The Irishman: why Scorsese and De Niro $175m gangster epic is Netflix's biggest gamble yet
The Irishman has been in the works for more than a decade, but now 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, recently joked, “I could be dead before the premiere.”
Already tipped as an Oscar favourite, 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 who directed his career-defining performances in Raging Bull and Goodfellas.
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 – used to great effect in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas – has been thrown out the window for The Irishman. As he explained at Cannes this year, 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 Scorsese's longest ever shoot.
Despite the obvious similarities between the two films, Scorsese insists that The Irishman will be very different from Goodfellas. “The people are older in The Irishman," he said in 2017. "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.”
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's even told De Niro as much after meeting the actor at a 2014 dinner: “De Niro had a lot of pride that he is doing the real story,” Moldea told the New York Post. “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. His fellow septuagenarian Pacino, 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, in which Brad Pitt's character was born as an elderly man and aged backwards into smooth-faced childhood. 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 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. “Scorsese’s movie is a risky deal, and Paramount is not in the position to take risks," one insider told IndieWire at the time. Paramount had previously been burnt by the box office failure of the last Scorsese film it distributed, 2016's somber 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 would later write in a eulogy for Grey.
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 $105 million 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 and home entertainment. “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.
Read more: Is Netflix killing cinema?
If Netflix chooses not to distribute The Irishman in cinemas, Scorsese's fans could have to fly to China to watch it on the big screen. It's an odd quirk of the nuanced legal complexities (or "panic and confusion", as Deadline put it) caused by Netflix taking on its distribution.
STX, the company which bought the international rights back in 2016 for $50m, now retains those rights only in Netflix-less China – a country which hasn't been kind to Scorsese's work in the past, banning his controversial Dalai Lama film Kundun.
It is ironic that China could give The Irishman its widest cinema release, while 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, particularly after awarding him one of their highest honours, the Carrosse d'Or, just this year.
The Irishman is the kind of major release that film festivals will be scrabbling to host. It wouldn't be a surprise if Cannes were to lift the Netflix ban for Scorsese – a major PR victory for the streaming giant. If they do, Netflix's gamble will have paid off.