Fran Lebowitz and Martin Scorsese Seek a Missing New York in ‘Pretend It’s a City’


If last New Year’s Eve had been a normal one, Fran Lebowitz and Martin Scorsese would have spent it as usual: together and with a few close friends in the projection room in Scorsese’s office they saw a classic film like “Vertigo” or “A Question of Life and Death.”

The year they met to see “Barry Lyndon,” they were viewing a rare, high quality print made from director Stanley Kubrick’s original camera negative.

“And I said, ‘What’s a camera negative?'” Lebowitz recalled on a group video call with Scorsese on Tuesday. “And then all the movie maniacs stared at me like I admitted to being illiterate.”

Over the past few years, when they were feeling particularly energetic, Scorsese said with audible melancholy, “We used to have one screening before midnight and another screening after that.”

But this time their annual custom had to be put on hold. Instead Lebowitz explained: “I spoke to Marty on the phone. We complained about how awful we felt, how awful it was not to do that. “

Lebowitz, the writer, humorist, and writer, and Scorsese, the Oscar-winning filmmaker, spoke from their respective houses in New York about their latest collaboration, the documentary series “Pretend It’s a City”. They are longtime friends who, while they continue to wait for the coronavirus pandemic, have not seen much of each other or the city they are irrevocably linked to recently.

A similar, bittersweet air hangs over the seven-part series Netflix will be releasing on Friday. A sequel to Scorsese’s 2010 non-fiction film “Public Speaking”, “Pretend It’s a City” (also directed by Scorsese), captures the bitter Lebowitz in interviews, live performances and walks through New York as she tells stories about her life and her insights tells the constant development of the city in the last decades.

Of course, the Netflix series launched before the pandemic, and Lebowitz and Scorsese are deeply aware that this is a busy, energetic New York that now feels out of reach – and that both hope to return soon .

Meanwhile, “Pretend It’s a City” offers a tantalizing snapshot of New York in full bloom, along with Lebowitz’s lively and non-apologetic commentary on what it means to live there.

She said, “I don’t care if people agree or not. My feeling when someone disagrees with me is, OK, you are wrong. That’s one thing I never worried about. “

Scorsese replied softly, “I got that impression.”

Lebowitz and Scorsese went on to talk about how “Pretend It’s a City” came about and how the pandemic is affecting it. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

I was surprised to learn from “Pretend It’s a City,” which none of you remembered when you first met.

FRAN LEBOWITZ That’s because we’re old and have a lot of friendships. I don’t mean old in the sense that we don’t remember things because I believe we both have perfect memories. But because there are so many years and so many people. I think we met at a party because where else would I have met him? Obviously I go to a lot more parties than Marty. That’s why Marty made so many films and Fran wrote so few books.

MARTIN SCORSESE I really remember when we talked the most at John Waters’ 50th birthday party. It was after “Casino” came out.

LEBOWITZ Of course, you weren’t averse to hearing how much I loved it.

SCORSESE No, I wasn’t at all.

LEBOWITZ Even if I’m not as Italian as you can imagine [laughs]Marty’s parents and many of my father’s relatives – all working class Jews – have many parallels that are well known. The big difference is that the food in Italians’ homes is better.

SCORSESE We liked the Jewish food better.

LEBOWITZ No, no, no, there is no comparison.

After working on “Public Speaking”, why did you want to work on another documentary film project?

SCORSESE I enjoyed doing “public speaking”. I found it liberating in terms of the narrative. But first and foremost, it’s about being with Fran. I would really like to know what she’s thinking almost every day as it happens. I’d like a running comment – not all the time, but one that I can hop on and off during the day.

Worry that Fran is a finite resource and that you will eventually run out of her joke?

LEBOWITZ You mean do I worry about running out of things to say? No, I am worried that I will run out of money. But it never occurred to me that I had nothing to say. It’s just there. It’s like a thumb trick.

The series is divided into imaginative chapters such as “Cultural Affairs” and “Ministry of Sport and Health”. How did you come across these topics?

SCORSESE We always felt we should have issues. It will start with a theme and then it will go to a thousand other places like a jazz riff. We may be able to withdraw it. In a lot of my films, the types of actors I work with, the dialogue is like music – it’s the timing and the emphasis. She has that.

LEBOWITZ Of course, I’m the world’s most digressive public speaker, but what you really see at work is the editing. I don’t remember how many days we shot this, but I’m confident it was an infinitesimal amount compared to the time it took him to edit.

SCORSESE I try to get that kind of freedom in my storytelling films, but very often I am tied to a plot.

LEBOWITZ I am free of action, so no problem. [Laughter.]

Among the places you filmed Fran is the Queens Museum, where we see her standing in the middle of the city Panorama of the city of New York, a very detailed model that Robert Moses had built for the 1964 World’s Fair. How was it to shoot there?

LEBOWITZ I knocked over the Queensboro Bridge. The guy in charge of it was panicking the whole time the day we were filming there. And I agreed with him.

SCORSESE This was the only time I’d ever say “Action!” I don’t know what has owned me. It must have thrown you off or something.

LEBOWITZ I didn’t destroy it, I just knocked it over.

SCORSESE By the way, this model is great.

LEBOWITZ I’m not sure Robert Moses will make amends. [Laughter.] It made you realize that if only Robert Moses had done everything in miniature, we wouldn’t hate Robert Moses.

How did the pandemic affect this series?

LEBOWITZ We did it this way before there was a virus. When the virus appeared, Marty said, “What should we do? What can we do? ”At the height of the closure, I was walking around town and Marty sent Ellen Kuras [the director of photography on “Pretend It’s a City”]and what she filmed was incredibly beautiful. But I said to Marty, “I think we should ignore it.”

SCORSESE We tried it. We edited sequences. It was fine and a week later the city changed again. All of these stores were closed and they had boards open. A week later something else changed. So I said, “Let’s just stop it.”

LEBOWITZ We are not journalists. We don’t need to be up to date.

Does the series feel any different because of the pandemic?

LEBOWITZ There is sure to be a difference. I thought of the title “Pretend It’s a City” when New York was full of idiots standing in the middle of the sidewalk. And I would yell at her: “Move! Imagine it’s a city! “The people who have seen it since then – an agent of mine said,” Oh, it’s a love letter to New York. ” Before the virus, I complained about New York. Now people think it has a more lyrical, metaphorical meaning.

Are you concerned that New York won’t fully return to what it was before the pandemic?

LEBOWITZ I’ve lived in New York long enough to know it won’t stay the way it is now. There’s not a square foot of New York City, not a square foot, it’s the same as it was when I came here in 1970. This is a city without the plague. But I want to point out that before that, many things were wrong. After the big protests in SoHo, I saw a reporter interviewing a woman who was the manager of one of the fancy stores there. The reporter said to her, “What are you going to do?” And she said, “There’s nothing we can do until the tourists come back.” I yelled at the TV and said, “Really? Can’t imagine what to do in SoHo without tourists? I can! Let me give you some ideas. “Because I remember it without tourists. How about if artists could live there? What if we don’t have a rent that is $ 190,000 a month? How about that Let us try it.

Has the pandemic ever made you more vulnerable or made you aware of your own fragility?

LEBOWITZ I feel angrier. Fortunately, I managed to turn all human emotions into anger. It doesn’t matter what the initial emotion is: it could be despair, sadness, fear – basically, I perceive it as anger. It makes me angry because that didn’t have to happen at all.

SCORSESE I don’t really know where I belong on the island. I grew up in the city center when this area was quite difficult. It’s very chic now. I’m sure it’s no longer home for me. I’ve gotten old and out in a way. I’m locked up working on FaceTime. I tried to make this film [“Killers of the Flower Moon”] since March. Every two days they say we’re going. And then they say no, we are not. It is a state of fear and tension. But in any case, I really didn’t go out that much. I can’t take any chances either.

On the day the pandemic is over – there is no more risk for the coronavirus and we can all go back to our normal lives – what do you do first?

SCORSESE The first thing I would say would be to go to a restaurant, please. There are some that I miss very much. I will never eat outside. I don’t understand how to sit there and the fumes from the buses are coming in. I do not get it. It’s not Paris.

LEBOWITZ I ate outside. There is no better proof of how much I hate to cook than the fact that in 28 degrees, I’ll be sitting outside trying to eat with gloves on. I would like to eat in a restaurant. Also, I’d love to crawl around under the tables in the rare book room on the beach and when I bring things to the cash register and the guy says, “Where did you find this?” It was under the table. “We haven’t fixed it yet! You shouldn’t take it out from below. “Well, I did. How much does it cost?