Film director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro have had one of the longest-lasting and critically renowned creative partnerships in all of American cinema. On Sunday, as part of the programming for the Tribeca Film Festival (which De Niro cofounded in 2002), the two of them sat down for a 90-minute discussion of Scorsese’s films at the Upper West Side’s Beacon Theatre.
The duo discussed Scorsese’s film career and his upbringing, including the nine films that he’s made with De Niro since 1973. While they provided few details for their upcoming film, titled The Irishman, set to be released on Netflix later this year, Scorsese revealed many tidbits and anecdotes from past projects involving De Niro. A running theme, it seems, was that De Niro has convinced Scorsese to take on many career-changing opportunities, from adapting the story of boxer Jake LaMotta for Raging Bull to casting an up-and-coming young actor named Leonardo DiCaprio in a project. Here are 10 things we learned from their discussion.
1. De Niro was the first person to recommend Leonardo DiCaprio to Scorsese
After co-starring with the then 19-year-old actor in 1993’s A Boy’s Life, De Niro raved about DiCaprio’s acting ability to Scorsese, calling him “impressive” — “He doesn’t say that all that much,” quipped Scorsese — and saying that he should cast DiCaprio in a film. DiCaprio wouldn’t appear in a Scorsese project until 2002’s Gangs of New York, but the two have subsequently made four other films together that feature some of DiCaprio’s most memorable onscreen performances.
DiCaprio, as it turns out, was in attendance at the Beacon Theatre, and Scorsese and De Niro gave him a quick shoutout. DiCaprio stood up and waved from one of the front rows, earning a chorus of cheers and applause from the audience.
2. De Niro’s rambling story in Mean Streets was completely improvised
Scorsese and De Niro opened their conversation by playing a clip from Mean Streets, their first movie together, in which De Niro’s character gives a long-winded excuse for not paying back a lone shark to his uncle Charlie (played by Harvey Keitel). De Niro had rehearsed the scene with Scorsese before principal filming began, coming up with details for his character’s story on the fly, and Scorsese had jotted them down in a notebook.
However, when it came time to film the scene on the last day of shooting, nearly a month later, Scorsese forgot his notebook. “He had to remember everything from four weeks earlier,” said Scorsese on De Niro’s improvisation.
3. Terrence Malick sent Scorsese a letter about Silence
Themes of religion and faith often underscore Scorsese’s work, and one of his most intense grapplings with faith is his 2016 film Silence. Scorsese recalled receiving a letter from director Terrence Malick after he had seen the film, and remembered one line in particular: “What does Christ want from us?” Scorsese found the question to be highly profound, “whether or not you’re a believer,” and thought that it summed up his artistic depictions of religion throughout his own career.
4. Scorsese (and film executives) initially didn’t want to make Raging Bull
De Niro repeatedly tried to convince Scorsese into make Raging Bull after reading Jake LaMotta’s memoir of the same name, but Scorsese waffled on the project for several years, claiming he “knew nothing” about sports. (He suffered from asthma as a child and found boxing to be “boring.”) When he eventually came around to LaMotta’s story, seeing how his struggle could be made universal, Scorsese still had a tough time convincing studio execs that it was worth adapting.
“I don’t want to make a movie about this guy, this guy is a cockroach,” Scorsese recalled one of the suits saying in a meeting.
De Niro, also present in the meeting, gave what Scorsese called an “articulate” response: “No, he’s not.” The studio greenlit Raging Bull soon afterward.
5. A member of the U.S. presidential cabinet said The Wolf of Wall Street “misrepresented” the financial world
Scorsese wouldn’t reveal the name of the cabinet member who called his 2013 film on corrupt stockbroker Jordan Belfort a “misrepresentation” of Wall Street. But he did say he thought of Belfort as an American “everyman,” citing Herman Melville’s 1857 novel The Confidence-Man as an example of America’s baked-in history of opportunity and bravado gone unchecked.
6. Working with Jerry Lewis on The King of Comedy taught Scorsese how to work with professional actors
Before 1982’s The King of Comedy, Scorsese thought of his productions as very homegrown affairs – working with relatively low budgets, collaborating with the same circle of people (including De Niro), and even casting his parents in minor roles.
When he cast Jerry Lewis as the venerable talk show host Jerry Langford, Scorsese suddenly learned what it was like to shoot a film with a pro. Lewis would only appear to film his scenes, read his lines and do his job, and he insisted that Scorsese send him home from the set at a reasonable time if he knew he wasn’t needed anymore on a particular shoot day. Essentially, Scorsese recalled, Lewis taught him to not take an actor’s time for granted.
7. Scorsese calls Casino his version of Paradise Lost
Scorsese and De Niro showed a clip from 1995’s Casino in which Joe Pesci unleashes a curse-filled tirade at De Niro’s character in the desert. Scorsese said hearing Pesci’s voice was “like jazz,” then went on to say that he thought of Casino as a version of Paradise Lost. “God gives them this paradise of sin — Las Vegas! — and they can do anything, and they screw it up. And then they’re cast out of the paradise.”
8. Norman Mailer liked Raging Bull — except the fight scenes
The notoriously fiery writer Norman Mailer was another early cheerleader for Raging Bull, urging Scorsese to adapt the book into a movie. Incredibly, despite the film receiving a great deal of controversy for its violent boxing sequences, Mailer found the fight scenes to be underwhelming.
“I put the fight scenes in thanks to you,” Scorsese remembered telling Mailer at an event two years after Raging Bull came out. “And he goes, ‘Yeah, it’s the only thing I didn’t like in the picture.'”
9. A priest introduced Scorsese to Graham Greene and James Joyce books
Scorsese talked to De Niro extensively about his upbringing in Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the late 1940s and early 1950s, saying that the rough-and-tumble world greatly influenced his work. He referenced his oft-discussed tenement home at 253 Elizabeth Street where he grew up, in the third-floor apartment, where he had “God’s viewpoint” from the fire escape that would appear time and time again in his films.
But Scorsese also mentioned his old parish minister, Father Principe, who introduced Scorsese to many classic novels in his youth as a form of escapism. “He told us, ‘Get out of here. There’s good people here, but you don’t have to live in this style or in this cycle – getting married at 21, having children. Take the opportunity, take the advantage of where you are in this life.'”
10. They didn’t say much on The Irishman, except that it falls in line with their other works
At the end of their discussion, an audience member shouted for De Niro and Scorsese to reveal more about their upcoming Netflix project, The Irishman.
“It’s generally in the milieu of the pictures we’ve done together,” said Scorsese cryptically. “But I think, and I hope, from a different vantage point. The years have gone by, and we see things in a special way, I hope.”