Martin Scorsese's new movie, The Irishman, falls into familiar territory for the director. He's working with actors he knows well like Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, and the content deals with organized crime, specifically the mob, a topic the director has tackled, with great success, in the past.
However, The Irishman isn't entirely a retread of things we've seen before from Martin Scorsese. The director took a big leap into the unknown when he decided to use digital effect to de-age his actors for sequences of the film that took place decades before others. In a new Netflix special, The Irishman: In Conversation, where Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, and Al Pacino all talk about the experience of making The Irishman, Scorsese admits that part of the reason he was open to the technology was that the alternative was going to be a lot of work...
Once we had the script, at a certain point the scenes, the flashbacks, which almost comprised for Bob like half the picture, would have to have been played by younger actors. So, then I said, ‘What am I going to be doing? I gotta explain everything to them?’
For Martin Scorsese, the idea of bringing in young actors clearly didn't have much appeal. Finding good actors that looked vaguely like his stars probably wouldn't have been too much of an issue, but it seems the director felt that getting one of them to give a performance that approximated a young Robert De Niro might simply be too much.
Scorsese has worked with these actors so often that they all know what each other is capable of and what they're all looking for. The director would have had to start from scratch and teach these new guys what to do and how to do it, and Martin Scorsese obviously felt that was going to be a lot of work.
So when visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman suggested the de-aging digital effects for The Irishman, Martin Scorsese was actually quite open to using these significant effects for his movie. It seems the director's problem wasn't using the tech itself, but the way that it needed to work.
So, we’re shooting in Taiwan and Pablo comes up to me from ILM. He said, ‘You know, I’m working on this thing of making people younger in the pictures.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I heard about it.’ I mean, I know you do it in Star Wars you do it in all the other effects films. And he said, ‘Well, you know, your whole thing on Irishman is this will be the first time this will be done. I said, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute,’ I said, ‘This is a good idea. The only thing is if I have you guys, anybody, in the scenes in this kind of film talking to each other and you have tennis balls on your faces, you know what I mean Joe [Pesci]? I think that loses…
Martin Scorsese didn't want the apparatus of the de-aging effects to get in the way of the performances of the actors. Joe Pesci specifically says trying to act normally while wearing motion capture equipment, would likely have been difficult. Certainly, actors like Pesci and De Niro don't have a lot of experience working with that kind of technology.
Martin Scorsese told Helman that he couldn't use it if the electronics were going to be in the way of the actors.
They showed me, it’s almost more of an automaton of some kind. You have all kinds of equipment. I said, ‘The whole thing is they need to see each other, to play off each other. Come back when there’s no tennis balls.’ And he came back.
Industrial Light & Magic had figured out a way to make the de-aging work with markers that would be invisible to the actors, allowing them to give their performances unencumbered. Once it all worked the way the director wanted, he had no problem using it.
Seeing technology usually deployed in superhero action movies in a Martin Scorsese drama may be unexpected, but it was necessary to allow the acotrs to give their full performances, and by nearly every account, it works.