#LFF2019 Closes With Scorsese’s Impressive ‘The Irishman’

The 63rd edition of the BFI London Film Festival went out with a bang. After twelve days of such standout works as Pedro Costa’s Locarno winner ‘Vitalina Varela’; Robert Eggers’ gothic nightmare ‘The Lighthouse;’ Céline Sciamma’s masterful ‘Portrait Of A Lady On Fire’ and many more; its closing gala wrapped it up on a high note with one of the most awaited films of the year, Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman.’

In the last few weeks, we had been reading about the many controversies surrounding its long and difficult gestation; the involvement of Netflix; the use of a new (and arguably revolutionary) technology to de-age its protagonists (Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci on top of their game); the current, changing state of cinema… But perhaps the biggest headline we can take out if it is that ‘The Irishman’ is vintage Scorsese, called to rank among his finest works. The director; his two stars (De Niro -who also came for one of the LFF’s screen talks- and Pacino) and the film’s producers, Emma Tillinger Koskoff and Jane Rosenthal, gave a crammed press conference to present the film.

The origin of this project dated back to the 90’s. After decades of professional relationship and friendship between the director and De Niro, which begins in 1973, when they were twenty nine and thirty years old, with ‘Mean Streets’ and culminated in ‘GoodFellas’ (1990) and Casino (1995), they wanted to work together again. Initially they were interested in the story of Frankie Machine, a retired hitman whom in 2006’s Don Winslow wrote a novel about. Scorsese was showing De Niro, as potential cinematic influences for the project and his character, French noir classics such as Jean Gabin’s ‘Touchez Pas Au Grisbi;’ Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘Le Doulos’ or ‘Le deuxième souffle’.

When the actor went to direct his own film, ‘The Good Shephard’ (2006), its screnplay writer, Eric Roth gave him the book the film ultimately is based on, ‘I Heard You Paint Horses’ by Charles Brandt, a narrative nonficition research on Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran, a mafia hitman who work for the Buffalino Family and Jimmy Hoffa, confessing his murder, alongside many others. The story is prime gangster material, which fits perfectly well with the onscreen depiction of a mafia world Scorsese has been one of the principal creators of.

Producer Jane Rosenthal affirmed they were ready to commit and film ‘Frankie Machine,’ financed by Paramount, but in the middle of those conversations, De Niro proposed to research Brandt’s book or even combined the two stories. It was offered to him as a development project in 2007. Veteran writer Steve Zaillian came on board and it had the screenplay ready two years later. Soon they will call Joe Pesci and the rest of the team, but it took years to match everybody’s schedules. Scorsese was filming ‘Hugo’ and had ‘Silence’ already planned. In 2012 they did a first reading of the screenplay with everyone involved, but in spite of the general enthusiasm, the obstacles keep on coming on the film’s way, the biggest of which was that no one showed an interest to finance it. De Niro affirms the reading was strong, and “Marty” had gathered a lot of influential people who could make or break the project, but despite the positive reactions, the director joked, they still would not lend them the money.

Asked for the Netflix involvement, which in the end has made the project possible, and how the intervention of digital platforms in the industry is reshaping cinema, Scorsese said that Today’s cinema is experiencing a complete revolution, even bigger than the one generated by the arrival of sound. New technology is bringing things that were quite unimaginable and that is something extremely good for narrative films and stories told emphasizing motion picture images. The original conception of what a film is and where it is to be seen, he believes, has now changed so radically that we may have to say there’s a certain kind of film made for theatres; but also virtual reality; holograms etc. Defending to deal with those changes with an open mind, he also argued the need to protect the singular, communal experience of cinema, to see films with an audience, which in his opinion it is best on a theatre, even if now our homes are becoming theatres too.

He also affirmed they ran out of room to make this picture, for many different reasons, but mostly financial, in terms of the CGI they needed to use and its cost. Had they made the film earlier, the stars could have played younger, but at a certain point they missed that chance and using younger actors to play the characters at the earlier stages in their lives would not work. So they decided to experiment with those new CGI techniques which he compares to an extent to an evolution of makeup. “In the same way you accept certain norms in makeup to make someone older or younger”, you accept the illusion that CGI brings. From a viewer’s point of view this technique is quite a success. First impressions may take you down uncanny valley in the initial flashbacks of the film, but it all gels quite naturally and becomes if not seamless, something you get shortly used to and does not come in the way of its three lead actors’ remarkable performances.

After praising Netflix’s total support and lack of interference in the project; he continued with another of the subjects that have made headlines on some of his recent interviews. His opinion about the cinematic value of Marvel movies, saying that all these new ways will crossover and interweave creating brand new paths, but that the value of these superhero films turns the cinema into an amusement parks. He claims that they offer a different experience, not cinema, but something else, and we should not be invaded by it. On his opinion that is a big issue and we need the theatre owners to step back on this, allowing their screens to show more narrative films, which do not have to be the conventional structure of beginning, middle and end, but respect the rules of that cinema experience.

The producers affirm that the film will be in theatres and, even when it hits the digital platforms, it will continue to be in theatres, so the audience will have that choice. She affirmed ‘Roma’ is still in theatres around the world.

There was plenty of time for joking during the conference, when asked for the influence of Sergio Leone ‘Once Upon A Time In America’ on this film, Scorsese joked that apart from its underground milieu the similarities are that the film is very long and “Bob” (De Niro) is on it, but there is now way to think he was “doing Sergio.” De Niro and Pacino also joked about what it felt like looking at themselves younger thanks to this new technology. Pacino downplayed the effects of the technology, repeating Scorsese’s impression that this is more like a form of makeup that could change the image of things, but as an actor does not feel so different. As an actor, the screen legend claimed, you play your role and it does not matter what it looks like. He said he saw the film before the CGI was applied and it worked. The story and the way it was told visually carried his performance without thinking about anything else, also affirming the people the film characters were based on were also real and that may had influenced his reaction to it. Praising the new technique as certainly innovative and with lots of potential, he was more concerned about the way his character could tell the story.

To this respect, De Niro also joked he always thought his career would be extended for another thirty years and claimed to be curious about how this would evolve and its repercussions at different levels in the industry, namely, copyrights and legal aspects and “who gets what after they all are gone”…He is happy to be at the beginning stages of something whose exploration God knows where it will lead to. He also praised the work of Pablo Helman, responsible for the visual effects, for wanting to make it state of the art; an ambition that imbued the whole film. They carry on joking by affirming that another area you need to be aware with this technique “it’s also how you move..you go along “looking pretty” but suddenly you’ve got to get up” (making a creaking sound to indicate that then the years then show).

The good humour continued when they were asked for the biggest challenge in making the movie and Scorsese mockingly replied it was making the movie itself, cutting through all the issues on how you perceive a story, what is essential to get it told; the editing choices, pre-planned, on set and after, due to the complexity of this digital type of filming and technology and staying on point to the story and the characters, limiting everything else around that is getting in the way. About his working method he affirmed improvising on set he does not work for him, so he likes planning ahead carefully.

Ultimately with ‘The Irishman’ Scorsese hoped that in all those decades of close personal and professional relationship between him and De Niro, something had evolved and maybe deepened their ideas about life in a way that could be conveyed in the story; the performances and the way to put the film together; trying not to replicate what they were doing at the beginning of their careers. With ‘The Irishman’ they have amply fulfilled this goal. Frank Sheeran’s story works as an assuredly paced, slow-burning meditation on the twilight years of a mafia hitman, expertly told through flashbacks of his life, that serve both as a great addition to the existing canon of gangster films and a thoughtful reflection on the careers of Scorsese, De Niro and, by extension, Pacino -who works with the director for the first time- and a show stealing Joe Pesci. Netflix, which seems to be positioning the film as an Oscar contender in the same way it did last year with Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Roma’ may this time have in their hands its much anticipated winner.

The Irishman will be released theatrically on November the 1st in the US and November the 8th in the UK. It will be available on Netflix worldwide on November the 27th.

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