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The Backwards Aging in Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’ Is Uncanny, and De Niro Didn’t Have to Put Balls On His Face

(Photo: Netflix)

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!”

L to R: Producers Emma Tillinger Koskoff and Jane Rosenthal with Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, and NYFF director Kent Jones. (Photo: Daniel Maurer)

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.

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Separating Truth From Fiction in Pedro Almodóvar’s Most Personal Film, ‘Pain and Glory’

Banderas and Almodóvar at Lincoln Center.

This month at New York Film Festival, two esteemed foreign auteurs are showing films looking back on their lives and careers. Varda by Agnès, by Belgian filmmaker Agnès Varda, is a straight documentary. But Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, which opens Oct. 4 after its NYFF run, isn’t quite that. It’s a fictional portrayal of Salvador Mallo, an accomplished, aging writer-director— played by longtime Almodóvar collaborator Antonio Banderas—who is suffering from depression, physical ailments, social isolation, a late-onset heroin habit, and—as a result of all this—a fear that he’ll never make another film. More →

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Warby Parker, Everlane and Others Join the Retail Frenzy On ‘Brooklyn’s Hottest Street’

Everlane. (Photos: Daniel Maurer)

When Williamsburg got a Toms shoe store and cafe last year, you knew a Warby Parker couldn’t be far behind. Well, here she is: Warby came to 124 North 6th Street just this past weekend. Outside is a mural by Stephen “ESPO” Powers; inside, an array of hipster-friendly glasses— including Warby’s new $195-and-up collection— and a tastefully curated selection of books by authors like Zadie Smith and David Rakoff. Naturally, you can purchase the 33 1/3 treatise on David Bowie’s Low. More →

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For Tim and Eric Fans, a Live Tour and a Very Trumpian Mockumentary

If you noticed that Tim Heidecker has a new movie coming out and thought, “But I want Tim & Eric,” well: You can haz both. Not only is Heidecker starring in Mister America, opening Oct. 9, but he’s also doing a string of live shows with his longtime comedy partner Eric Wareheim. The Tim & Eric 2020 Mandatory Attendance Tour kicks off Jan. 15 in Australia and comes to Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre on Feb. 11. More →

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Philip Glass Is Touring ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ and Working On a New Project With Its Director

Reggio and Glass as ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ plays.

The single most elucidating moment of my very expensive liberal arts education was the time my sociology professor popped a VHS in the VCR. He didn’t do a word of teaching that day; whether he was hungover, hadn’t prepared a lesson that day, or just wanted to watch us trip out, the film he played blew my mind. It was Koyaanisqatsi.  More →

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There’s a Great Doc About ’80s Post-Punk Shows in the Desert, and Their Organizer Is Ready to Rock Again

Savage Republic at Mojave Exodus near Lucerne Valley, CA 1983 (Photo: Scot Allen)

The email from Rooftop Films came hours before last night’s screening of Desolation Center at Green-Wood Cemetery in Sunset Park: “No standing, sitting, or leaning on any gravestone (no matter how sturdy it looks).” Apparently Lee Ranaldo didn’t get the memo, because during a post-screening performance involving an electric guitar suspended from a crane, the Sonic Youth member hopped onto the edge of an obelisk and ran his instrument across the stone to produce a howl that sounded all the more unholy under the full moon. More →

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13 Awesome Finds at the East Village’s New Asian Supermarket

The ramen aisle. (Photos: Daniel Maurer)

The East Village lost a sprawling Asian grocery when M2M closed two years ago, but now, just a block away at 39 Third Avenue, the NYU area has gained H Mart, a Korean-American supermarket overflowing with imported Asian delicacies. The first H Mart opened in Woodside, Queens in 1982, and the chain now has dozens of locations across the country. Like its Koreatown outpost, this one boasts an entire aisle of instant ramen and entire freezers packed with frozen dumplings. There’s a kimchi corner, shelves upon shelves of obscure candies and crackers, and, for the connoisseur, multiple brands of preserved duck egg. Here are some of the delightful finds we encountered as we browsed the aisles to the soothing sounds of K-pop.

1. Cellulite roller

It’s not quite as Insta-trendy as a jade roller, but the package makes a convincing argument: “Let’s care for your body in the everyday bath room!” 

2. Itty, bitty soft-serve cones

Unlike Mister Softee cones, which fill you with calories and regret, these lil guys are about the size of your thumb.

3. Silkworm pupae

The last time I encountered these critters was at Jumong Pocha in Fort Lee, New Jersey. I had to eat a family-size portion because my dinner companion was unwilling to help. Her loss! They snap and crackle in your mouth, kind of like giant, dirt-flavored Rice Krispies.

4. Corn ice cream on the cob

This has been called a “Korean corn ice cream novelty fail,” but I couldn’t disagree more. Where sweet-corn ice cream covered in chocolate smut is concerned, a faux-cob wafer beats a cone every time.

5. Durian pops

A wise man (Anthony Bourdain) once said that durian tastes “as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother,” and the popsicle version is no exception. Refreshing though it may be, it’ll still stink up an office (apologies to my coworkers, if they’re reading this) and it still tastes like an onion that’s been sitting in a dumpster—albeit a dumpster on a snowy day.

6. DIY tapioca balls

Add these tapioca pearls—made from tapioca starch, water, corn starch, guar gum, and a chemistry lab’s worth of additives— to boiling water and, after they’ve floated to the surface, cook them for two or three minutes. After 20 seconds in cold water, they’re ready to be plopped into your drink of choice. Conveniently, H Mart has an entire tea section stocked with boba powder and Thai iced tea bags.

7. Dubiously named wafers

Yes, the name of these matcha and chocolate cookies translates (in Flengrish) to “ass cookies.” But they’re actually quite delicious, making them the perfect conversation piece at your next dinner party. 

8. Canned tuna endorsed by a hot guy

Too much tuna? Not for this stud who is totally feeling his tuna in canola oil. Clearly, the spokesman for this Dong Won product is a Dong Won don juan.

9. Bean-curd jerky on a stick

This rubbery faux beef jerky is made from soybean curd that’s slathered in a spicy Sichuan sauce. Curd this be love?

10. $3.60 caviar

H Mart’s sushi fridge includes several varieties of fish eggs. Squirt a little bit of Kewpie mayo on this combination of flying fish and herring roe and you’ve got some seriously low-rent caviar service.

11. Single-serving pour-over pouches

Sorry, coffee dweebs, I’m not about to waste precious minutes grinding beans and waiting for the “bloom” atop a Chemex. Pop one of these pouches full of ground coffee onto your mug, pour hot water in, and boom, you’ve got your morning cuppa.

12. Milk shake nipple

(Photo via Villa Market)

Squeezing a pouch and sucking ice cream out of a plastic nipple is seriously addictive, and that’s why I had to use a stock photo of Snow Ice instead of buying it and photographing it myself. I cannot be trusted around this stuff. The manufacturer, Lotte, promises “countless moments of heart fluttering,” and that is not overstating it, particularly when it comes to the Milk Shake and Cookies & Cream varieties. The pouches come in bags of five that you tear open like a desperate animal.

13. The world’s spiciest instant ramen

Described by the world’s best-worst competitive eater, LA Beast, as the “spiciest ramen noodles in existence” (be warned: the above video does not end well), these noodz are no joke. Slurp them down and the snot will be flowing within seconds; your lips will feel like they’ve been rubbed down with sandpaper slathered in Mala sauce. Seriously, the last time I ate something this punishingly hot was when I made the mistake of ordering a “Thai spicy”-level papaya salad at Thai Rock, in Rockaway Beach, and was told there would be no refund if I couldn’t finish. If you attempt this, keep a few of those miniature soft-serve cones handy.