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Mob Movie Magic

Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino and Pesci turn back the hands of time to create The Irishman
By Marshall Fine | From Arnold Schwarzenegger, November/December 2019
Mob Movie Magic
Photo/Niko Tavernise / Netflix

When did Hollywood invent the time machine? That’s the question you may ask when the camera moves in on Robert De Niro’s face as he speaks on the phone in a crucial early scene of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. What you see is not the age-weathered face of the 76-year-old actor, but the De Niro from 30 years ago—the Goodfellas’ De Niro, the Midnight Run De Niro. But the most anticipated film of the fall awards season didn’t use science fiction, but bleeding-edge technology to create an old-school gangster epic. Given his status as one of America’s greatest directors, any Scorsese film is an occasion. But this film—based on the apparent confession of the man who killed former Teamster head Jimmy Hoffa in 1975, a crime that officially has never been solved—seems to give off sparks all on its own.

The all-star cast reunites Scorsese with Joe Pesci and De Niro, and marks the director’s initial collaboration with Oscar-winner Al Pacino. Collectively, the cast—which also includes Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin and Ray Romano—has won five Oscars, five Golden Globes and seven Emmys. Between them, director Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, screenwriter Steve Zaillian and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, have 25 Oscar nominations and four wins.

“When he first told me he was going to use these actors, I was thrilled, because I have a relationship with all of them,” says Irwin Winkler, Scorsese’s longtime producer, who counts Rocky, Raging Bull and Goodfellas among his long list of producing credits. “I’ve made eight films with De Niro, a couple each with Pesci and Pacino. So it was like homecoming.”

The story is a multi-decade saga covering a half-century of American history, folding in the labor movement, politics and organized crime, and demands to be seen on a big screen. It’s being released by the disruptive streaming giant, Netflix, which dominated last year’s Academy Award discussion with the film Roma while triggering controversy about whether Oscar should demand a broader theatrical presence from the films it awards.

Two factors dominated discussion of the film prior to its opening the 57th New York Film Festival in late September: the technology of movie-making that allowed Scorsese to “de-age” his three central actors so they could play characters who are decades younger in some parts of the film, and the logistics of movie presentation, specifically how long should the film play in theaters before Netflix begins streaming it? Throw in the film’s 3  -hour running time—Scorsese’s longest, a movie longer than either of the first two Godfathers or any of the Lord of the Rings films. Audiences won’t be thinking about the length once they see the film, according to one of the few who screened it prior to its festival debut.

“It’s one of Scorsese’s greatest films. It’s that simple,” says Kent Jones, New York Film Festival director and selection-committee chair. “It’s completely entertaining from start to finish. You’re talking about people who really know how to tell a complex story based in reality, where everything is all of a piece.”

With a script adapted by Oscar-winner Zaillian (Schindler’s List), The Irishman is based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book, I Heard You Paint Houses, which offered the confessions of Frank Sheeran, a former Teamster official and self-confessed Mob assassin who died of cancer in 2003. The title is supposedly a direct quote, the first thing Hoffa said to Sheeran when they were introduced in the 1950s. “Painting houses” referred to the blood that spattered when Sheeran killed someone. Sheeran’s reply: “I also do my own carpentry,” code meaning that he also disposed of the bodies.

The film, set mostly in Philadelphia and Detroit, focuses on Sheeran, played by De Niro, but also gives ample time to the stories of the two men he served: Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa (played by Pacino) and mob boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci, who came out of retirement to play the role).

In the book, Sheeran, a longtime Teamster official and close friend of Hoffa, narrates his life of crime to Brandt, a former Delaware deputy attorney general who also writes crime novels. A hustler from a poor Philadelphia family, Sheeran became a proficient killer as an infantryman in World War II, fighting his way from Sicily to the Battle of the Bulge and beyond. Part of that duty involved disposing of German prisoners as Americans fought their way north. He found that killing someone for the Mob “was just like when an officer would tell you to take a couple of German prisoners back behind the line and for you to ‘hurry back,’ Sheeran said in the book. “You did what you had to do.”

Sheeran’s claimed story is that of an underworld Zelig, involved in key moments in organized-crime history during the mid-20th century, among them being the lone gunman in the infamous 1972 killing of “Crazy Joey” Gallo at Umberto’s Clam House in New York’s Little Italy. Sheeran was a close friend of Hoffa’s. According to the book—spoiler alert for those who don’t want to know the story—he lured Hoffa to an empty house in a Detroit suburb and shot him twice in the back of the head. The body was cremated immediately afterward at a nearby funeral home.

The book has its critics. A slate.com article alleged that Brandt was suckered by Sheeran, who lied about everything. Brandt’s publisher, Steerforth Press, responded with an article refuting the allegations point by point, and Brandt details the confirmations of the most incendiary confessions in an afterword of the 2016 expanded paperback version of the book.

While past Scorsese films have had historical sweep, The Irishman brings together threads of some of the most closely watched moments in recent American history. De Niro brought the book to Scorsese shortly after its 2004 publication, but it took years for Scorsese to focus on it, then almost 10 more years to put it all together.

“To get those three actors and Scorsese to work out their schedules to get them to mesh was not easy,” says Winkler. The film was initially budgeted at roughly $100 million, and was going to be cofinanced by Paramount and Fabrica de Cine. Then Scorsese said he needed more money for the time-consuming post-production process of de-aging his actors. Pacino is 79, De Niro and Pesci are 76, and for this film they were being asked to play characters who are in their 20s in some parts of the film.

Scorsese didn’t want to hire different actors to play the characters at younger ages. “Bob and Al and Joe are all in their 70s. So am I. That’s where we are in our lives. Which means that we bring a certain perspective to this story that we wouldn’t have had if we’d made it 10, 15, 20 years ago. So we wanted to preserve that as well,” said Scorsese via an e-mail interview. 

Scorsese used computers to make his central trio look decades younger in flashbacks, a process that had been used in the past, but only briefly. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan were rendered younger at the opening of X-Men: The Last Stand, and the lines in Jeff Bridges’s face were smoothed in Tron: Legacy, but in each of those cases,  the effect was both unimpressive and noticeable. The challenge to Scorsese was to make the special effect invisible by focusing on the performances, rather than the effect.

“There are certain things you can do with makeup,” he said. “You can tape the skin to make it look younger, you can apply a coating to it that you dry out that looks like wrinkles, you can add marks and bruises and bumps. But still…aging is something else again.”

The process caused the film’s budget to soar, due to the amount of time taken to manipulate the image in a scene: not just the lines on the face, but the light in the eyes, and every other element in the frame, at a rate of 24 frames per second, all overseen by Scorsese, who is noted for his attention to detail. When The Irishman’s budget jumped to roughly $160 million, Paramount dropped out—and Netflix stepped in to finance the film. 

“The idea was to go back four, maybe five decades,” said De Niro at the 2018 Marrakech International Film Festival. “So Marty wanted the people at (Industrial Light & Magic) to do this as best as it’s been done to this point, to make us look younger. And I was excited by that. It gave us the freedom to do scenes when we are young and not worry about makeup so much.” 

Actor Bobby Cannavale is 49, nearly 30 years younger than De Niro, but he found himself playing De Niro’s elder in the film. His aging was done the old fashioned way. “I was in makeup for 2 hours to make me look older and bald, with makeup and prosthetics. Bob played it as a young man,” he says. “He’s such an extraordinary actor. His body language, his tone—all different when he’s the younger version.”

Technology will only take you so far. “The most important thing is this: technology will never do the work for you,” Scorsese said. “It’s a tool and you have to know how to use it. Pablo Helman and his team at ILM are remarkable, but only we could know what the movie needed. So that meant a lot of tests and a lot of watching and refining until we got it where it needed to be.”

Scorsese, 76, has been a critical favorite practically from the start of his career with Mean Streets (1973). His stature grew with such hard-edged, groundbreaking dramas as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Departed, for which he won his only Oscar as best director, out of a record eight nominations.

The son of a working-class family, Scorsese grew up an asthmatic kid in Manhattan’s Little Italy, spending his time indoors as a child. Once aimed at the seminary, he instead detoured into cinema, studying at NYU before trying his hand at making independent films. 

Winkler, who has been working with Scorsese since they made Raging Bull, which debuted in 1980, says the only challenge in working with the director “is keeping up with him.” Even as he put the finishing touches on The Irishman, Winkler points out, Scorsese was already in preproduction for his next film, The Killing of the Flower Moon, set to star both De Niro and Scorsese’s other acting muse, Leonardo DiCaprio.

“I’ve been working with him for 40 years,” Winkler says. “I’m not surprised he’s still as vital and talented as he is. If anything, he’s more so. He’s energetic.”

Part of that drive comes from Scorsese’s encompassing curiosity. “He’s curious about absolutely everything. He sees more movies than I do—and I’m the director of a film festival,” says Jones. “As Marty points out, he comes from a family that was not a literary household. But I don’t know anyone who is as widely read as Marty,” Jones says. “Marty knows how to do things no one else knows.”

The negotiations about the film’s theatrical release made headlines of their own. Netflix and various theatrical chains butted heads about terms for an exclusive window for a big-screen release of The Irishman, prior to its streaming debut on Netflix. Netflix wouldn’t bow to the chains’ demands of the 90-day window (though conventional wisdom says most films run their theatrical course in 45 days or less) granted by the major studios. So the film will open November 1 in a select group of independent theaters, prior to its November 27 streaming release on Netflix. While it will expand after that into arthouse chains such as Landmark and Alamo Drafthouse, the larger chains—AMC, Regal, Cineplex—will not show the film.

In the end, says Winkler, the setting doesn’t matter when it comes to telling stories people want to see. “Somewhere in their DNA, people still want to sit around the campfire and listen to stories,” Winkler says. “The movie theater is the modern equivalent of that. Ultimately people like to gather around and see a film, whether it’s at somebody’s house or at a theater.”

Contributing editor Marshall Fine is critic-in-residence at The Picture House Regional Film Center in Pelham, New York. 

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