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“I Heard You Paint Houses”
The Irishman marked Martin Scorsese’s return to the Mob genre for the first time since the 2006 Best Picture-winner The Departed. The Irishman is based on the Charles Brandt nonfiction book, I Heard You Paint Houses, which tells the story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran — a hitman tied to the Bufalino crime family who claimed, on his deathbed, to have murdered Teamster leader and iconic cold case Jimmy Hoffa.
The Irishman’s title first surfaced back in 2010 when Scorsese began developing the project with his long-time collaborator, Robert De Niro. Earlier that year, Scorsese had released the mystery thriller Shutter Island, and a week later, the pilot he directed for Boardwalk Empire aired on HBO.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Steve Zaillian, nominated for Best Screenplay four times and won once, for Schindler’s List, and Scorsese worked together before, on Gangs Of New York. Scorsese tends to use screenwriters he’s comfortable with at this point in his career, and Zaillian more than fits that bill.
Scorsese and De Niro have made eight films together — one of the most fruitful and consistent creative partnerships in the history of film.
Pesci has had supporting roles in three Scorsese pictures (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino) and was reportedly recruited out of retirement for The Irishman.
Scorsese had never worked with Al Pacino before, despite the actor’s lengthy career and his role in one the greatest crime sagas not made by Scorsese, The Godfather.
De Niro and Pacino, on the other hand, have collaborated three times now: in The Godfather II (where they did not share any scenes), the Michael Mann classic Heat, and the less-than-classic Righteous Kill.
Scorsese had known Pacino for nearly 50 years before finally directing him in this movie. The director explained –
“I’d been wanting to work with Al [Pacino] for years. Francis [Ford] Coppola introduced me to him in 1970. Then, he’s in The Godfather I and II, and he’s in the stratosphere.”
“For me, Al was always something unreachable. We even tried to make a film in the 1980s, but couldn’t get the financing for it. I said, ‘What’s he like to work with?”
De Niro replied –
“Oh, he’s great. You’ll see.’”
Harvey Keitel and Scorsese have made five movies together, including Scorsese’s directorial debut, Who’s That Knocking At My Door.
Scorsese has said that the main reason why he cast Anna Paquin to play the older version of Peggy, Frank’s daughter, was that she’s great at communicating emotions non-verbally. The director had been aware of her knack for this kind of acting since he produced Margaret, which Paquin starred in.
Due to Paquin’s casting in The Irishman, Scorsese told screenwriter Zaillian to give her character as few lines as possible, so she could show off her talents. Scorsese explained –
“Anna, ultimately, was amazing in the looks. She has one line in the film. There’s something you can’t talk about. She knows it. She knows who he is. He knows she knows.”
“Whenever Anybody Says They’re A Little Concerned, They’re Very Concerned”
De Niro and Scorsese first became interested in telling Frank Sheeran’s story shortly after De Niro came across I Heard You Paint Houses, the Sheeran biography that this movie was based on. He then took the book to Scorsese and convinced him to tell Sheeran’s story instead.
No matter how great the de-aging CGI was, it wouldn’t be convincing if the actors didn’t carry themselves like a man of whatever age they are in a given scene. Scorsese first spotted this in a scene with Pacino. The 78-year-old actor was doing a scene as a 47-year-old Jimmy Hoffa, and as he stood up from his chair, Scorsese realised it was too stiff for a man in his 40s.
So, Gary Tacon was brought onto the set as an uncredited “posture coach” to help each of the actors play their characters as the right age.
When envisioning The Irishman, Scorsese wanted the movie to look old-fashioned but wanted to avoid the graininess and shakiness of shooting on an 8mm camera. So, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto gave each decade its own look.
The 50s-set scenes have a Kodachrome look; the 60s-set scenes have an Ektachrome look; the 70s-set scenes have a silvery layer plastered over them; and any scene set in the 80s and onwards have a “bleach bypass” look, and are also more de-saturated than the other scenes. Prieto kept track of how to shoot each scene with a series of lookup tables.
The tension between Pacino and Stephen Graham’s characters in prison was one of the great scenes The Irishman. During the scene in which they fight in the prison cafeteria over Jimmy Hoffa’s use of the term “you people,” Graham wasn’t supposed to slap Pacino’s ice cream away before the scuffle.
This was Graham’s own idea, and he cleared it with Scorsese before doing it, but he wanted to surprise Pacino. So, everyone on the crew knew that Graham was going to swat the ice cream, but Pacino didn’t. As a result, Pacino’s stunned response in the film is genuine.
Thelma Schoonmaker, the editor who cut The Irishman together, has worked with Scorsese throughout his entire career. The two have collaborated on more than 20 films together over the past half-century.
Schoonmaker explained that the critically acclaimed editing was intentionally simplistic –
“Marty wanted to show the banality of the violence…It’s not like the incredible camera moves or flashy editing of the earlier movies. Victims are killed in an instant – often in very simple wide shots. And his brilliant idea of slamming the titles in front of the audience [describing how each character that’s introduced died]…was a way of showing that being part of the Mafia is not a good idea.”
“Three People Can Keep A Secret Only When Two Of Them Are Dead”
In the opening sequence of The Irishman, as Frank Sheeran delivers a monologue from the nursing home, he mentions that he used to “paint houses.” To establish what this means in the criminal underworld, Scorsese cuts to a shot of Sheeran shooting a man in the back of the head, spraying (or, “painting”) the wall with his brains.
Due to the quick panning of the camera and the fact that it only appears for a second, it’s unclear, but the person Sheeran is shooting is Jimmy Hoffa. If you pause the movie at the right second, you can see that it’s Hoffa.
Scorsese had been planning The Irishman for years, and only managed to make it when CGI technology had developed to the point that he could use the same actors for all the characters at various different ages. He always wanted Pesci for the role of Russell Bufalino, but since the actor had retired, he didn’t want to take the job.
Scorsese had to offer him the role a lot of times before he eventually wore him down and got him to accept. According to some sources, the director offered Pesci the part around 20 times before he agreed to do it.
With a grand total of 108 shooting days, The Irishman had the longest production phase of any Martin Scorsese movie.
Across those 108 days, the cast and crew were required to shoot 309 scenes across 117 locations, and on some days, the whole production would have to move between three locations.
All of this required a bloated budget of around $160 million, which no major studio was willing to fork out; only Netflix would agree to it. With a runtime of 210 minutes (exactly three-and-a-half hours), The Irishman is Scorsese’s longest film, so it makes sense that it also took the longest to shoot.
We’ll leave you with this video of Scorsese and the ILM effects team describing the process of making Pacino, De Niro and Pesci look young again for The Irishman –
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