Martin Scorsese on Longtime Collaboration With Robert De Niro: "It's All About Trust"

Martin Scorsese - AFI Fest - H - 2019
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Netflix

AFI Fest celebrated the filmmaker with a screening of 'The Irishman' at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

American Film Institute president Bob Gazzale asked hundreds of audience members at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood to imagine a world without Martin Scorsese and his award-winning works. 

"All the movies you were reminded of, gone," he said. "Generations of young filmmakers, uninspired." He continued, "As our nation’s leading voice for film preservation, treasured films would be lost and disintegrating. As a collaborator, [Robert] De Niro and [Leonardo] DiCaprio would have no sparring partner to push them to greater artistic heights."

After asking the attendees to snap out of their "George Bailey nightmare," Gazzale had only one word to describe such a world: unimaginable.

Scorsese joined the AFI president Friday night for a brief conversation before a screening for The Irishman, where the two talked about Scorsese breaking onto the film scene, establishing connections with collaborators and the stars of his latest film.

When he started out, Scorsese said, he wasn’t making movies, but rather films. What he created when growing up in New York were similar to home videos in that they were about the life around him. The invention of lightweight technology and the paths set by pioneers including John Cassavetes changed the access he had to filmmaking, Scorsese recalled. "By that point you could do anything if you had anything to say," he said. 

The director then went on to discuss his years of collaboration with De Niro, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and ultimately working with Al Pacino for the Netflix film. "It’s all about trust, that’s all it is. They have to have some talent," he quipped. 

Scorsese told the audience that he didn’t want to do a film with De Niro unless the two could explore the stories they collaborated for on a deeper level. He also shared how the actor came to him with Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, the book that inspires Scorsese’s latest film. De Niro, he shared, initially read the book as research for another project but later explained more details about the Irishman himself, mafia hitman Frank Sheeran. 

"I realized that maybe this is where we have to go," Scorsese said. "It’s about forgiveness and we just got deeper and deeper into it."

The director, who received AFI’s life achievement award back in 1997, also shared that De Niro kept recommending Al Pacino for the project. Though Scorsese said he met Pacino in 1970, he always seemed "unreachable."

De Niro, Scorsese said, kept insisting that Pacino was great to work with. Once Pacino joined The Irishman, the director said that he saw the years of friendship shared between the film’s stars manifest on screen.

"I think what you see in the film is their relationship as actors, as friends over the past 44, 45 years," he said. "There’s something magical that happens there."