Scorcese, Pacino, De Niro, and Pesci, Together Again for the First Time
It was more than a decade in development. Its production budget ballooned to $159 million. They digitally de-aged its septuagenarian actors. And its running time is a bladder-busting 209 minutes. After all the gossip, rumors, and anticipation, Martin Scorsese’s majestic gangster leviathan The Irishman finally made its world premiere at the New York Film Festival last Friday. It was the Opening Night selection, but its actual debut was earlier that morning, when the film unspooled to a thirsty audience of press and industry at 9 a.m. And it did not disappoint.
The line to get in started forming two hours earlier, just before 7 a.m., at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. Usually an evening venue, the 800-seat venue hosted the early-bird press screening to avoid riots. And it was a wise call: by 8:30 a.m., when FLC started letting people into the building, the line snaked around the corner and down the block.
The ruminative epic, predictably violent but shockingly funny, follows the life of WWII vet and hitman Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro), trusted soldier for the mafia and loyal aide to union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The nearly cradle-to-grave portrait shows 20-year-old Sheeran commit war crimes against Nazis in Anzio, and 80-year-old Sheeran in a nursing home separating his meds into a seven-day pill dispenser. It’s a deep contemplation of traumatic postwar morality, a midcentury lament where brute force and intimidation are the tools of the trade, graft comes easily, and power is the ultimate drug. In this world, the only cursed life is a long one, and the totemic value of misplaced loyalty becomes an Ozymandian folly.
After it ended, and after a 10-minute pee break, FLC held a press conference that assembled a murderer’s row of cinematic legends with a combined age of 300 years: Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, and, emerging from a two-decade semi-retirement, Joe Pesci.
The Cryptic Mr. Pesci
“I remember our meeting in Beverly Hills,” Martin Scorsese said to Al Pacino. “You looked at us in the room and said, ‘Is this going to happen? Before we get any older?’”
“That’s the going word,” said Pacino.
When asked how it feels to be working again with his cohorts from Casino and GoodFellas, Pesci, wearing a black fedora and dark tinted glasses, was silent. Producer Jane Rosenthal leaned in and repeated the question to him quietly. “Jane is translating,” Scorsese joked.
“It’s been a while since you made a film,” repeated moderator and NYFF chief Kent Jones, reframing the question. “I think the last one was Bob’s film The Good Shepherd. I wonder if you could talk about coming aboard on this project.”
“No,” Pesci said.
Scorsese laughed out loud.
“Did you have any pressure?” asked Rosenthal.
“No, I didn’t have any pressure.”
“You weren’t pressured to do this?” ribbed Scorsese about the Q&A.
“To do this?” Pesci repeated. “Oh. She didn’t say that.”
“You talk about directing!” Scorsese laughed.
“I’m sorry,” Pesci said politely. “I just do whatever he tells me to. Thank you for asking.” And then he didn’t speak again.
Scorsese and Pacino, Together At Last
“We still have a telepathic way of working together,” said Scorsese about De Niro and Pesci. “But this was my first time working with Al. Finally!”
He and Pacino had first met in 1970. “Francis Coppola introduced us,” he said. But their careers never dovetailed until now. “Over the years, it just went differently,” Scorsese explained.” His projects, mine, you know. We tried to get together on a film about Modigliani. That didn’t come to fruition.”
Now that it was finally happening, though, Pacino had to contend with working alongside Scorsese vets like De Niro and Pesci. “They made it comfortable,” said Pacino. “You could feel like an outsider, but I didn’t at all. It’s all right with these guys. You can say anything to them and they’ll respond. It’s very interesting. You just want to throw some things around, and they say, ‘Yeah! Go ahead. Fine.’”
“You did read the script, though?” said Scorsese.
“I’ve been waiting to tell you…”
“OK, wait — maybe he didn’t!”
“I don’t like reading film scripts,” Pacino deadpanned.
The Longest Shoot
The Irishman was a gargantuan shoot. “I believe it was, what, 106 days?” Scorsese asked producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff.
“108,” she replied.
“Okay, so you make me a liar for two days,” he said with a smile. “We were doing our work. And we enjoyed doing the work. That was the thing, we enjoyed it. It was 108 days.”
“309 scenes and 117 locations,” Koskoff added.
“Which meant moving a lot,” said Scorsese. “Two-three moves a day. And in a case like this, we carried 9 cameras all the time, which is added crew. And when we shot with the technique, we had a camera that Rodrigo called a ‘three-eyed monster.’ And often I would do 2 cameras. So it was 6 lenses with the actors in those scenes.”
AI Mobsters and the Technology that Made Them
Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s elaborate camera rig was cutting-edge technology that reinvented how CGI could be used on actors. In the middle was a RED HELIUM 8K digital camera, and flanking it were two smaller ARRI ALEXA Mini’s which were “witness” cameras that captured information about the depth of the shot for the CGI face replacement.
“[VFX supervisor] Pablo Helman and ILM had come up with the solution for the de-aging process that wouldn’t interfere with Bob and Joe and Al,” said Scorsese. “Talking to each other with helmets on or tennis balls on their faces—seriously? I said, ‘They’re not going to do it.’”
Thanks to Netflix honcho Ted Sarandos, Scorsese got the money to bankroll all the costly digital artistry. “They actually backed the film and financed it and were creatively attuned to us,” Scorsese said. “There was no interference of any kind. There were some notes from time to time. And we addressed them, or not.”
Does the de-aging technology work? Yes and no. Overall, it’s not too distracting or detrimental. But it’s noticeable. There’s definitely an uncanny valley effect in some scenes, where the actors’ faces might look a bit puffy, or slightly waxy. And it’s not just about the faces. It’s the body movements, it’s the voice. The technology isn’t there yet, but it’s damn close.
“You’re sculpting this whole thing,” said Scorsese. “It’s like living models in a way, plus the truth of how they’re interpreting. It’s an extraordinary experience. It isn’t just about lenses and computer imagery. It’s about posture, it’s about movement, it’s about clarity of the eyes. Everything.”
“I joked that I can extend my career another 30 years,” said De Niro.
“Young again!” laughed Pacino.
Ultimately, though, no matter how much money is up on screen or how youthful the old pros might look, the play’s the thing. “What we wanted to deal with was the nature of who we are as human beings,” said Scorsese. “The love, the betrayal, guilt or no guilt, forgiveness or no forgiveness.”
“And they’re human beings,” he continued. “Frank is not a psychotic, in that sense. He’s a human being who has feelings. And he finds himself at the most important part of his life in a moral conflict. Because he’s basically a good man. Yet he has to go through with it. Now how does a good man life with himself after that?”
Someone in the audience asked Scorsese if he meant for the film to have any specific relevance or resonance in the Trump Era.
“I don’t know if I can answer that intelligently, really,” he replied. “But one ignores the true dark forces that are in our nature. I’m not saying that we’re completely dark, but that can easily take over. And it happens on every level incrementally. Before you know it, it’s over. And the world has to start over again, if at all. When it’s about power—power erases everything else. It’s all about power. Money doesn’t matter. It’s power. And, as you know, they’ll do anything to keep the power.”