Thursday 19 September 2019

The Irishman: Scorsese, Netflix and the film that nearly vanished

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

Spiralling costs: Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa and De Niro as Frank Sheeran on the set of The Irishman
Spiralling costs: Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa and De Niro as Frank Sheeran on the set of The Irishman
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

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 17th-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 heist depicted in Goodfellas. But despite the apparent similarities between the two movies, Scorsese has insisted that The Irishman will be a very different proposition. "The people are older in The Irishman," he explained last year, "it's certainly more about looking back, a retrospective so to speak of a man's life and the choices that he's had to make."

In addition, The Irishman has been created quite differently to Scorsese's previous films. While the average movie would have around 50 scenes, The Irishman has almost 300. Scorsese is famous for his painstaking approach to film-making: he meticulously storyboards each scene in advance, and plans every single shot.

But this careful approach - used to great effect in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and that celebrated tracking shot through a nightclub in Goodfellas - has been cast aside for The Irishman. As he explained at Cannes this year, this time he was winging it, "working out the angles" as he worked while on location in New York. Filming reportedly dragged on for 106 days, making it Scorsese's longest shoot to date.

All of which makes it one of the most eagerly anticipated films of 2019. Netflix are certainly hoping so. According to industry sources, they agreed to Scorsese's demand that The Irishman be given a cinema release before it's streamed: up to now, it has been standard practice for Netflix-produced movies to bypass the cinemas altogether, or else release and stream on the same day. They've apparently given Scorsese's film a two-week pre-streaming window, but it remains to be seen how many territories The Irishman will actually get a cinema release.

There's a strong possibility, in fact, that the film will only get a pre-streaming release in China, due to the fact that a production company called STX retains distribution rights to The Irishman there, in a territory where Netflix do not currently operate. This would raise yet another irony in Scorsese's involvement with Netflix: back in 1997, Chinese authorities banned his film Kundun, which was based on the writings of the Dalai Lama and was strongly critical of China's occupation of Tibet.

Netflix, however, won't be too worried about all that, and may even be hoping that Scorsese will be the wooden horse that finally gets them accepted into the closed club that is the Cannes Film Festival.

At this year's event, simmering tensions exploded when Cannes effectively banned Netflix films from competition because of their contemptuous attitude to theatrical release.

Scorsese is a darling at the festival, where's he won a Palme d'Or and a Best Director award.

Cannes might be prepared to lift the ban in exchange for the chance to premiere The Irishman, and that really would be a victory for Netflix.

Frank Sheeran (inset)was born in 1920 on the outskirts of Philadelphia, and raised in a working-class Irish-American family. He joined the US army in 1941, became an infantryman and would experience 411 days of combat during World War II, including the invasion of Sicily and the Battle of Monte Cassino.

In his later conversations with lawyer and writer Charles Brandt, Sheeran claimed that his disregard for human life began in the war, when he took part in the summary execution of German prisoners.

After the war he became a trucker, and entered the orbit of the Bufalino crime family, who recognised his flair for violence and paid him to kill enemies. He was also taken under the wing of Jimmy Hoffa, the corrupt and dissolute Teamsters union leader, who hired Frank as a trusted bodyguard.

According to the confessions dictated to Brandt, Sheeran betrayed that trust by luring Hoffa to a house in suburban Detroit in 1975, and killing him with two shots to the back of the head. According to Sheeran, he then cremated the body.

However, that claim has been hotly disputed, some of Sheeran's assertions are confusing and contradictory, and no physical evidence relating to Hoffa's disappearance has ever emerged. And Frank 'The Irishman' Sheeran, who died in 2003, may not have been the most reliable witness: he also claimed he had intimate knowledge of the JFK assassination.

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