How did growing up here inform your early films?
You begin to see details pretty quick. Growing up Jewish—I lived in every borough but Staten Island—if I walked a few blocks one way or another into another neighborhood, I got beat up. So you learn to pay attention. You notice things pretty closely. That immigrant experience not only gives you a tremendous sense of time and place and limits, it also gives you a tremendous energy, because you have to pay attention. All the time.
Almost all of your films—from The Pawnbroker to your latest—have an intense level of that famous New York grit. Is being streetwise really such a difference between us and Hollywood?
In L.A., there’s no streets! No sense of a neighborhood! They talk about us not knowing who lives in the same apartment complex as us—bullshit! I know who lives in my building. In L.A., how much can you really find out about anybody else?
What do New York filmmakers get from all that?
Really, it’s just about human contact. It seems to me that our greatest problems today are coming out of the increasing isolation of people, everywhere. Look, I was even feeling isolated on the East Side. Fifteen years ago on the East Side, there were people all around at night. Now, after 8:40, nobody’s walking anymore. So I just moved back to the West Side. There are still people on the streets there.
You’re a linchpin of New York’s so-called seventies golden age. Did it feel like that then?
You know, I never really was friends with all those guys, and I don’t know why. Woody—well, he’s Woody, so you don’t expect to be hanging out with him. But Scorsese and all those guys? We didn’t hang out. I never felt like there was a school of New York filmmakers. We were all doing our own things. That stuff about a movement came later.
When people talk about that golden age, what they usually mean is that today’s films stink.
I think it’s a great time right now for New York film, actually.
So, who’s inheriting the mantle?
Oh, I can’t say names. Somebody would get bent out of shape.
Then, in the abstract, what do you imagine the next wave will look like?
Well, we were shooting out in Astoria, and one day I was watching all these kids standing outside a school near the studio. It was just marvelous: Indian girls in saris, kids from Pakistan, Korea, kids from all over. So I think you’ll see more directors from these communities, telling their stories. You know, I started out making films about Jews and Italians and Irish because I didn’t know anything else.