Why Making 'The Irishman' Was an "Uphill Battle Until Netflix Was Born"

Why Making 'The Irishman' Was an "Uphill Battle Until Netflix Was Born"

Martin Scorsese reunited with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci — and collaborated for the first time with A Pacino — for a career-defining crime saga of epic proportions that earned 10 Oscar noms, including best picture.

"It's a mix of relief and disbelief," says producer Jane Rosenthal of The Irishman's best picture nomination, more than a decade after she began work on the crime epic. As the longtime producing partner of Robert De Niro, Rosenthal became involved with the Netflix film — which tells the story of Mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (De Niro) and his claim to having killed Teamster union leader Jimmy Hoffa — in 2007.

At the time, Netflix was still a mail-order DVD rental service and the de-aging technology that would be required for De Niro to play Sheeran in his 20s as well as his 60s was still several years off from beta testing. More than a decade of technological development later, Rosenthal found herself on opening night at the 57th New York Film Festival in September 2019, flanked by Joe Pesci, Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese, as well as the streaming service's chief content officer Ted Sarandos, at the film's world premiere.

"It was always something Bob and I wanted — to bring [Scorsese and him] back together again," she says. "It just took a little longer than we thought it would."

Rosenthal talked to THR about that long development process, a 2013 table read that inspired them to keep going and her final, emotional day on set.

Martin Scorsese was the one who actually suggested that you reach out to Robert De Niro when he was starting TriBeCa Productions. Before The Irishman, had it been a long time since you three worked together creatively?

JANE ROSENTHAL Obviously, Bob and Marty talk all the time, and Marty has also been a huge supporter of what we have done with the Tribeca Film Festival over the years. But this is the first opportunity I have had to work with him on a movie since The Color of Money.

After having known each other professionally for so long, and having all worked separately on projects, what was it like to finally come together?

I would just watch the two of them. When you have Scorsese and De Niro together on something, you just let them do what they do. The one thing about both of them that I've learned throughout the years is that they are always open to suggestions. To know them individually is one thing, but when you watch them together they become greater than — it's like one and one equals five. I am just thrilled that we are able to have the opportunity to finally make this movie. Ted Sarandos and Scott Stuber took a chance on this after so long, and we were finally able to make this after so many years.

After sitting on the project for more than a decade, was there ever a worry in your mind that, even though it was a passion project for everyone involved, it would never get made?

Yes. (Laughs.) The majority of the time. Except when we actually started shooting. Up until the first day of production, there was always [a thought that] this may not happen. But I also think that part of what I have as a producer is the tenacity to keep pushing a project forward and to never give up on it. And this was something [Bob] wanted to do, so he was constantly pushing this forward too. It was an uphill battle until Netflix was born. The fact is that Netflix didn't exist [as a content creator] back in 2007.

You had a script reading back in 2013 with Scorsese, Pesci, Pacino and De Niro all there. What was it like for you being in that room, coming together for the first time?

It was before Marty was going to go off and do Silence. I had said to Bob, "We should do a reading of it and we should tape the reading." I actually thought at one point that, if anything, at least we would have that reading. We might not make the movie, but we'd have a record of this reading. What was very special at the reading is you realized that it had a great deal of humor in it. Just listening to them, it came alive. When everybody came in, the actors were seated and Marty was going to sit in the audience, but then he decided that he should sit in the middle of the group as they were reading. And it was great to see him laughing and getting into it in the middle of it all. There was a momentum that picked up after that reading, and we said, "OK, we've got to make this now. We can't stop." It was at the reading that Pablo Helman from Industrial Light & Magic said to Marty that he thought he had a way to make the youthification tech work. That reading was a real turning point. It still took a long time after that before it got made, but it finally felt like it was on its way.

Who else did you have in the audience for the reading?

We had Rick Yorn and we had various agents. We had a couple of people who could possibly finance the movie. [Producer] Irwin Winkler was there. But it was also really for Marty to hear it again — for everyone to hear it again and decide we're going to continue to put our efforts into this. And the most passionate one was really Bob in pushing and continuing to push this forward.

Have you or anyone on the team watched the recording since you did the reading?

I have watched bits and pieces of it. Nobody else has seen it for a while, but you never know where it will pop up. (Laughs.)

Do you think the movie benefited from having this length of development?

I don't think the movie itself changed very much. And the script didn't change very much. But what did change was everyone's perspective. Marty talks a lot about the perspective of time and place, and how they now look at things as men in their 70s, versus men in their 60s.

When Netflix did finally come on and you had secured financing, what were you most anticipating when it came to actually pulling off the production?

The movie is complicated, with so many different decades. And it was a long shoot with many, many locations and a lot of different moving pieces. So producing was also about making sure our actors and our crew could maintain their work.

Was there an obstacle that came up in the middle of production that made you think, "We aren't going to be able to pull this off"?

No. That's where Emma [Tillinger Koskoff] would come in. If we were shooting at night and throwing taxi cabs into the river, Emma could worry about that. (Laughs.) That's where it's wonderful to have good partners.

Did you have a favorite day on set or a favorite moment from principal photography that sticks with you?

There were so many, like seeing Bob and Joe together for the first time. But what [sticks out] is actually the last day of filming, which was a reshoot of Bob in the scene at the very end of the movie. There were certain things that Bob felt he needed to do. The end of a movie is always emotional — you're saying goodbye to a lot of people that you've become family with, and you're not going to see them again in the same context. But this had a particularly profound meaning for me. I tear up just thinking about it. On this movie, it's Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro and all these men that came together after having made Mean Streets and Goodfellas and Casino, and this was the end of that genre for them. I found myself looking at Marty's work in the history of cinema, and what that particular style of cinema meant for their journeys. Just to be a witness to it was profound and emotional and reminded me of why I wanted to be in this business to begin with.

When was the first time that you watched the movie with an audience?

The biggest audience we saw it with was the New York Film Festival. But when it was finally released, it was at the Belasco Theatre, and I went to see it with a real New York audience. They were talking back to the screen, they were laughing with it — that was the most fun. And I went back several times after that to see it with the audience. You could sit back and enjoy it and experience it through the audience's eyes.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.