Betting on The Irishman
It's been a decade in the making, but Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro's $175m gangster epic is Netflix's biggest gamble yet, writes Tristram Fane Saunders
It has been in the works for more than a decade, but now The Irishman, Martin Scorsese's passion project, has finally wrapped and is set for release next year. It has taken a long, troubled journey to reach this point - and everyone involved is still holding their breath. As one cast member, Goodfellas actor Bo Dietl, joked: "I could be dead before the premiere."
Already tipped as an Oscar hopeful, the film is based on a true story every bit as extraordinary as that of Goodfellas' Henry Hill. The Irishman of the title is Mafia hitman Frank Sheeran, who claimed to have killed 25 people for the mob - including union leader Jimmy Hoffa, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1975.
First mooted in 2008, the film lingered in development hell for years until it was picked up by Paramount and Mexico's Fábrica de Cine in 2016. Scorsese quickly assembled a cast that should have been enough to guarantee a box-office success on their names alone.
Robert De Niro stars as Sheeran (in his 10th Scorsese film), while Al Pacino plays Hoffa, working with the director for the first time. Joe Pesci reportedly turned down his role in the film 50 times, before finally being coaxed out of retirement by the Oscar winner.
Everything seemed set - and then in February last year, Paramount and Fábrica pulled out. Why did they get cold feet? The answer, as it is in so many Mafia stories, is to follow the money. Fábrica had originally agreed to a budget of $100m, but that figure had crept up to $125m even before the cameras began rolling. As of this March, the film's reported budget had swollen to $175m. If that figure is accurate, it would make The Irishman the most expensive film Scorsese has ever made.
The spiralling cost is partly due to the film's ambition. The average movie might have around 50 scenes; The Irishman has almost 300. Scorsese is usually known for his not-a-shot-wasted perfectionism, painstakingly storyboarding each scene. But this careful approach has been thrown out the window for The Irishman. As he explained at Cannes, this time he was winging it, "working out the angles" on the hoof while on location in New York. Filming reportedly dragged on for 106 days, making it his longest ever shoot.
But not everybody is thrilled about the prospect of Sheeran's life story reaching the screen. Scorsese's film is based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses, in which the hitman regales author - and Sheeran's lawyer - Charles Brandt with his account of luring Hoffa to a house in Detroit in 1975, "whacking" him with two bullets to the back of the head, then cremating the body.
Dan Moldea, author of the book The Hoffa Wars, dismisses Sheeran as "a pathological liar", and is convinced that Hoffa was in fact killed by a mob enforcer named Salvatore "Sally Bugs" Briguglio. He even told De Niro as much at a 2014 dinner: "De Niro had a lot of pride that he is doing the real story," Moldea said. "I told him that he's been conned."
De Niro not only narrates the film as an elderly Sheeran, but also plays the hitman in numerous flashback scenes that span the course of his life. Pulling this trick off called for complex digital de-aging to allow the 74-year-old actor to play Sheeran at the age of 30. Pacino (78), meanwhile, will be aged back to 39.
The effects come courtesy of George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic, the company which provided similar CGI work for 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. This kind of technical wizardry isn't cheap - and that expense proved the deciding factor in the film being dropped by Fábrica and Paramount last February.
"We quickly realized that Marty and De Niro really thought that the aging process was going to be a very important aspect of this film," Fábrica's financier-producer Gaston Pavlovich explained. "The traditional [business] model was not going to work with this new vision of the project... [we could not] risk that amount [of money] when all our data was telling us that it was not going to come back."
From the outside, The Irishman was beginning to look like Scorsese's own Heaven's Gate - the film that ruined Michael Cimino, and a dire warning that allowing a talented director to pursue their dream isn't always smart financial sense. Paramount had previously been burnt by the box office failure of Scorsese's 2016 religious drama Silence.
The director's closest ally at Paramount, CEO Brad Grey, had just lost his job after a management power struggle at the studio. He died just three months later. "He didn't just support me - he protected me," Scorsese later wrote in a eulogy.
Without Scorsese's 'protector' around to speak up for his film, it's no surprise Paramount were happy to offload it on Netflix. The deep-pocketed streaming service has reportedly paid $105m for the rights, and agreed to cover its rapidly mounting production costs.
For Netflix, landing a filmmaker of Scorsese's pedigree is an undeniable coup, and by saving his film from the brink, they made the director an offer he couldn't refuse. But the old cinephile has, in the past, been less than complimentary about streaming. "The problem now is that it is everything around the frame that is distracting," he grumbled last year. "Now you can see a film on an iPad... it is not the best way."
According to Variety, he asked Netflix to guarantee The Irishman would have a full cinema release, and sources have claimed he was promised a two-week window (to ensure the film would be eligible for the Oscars). But when pushed by the film industry journal, Netflix declined to confirm whether a cinema release was on the table.
Meanwhile, Scorsese's spiritual home - the Cannes Film Festival, where he made his debut with Mean Streets and won the Palm D'Or for Taxi Driver - could refuse to screen it. This year Cannes effectively banned Netflix after a row over their day-and-date release model (which puts films online the same day they hit cinemas). It would be embarrassing for Cannes to miss out on premiering Scorsese's latest after awarding him one of their highest honours, the Carrosse d'Or, this year.
The Irishman is the kind of film festivals love to host. It wouldn't be a surprise if Cannes lifted the ban for Scorsese - a major PR victory for the streaming giant. If they do, Netflix's gamble will have paid off.