Director Martin Scorsese’s celebrated collaborations with legendary actor Robert De Niro are the stuff of cinematic legend– TAXI DRIVER (1976), RAGING BULL (1980), GOODFELLAS (1990); to name just a few. Each project they undertake together seems to bring out the very best in the other, even if the finished products don’t quite meet expectations. To a somewhat lesser extent, this is also true of Scorsese’s more-recent string of collaborations with Leonard DiCaprio, an acclaimed performer in his own right. GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002), THE DEPARTED (2006), and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) may not be on the same level as Scorsese’s earlier classics but they too constitute a body of work that has seen both director and actor feeding off the other’s highly-attuned creative energies. Most directors are lucky to get one muse in their lifetime, let alone two, so it’s understandable that many in the cinema world viewed a collaboration between both men under Scorsese’s direction as something of a cinematic holy grail akin to the long-anticipated team-up between De Niro and Al Pacino in Michael Mann’s HEAT (1995).
In 2015, this dream scenario finally arrived, albeit not in the form fans were expecting. Instead of a sprawling feature with characters these actors could really sink their teeth into, we would get a 16 minute short film called THE AUDITION. Actually, to call it a short film is disingenuous; a more accurate description would be an overbaked commercial and one of the more egregious displays of #content in recent years. Commissioned by the owners of the then-unbuilt City of Dreams and Studio City casinos in Manila and Macau, respectively, at a cost of $70 million dollars, THE AUDITION is nothing less than the most expensive advertisement ever made. With RSA and Brett Ratner’s Ratpac Productions serving as his production team, Scorsese and his key collaborators are just barely able to stay above the profound level of sleaze coating the project.
Written by Terence Winter, Scorsese’s writing collaborator on BOARDWALK EMPIRE, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, and the then-upcoming HBO show VINYL, THE AUDITION plays like one big meta joke. De Niro, DiCaprio, Scorsese, and even Brad Pitt appear as highly exaggerated versions of themselves, with De Niro and DiCaprio running into each other in a Manila casino and discovering they’ve both been summoned by Scorsese to audition for his next picture. For the ensuing 16 minutes, the two actors expend a great deal of energy trying to one-up each other and prove they’re the right choice for the part. For some reason, this effort takes them from Manila, to Macau, and finally to Japan, where Scorsese realizes (erroneously) that Brad Pitt is actually the man for the part.
Visually speaking, THE AUDITION plays like the cinematic equivalent of the uncanny valley– as if some 22nd-century artificial intelligence used the raw data from the director’s previous films to simulate a new “Martin Scorsese” picture long after he and his collaborators have passed. In other words, there’s no life to this picture; no blood flowing under its veins. It’s an animated corpse of a movie; a zombie. This is due in no insubstantial part to the heavy use of poorly-rendered CG environments– indeed, the entire film was shot in a matter of days in a small soundstage in New York, and most definitely not at the three casinos featured in the film (seeing as they had yet to actually be built). Scorsese brings his signature visual style to the proceedings, collaborating with THE WOLF OF WALL STREET’s cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto for a high-contrast, glitzy look that crosses CASINO (1995) with BLADE RUNNER (1982) in the worst possible way. It’s unclear from this particular viewing whether Scorsese acquired the 2.35:1 image photochemically or digitally (I suspect the latter considering the heavy use of CGI backdrops), but other signatures like a dynamic, zooming camera and a rollicking jukebox soundtrack make it clear that his employers hired him for his unique style just as much as his famous name. Indeed, the concept hinges on the audience’s cognizance of Scorsese’s most high-profile artistic trope– his consistent collaborations with De Niro and DiCaprio. It milks this central joke for every ounce of comedic juice, nevermind the fact that their age difference alone makes the idea that they’d ever compete for the same role a patently absurd and unrealistic one.
It’s a common saying in the gambling industry that “the house” always wins, but in the case of THE AUDITION, it’s clear that the players walked away from the table as the true victors. There’s no doubt that the project is the very definition of selling out, but if some big casino is willing to wastefully spend $70 million on a glorified commercial with limited appeal, then the vendors involved should be commended for taking those suckers for all they’re worth. Indeed, a huge percentage of that $70 million went to the talent– Scorsese, De Niro, DiCaprio, and Pitt all received $13 million for only a few days of shooting. Odds are they’re still enjoying that cash, while their employers gave the film a lavish world premiere at the Studio City Casino’s grand opening and then screened it only a select few times since. The film still hasn’t received a proper release in the United States (a mindboggling development considering the talent involved), but those who want to see Scorsese’s latest cheeky foray into the world of branded content can find an awful-quality rip on Youtube. THE AUDITION gives us no new insights into Scorsese’s artistic character, but it does serve as further evidence of the iconic director’s playfulness in his old age as well as his recognizance of his own place in American pop culture.
THE AUDITION is currently available on YouTube via the embed above.
Produced by: Jules Daly, Brett Ratner, Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Written by: Terence Winter
Director of Photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Production Designer: Mark Friedberg
Edited by: Kevin Tent