On February 26, 2014, the First 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 DeNiro'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 DeNiro and Chazz Palminteri, its star and story creator.
Though DeNiro has since done another film as director, 2006's The Good Shepherd, he had a powerful personal connection to this story.
Though Taxi Driver really made him the figure to reckon, 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 Italy.
That background served him well for appreciating A Bronx Tale and transforming Palminteri’s story into something both personal and universal.
In anticipation of the sophomore festival’s schedule from April 3rd to 7th, 2014, DeNiro’s detailed the development of this film during a discussion after this anniversary screening. And since he has a deep love for festivals — as the founder of the Tribeca Film Festival in its 13th year this April 16-27th — it also served a suitable celebration of both festivals.
This Q&A is based on the transcript of the night’s talk.
Q: Apparently Chazz decided that if he was ever going get a good part he would have to write A Bronx Tale for himself — 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?
RD: And he did, exactly. He was doing this one-man show when I was in LA and heard about it and then saw it. We started talking about my doing it as a director. It was a long process.
Q: Chazz had received offers to have the film done and turned them down. What was he waiting for?
RD: He wanted to make sure that he could play the part of Sonny in the movie. I said to him, “Well you have a lot of offers” and it seemed at the time he did. In Hollywood everyone wants something and it’s 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.
So he had the piece that was given lots of attention. I said to him, “If you want to be able to play the part of Sonny, it’s going to be tricky because they’re going to buy it from you if you opt to sell it to them. At the end of the day, they’re going to want to have someone with a name to hedge their bets. And they’re going to probably come to me. So let’s just eliminate that whole process and tell me that you’ll give it to me to direct and I’ll promise you I will guarantee you that you can play that part.”
And that’s what happened. We had Savoy Pictures at the time wanting to do it and they were more likely to agree to the terms. So that’s how it started and how it happened.
Q: You hadn’t directed movies before. What made you want to do this?
RD: I wanted to direct a movie for a while and wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I realized that you always want to tell the perfect story and to make your movie your letter to the world so I’d say it’s not quite what I’d imagined as my letter to the world but it’s a movie I understood and liked. If nothing else, it’s something that I wanted to do as my first film and commit to doing it.
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.
Q: At that point, you were coming off an amazing six-film collaboration with Martin Scorsese. Were you concerned that expectations would be too high?
RD: I didn’t 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 and had nothing to do. It just happened to be of that subject that I happened to have a little bit of understanding of.
I 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, that’s what I needed to do and did.
Q: What did it take getting used to that?
RD: The first day was a tricky one because I had to work with kids on a stoop. I’ve directed kids before so I had an idea of these kids. I don’t remember now what I did but I got them to do whatever they had to do for that scene. Somehow it worked out.
Q: Seeing the film 20 years later, there’s still a confidence about it.
RD: Thank you. I remember these kids, I was like, “What am I going to do with them?” They’re 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 and whatever they did within the confines of what I wanted to do, the parameters. Somehow it would have to work out and that was it.
Q: How different is your process as an actor from how you direct actors?
RD: I always feel to direct actors or non-actors or anybody — I suppose it could apply to documentaries too — 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 couldn’t find professional actors who wanted to be part of this film.
I couldn’t 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, “You want me to cry?” and I said, “Hold off.”
This 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.
Q: A 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 actor’s sensitivity?
RD: I think all actor/directors have an innate sensitivity to other artists. The actors who are being directed by them understand that because they’re being directed by other actors they’re going to give them more, unconsciously or subconsciously or whatever, it’s always there. If you have any kind of common sense as an actor directing other actors, you’re going to be sensitive to that because it’s right and you’re going to get better performances, more sensitive performances because the people working together understand each other.
Q: It’s has very funny moments and a lot of sweetness. How did you get the whole shape and tone of the film?
RD: I 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 so you don’t worry about getting a professional kid who came from some agent. There’s nothing wrong with that but this is about real people where it’s unspoken and understood what this is all about.
To 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 Sonny’s culture, the gangster culture.
Q: Goodfellas dealt with the same idea.
RD: Goodfellas 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. It’s just that Henry Hill was in Queens and this is in the Bronx.
Q: You dressed up Astoria for the movie, so what was it like shooting in that neighborhood.
RD: That block on 30th Avenue — that church — 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 cellar— all of that. We had all these and it was perfect. If you had to go for a reshoot, things were ready. We’d go down to the store we used before for this or that so we were very fortunate in that it was like a little backlot.
Q: There’s a deli there that still sells the “DeNiro Hero.”
RD: I go there and I get one for a nickel.
Q: The music in the film was another part of its character as well.
RD: The 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 I’m from that time. Well, I’m 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, Barbella, we’d sit on weekends and listen to music, the obvious stuff, though I was always looking for something a little more obscure.
But at the end of the day, it was about what worked for the movie and 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 hours.
Q: Were any other movies models for you?
RD: No other movies at all. It wasn’t 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.
It’s 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 10 years later but it was all about the love of the music and the period.
Q: What did you see as some of the themes of the film — the theme of being a father for example.
RD: There was the father-son thing and that’s the bottom line. As an actor, I’d go more for father parts, then grandfather parts. As long as I’m around, I’ll be offered grandfather, great-grandfather parts.
Q: You just made a film about your father.
RD: I did, I made a documentary about my father.
Q: I guess we’ll have to wait to see it?
Q: Was that a difficult film to get off the ground?
RD: They’re all difficult. Making a movie is very difficult whether you make it for a million dollars or 50 million dollars or 100 millions dollars. They’re all difficult. There’s so many moving parts, one cannot imagine. Many people have many opinions that you have to field all the time. It’s just difficult.
It’s a collaborative effort, a communal effort, it’s complicated and you have to be able to deal with all that, take in everyone’s else’s opinion and deal with everyone else’s input and come out with the final outcome.
Q: There’s so many films that come out around this story that feel dated but this one doesn’t.
RD: I don’t know if you’re just being nice...
Q: It’s true.
RD: I didn’t think of other films. I just thought of telling this story, Chazz’s story, the story of these kids. It’s a true story. That’s how it was in those neighborhoods.
Q: At this point in independent film, you see a lot of movies trying to be hip that don’t stand the test of [history]. Maybe you just didn’t care so much about that.
RD: I didn’t care and was assured of what I was doing because it was what it was. It was Chazz’s story, a good story, a true story, a real story.
Q: Being an adaptation of a play, what did you change from it being onstage?
RD: Well it was an adaptation of his one-man show with the characters and he wrote the script and we used the script to do the movie. It was pretty simple. He added some characters and I was looking for people in certain neighborhoods like Little Italy and all around and I found someone and I said, “Chazz, where is this guy, little Mush?” and he said, “He’s in the Bronx.” I said, “Well, can we find him?” He found him, I met him and I said, “Let’s use him.”
And we did and he was great. We used real people when needed because you can’t 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.
Q: Obviously you were happy with the finished product but was there anything you would have change in it if you could?
RD: There’s always something you want to change but I was happy with what we did because I tried my best.
Q: How do you decide when and what you want to direct?
RD: For The Good Shepard, I had always been interested in that subject matter. Eric Roth had written that script and 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 hasn’t 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.
In a feature, you have less time to do that but it’s more grand; it like opera. It’s unresolved at this point but I don’t know if I ever do another movie. If I did five in my life, I’d be happy. If I do three, I don’t know if I’ll do another. It’s a lot of work. It’s very tough, especially if you care about it. It’s an uphill battle. It’s always about money and about budget and you have to constantly be fighting it every second.
Q: Is it hard to juggle so many different roles in this?
RD: No, the acting was small compared. Some people are directing and acting throughout and it’s not easy but it’s not impossible. It’s work. It’s difficult. Which I enjoy doing but it’s tough work.
Q: In 2014, is there anything left, the good and bad, for the real characters in this story?
RD: Oh definitely. Definitely. Chazz is not here but he would have his opinion about that of course. Where those characters are and where their positions are today and where they stand racially, absolutely. That’s another movie without a doubt.
Q: Was the two-part structure something that was also on stage or was that something that was modified?
RD: The racial thing was what it was, it was always constant.
Q: How much time elapsed since you first saw Chazz’s one man show and the beginning of filming?
RD: I’d say somewhere between five and six years but I could be off by a year or two.
Q: What took up most of that time?
RD: My getting ready to do it and Chazz finally agreeing to it and 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 — it’s sort of real and some of it’s illusion but the studios were after him.
I said, “Look, they’re going to try to get you to sell the script and then at the end of the day, they’re 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 they’re going to give it to you. If you give the script to me, I guarantee you that you’ll play Sonny and we’ll eliminate the middle men for the men who would later be the distributor so we’ll need them at the end of the day but not in the first part. I said I would direct it and we could go from there. I’d play the father, he’d play Sonny and that’d be it.
Q: What lessons did you learn making this film?
RD: It could be a low-budget film but the bottom line is you’ll feel pressure about cost and budget and it’s all connected. So 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 you’re lucky, from a rich family that’ll give you 100 million dollars to do a movie, you’re going to have restrictions and parameters. It’s a good thing in some ways because it forces you to be creative within the constrictions you have. That’s the reality because you have to set down so many days that you can shoot the story you want to tell, whether it’s 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.
If you have 10 set ups a day and 10 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 you’re doing it with an iPhone and maybe you’re making an American iPhone classic, we don’t know that yet. Maybe it’s 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 — they do it for the art, they do it for this — they want a return on their money.
The more money it is, the more they want the guarantee that at least get their money back. If it’s $100,000 they want their $100,000 back. If it’s a million, they want it back, maybe they’ll make a profit. It’s all very simple. That’s the bottom line of it all.
Q: How has your approach to acting changed since you were younger a taking a more dangerous, method like way of being?
RD: I don’t know what the dangers are because I’ve never experienced that. If you’re saying somebody gets too involved in their role where they end up losing themselves and going crazy, I’ve never seen that ever. Ever.
As actors, the best thing you can do, I feel, at the end of the day, actors use whatever can work for them. When they’re 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.
The two things are: you don’t hurt yourself, and you don’t hurt others. Everything else is okay. Whatever your wildest imagination is that can make you arrive at that point in that scene, that’s 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, that’s the bottom line. I have great respect for all of them but that’s the bottom line. You have to choose for yourself.
When you’re in a scene, you say what does this scene mean to me, what does this character mean to me and you have to interpret it. You have to let it be personal to yourself and that’s the most important thing.