The Gund Gallery’s Community Foundation Theater was packed with film buffs — students and faculty alike — for a recent screening of “Silence” (2016), directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Jay Cocks ’66. Cocks, who followed the screening with a Q&A, also penned the screenplays for “Age of Innocence” (1993), “Strange Days” (1995) and “Gangs of New York” (2002). Cinearts presented the event, which was co-sponsored by the American studies and film departments.
“Silence,” based on the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo, tells the story of Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a Portuguese Jesuit priest. Rodrigues and his comrade, Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), set out for Nagasaki, Japan, to find their mentor, Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who they heard apostated after being tortured.
Before the screening, Cocks spoke with Elana Spivack ’17 about his career and his time at Kenyon.
What were some influential moments or people at Kenyon?
Fred Kluge [’64]. He was my proctor freshman year in Norton Hall. He was an amazing spirit. He could cut you down to size, but more importantly, he could build you up again. He was good for a tentative kid from the Bronx who was a self-important, self-willed outsider here, and he understood that about me right away. He made space for me to kind of create my own little world at Kenyon.
What was your friendship with Kluge like?
He was a junior, I was a freshman. We shared an interest in music and books and writing. I gravitated toward him immediately. He was always up at 4 a.m. You could go and bulls--- with him if you could stand the cigar smoke. He had a 45 record player and he’d put on some singles and you could sit and talk.
Fred was also editor of the Collegian for me and was very encouraging. He let me write this very long story about a weekend with Bob Dylan when Bob came here. It was that story that helped me get a job at Life [magazine]. It was a story that kind of got me into Bob’s orbit, and I’m still a little bit in Bob’s orbit — I’m writing a movie for him now that he asked me to write. Without Freddy, those steps wouldn’t have occurred.
What do you think of the growing film department? How could it be best developed?
Kenyon is traditionally a writer’s school. It’s still first and foremost a great school for writers as I see it. Marty [Scorsese] knows I’m here and would love to come out sometime. He said, “Tell those kids that writing is the foundation of all film.” There is no filmmaking without a writer. Learning the craft of narrative storytelling on film is maybe the single most crucial thing you can learn as a filmmaker. So I would hope there would be a strong concentration here on writing for film.
Do you often reflect on your movies?
I try not to see the movies again once they’re done. Marty never looks at his movies again. It’s a good policy. Orson Welles never looked at his movies because all he saw were the mistakes.
How did you become interested in material for “Silence”?
When [Scorsese and I] were doing “[The] Last Temptation [of Christ],” we had an Episcopal priest who was helping us. He gave him this book and it was “Silence.” Marty read the book, loved it, called up his best friend and “Last Temptation” collaborator and said, “Do you want to do this?” I hadn’t even read the book and I said, “Sure, sounds great.” I read the book. The novel is difficult because it has a very poor translation into English. It’s almost like a transliteration. But I jumped in because it was Marty. I’m about 20 pages into this and I realize I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. But I blundered my way through out of commitment, out of loyalty and out of stubbornness. I was blundering away and the producer called me up and said, “Something has gone wrong with the deal, the money’s not there; you can stop writing.” I said, “I can’t stop writing. I have to finish this movie.” So I blundered through to the end. Marty read the script, he saw what my problems were, but he loved this ending that I wrote. Then my process became going back and figuring out what it was I misunderstood about the movie in the first place and what it was about the material.
Someone asked me the other day: Is my relationship with Marty unique among filmmakers and writers? I think it probably is. When I met him for the first time, which was on assignment for Time [magazine], I had to find a student filmmaker. They were not easy to find in 1968, and through a Kenyon student I met Marty, who had been working in an editing room. When we met one another, it was like this instant rapport — like both of us found a brother we never knew we had.
Advice to budding screenwriters?
Read a lot. Write a lot. See every great movie you can find. Spend 22 hours a day watching movies and writing. Don’t go to keggers. Okay, go to a few. But watch great movies.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.