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April 5, 2014.
Time Fest team held a special event in tandem with Tribeca
Enterprises in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of A
Bronx Tale, Oscar-winning actor Robert
De Niro's directorial debut. Since the concept of the
fest is to celebrate directors and their debut features, this film
screening served to hail a career benchmark for De Niro and
its star and story creator.
Though De Niro has since done another film as director, 2006's The
Good Shepherd, he had a powerful personal connection to this story.
Driver really made him a figure to reckon with,
several of his earlier films such as Mean
Streets and Godfather
II really drew on his Italian heritage and life
growing up in Manhattan's Little
background served him well for appreciating A
Bronx Tale and transforming Palminteriís story into
something both personal and universal.
anticipation of the sophomore festivalís schedule from April
3rd to 7th, 2014, De Niro detailed the development of
this film during a discussion after this anniversary screening. And
since he has a deep love for festivals ó as the founder of the Tribeca
Film Festival in its 13th year this April
16-27th ó it also served a suitable celebration of both
Q&A is based on the transcript of the nightís talk.
Apparently Chazz decided that if he was ever going get a good part he
would have to write
Bronx Tale for himself ó and perform it, first as a one-man
off-Broadway production. How did you come across his wonderful play that
you eventually directed as your first movie?
did, exactly. He was doing this one-man show when I was in LA. [I] heard
about it and then saw it. We started talking about my doing it as a
director. It was a long process.
had received offers to have the film done and turned them down. What was
he waiting for?
wanted to make sure that he could play the part of Sonny in the movie. I
said to him, ďWell you have a lot of offersĒ and it seemed at the time
he did. In Hollywood everyone wants something and itís a feeding frenzy
for a certain thing. At that time this was what A Bronx Tale was
for movie studios the way as I understand it.
he had the piece that was given lots of attention. I said to him, ďIf
you want to be able to play the part of Sonny, itís going to be tricky
because theyíre going to buy it from you if you opt to sell it to them.
At the end of the day, theyíre going to want to have someone with a name
to hedge their bets. Theyíre going to probably come to me. So letís
just eliminate that whole process and tell me that youíll give it to me
to direct and Iíll promise you I will guarantee you that you can play
Thatís what happened. We had Savoy Pictures at the time wanting to do it
and they were more likely to agree to the terms. Thatís how it started
and how it happened.
You hadnít directed movies before. What made you want to do this?
wanted to direct a movie for a while and wasnít sure what I was going to
do. I realized that you always want to tell the perfect story. To make
your movie your letter to the world. Iíd say itís not quite what Iíd
imagined as my letter to the world, but itís a movie I understood and
liked. If nothing else, itís something that I wanted to do as my first
film and commit to doing it.
was a practical move. I liked Chazz and the nature of it and all this
stuff. I could at least attempt to make something special out of this
material from my understanding of that world.
At that point, you were coming off an amazing six-film collaboration
with Martin Scorsese. Were you concerned that expectations would be too
didnít care about all that. Who cares about the comparison? It was about
just doing my thing. The movies that Marty and I had been doing to that
point were wonderful experiences. But my doing the movie as a director
with this material as it happened to be with Chazz was what it was. [It]
had nothing to do [with anything Iíd done before]. It just happened to
be of that subject that I happened to have a little bit of understanding
was happy to do it and take my chances. In my world, when you want to
direct a movie, you jump in and take the leap of faith of directing.
Finding a director of photography and all the other people, the
department heads of a film and then going ahead, moving forward and
shooting... it is a big step. To me, thatís what I needed to do and did.
did it take getting used to that?
first day was a tricky one, because I had to work with kids on a stoop.
Iíve directed kids before, so I had an idea of these kids. I donít
remember now what I did, but I got them to do whatever they had to do
for that scene. Somehow it worked out.
Seeing the film 20 years later, thereís still a confidence about it.
Thank you. I remember these kids, I was like, ďWhat am I going to do
with them?Ē Theyíre all jumping around and everything. These kids... to
get them to do what I wanted to do, I knew I just had to let them do
what they wanted to. Whatever they did within the confines of what I
wanted to do, the parameters. Somehow it would have to work out and that
How different is your process as an actor from how you direct actors?
always feel to direct actors or non-actors or anybody ó I suppose it
could apply to documentaries, too ó you have to let people be
comfortable and feel free to express themselves. That goes especially
with the case of A Bronx Tale because these are kids. I always
intended to not have be professional actors. You couldnít find
professional actors who wanted to be part of this film.
couldnít do it. I had to find kids from that neighborhood who, if
anything, had aspirations to be actors and singers. Who understood the
idea of acting for someone, whether it be for a camera or their mother
or father or family member. Kids who understand that. That was my
intention, to find those kids and have them be in the film. Like the boy
who played my son who was 12, Francis, he said, ďYou want me to cry?Ē
and I said, ďHold off.Ē
was at two in the morning. He understood the meaning and reason and
importance of that emotion and was ready to do it. I was amazingly
surprised how he understood that at such a young age and how important
it was to the film. And he was ready to do it. It was great.
number of actors have become directors. A lot of this film is about
people looking at each other and being looked at. Does this come from an
think all actor/directors have an innate sensitivity to other artists.
The actors who are being directed by them understand that because
theyíre being directed by other actors. Theyíre going to give them more,
unconsciously or subconsciously or whatever. Itís always there. If you
have any kind of common sense as an actor directing other actors, youíre
going to be sensitive to that because itís right. Youíre going to get
better performances, more sensitive performances, because the people
working together understand each other.
has very funny moments and a lot of sweetness. How did you get the whole
shape and tone of the film?
thought about how these were kids and... again, not using real actors...
you have to use kids from that environment who understand it and can
improv. But these are kids who are 14, 15, 16 and who want to be men. In
that culture, they want to be grownups. They aspire to what they see
before them in the gangster culture and all that stuff. You have to get
kids who understand that world. You donít worry about getting a
professional kid who came from some agent. Thereís nothing wrong with
that, but this is about real people, where itís unspoken and understood
what this is all about.
me that was the most important thing. Kids who are 13, 14, 15, 16, who
want to behave and be adults and aspire to what they see around them in
their culture. Which is the Sonnyís culture, the gangster culture.
GoodFellas dealt with the same idea.
was about the same thing with Henry Hill. There was no difference. The
characters in A Bronx Tale aspired to the same thing that Henry
Hill did. Itís just that Henry Hill was in Queens and this is in the
You dressed up Astoria for the movie, so what was it like shooting in
block on 30th Avenue ó that church ó was the same as in the Bronx. Part
coincidence, part design. There were abandoned stores on that block,
which helped us. We could use the funeral parlor, the back part and
downstairs cellaró all of that. We had all these and it was perfect. If
you had to go for a reshoot, things were ready. Weíd go down to the
store we used before for this or that. We were very fortunate in that it
was like a little back lot.
Thereís a deli there that still sells the ďDe Niro Hero.Ē
there and I get one for a nickel.
The music in the film was another part of its character as well.
music is the third character, if you will. It was very important to me
that we had the right music. I love the music from that period because
Iím from that time. Well, Iím actually from 10 years earlier, the jazz
is like eight to 10 years younger than me, but we blended those periods
together. I spent a lot of time with jazz and one of the composers of
the play, [Butch] Barbella, weíd sit on weekends and listen to music;
the obvious stuff, though I was always looking for something a little
the end of the day, it was about what worked for the movie. Sometimes it
would be something that was so popular from that period, less popular at
the moment, and then you might hear it on a commercial, but it was so
right for the movie that we had to use it. You knew what was right as
you went along. It was hunting, pecking and listening for hours and
any other movies models for you?
other movies at all. It wasnít a Scorsese movie influence. Marty does
his movies, I do mine. I just followed what I thought was right for the
movie and it was that simple. It had nothing to do with anything before
or after or anything like that. No influence.
my love for movies and for music of that period, or five years after.
That whole period was a little bit of fudging of time because the jazz
period was ten years later but it was all about the love of the music
and the period.
What did you see as some of the themes of the film? The theme of being a
father for example.
There was the father-son thing and thatís the bottom line. As an actor,
Iíd go more for father parts, then grandfather parts. As long as Iím
around, Iíll be offered grandfather, great-grandfather parts.
You just made a film about your father.
did. I made a documentary about my father.
guess weíll have to wait to see it?
Was that a difficult film to get off the ground?
Theyíre all difficult. Making a movie is very difficult, whether you
make it for a million dollars or 50 million dollars or 100 millions
dollars. Theyíre all difficult. Thereís so many moving parts, one cannot
imagine. Many people have many opinions that you have to field all the
time. Itís just difficult.
a collaborative effort, a communal effort. Itís complicated and you have
to be able to deal with all that. Take in everyoneís elseís opinion and
deal with everyone elseís input and come out with the final outcome.
Thereís so many films that come out around this story that feel dated
but this one doesnít.
donít know if youíre just being nice...
didnít think of other films. I just thought of telling this story,
Chazzís story, the story of these kids. Itís a true story. Thatís how it
was in those neighborhoods.
At this point in independent film, you see a lot of movies trying to be
hip that donít stand the test of [history]. Maybe you just didnít care
so much about that.
didnít care and was assured of what I was doing because it was what it
was. It was Chazzís story, a good story, a true story, a real story.
Being an adaptation of a play, what did you change from it being
it was an adaptation of his one-man show with the characters. He wrote
the script and we used the script to do the movie. It was pretty simple.
He added some characters. I was looking for people in certain
neighborhoods like Little Italy and all around. I found someone and I
said, ďChazz, where is this guy, little Mush?Ē and he said, ďHeís in the
Bronx.Ē I said, ďWell, can we find him?Ē He found him, I met him and I
said, ďLetís use him.Ē
did and he was great. We used real people when needed because you canít
replace real people. You cannot add an actor to recreate something that
a real person can do to add the texture to what that life is about. So
when you have that opportunity, you must take advantage of it.
Obviously you were happy with the finished product, but was there
anything you would have change in it if you could?
Thereís always something you want to change, but I was happy with what
we did because I tried my best.
How do you decide when and what you want to direct?
The Good Shepherd, I had always been interested in that subject
matter. Eric Roth had written that script. I said I want to do this
because I wanted to do this subject matter. And we did. I wanted to do a
sequel to it, but he hasnít come up with that thing. We dillydallied
with doing it for television, which means we would have more time to get
into the details of the intricacies of that world.
feature, you have less time to do that. But itís more grand; it like
opera. Itís unresolved at this point, but I donít know if I ever do
another movie. If I did five in my life, Iíd be happy. If I do three. I
donít know if Iíll do another. Itís a lot of work. Itís very tough,
especially if you care about it. Itís an uphill battle. Itís always
about money and about budget. You have to constantly be fighting it
Is it hard to juggle so many different roles in this?
the acting was small, comparatively. Some people are directing and
acting throughout. Itís not easy, but itís not impossible. Itís work.
Itís difficult. Which I enjoy doing, but itís tough work.
In 2014, is there anything left, the good and bad, for the real
characters in this story?
definitely. Definitely. Chazz is not here but he would have his opinion
about that, of course. Where those characters are and what their
positions are today and where they stand racially, absolutely. Thatís
another movie without a doubt.
Was the two-part structure something that was also on stage or was that
something that was modified?
racial thing was what it was. It was always constant.
How much time elapsed between when you first saw Chazzís one man show
and the beginning of filming?
say somewhere between five and six years, but I could be off by a year
What took up most of that time?
getting ready to do it. Chazz finally agreeing to it. Allowing it to be
done. The way I remember, I could be off about certain things, but he
wanted the guarantee that he could play the part of Sonny. I guaranteed
him that. It was a feeding frenzy; they were after him for the thing ó
itís sort of real and some of itís illusion but the studios were after
said, ďLook, theyíre going to try to get you to sell the script. Then at
the end of the day, theyíre going to come after they buy it from you.
You want to play the part of Sonny, but once they own it, you have no
guarantee that theyíre going to give it to you. If you give the script
to me, I guarantee you that youíll play Sonny. Weíll eliminate the
middle men for the men who would later be the distributor. Weíll need
them at the end of the day, but not in the first part.Ē I said I would
direct it and we could go from there. Iíd play the father, heíd play
Sonny and thatíd be it.
What lessons did you learn making this film?
could be a low-budget film, but the bottom line is youíll feel pressure
about cost and budget. Itís all connected. You have a certain amount of
time to do the movie and a certain amount of money to do it with. You
may have visions to do this and that, but at the end of the day you only
have this much money to do it with.
Unless youíre lucky, from a rich family thatíll give you 100 million
dollars to do a movie, youíre going to have restrictions and parameters.
Itís a good thing in some ways, because it forces you to be creative
within the constrictions you have. Thatís the reality. You have to set
down so many days that you can shoot the story you want to tell, whether
itís five or 35, 16 or 10 and however many hours you can shoot that in
and how many set ups you can do in order to tell the story.
you have ten set ups a day and ten days to shoot it, you have 100 set
ups to tell that story. You have to find yourself in all those
restrictions and parameters, unless youíre doing it with an iPhone and
maybe youíre making an American iPhone classic, we donít know that yet.
Maybe itís the new thing. Those are the real problems you have when you
have an investor who wants a return on their money no matter what they
say ó they do it for the art, they do it for this ó they want a return
on their money.
more money it is, the more they want the guarantee that at least get
their money back. If itís $100,000 they want their $100,000 back. If
itís a million, they want it back, maybe theyíll make a profit. Itís all
very simple. Thatís the bottom line of it all.
How has your approach to acting changed since you were younger a taking
a more dangerous, method-like way of being?
donít know what the dangers are because Iíve never experienced that. If
youíre saying somebody gets too involved in their role where they end up
losing themselves and going crazy, Iíve never seen that ever. Ever.
actors, the best thing you can do, I feel, at the end of the day, actors
use whatever can work for them. When theyíre in there for the moment,
you have to use whatever is good for you. Think about your mother who
died last week or think about this or that, you can do whatever.
two things are: you donít hurt yourself, and you donít hurt others.
Everything else is okay. Whatever your wildest imagination is that can
make you arrive at that point in that scene, thatís fine. But the rest
of it is all bullshit.
Everyone has a way of arriving at that thing and no matter what they say
or what lip service they give to it all, thatís the bottom line. I have
great respect for all of them but thatís the bottom line. You have to
choose for yourself.
youíre in a scene, you say what does this scene mean to me? What does
this character mean to me? You have to interpret it. You have to let it
be personal to yourself. Thatís the most important thing.
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ROBERT DE NIRO HAD TO SAY TO US IN 2015!
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