Oscars: 10 Things to Know About Best Picture Nominee 'The Irishman'

6:10 PM 2/6/2020

by Katherine Schaffstall

Martin Scorsese's epic Netflix crime drama is nominated for 10 Academy Awards.

The Irishman Production Still Cast - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Netflix

The Irishman is heading to the 2020 Oscars with 10 nominations.

The Martin Scorsese-directed Netflix film is up for best picture, best director, best supporting actor (Al Pacino and Joe Pesci), best adapted screenplay (Steven Zaillian), best production design, best cinematography, best costume design, best film editing and best visual effects.

Based on Charles Brandt's book I Heard You Paint Houses, The Irishman tells the true story of mob hitman and World War II veteran Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran (Robert De Niro). The film follows Sheeran in his later years of life as he reflects on the events that defined his career as a notorious hitman, particularly the role he played in the disappearance of labor leader and his longtime friend Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino).

In addition to directing, Scorsese produced the film alongside De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Irwin Winkler, Gerald Chamales, Gaston Pavlovich, Randall Emmett and Gabriele Israilovici.

Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, Stephen Graham, Kathrine Narducci, Domenick Lombardozzi, Anna Paquin, Sebastian Maniscalco, Ray Romano and Jesse Plemons round out the cast.

The film's production and release was a long time coming. Scorsese and De Niro began to develop the film in 2007 and initially failed to find financial backers for the project until Netflix signed on to the project.

Here's 10 behind-the-scenes facts that the cast and crew have shared with The Hollywood Reporter about the acclaimed film.

  • Development for 'The Irishman' Began in 2007

    Back in 2013, Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and a handful of other actors gathered for an intimate reading of The Irishman script in front of potential backers. De Niro and Scorsese had been trying to get the movie made for four years at the time of the reading. It took another six before the mobster film finally made it to theaters.

    De Niro read Brandt's book as research for a role in a movie he and Scorsese planned to make for Paramount called Frankie Machine. In July 2007, Scorsese and De Niro got on the phone with then-Paramount chairman Brad Grey to greenlight Frankie Machine and ended up talking themselves out of a deal. "Brad said, 'All right, so we're going to make this movie,'" De Niro's producing partner, Rosenthal, told THR. "And then you hear Bob say, 'Well, there's this other book …' Brad said, 'OK, so you're going to take this greenlit movie and turn it into a development deal? I'm in.'"

    They recruited Zaillian to pen the screenplay, who finished a first draft in 2009.

    Over the years, financing came and went. De Niro's and Scorsese's schedules diverged and converged, while Zaillian returned to improve the script. The writer even met with Brandt to flesh out ideas in the book.

    After years of failed starts, Scorsese and De Niro sent the script to Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos in November 2016. At the time, Netflix was trying to establish itself as a home for marquee filmmakers and was willing to pay to produce the expensive film. Ten months later, The Irishman began production in New York.

  • Special Technology Was Used to Make De Niro, Pacino and Pesci Appear Younger

    Special technology was used to make the actors appear younger in the film.

    The film's VFX supervisor, Industrial Light & Magic's Pablo Helman detailed the process developed to de-age De Niro, Pacino and Pesci in an episode of THR's Behind the Screen podcast.

    Helman discussed the development of the camera rig used for filming, which enabled the VFX team to capture the actors' performances for de-aging without making the actors wear tracking markers or work on a performance capture stage. "I got a call from Marty. He said, 'I gotta tell you that if we do a test of something, we cannot use any kind of tracking markers,'" he recalled. "'We’re going to use Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci and they are completely method actors and they’re not going to go for anything."'

    "Now that we had a way to capture the performance with no markers and on set, then we had to have a way to decode all that information and make sense of it," Helman explained. "The first thing that we did is develop a piece of software that would take the RGB information and would take a look at the light and textures and create geometry from it on a frame by frame basis."

    Helman also referenced the actors' appearances in films including Casino, Goodfellas and Heat to make their younger appearances more authentic.

  • 'The Irishman' Marks Pacino and Scorsese's First Collaboration

    While Scorsese and De Niro have worked together many times, The Irishman marked the first collaboration between the director and Pacino. "It almost happened once," Pacino said while on THR's Awards Chatter podcast. "We were going to work on [a film about the painter Amedeo Clemente] Modigliani together a lot of years ago, and then it just didn't happen," the actor revealed.

    Pacino credited De Niro for his joining the cast of The Irishman. The two actors both appeared in The Godfather, Part II, but never together, though they shared a memorable scene in Heat and worked together in Jon Avnet's Righteous Kill (2008). The Irishman is the first high-caliber film in which they share the screen.

    "We came up at the same time — I met him around '67 on the street," Pacino said of De Niro. "We both started doing work and sort of paralleled each other as we were coming up. ... New York actors going through this thing — all of a sudden you're in the limelight. And I think he had a little trouble with it, too. And so we would commiserate from time to time — just talk about things — and there was this bond formed back then, and we kept it throughout all the years."

  • Scorsese Says Netflix Gave Him "Creative Freedom"

    While appearing on THR's annual Director Roundtable, Scorsese discussed the difficulty he faced in acquiring the financial backing for The Irishman. He worked for nine years to fund the project, until he landed a deal with Netflix for $160 million.

    "Financially, the film would have complete backing," the director told the roundtable. Netflix was "willing to take the risks with the computer-generated imagery," the de-aging techniques used in the film, "and certainly the main thing for me was creative freedom."

    "The trade-off is that it's a streamer," Scorsese continued, though he added that he insisted it had a run in theaters. "I've been at this like 47 years or something. I've had a few films play one or two weeks in a theater and taken out. Including, especially, King of Comedy."

  • 'The Irishman' Is Pesci's First Acting Job in Nearly a Decade

    After unofficially retiring, Pesci made his return to acting in The Irishman. Pesci was asked 40 times to join the project before eventually giving in, with De Niro doing most of the convincing. Pesci, De Niro and Scorsese previously worked together on Raging Bull and Goodfellas

    "We're friends and he loves Marty and I said, 'Come on, this is it, let's do it, let's try and do it,' De Niro told THR at the film's Los Angeles premiere. "He understood, he loves Marty and wanted the experience of working with him again and me and Al [Pacino]." 

    Prior to The Irishman, Pesci's most recent live-action acting credit was starring opposite Helen Mirren in the 2010 film Love Ranch.

  • Making the Film Was an "Uphill Battle Until Netflix Was Born"

    Rosenthal admitted that she worried "the majority of the time" that the film would never be made following its many obstacles, including finding financing and that the de-aging technology was a relatively new concept.

    "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," she told THR. "And this was something [De Niro] 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."

    The producer added that the film didn't change much despite its long development time. "I don't think the movie itself changed very much. And the script didn't change very much," she said. "But what did change was everyone's perspective. Marty [Scorsese] 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."

    "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," she said of her main concerns after securing the financing from Netflix. "So producing was also about making sure our actors and our crew could maintain their work."

  • More Than 26 Million Households Viewed the Film on Netflix in Its First Week Streaming

    Following a limited theatrical release, The Irishman was heavily viewed on Netflix when it arrived on the streamer.

    The three-and-a-half hour film was viewed by 26.4 million households in its first week on the streaming service, according to Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos. That means nearly 16 percent of all Netflix global account holders watched the film in the week following its Nov. 27 release.

    "He was very happy," Sarandos said of Scorsese. "Betting that Martin Scorsese is going to make a great movie with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci and Al Pacino is not that big of a stretch." 

  • The Cast Defended the Length of the Film

    While some people were hesitant to watch the film due to its three-and-a-half-hour length, the cast said that the extended running time was necessary.

    "I think that there's something very sad about that ending. It's so epic in scale that it can't be any shorter," Cannavale told THR at the film's premiere. "And there's something about the ending of that movie and what it's saying about mortality and how it stretches out at the end, particularly the last half-hour, that I found to be very affecting and very much felt like what death feels like. I just felt the weight of the end of that movie, and seeing those guys, so old, coming to the end of their lives, really landed with me, and I thought it needed to have that kind of length and scale. It tells a story that spans 40 years. You need the time, and Marty's not really known for making short movies."

    Romano added that the movie "could've been another hour as far as I was concerned. Just go to the bathroom before it starts, and you'll just get immersed in it. It has so much. It has what you would expect from a Marty Scorsese movie and then more. It has this heart, this story, this conflict, this human-interest element to it that is more prevalent than any of his other movies, so there's something there for everybody and something that will compel you and keep you there for three [hours] and 20 [minutes], and you won't even feel it."

    Meanwhile, Maniscalco said that the length of the film was "refreshing."

    "I like a movie that extends and gives some time to breathe and has a long runway, rather than banging it out in an hour and a half or two hours," he said. "Anything Martin Scorsese does, there's a reason why it's long, so I trust his judgment and I think it's a nice movie to kind of sit and relax and have a nice discussion about afterwards."

  • The Costume Designers Said the Characters Dressed "Much Quieter" Than Traditional Gangsters

    Costume designers Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson said that Scorsese instructed them to keep the costumes simple.

    “Marty told us very specifically these guys are not flashy gangsters and not the ones we are used to seeing. They are much quieter and not as intimidating, and they have to blend into the background and not stand out,” Powell told THR. “This is not Goodfellas and it's not Casino.” 

    The team referenced I Heard You Paint Houses and archival footage of Hoffa and Robert F. Kennedy to create the costumes. They scoured costume shops and acquired as much as possible from each decade. "You have these five decades (the action takes place primarily in the '50s, '60s and '70s)," noted Powell. The silhouette, cut of the suit, ties and lapels were common denominators that they took into consideration.

  • Paquin's Small Role Was Criticized by Viewers

    Scorsese came under fire for sculpting a long film that barely features any dialogue or meaningful development for female characters.

    One female star that lacks screen time is Paquin, who appears in the film as Frank's daughter Peggy.

    Despite only having seven lines, Paquin told THR that she was unbothered by the size of her role.  "It’s very endearing when people think they are fighting a fight on your behalf, but not really necessary. I’m incredibly happy," she said of her fans criticizing the director. "I have such a tiny little role in the film, and I was so excited to get to be a part of it in the first place, and all of this [awards recognition] is just the icing on the cake."

    She added that while the role was small, she knew she wanted to do the movie. "I just can’t picture any actor on the planet going, 'Yeah, I don’t want to work with Martin Scorsese and every single living legend in our field,'" she said.