We sat in dead silence, just the faint sound of a rainy London creeping in from behind the thick, fabric curtains. Some were rereading their notes. Some were staring into thin air. One guy was even scribbling something on a tissue. If this was a Scorsese movie, I’d guess that a hit was about to go down – that behind the slightly ajar bathroom door in the corner, stood a man gripping a pistol. Yes, the silence was that eerie as nine journalists from places as far and wide as Turkey and Italy sat beside me, waiting for one of the greatest film directors in the history of cinema to talk to us about his latest film, The Irishman – a massive coup for Netflix, who struck a deal to stream the epic crime flick exclusively following a limited theatrical release.
Marty, as I was hoping to call him in an attempt to build some kind of rapport, came rushing into the room, decked out in a simple, smart grey suit – no tie, mind you – still half-eating a sandwich. Poor guy, I thought – telling by the amount of journalists chattering away in the waiting room and running back and forth through the corridors of the very prim and proper Corinthia Hotel in London's Westminster, he must have been at this media malarkey all morning, with plenty more to come.
Maybe one of my questions will make him laugh. Maybe he’ll sense and appreciate the depth of my knowledge of his 1990 masterpiece and give me ‘a look’.
It was only then that it really struck me. It was only when he made eye-contact with me, mouth full of sandwich, that I really appreciated that I was just about to interview Martin Scorsese – that SceneArabia was the only magazine chosen by Netflix from the Middle East to do so. There was a drawback, though. NO PHOTOGRAPHY OR SOCIAL MEDIA WITH THE TALENT. The words jumped out from my printed itinerary, a dagger into my heart. What will I show people when I go home? If I don’t have photographic evidence, did it even happen? A philosophical conundrum indeed, but one that I almost threw out of the window when I kind-of tried to sneakily take a video as he walked in. Alas, I chickened out. I couldn’t do it. Instead, I decided that this would be an experience to keep for myself. I was hopeful that, despite having to share him with nine other people in a measly 30-minute slot, I would walk away with some kind of anecdote. Maybe one of my questions will make him laugh. Maybe I’ll subtly allude to the fact that Goodfellas was my ‘first’ favourite film. Maybe he’ll sense and appreciate the depth of my knowledge of his 1990 masterpiece and give me ‘a look’.
...waiting for one of the greatest film directors in the history of cinema to talk to us about his latest film, The Irishman – a massive coup for Netflix, who struck a deal to stream the epic crime flick exclusively following a limited theatrical release.
That hope quickly evaporated as soon as he sat in his chair. You see, amidst the deadly silence that washed over the room as we were waiting, a rep from Netflix entered the room and quite apologetically reminded us that we would only have 30 minutes. “I know there are ten of you,” she said. “So I’ll let you decide how you want to do it.”
It was at this point that I decided to break our weird inner circle of silence. “So, how do you guys want to do this?” I barely got a reaction. “Do you want to take it in turns?” Nothing. “If we do take it in turns, I think we could get two questions each.” My line stirred some signs of life and some of them nodded in agreement. Ultimately, though, I was naïve. I should have known better. I should have known that this kind of one-in-a-lifetime opportunity would turn a civilised man into a savage.
I thought we had an agreement, but fast-forward ten minutes after we established our pact and it all went out of the window. It became dog-eat-dog. People were cutting each other off – cutting him off, to my horror. How dare they?
Take it in turns? Pfff.
Once the initial Hunger Games-style melee died down, the interview settled into a flow – thanks wholly to Scorsese, who handled the rabid hordes like a pro, and told the story of how the film came to be made as if he was telling the story of one of his films. “The last film we made together was Casino, so it was 1995,” he said of frequent collaborator and all-round BFF, Robert De Niro, and how this rich, three-and-a-half-hour future-classic came to be. “We tried to connect with different projects, but we kept missing each other. Ultimately, we decided about nine years ago, when we were in our late 60s, […] we have to do one more picture together."
Marty, as I was hoping to call him in an attempt to build some kind of rapport, came rushing into the room, decked out in a simple, smart grey suit, still half-eating a sandwich.
That ‘one more picture’ was originally something quite different. De Niro had taken a liking to gangsta-laden thriller novel, The Winter of Frankie Machine, and through his production company, TriBeCa Productions, a script begun to take form as far back as 2005, with who else but De Niro’s partner-in-crime, Scorsese, his first and only choice to direct. Quickly caught in the deeply tangled webs of Hollywood script development, De Niro recalled another book that had fallen on his radar a year prior: I Heard You Paint Houses, a narrative nonfiction book that chronicles the life of WWII veteran-turned Mafia hitman, Frank Sheeran, and his ties to the infamous Bufalino crime family in the 1950s.
“I could see that he [De Niro] was really emotionally involved with the character,” Scorsese explained. “So much so that he couldn’t describe, he couldn’t really speak. And then I knew. I said ‘that’s something’.”
“The last film we made together was Casino, so it was 1995,” he said of frequent collaborator and all-round BFF, Robert De Niro.
By 2007, with their original idea not quite moving forward as expected, the wheels on The Irishman began to spin – even though Frankie Machine had essentially been green-lit by Paramount Studios. But there was something about the real-life rise-and-fall story of Frank Sheeran that struck a chord with Scorsese – one that is also at the heart of Goodfellas, as we watch Ray Liotta's Henry Hill rise through the ranks of the mafia in his early twenties as a veritable crime superstar, only to find himself in a witness protection program by the end of the film, complaining that his local diner added ketchup to his spaghetti when he asked for marinara sauce. This time, De Niro’s Frank Sheeran is a man lost in a remedial truck-driving job after returning from service. Looking for something more out of life, he offers his services to Pennsylvania crime family, The Bufalinos, specifically to its head, Russell Bufalino (a role that pulled Joe Pesci out of retirement). From there, he comes to be involved with a labour union leader with ties to the Bufalinos, Jimmy Huffa, played by Al Pacino, marking the first time that Scorsese has worked with the legendary actor.
The real-life Frank Sheeran doing his best Robert De Niro impression.
“It’s the story of most people’s lives,” he said in response to MY question about why this type of rise-and-fall arc fascinates him so much. “You strive for something in life. You attain something, you reach a level. Do you sustain, do you grow as a human being? It’s extraordinary for me to see them in this world, because they’re in the world of the dark forces of history – they are the dark forces. Ultimately it’s about getting ahead of yourself, it’s about pride and it’s about making a life for yourself – but it costs, it costs a lot. And he has to pay that price. He doesn’t realise the depth that he has to go to.”
I could see that he [De Niro] was really emotionally involved with the character. So much so that he couldn’t describe, he couldn’t really speak. And then I knew. I said ‘that’s something’.
Again, not unlike the central character in Goodfellas, Sheeran rises through the ranks of the crime hierarchy, as he comes to cement himself as a reliable and respected associate to the family – setting up a story that has all the makings of a Scorsese crime epic.
You strive for something in life. You attain something, you reach a level. Do you sustain, do you grow as a human being?
The script is on-point, the casting flawless – but there still existed one major issue. The film starts with an aging De Niro talking to camera from a care home, initiating a consistent flashback structure that only occasionally returns to his diminished, wheelchair-strapped character. In short, the script called for De Niro, Pesci and Pacino to be shown in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
the script called for De Niro, Pesci and Pacino to be shown in their 30s, 40s and 50s [...] the answer came in the form of digital de-aging
“At that time, we could have done it with make-up. The next choice would have been to use younger actors – but I said I can’t,” he explains, still wincing at the thought. The answer came in the form of digital de-aging under the guidance of Academy Award-nominated visual effects whiz, Pablo Herman – a risky departure for a director who is, on the surface at least, a cinema traditionalist.
De-aging De Niro.
“Scary. Enthusiastic,” he said when asked about how he felt in regards this most advanced of new-age technologies, which was first unleashed on the world in 2006, rather forgettably in X-Men: The Last Stand, and most notably with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008. “You have to recreate, in many instances, shot by shot – you have to recreate these performances with these actors. The biggest issue was the cost, which made it even more difficult to get financing, until at the last-minute Netflix stepped in and said they’d take the chance.”
And so begun this most unlikely of collaborations – one that would, indeed, see Scorsese compromise his affinity for the big screen, to allow another of his masterpieces to remain on the small screen. “I prefer that people see it on the big screen,” he admits. “But I saw Citizen Kane on television. Ideally this thing on a big screen is nice, because the intensity of particular scenes should just rope you in and rivet you to the screen. [But] it’s changed. I experienced a whole lot on the screen at home.”
Ideally this thing on a big screen is nice, because the intensity of particular scenes should just rope you in and rivet you to the screen. [But] it’s changed. I experienced a whole lot on the screen at home.
Ultimately, what convinced Scorsese more and more of allowing Netflix into his trusted circle, so to speak, was the streaming platform’s “support and no interference of any kind” – something that is at a premium in Hollywood. “In order to get that there’s a trade-off – four weeks in the theatre without being screened [on Netflix], then it’s screened, but it stays in [select] theatres. This is a whole new world, you can do anything.”
The film itself? It’s a Scorsese flick – it looks like a million bucks, it’s fun, it’s cool, it’s quotable. It’s also rich, grounded and has something important to say about a version of the human condition rooted in his upbringing in New York’s Little Italy – but one that speaks of something much more universal, like much of his work in this genre.
“The themes are the same. It goes back to Mean Streets. I keep thinking how one could lead a good life in any world, any society. What makes a good man? What makes a good woman?”