‘Pretend It’s a City’: Martin Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz on Their Guide to NYC

They have been close friends for decades, shared countless meals, watched too many movies to count together, kept each other company at infinite ritzy midtown soirées. He grew up in downtown’s Little Italy neighborhood, and spent a much storied period in Los Angeles during the 1970s. She was born in New Jersey before moving to Manhattan. But Martin Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz are the kind of bona fide, card-carrying New Yorkers that characterize the best aspects of that distinction, and are virtually synonymous with the city they call home. Of course these two verbose, vital residents of a city that never sleeps would collaborate on a project that would be full of wit, cross-referenced with film and literary (and personal) history, and snap-crackle-popped with insight and opinions. Of course it would be about New York, New York, in all of its ragged glory.

Pretend It’s a City, the duo’s new seven-episode series on Netflix that began streaming this past Friday, picks up more or less where their 2010 documentary Public Speaking left off: with Lebowitz holding court in lecture halls, Scorsese occasionally throwing her questions in a tony Gotham establishment, and both of them talking, talking, talking together on the streets of New York. Loosely organized by chapters revolving around certain topics — money, athletics, transportation — each of these half-hour installments lets the author/humorist/raconteur riff on and gripe about subjects, while the filmmaker does double duty as her hype man and cross-cutting master of ceremonies. The idea was to fashion things as a sort of living, breathing essay about the highs and lows of urban life. Thanks to the pandemic shutting everything down, however, the show’s scenes of bustling avenues, Times Square tchotchke kiosks, Grand Central Station commuters and crowded auditoriums have taken on an unexpected sense of poignancy. It’s a potent second-high before the rush of NYC normalcy returns.

Speaking via Zoom — the famously technophobic Lebowitz in Netflix’s offices, Scorsese in “the same apartment I’ve basically been in since last March” — the two briefly talked about their long friendship, the origin story of the series, New York in the 1970s and why things will eventually reset back to the Gotham they know, love and, in Ms. Lebowitz’s case, are forever annoyed by. The interview has been edited for clarity.

There’s a moment in one of the later episodes where someone asks how you two first met each other, and neither of you seem to remember where it was — but when were you first aware of each other’s work?

Fran Lebowitz: Have you seen (Scorsese’s documentary) ItalianAmerican?

I have.
Lebowitz: I remember seeing it the first time it was ever shown at the New York Film Festival, in … [Pause]

Martin Scorsese: 1974.

Lebowitz: Marty says I saw it in 1974. [Laughs] I remember seeing it, I don’t remember when it was. And I remember seeing him a week or two later — I didn’t know him at that point — and I told him how much I loved it. I mean, it was such a surprising thing to watch, it wasn’t in the program, no one knew what it was. I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe. [Pause] I was 24 then, so that was back when I could still breathe. Not like now. I haven’t breathed in years!

Scorsese: I wasn’t at that screening — I was in Los Angeles, having really bad asthma attacks and making Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. It was probably at one of the press screenings later, because that’s where you’d see everybody. Warhol’s whole crowd was around a lot, too; there was a program of his shorts being shown that year. I think you were with all of them.

Lebowitz: I got the press pass from Interview

Scorsese: You were writing your movie review column then. You were a formidable bunch. But then you came up and said you like my movie, so I thought “Ok, well, I am safe for the moment…” [Laughs]

Lebowitz: Those press screenings were at 10 a.m., so I mean, we were all still up. Stay out all night, go uptown and see a movie at Lincoln Center. Very convenient.

You reviewed one of Scorsese’s first films, but didn’t know he’d done it, right?

Scorsese: Boxcar Bertha!

Lebowitz: My movie column was called “The Best of the Worst.” I only wrote about the American International Pictures stuff, the B movies, the bad stuff. I reviewed that film, yes, and it wasn’t until recently that I was told he’d made it. Keep in mind that at my age, “recently” means “any time in the last 20 years.”

You worked together on Public Speaking, the 2010 documentary on Ms. Lebowitz that now feels like a dry run for this series. Was the idea to simply do something like that as a series? Was this pitched to you or did you pitch this to Netflix?
It was Marty’s idea.

Scorsese: Well, I really enjoyed making Public Speaking — not just because I did it with Fran, but also because I had to find a new form of …you could call it a monologue or a sort of opinion piece. But it’s also something nonfiction you could shape in the editing, with references to other works of art and historical periods, that kind of thing. It’s still a movie, of course, but its like Fran is the narrator.

That was something I’d been struggling with, especially on the Dylan film No Direction Home. The question was: How do you tell a story differently? How could I tell a story differently from my films that had fictional, or more traditional narratives? I wanted to do something different, and I found these documentaries were a place where I could go and just smash the form. You know, let’s break it up and see where we go. It’s like controlling an improvised jazz solo, or a coloratura in opera — you see how far you can digress and then land right back into the story.

We had tried for a little while to put one project together that didn’t quite work, and then we hit upon the idea of Fran being in a theater, like she was running a seminar. We’d do it every week in some theater downtown, you’d go and you’d argue, you’d laugh, you’d listen, you’d disagree, whatever. It would be like the equivalent of a column of American culture and life, commenting on who we are.

We went along that route for a long while before [HBO] told us, well, you better make the film version first. So that became Public Speaking. But it was already in our heads that it would be broken up. And now, it’s like you can do anything you want with form. So this opportunity came up where we thought, what if we went back to that idea and did it as, say, six or seven half-hour episodes? Make it a running commentary, and a way of readjusting your thinking. And, of course, make it funny. You know, emphasize the absurdity — that feeling of things being so bad that all you can do laugh.

It is an incredibly funny show.
Scorsese: It is, but also: She’s being serious. What’s she’s talking about, it’s not glib. Fran is, to me, asking very serious questions even when she’s being humorous about things. Just the thing thing about boxing versus cockfighting …

Lebowitz: In the sports episode, right.

Scorsese: I mean, what makes us think that morally, one of these things is ok and the other is not? It’s a very interesting point she brings up. There’s a lot of that kind of stuff in here. That was what I wanted to capture.

I guess, Fran, we started by setting up topics, right?

Lebowitz: There were topics where Marty asked me questions. I discussed the topics beforehand with him and the guy who asked me the questions, but I didn’t know what they would ask me. When I did speaking engagements — that was what I did for a living before Covid — I’d always say, “I don’t want to know the questions ahead of time.” I love answering questions, and part of the fun is not knowing what they’re going to be. The only thing I said was, “No politics.” Because that date it. Anything else, fine.

Then as Marty began editing more of it, and started taking parts from one thing and putting it some place else, and because I’m such a digressive speaker, the topics started to change. Originally, the episodes were named very simply, like “Money.” Since it was getting more complicated, I told them, “Give me the topics and I’ll think of some titles.” Every title I thought of were meant to be real departments in the city of New York, or things that sounded like they should be a department in the city of New York.

You start the series by saying something along the lines “I want to write a manifesto” — and in a ways, these are like the chapters of a manifesto: The World According to Fran Lebowitz.
Lebowitz: Let me put it to you this way: I was not young 10 years ago. I’m even less young now. And one of the benefits of getting older is, “So you don’t agree with me? Who cares. This is what I think. And also, I’m right.” [Laughs] I’ve really only been wrong once. Unfortunately, it was in 2016 and involved the Presidential election. If you were going to be really, really wrong, that was not the time to be wrong.

I’m sure that it is unnatural to have the problems of youth when you’re old. Old people forget this because look, it’s so much better to be young. But when you’re young, you don’t have the same confidence — or maybe it’s that you’re not as certain. When you’re older, you’re much more certain. So that may be what gives it that manifesto quality you’re talking about. It is very “Listen. This is correct. Listen.” Most people would not be flattered by you calling this a manifesto, but I certainly am.

You’ve mentioned that a lot of people come up to you, Ms. Lebowitz, and ask what life was like in New York in the 1970s. Why do you think people romanticize the “Horror City” era of New York so much?
Lebowitz: All of the people who come up to me and ask me this are in their twenties. Like I say in the show, “When I was in my twenties living here, I didn’t go up to old people and go, ‘I wish I’d lived in New York in the ‘30s!’” But one of the big differences about when I was in my twenties versus now is: the Internet. Young people see things from the ‘70s on what is a very flattening medium, and one where you can order up alluring things from life like they were on a menu. For some reason, the ‘70s in New York has achieved the position of being like the ‘20s in Paris. No one talks about Paris in the 1920s anymore, but when I was young, that was glamorous. Now it’s New York in the 1970s, and there’s such a cultural lag in that notion that I would discourage it if I was capable of discouraging anything right now.

You know, I won’t be around for this, but I can guarantee that a few years from now, people will be saying, “Remember when we all got to eat outside? That was so great. I miss that so much.”

Scorsese: No! No!

Lebowitz: They will be nostalgic for it, Marty! Kids who are 12 years old and living in Omaha, they’re going to come to New York City and be like, “Oh, I wished I lived her back in 2020, back when all those great restaurants were out on the street!”

You started editing this just as the pandemic was hitting. What was it like to watch this vibrant portrait of New York as the city started shutting down?
On March 13th, as I was leaving a screening room where we were looking at rough cuts, I was told there was a lockdown. This was a Friday. We were supposed to show two episodes to Fran on Monday or Tuesday. So it was like, “Ok, how long is this going to take? I have to postpone her screening?” They were about 80 percent done at that point; the rest of it had to be completed via FaceTime or Zoom. At one point, we were able to get clearance to go to a sterilized editing room, where everyone was socially distant and masked, and finish everything. I think that was in the summer? I’ve been in this room since last March, I don’t know when anything happened any more. [Laughs]

Lebowitz: It’s me realize that I’ve missed happenstance. I never realized how much of my life was just running in to people. In the street, at a restaurant, at museums, galleries, parties — tons of people that I would tell you I thought of as friends that I saw several times a year but never by design. Now, of course, I don’t see those people at all, and that experience is something essential to urban life that’s not available at the moment.

Do you think things like that will return, or in terms of city living, is that simply gone now?
Lebowitz: Unlike some people, I have zero doubt that things like that will return. I do not know when, but they will return. I have to think there’s a high chance that once Biden is in office, he might think, “Hey, you know what, let’s [yelling] order some more vaccines!!!” They’re going to open up one of those desk drawers in the White House when Trump leaves and it will be like, Oh, the vaccines, they’re all in here. He was just keeping them.

[Mayor Bill] De Blasio said, “My goal is to have a million vaccines in New York by the end of January!” I thought, that’s nice … except there’s eight and a half million people in New York. Also, no one believes you. The E.U. vaccinated 20 million people in one day. They used to ask us how to do things like that. [Pause] When I say “us,” I don’t mean me and Marty. I mean America.

Got it.
Lebowitz: I mean, this should be happening on a national level, not just in New York. But when this happens, the “city” part of city life will return. And given the amount of New York City property taxes I’ve paid over the years … it’s on me, New York. The vaccine? My treat. [Laughs]