DIRECTORS // Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro On A BRONX TALE

a bronx tale

Although Mr. De Niro needs no introduction, perhaps the custom of "round robin" interviews warrants a few words. Round robin sessions, often arranged for a press junket with dozens of journalists (some brought in from around the country), are an easy way for publicists to get the maximum exposure for their star and their film by arranging a sort of musical chairs approach to interviews. Seven or eight journalists sit around a table, with a spot left open for one of the film's notables, who each takes turns sitting and answering questions from the writers present. No doubt they must respond to similar questions from one table after another ("Why did you choose this as your first directing job?"), and the other writers (as well as the subjects) must suffer through those journalists who ask stupid, irrelevant questions.

[An aside: At a rare press conference featuring Al Pacino, for CARLITO'S WAY, a young British-sounding woman got up and asked Pacino whom he was sleeping with. A wave of groans arose from the hundred other reporters there, who now feared that the reclusive actor, renowned for not speaking often to the press, would probably never grant further access, thank you very much lady. Some guests verbally accosted the questioner, while she stood her ground that she had as valid a right as anyone to ask him such a thing.

Pacino's response proved as thoughtful as his performances: "I'll forgive you for asking that question if you forgive me for not answering it."]

Actually the most embarrassing moment of the round robins is at the end, when several "journalists" beckon their subjects for autographs. Somehow, asking a celebrity a question about their work, their thoughts, their inner life, doesn't seem as much an intrusion or an invasion of privacy as does hitting them up for a signature, which seems chintzy and juvenile, if not downright mercenary.

The following transcript is of one such mass interview of De Niro, held in October 1993 by Savoy Pictures, prior to the premiere of A BRONX TALE.

You must have had offers to direct long ago; what was it about A BRONX TALE that suggested it was the right time for you, or the right piece?

De Niro: Well, I wanted to do something for a long time and I wanted to really write something, but I felt I hadn't found anything and I couldn't sit down and write — I had ideas, I'd always be making notes about things, but I just couldn't have the discipline to sit down and write. It's another type of discipline, that's hard, you know more about that than me. I could co-write something, collaborate in a certain way, but not really the way you have to in order to come up with a screenplay.

So the years are going by and I figure I better start doing something. As soon as I started Tribeca, Jane Rosenthal and I talked very seriously. I said, I have to direct a movie, so we have to make a concentrated effort to find something.

Meanwhile I just heard indirectly through my trainer that somebody told him about BRONX TALE, so I told Jane about it and said, when you're in California go see it; she went to see it and told me, and the proviso of Chazz's was that he'd be in it because he really wrote it for himself. I said I don't want to come into a situation where I'm being given certain ingredients that I haven't chosen myself, so I don't know if I'd be interested.

And I saw it and I liked Chazz very much and we talked a bit backstage, and I asked him, can I see a screenplay? And he said, yeah, okay. This was a long process of months, we kept talking about it. Somewhere in there he said, You know I have to play Sonny. I said that'll happen, let me just have a reading of it at Tribeca, just to get a little bit closer idea of what it all is. So we sat around and had a reading, and I watched it with other people whose opinions I respected, Jane Rosenthal and so on, and I decided that I would do it and I told Jane I'd do it, 'cause as I was watching I was saying, I gotta do it; it's all unknown, it's all uncertain — you gotta just jump in and take a chance with it. So I committed to it; I said I just have to finish my other obligations so we'd have to wait a few years.

How long ago was this?

I must have had it at least three years ago, or more. Somewhere in those three years, I decided it's probably better if I play the father because it would help get the movie made more easily, [the other actors] will be unknowns as far as I'm concerned. It's a good part for me to play, because I'd never done that type of thing, you always expect me to do the part that Chazz is playing, Sonny.

It's not similar to the father in THIS BOY'S LIFE?

That's another thing, but that I did after BRONX TALE, and I felt that it was good to get the movie off the [ground], also it's the kind of part I should be playing at this time, you know, not the other one. And [since] I wasn't in it all the time I wouldn't have that pressure of carrying the movie, so that I could reasonably feel that I could direct myself.

Did you find it tough to direct yourself? Other actors have spoken of that, especially their first time out.

I've heard that. There were some actors I spoke to, like Danny De Vito. I asked him things about technicians, I asked Nicholson about some things, because they were actors who had directed, so I could get a better idea from them about what their problems were, what they were surprised by, or not surprised by. But I never asked Danny De Vito what it was like to direct himself. I always thought, well I'll do it, I know I can do it. But you know when you're acting in something you have to be a little more concentrated in another way. So that adds another kind of pressure and, uhm, uh, you know for me it was that way so I would have to rely on Chazz or Ray Villalobos [the Director of Photography] or Johnny Kilik the producer, to look and say it's okay to me, five takes, six takes, and there was a video playback monitor. I would also sometimes just say after five, six takes, you know I have it, I don't want to get crazy about it, it's okay.

Did you fear you might shortchange yourself, vis a vis your performance, when you are concentrating on the million other things that a director worries about?

That's true. Well, the opposite side of that [is], I didn't want to get crazy; I'd rather do ten or fifteen takes on somebody else, which I sometimes did, than on myself. I wanted to be reasonable about it, I didn't want to get too obsessive. You're right, I also have to concern myself about my performance, but I felt that it was all right.

What did you learn about yourself as an actor from looking at yourself through that director's perspective?

Well, the only thing I noticed was, it's nice to be the director because as an actor you gotta get out there and do it; if it's in the winter and it's 20 degrees, you know the actor's freezing with no clothes on, you're doing the shot for the sixth time and it's a long scene, then the director can say, 'Great, just, I know you're freezing, you feel like you're gonna die, but just do one more.' The director has that luxury; the actor has to, like I say, do it.

And the actor can go away to do another movie [while the director] is just beginning to start editing; so that's the trade-off — the director has to be there from the beginning of pre-production, shooting, post production, editing, you know.

While you were editing BRONX TALE, how did you look at your performance? It's a luxury you've not had in the past to be able to pick and choose takes and so on.

I was objective about myself; I had to be. Sometimes vanity things about how you look, this and that, you can't worry about that — you worry about a scene. I mean, even all the other movies I've done, I go see myself, 'Ahh, I look terrible there, this can't work,' whether it's right for the character or not — it's a normal thing. But the only thing I had control over was the editing, which I'd never really done before, but I wanted to, whether it was my performance or anybody else's, I could make this film the way I wanted to do it, so that was to me the most important and satisfying thing.

Klaus Maria Brandauer said after directing his first film that he felt he should now write a letter of apology to every director he'd ever worked with, and when Sean Penn heard that he said 'I'd sign that letter!' Do you have a new regard for what directors have to go through in dealing with actors' needs, or what they have to put up with from actors?

I do, but I sort of knew. I'd done a lot of movies and I know what it's like, and I've been very close to a lot of directors, especially Scorsese, and I see what's going on, so I know what it is; I'm over here, and he's over there, but know I was over here too, so I see a lot from over here, and I don't have a reputation for giving directors, the only thing is in editing, where if you hit your mark, or this or that, you make it easier in the editing process later for matching, and I'm the editor the director. But still, I would not ever expect your professional or non-professional to limit themselves because they have to hit a mark a certain way, or they have to do something a certain way to match [another take]: picking up a glass a certain way, I'd rather cover them more extensively and work in the editing later and take that time, I'd rather not make them, maybe you have to for obvious reasons maybe you have to pick the glass up, a very specific thing and we're in a critical location where you have to get it once or twice, cause otherwise you gotta leave or God knows what, so that's different but basically you have to and they realize that too, whether it's a professional or non-professional, but I don't like to limit a person, an actor to be, and that's the way Scorsese is, the way I think a lot of good directors are, they don't get crazy.

Usually you have to work yourself around a machine, but if you're directing too, you gotta work around the actor, the person, in order to get some good moment, a great moment, a wonderful moment, you gotta give them that respect, and make them feel comfortable.

Have you been in the editing room with Scorsese?

No. Just a couple of times with Irwin Winkler on NIGHT AND THE CITY.

I just want to say one more thing about the editing: a lot of times I'd notice a director will shoot seven takes, and maybe print four. But what I found myself doing after a while was printing everything. Even if it was a false start. Seven or eight takes, print them all. One take was a false start, we got one-third of the way into it, print it anyway — you never know, it was a good start. The script supervisor she looked at me, she knew by that time 'just do it all.' Because I didn't want to pull those takes later and have them developed and then bring them to the editing room and go through all the material and see if we might be able to cheat a turn of the head that you don't have in any of the other takes, [or] you got a great soundtrack; and that'll help you bridge the gap. I just wanted to see everything, because I felt that only I knew what I wanted. And the editors, as good as they were, my editors were terrific, they made things work that I didn't think could, Bob Lovett and David Ray, principally David Ray was our main editor, uhm, I just felt that I mean, it's your thing, you have to see it, put the focus where the focus has to be. Nobody can do that, they're not expected to do that, only you see it the way you see it, so you have to really, and that for examples, that's the thing I would talk with Martin Scorsese about, he says, yeah, nobody knows you gotta do it yourself, you gotta get in there and do everything and you gotta really watch everything, and that is what I feel. The whole moviemaking process you really have to make sure everything is done the way you want it, and it's not other people's fault, you have to be specific with them and on top of that you have to check and make sure.

In terms of how the film's style, did you find yourself borrowing a lot from other directors, or did you find your own voice?

The way I did the movie was the way I wanted to do it, and I didn't feel, I didn't borrow from anybody, if I did, I told a joke about maybe I took a shot from Marty or from some other movie, but I was very open and honest about it, and if there was something that I thought would be a good shot that I could use, I saw Marty do it but I like it so I'll do it, I kid around, but I never did. I just never had that feeling and I was working with Ray Villalobos who was the director of photography, sometimes I'd be very clear, very simple: I just want it covered in a certain way, and then we used to joke, I'd say hey, impress me with your shots, blah blah, then sometimes I'd say I don't know exactly what to do here, but so what do you think? And he'd say well why don't we do a master and start to pull back, and so on, and then he would light it the way he'd, and we'd look at the dailies and I'd say I like this, and we discussed how they were lit, and so on, I trusted him and his taste, cause I spent a lot of time looking for a DP and I think he was the best person for me, he was creative and not a "technician," creative person aside from being technically very knowledgeable, he's an operator, and I saw a lot of diversity in his work before, and it was important, I took him on the location and showed him what we're doing I wanted to see how he'd react to it, and he reacted in a way that I felt comfortable with, and we also videotaped the rehearsals a lot of them on location with the actors, so that we would refer to those, sometimes storyboards, but the video was basically more helpful to me and we would just review it before we'd shoot the scene, we'd go over those, Ray would shoot it, and I'd say what about this, right we'd do that to cover.

You have a reputation for being something of a perfectionist in your work. With the added responsibilities of a director, did you find that that trait inhibited your work at all, such as the speed with which you got scenes done?

Well I'm not obsessively a perfectionist where you start getting myopic and you start defeating what, you're working against what you do, and then it becomes counter-productive. I mean I'm realistic about things and if it's not, if you have a detail, a detail is a detail to a point, but if you look at the overall picture, you know as a director you know I'm not worried about sometimes I know from my experience as an actor you know, I've changed, there's a lot of room to change stuff. Maybe you have a prop a certain way, and if I know it's not right I'll change it, I'll move it, who's gonna notice it? Let the film buffs figure out, Hey it was here and now it's there.' You can't think about that, it's the feeling it's the whole sweep, it's some kind of, and sometimes those things happen unintentionally because somebody will leave something on a set in a shot and then it's in the shot and not in the shot, and there's no, I can't go back to that, who cares, leave it alone, if they notice that then we're all in trouble. That's the joke.

Did you ever consider directing episodes of the TV series you were producing, TRIBECA?

No, there's too much pressure on doing the episodes, they were very tightly done, I couldn't, I would never, I mean I was editing [this film], I couldn't have done it anyway, but I was, it was too very, uh, you have to really have to have more I felt experience, I didn't want to limit myself at that point, I wanted to do everything I wanted to do in this movie, and not that I wouldn't do it as an exercise maybe if I really liked something, get a little more time for myself.

Were you concerned about casting people with no prior acting experience?

No, I wasn't at all; that was the whole idea, to get people who were not familiar, who were real, who had no pre-conceived ideas. I told the casting director a year before we started shooting, 'This is not going to be the normal way of shooting, the normal way of casting, it's going to be you know, the age is fine for what we're looking for, you know plays and off-off-off Broadway, any kind of play, any production you can do all that, but it's mainly hitting the streets and looking for the right people. And I emphasized that over and over I don't want to be caught at the last minute with no people; I know they're out there, I know you'll find them, so that's what we have to do. Hire other people, get other people, but find them. Put ads in newspapers, anything you gotta do, radio, And in fact we found a guy named Marco Greco from the Belmont Italian-American theatre who was a big help to us because he's from that neighborhood, had a little theatre group, was very smart and aware of what to do and helped us a lot with putting these kids and just a lot of people from the neighborhoods around the Bronx, tape them and then we'd look at them, and we got a lot of people through him, and he found Lillo on the beach, Jones Beach, one day he saw him. He was very, very helpful.

When you played rehearsal tapes for the D.P. prior to shooting, did you also show them to the actors?

Yeah, I showed it to anybody, I didn't have a problem with that. I let the actors, you know, if you want to look at this, I want you to look at this, I'd show them the playback, look at this and see what you're doing, you're out of frame, so I want you to be aware of it, cause sometimes just by seeing it you realize what it is so uhm, yeah I would play it for them if they wanted to.

You didn't fear that it might keep them from being fresh in their performance?

No. Sometimes like, I didn't, sometimes the kids would ask if they could see dailies, it wasn't that I didn't want them to see it because I didn't believe in that, it's just that I would be so tired I'd just want to go watch them and not, and if I felt they should see something in dailies and they really insisted they I'd say well come see it no problem. That I don't believe in, actors get all crazy and hung up on seeing dailies, seeing themselves, and freaking out, I just don't believe that. It's better to show them and let them see it and they'll be okay. You're not criticizing them, you're just showing them, if they want to see it, and they say what about this, or I look terrible, it's great don't worry about it.

When you were driving the bus, did people recognize you?

No, no, but sometimes people would get on it by mistake.

copyright 1993, 1997, 2009 by David Morgan
All rights reserved.