The test screening was, by all accounts, a disaster.
Martin Scorsese‘s revered 1990 mafia drama Goodfellas had just screened in then-ultra conservative Orange County, California. Warner Bros. executives didn’t even have to wait for the audience to turn in their scorecards to get a read on the room. There were reportedly 70 walkouts during the propulsive, violent tale based on Nicholas Pileggi’s novel on the rise and fall of a trio of wiseguys (Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta).
“It was an angry reaction,” Scorsese recalls. “It became very difficult. It was a constant battle until a few weeks before release … [the film] terrified Warner Bros. executives at the time.”
EW asked Scorsese about the Goodfellas test screening during a recent interview in New York for his upcoming Netflix film The Irishman, which reunites De Niro and Pesci in new roles and has earned the highest averaging rating for any scripted drama in the director’s history on Rotten Tomatoes (100 percent).
Scorsese notes screenings can help a director determine what’s confusing and, especially in the case of a violent film, how much an audience “can tolerate.” In the case of Goodfellas, the screenings actually influenced the final cut in of the iconic film in at least two ways.
First, the opening sequence, the body-in-the-trunk scene where Pesci’s psychotic Tommy DeVito repeatedly stabs wounded gangster Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) with a large kitchen knife was initially even more graphic.
“We noticed the moment Joe took out the knife people started laughing, they were outraged,” Scorsese recalls. “When he stabbed Billy Batts in the trunk, after the first two [stabs], people started leaving. And then he did it a third time and more people left. And then I asked [editor Thelma Schoonmaker], ‘How many more we got left?’ And she says: ‘Seven.’ So okay. We didn’t need them leaving this soon, okay? We see the knife, we get it.”
The final cut is still plenty agonizing. It shows Pesci delivering four stabs, with the rest being heard off-camera as Liotta reacts.
Another Goodfellas scene was actually rescued from potentially being cut entirely. The studio wasn’t fond of the morbidly sweet kitchen scene between the gangsters and DeVito’s mom, played by Scorsese’s mother Catherine.
“They said, ‘It’s way too long, Marty, it’s gotta go, its gotta go,'” Scorsese says. “Then they read these [preview screening cards]. People hated the picture, but the thing everybody liked was the scene with my mother. So we kept that! That’s why I thank those screenings.”
Goodfellas went onto be nominated for six Oscars (including a win for Pesci) and is now considered one of the greatest gangster films of all time.
Scorsese makes it clear that he doesn’t think of any of tweaks made to film as part of the process interfered with his vision. “[A preview screening version] doesn’t mean it was ‘my cut,'” Scorsese notes. “I’m in the process of making the film. I screen it for some people, they go ‘maybe you don’t need that,’ and maybe I do things, or maybe not.”
“Test screenings, for a while, were very helpful,” he adds. “I don’t know if it is anymore, at least for me.”
The Irishman is released in theaters Nov. 1 and comes to Netflix on Nov. 27.