In January 2013, Martin Scorsese assembled the cast of his projected next movie, titled The Irishman, for a read-through of the shooting script. Their names — De Niro, Pacino and Pesci – did not resonate as “Irish.” Moreover, the actors, all in their 70s, would play ages 30 to 80 with the help of newly developed technology. The movie would likely be the most expensive non-superhero movie of the year — that is, if it found financing.
And that, the cast knew, was largely in the hands of producer Irwin Winkler, whose recent adventures in funding pictures had been more suspenseful than the plots of his films. Since Winkler has been defying the odds for some 50 years, it’s no surprise that The Irishman will finally get its release this fall, albeit seven years after the reading. The final cost is rumored to approach $140 million, due to its multiple locations set in different periods – a total that discouraged a succession of financing entities until Netflix came aboard.
Will an offbeat gangster movie, dealing in part with the murder of Jimmy Hoffa, find an audience? Over the decades, the Winkler track record has encompassed great success (Rocky, Raging Bull and The Right Stuff) and, inevitably, occasional failure (Round Midnight and Revolution). Whether producing or directing, Winkler has been drawn to risky subjects — the blacklist, Iraq War, religious persecution, Wall Street scandals and, of course, the Mafia. Along the way he has survived narcissistic stars, egocentric directors and self-destructive studio chiefs — clashes carefully chronicled in his new memoir, A Life in Movies, which could easily pass as a Hollywood survival guide.
Winkler’s book, like Winkler himself, is as steadfastly stoic in dealing with his bad bets as well as his lucky ones. As a young producer he rejected Francis Coppola to direct a gangster movie because he didn’t feel he had the right temperament (Coppola’s next film was The Godfather). He advised Ryan Coogler to pass on directing Black Panther (Coogler had just finished Creed). He rejected William Goldman’s draft of The Right Stuff even though the studio liked it (Winkler ultimately made the film at another studio).
Winkler’s smart gambles are better known. His confidence in an unemployed actor named Sylvester Stallone is the stuff of Hollywood legend. Arthur Krim, revered chief of United Artists, did not want to back Rocky, authorizing a $250,000 buyout of Stallone’s script from Winkler so UA could bury it. Krim fell asleep at the start of the first screening. There have now been nine Rocky movies, including two Creeds, with a third one planned. The initial Rocky grossed $1 billion worldwide in current dollars.
Over the years, in fact, studio chiefs turned out to be obstacles to Winkler more often than helpers. Jim Aubrey at MGM impulsively hired Elvis Presley to take the part originally written for Julie Christie in a romantic comedy titled Double Trouble (an emergency rewrite was required). Tom Pollock at Universal demanded a happy ending for Music Box (about a World War II criminal who falsified his application for U.S. citizenship). Terry Semel of Warner Bros ordered that Madonna and Tom Cruise be paired in Goodfellas (both declined), and David Begelman put Winkler through a few tortuous twists before losing his job at Columbia and almost going to jail.
While Winkler has had a uniquely longstanding relationship with Scorsese covering eight movies, he clashed occasionally with a few other directors. He realized too late that Hugh Hudson, a British director, was completely miscast for a movie about the American Revolution (Revolution won the Stinkers Bad Movie Award in 1995). He was appalled When Peter Bogdanovich directed key scenes in Nickelodeon while on horseback (his idol John Ford had done that on his Westerns).
Ultimately, Winkler himself turned to directing, which brought him greater satisfaction. Guilt By Suspicion, an absorbing drama about the blacklist, was a critics favorite, and The Net, a cyber-thriller with Sandra Bullock, scored well at the box office. Winkler also worked hard at crafting scripts as well as directing.
While investing much of his career in personal stories with modest budgets, The Wolf of Wall Street marked his entry into the $100 million-plus arena. Wolf won five Oscar nominations and sold $450 million in tickets worldwide, but the film was funded, not by a studio, but by a Malaysian investment fund that had lavished gifts on Leonardo DiCaprio. The funding, via an entity called Red Granite Films, turned out to be real, but the U.S. government ultimately seized Red Granite’s assets and the film was banned in Malaysia.
The rights as well as the funding for films like Silence and The Irishman followed even more complex paths. Jane Rosenthal developed the original script on The Irishman by Steve Zaillian based on rights to a book owned by Paramount. At one point Paramount offered support, then backed away, so a Mexican financier named Gaston Pavlovich came forward to provide one-third of the financing with STX acquiring overseas rights. With Donald Trump’s election, the peso got socked and those deals became unglued. Finally, Netflix stepped in thanks to the enthusiasm of Ted Sarandos.
At the core of the narrative is Frank Sheeran, played by De Niro, who we first see soldiering in Italy during World War II. Postwar he graduates to the mob, and through his friendship with Hoffa emerges as a top figure in the Teamsters. A process developed by ILM digitally “de-ages” De Niro as he moves through the film into his 80s.
The de-aging process appeals to the 87-year-old Winkler as he continues to develop a hefty program of films for the future. A consummate realist, Winkler admits he still loves to see movies in theaters but acknowledges that, with a high-budget character piece like The Irishman, the support of Netflix with its vast subscriber audience opens a new vista for movies. “The ground keeps shifting,” he observes, stoic as always, “and therefore we need new vistas to keep opening.”