Commentary: Buddy cops with chemistry get arrested

Robert De Niro, Al Pacino team up to drive 'Righteous'

"Righteous" report: Buddy cop movies are a popular Hollywood genre, but if the buddies' chemistry isn't right these films can't arrested at the boxoffice.

In the case of Jon Avnet's "Righteous Kill," opening wide Friday via Overture Films, the buddies are Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and it only takes a few seconds of seeing them together on screen to know their chemistry's perfect and will drive the movie. So, yes, these guys can definitely get arrested!

Directed by Avnet ("Fried Green Tomatoes," "Red Corner") and written by Russell Gewirtz ("Inside Man"), "Righteous" teams De Niro and Pacino as veteran New York City detectives pursuing a vigilante serial killer. The plot thickens when they realize the victims are all violent criminals who've fallen through cracks in the judicial system and their killer may be a cop dispensing his own brand of justice.

Produced by Avi Lerner and Boaz Davidson of Millennium/Nu Image Films and by Randall Emmet, Daniel M. Rosenberg, Alexandra Milchan and Rob Cowan, the film's executive producers are Lati Grobman, Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short and George Furla.

"It was March or April of last year that I got a script from (CAA partner) Bryan Lourde (who said De Niro) had some interest in it," Avnet told me when we spoke recently about making the film. "I met with Bob. We discussed the project. We thought it might be worth reading it with a bunch of actors in New York and the next weekend we read it and met afterwards and thought, 'Okay. This looks interesting.' Russell had written a good script."

Avnet and De Niro discussed casting at that point, he recalled, "and I said to Bob, 'Who's your dream cast here?' And he said, 'Al.' I said, 'Well, that's a very easy phone call for me to make' because I knew Al. (Pacino starred in Avnet's 2007 crime thriller '88 Minutes.') I called Al and told him and within a week he was in the movie, which is record time for Al. He's not the quickest at making his mind up. It just came together that quickly and was that exciting."

It's the first time De Niro and Pacino have ever had a lot of scenes together in a film. "In 'Godfather' (Francis Coppola's 1974 "Part II") they never worked together and in 'Heat' (Michael Mann's 1995 crime thriller) they had one big memorable scene," Avnet said. "This is a whole movie of them (working together and it's) a treat."

With such an easy start it sounds like the project sailed forward. "Well, 'sailed' is a relative term," Avnet observed. "It did come together very quickly (but) when 'Heat' was shot I think they had over a hundred days to shoot it. We had 35. The time pressures were significant as were the budgetary pressures. So you have to be as clever as you can be when you have budgetary constraints. And there's obviously tremendous expectation to see these two together so you want to do a really a bang-up job."

It's hard enough for a director to work with one big star in a movie, but to have two major stars poses real challenges. "In general, stars are used to having the ability to do what they want to when they want to," Avnet explained. "When you have two stars, which I've had once or twice before, it is much more of a juggling act. What was great was that Bob and Al are friends off screen and they were very gracious with one another and that just made life so much easier. What is always difficult any time you have two actors -- and two stars are no different -- is, 'How do they work?'"

In this case, he continued, "Al likes to rehearse and Bob likes to rehearse on camera. He's very spontaneous. So the art of juggling that is a director's craft. You just have to figure out how to do it. Sometimes you don't rehearse. Sometimes you do. Sometimes you shoot one (actor) before you shoot the other and let that be a rehearsal. I mean, there are many different ways of doing it. Sometimes I'd rehearse with Al, myself.

"Bob would do anything that was requested of him as would Al so there was a tremendous amount of good will towards each other, towards the project and towards me. It allowed me to take methods that had been developed over years for good reason. I mean, these guys have delivered the goods so it's not like it's their first time out and they're lazy or spoiled. On the contrary, there's a reason for it."

Asked how he prepared to direct the film, Avnet replied, "My approach is I do all the shots before I do the movie. I just like to write them down. I don't storyboard them. I have a massive and a very detailed shot list. Then as I rehearse I sometimes will alter it based on what the actors do because I actually like to let the actors block things themselves most of the time -- just to see if they have a better idea than me. I try to have my best idea, but I'm hoping for something better. With Bob and Al or any actors with any level of creativity often they will come up with something that's better because of seeing it from the point of view of the character. I like to allow for that to happen."

Why isn't Avnet a fan of storyboarding? "When you do storyboards," he explained, "they are passed on to third parties many generations down so if the image isn't exactly what you want, people will not know that's the case. They will assume what they're seeing is exactly what the director wants. It is very time consuming to get a visual image on a piece of paper that reflects exactly what I would want. Often it takes three or four passes to do it. So it takes a lot of time and I'd rather people not rely on stuff that wasn't exactly what I wanted. The only time I will do it is if it's a complicated CG setup and I need to have pre-visualizations for CG artists or (for anyone else who) needs to know. But more and more, I'm doing that on the computer."

As an example, he cited the 2004 sci-fi adventure "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," on which he was a producer, directed by Kerry Conran and starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. "Because it was very ambitious in terms of technical stuff," he said, "everything was done digitally and everything had to match. There were like 2,200 effects shots. Kerry pre-visualized the whole movie doing these very, very specific animatics. I watched it and I was involved from the beginning seeing how he did it and seeing how they were realized. So I have a bit of computer sophistication having spent so many years with Kerry on that and if I wanted to do something I will do that and have done that for the purposes of getting very, very specific in a kind of effect that would be very complicated."

Avnet likes to do a lot of research. "In this case, I spent a lot of time with the New York City cops," he explained. "I went to the firing range with Bob (and also) with Al. You would think after all these years that they would be as good as any actors living at shooting guns and they are, but they wanted to make sure that they were completely up to speed and I like that. I like being around the cops when we're doing this. I like hearing them. I like seeing the cops interact with Bob and Al because there are all these intangible things they just soak in and it comes out in very, very rich ways."

As a case in point, he cited a scene "where Bob is carrying a gun. The police advisor, a detective, was very good, very knowledgeable. He came up to me when we did a blocking rehearsal and said, 'He should carry the gun this way.' I said, 'Don't say anything to him. Let him just do what he does. Let's see what it is and if it's not right we'll adjust. But I want to see what he does.' So then Bob goes and does the scene and it's just fucking brilliant what he does. Had I gone to him with my expert telling him how to do it, it would have been very difficult for him to resist the temptation to listen to the expert.

"Instead, what he came up with was even better and my advisor said, 'It's great.' Bob made a choice as the character to hold the gun in a (certain) way and when the detective saw it he said it was great. That is to me what you want to do as a director -- sometimes do nothing and other times if you have a better idea and you've seen theirs then you can interject it and you get the best of both worlds."

Avnet tips his hat both to Millennium/Nu Image, which originated the project and brought him in, and to Overture Films, its domestic distributor. "Overture came on for domestic very early on, which was good," he noted. "I like having a distributor when you're doing the movie. I know (Overture CEO) Chris McGurk and (Overture president of worldwide theatrical marketing, distribution and new media) Peter Adee. When Peter was at Disney (in marketing) I did 10 movies there that were all quite successful -- (like) 'The Mighty Ducks,' 'George of the Jungle,' 'Up Close and Personal' -- movies I directed and movies I produced. So I was very happy to be working with Peter again. And Chris I've done a number of films with, as well."

What Avnet particularly appreciated about Overture being on board early, he added, was being "able to discuss how (and when) the film was going to be released. It's good to get a distributor's feedback just like a studio's feedback because they're looking at it differently than you (are) as a filmmaker. You want the bad news early so you can fix it as opposed to everybody just patting you on the back. So I liked the combination of knowing it was going to be distributed by them and their feedback as a production entity.

"They picked it before we were shooting. I told them what I was going to do and how I was approaching the script. They were involved and we communicated regularly and they were very supportive -- as was Avi (Lerner, co-chairman of Millennium/Nu Image Films). Avi treated the film very well. They were proud of it and were very excited about having these two (stars) together because it is certainly an event to see the two of them on film together. And, hopefully, we all did justice to their talent."

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