De Niro received the Honorary Heart of Sarajevo for lifetime achievement at this year’s festival.
On Saturday, Aug 13, in Sarajevo’s National Theatre, the Sarajevo Film Festival’s (Aug 12-20) guest of honour Robert De Niro was interviewed by Mike Goodridge, CEO of Protagonist Pictures and one of the programmers of the festival’s Kinoscope programme.
Goodridge started the conversation with the topic of Taxi Driver, which screened the previous night at the opening of the festival.
“It’s about a mentally ill man who takes a gun and goes on a killing spree. It feels terribly relevant today,” said Goodridge.
De Niro explained: “To me it was an irony, that after everything he goes back to driving his cab and is even celebrated, which is kind of relevant in some weird way today too.
“I don’t know, it’s crazy that people like Donald Trump… who shouldn’t even be where he is…” said De Niro. “God help us.”
This was welcomed with a round of loud applause from the audience.
“But I think people are now starting to push really back at the media that gave him all this attention, and they’re finally starting to say, come on Donald, this is ridiculous, this is nuts, this is insane. What he’s been saying is really totally crazy, ridiculous stuff. He is totally nuts.”
Goodridge continued with the parallel with Taxi Driver: “It is like in the story of Travis, he starts hating people within his own city. Tell us a bit about New York City at the time. It was a very different place then. What was it like in the mid-70s, the idea that Travis wanted to clean it up - it was quite a dangerous place, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, it was different, obviously, I always feel like, that was the way it was then, and this is the way it is now,” said De Niro. “Was it better then? I don’t know. It’s interesting to see neighbourhoods change, like, say, Little Italy has totally been gentrified. Tribeca was like a warehouse area, not many people went there, there were some artists though, but it wasn’t the way it is today. It’s just changed. But 50 years from now, 30 years from now, people will be saying they wish it was like it is today.”
Goodridge continued: “You are identified with New York, you started your career there, you were associatied with young film-makers, Brian De Palma made three films there back then. And of course, Martin Scorcese. What was that group like? Was it a bunch of film artists who wanted make a difference in the way stories are told on film?”
“I guess it was individual, it wasn’t like we were all a bunch of film people hanging together and wanting to create something,” replied De Niro. “But we all knew each other, Martin and me and De Palma, and other directors. It was just a time when different types of movies wanted to be made.”
Goodridge expanded on the subject: “But if you look at the string of films you made in the 70s, from Mean Streets onwards, they are remembered now, 40 years later, as a golden era of American cinema.”
“Yes. But I can’t say why, I’m not qualified,” said De Niro. “Film historians can do that, maybe Marty can, he’s a kind of film historian himself, and he’s a professor of film.”
“I suppose films were also looking at real life,” said Goodridge. “There was sexuality, violence, things in the 60s that were being permitted.”
De Niro continued: “Try to be more honest about what things were. Try to get as close to that reality as you could. Saying, this is what it was, or this is what it would be, so why can’t you show that? Go as far as you can with it. I always say, if you’re doing something, always refer to what the actual thing would have been, what the actual character, the actual person in space-time, the actual situation was. It might be more mundane in a way, but being mundane is not necessarily a bad thing. There are movies that only do mundane things, but some of them can be great movies.”
Goodridge asked: “Did you feel when you were doing Taxi Driver that you were doing something exciting and fresh?”
“We all really liked the script, and we were excited to do it, once I came back from doing 1900 with Bertolucci. But we had no idea how it would be received, we just were excited by the script,” De Niro answered.
The Godfather Part II
Goodridge then enquired about De Niro’s work on The Godfather Part II.
“You were in a strange, kind of prequel part of that film. What were the conversations like with Coppola at that time? Did you audition for the role?”
De Niro said, “I auditioned for the part of Michael, every actor in New York wanted that part. Everybody knew Coppola wanted Pacino for that role, but the way I understand it, the studio was putting pressure on him to use somebody else, more of a name, and a name that had nothing to do with the character.
“He wanted Jimmy Caan for Sonny, he wanted Bobby Duval, but everybody read anyway just to accommodate the studio. I also read for Sonny, knowing that I wouldn’t get it.”
“And the idea about young Vito, when did that come about?” asked Goodridge.
“I think after Mean Streets Marty showed some of the footage to Francis, and Francis wanted to bring me out to read. I was prepared to go to San Francisco to read and then he just called me a week or two later and said, don’t even bother, you got the part.”
“I’d like to move on to Raging Bull, for which you got your second Academy Award in 1980,” Goodridge said. “A lot has been written about you putting on weight and so on. But when you go from strength to strength as an actor, how do you go that extra mile?”
“As far as Raging Bull is concerned, when I was doing 1900, one of the writers, a friend of Jake La Motta, sent me the book. I read it and thought, it wasn’t a great book, but it had a lot of heart. I told Marty, maybe you should read this, and that’s how it started.
“The thing that I thought was interesting about La Motta, I would see him in New York City at the club where he worked as a bouncer, and he was very heavy. I thought the weight thing was interesting and how he described all the times had to go up and down in weight and how gruelling that was. That was in the idea how graphically, physically he was changed with weight. That was interesting for me. If we took a break, we shot when he was in top shape and then he slowly deteriorated shape-wise, and became what he was.”
The Good Shepherd
The conversation then moved on to the films De Niro made as a director.
“You’ve made two very fine films, A Bronx Tale and The Good Shepherd. It’s interesting for me how, as an actor, you put together this amazing cast for The Good Shepherd. Was that part of the fun?” asked Goodridge.
“It’s a lot of work to direct a movie, for me especially, if you want to do it right. It’s a constant uphill battle, it’s not as easy as it looks. It’s always a problem about the budget and shooting and time… It’s very difficult to do, and you have to have the will, the need to do it. Which I did.
“I thought if I did five movies in my life, I would be happy. I just did two. I wanted to do a sequel to The Good Shepherd, but it was difficult. I was waiting on the writer, Eric Roth, I love him, he’s a great writer, but… If I had gotten the script from him when I was supposed to, then it would have worked and I would’ve then fought that battle again.
“The script is the key for the actors to want to do it, to want to be a part of something that they feel is gonna be really special. Then you’ve gotta get the budget, the money from whoever, these days it could be a studio, it could be private, a combination of the two… And then you move forward. But there’s always obstacles in the way. Why don’t you use this instead of that, this being cheaper, of course. Sometimes they’re right, you don’t wanna waste money, and maybe this is better, and if this is better, you can use the money somewhere else.
“For me it has to be a real commitment, a real wanting to do it, knowing that it’s a very special story to me that I can make personal in some way, make it as special as I can.”
Goodridge then moved on to the difference in actors’ work in the 70s and today.
“In the 70s there were all these great actors that were driving the movies, like you, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino… Who is that today? Who can do the same thing that you guys could?”
De Niro answered, “Matt Damon or Leonardo or Sean Penn. There are others I can’t think of off-hand… Ben Affleck is trying to do that.”
“You’ve sort of broadened into comedy,” Goodridge observed. “Do you enjoy comedy?”
“Yes. I can only do certain types of comedy, but I do enjoy it,” De Niro explained. “I can’t do what Billy Crystal does, I can’t what Bill Murray does, or Eddie Murphy. I do my thing and it’s fine, it’s as it should be. Actually I just completed a movie that we have to do a re-shoot on, we call it The Comedian. It’s about a comedian who did a sitcom and everybody knows him for that role, and now he’s trying to get away from that and people won’t let him.”
Goodridge recalled Analyze This: “You were kind of adapting your role as a gangster?”
“Or making a spoof of it, if you will,” answered De Niro. “I had fun doing it. Billy Crystal called me and said, I have a script, do you want to look at it? He didn’t think I would be interested. We did a reading - I do that a lot with things if I’m on the fence about, I’m not sure, might get a better idea… So we had a reading, we got the cast together. I was just concerned who will be cast. It was funny by itself, and we didn’t want actors who would parody it.”
Goodridge moved on to the films De Niro has made with director David O’Russell.
”Silver Linings Playbook is one of your wonderful recent performances, and Joy too. He brings humour out of you in those films.”
“He does. David has a certain style of directing, very spontaneous” De Niro explained. “He’ll get behind the camera, handheld or Steadicam, and he’ll yell out lines at times, which are good lines, and go from this character to this character, all around. It’s almost like writing with the camera, in the moment. It brings a certain spontaneity and immediacy to the scenes.
“This stuff is in the script, but you have to learn what it is, you have to have that structure, but he will just add stuff and you have to be prepared all the time. Sometimes people don’t understand that at first, but then they get into the rhythm of it.
“It kind of frees you. If he throws something at you, you throw it back. It makes it sponteneous. But when you have long passages of dialogue, then you have to learn those, unless you can find a way to improvise and get the general point across, but I just learn them. Sometimes I add some ad-lib pieces, but I have to learn them, bottom line.”
Goodridge asked, “Are you a good improviser?”
“It depends,” said De Niro. “Sometimes I am, sometimes, you know… But one thing you don’t wanna do is improvise for the sake of improvising and just doing a lot of talk. Sometimes I see movies where they’re just talking and talking because they know the audience is watching, and they’re giving information, and it’s not really how people would interact. That’s important to be aware of.”
The next question was, “Do you remember how much of Travis Bickle was just on the cuff?”
“Some of it was, like the mirror scene and that ‘Are you talking to me’ thing,” De Niro answered. “I did that, as I remember. Marty would remember other things. But we would always do that, especially with Marty and with David. Improvise, throw something in, you never know what you’re gonna come up with.”
“So you’ve come full circle. You’re working next year with Martin Scorcese again, for the first time since Casino. The film is called The Irishman. It’s you and Pacino together.”
“Pacino, me, and hopefully Joe Pesci,” De Niro replied to an enthusiastic applause from the audience.
“It’s a true story about how Jimmy Hoffa went missing. It’s based on a book called I Heard You Paint Houses, where the author Charles Brandt interviewed Frank Sheeran and he basically confesses that he killed him.”
To finish up, Goodridge asked about De Niro’s perception of his iconic status.
“When your name becomes bigger than you, when you become an icon in your lifetime, how do you deal with that as a family man?”
“I still live every day with my kids, with my wife. They don’t think of me as an icon. No prophet is accepted in his hometown, or something along those lines.”