happened. Thatís what I think.
Itís how we in the West perceive what power is. Gandhi had power. Did he beat people over the head? Did you ever see him take his spinning wheel and throw it at somebody? Gandhi had power. Martin Luther King had power.

Douglas Barasch: The film is very political. Did you do that consciously?

Martin Scorsese: I think the essence of the film is the atmosphere, the emotion, and for some people, although not all, the spirituality. The politics are in the people. Itís in the way they move, in the way they behave, and itís in how they deal with each other. And how they relate to Mao. I wasnít interested in making a political history of Tibet; I wasnít interested in dealing with any of the political intrigues.

Douglas Barasch: What about the controversy over this film between Disney and the Chinese government?

Martin Scorsese: I can only comment about how Disney has behaved up to this point, and theyíve behaved honorably, I think, in agreeing to distribute the film. The reality is that with every film I make, I always hope the studio is behind it, and I never believe it until I see it. Every picture. Because Iíve had a track record of making movies that are not obviously box-office pictures. So Iím always concerned about that.
The signals so far have been pretty good. I do know Michael Eisner was on "The Charlie Rose Show" and he said the Chinese donít understand that a picture opens for three weeks and then it disappears. Now, if youíve made a picture and you hear that, youíd have to be pretty dumb not to worry, because itís a very delicate issue when a studio backs a movie and when it doesnít.
I guess what Iím saying is that Iíve got to monitor the situation; Iíve got to speak out to make people aware of it, so that hopefully the picture gets a decent shot at playing theaters in America and England and it isnít pulled too soon. Itís a very difficult situation, because itís not an action picture, you know, itís not some feel-good movie. Itís something else weíre trying.


The Making of Kundun (2), Douglas Barasch, Shambhala Sun, January 1998.

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