Martin Scorsese’ 25th feature film is in many ways his Requiem. The Irishman is based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses about Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and his role in the unsolved assassination of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. It is a film about crime and punishment, morality and conscience, life and, inevitably, its opposite.
The film is at once intimate and writ large on the American story (tying the Kennedy assassinations and other 20th century events to struggles of class and race and the central role of the Mob). It is a movie squarely in the Scorsese lineage, thematically related to both Goodfellas and Silence, heavy with regret and wistfulness for lives lived and wasted and the evil that men do. It is about the hubris of the American Century as well as about the end of life. And about friendship and the inexorable march of time that grinds all to dust.
It is impossible to miss that the film reunites Scorsese’s historic collaborators, a virtual generation of filmmakers who changed the form as we knew it and revolutionized movies with a singular series of masterpieces. So it is a film which is ultimately about the films and the collaborators to which the director has devoted his life and which he contemplates now from the vantage point of maturity. And we are right there with him empathizing with his introspection, because such is life, whether you “paint houses” or simply love films.
The director recently spoke about the aura of nostalgia that permeates the film in a freewheeling, expansive encounter with the press in Los Angeles. [Editor’s note: We have edited the interview for length and clarity.]
Scorsese: “Nostalgia” though could be maybe too superficial. There’s some sort of, in a way, I think a lot of it had to do with me, Bob, Al and Joe, if there was nostalgia, it’s about us. If there was, it’s about us looking at each other and saying, “Oh, Harvey Keitel, oh…” I don’t have to say anything. I look at him and it’s like he reminds me of something I did 45 years ago. And so it becomes like a family — don’t forget, my mother used to be in these films — and so it becomes something like people at the end of our lives and being together and actually being like a blessing to be able to create something like this together, it was quite extraordinary for that to happen.
This world of your film is very familiar but as seen through a different lens.
Well, I think the different lens is age and accumulation of experience, the changes in life of yourself and the people around you, those who are gone. It was a way of expressing some of that. I found that in this film, it was a way of expressing a contemplation and I hesitate to use the word meditation, but in a way, a reflection of life. If you take the time and watch the film, I think it might be enriching to our own lives. And what I didn’t want to do was to replicate that, just have another version, particularly because the milieu that we are dealing with is an underworld milieu. You could say that’s Casino, that’s Goodfellas, and they are back there again, the same actors. So, I wanted to come from another approach completely. Then the key was time and ultimately mortality, that I knew we had to go towards. I mean we juggled around some scenes, but basically, we knew where we were taking it. It wasn’t a story about political corruption or the underworld, it’s a story about a human being.
There is none of the glamour here we’ve seen in your previous films about the mob.
Because having gone to the other place, specifically Casino, which was an extravaganza, there’s no place else to go, but to get to the real power. And the real power is quiet and dark, the dark forces of history.
And so, for me, let’s get right down to the heart of it, and the heart of it was two or three people sitting at a bar or a restaurant or a car, they don’t even have to say what they are going to do. It’s a look. (It’s not saying) that we know for certain that Jimmy Hoffa got killed this way, but I know what happened to Jimmy Hoffa because of the dialogue scenes, the arguments. He got in with the wrong people. And he underestimated. And when someone becomes an obstruction in that way, they get taken out, very simply taken out.
That’s not just mob, that’s human endeavor. That’s like power and usurpation of power and sometimes, how should I put it, sometimes, like Julius Caesar, who put himself in a situation, he had to be taken out by his adopted son Brutus. Was Brutus really for the Republic, when the Republic was falling apart, or was he in it partially for himself? Caesar was going to be a dictator, there’s no doubt. Was he a great man? Yes. But he went too far, taken out.
You had not worked with De Niro since Casino in 1995. This film gestated for almost 20 years. You’ve stated that this pushed you toward digitally rejuvenating the actors’ faces for the flashbacks and towards working with Netflix — how?
We were concerned that at a certain point, like around 2010, 2011, we figured well, I think if I shoot it a certain way, we could have Bob and Joe and Al play younger with makeup. I thought we could do that. As the years went by, we missed it, there was no turning back, none. And I was on the set of Silence and shooting in Taiwan, and (visual effects supervisor) Pablo (Helman) came up to me and said we could do the digital (rejuvenation) and I said, “Oh, you can’t have helmets and tennis balls on Joe Pesci.” We really had no choice but to try a test. And in trying the test, it took a couple of days and then took about a month, two months, whatever, we saw the results and we felt it’s experimental, but we could really try to do this.
And so ultimately, I don’t know how it all happened. Silence was over, and I forget now, something was going on and Netflix was interested. And I thought about it, and I thought about a lot of things, I thought about Bob and me. The character is really strong, the script is going to be OK, I know how to work that. And we’re 75 years old. And Netflix says, “We will support you financially and also total creative freedom. The tradeoff is, it’s primarily streamed, but you do get weeks in a theater.” So, I figure that’s the trade off, I have to make the movie. And that was an extraordinary situation really.
You’ve come to be at the center of the discussion about the nature of film and the role of the big spectacular blockbusters.
We go back to cinema. Film was created here in this country and France also at the same time. But the art of cinema, the editing, the art of cinema, came from here and created this wonderful extraordinary art form. And it’s been over 100 years, the world has changed, communication has changed, and the art form is changing. What I’m concerned about was about the possibility of, I should say, the opportunity to show cinema, films, movies, whatever you want to call them and commercial films — it’s not a bad term, commercial is art — but a product may be different you see.
And so, where is the room now for a film that’s about people in the theaters, where is the room? From what I have been seeing over the past few years, the superhero films are proliferating and in a sense invading the cinema experience. However, that doesn’t mean they are bad films. I am saying, in my view, when we were young, we loved to go to an amusement park, the family would go and everything. Well now in the amusement park, you would have a film and that’s part of the amusement, that’s part of the experience. It’s a new form, but it shouldn’t cast us out. We had Singing in the Rain, and we have Moonlight — that’s cinema. You want superheroes, go ahead, fine, go to whatever theme park there is. Now you could have the amusement park right there because it’s a theater. And that becomes the theme ride in a sense, the theme park ride. But don’t confuse that. And when people say “Oh, this superhero film was the greatest opening night in movie history, it made cinema history.” No it didn’t, it made box office history.
So, what about the art? Now when you say what about the art, you say, “Oh, he’s an old man.” But what about our children, you see, what are we teaching the children? Someone pointed out Hitchcock: Hitchcock’s films were crowd pleasers. When I would go, especially in the ‘50s and I even saw Psycho on the third night, midnight showing at deMille Theater in New York, it was wild. And so, we would all go, and it would be an incredible, almost theme park-like experience, but what’s the difference between the Hitchcock films and the superhero films? The Hitchcock films 10 years later, you learn a little more. Twenty years later, you are still connected. Why? Because it’s about humanity, it’s about our foibles, it’s about our failures, it’s about our moral conflicts and dilemmas. It isn’t about a good guy comes in and beats up the bad guy. Now that can be done very well, you follow. I’m not saying they are bad. But to enrich the human experience for our young people, they have to learn a respect for this kind of film, for the film that we tried to make over the years and we hope to continue to make.
We are being marginalized by the theaters, you see. We’re being kicked out by the theaters.
What do young filmmakers need to get started?
Well I think the thing that they really need is that they have to express themselves creatively with film, narrative storytelling, visuals, because they have no choice, because they are driven to do it. They can’t sleep, they can’t eat, they can’t have a life unless they delve into this world. And you delve into it and you may come up empty but that’s what it is. So many great novelists have written books, and every one of the novels is great? They’re not. You know what I am saying? Some write terrible books, but that’s what they do, they can’t do anything else. Painting is the same thing, music. And so, I think once that spark is there, that’s the thing you have to nourish. And that has to be carried all the way through, especially if you start to get some success.
Success is a blessing, but on the other hand, one has to learn how to deal with it, because it could kill you in terms of your next picture, in terms of what you think is expected of you. And it was Orson Welles who said that as far as learning about film, he said you can learn everything you need to know about a camera and at the studio in about four hours. Now what do you do with it, that’s up to the student, that’s up to the filmmaker as he or she goes through 20 years of making some hits and then three or four films that are not considered hits, that years later are considered classics. But in the meantime, it’s all a struggle and a fight, it’s a struggle, and you can’t lose that enthusiasm.
Do you worry about the future in general, about the next generations?
I am not a politician, but I am still, from the last time I looked, still a human being. I have three daughters and a granddaughter. I am worried about what we’ve left them. I’m surprised at the things that we saw growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s that, against totalitarianism, for example, or looking at a film like A Face in the Crowd or Network, where a television personality becomes so powerful. These things I thought were almost like science fiction. I thought everyone had already agreed on all this and we were going to move forward from that, but things have gone back.
And I think they’ve gone back because a lot of people don’t remember. And there’s certain needs and there’s an inequality, of course, in terms of those who have and those who have not. There’s a lack of compassion, really, and a lack of dignity for other people, respect and dignity for other people and their cultures. Before fighting with them, get to know them a little bit and find out where they come from and who they are. Cinema for me opened up the world back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, opened up India and Japan, everywhere, and made me not only curious, but much more accepting of other cultures and ways of thinking. I’m not saying you have to be like them, I’m just saying that you realize they have a right to exist.