Martin Scorsese’s new film The Irishman spans decades, from the ‘40s to the late ‘90s, which is one reason why de-aging technology is so critical to its storytelling. It also took several years for the film itself to come to fruition. At a press conference after Friday’s press screening of The Irishman, Scorsese and star Robert De Niro (who plays the titular Irish hitman, Frank Sheehan) talked about how they first met about the project 10 years ago, after DeNiro read Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, upon which the film is based.
A few years later, they started talking to Al Pacino, who ended up playing Jimmy Hoffa, the legendary union leader whose mysterious disappearance in 1975 is the centerpiece around which The Irishman turns. It marks the first time Pacino and Scorsese have collaborated on a film together. Everyone involved kept getting distracted by various other projects and obligations before they were finally able to film, but the long development ended up being a technological benefit.
“The wait between the time we did the test and were actually shooting was actually positive for the picture, because the technology kept evolving, kept changing, kept making things simpler,” producer Jane Rosenthal said.
The “test” she’s referring to involved applying the aging technology on a clip of De Niro in Goodfellas. Upon seeing it for the first time, DeNiro remarked, “This could extend my career another 30 years!”
But The Irishman also drew on plenty of old-fashioned technology. Pacino, for one, said he extensively referenced audio and video recordings of Hoffa — who, as the film reminds us, was a very public figure in American life throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. Scorsese recalled that Pacino would even occasionally walk around set listening to audio of Hoffa.
“Mainly there’s footage of him. We’re recorded a lot in our life, so you have access,” Pacino said. “When I played Serpico, the thought of him being on video somewhere was not even a thought, but I had him, and he was there. But with Jimmy there’s so much. And I grew up at the time when he was quite prominent.”
The passage of time on The Irishman’s characters isn’t just portrayed through technology, either. Scorsese compared it to “sculpting with living models.”
“It’s not just about lenses and computer imagery, it’s about posture, it’s about movement, it’s about clarity in the eyes, everything,” Scorsese said. “There were people working with the actors on each element.”
The discussion ended with a few audience questions, one of which asked why The Irishman doesn’t explicitly tie Frank to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy the way the book does.
“At a point, the decision had to be made: Are we going to get into what could be considered conspiracy theories?” Scorsese said. “What we wanted to tackle was the nature of who we are as human beings: The love, the betrayal, guilt or no guilt, forgiveness or no forgiveness. I didn’t want to muddy up the emotion and power of what Frank was going through, and Jimmy’s sense of being above the law. Nobody’s above the law.”
The Irishman will premiere in limited theaters Nov. 1, before coming to Netflix on Nov. 27.