Inside Martin Scorsese's The Irishman fight: 'Nobody would give us the money'
The director is discussing his Netflix film The Irishman in a hotel suite overlooking the Manhattan skyline, and it takes a second to realize that the 76-year-old Oscar winner is simply so passionate about his new crime epic that he can't stay seated. Scorsese quotes from a pivotal scene where hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) desperately tries to persuade former union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) to drop a dangerous bid to reclaim the Teamsters presidency after being released from prison: "'You might be demonstrating a failure to show appreciation' — a very important phrase! Look at [Hoffa's] face! He went to jail. They're not in jail. He went. It's going to end badly…"
For fans of Mob movies (Scorsese dislikes this term, preferring "organized crime"), The Irishman's lineup is an all-star dream team: Scorsese, De Niro (who got the project underway after finding Charles Brandt's 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses), Pacino (who somehow has never appeared in a Scorsese picture before), and, emerging from semiretirement, Joe Pesci, who previously starred with De Niro in Scorsese's Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino and was reportedly asked 50 times to join the Irishman cast as an underworld kingpin. Perhaps Pesci was really only asked seven or 35 times. What's certain is De Niro repeatedly pushed to get him on board.
"A lot of what I was saying was, 'Come on, who knows if we're ever going to have this chance again?' " recalls De Niro. "Let's just do it."
Scorsese similarly had to try and sway backers to fund the film for a decade, a process made more difficult by his use of pricey CGI to enable actors to play younger versions of their characters for a significant stretch of the story. "People just weren't interested in financing it—and that was before the CGI," Scorsese says. "Nobody would give us the money. But I really felt that De Niro and I had one more picture to make, at least, and he was really connected with the character."
Netflix, the patron saint of needy projects with established fandoms, rescued The Irishman in 2017, bankrolling its $159 million budget. The company is giving the film an unusual rollout—a few weeks in theaters starting Nov. 1 to qualify for the Oscars and give fans a chance to catch the film on the big screen, before debuting on the streaming service Nov. 27. Netflix also helped lock down the elusive Pesci. "Prior to that, it was almost like putting on a show in the barn," Scorsese says.
The result ranks as Scorsese's best-reviewed drama ever, with the film having earned 100 percent acclaim on Rotten Tomatoes. The Irishman's risky reliance on de-aging technology has been deemed largely successful, though it takes a few minutes for viewers to, well, fuhgeddaboutit.
"I was a little anxious," De Niro admits about the process. "It took work going over it and correcting it. It looks good."
The least de-aged lead character is Hoffa, as Pacino makes his bombastic entrance a third of the way into the story, which spans from the 1940s to well past the union leader's infamous 1975 disappearance. Pacino has worked with his longtime friend De Niro on The Godfather Part II (though they never shared a scene), Heat (frustratingly sharing just one scene), and Righteous Kill (which was widely panned). Here, they finally get plenty of screen time together and deliver their A-games.
"These [characters] really like each other, and that was something for us to play off—we feel that way about each other," says Pacino, who listened to recordings of the real Hoffa between takes.
And as for his first time working with Scorsese, the actor describes the set as preternaturally calm. "Marty has a very quiet set and that's part of what he demands," Pacino says. "I've never met a director who is so suited to the profession and so natural in that environment. It's comforting."
Less comforting are the film's final 20 minutes, which shift into surprising territory compared to Scorsese's earlier propulsive crime epics. The film lingers on Sheeran's introspection and regret as he advances into old age. It's another aspect the director says a traditional studio would not allow ("A man in a wheelchair at the end? Yeah, no, not gonna happen").
The heartbreaking denouement leaves audiences feeling like they're not just witnessing the end of The Irishman but an unofficial conclusion to Scorsese's Mafia Cinematic Universe. Yet De Niro and Scorsese say they're open to doing one more crime movie together, and hopefully it won't take another 24 years.
"I'm open to it," De Niro says. "There are great stories out there. Who knows? Never say never."
Muses Scorsese: "As a filmmaker, what else can you learn about yourself and this subject matter with these characters in this world? You may find that you've done it. I hope to explore a little more, if I have time."
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