Martin Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz are trying to remember how they met. Scorsese ventures that it was at a literary party on New York City's Upper East Side with "Goodfellas" screenwriter Nick Pileggi, but Lebowitz shoots this idea down: "That wouldn't have been me." Could it have been John Waters' 50th birthday party? She doesn't think so: "That was only, like, 25 years ago."
"We both believe it was at a party," says Lebowitz, the author and professional speaker, in a video conference with the Oscar-winning director. "Because where else would it have been?"
Few living people are more identified with New York than Lebowitz, who made her name as an Interview magazine columnist in the 1970s and has since morphed into a kind of professional Manhattanite, and Scorsese, who was raised on the Lower East Side before making films such as "Taxi Driver" that have powerfully shaped perceptions of the city in the popular imagination.
Their friendship may have murky origins, but it has been productive: In 2010, Scorsese directed "Public Speaking," an HBO documentary highlighting Lebowitz's wry commentary on urban culture. Now they have teamed up again for the Netflix series "Pretend It's a City," which premiered Friday. Each episode, loosely organized around a theme — money, transportation, health, books — features Lebowitz riffing sardonically on subjects from Leonardo DiCaprio's e-cigarettes to the #MeToo movement. Filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City, it includes much grumbling about former Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the sanitization of places like Times Square, but it's also a poignant snapshot of the city, however flawed, before its latest crisis.
Scorsese, who directed the seven episodes, is a generous audience to Lebowitz, laughing enthusiastically at her quips in conversations filmed at the Players Club.
The dynamic was similar during their conversation with The Times as Scorsese, in his book-lined home office uptown, let Lebowitz, dialing in from a generic conference room at Netflix's offices downtown, take the lead.
A committed Luddite, Lebowitz doesn't have a computer, a cellphone, an internet connection or, indeed, a Netflix subscription. "I have asked many people, 'Do you have Netflix?'," says the writer, wearing one of her trademark blazers. "And it's like I'm asking them, 'Do you have electricity?'"
Before making "Pretend It's a City," Lebowitz and Scorsese agreed on two things: They wouldn't film in the summer (too hot) and they'd minimize travel out of Manhattan (too much traffic). For scenes at the panorama of New York City at the Queens Museum — a miniature replica of the city's skyline — they made a rare exception.
"This was approached as if we were going to Afghanistan," Lebowitz says.
How did you decided to make another documentary after "Public Speaking"?