Martin Scorsese and Melissa Mathison sit down with the Shambhala Sun to discuss their upcoming film, Kundun, a biographical epic based around the life of the 14th Dalai Lama and the struggles in Tibet.
Part 1: Martin Scorsese
Kundun seems like a surprising twist in the career of Martin Scorsese, arguably America’s greatest living director. 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. He’s 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 on—not just the Chinese invasion, but what would the Dalai Lama’s 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 don’t 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 thing—from the child’s 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, “It’s not for your ears.” So we don’t get into the specifics of the situation, but you know that it wasn’t 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. There’s no antagonist. There’s a protagonist, but there’s no antagonist specifically. Maybe it’s Mao.
But that’s 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 won’t look for characters that are going to cause difficulty. There are conflicts around the boy, but we don’t know the details. There’s even, possibly, a little bit of a conflict between the father and the boy. I wasn’t really interested in that as part of the story, but it’s interesting to see his relationship to his father and his mother. It’s very different.
Douglas Barasch: Do you present Buddhist philosophy in the film?
Martin Scorsese: Ideally, it’s shown in the way the people behave. I have learned you can’t 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 boy—What 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: It’s always a danger, it’s always a danger, yeah.
Douglas Barasch: Some will argue it’s easier to draw out a spiritual theme in a setting that’s secular.
Martin Scorsese: There’s 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. There’s no doubt.
I tried to do it in Mean Streets, for example, and even in Casino. I mean, the beginning of it—he walks out the door of that restaurant with that salmon-colored jacket on, and you know you’re in for a ride. The use of Bach’s “Saint Matthew’s 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, we’re all gonna go to hell for three hours. Let’s go, I’m with ya, I’m with ya. Let’s all go to hell, you know? And while we’re doing it, let’s play Bach and really go down in style!
I’m 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 don’t think there is any. Also, people are more honest, in a way. But I’m 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. I’ll 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 I’m reporting on that world. It’s simple. I grew up in a very tough environment. Very, very tough. Violence was a key form of expression. And it’s just a microcosm for the whole world—that’s all it is. I’ll report it as I see it—when they’re committing the violence, revelling in violence, because that’s part of human nature. That’s 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, it’s part of our nature. Why? If we continue to go that way, there’s 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 don’t know. Something special is happening in the Dalai Lama’s enthronement scene. I can’t put my finger on it, I can’t tell you in words, but I know that when you drop the scene or you cut it way down, you lose emotional impact. I can’t say why or what, but there’s something about the music, and the way the gifts are being presented to him, and the fact that he’s now sitting on that throne, and he is enthroned.
I also like very much when he realizes he’s got to leave Tibet, and he comes into his little hallway, and he says, “We have a journey to make, and it’s very sad, and I do not know what will happen.” Something like that. I like that, because it’s 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 filmmaker’s 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. That’s debatable, you know, it’s 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 couldn’t have happened. That’s what I think.
It’s 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. It’s in the way they move, in the way they behave, and it’s in how they deal with each other. And how they relate to Mao. I wasn’t interested in making a political history of Tibet; I wasn’t 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 they’ve 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 I’ve had a track record of making movies that are not obviously box-office pictures. So I’m 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 don’t understand that a picture opens for three weeks and then it disappears. Now, if you’ve made a picture and you hear that, you’d have to be pretty dumb not to worry, because it’s a very delicate issue when a studio backs a movie and when it doesn’t.
I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve got to monitor the situation; I’ve 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 isn’t pulled too soon. It’s a very difficult situation, because it’s not an action picture, you know, it’s not some feel-good movie. It’s something else we’re trying.
Part 2 – Melissa Mathison
For Melissa Mathison, best known for her screenplays for ET and Black Stallion, writing Kundun was a labor of love and a surprising spiritual journey. She talks with Angela Pressburger about “pitching” the Dalai Lama, recruiting Martin Scorsese, and diving into Buddhism.
Angela Pressburger: What was your personal experience of Buddhism before you started on Kundun?
Melissa Mathison: Zero. I had studied the world religions in college, but the motivation for writing this script had nothing to do with Buddhism at all.
Angela Pressburger: So the original motivation had to do with your interest in children?
Melissa Mathison: I was intrigued by the story of this boy who was destined to have such an extraordinary life. I wasn’t interested in Tibet and I wasn’t interested in Buddhism; it was simply a fantastic story of a child who was discovered and groomed to take over his country and then was handed it at the worst possible moment of its history. It appealed to me on an emotional, dramatic level; it could’ve been a story of a Samoan boy, for all that it mattered in terms of what attracted my interest.
Originally I wanted to write it as a children’s type of movie, but the story and the complexities of his life were much more adult than you could possibly tailor for a young audience. As I started reading and researching, all the other attributes of the story became more important to me. The more I learned, the less it became a children’s movie.
Angela Pressburger: How did you approach the Dalai Lama with the idea?
Melissa Mathison: After I had done enough research to feel that I wasn’t going to make a complete fool of myself, I sent a letter to His Holiness outlining what I wanted to do and they sent a letter back sounding interested. Then His Holiness was in California and I arranged to meet him. I had already forwarded a treatment of the movie and his advisors had read it. We had an audience and I pitched the movie to him, and he said yes.
Angela Pressburger: How do you “pitch” a movie to the Dalai Lama?
Melissa Mathison: It was sort of funny. It was a much nicer meeting than they usually are, and may I add, he’s much more intelligent than most people you’re usually pitching a movie to! I just sat down with him at this hotel in Santa Barbara, and my husband [Harrison Ford] was with me, and people who now I know so well were with His Holiness. I proceeded to say what my ambition was for the film: that as well as a history and a biography of him, I wanted it to cover the stages of life from infancy to young adulthood; that within the context of his upbringing and Tibet’s history, it was a microcosm for the ages of man, the ages of child. I expressed it that way and he thought it sounded interesting, fine. He was just very sweet and funny, and said, “Okay, if you think this is a good idea, you can go ahead and try.”
He invited Harrison and me up to Santa Cruz where he was going to be on retreat, and I spent a couple of days in a row with him just talking and asking him stories about his life. He invited us to come and visit him in India, and as soon as I had a first draft ready, we went to India and I went through the script with His Holiness and got his corrections. I spent a lot of time in Dharamsala interviewing people. Also, we went to Tibet. The story got deeper and deeper, and my knowledge grew, and I was able to make it more detailed and interesting.
Angela Pressburger: Did you start to meditate yourself then?
Melissa Mathison: No. The course of this was movie, Tibet, Buddhism, in that order. So my interest was growing in Tibet at that stage, the tragedy of Tibet and how we could help Tibet. That was was the first step for me, after starting to write.
Angela Pressburger: How did the content and the emphasis of the movie change as your interest shifted and deepened?
Melissa Mathison: Well, as I said, it matured from my idea that this could be a movie for children about a child. It matured in terms of audience and so the whole concept had to become more profound and more descriptive.
My interest in Tibet, the realization of the tragedy of Tibet, made it emotional in ways I had not expected it would. It became emotional not just about this boy, but it became emotional for the whole country. Then, because the upbringing of the boy was all about Buddhism, I had to dive into that. I had a number of wonderful people who I could call upon and interview, but I didn’t take on a Buddhist teacher to help me. I just sort of dove into it myself. My understanding of the dharma influenced my writing. because what we had to do was make the teachings obvious in the life of the people: you don’t just hear about the dharma, you see them living it.
Angela Pressburger: What were the factors that influenced you personally as you made the progression from the boy’s story to Tibet to Buddhism?
Melissa Mathison: First of all, meeting the Tibetans. I mean, you’re sunk once you meet these people, they’re the kindest people I’ve ever met in my life. The people themselves alter you with their kindness. Going to Tibet was a pretty shattering experience. And I’ve been privileged to spend an awful lot of time with the Dalai Lama, so when I would sit down and ask, how does this description of the Four Noble Truths seem to you, it was sort of like working with Einstein or something! [Laughs.]
Angela Pressburger: At what point did you decide it would be interesting to ask Martin Scorsese to do this picture? I mean, the person who did Taxi Driver and Raging Bull is not your obvious first choice.
Melissa Mathison: Well, it was to me. You see, that’s where I differed from everyone else. He was always the first person on my list. I had met Marty a couple of times. I grew up a Catholic, he grew up a Catholic. I knew he had actually studied for the priesthood at one point and I knew that he was really interested in the spiritual. I didn’t have a clue that he had any interest in Tibet, but I just knew that whether or not he wanted to make this movie, he would understand what it was about.
Well, Marty is, of course, a great movie buff. He loves old documentaries and newsreel footage and he immediately told me how he remembered as a child seeing this footage of Tibet, footage of the Dalai Lama escaping, and how he was always intrigued, as we all are, by Tibet—the magic and the mystery of it all. Then he read the script and, to my great delight, he said he wanted to make the movie. He understood the destiny of the boy, basically a child carrying the destiny of his people. It’s a pretty grand subject. It all appealed to him.
Then it took us three more years to get to make the movie! [Laughs.] He had no time, so I had to become the pushy person and convince him not to do something else but to do this movie. Then he had his own contractual dilemmas he had to work out, so it was always slow—slow and difficult. We worked together now and then for a couple of years on different drafts, and then finally he was free to make the movie.
Angela Pressburger: Seven Years in Tibet is more of an action film and Kundun has a poetic approach and is more atmospheric, from what I’ve heard.
Melissa Mathison: Well, ours is a non-action film! [Laughs.] Marty and I have always joked that we’ve made a spiritual adventure movie, and I think in fact we have. It’s quite rousing, but it is about nonviolence. There is no violence in the movie.
Angela Pressburger: What genre of movie do you think Kundun is?
Melissa Mathison: With all humility, I think we’ve almost created a new genre. It doesn’t compare with any movie I’ve ever seen. So I don’t know what you would call it, but I think spiritual adventure movie is about right! It’s a biography and yet it’s more intimate. It’s an epic but it’s an epic that’s internal and subjective. It’s about a people and yet you hardly ever see the people. It’s unique.
Angela Pressburger: How do you think the film will affect people in the West?
Melissa Mathison: In screenings it has a very profound effect on people in the audience. It’s hard to describe what goes on, but they are numbed by it. Not in a grief-stricken way; they’re sort of numbed in an introspective way. People don’t move at the end. They just stay in their seats; nobody leaves.
I think it’s audacious even to think it will be good for Tibet, but I think you are left at the end of the movie thinking, there should be a solution to this, what can I do to help?
We’re not trying to turn anybody into Buddhists, that’s not our agenda. I can’t imagine a worse idea for making a movie! We were just trying to make a good movie, but I have been told by audience members that it sort of demands that you examine your own life. So that’s pretty nice!
Angela Pressburger: Do you think that the uniqueness of this movie and perhaps part of its power has come from using Tibetan nonactors.
Melissa Mathison: You never think, after the first five seconds of this movie, about whether these people are actors or not actors or anything: they are so true, they are so truly displaying their own feelings and their own sensibilities about this story, which is their story. It’s not like a documentary at all—it is absolutely a feature film—but you don’t stop and think, oh, I wonder if they’ve ever acted before. You just go with it. I mean, they’re wonderful; everyone in this movie is fantastic.
Angela Pressburger: They’re presenting something that is very, very deep within them.
Melissa Mathison: They are. We witnessed it in the making of the movie, because people would walk into this room that was supposed to be the Potala and pray or weep. It was a very moving experience for the Tibetans. It comes from within them and nobody else could have possibly done it. You couldn’t hire an actor to play these parts. Nobody could have done it the way these people did it.
Angela Pressburger: Initially you must have thought of it as a movie with big name stars.
Melissa Mathison: No, never. One of the first things Marty and I agreed on was that there would be all Tibetan people. You couldn’t use movie stars. I mean, first of all, who? And what kind of make-up do you put on them to make them look like the Dalai Lama ? [Laughs.] There are four or five Chinese actors, but you couldn’t bring in, you know, Harrison Ford to play one of the parts.
Angela Pressburger: But without the big names, this must have been a difficult movie to get financed and produced.
Melissa Mathison: This was a really challenging movie to get made, there’s no question about that. There are no big stars, it all takes place in Tibet, it’s the story of the Dalai Lama, it’s a “religious” film.
Angela Pressburger: In the end, do you think it will be a movie that lots of people will want to see?
Melissa Mathison: I have no idea. I do think that it’s such a fantastic experience watching this movie, it’s so moving and so good, that word of mouth will bring in people who would not have thought they had any interest in seeing a movie about the Dalai Lama or Tibet. My guess is that it’s going to be a surprise who the audience turns out to be, because I think it will attract people we would never imagine.
Angela Pressburger: As Schindler’s List opened the idea of the Holocaust to a huge number of people who had never really thought about it, especially younger people, I wonder if Kundun might have some similar effect.
Melissa Mathison: I hope. The thing that will be interesting about this movie is that it’s not over. The Holocaust is over but this is a story that’s not over for Tibet, and it will be interesting to see if that creates action. That’s not the motivation for making the movie, but the Tibetans are certainly hoping that, and I’m hoping that.