For Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino Was ‘Always Something Unreachable,’ Until ‘The Irishman’

Martin Scorsese's tribute talk at AFI FEST ran rife with memorable anecdotes, including the director's longtime wish to work with Al Pacino.
Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese

Awards season is long, and people are (already) tired, which is why it’s so refreshing when a contender breaks character along the way to show a little humanity. That’s exactly what happened at Friday night’s AFI FEST conversation with Martin Scorsese in Los Angeles, when “The Irishman” director, humbled by being so exalted across tribute clip-shows and heaping praise, soothed the room as the lights went down and told the audience, “Just try to relax and enjoy the movie.”

The Q&A began as American Film Institute president and CEO Bob Gazzale asked the audience to ponder a world where Scorsese never existed. “We would be less in touch with ourselves, and each other. Less human. We would be less,” he said. “It is, in short, unimaginable. Now wake up from this George Bailey nightmare, for he is risen: The young boy who aspired to become a priest, today, the saint of American cinema.”

The conversation dove deep into “The Irishman,” but also touched on Scorsese’s preservation efforts and bottomless well of cinephile knowledge. Scorsese said that “The Irishman” bloomed out of his and star Robert De Niro’s mutual obsession with Vincente Minnelli’s 1950s soapy romps.

“We were actually talking about this project going back to the 1980s,” Scorsese said of putting together “The Irishman” with Robert De Niro in the lead as Frank Sheeran. “It started with wanting to make … our version of ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ and ‘Two Weeks in Another Town,'” Scorsese said, two films directed by Minnelli that define the American melodrama. “During that time, Bob [De Niro] grew one way and I grew another. We found ourselves in different poles, but we kept trying to come back together to see if there was something else we could do besides ‘King of Comedy,'” referencing his and De Niro’s 1982 collaboration.

“It was about ‘time.’ It was about us looking back at our whole lives in the ’60s and ’70s in Hollywood, and in cinema. That element of time stayed with us, and when Eric Roth gave him this book, ‘I Heard You Paint Houses,’ Bob gave it to me as research and he said, ‘This might be better.’ He started to explain Frank Sheeran to me … and then I realized this is where we have to go,” Scorsese said. “Maybe this gives us the opportunity not to do another picture in the same vein, so to speak, with no further depth. But maybe we can find a depth, and it turns out just to be us. Meaning life. We’re 75, 76 years old now, you look back. You think about the things you did in your life, or things you wish you would’ve done … is there a chance at redeeming yourself? And even if there is, who knows.”

But perhaps the most memorable anecdote of the evening was Scorsese sharing the experience of welcoming a first-timer to one of his movies, Al Pacino. Yes, it’s weird to think Al Pacino has never started in a Martin Scorsese movie, but it’s true. In “The Irishman,” Pacino plays Jimmy Hoffa, but initially Scorsese wasn’t sure if he could bring the veteran actor aboard.

“I’d been wanting to work with Al for years. Francis Coppola introduced me to him in 1970. Then he’s in ‘Godfather’ one and two, and he’s in the stratosphere,” Scorsese said. “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?’ Bob said, ‘Oh, he’s great. You’ll see.'”

Scorsese added that there is a meta aspect to seeing Pacino and De Niro interact in “The Irishman.” “What you see in the film is their relationship as actors, as friends, over the past 40, 45 years. There’s something magical that happens there,” the director said.

Scorsese otherwise kept the conversation short, wrapping up the talk by telling the audience, “It’s a long movie, guys. If you can watch it on the big screen, it’s nice.”

You can still catch “The Irishman” in theaters, but it finally premieres on Netflix November 27, just in time for Thanksgiving.

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