If you recently saw Robert De Niro looking like a hostage victim as he got ruthlessly dragged in The Comedy Central Roast of Alec Baldwin, you might’ve worried that there’d be no way to take him seriously in Martin Scorsese’s new film The Irishman, which premieres tonight at the New York Film Festival, and lands in theaters and on Netflix in November. Well, worry not, De Niro nails it as Frank Sheeran, a mafia associate and Teamsters higher-up who is forced to negotiate his increasingly irreconcilable loyalties to Jimmy Hoffa and the Bufalino crime family.
The film is based on I Heard You Paint Houses, the book written by Sheeran’s former attorney Charles Brandt based on hundreds of hours of interviews with the self-professed hitman (as we learn early in the film, “painting houses” means spackling them with blood). It clocks in at a hefty three and a half hours and jumps around from 1949 through 2000, which means we watch De Niro age as he goes from being a lowly truck driver who is tapped to steal cuts of meat for a mafia-connected steakhouse (his well-placed lawyer, played by Ray Romano, has no trouble getting him off), to northeast crime don Russell Bufalino’s right-hand man and the president of a union local. During flashbacks, De Niro looks as if he has stepped right out of his much earlier Scorsese collaborations, Casino and Goodfellas. Same with his Casino castmate Joe Pesci, who came out of unofficial retirement to reunite with Scorsese and De Niro.
To simulate this youthfulness, Industrial Light & Magic had to develop a “de-aging” effect that “wouldn’t interfere with Bob and Joe and Al [Pacino] talking to each other,” Scorsese said during a press conference at Lincoln Center earlier today. The director made it clear to visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman that his actors would refuse to do their jobs “with helmets on or tennis balls on their faces.”
With that in mind, ILM developed a technology that didn’t require rigging and instead relied on a massive three-lens camera—sometimes two of them when two actors were in a scene—to capture footage for digital altering.
Scorsese’s director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto, worried about the logistics of using the so-called “three-eyed monster,” Scorsese said. “He was concerned about it getting into these tight corners and everything. I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll find a way.’”
With some 117 locations and 309 scenes on the docket, the expense of carrying nine cameras made the film prohibitive to make. It was “a costly experiment,” Scorsese said. “We couldn’t get the backing—there was no way—for years.” After Netflix agreed to finance the film– reportedly to the tune of $140 million— it was all systems go.
To put ILM’s visual effects to the test, De Niro reenacted a scene from Goodfellas. When the actor saw the “de-aged” footage alongside footage from the original film, the physical resemblance to his younger self was uncanny. “I can extend my career another 30 years!” he remembered joking.
Pacino, who got his impression of Jimmy Hoffa down by walking around onset listening to speeches by the fiery union boss, was similarly impressed by the test. “They showed me this thing of Bob doing Goodfellas and I thought, ‘Why’s he doing this again? I’m watching it and I thought, ‘What happened?’ Later, after it was over, I said, ‘Wait a minute, isn’t he old or something? I didn’t see that in the movie. How did he do that?’ You know, he’s such a great actor, but now? Wow, he’s Meryl Streep!”
Scorsese made clear that the de-aging process went beyond just digital deepfakery. “It isn’t just about lenses and computer imagery,” he said of simulating youth. “It’s about posture, it’s about movement, it’s about clarity of the eyes, everything. So there were people on each element dealing with the actors on this.”
The complexity of the process became apparent on the first day Scorsese filmed Al Pacino. The director recalled shooting a scene in which Hoffa jumped out of a chair. A crew member came over to remind Scorsese that his actor was supposed to be 49 in the scene.
Reluctantly, Scorsese walked over to Pacino and told him, “Al, it’s fine, the only thing is when you get out of the chair you’re supposed to be 49.”
Pacino “started to go, ‘Oh, God, oh, ok,’” Scorsese recalled. “So we do the next take. I said, ‘What do you think?”
The verdict: Pacino, who is 79, had gotten it down to 62.
“I said, ‘No, we gotta get down to 49,’” Scorsese recounted.
“Young again!” Pacino quipped from the stage of Alice Tully Hall.
If the actors had to be de-aged, so did Little Italy, for the recreation of the 1972 murder of Joey Gallo (played by Andy Garcia) at Umberto’s Clam House. Scorsese originally wanted to shoot the scene in Little Italy, where he grew up, but the neighborhood had become too touristy. As you’ll recall, the scenes were instead shot on the Lower East Side in August and November of 2017. According to production notes, Scorsese had reservations about shooting on the corner of Orchard and Broome, since the street appeared to be much wider than Mulberry Street. He eventually agreed to film there, but only after the street was measured and proved to be a mere two feet wider.
While Sheeran recounts the hit at Umberto’s, he notes that it’s always wise to go into the bathroom before killing someone in a restaurant—to make sure no one’s in there, but also because it “gives you a chance to go to the bathroom; you don’t want to be uncomfortable.” It’s a perfect example of Sheeran’s deadpan, dutiful approach to killing. When Sheeran pays a price for this life of crime, it becomes clear that he’s no one to emulate. But if you plan to watch The Irishman when the multi-hour epic hits theaters Nov. 1—and you should do this instead of waiting to see it on Netflix Nov. 27—you’ll probably want to heed his advice about using the bathroom.