Irishman, The: Making Scorsese’s Epic

In 2013, in a banquet room over the Tribeca Grill in New York, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and a handful of other actors gathered for an intimate reading of the Irishman script in front of potential backers. At the time, De Niro and Scorsese had been trying to get the movie made for four years, and it would be another six before the mobster film finally made it to theaters.

“We wanted to generate interest, possible financiers and to keep the energy alive,” says Scorsese, 77. “We felt it was a very special culmination of a lot of the work we’d done over the years. And I felt very specific about how I could put in the proper place the milieu of the gangster. And beyond that, the background of the politics and the state of the nation.”

Based on the 2004 Charles Brandt book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” the movie tells the story of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a Mafia hit man who professed to having played a role in the death of Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). The project was to reunite Scorsese, the most celebrated chronicler of the mobster genre, with some of his most beloved collaborators in an epic tale spanning decades, from 1949 to 2000.

It would be Scorsese and De Niro’s first teaming since 1995’s Casino and, remarkably, the director’s first time working with Pacino. But the film industry’s turn toward franchise fare had begun, and though it was easy to get a meeting — who in Hollywood wouldn’t want to sit with legends? — it was difficult to secure a green light at the budget ($175 million) Scorsese felt necessary to do the job.

Six years later, The Irishman is playing in theaters and set to premiere Nov. 27 on Netflix. In many ways, the movie that Scorsese and De Niro made, about an older man’s reflections and regrets, is among the most experimental of their careers, both for the digital de-aging process Scorsese relied upon with his principal cast and for its distribution by a streaming company. The Irishman also features an uncharacteristically quiet performance by Pesci as crime boss Russell Bufalino, in the actor’s first major film role in nearly a decade.

The project started as a much more traditional genre piece. De Niro began reading Brandt’s book as research for a role in a movie he and Scorsese planned to make for Paramount, Frankie Machine, about a retired hit man who is pulled back into the fold. In July 2007, Scorsese and De Niro got on the phone with then-Paramount chairman Brad Grey to greenlight Frankie Machine and ended up talking themselves out of a deal. “Brad said, ‘All right, so we’re going to make this movie,’ ” says De Niro’s producing partner Jane Rosenthal, who also was on the call. “And then you hear Bob say, ‘Well, there’s this other book …’ Brad said, ‘OK, so you’re going to take this greenlight movie and turn it into a development deal? I’m in.’ ”

Steve Zaillian, who co-wrote 2002’s Gangs of New York for Scorsese, finished a first draft in 2009.  In Goodfellas, Zaillian says, “When someone would get killed, there would be a big rock and roll cue for it, and a long shot of showing the dead bodies in the car, the dead body staring up at the ceiling with music. There’s none of that in The Irishman.” Instead, the film takes a workmanlike approach to Sheeran’s violent profession, a tone that Scorsese and Zaillian discussed in the writing stage and that cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto achieved with the camera. “The approach to the violence was very matter-of-fact,” Zaillian says. “It would be, he comes up to the guy, shoots him twice in the head, walks away. It was not elaborately written or shot. We were more interested in everything around that. How do you pick the gun? Where do you throw the gun?”

Over the years, as financing came and went and De Niro’s and Scorsese’s schedules diverged and converged, Zaillian would return to the script, sometimes meeting with Brandt to flesh out ideas in the book. An early draft included a much larger section on Sheeran’s service in World War II, which ultimately was excised (even with that trim, the movie clocks at a leisurely three-hour, 30-minute running time).

After years of failed starts and at the urging of Scorsese’s manager, Rick Yorn, Scorsese and De Niro sent the script to Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos in November 2016. Netflix was trying to establish itself as a home for marquee filmmakers and was willing to pay to get them. Ten months later, The Irishman began production in New York, on a sprawling, 108-day shoot, with more than 160 locations and 28 built sets, include 200 characters and four time periods.

Casting Pesci

The actor at first assumed Scorsese wanted him to play yet another flamboyant, quick-tempered gangster, a prospect that didn’t pose enough interest to pull him back from a comfortable life of playing golf and singing jazz under his pseudonym, Joe Doggs. “There was a lot of persuasion,” Scorsese says. “If we’re going to come together again, it’s got to be something that could be a change for him. And he wasn’t sure that was the case. Once he caught on that it was going to be the opposite of what you normally see, he really enjoyed himself.”

Production Design

Designer Bob Shaw set about creating spaces that would serve Scorsese’s vision of simplicity in the lives of the criminal characters. Shaw’s team built a modest, lived-in restaurant where the mobsters would meet, adding grease and dust-filled vents. “These are not people leading glamorous lives,” says Shaw. “They spend their lives looking over their shoulders. They’re very, very morally compromised, and their reward is to lead a fairly ordinary life. It does make you wonder why anyone would do it. ‘I imperiled my mortal soul for a house in South Philadelphia.’ ”

Imagery by Prieto

Scorsese’s early directions to Prieto were about style. “I was imagining the film to have this sort of a feeling of the memory of family films.  But I don’t want it to be all handheld and grainy, just that feeling.’ ”

In order to achieve a reminiscent mood, Prieto studied still photography from the different eras and replicated the color of film emulsions used at the time.