Everything We Know About Martin Scorsese's The Irishman

We dig into the celebrated director's long-in-development passion project -- its premise, its stunning cast, its release, and why it took so long to make.

by | April 3, 2019 | Comments

Martin Scorsese’s latest feature film, The Irishman, has been talked about for years, enduring financial, developmental, and technological bumps along the way, but only recently have we finally gotten proof that it is coming, and that it seems to be everything people have wanted it to be.

The ominous and simple teaser trailer released in late February (see above) doesn’t say much about the upcoming film, but does it really matter when what it does show is five film legends?

So, let’s break down what we know — and don’t know — about Martin Scorsese’s Netflix-produced film The Irishman.

The Premise

Jimmy Hoffa
Jimmy Hoffa in 1961

Based on I Heard You Paint Houses, the biography of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran by Charles Brandt, The Irishman tells the story of mafia hitman Sheeran and his relationship to, and possible murder of, Teamsters Union leader Jimmy Hoffa. The disappearance (but let’s just call it murder) of Jimmy Hoffa is one of the most notorious organized crime stories of the 20th century, and more than 40 years later, the case still remains unsolved.

Hoffa’s connections to organized crime began in the 1930s when he was a union activist in New York, and it was here that the young Hoffa first gained an audience with mafia dons Russell Bufalino and Angelo Bruno. After years of moving up in the Teamsters Union, all while making shady backdoor deals with the East Coast mafia, Hoffa became president of the Teamsters from 1957 until 1971 and turned it into one of the most powerful in the world.

But, on July 30, 1975, just four years after stepping down as Teamsters president, Hoffa vanished without a trace. The unsolved disappearance has led to countless theories of what happened, including ones that posit Hoffa was either buried underneath Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, compacted in a car and sold as scrap metal and shipped to Japan, or buried under a suburban Detroit driveway. The one commonality is that they all agree the mafia had him taken out.

The Cast and Crew

Universal courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Universal courtesy Everett Collection)

It’s not often that a teaser trailer for a movie with no release date, no pre-existing franchise, and only a series of names can generate major buzz, but when that trailer features the names Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, it’s something to pay attention to.

We all know the work Scorsese, De Niro, Keitel, and Pesci have done together, including Mean StreetsTaxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino, but adding Pacino to that crew is the pistachios on the cannoli.

In the upcoming film, Pacino plays Union leader Hoffa and De Niro plays his friend and alleged killer Sheeran, while Keitel and Pesci play bosses of rival East Coast crime families.

But the talent doesn’t stop there, as The Irishman’s roster is both top heavy and deep. In addition to these heavy hitters, the film will also feature Oscar winner Anna Paquin, two-time Emmy winner Bobby Cannavale, two-time Emmy nominee Jesse Plemons, and Emmy-winner Ray Romano.

In case you weren’t keeping count, that cast features actors who have been nominated for a combined 19 Oscars, 35 Golden Globes, and 27 Emmys, and have collectively taken home five Oscars, five Golden Globes, and seven Emmys. And that’s just in front of the camera.

Between Scorsese, screenwriter Steven Zaillian, editor Thelma Shoonmaker, and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, the talent behind the camera has combined for 25 Academy Award noms and four wins.

So, with all that talent and excitement, how has it taken so long for this film to get made?

The Journey

Andrew Cooper/Paramount courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Andrew Cooper/Paramount courtesy Everett Collection)

This film has been a passion project for director Martin Scorsese for years, with news coming about the potential film as far back as 2008. (That same article refers to Scorsese’s adaptation of Shutter Island as an upcoming release, just to give a sense of how long ago 2008 was.)

Since then, the film has floundered in development hell, and Scorsese moved on to directing other long-gestating passion projects like Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street, and 2016’s Silence. But Scorsese kept coming back to the story of the most famous mob hit in history, and finally, in 2017, Paramount and Fábrica de Cine came together to co-finance the film and aim for a 2019 release.

So how did it end up on Netflix, you ask?

The Budget

Mean Streets

Yes, like all things, it comes down to cold, hard cash.

Initially targeted for a $100 million budget, the movie’s cost soon ballooned to nearly $200,000,000 after the production opted to use a CGI de-aging technique to make De Niro, Pacino, and co. appear younger while playing the younger versions of their characters.

Because of this price tag (and perhaps still feeling the burn left by Silence, which cost upwards of $50 million and took in less than $25 million at the box office), Fábrica de Cine and Paramount decided to back out of the project less than a year after agreeing to fund it.

Fábrica de Cine producer Gaston Pavlovich explained this difficult decision, saying “We quickly realized that Marty and De Niro really thought that the aging process was going to be a very important aspect of this film. The traditional model was not going to work with this new vision of the project… [we could not] risk that amount [of money] when all our data was telling us that it was not going to come back.”

Thankfully, Netflix stepped in, and the importance is not lost on Scorsese, who recently said, “People such as Netflix are taking risks. The Irishman is a risky film. No one else wanted to fund the pic for five to seven years. And of course we’re all getting older. Netflix took the risk.”

Universal courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Universal courtesy Everett Collection)

Even so, the CGI de-aging comes with both budgetary and cinematic concerns. Previously used on Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button, Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy, and Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War, the de-aging technology has advanced in recent years to appear more natural, but still remains costly. So costly, in fact, that until Samuel L. Jackson (and, perhaps less noticeably, Clark Gregg) was made to look 25 years younger in the recent Captain Marvel, it had only been used sparingly.

Editor Thelma Schoonmaker called it a “risk,” saying, “We’re youthifying the actors in the first half of the movie. And then the second half of the movie they play their own age. So that’s a big risk. We’re having that done by Industrial Light and Magic Island, ILM. That’s a big risk.”

While it might be cool to see young Pacino, young De Niro, young Pesci, and young Keitel in the same scene, it could also venture too close to the uncanny valley and take the viewers out of the film.

Schoonmaker has also expressed some trepidation over how the public is going to view seeing a 30-year-old Pacino, De Niro, et al. in a 2019 movie: “I haven’t gotten a whole scene where they’re young, and what I’m going to have to see, and what Marty’s going to have to see, is ‘How is it affecting the rest of the movie, when you see them young?’” In that same interview, the eminent editor said that, of the few people they’ve screened the movie for, “nobody minds. Nobody minds watching them play young, because they’re gripped.”

Unfortunately, we’ll just have to wait until it comes out to see just how successful this process really is.

The Release

Paramount Pictures
(Photo by Paramount Pictures)

Netflix has kept the release details largely under wraps, but with the cachet and talent behind the production, expect The Irishman to premiere toward the end of 2019 at the height of awards season. In fact, the film may receive the same treatment as Netflix’s 2018 prestige picture Roma, which was released in theaters on November 21 before premiering on the streaming service three weeks later.

Considering the film’s hefty price tag and impressive cast and crew, though, Netflix might try to wring a few more box office bucks out of an eager public with a longer pre-streaming theatrical run. Scorsese recently stated his desire for the film to receive a wide release, and the Hollywood Reporter reported that Netflix is “working to get him one.”

Previously, Scorsese has expressed his disdain for movie-watching on small screens, saying that when he was growing up, films “had to be shown in certain ways — people went to a movie, it wasn’t something you could choose or pick up, or walk out of the room. You actually made a commitment. It was a different experience.” He continued, “the ideal would be to see cinema in its proper context… It’s a problem of pure concentration.”

Robert de Niro agrees, saying at a recent film festival, “Movies have to be shown on a big screen.” Whether or not Netflix shares the sentiment is anyone’s guess.

Unfortunately, as of now, we don’t really know when, how, and in what form The Irishman will be released. But based on Netflix’s past big-budget features — and Scorsese’s admiration for Netflix for saving the project — it’s probably safe to wager that The Irishman will receive a wide release at the end of the year, with a streaming premiere date of a few weeks later.

The Irishman  is currently set to release in theaters an on Netflix sometime in 2019.

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