Why De Niro couldn’t refuse Scorsese’s Irishman
There's no question, Robert De Niro is a big game player - a giant of cinema, whose credits include some of the greatest movies ever made.
So when he teamed with contemporaries in excellence - including director Martin Scorsese and co-star Al Pacino - to make a film destined to exist largely on small screen streaming service, Netflix, it triggered headlines and heated debate.
Not for the quality of the performances or production, but because of the limited cinema release for The Irishman and the fear by multiplex owners this transition could mark a further deterioration of the big screen business.
Speaking to TV Guide/Watch as the controversy raged around him, De Niro - who plays the title character, Frank 'The Irishman' Sheeran - plays the pragmatist.
"It's inevitable," he says, of the decision to chase the greater reach streaming films and series television from the comfort of their home.
"You have to ride with it and figure out how you want to best tell your story and through what form - be it the small screen, through an iPhone, iWatch. It's not quite the same television these days. The movie played in theatres and that's a good thing for people who want to see it that way, but times are changing," he argues, "who knows where we'll be in ten years?"
The medium aside, the mafia crime saga - budgeted at US$160 million and running just shy of three-and-a-half hours - has been declared a "masterpiece" by critics.
Based on Charles Brandt's 2004 book, I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank 'The Irishman' Sheeran and the Closing of the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, Sheeran was a hitman for mafia don Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), who earned his painter credit by spraying his victims with bullets and 'decorating' with their blood.
The book evolved after Sheeran made a near-death confession to the author, taking responsibility for numerous assassinations, including that of Hoffa (played by Pacino), famed president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Hoffa's demise remains one of the great unsolved mysteries in American crime history.
Vanishing in 1975, he was declared legally dead in 1982, even though his body was never found.
At the time, Sheeran's confession was dismissed by FBI prosecutors, reporters and criminals, who knew him; but the events in the book rang true for De Niro.
"At the end of the day I don't know if this actually happened. It was a story, but to me a very plausible one.
And until there's a better answer, the story stands by itself. I personally feel that there's a very good chance it's true. Just from reading the book, it felt right to me."
The film is told through flashbacks with the help of pioneering age reversal technology - with the three key leads ageing in both directions over the course of the film.
"At first there was talk about younger actors who would play me and Al and Joe but then as time went on, technology improved. Then Marty decided to go with the idea from ILM and that was exciting to us because we could be in the film, but younger. What we did need help
with was a movement coach. He'd tap us on the back if we were too slouched, or when we were not spry enough," he chuckles.
"It was pointed out to me that I was stepping a little too carefully going down the stairs," he smiles. "As a 39-year-old, I would be kind of bouncing. And I did it again but Marty cut it out anyway," the 76-year-old shrugs.
"I've joked about it saying, 'This technology has added 30 years to my career'."
Joining the illustrious cast is Harvey Keitel in a supporting role as mobster, Angelo Bruno; while Flack's Anna Pacquin turns in a haunting performance as Sheeran's daughter, despite uttering just six words of dialogue.
For those who marvelled at his incomparable performances in The Godfather II (1974), Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980); and those who questioned recent career choices in films like New Year's Eve (2011) or Dirty Grandpa (2016), this is a return to good form for the superstar - crediting Scorsese for lifting his game.
"I do feel with the movies I've done with Marty, they are always very special. That can never be taken away from me, or from us."
Indeed, the performances by icons Pacino and De Niro - no matter the viewing format - are highlights of the film.
"Al and I have known each other since we were in our 20s," De Niro notes.
"We get together from time to time and talk about stuff we feel is hard to talk about with a lot of people who have not been in similar situations. It's been a good thing for both of us."
He pauses: "I remember being with Al at a premiere about 14 years ago and we agreed that we would like to one day do something for the fans that we're really proud of, and I said to him on his last day of shooting, 'Do you remember that time we spoke about this?' And
he said, 'Hopefully we're happy with it because we had a good time doing it.'"
De Niro smiles, adding: "We knew The Irishman was the right one for us."
* The Irishman, streaming Netflix, via Foxtel iQ4.