Callum Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2019: The Irishman Press Conference

Notes from the post-screening press conference with Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro.

Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).

“Could we please, if possible, keep all questions related to this film specifically?” asked the panel’s moderator ahead of introducing Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino (plus producers Jane Rosenthal and Emma Tillinger Koskoff).  Her request went largely heeded, nobody asked any of the three living legends up on stage about completely irrelevant prior movies, and whilst it undoubtedly carried a sense of trying to keep potentially unruly kids in line, she honestly needn’t have worried about topicality straying any further from the inevitable question about the changing face of cinema.  The Irishman is a towering achievement in filmmaking and a movie so densely layered and stuffed full of things to discuss that a room full of drained journalists, almost all of whom had definitely been awake since at least 6am and possibly have been on an endless grind for almost two full weeks beforehand, were still picking it apart.  We all very much related to Pacino who turned up in sunglasses and was so noticeably out-of-it for much of the opening third that he was genuinely confused when asked his first question.

It’s also not like the story of The Irishman wasn’t detailed enough to sustain a full 90 minute documentary (at least) itself.  Towards the end of our half-hour – and I will say this: it should be considered a crime of some nature to muzzle Martin Scorsese to a mere half-hour; I would genuinely pay through the nose for him to go on one of those Kevin Smith-style speaking tours – De Niro invoked the spirit of classic Hollywood where the marketing would proudly trumpet “FIFTEEN YEARS IN THE MAKING!  FINALLY ON THE SCREEN!” as a comparison to The Irishman’s own trials getting to both cinemas and Netflix – Rosenthal made a specific note that “even when it goes on platform, it still will continue to be in theatres.”

First taking shape over 12 years ago as an adaptation of The Winter of Frankie Machine, the main impetus for the project, and clearly its beating heart that carried through the turbulent production, was Scorsese and De Niro’s desire to work together again on something.  By the barely-audible mumbling De Niro emitted after Scorsese brought up Frankie Machine, the sentiment of nobody being fully enthused by the idea was clear.  Fate, fortunately, would intervene as De Niro went off to direct The Good Shepherd and that film’s writer, Eric Roth, having overheard De Niro was getting involved in a Scorsese mob drama about a retired hitman, handed him a copy of Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses for research.  “So I read it as research for the character then got together with Marty and said, ‘you gotta read this because this is what you wanna do.’”  At that point, Frankie Machine was dead and The Irishman was officially born – just not before Scorsese, De Niro, and Rosenthal were on a phone call with Paramount where the studio’s Brad Grey was, to hear Rosenthal tell it, about to give Frankie the green-light only for De Niro to bring up I Heard You Paint Houses and plunge the whole thing back into development.

Quote Scorsese:

“The point is that we had been trying to find something we felt right with, but how do you define ‘right?’  It’s ambiguous, something we couldn’t articulate.  But once he described this character to me, I felt that he had a good sense of it and I said this may be a good place for us as creative partners working together.”

Steven Zallian, who had previously collaborated with Scorsese on Gangs of New York, was brought on to write the screenplay and turned in a then-completed version in 2009.  Pacino and Joe Pesci were brought on as prospective stars alongside De Niro, and then Scorsese suddenly became… busy.  At a certain point during the initial courting of Pacino, Scorsese recalled that Pacino looked at him and De Niro and asked “is this gonna happen?”  A combination of Scorsese getting multiple projects off the ground, including his beloved passion project Silence, and the expensive financial logistics in pulling off the film threatened to conspire to keep The Irishman in developmental hell.  Rosenthal recalled believing that the January 2014 script reading, done before Scorsese left to get deep into the making of Silence, “would be all we had of The Irishman, because it was so difficult to get financing.  [But[ when everybody heard it, there was a new energy.”  Pacino shared that sentiment which forced Scorsese to cut in and note “Yeah, that got everyone very excited but they still didn’t give us the money!”

From there, with half the session already gone and us little closer to The Irishman being a tangible reality – as mentioned in my write-up, watching the film is almost as much of a commitment as it was for everyone making the film – the floor opened up for questions.  In doing so, it took exactly seconds for the conversation to turn towards the question of cinema as an artform changing and what that could mean for potentially archaic definitions of such when you’ve got a filmmaker like Scorsese making movies for an online streaming service.  Hilariously, once the question was finished asking, the entire room collectively turned their gaze towards Scorsese as if we all knew there was only one person whose opinions on this question we wanted to hear from.  Unsurprisingly, the answer to this one question took well over five minutes so, whilst I would love to write up the whole thing, here are the cliff’s notes:

  • He believes we are in the midst of a revolution for the artform “even bigger than the revolution of sound in cinema.” A re-envisioning of the original conception of what film even is.  He predicts we’ll be seeing virtual-reality and hologram films soon enough.
  • He’s actually very open to these new potential avenues for the medium, but does believe that “something I think should be protected as much as possible and something I think will always be there is a communal experience, and I think that’s best in a theatre.”
  • Part of the problem with his love for the theatrical experience is that “you have to make the film, and we had run out of room.” So, he saw the deal with Netflix – “‘you will have no interference, you can make this picture as you want, the trade-off is it streams…’” – as “the chance we take on this particular project.”
  • “I thought for a while maybe long-form TV is cinema; it’s not. It simply isn’t.”  I expect hastily re-written Best Films of 2017 lists from Sight & Sound and Cahiers du Cinema within the week.
  • On Marvel films: “The value of a film that’s like a ‘theme park film’ like, say, Marvel-type pictures where the theatres become amusement parks? That’s a different experience and, like I was saying earlier, that’s not cinema, it’s something else.”  Despite how that may read, and his later follow-up that cinemas “shouldn’t be invaded by [them],” his tone was actually rather respectful, mentioning that these films have their place, and calling on studios and theatre heads to fund and programme other types of films rather than just giant spectacle blockbusters.

The other big changing-face-of-cinema question came in relation to the de-aging CGI technology that, in the questioner’s terms, “opens up everything, how anyone can play anyone now.”  Our panel, however, largely downplayed such implications.  Scorsese compared the effect to make-up, as did Pacino.  “In the old days, they’d take some actor that we all knew and loved and put grey hair on him and you’d say ‘oh, he got older!’  And you’d accept it!”  All three men were much more concerned with the story underlining the effects – in fact, Pacino was even shown a cut of the film without any of the de-aging effects – and Scorsese noted that it’s largely only a talking point if you’re actively looking for it.  De Niro was the only one who mused about the eventual ethical implications around likenesses and copyrights, noting that commercials were already doing this kind of thing without the new state-of-the-art technology, but comes back to the initial joke he had at the project’s outset: “My career will be extended another 30 years!”

The third and final major talking point in the Q&A – which largely had to be surface due to constrained time and tiredness; a question from Strand Magazine’s Elouise Wright about Scorsese’s films being preoccupied with pain and why we keep being drawn to such tales was not particularly answered outside of a vague “it’s a simple story” – came down to The Irishman’s eulogistic and at-times reflective meta-text.  More than one question fundamentally came down to “could you only have made this movie now, with a more mature and reflective outlook?”  Scorsese was characteristically witty and uncharacteristically blunt about the subject; when one interviewer specifically invoked Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America as a potential point of inspiration, he shot back “I guess the similarities are that it’s very long and Bob is in it.”  But both De Niro and Scorsese effectively admitted that such readings were valid.  De Niro simply stating that “the movie evolved” whilst Scorsese said that he “just intuitively made the movie.”  Specifically:

“Now, we’re much older and so we hope that, with the vantage point of time, that something has evolved and deepened to a certain extent.  That can be conveyed in the story and the performances and the way the film was put together, and that would be some sort of advancement rather than merely replicating what we had done in the past.”

The Irishman will be released in select UK cinemas from 8th November, then streaming to all Netflix subscribers worldwide from 27th November.

Callum Petch has the same power.

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