Scors­ese, Netflix and the film that nearly van­ished

The Ir­ish­man was in limbo for a decade be­fore Netflix stepped in and saved the day. PAUL WHITINGTON on an un­likely part­ner­ship

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - CULTURE -

The ca­reers and rep­u­ta­tions of Robert De Niro and Martin Scors­ese are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked, so I and many oth­ers were thrilled when we heard that the pair were go­ing to make a film to­gether for the first time in decades. Even bet­ter, it would be a gang­ster movie, a genre that both men have spe­cialised in, and one’s ap­petite was whet­ted for what promised to be another great Amer­i­can crim­i­nal clas­sic.

But that an­nounce­ment about The Ir­ish­man was made way back in 2008, and since then, no sign of a movie. Al­most as soon as Scors­ese and De Niro com­mit­ted to the project, which con­cerned the crim­i­nal ex­ploits (real and imag­ined) of union of­fi­cial and hit­man Frank ‘The Ir­ish­man’ Sheeran, it be­came bogged down in pro­tracted rows over scripts and fund­ing, and time and again Scors­ese was forced to side­line it in or­der to make other films — Shut­ter Is­land (2010), Hugo (2011), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Si­lence (2016).

But he never let go of his pas­sion for The Ir­ish­man, and the more time he spent plan­ning it, the more elab­o­rate — and ex­pen­sive — his project be­came. Fi­nally, in 2016, ev­ery­thing seemed in readi­ness: Joe Pesci, Har­vey Kei­tel, Bobby Can­navale and the great Al Pa­cino had joined the cast, and Paramount and the Mex­i­can pro­duc­tion com­pany Fábrica de Cine had agreed to fi­nance the film. But in Fe­bru­ary of last year, just as pro­duc­tion was about to be­gin, Paramount and Fábrica un­ex­pect­edly pulled out.

The rea­sons for this sud­den change of heart were com­plex: Fábrica had agreed to pro­vide a bud­get of $100m, but by the time the cam­eras were ready to roll, it had shot up to $125m (it’s since risen to as much as $175m, ac­cord­ing to some ac­counts).

The Mex­i­can com­pany had also fi­nanced Scors­ese’s wor­thy epic about Je­suits in 17 th-cen­tury Ja­pan, Si­lence, and what­ever that film’s artis­tic mer­its, it had bombed at the box of­fice and failed to re­coup its com­par­a­tively mod­est bud­get. The omens for The Ir­ish­man were not good.

Mean­while, at Paramount, Martin Scors­ese’s long-term ally Brad Grey had just lost his job in a stu­dio power strug­gle. He would die three months later, prompt­ing Scors­ese to com­ment that “he didn’t just sup­port me — he pro­tected me”. With Grey gone, those now in charge at Paramount were not keen to back a film that was fast be­com­ing the most ex­pen­sive Scors­ese had ever made.

En­ter a most un­likely saviour — Netflix. The stream­ing gi­ant re­port­edly paid $105m for the rights to the fin­ished film, and also agreed to cover its rapidly mount­ing costs. Netflix, of course, can eas­ily af­ford to do this, but there is a cer­tain irony in the com­pany hav­ing res­cued The Ir­ish­man ,as Scors­ese has not al­ways been com­pli­men­tary about the om­nipres­ence of home stream­ing. “Now you can see a film on an iPad,” he grum­bled last year, “... it is not the best way.” Maybe not, but so far as his pet project was con­cerned, Netflix was now the only show in town.

Shooting be­gan late last year in and around New York City, and was fin­ished by March and it is now set for re­lease next year. And in fair­ness to Scors­ese, a lot of the ex­tra costs re­lated to the dig­i­tal ‘de-age­ing’ process used to make the film’s stars Pa­cino and De Niro look younger in a se­ries of long flash­backs. The movie’s story does pose huge chal­lenges, and it will be in­ter­est­ing to see how the great direc­tor deals with them.

The Ir­ish­man is based on a book called I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, and re­volves around the dis­ap­pear­ance of flam­boy­ant and con­tro­ver­sial union leader Jimmy Hoffa in the mid-1970s, and his pre­sumed as­sas­si­na­tion by mob­sters.

Brandt was Frank Sheeran’s lawyer as well as his un­of­fi­cial bi­og­ra­pher, and in the book Sheeran boasts about hav­ing killed 25 peo­ple as a mob hit­man — in­clud­ing his erst­while boss, Hoffa. In the film, Robert De Niro plays Sheeran, while Al Pa­cino is Hoffa.

Re­mark­ably, this is the first time that Pa­cino and Scors­ese have worked to­gether, and Ge­orge Lu­cas’s In­dus­trial Light and Magic com­pany will dig­i­tally al­ter both Pa­cino and De Niro to make them look like men in their thir­ties — the ages at which Hoffa and Sheeran first met.

Joe Pesci, who won a Best Sup­port­ing Ac­tor Os­car for his un­for­get­table por­trayal of an un­hinged gang­ster in Scors­ese’s Good­fel­las, has been semi-re­tired for al­most 20 years, and ap­par­ently de­clined the role of crime boss Rus­sell Bu­falino in The Ir­ish­man dozens of times be­fore even­tu­ally re­lent­ing. Har­vey Kei­tel, Ray Ro­mano and Bobby Can­navale play mob as­so­ciates, while Anna Paquin is Sheeran’s daugh­ter, Peggy. It’s a cast worth get­ting ex­cited about.

The film’s ver­sion of events, though, is con­tro­ver­sial. Sheeran was cer­tainly a fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter (see panel over­leaf), but his some­times out­landish as­ser­tions have been hotly dis­puted.

No ev­i­dence has ever emerged to sup­port his claims that he mur­dered Hoffa at the be­hest of the Bu­falino crime fam­ily, and in Dan Moldea’s book The Hoffa Wars, which he spent four years re­search­ing, Sheeran is de­scribed as “a patho­log­i­cal liar”.

While Robert De Niro was do­ing his own re­search into the Hoffa af­fair, he met Moldea for din­ner. Moldea, ap­par­ently not the soul of dis­cre­tion, told the New York Post af­ter­wards that “De Niro had a lot of pride that he is do­ing the real story — I told him that he’s been conned”. De Niro does not ap­pear to have been un­duly dis­cour­aged by Moldea’s re­marks.

The Ir­ish­man will be the ninth fea­ture film that De Niro and Scors­ese have made to­gether. Their part­ner­ship stretches all the way back to Scors­ese’s sem­i­nal 1973 ur­ban thriller Mean Streets (a break­through film for both men) and has pro­duced some of the finest Amer­i­can movies of the late 20th cen­tury, in­clud­ing Taxi Driver, Rag­ing Bull and Good­fel­las, a film to which The Ir­ish­man will in­evitably be com­pared.

In Good­fel­las, De Niro played another Ir­ish-Amer­i­can hit­man who works for a Mafia crime fam­ily but will never be quite ac­cepted by them. Jimmy ‘The Gent’ Con­way was closely based on the real-life crim­i­nal James Burke, whose mother was from Dublin: he was an as­so­ci­ate of the Luc­ch­ese fam­ily in New York, and was in­volved in or­gan­is­ing the 1978 Lufthansa

The stream­ing gi­ant re­port­edly paid $105m for the rights to the fin­ished film, and also agreed to cover its rapidly mount­ing costs

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