When Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese last worked together, on 1995's Casino, nobody could have imagined it would take them almost a quarter of a century to reunite. To certain generations, director Scorsese and his actor of choice, De Niro, were inseparable – working on era-defining movies such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. Finally, they've come together again for The Irishman, the Netflix-backed adaptation of Charles Brandt's book I Heard You Paint Houses.
It's no surprise that in this longed-for return, De Niro gives one of his best performances in years, as real-life hitman Frank Sheeran. "It took us a long time to find the right project and the right space in which we could operate and also try to learn more about ourselves," says Scorsese.
Over time, there were other projects – not least Scorsese's The Departed, which De Niro had to pull out of since he was set to direct 2006's The Good Shepherd. "We would've had more continuity if it had not been for that. But we got right back into whatever our old routine is," says the actor, who had been given Brandt's book by Eric Roth, the screenwriter on The Good Shepherd, and took it to Scorsese. The crime thriller focuses on Sheeran, a Second World War veteran who becomes entangled in the mafia, and his role in the death of real-life union leader Jimmy Hoffa.
Theirs is not the only beautiful reunion in The Irishman. The film also stars Harvey Keitel, who first worked with De Niro in Scorsese's Little Italy hoodlum saga Mean Streets, and another Scorsese regular Joe Pesci. De Niro coaxed the latter out of retirement. "I would say to him, 'Come on, let's go, it's the last time – probably – that we are going to be able to do something like this. You gotta do it.'"
He touches on something very key here: age. "We were 16 years old when we first met, down the Lower East Side where we grew up," says Scorsese, recalling his first meeting with De Niro. "He was with a different group of young guys and I was from another group." Sixty years on – De Niro is 76, while Scorsese has just turned 77 – this film may indeed represent these legends of cinema gathering for the final time.
It's why Sheeran's story is so potent. "It's about dying at the end of the day," says De Niro, who plays the character across six decades of his life, with the help of digital technology to de-age him. For Scorsese, this element of the story made The Irishman stand apart from their earlier, flashier forays into the gangster genre. "Maybe it's because we got older. I don't know. You look back … friends are going, families gone," De Niro says.
Amid all this, there was time for a new partnership – with Al Pacino cast as Hoffa, leader of the all-powerful Teamsters Union who had links to organised crime until he mysteriously disappeared in 1975. Now 79, Pacino had tried several times to work with Scorsese, but it "just didn't turn out", he says. For years, a Scorsese-Pacino get-together felt like cinema's great missed opportunity. "I gave up on the chance," Pacino says, sighing. So did many people.
With all these star-studded reunions, it seems crazy that traditional Hollywood balked at bankrolling the $150 million (Dh550.8m) budget – which got bigger with the use of digital de-ageing technology. But then the landscape is very different from when De Niro and Scorsese last worked together; now, superhero movies rule the box office. The director's recent comments about Marvel ("that's not cinema", he told Empire magazine) arguably put him in the minority. Thankfully, Netflix came to the rescue. While the film has been given a small theatrical release in some countries, most viewers will see it at home when it drops on the streaming service.
In the US, cinema chains AMC and Regal refused to play the film at all – unthinkable for a Scorsese movie – as they continue to battle Netflix, which flagrantly breaks the traditional window between the cinema and home releases. "First of all getting this movie done was because of Netflix," says Pacino. "Hopefully, what we're trying to do is see that we have theatres in the cities that play it."
Nevertheless, he concedes that watching it at home will be very different. "The mere fact that you can stop the film at any time, make a phone call and break away from it, is another experience."
Scorsese admits that a reduced theatrical life for The Irishman was the payoff for getting the film made. And while he is precious about preserving the cinematic experience, he is all too aware of what Netflix and other streaming services are doing to the medium of film. "I think it's not just an evolving of cinema, it's a revolution. It's even bigger than the revolution that sound brought to cinema."
There's been further controversy surrounding the accuracy of Sheeran's own recollections. Jimmy Hoffa specialist Dan Moldea met with De Niro back in 2014. "I told him, 'Bob, you're being conned,'" Moldea recently explained to The Daily Beast. He is of the belief that Sheeran – who claimed to be the man behind Hoffa's disappearance – is a pathological liar, who offered up conflicting stories over the years of his whereabouts during this period.
De Niro, though, is on the side of Sheeran, who died in 2003, aged 83. "I believed everything he said in the book. I could tell by the dialogue, I could tell by the situation, the whole milieu, the whole feel was real." He also spent time with Sheeran's relatives, consumed video and audio footage, as well as talking to Charles Brandt, the author of the source book who "spent 12 years" with Sheeran.
Whatever the truth, there's no doubt Scorsese's film, running at three-and-a-half-hours, is the cinema event of the year. Even the de-ageing technology, achieved using tiny dots planted on the actors' faces, is groundbreaking. "I used to joke – it'll add 30 years to my career," says De Niro, with a laugh. Maybe this means he and Scorsese will squeeze another movie in after all. De Niro shrugs. "You never know until there's no more."
The Irishman is on Netflix from Wednesday