Martin Scorsese, born in Queens, New York, grew up in Manhattan’s Little Italy. During this year’s Tribeca Film Festival Talk with actor Robert De Niro, the filmmaker described this particular pocket of the city as the intersection of “the Italian-Americans, the Sicilians, the Neapolitans… not necessarily in the Bronx or the West Side, but the East Side.” It’s a pocket that stuck with him, even into his most recent film, The Irishman.
“One has to take the negative things of what was going on,” Scorsese, 76, said of that time in his life. “It was a world that has been, I think, romanticized since then. It’s become something that, even in our new film, we still deal with… how should I put it? The nature of it, the essence of who the people are, not necessarily the trappings around it, but who the people are.”
With his star by his side, the Oscar winner teased his next film effort, based on Charles Brandt’s novel I Heard You Paint Houses, which follows Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran (played by De Niro in the film adaptation). A former World War II U.S. solider, Frank confessed to Brandt his handling of more than 25 hits for the mob.
“The Irishman, the book was terrific, I thought” De Niro, 75, said. “I said, ‘Marty, read this. See what you think,’ and he said, ‘Let’s go.’ We were about to do something else and we went into The Irishman.” This pretty much characterized how the pair commented on the film throughout the panel. Per Deadline, a clip from the movie was not ready for public consumption at the time.
“Profoundly,” Scorsese added, “you really felt the heart of this character and this situation. It’s a universal story that happens to be set in that world. One has to understand, too, [that] yes, my parents were great. I lived on 253 Elizabeth Street, 3rd floor front. I saw everything because of asthma and I couldn’t run around and stuff, so I would see everything from an overhead shot from the 3rd floor looking down. In my movies, some critics would say, ‘He’s always doing God’s point of view.’ No, actually, it looks great from up there. We grew up in a world — it was there in 1949, 1955 on Elizabeth Street. We were bound on the East by what they called Devil’s Mile, the Bowery; on the west by what they called at that time Murder Mile, Mulberry Street.”
In discussing their long history together, Scorsese and De Niro kept bringing up The Irishman, which Scorsese has been talking about since at least 2010 and will be finally released by Netflix.
Talking about using musical “themes from other movies” to mix into the background of scenes from Casino, Scorsese said, “which we do in Irish, too.”
And when talking about Silence and the priest in New York when Scorsese was young who gave him books and told the kids “to use your brains, get out of here,” the director wondered how the priest dealt with “human nature without succumbing to pride, any other failures.” It’s something he channeled into his own 1973’s Mean Streets and noted of John Huston’s 1950 film The Asphalt Jungle, where “a crime or that kind of thinking is described as a left-handed form of human endeavor.”
“For many different reasons,” Scorsese continued, “that’s all they know, and they can’t get out.” In Casino, he dealt with “the tragedy of every man and every woman’s death. Is it a tragedy or is it dealing with fate? Is it a release? Is it something that transcends?”
He calls this religious journey “a long struggle” to find “a more mature faith, whatever that is” — and, he says, the journey is “still not done.” It bleeds into his work on The Irishman.
Director Terrence Malick wrote Scorsese a letter after seeing Silence and wrote, “What does Chris want from us?”
“That’s interesting. Not everybody might understand, but it was a demand and I saw it happen in the old neighborhood,” Scorsese said in reference to his childhood upbringing. “I saw people do terrible things, but they still had something in them. They cared for each other. It wasn’t all sociopath and psychopath. It wasn’t all that way. And so [Silence] comes out of that, and also our new picture comes out of that, The Irishman.”
The director then quoted a line from the Brandt book that reads, “I heard you paint houses,” the first words the real Frank uttered to the author in reference to his bloody line of work. “It’s right there,” Scorsese said, “and I think that’s the one that ultimately states it.”