Robert De Niro’s not much of a talker, especially at screenings or press events. But the other night at the 20th Anniversary Benefit screening of “A Bronx Tale,” at Village East Cinema, the “Raging Bull” actor was unusually talkative.
Chazz Palminteri, the star of “A Bronx Tale,” who also wrote the screenplay and created the one-man play on which the film was based, was sick and couldn’t attend, so that left only DeNiro to field questions during a lively Q&A following the movie.
The impressive guest list included Kathrine Narducci (De Niro’s wife in the film), Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Gay Talese and Tony Bennett. Hosting the event were First Time Fest co-founders Mandy Ward and Bennett’s daughter, Johanna.
On the red carpet Gay Talese told me, “I’m here for a celebration of a lasting work. There are probably a thousand movies a year, and when one of them survives 20 years of the fickle taste of the American public, the ticket buying public, it must be a special event.”
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De Niro made his directing debut with the critically acclaimed film, set in the Bronx in the 1960’s, about a young boy’s friendship with a local gangster, Sonny (Palminteri), a relationship that worries his Italian-American bus driver father (De Niro). The rueful story is a period piece, but provides a warm if troubling portrait of a community and the people who live there.
And although it’s called “A Bronx Tale,” during the Q&A, it was pointed out that much of the film was shot in the environs of Queens and Brooklyn.
De Niro talked about how he first saw Palminteri perform “A Bronx Tale,” his one-character play, in L.A. about six years before taking the helm as the director. Although the studios were pursuing Palminteri to turn his show into a film, De Niro was the only one who could promise him that he would star as Sonny.
“Look, what they’re going to do is they’re gonna try to get you to sell the script, and then at the end of the day they’re going to buy it from you, and you want to play the part of Sonny, but once they own it you have no guarantee, even if they say they’re going to give it to you.” De Niro told him, “I’ll play the father and you’ll play Sonny and we’ll go from there.”
When De Niro tackled the project, he was coming off of this amazing six-movie collaboration with Martin Scorsese, including “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas.” How concerned was he about high expectations and comparisons to those films?
“I didn’t care about all that,” De Niro said. “It was about just doing my thing. The movies Marty and I had been doing at that point were wonderful experiences and so on, but if I do the movie as a director with this material as it happened to be with Chazz as what it was, had nothing to do (with those other movies). It just happened to be of that subject which was something I had a little bit of understanding of, so I was happy to do it and take my chances.”
He added, “In my world, to jump into and take the leap of faith of directing a movie, you find the director of photography, find all the people, all the other department heads of the film, and then actually going ahead and directing it, moving forward and shooting the film is a big step, and to me, that was what I needed to do and did.”
“The first day (of shooting) was a tricky one because I had to work with kids on a stoop. I don’t even remember now what I did. All I know is that I got them to do whatever they had to do for that scene,” he laughed. “They’re all jumping around and everything. I knew I had to just let them do what they wanted to do and whatever they wanted to do within the confines of what I wanted them to do, the perimeters, somehow it would have to work out.”
These kids and colorful characters in “A Bronx Tale” are made up of non-actors, neighborhood characters who realistically fit their roles. “You have to let people be comfortable and free and to express themselves in however they want to do that, especially in the case of ‘A Bronx Tale,” De Niro said. “These are kids who couldn’t be professional actors because you can’t find professional actors to want to be part of this film. You can’t do it. You gotta find kids from that neighborhood,” he said.
De Niro talked about how his acting helped him as a director. “I think all actors who direct other actors have an innate sensitivity to other actors. You’re going to get better performances, more sensitive performances, because the people who work together understand each other.”
Asked if he had other movies in mind or what inspired him when he directed “A Bronx Tale,” the actor replied, “Somebody said it was a Scorsese movie I was influenced by,” but “Marty does his movies. I do mine. I just followed what I felt was right for the movie and it was that simple. It had nothing to do with anything before or after this or that,” he said. “It’s my love for movies. It was all about the love of the music, the love of the period and all that.”
De Niro was asked by an acting student, a freshman, what he had learned making his first film?
“The bottom line is you’ll feel pressure about cost, budget, it’s all connected so you have a certain amount of time to do the movie and a certain amount of money to do with it,” De Niro explained. “At the end of the day you only have this much money to do it with unless you’re lucky and you’re from a rich family that’ll give you a hundred million dollars to do the movie, you’re going to have those constrictions, those perimeters. Unless you’re doing it with an iPhone. That’s another way to do a movie. You might do a great classic, the American iPhone Classic. We don’t know that yet. It’s a new thing.”
At the end of the session, another student actor wanted acting tips.
“Find the truth for yourself. When you’re in a scene, what does this scene mean to me? What does this character mean to me and how can I interpret it? You have to make it personal for yourself and that’s the most important thing, the most important advice that I can give you anyway,” De Niro said.