'The Comedian' Director Reveals What It's Like to Work With Robert De Niro

Courtesy of Alison Cohen Rosa/ Sony Pictures Classic; Alison Cohen Rosa/ Block-Korenbrot
'The Comedian' (Inset: Taylor Hackford)

The acting legend and helmer Taylor Hackford, whose film is set to premiere at AFI Fest, went for the (dark) laughs in their movie about a onetime TV star trying to stay relevant as a stand-up comedian.

The AFI spotlight will shine on Robert De Niro and Taylor Hackford on Nov. 11 with the world premiere of their film The Comedian, which features De Niro as Jackie Burke, a onetime TV star trying to stay relevant as a stand-up comedian. The Sony Pictures Classics film also stars Leslie Mann and Danny DeVito. Hackford spoke with THR about his 16th turn as a director.

You've said you couldn't decide whether this was a drama with comedy or a comedy with drama. Where are you now?

I tested the film three times. We asked them what they thought. They thought it was a dark comedy with drama.

Are you a fan of testing?

I want to see if in fact I'm communicating what I want, and invariably I find out that the thing that I thought I was communicating, I'm not, or there are important elements that the audience doesn't get. I find it incredibly valuable to go back and work to make clear what your initial vision was.

You came in on the tail end of development on this film. Do you approach it differently versus a film in which you were involved from the beginning?

Absolutely. When you come in, you accept somebody's concept — and this was Art Linson's script — the characters are there, the story is there, the narrative is there and you work within that structure. On the other hand, when I got involved, two new writers came on board — Lewis Friedman, working on the comedy routines, and Richard LaGravenese, working on the drama — but all in service of Linson's original script.

As an actor, what does De Niro want from a director?

I never worked with Bob before, so I talked to Marty [Scorsese]. He said, "He wants direction." When a take is finished, I tell Bob my reaction and what I think might work better. He then filters it through his own talent and comes out with something that pleases me, believe me. It was a great collaboration, and I was thrilled that he was so open and ready to have my collaboration.

The stand-up scenes feel very real. How did you tackle those?

Jackie Burke's a child of Lenny Bruce. You think about Bob's real age [73], which he's playing. That generation of comedians that came after Lenny Bruce, the George Carlins, the Richard Pryors and Woody Allens. Jackie was in that same generation. In a way, he's a dinosaur in the movie but feels he's a gladiator who can face an audience regardless of their age and still find his way to be relevant. The important thing was to take Bob and put him in the environment as much as I could and for him to choose the style of Jackie. We went to comedy clubs in New York, five or six comedians a night, twice a week, sometimes three. All those comedians have different styles. It was probably two, three months of research trips before Bob said, "I like that."

How did you work with Leslie Mann?

She is different in this movie in that this is more of a dramatic role and she's supposed to be a comedian. Nobody acts alone, and De Niro and Leslie have real chemistry. My job is to set that up and not to over-rehearse in such a way that causes them to get stale.

What was your vision for New York?

I always try to make the location a big character, and Jackie Burke is New York. It's where he's grown up. He was a comedian in New York. He did go to Hollywood when the Eddy's Home TV series went. I made the score jazz in the style of Art Blakey, which was that late '60s style I love and felt was quintessential New York. I told [cinematographer Oliver Stapleton] I never want to see the sun. I wanted to start this film with Jackie walking. We were shooting inside, and it started raining, so we took Bob and put him in a van two blocks away, and then we had a lot of our people walking and everyone else in umbrellas because it was pissing. Bob De Niro in New York — people didn't pay attention to him, and you see that. We stole the shot.

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STARS, PREMIERES AND HOT TICKETS TO CATCH

Rules Don't Apply (Nov. 10)

Warren Beatty's 1950s-set drama about two (fictional) employees of billionaire Howard Hughes, with a cast including Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich, will have its world premiere as the fest's opener.

Lion (Nov. 11)

Bring your hankies for the Garth Davis drama, starring Dev Patel.

Elle (Nov. 13)

A screening of Paul Verhoeven's controversial film will include a tribute to its star, Isabelle Huppert.

20th Century Women (Nov. 16)

Bening will be honored with a tribute, along with the screening of her latest film.

Patriots Day (Nov. 17)

Peter Berg's drama about the Boston Marathon bombing, starring Mark Wahlberg, will close the festival.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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