The life they're in

Martin Scorsese on moral choices, human nature and The Irishman

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The Irishman producers Emma Tillinger Koskoff and Jane Rosenthal with Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, and New York Film Festival Director Kent Jones at the press conference inside Alice Tully Hall
The Irishman producers Emma Tillinger Koskoff and Jane Rosenthal with Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, and New York Film Festival Director Kent Jones at the press conference inside Alice Tully Hall Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The world première of Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, based on Charles Brandt’s nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, screenplay by Steven Zaillian, shot by Rodrigo Prieto, edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, costumes by Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson, starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, opened the 57th New York Film Festival last night at Alice Tully Hall.

Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Martin Scorsese at The Irishman press conference
Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Martin Scorsese at The Irishman press conference Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At the press conference earlier in the day, moderated by the director of the New York Film Festival and Selection Committee Chair Kent Jones, Martin Scorsese and the stars were joined by producers Jane Rosenthal and Emma Tillinger Koskoff.

Robert De Niro is Frank Sheeran in The Irishman, the right-hand man to Al Pacino's Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa and Joe Pesci's Pennsylvania mob boss Russell Bufalino.

The story of hitman Sheeran, his mentor Bufalino and their intricate connections to the notorious union leader Hoffa is much more than a history of post-war organized crime. Spanning decades, the focus is on the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, plus a jump further back to the Second World War and a frame narrative closer to the present.

With the help of the latest digital de-aging technology, which you forget about after a few seconds, Scorsese and his splendid crew (fantastically detailed costumes and sets) give a sense of times past, meanwhile creating a timely visitation of where the now was born.

The Irishman director Martin Scorsese shares a laugh with Joe Pesci, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro
The Irishman director Martin Scorsese shares a laugh with Joe Pesci, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

This is what roots The Irishman’s timeless questions: What does it mean to do your job when that job involves killing people? What is the effect on your family? What does loyalty actually look like? How does the experience of war change everything? A broken double bracket, starting in a nursing home tale about a road trip, makes personal and national memories come alive.

Martin Scorsese talked about why he did not want to feed conspiracy theories and what was important for him.

Martin Scorsese: A decision had to be made very clearly, from even before I read the book [I Heard You Paint Houses]. Are we going to get into what could be considered conspiracy theories? What we wanted to deal with was the nature of who we are as human beings.

The love, the betrayal, guilt or no guilt, forgiveness or no forgiveness - all of this. Everything else that's played out, can be considered, and I'm not denigrating Charles Brandt's book or what Frank Sheeran may have said - because this is not Frank Sheeran in the film, it's some character we all created - may be considered something that is arguably to be contested. And I didn't want to muddy up the emotion and the power of what he was going through and what Bufalino [Pesci] had to deal with.

Al Pacino is Jimmy Hoffa and Robert De Niro is Frank Sheeran in The Irishman
Al Pacino is Jimmy Hoffa and Robert De Niro is Frank Sheeran in The Irishman Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

And of course Jimmy's [Pacino as Hoffa] sense of, you know, "I'm above the law". Nobody's above the law. [Long pause] Who says so? The higher ups. Who are the higher ups? Next thing you know, people are missing. Do you really have to know how they're missing? And who really did what? Who shot Joey Gallo? Really?

I mean, it's the life that they're in. It's the life they're in and they're human beings, you know. He's not a psychotic in that sense. He's a human being with experience and he finds himself - I'm talking about Frank [Sheeran played by De Niro]. What we were interested in, he finds himself at the most important point in his life in a conflict, a moral conflict, because he's basically a good man.

Yet he has to go through with it. Now how does a good man live with himself after that? So you want to deliver guns and this and that? It may be true by the way [the point in the book is about a gun delivery before the Kennedy assassination in Dallas]. I don't know.

Joe Pesci is Russell Bufalino in The Irishman
Joe Pesci is Russell Bufalino in The Irishman Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

But Charles Brandt, he knows all this stuff and he is, I believe he is working on another project that is going to get into that deeper. It's certainly … it's the old story: It walks like a duck, it quacks - it might be a duck. But ultimately, what happens if we know the truth of that time? Will our lives change now? What does it do to us as human beings? What does it say to us about our society now? About being above the law and being reckless? As Joey Gallo was and as Jimmy became.

Robert De Niro: I mean there was an intimation from Joe's character [Russell Bufalino].

MS: Yes, when he says "If they can knock out a President, they can knock out a president of the union." Yeah, that's the only one I allowed in, because you can interpret that, if you want, meaning: They knocked him out, we didn't knock him out. But people can be taken out - like a President, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, George Wallace shot.

I mean, in the Sixties everybody was being shot. That was the Sixties. We're in a similar situation now. In that way, in terms of, how shall we say, erasing people in a way. On every level. It's very dangerous. But, if you're reckless and you're out front you're the point man, you're going to get hit. As Joe said "It's going to happen. Whether you're in it or not. And if you're not in it, if I don't put you in it, then we'll go. It's on you."

Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino with Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in The Irishman
Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino with Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in The Irishman Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Scorsese continued to explain what lies at the timely heart of The Irishman.

MS: The movie, by the way, changed over the years. In other words, it all came together now and is released now, and we made the movie. But my feeling is that when JFK got killed, the shock, yes, was very strong, no doubt, but it was a kind of naiveté I felt in the country. I was about 21. But I knew this kind of naiveté can never happen here. It already happened. It was World War II. We were born during that, we don't remember. So it became a complacency, I think. There is a complacency that set in.

And one ignores the true dark forces that are in our nature. I'm not saying we're completely dark but it can easily take over. It doesn't happen. Maybe there's one gunshot, but it happens. It happens on every level, incrementally. And before you know it, it's over and the world has to start all over again, if at all.

The Irishman posters at Lincoln Center, Alice Tully Hall
The Irishman posters at Lincoln Center, Alice Tully Hall Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At this stage I don't see how. I think it's the awareness of … It isn't as simple as … It isn't simple. It isn't, oh everybody's a gangster! No, there's certain forces at work. There's certain needs, like in a relationship. One person changes, the other person changes, but they don't change together sometimes in their needs.

So when it comes into this it's about power. Power erases everything else. It's all about power. Money doesn't matter; it’s power. And, as you know, they'll do anything to keep the power.

The Irishman will be released in select theaters in the US on November 1 and on Netflix later in the year.

The 2019 New York Film Festival runs through October 13.

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