When lawyers told Martin Scorsese to change the script of Casino

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Martin Scorsese was sent 40 or so changes that lawyers wanted to make to the screenplay of Casino, just as he was on the verge of shooting the picture.

As the second picture in a two-film deal that he’d signed with Universal Pictures, director Martin Scorsese ultimately opted to tackle the film Casino instead of Clockers (the latter being picked up by Spike Lee). It reunited the Goodfellas team of writer Nicholas Pileggi, actors Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, and of course Scorsese himself. And I’ve gone into detail on the film’s story in a podcast episode, here.

As promised in said episode though, I thought it was also worth taking a look at some further obstacles that Scorsese and his team faced when it came to making Casino. Because whilst Goodfellas had been based on Pileggi’s already-published book of that particular story (which went by the name of Wiseguy), Casino was based on a book that Pileggi was in the midst of writing. That was one of two things that brought together problems for the film.

Thus, with Goodfellas the assorted legal clearances for the film adaptation had already been tackled at the time the book was published. The film was free to use real names and locations, as the work had already been done to clear those. It gave the movie a clear path forward.

With Casino, though, that wasn’t the case. What’s more, the events at the heart of the film were hardly fiction. As Scorsese discusses in the excellent book Scorsese On Scorsese (edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie), pretty much every story you see on screen in Casino is based on real characters. Names are changed, locations are altered, and even the name of a city is left out. But it’s all real events.

One of the best laughs in the movie come when we hear the characters talking about ‘back home’. Then, a title card promptly comes on the screen saying ‘Back Home’. Here’s one example…

This, as it happened, was an example of the kind of legal compromises that the film was up against. That originally the card would have said ‘Chicago’, but amongst the issues they hit when making the film, being specific about a location was one of them. Lawyers had actually suggested changing the city to Detroit or Cleveland to throw anyone off the legal scent, but Scorsese was having none of it. Thus, ‘back home’.

Furthermore, it was decided – to give some legal cover in case of pushback – that the card at the front of the film read ‘adapted from a true story’ instead of the more traditional ‘based on a true story’. Even though the latter was, well, true.

Scorsese details the battles he had with lawyers in his diaries he kept whilst making the film, that Premiere magazine published in its February 1996 issue. “The lawyers are actually sending me script pages!”, he raged, admitting that “I still can’t help getting very angry”.

What’s more, he also revealed one or two of the recommendations that were presented to him. Lawyers advised the excising of certain characters for example, and were trying to change the dialogue in the screenplay Scorsese and Pileggi had penned. Eventually, Scorsese had enough, exasperated that Universal had basically greenlit the picture and then started the legal process in earnest, when realistically it was tricky for Scorsese to walk away. He decided he had to ring the team of lawyers himself.

He was sent ahead of the call a list of “40 or so” changes that the lawyers wanted to make to the film’s screenplay. “I circle five or six I’ll entertain”, he wrote.

He then got specific. “Some of the comments from the lawyers are hilarious”, he admits, “and that quiets me down”.

For instance, their objections included:

  • There’s a moment in the film’s voiceover where a guy who was tortured “had an ice pick put into his balls” and he still didn’t talk. The lawyers – genuinely – argued against the accuracy of this, stating that if you put an ice pick in someone’s balls, they can still talk.
  • The lawyers also pushed back against the idea of “sticking a card cheater with a cattle prod for second”, suggesting that “ten seconds are too long”.

Through his laughter in the end, Scorsese pretty much told them – politely no doubt – to do one, arguing “they’re giving me ‘guidelines’ that I feel endanger the entire project. I won’t go along with it. They’ll cut away the guts of the movie. The fine interweaving we did of all the threads … if we start undoing threads carelessly, we’ll undo the structure of the entire movie”.

As he reasoned in the end, “they don’t want a lawsuit, but you have to understand that either you make the film or you don’t make the film”.

Universal wanted to make the film. And in the end, there was no lawsuit filed against the picture. At least not one I can find any record of.

Outside of lawyers, a secondary problem that the film faced – perhaps more predictably – was the Motion Picture Association of America. The MPAA to its mates.

The MPAA, which dishes out ratings to films in the States, was all but certain to give Casino the dreaded NC-17 rating. That would equal box office poison, as it meant under 17s couldn’t be admitted at all, as opposed to an R-rating, where they could see the film if an adult accompanied them. The ramification of that is also that virtually every major movie chain in the US refuses to programme NC-17 films. After all, there’s a line of 12-year olds who couldn’t wait to see a three hour mob drama.

Scorsese shot sequences in Casino fully expecting the battle ahead, but he didn’t quite get the fight that he was expecting. The infamous head in a vice moment from the film (no spoilers, but you know it if you’ve seen it), that all concerned were expecting to be asked to be removed by the MPAA, was left pretty much untouched. But still, in came the predicted NC-17 rating. It didn’t take much to overturn it, though, Scorsese trimmed back just a little of the graphic violence in the film (and in fact took a little out of the vice scene too, even though he wasn’t asked to), and the film went to appeal. There, Universal got what it wanted, and the R-rating was bestowed. 12-year olds breathed a sigh of relief.

In the UK, meanwhile, the film sailed through uncut, earning an 18-certificate from the British Board Of Film Classification (BBFC). In fact, from what I can ascertain, the film was only further cut in India, Finland and Sweden.

Once he’d completed work on Casino, Scorsese turned his attention to the film Kundun, a movie that’d attract levels of controversy that threatened to damage any chance Disney had of doing business in China. But that one’s a story for another time…


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