The reunion of writer-director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro has been a long time coming since their last film together, Casino, in 2015. Since then Scorsese won a Directing Oscar for The Departed (2007), and of course he had earlier directed De Niro to a Best Actor win for Raging Bull (1980). Finally the two found the right project to join forces again with The Irishman, an epic look at the life of hit man Frank Sheeran (De Niro) and his role in the fate of the famous Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Scorsese and De Niro both appeared at the Academy in New York for a special screening discussion along with Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell, Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and producer Jane Rosenthal.
“It was a long time,” said Scorsese about the gap since Casino with De Niro, “and every year that went by, we said, ‘Come on, we got to do something.’ And we were planning on something else, a story about Hollywood, our perception of it. We tried that back in the ’80s, and it didn’t connect. I think maybe we were living it, and it was hard for us to take a step back and deal with the changes in it, other than the danger of it falling into a enjoyable but superficial nostalgia.” In the interim they talked about doing a project called The Winter of Frankie Machine about the life of a paid assassin around the same time Scorsese was making The Aviator (2004), but it didn’t seem to fit their usual modus operandi. “In a sense, Bob’s the only one left that knows where I come, who was down there when I was growing up, when he was 16 years old,” Scorsese added. “So he knows the people, he knows all of that. He knows the anthropology of it, so to speak, and the emotion and the beliefs. And so ultimately we decided we’ve got to just do something. And we figured maybe we could take this Frankie Machine and… enrich it that way.”
As Rosenthal explains, “We were all set to do Frankie Machine, and we were on what they call a green-light call with Brad Gray and Rick Yorn, and Emma Koskoff, and Bob and Marty. And we’re about to get that movie green-lit, and Bob and Marty decide, ‘Well, there’s this other book that we really like called I Hear You Paint Houses and maybe we should try to mix that together. And Brad Gray said, ‘Oh, so you mean you want to take a green-light project and turn it into a development deal?’ And you heard everybody go, ‘Well, okay.’”
The next step? According to De Niro, “Then Marty was starting to show me old films, like a Jean Gabin film, black-and-white, and starting to show me style, I guess, and things you want to do and ideas, blah, blah. And then I said, “I have to look at this book, because it might be good for research, I Heard You Paint Houses. And Eric Roth and I had spoken about it as soon as it came out a couple years earlier. So I got the book, and I read it. And I came back to Marty, and I said, ‘Marty, you should look at this, because this is really where we should … This is what we should … You’ll see when you read it!’ Marty and I thought of Al [Pacino] for Hoffa and Joe [Pesci] for Bufalino and, yeah, that’s how that started.”
Getting Pesci to come out of retirement might have seemed like a daunting task considering he hadn’t appeared on-screen in a feature film in nine years. Scorsese had directed him to a Supporting Actor Oscar win for Goodfellas (1990), but it was really De Niro who sealed the deal: “The bottom line is I said, ‘Come on, you got to do this.’ You know?”
“That’s what he didn’t want hear,” Scorsese laughs. “I know Bob’s going to tell me, ‘Come on, you got to do this.’ And I’m going to do it, and I don’t want to do that. That’s always the way, you know?” In fact, Goodfellas proved pivotal in testing the cutting-edge CGI aging (and de-aging) effects with the actors shooting a scene, rendering it, and playing it back to back with the original as a test.
“I think the main thing for me was the passage of time,” Prieto says. “And another big part of it is the look, how the look of the movie evolves. That was another thing we worked on a lot. But certainly, figuring out how to make this camera work. The idea is that you needed a central camera that’s the shot, and then what they call witness camera on the sides of it. So in essence, it’s three cameras shooting one angle and with infrared technology… it did look like a hydra, or a medusa. It was just some little monster… Most of the dialogue scenes we shot simultaneously with two cameras — six cameras. And sometimes we even added a third one, which then became nine cameras, so it became quite a thing. Each camera had to have its own focus-puller, so that’s a big crew!”
“The crazy thing is we never thought we’d be doing this 10 years ago,” Scorsese muses. “We never thought about this kind of stuff for the kind of films I made anyway. And one has to think what we accept as an audience in terms of makeup and how that affects the face of the actor, he or she, you see? And in the old days, we accepted a certain kind of whitening of the temples, that sort of thing. And you could see it was fake, but you accepted it as a convention of the time. And it’s a new time, that’s all. It really is, in a sense, the evolution of makeup.”
Also challenging was depicting fashion over the sprawling period of five decades, all overseen by Powell with about 160 speaking parts and thousands of extras. “For my department, it was like doing three or four films in one,” she says. “And the brief from Marty about our main characters was that these weren’t the gangsters that we’re used to seeing. They weren’t the flash gangsters. These are guys that needed to blend in. So they had to blend in with the background a little bit and not be noticed because the hit man didn’t want to go out and be remembered by anybody. So the challenge was to make them identifiable from each other, yet blend in to the background.” In fact, De Niro alone had at least 100 costume changes over the course of the film.
“It didn’t feel like two decades,” De Niro says about getting back with the Scorsese. “We got right back into it in the rehearsals, and we went over the script and the stuff, or talking all the time. So it was great. I could have shot, as I keep saying, another five or six months. I love the routine, I love the way we went, I love the pace. I was happy.”
Watch the full discussion: