7 things we learned from Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro came to the BFI in 2019 to talk about everything from his early days with Martin Scorsese to his views on Donald Trump. Here's what we learned.

14 October 2019

By Matthew Thrift

Robert De Niro

He’s one of the greatest actors of his generation, so it’s little surprise that the return ticket queue for the LFF Screen Talk with Robert De Niro began at 7am. Often a man of few words in the context of an interview, the actor-director was on great form for his 90-minute conversation with film critic Ian Hayden Smith, their chat hitting the major peaks of a 50-year career in cinema, including The Irishman, his latest collaboration with Martin Scorsese. Here are a few things we learned from the Screen Talk.

1. About the early days, and choosing film over theatre

“At that time, doing a movie like Greetings (1968) or Hi, Mom! (1970), you were considered lucky as an actor to be doing a film. It was an independent film, but it was a film. I preferred doing movies, I gravitated towards them. Part of it was that those were the things that were being offered to me, though I could have done plays later on. I enjoy movies, and I like the fact that you can shift them around and they last forever.”

2. About first meeting Martin Scorsese

“I knew Marty when I was a kid, a teenager in Little Italy, but we didn’t hang out together. We had mutual friends, like one who would tell me that Marty’s interested in directing, he’s doing this play and stuff like that. Then in my early 20s, when Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) came out, I saw that and met Marty at a mutual friend’s – I think it was Christmas Eve or something. I thought it was a terrific movie and I understood a lot of what he was doing, and then we talked about Mean Streets (1973) and over the next month or two, or maybe longer, he offered me one of three parts. I was going back and forth with him over which one to do; then I ran into Harvey Keitel in the street and he told me I should do the Johnny Boy part and blah blah blah, so I did that.”

Mean Streets (1973)

“I remember Cinema One and Cinema Two in New York, and I had Marty and Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) director John Hancock take a picture under the marquee where that and Mean Streets were playing.”

“[Working with Marty] some things you understand automatically, others you have to clarify. A lot of it is there, and a lot of it is just going for it, and Marty will make an adjustment here or there. That’s pretty much the way we do it.”

3. About The Godfather Part II (1974)

“I always thought Coppola was locked into Jimmy Caan for Sonny. I wanted to do Sonny. Everybody knew that Francis wanted Al for the part of Michael, but the producers wanted him to see people, I guess, so he was doing it to satisfy them, and he was probably getting a lot of pressure to have somebody with a name, who might not have been right for it.”

The Godfather Part II (1974)

“I had an outline of what to do behaviour-wise. I went to the Paramount building with one of the producers and we took an old reel-to-reel thing and put a camera on a tripod facing the screen, so whenever the scenes of Brando came on I videotaped them. I took those and studied them over and over quite a lot. So I had them, and whatever Francis wanted me to do, I always had those parameters to stay within, what Brando had done. That’s how I looked at it.”

“I was ok with what I’d learned, but to actually speak the language is another thing. My real concern was to know what I was given. When I was in Sicily I’d go to one town and they’d say things one way, then I’d go to another town and they’d say things another way. So I had these variations on the dialect. I finally settled on a Sicilian guy who lived in LA, and if there were overlaps, we just had to lock-in on one way – the best, common Sicilian pronunciation that we could, otherwise I’d go crazy. It was phonetic, but I knew everything I was saying. I just had to practise a lot to do it.”

4. About Raging Bull (1980)

“I’d read the book when I was doing 1900 (1976). One of Jake’s friends gave it to me. I read it and I said, ‘Marty, this is an interesting book. It’s not a great book, it’s not great literature, but it’s got a lot of heart.’ There were certain things that I wanted to do. I’d seen Jake LaMotta around New York. He was very overweight, a bouncer at this club. He stood practically on the street when you walked down Broadway. I just thought the graphic difference between what he was as a fighter and when he got so overweight was something, for me, so strong and powerful. I wanted to see how far I could get doing that. So we talked about creating this space of time where I would gain as much weight as I could. We shot one scene where I gained like 15 or 20 pounds, I was out of shape; we did that in like two days in this four-month break.”

Raging Bull (1980)

“The first 15-20 pounds are fun, then after that it’s just pure drudgery, it’s not fun. And it’s not easy to take off. I did 60 pounds in four months. The first 40 you just go back to your old eating habits, but you’ve got to be careful, not letting yourself down too quickly, but then after that those last 15-20 pounds are always the problem.”

5. About The King of Comedy (1982)

“I liked The King of Comedy. The script was written by a critic for Newsweek at the time. I liked the character – it was fun. I remember dragging Marty around, saying ‘We’re gonna turn the tables on these autograph hounds, the ones following us around. We’re gonna ask them questions.’ And I did. I got to know a few of them and went to their houses, went into their basements and saw their whole thing. We kept the basement idea in King of Comedy from this guy Vinnie. One of them became a photographer for one of the tabloids in New York, which didn’t surprise me. It was all fitting. I saw this mannequin in one of these Vegas-type stores that’s no longer on Broadway. It was in these flashy, Vegas-type clothes. We went in and took the whole thing, even the hairstyle on the mannequin. Not the mannequin itself, although I wish we had, we could have used that.”

The King of Comedy (1982)

6. About directing A Bronx Tale (1993) and The Good Shepherd (2006)

Robert De Niro at the 63rd BFI London Film Festival

“I’d heard about this one-man show that Chazz Palminteri was doing; it was the thing that everyone was talking about. So I went to see it in LA with Chazz. I said, ‘I wanna do something. If I can do this I’m gonna do it.’ I spoke to him, and he had all kinds of offers from everybody else. One thing he wanted was to play Sonny, so I promised him that he could. I said, ‘What’s going to happen is that they’re going to buy it from you for a lot of money, tell you that you’re gonna play Sonny and they’re not gonna honour that. You have no guarantee unless you have it in writing. And then they’re gonna come to me to play Sonny. Just eliminate that middle step. Say you’re gonna do it, I’ll play the father, you play Sonny and let’s get the money to do the movie.”

“I spent a lot of time casting kids that were from that world, so that when I put them in an improvisation they’d know what to do. Even if they got stuck, being stuck would be interesting.”

“I liked the script [for The Good Shepherd] very much, but it was hard to get it financed. First I had Leo DiCaprio, but then Leo couldn’t do it because he was doing The Departed (2006) with Marty and that conflicted with my schedule. I was on that train and I couldn’t get off because everything was already set up. If I stopped, I wouldn’t be able to rev it up again. I wanted to be in The Departed – Marty offered me that but I couldn’t do it because of this. Then I went and got Matt Damon. The script was great, and I’ve always been interested in that world. There was a longer version, but I had to cut stuff out, stuff with the brother. If people were interested I might resurrect that cut, I could do that.”

7. About Donald Trump

“Today, everything’s been turned upside down by Trump, because he’s such a dirty player. It’s amazing to me that he has just upended it, and is getting away with it. He won’t get away with it forever, but he’s getting away with saying these things about every institution, and we have to defend these institutions – and the fourth estate, the press – because he’s trying to destroy them. For only one reason, to save himself. We all know this, everyone knows this. It’s pretty disgusting that we’ve got Republicans there that are so afraid to do anything, so afraid to stand up. They could be stars in their own communities, and some are. They could go into private practice and make more money, and stand up and be very vocal against him. I don’t know why they don’t do that. Certain senators could pull out, get out and say, ‘I can’t be in this administration, I’ve got to speak out constantly against this administration.’ We’ve got to right this wrong.”

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