By Nick Romano
April 28, 2019 at 07:44 PM EDT
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Raging Bull, one of Martin Scorsese‘s classics with Robert De Niro, almost wasn’t made at all. Both the filmmaker and the actor laughed about that fact during their joint Tribeca Film Festival Talk on Sunday, as they reminisced about their storied history together.

The black-and-white boxing drama of 1980 was initially written by Mardik Martin before Taxi Driver‘s Paul Schrader came in for rewrites. Scorsese then recalled on stage how he and De Niro went to the Caribbean island of Saint Martin to rework the material after the studio grew concerned over its content.

After they got back, producer Irwin Winkler “loved it,” Scorsese said. “The studio kinda liked it. [Irwin] said they liked it. I said, ‘Okay.’ We were like idiots at the time. I was like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna get the film made.’ No, it wasn’t that simple. And at the same time, Heaven’s Gate was being made at the same studio, Apocalypse Now had just been made.”

“So, what happened was,” Scorsese continued, “I had an apartment on 57th street [in NYC] and we were there discussing the script, and Irwin said a couple of the guys from the studio were here and they’d just like to come by to say hello. So, I was like, ‘Okay. Why do they want to come by and check in?’ ‘You know, we’re gonna made the film in black-and-white now, and they want to talk the whole black-and-white thing.'”

That wasn’t really the whole story, but Scorsese and De Niro didn’t know that at the time.

Principal photography began in 1979 with De Niro set to play Jake LaMotta, an Italian-American middleweight boxer, based off the memoir Raging Bull: My Story. According to the director, two guys from the studio — who Scorsese actually liked a lot — came up to the apartment and “were questioning us about the film.”

“We were just behaving as if we’re answering questions and I answered questions as best I could about the black and white,” Scorsese added. “And then, at one point, one of the guy’s said, ‘Why do you wanna make a film about this guy? This guy is a cockroach.’ It’s actually a valid question.”

Turning to De Niro, Scorsese remarked, “Your reaction was articulate and grand, in a sense. You said, ‘No, he’s not.'” As the audience in the Beacon Theater laughed at the frankness, Scorsese said, “I’m not kidding, the meeting went on, nice and nice. We all left and we were making the film. I don’t know what happened. A year or so later, Irwin, in his new book, he tells this story. They were on their way up to cancel the film. He didn’t let us know.”

Now, looking back on Raging Bull nearly 40 years out, Scorsese says the story was about the transformation of a man, who, “by the end,” becomes “resigned to himself and a little less hard on the people around him and to himself.”

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