Irishman: Scorsese’s Masterwork–Behind the Scenes

Scorsese’s highly anticipated organized crime epic, The Irishman. finally made its debut at the 2019 New York Film Fest–to great critical acclaim.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Shutterstock (10428408cl)
Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Harvey Keitel
‘The Irishman’ film premiere, Arrivals, 57th New York Film Festival, USA – 27 Sep 2019

After an enthusiastic screening for members of the press at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on Friday, Scorsese, along with stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci and producers Emma Tillinger Koskoff and Jane Rosenthal, held a conference.

The legendary director’s epic–his ninth collaboration with De Niro–was adapted by Steve Zaillian from Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, about Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a high-ranking Teamsters official with ties to the Bufalino crime family who confessed, shortly before his death in 2003, that he killed fellow Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, whose body has never been found. Pacino plays Hoffa, and Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Jesse Plemons, Anna Paquin, Bobby Cannavale, Sebastian Maniscalco and Ray Romano round out the star-studded cast.

The film’s producers include Scorsese, De Niro, Randall Emmett, Rosenthal, Tillinger Koskoff, Irwin Winkler and Gastón Pavlovich. The film was first announced in 2008 and was previously set up at Paramount.  But now will be released in November in select theaters and on Netflix, which picked up the project in 2017.

During the press conference, Scorsese credited Netflix for finally putting up the money they needed to make the film, which others were unwilling to do.

“We couldn’t get the backing, that was key, for years. Ultimately it was Ted Sarandos,” Scorsese said of the streamer’s chief content officer. “Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic had come up with a solution for the de-aging process that wouldn’t interfere with Bob and Joe and Al talking to each other with helmets on or tennis balls on their faces. Seriously, I said we’re not going to do it. We made tests a few years ago. It’s a costly experiment. But Ted and everyone at Netflix said they’d go with it. They actually backed the film and financed it and were creatively attuned to us. There was no interference of any kind–some notes and things from time to time and we addressed them.

It was an interesting hybrid in a way between what a film is and what is viewed at home or in a theater and in a theater or not in a theater at all, only at festivals. We’re in an extraordinary time of change. We felt the picture had to be made for ourselves really.”

The film will open in select theaters November 1 before streaming on Netflix starting November 27.

There had been speculation, particularly when Netflix used the phrase “In Theaters Next Fall” with its Irishman teaser during last year’s Oscars, that The Irishman would get a wide theatrical release, but Netflix couldn’t reach an agreement with movie theater chains, which prefer that films have a 75- to 90-day window between the time a film opens in theaters and is released for home viewing.

While Scorsese is used to a traditional big-screen rollout, Netflix’s shortened theatrical window has often resulted in a limited theatrical reach.

The film, which spans decades, and runs three and a half hours, uses de-aging visual effects and makeup to make De Niro’s Sheeran and Pacino’s Hoffa, appear at different ages. The digital VFX was handled by ILM, though specifics of the techniques hadn’t been revealed.

Scorsese spoke about the technology, saying that when they were filming the de-aged scenes, they had nine cameras, including one that his cinematographer dubbed a “three-eyed monster,” which Scorsese said he was worried about getting into tight corners. He added that when he filmed scenes he often used two cameras, so that’s six lenses. The result was that the Irishman crew had a lot of equipment to carry around on the 108-day shoot.

The film’s long journey helped them tap into the latest technology.  “The wait between the time we did the tests and when we started shooting was actually a positive for the picture, because the technology kept evolving and kept changing and kept making things simpler,” Rosenthal said.

Scorsese observed of filming the de-aged scenes, “You’re sculpting this whole thing. It’s like living models in a way plus the truth of how they’re interpreting this extraordinary experience.”

The film’s story overlaps and has ties to numerous presidencies, including those of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, with the assassination of Kennedy serving as part of the story but not quite in the same way that it does in the book.

The book makes it seem as though the mob engineered a hit on Kennedy by saying that Sheeran delivered some weapons before the assassination. But Scorsese didn’t want to delve into “what could be considered conspiracy theories.”
“It may be true,” he admitted, “but I didn’t want to muddy up the emotion and power of what he’s going through and what Bufalino had to deal with and Jimmy’s sense of ‘I’m above the law.'” Scorsese said that he wanted to focus on the lives of these individuals.

“Frank’s not a psychotic. He’s a human being who has feelings. He finds himself at the most important part of his life in a moral conflict because he’s basically a good man, yet he has to go through with what he does,” Scorsese said. “How does a good man live with himself after that?”

Scorsese declined to talk about modern-day parallels, with frequent Trump critic De Niro surprisingly refraining from remarking on the president.

Still, the director observed of the film’s characters: “It’s about power. Power erases everything else. And, as you know, they’ll do anything to keep the power.”