A quick caveat: This is the transcript of a press conference I was not at; thanks to the beautiful and brilliant Kara Warner for hooking us up.
It’s been 13 years since Robert DeNiro’s last directorial effort, A Bronx Tale (although IMDB has him as the uncredited director of The Score?), so it’s inherently interesting to hear his take on the process and the film he’s made, The Good Shepherd. In a lot of ways it feels like DeNiro’s recent shitty comedy films have been made to finance this movie, this vision of 30 years of spy history.
DeNiro is notoriously reticent as a speaker – I watched him on Larry King and it was painful, and I mean that above and beyond how painful it is to see people getting interviewed by that slackminded corpse. Still, what he has to say about this new film is interesting and often enlightening.
Q: Mr. DeNiro, you are such an accomplished actor. When you direct do you encourage the actors to take on your own style or do you accept theirs?
DeNiro: I like to think that they have to find it in their own way. But it doesn’t surprise me if it creeps in how I would do it. So that’s possible, but they ultimately have to be the ones that are comfortable with what they’re doing.
Q: This is only the second time you’ve directed a film. But there have been discussions about this film since 1998. I understood it was going to be a John Frankenheimer film but he couldn’t get insurance and got sick and died. And you took it over at that point. Can you tell us what compelled you to do this movie, and what it says about 21st century America.
DeNiro: John Frankenheimer and I, he gave me the script and he was trying to do it; I loved the script and I was like, what part can I play. And he was trying to get it done then I met Eric Roth in the mean time and recommended him for another project I was working on and [he was] working on another [CIA] script. I said to Eric, would you be interested in working on it and he said no. But as time went on we agreed that if [he does] the Good Shepard I’ll do the second part and that’s how it started. I remember I was with Milk in Moscow on one of these trips and I said this is what I really want to do the movie about The Cold War. The other one was more about what’s happening today and what happened. It was a later period.
Q: Why is this relevant for people today?
DeNiro: I know I am supposed to say I think it’s relevant. I don’t know if it is. It happens to become relevant in certain ways because of what’s happening and all the attention to the CIA in general. The only direct thing that I think of on the top of my head is the Abu Ghraib thing in the interrogation scene [water boarding]. It was done through – we researched it and looked for other things and that was one that came to mind because it was so simple and effective and powerful and horrible that I felt it would be a good thing to do in this scene.
Q: Can you talk about casting Matt and Angelina?
DeNiro: When Matt and Angelina, Matt – I was originally going to do it with Leonardo DiCaprio, so I went to Matt and he said he would do it. And there are only a few actors I would do it with and I’ve been very lucky to do it with him on every level.
Q: Why did you want him?
DeNiro: Because he could do it. If there were certain actors that I would be given the option to work with- not that they wouldn’t have been great in other things – but it just wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t have turned me on to do it. It would have been all that work for nothing. You already go through an enormous amount of work and you at least want to believe that the people in it are doing it for the right reasons.
Q: And Angelina?
DeNiro: Same with her. I was very lucky to get her. She had always wanted to do it, she expressed an interest. We had a few meetings. And she surprised me even more with what she did.
Q: Matt plays a man who is trying to keep a lot of secrets. If we were in on meetings between you and him on how he would be portrayed, what were the characteristics that you discussed and I guess the same for Angelina?
DeNiro: Some things you don’t talk about and it’s just known, its understood. You take broad strokes but basically it’s moment to moment. Scene by scene. Every set up that you do. Everything is precisely modulated and raised and lowered.
Q: But in your years of studying what did you learn about the mind of people like that?
DeNiro: I don’t know if I learned anything other than just that people are… the world that we created, that was there. The only thing that I learned are that people in the intelligence world are very smart. And very interesting people. And the nature of it the – other part, the deception which you always hear about and it’s been seen in other movies, John La Carre novels, is fascinating. I don’t know, all I know is what we did in this movie and that I tried to make it as believable as possible. And I don’t know because there was also this mythology that I supporting, it’s not literally what it was but it’s a kind of a thing. I wanted to have it as credible and real as possible.
Q: The cinematography was impressive in this film.
DeNiro: That’s Bob Richardson; he’s a wonderful cinematographer and I couldn’t have done it with out him.
Q: Well in regards to character I noticed that almost you always shot in profile and that kept an air of mystery about him. What other elements are there. How did this come about?
DeNiro: It was discussions with the cinematographer. And that’s how we did the whole film. If something felt wrong I’d be like okay how about doing this or going over there. It was a collaborative process.
Q: Was it storyboarded prior?
DeNiro: We storyboarded some of it. But I’ve always had a problem with – I think its great and certain things you need it for like if you’re doing action scenes and you need the precision then absolutely but I feel more comfortable just doing it there. We talk about scenes but things always change and at the last minute someone will come up with an idea. Like Eric said he come up with an idea. That might mean we have to change something. The actors will come up with something different. Bob Richardson will come up with something. I’ll come up with something. It always needs that kind of change in direction sometimes. And have the flexibility to do that.
Q: Can you talk about the climactic airplane scene near the end? Did you worry that Matt Damon’s character would lose all sympathy in that scene?
DeNiro: I never worried about sympathy for the character. If you followed the story you’d get empathy for the character for the dilemma of the situation. So that was something that I was okay with that.
Q: About the secrecy of Skulls and Bones – were there rules you had to follow in terms of what you could and couldn’t include in the film?
DeNiro: No there were no rules or anything like that. We got information from things that were written in books. Basically put that together. I think the skeleton of this was Eric’s and I just wanted to pull it together and make it a rich ceremony of a sort and include what I thought was right. I couldn’t expect to find what they did exactly but I don’t even know if it matters. Yeah, we heard about the mud wrestling but at the end of that day it doesn’t really matter, we just wanted to try and figure out what it could be without making it silly or sensationalized. Like the mud wrestling we heard that happened so it made it okay.
Q: This movie was once much longer. Can you talk about trying to cut it down to a shorter time while keeping as much of the CIA information as you could?
DeNiro: Yes, I had to take a lot of stuff out. But I’ll put it in the extended version and some other ones in the DVD version and hopefully I’m happy with the version we have now and so that’s okay. I also want to tell the story. I don’t want to confuse the audience. There might still be parts that are confusing. And I think there might still be parts that are confusing and I think that’s okay. You don’t always have to have the answer to everything.
So there are certain trajectories, character-wise, that I took out so that we could focus on the other characters. I thought that would probably make sense at this point. And for anybody who really wanted to see the other part of the story we’ll have that absolutely for them.
Q: What was the other part of the story?
DeNiro: One thing is the brother returns from, and then he disappears again. Which I might use in another second installment.
Q: What has sustained you throughout this long period of making the film? Do you have other plans to direct?
DeNiro: I was always hoping to do it and Eric and I were always in touch and talking, discussing actors we wanted for the film. Spent time working on it. I felt that once 9/11 happened, I thought we couldn’t do it…the world’s changed now. And I didn’t think we’d do the movie but life went on and people started showing interest. I don’t know what I’m doing next but if I could do another part of this story I would. After that I’m not sure.
Q: Do you see any comparisons to Coppola’s "Godfather"? Someone said this is De Niro’s "Preppy Godfather."
DeNiro: It was started by Coppola, the project with Eric Roth. Then it went through with other directors. There were certain parallels but how could there not? I mean was about that secret society and this is about another type of secret society but very Americana; one of the best lines in the movie to me is in the Joe Pesci scene where he says, ‘What do you people [WASPs] have,’ and Matt Damon says, ‘The United States of America – the rest of you are just visiting.’