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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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A Comedy Show Where the Stand-Ups Strip Down

(Photo: Angeliea Stark)

“We let our comics have complete authority,” Alysia Hush emphasized over the phone. “If they want to get onstage and take off one shoe, that’s perfectly fine.” Hush is a co-founder, along with Marisa Riley, of Comedy Ugly, a stand-up show that happens monthly-ish at Easy Lover in Williamsburg. The twist? Their evening of curated comedy is also a body-positive strip tease. More →

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Ladytron Makes a Comeback, But Don’t Call It Electroclash

Mira Aroyo and Helen Marnie of Ladytron.

As a late arrival to the English electronic band Ladytron, I’ve commented that they sound like the truest and most direct descendants of ’80s synthpop—which turns out to be a deeply unoriginal take. But it’s so obvious to draw a line from dance floor legends like Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” or Yaz’s “Situation” straight to Ladytron soulcrushers like “Seventeen” or “Destroy Everything You Touch” and think, of course that’s where music wanted to go, as effortlessly as water or electricity. Also, they sound like they’re from another planet, or that we are, or that they’re visiting from both the past and the future— and if that doesn’t make sense, watch their new film for “Deadzone,” or just watch the video for “Seventeen” a few more times. 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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How Many Thousands of Calories Does It Take to Become San Gennaro’s Cannoli King and Zeppole Czar?

Selfie by Wayne Algenio.

Despite the ferris wheels and free piña coladas, the real attraction at this year’s San Gennaro festival was Queens native Wayne Algenio. He dominated the eating contests by winning two out of the three, first devouring 38 cannoli in six minutes on Friday, Sept. 13, then stuffing down 54 zeppoli in the same timeframe less than a week later. The only reason he didn’t represent at the meatball competition? He had signed up for a mac and cheese eating contest the same day (which he won).  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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Teens Walk Out, School Their Elders During NYC Climate Strike

(Photo: Jae Thomas)

Over 250,000 people took to the streets of downtown Manhattan Friday in support of the New York City Climate Strike. Many of these protesters were high school students, using their DoE-approved ditch day to march from Foley Square to Battery Park, demand climate reform and listen to activists plead their cases for the planet.  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 →