The Irishman

Martin Scorsese: The Irishman interview

The legendary director gets candid about the struggle to make his acclaimed new Netflix film, the studio system, and more.

The 76-year-old director is enjoying the best reviews of his career thanks to his upcoming film The Irishman. He made an industry splash for the picture by switching from traditional studio partners to Netflix, which famously bankrolled the ambitious $159 million project. He's become, almost certainly unintentionally, the face of the Marvel industrial complex resistance after criticizing comic book films as "not cinema" (a complaint he echoes below, albeit in a more respectful way that puts his critique into greater context).

Here the Oscar-winning filmmaker sits with EW to talk The Irishman, which stars his nine-time collaborator Robert De Niro as hitman Frank Sheeran, Al Pacino as vanished Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, and Joe Pesci as underworld kingpin Russell Bufalino. He also discussed the practice of digitally resurrecting dead actors, luring Pesci out of retirement, why he'll never release a "director's cut" and even whether a damaged soul can ever be made whole. (Note: Some of the following quotes have appeared in previous EW coverage).

Entertainment Weekly: So just personally, what excites you most about this film?
Martin Scorsese: Having gotten to make the film. The picture was very difficult to get made the past 10 years, and for many different reasons. But I really felt that De Niro and I had one more picture to make at least. Robert read Charles Brandt's book [I Heard You Paint Houses] when he was doing [the 2006 drama] The Good Shepard. He gave it to me. I saw he was connected with the character and we've been wanting to make something together since Casino. I realized he really cares about the character, and that it's something that could be moving. So I figured we'd take the trip. It took a while. It's very special that we got it made. And I feel at this point in my life, it's something that I feel the value of — if not for me, for Bob, Al, and Joe — a lot of people involved in it. And the fact people have reacted so strongly is really [pauses] I don't know if I have the words to express the thanks. What's special about it is that everything in our hearts was put into it at this stage of our lives.  

There's been a lot of conversation about the de-aging technology. Was there ever a point in which you were really worried if you could pull this off?
No. I saw the tests.

And even the early tests looked good?
What happens is that the technology at ILM by [digital effects artist] Pablo Helman, is that it gets more efficient and less costly every day. So from the time we did the tests until we started shooting it had already gotten easier. So even the stuff we worked on when started editing we went back and redid [the scenes] because the technology was already better.

What we're talking about is makeup, really. Any film, particularly some of the older films, you see a person walk in and their hair maybe has a little gray in it — it's powdered or colored in a certain way. And they put makeup under the eyes and things. But in a good case, we accept the illusion. So for me, this is the next step for makeup. This was something we really felt we could take a chance with.

The other thing, too, is that right now people are talking about [the de-aging]. But if you show the film a couple of years from now and it's out of the cultural context, unless you point it out to somebody and say, "This is different here," they're not going to notice it. If they're with the film, they'll accept the illusion. "Hey is that guy younger?" and they'll move on. Right now everybody is looking at it. It's being scrutinized, as maybe it should, as the next step in this process.

The Irishman

What's your opinion about resurrecting actors digitally after they've passed on? Like Star Wars brought back Peter Cushing.
Well, when you're talking about Star Wars, that's another universe. Anything's allowed. But if you took, I don't know, Spencer Tracy and put him in something… I don't know about that. Because what is the basis of the emotion of the actor if you're creating it all by computer? You may have aspects and data from the actor from other projects they did. [But with The Irishman], we have the actor. I help with the performance when I select it in editing. We have to re-work the performance with all the data, but that data is still them, now, for the most part. If you were to take Clark Gable or Brando or Olivier, or stars from the Golden Age, that might be different and strange. But then, who's to say cinema is one thing? It's certainly many different things and right now we're in a great period of evolution.

I read a report, probably inflated, that Joe Pesci was asked to play his Irishman role 50 times–
Probably more. 

What's that conversation even like the 43rd time you're having it? What are you saying and what's he saying back?
It has a lot to do with De Niro and his relationship. Bob and I see each other often, but I don't see that many people, except when I'm working. Bob and Joe have their own language. Joe's always pushing back and always Bob is coming back and working him, working him. Joe keeps pushing back, Bob keeps working on him.

"Pushing back" means "for many different reasons." And he would have to explain it. These are individual choices and sometimes people don't want to do something for different reasons. It could be, financial issues. You could have that — I'm not saying he did, right? It could be family issues. It could be health. It could be boredom from doing a certain kind of film. Playing a certain character. Ultimately, if Bob asks enough and he pushes enough, does this make sense? Let me put it this way: It would have to be comfortable for [Pesci] to make it, you know?

What was the tipping point that got him on board?
When Netflix got into the picture — because then we had the backing. Prior to that, it was almost like putting on a show in the barn. It's not even about the money or about being compensated and appreciated for your value. It's about the physicality of [making a film] where nobody's giving you anything. At a certain age and physicality for the actors, it may not be worth it.

The Irishman

When you have De Niro and Pacino together in a scene is there something that's unique about what is going on in that room from your standpoint?
First of all, there's no [saying] "action" or "cut" — we just go. De Niro and I know each other for so long, we knew each other even when we were 16 years old. Al I've wanted to work with a number of times, but I've known him since [The Godfather director] Francis Coppola introduced me to him in 1970 when Francis told my mother about him. Francis wanted to put him in The Godfather but the studio was against it because he hadn't acted in a movie yet. Even though Al and I haven't worked together, we feel like we have — it's the same circle. He's wonderful to be around and respectful and appreciative. And Bob and Al have known each other for so long even though they only acted together in one [major] film, Heat — which was wonderful. It's like, there are no problems there. Bob will tell me, "Oh, Al is great, you'll see." And I'll say, "What do you mean?" And he just says [doing a bit of a De Niro impression] "Al is great, he's great..."

The Goodfellas "I'm funny how" scene was heavily improvised by Pesci. Was there anything particularly memorable in this film that was improvised by the actors?
Yes, a great deal of stuff based on a very solid script. It's really how Bob and Al play off each other. If the script has [De Niro's Frank Sheeran warning Pacino's Jimmy Hoffa] "I'm telling you that you have to stop now, that this is it, it's the bottom line." And Al's next line is, "Oh, don't tell me that." How does Al get to "Don't tell me that"? He could throw two or three lines in. He could take a long pause. What I'm getting at is around the dialogue as written they were able to play off each other and add or take away within the structure of the scene — and it was all truthful.

There's a lot of conflicting stories out there about how Jimmy Hoffa died, including from Frank Sheeran himself. How important is it that what you have is what really happened? And do you believe that what you have is what really happened?
No. I don't really care about that. What would happen if we knew exactly how the JFK assassination was worked out? What does it do? It gives us a couple of good articles, a couple of movies and people talking about at dinner parties. The point is, it's not about the facts. It's the world [the characters are] in, the way they behave. It's about [a character] stuck in a certain situation. You're obligated to behave a certain way and you realize you may have made a mistake. But you've got to go on, right? It's more about the feelings and feelings of being a human over 50, 60, 70, 80 years. What you may have done 40 years ago could have been done by another person, but it's still you. What part of you did that, you know? Is it still there?

They say every cell in your body is swapped out every seven years.*
Do we really change then? I've always wondered…

If you're literally not the same person…
Yeah but, is your soul the same? That's the thing!

Good question. 
Soul, mind, heart. What happens in the soul and the heart? That's what I mean about being the same person. [Sheeran] did things he doesn't feel good about. Whether he did or not, I don't really know. Charles Brandt is certainly very convincing and knew Frank very well. I know other people who have different opinions.

Many critics were particularly struck by those last 20 minutes of the film focusing on the end of Frank's life. How important was it to convey that and could that sequence have survived a traditional studio?
No! A film couldn't even get made at a traditional studio!

But assuming everything else somehow worked out–
No! A man in a wheelchair at the end? No. Yeah. Not gonna happen. [A traditional studio is] geared toward the most amount of money you can make — understandably. I think it's gone askew. There's very little room for this kind of picture. They say, "Oh you can make independent films." That's putting people in the margins. Putting art in the margins.

The tentpole films, the big comic book films, they're theme park movies — as well done as many of them are, at all levels. It's a different cinema form or a new art form entirely. We're hoping there are theaters that show the films that are not that. And that if they're not going to show it that filmmakers still have an opportunity with streaming — it changes the experience, but otherwise, in two to three years now, it's not being done. A good filmmaker comes in from Italy or France comes in, the film has to be a [franchise] or they won't do it anymore.

I hope a picture like this can help change the reception an audience gives a movie. That they have the time to watch it. Everything now is so fast, so fast, so fast. Everybody complains about soundbites. But if you actually read where a soundbite comes from, you're reading it in context and it sometimes changes things. It's a danger not only to cinema but it's a danger to our culture and a danger to our country and how our kids are going to live — to want a quick fix. I'm not saying people should take the medicine of [a piece of art] that's laborious. But if you can help them be open to something that might have different layers to it, where they may not be able to get it until two days later, that might be interesting.

The Irishman

You talk about how a traditional studio impacts things. With Goodfellas, the film reportedly received the worst test screening reaction in Warner Bros history. What was your honest reaction to that?
It was an angry reaction. It became very difficult. It was a constant battle until a few weeks before release … [the film] terrified Warner Bros. executives at the time. You show it in front of a big audience to see what works or maybe what's confusing. Just see what [the audience] can tolerate or not. Like, we noticed [in the opening scene when Joe Pesci's character] took out the knife people started laughing, they were outraged. 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.

Another thing was the scene with my mother [in the kitchen chatting with Pesci and De Niro]. They said, "It's way too long, Marty, it's gotta go, it's gotta go." 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.

[A preview screening version] doesn't mean it was "my cut." 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. I don't know if it is anymore, at least for me. The world has changed in that way too.

Recently Tarantino released an extended version of Hateful Eight on Netflix, do you have any interest in releasing any of your classics in a long-form on the streaming service now that you're working together?
No, no, no, no, no! The director's cut is the film that's released — unless it's been taken away from the director by the financiers and the studio. [The director] has made their decisions based on the process they were going through at the time. There could be money issues, there could be somebody that dies [while making] the picture, the studio changes heads and the next person hates it. Sometimes [a director says], "I wish I could go back and put it all back together." All these things happen … But I do think once the die is cast, you have to go with it and say, "That's the movie I made under those circumstances."

It's an interesting thing. We would have loved to see an extended version of a number of films in the past where scenes were cut out. Now [those scenes were] cut out from the director's cut, not from the rough cut. There's a big difference. [Sometimes to] capitalize on [a film's popularity] and exploit it they say, "This is the director's cut." You should take a look at Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. I saw the full version a few days before it opened at a meeting and it was two hours and 20 minutes or so. Then MGM released their version and it was 90 minutes. We all said, "Oh no, it was a masterpiece," and wished it could be saved. The editor saved a copy and what you see now is what we saw in that meeting. That is a director's cut. And if the editor said there was another 20 minutes that Peckinpah wanted to keep in there, I would have loved to see those 20 minutes. So I understand the idea of an audience wanting to be entertained for another 20 minutes in that world.

Goodfellas, Casino, and Irishman are obviously different characters, very different stories, yet feel on some level like they're part of the same universe and emotionally that this film feels like a third and perhaps final act to the others. Was that intentional on some level?
I think so. 

Do you see this as your final organized crime film?
It's a difficult issue because we are talking about 47 years and there are four or five pictures I have that deal with — well, four deal with the Italian-American underworld; [The Departed] deals with Irish in Boston and is based on a Chinese story, okay? But it deals with similar type thing. If you go in all these directions, you've done it. What else could you learn? 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.

The Irishman is released in theaters Nov. 1 and comes to Netflix Nov. 27. 

*This romantic bit of apocryphal science is not, unfortunately, true. The original 2005 research suggesting ALL human cells turn over every seven years has since been debunked. The short version: While parts of your body are frequently replaced, they vary widely in terms of how often. Some cells are replaced every 5 days, some 10-to-15 years, and some rare cells even last a lifetime — such as the central core of the lens of your eyes. So at least some portion of an aging mobster is literally still the same person at the end of his life as when he committed his crimes.