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Goodfellas: De Niro, Scorsese, Liotta & Hill On The Making Of A Classic

by Richard Luck
12 October 2013 18 Comments

Join the stars, director and scriptwriter to talk about how Goodfellas came to fruition...

‘Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut…’

All these years later, it’s easy to forget how big a stink Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ kicked up. While Monty Python‘s Life Of Brian amounted to little more than a few angry letters to the Daily Mail, Scorsese received death threats for his daring adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel.

So the last thing the director wanted to do was throw himself into a picture that might piss off the Mafia. Goodfellas, however, was a film he’d felt compelled to make since read Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy on the set of The Color Of Money in 1986. Indeed, Scorsese was so impressed that he rang Pileggi personally to ask if he could film the book.

With Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci secured, Socrsese had all he needed to make a quality picture. Goodfellas would turn out to be more than just a good crime movie, however. The film conjures up such a convincing picture of Cosa Nostra life, you can almost smell the cologne and tobacco smoke. Such authenticity provides the backdrop for the tale of Henry Hill (superbly played by Ray Liotta) who rises through the ranks to become a real big wheel before heading to the hills when both his life and the law catch up with him.

The magnificence of Goodfellas, though, stems not from its style but from Scorsese’s cat-quick direction and the pitch-perfect performances. The ennobling blend of corruption, redemption and betrayal that the director brings to all his pictures also explains why Goodfellas stands out from the other gangster movies of the day.

As for Scorsese, he had to sit on his hands as the Academy honoured Kevin Costner and his overwhelmingly worthy Dances With Wolves

Great box office ($50m in America alone), universally positive reviews, kudos from the Cosa Nostra – everyone loved Goodfellas. Everyone that is, except the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences. While Goodfellas garnered six nominations, Joe Pesci was the only cast or crew member to go home with an Oscar. As for Scorsese, he had to sit on his hands as the Academy honoured Kevin Costner and his overwhelmingly worthy Dances With Wolves. Not that Marty seemed that bothered. As Scorsese acolyte Harvey Keitel put it: “He got what he deserves – separation from mediocrity.”

BACKSTORY

Nicholas Pileggi (author/screenwriter): Wiseguy started out as a piece for New York Magazine. I chose Henry Hill not necessarily because he was the most interesting but because he was willing to talk.

Henry Hill (reformed gangster): Nick is family.

Pileggi: Henry was already on the Federal Witness Protection Programme when I met him. When we talked, he was wired on uppers and downers – the government gave him pills so he could function. He sold his story to Simon & Schuster but they didn’t have a writer. Henry never really intended doing the book. He was going to scam the publisher for the advance and forget about it. He began to look forward to meeting me, to get the gossip and the news. He also began giving me personal details, using me as an unofficial shrink. It became clear that he took a lot of pleasure recalling the old days.

Martin Scorsese (director/screenwriter): Most gangster movies focus on gunfights. The book Wiseguy gives you the day-to-day tedium – how they work, how they take over certain nightclubs and for what reason. It shows how it’s done.

Pileggi: I answered the phone and this guy said, “My name’s Martin Scorsese and I’m a movie director.” “I know who you are,” I replied. “I read Wiseguy – I’d love to do it,” he said. Then I said, “I’ve been waiting for this phone call all my life. If you want to do it, you can.”

It happened very casually, like old friends getting together again, which is the spirit of the film.

PUTTING THE GANG TOGETHER

Scorsese: It happened very casually, like old friends getting together again, which is the spirit of the film. The right circumstances made it happen.

Robert De Niro (actor, Jimmy Conway): I’m always happy when I know I’m going to be making a movie with Marty.

Scorsese: I asked Bob who he thought should play Jimmy. He’d read the script a year before and asked me a few questions: “Is that the older guy and he’s only in a few scenes? Why don’t I do it?” Once we got Bob’s name of the picture, we were able to get the money we needed for the whole film.

Ray Liotta (actor, Henry Hill): Marty wanted me to send him a tape and he said he’d see me. That night I went home and wrote a letter telling him it was nice meeting him, here’s the cassette, view it at your leisure. About six weeks went by. We were both in Venice for the festival and I saw him in a hotel lobby with seven bodyguards. The controversy over Last Temptation in Europe was almost triple what it was in America. One of the bodyguards grabbed my arm, but Marty saw me and said: “Ray, how are you? I got the tape. I haven’t been able to view it yet.” Now there’s a man with what seems like the whole world coming down on him and he remembers!

BACKGROUND DETAIL

De Niro: When it came to the wiseguys, we all knew what went on but I don’t think I saw as much of it as Marty.

Scorsese: My father would say to me, “Be very careful. Don’t go with that person, go with that one.” I saw people who were so powerful that it was obvious from the way they walked. I saw how they used power and how other people behaved around them. The wiseguys behaved nicely. They were quiet. But they had control over life and death. Their attitude was: “We want something, we take it. If you give us a problem, we slap you down. If you continue to give us a problem, you’re dead.”

The Mafia think they’ve found the perfect way to deal with the American Dream. But you can see what happens – how it all crashes in on them in the end

Liotta: Marty lived right in the middle of the neighbourhood.

Scorsese: When my aunt eloped, my mother’s father declared his daughter dead and everyone had to go into mourning. The house was upset for months and everything stopped. It was just absurd. The only way it was eventually settled was when Don so-and-so came and told my grandfather that it had to stop.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

De Niro: When you are working on a part, you always have to see if from the character’s point of view. Like in this case, it’s about these guys who happen to have this profession.

Scorsese: The Mafia think they’ve found the perfect way to deal with the American Dream. But you can see what happens – how it all crashes in on them in the end because all they want to do is get as much as they can as fast as they can. And that way of life becomes a nightmare.

Pileggi: The first thing about wiseguys is that they work hard. They put in an 18-hour day, even if most of it’s spent planning crimes. The second thing is that they are so funny. They spend so much time in bars that their banter is really good.

Scorsese: I wanted to dispel the conventional notion that you can recognise gangsters from the way they dress and the wicked way they look. I wanted to the audience to see the film on a human level and deal with gangsters as human beings. It just happens that they extort from people, they kill people. But they still have a sense of humour. They still have mothers, wives and children.

With Marty, it’s the opposite – the more you come up with, the more enthusiastic he gets. That’s what makes it a joyous experience rather than a job.

De Niro: As a kid, I didn’t root for the bad guy. I certainly knew the difference between right and wrong, but in our American tradition the bad guys get a lot of attention. There is certain glamour, a certain allure that they have, but we always have to remember to put it in the right perspective of what they represent.

Paul Sorvino (actor, Pauly Cicero): Italian-Americans have no patent on criminality. There are just as many people involved in crime that come from other walks of life, other races, other nationalities. I grew up in Bath Beach which is not a Little Italy. I really didn’t come up against organised crime. I knew it was there but you had to be a part of that life to experience it and I wasn’t.

THE SHOOT

De Niro: Marty and I are friends but we’re best friends when we’re working together. We have a very special relationship. He’s very open and I can’t tell you how important that is. If you work with certain directors, you find yourself closing down and you don’t want to do anything: you think whatever idea you come up with is not going to get a good response. With Marty, it’s the opposite – the more you come up with, the more enthusiastic he gets. That’s what makes it a joyous experience rather than a job.

Scorsese: Bob and I have evolved a different kind of relationship. He’d just say, “What do you need?” We used to laugh sometimes in the trailer, saying “Do you remember years ago? We used to talk so much. What were we talking about?” It’s like two guys getting older, remembering the old days.

I don’t romanticise the violence. I just show it. And I tried to show it like it really is – cold, unfeeling and horrible. Almost incidental.

Sorvino: In one scene, Marty said to me, “If he’s not convincing you, question him.” There are two verbs in that sentence. Almost all directors speak in nouns: “You’re happy here,” or “You’re glad about this”. Marty doesn’t speak in those terms.

Scorsese: I don’t romanticise the violence. I just show it. And I tried to show it like it really is – cold, unfeeling and horrible. Almost incidental. It’s really a perverse way of doing business. If you show it, you can be accused of reckless violence and exploitation. But if you don’t then you’re just not telling the truth.

Pileggi: We were just so lucky to have had access to real Mafia guys. Most novels and sagas about the Mafia come from the imagination of great writers who have seen great Mafia movies. It’s a self-generating process. And as for that word – ‘Mafia’ – you wouldn’t hear the term used by anyone involved in organised crime. They use euphemisms like ‘wiseguy’ or ‘goodfellas’.

De Niro: I had a lot of conversations with Henry Hill. He’d call me from different places for security reasons. I’d say, “Call me tomorrow because I’m going to do such and such a scene, and I’d like to talk to you about it.” We’d go over the scene and he’d give me all the information. I had to rely on Henry because, obviously, I couldn’t make contact with Jimmy Burke [the inspiration for Jimmy 'The Gent' Conway].

Florian Ballhaus (cinematographer): There are two things people always ask me about Goodfellas. One is: “What’s Robert De Niro like?” The other is: “How did you do that tracking shot through the kitchens at the Copa?” After telling them how nice Robert De Niro is, I tell them that the reason we came through the kitchens was that we weren’t allowed to come through the main entrance. The management wouldn’t allow it.

The speed of Goodfellas stems from the guys I knew when I was young, who’d stand on street corners and were great storytellers

Scorsese: There’s a reason to do it all in one shot. Henry’s whole life is ahead of him. He’s the young American ready to take on the world and he’s met a girl he likes. It had to be done in one sweeping shot because it’s his seduction of her and it’s the lifestyle seducing him.

Ballhaus: Contrary to popular belief, long takes aren’t the brain surgery of film directing. While they do require a lot of rehearsal, they’re not much more difficult than traditional scenes. Indeed, in some ways, they’re easier and more cost-effective. There’s no stopping and starting. There are no continuity problems to worry about. Plus, you get to shoot two to three minutes of footage in a single take. If you’ve got a million cuts to worry about, it can take a couple of days to shoot a three-minute scene.

Scorsese: The speed of Goodfellas stems from the guys I knew when I was young, who’d stand on street corners and were great storytellers. They were funny, self-deprecating and they could conjure up images so quickly. And I imagine that to make a film with that kind of speed and excitement and humour would be entertaining. I was also annoyed by the attitude in American film which meant that things were getting faster and faster. I thought, if you want it fast, I’m going to give it to you fast. That was the lifestyle of those guys. Life expectancy for them was mid-twenties. You get stopped by a bullet or a bat, or a cop put you in jail, but until then it was fast and you had a great life.

Saul Bass (credit sequence designer): It’s always a pleasure to work with Marty. When it came to designing the titles for Goodfellas, it struck me that we had to marry the speed of the picture – the film really flies by – with the brilliant way that Marty had used freeze-frame throughout the movie. The end effect if of cars and taxis speeding through the New York streets, on the way to commit a crime or on the run from the police.

Scorsese: At the end of the movie, Henry has the nerve to complain. He complains about marinara sauce. I remember [Taxi Driver writer] Paul Schrader telling me, “Marty, you should have that ending changed. People don’t want to be sat there for two hours and 20 minutes with a guy who reacts that way at the end.” I said, “But they’re the kind of guys I knew growing up. I’d rather deal with it realistically”.

AFTERMATH

De Niro: I’m proud of Goodfellas.

Scorsese: Goodfellas is an indictment. I had to do it in such a way as to make the people angry about the state of things, about organised crime and how and why it works. Why does it work? What is it in our society that makes it work so well and operate on such a grand scale? Major gangsters aren’t usually convicted.

The thing is that, while there’s a lot of killing in the Mafia, at least they only kill each other.

Pileggi: The Mafia has ceased to be the primary fear object of the American public. So many innocent people are dying today because of random, insane killings. The thing is that, while there’s a lot of killing in the Mafia, at least they only kill each other.

Hill: Wiseguys love Goodfellas because it’s real. They see themselves up there on the big screen, the way they really are, and they’re happy. However bad it makes them look in the eyes of the public, they see it as their movie. As for me, at first I didn’t want to see the movie, but they arranged a private screening. It was emotional for me. I experienced a lot of nostalgia.

Liotta: I formed an affection for Henry. I didn’t agree with anything he did: I don’t like violence. But I liked the way that he kept his cards close to his vest.

Pileggi: It’s sad. I think of Henry as dead already. I’ve seen what’s happened to all his friends.

Hill: Money got real tight after we went into the Witness Protection Programme. One time, we were so broke I committed a felony. So I was on probation because they couldn’t put me in jail. I didn’t have the right to go to prison in my own country because that was the one place the government couldn’t protect me.

Liotta: Henry called me up. He’d seen the movie and really liked it. He was just appreciative of both the movie and the performance. He seemed relieved. He thought it was going to be even less flattering. He remembers himself as being, as he put it, a scumbag. He was afraid that’s how he was going to come off. All he remembers from the whole thing is that he ratted on his friends.

Hill: I’ve changed. I don’t want to be that little jerk anymore. Hey, I’m worried about the environment. Yeah, me! I’m a reformed character, much more than I’d have become in prison. Hell, I can’t even remember the last time I broke anyone’s arm with a baseball bat.

Pileggi: The Godfather is like War & Peace: a book and a movie about the Napoleonic Wars from the Emperor’s point of view. Goodfellas is a movie written from the point of an aide-de-camp to Napoleon. And this aide-de-camp isn’t talking about moving armies across Belgium. He’s telling you things like, “The first thing you gotta know is Napoleon doesn’t like cream in his coffee.”

Hill: Goodfellas is the way we lived. That’s the way we treated our wives. That’s the real Mafia.

And as for Goodfellas’ most unlikely fan, we present the late, great Quentin Crisp…

“Goodfellas was nice because it gave you a glimpse of what the gangsters’ wives did. Gangsters in other film only had molls, and they were very dreary. But the wives lived an enclosed life: they could never know anyone except the wives of other gangsters because no one would want to know a gangster’s wife. It’s like being married to a policeman – no one’s ever going to speak to you. So you saw the wives preparing endless fattening meals of spaghetti for these men, in an atmosphere of bonhomie and terror. And that was very good.”

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

Simon Martin 5:43 am, 20-May-2011

Great stuff Richard. My favourite scenes are when Henry is in prison. The food delivery and the preparation of the pasta dish.

David L 9:20 am, 20-May-2011

Nice article, but nobody ever talks about the other 1990 film based on the life of Henry Hill: "My Blue Heaven" starring Steve Martin. When Hill found himself getting hacked off with his life in witness protection, he'd make late night phone calls to his trusted confidant and biographer, Nick Pileggi. As often as not he'd find himself recounting his woes to Pileggi's wife, Nora Ephron. Unbeknownst to him, she was taking mental notes and used his experiences as the basis for a screenplay about former Mafiosi turned informant living under federal protection. Arnold Schwarzenegger was originally cast in the Henry Hill role, but dropped out to make Kindergarten Cop. This gives "My Blue Heaven" the distinction of being the only early 1990s Steve Martin comedy about which you could say "Well, it could have been worse".

Richard Luck 9:46 am, 20-May-2011

Great stuff, Dave - My Blue Heaven hasn't crossed my mind in ages. I particularly liked the way it tried to pass San Diego off as this quiet, out-of-the-way, little town when it is in fact the bustling crime capital of Southern California.

Alan 10:40 am, 20-May-2011

And this is why I love Sabotage Times. A brilliant, insightful article about my fave film of all time. Thanks Richard.

LW 11:28 am, 20-May-2011

Great article on my fave film of all time. Love the anecdote from Quentin Crisp too.

Simon Martin 12:05 pm, 20-May-2011

I didn't know that about Schwartzenegger. My Blue Heaven was pretty shit but OMG how bad would that have been? Arnie's career is a mystery to me, he's simply not an actor but was given film after film after film. Was he going to be an Austrian ex-mafioso on the witness protection scheme?

Simon Martin 12:09 pm, 20-May-2011

Also Quentin Crisp obviously never saw 1988's awful Married to the Mob.

Tom Greaney 5:51 pm, 20-May-2011

Thanks Richard, lovely stuff. Really enjoyed this.

Johnny L 1:58 am, 21-May-2011

Nice meaty article. One of those movies you're flicking through the channels and come across Goodfellas, doesn't matter what scene's on you end up watching it. Been to a few of these places years ago. http://www.movie-locations.com/movies/g/goodfellas.html Best scene? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_ff46b58Hk

ustuntman 4:09 am, 21-May-2011

As per usual, awesome piece.

Keith Hehir Lynch 1:50 pm, 13-Jun-2012

Very enjoyable read Richard, well done.

jfr1970 1:51 pm, 13-Jun-2012

I only wish they'd pull their fingers out and make the sequel! The second book written by Pileggi about Hill scamming everyone even more whilst in the Witness Protection Program, all the while trying to keep his head down and not reveal himself to his old "friends" is excellent too.

Tom3 4:19 pm, 13-Jun-2012

One of the best articles I've ever read on ST. Thank you.

chris mortimer 4:49 pm, 13-Jun-2012

great article, for reference you can watch the Channel4 (UK) doc on YouTube here http://goo.gl/Xrj5e

Brandt Hardin 10:18 pm, 13-Jun-2012

Mob culture has inspired an entire genre of cinema over the past 50 years or so. We live in a country which glamorizes crime and makes anti-heroes and martyrs of criminals. Read a bit more about organized crime’s affect on Hollywood with the Top 10 Gangster Films of All Time (including Goodfellas of course!) at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/01/top-10-gangster-films-of-all-time.html

Spo101 4:43 am, 14-Jun-2012

JEEZ, Henry Hill is dead... RIP paisan. HEY, I heard George W. Bush's favorite movie is "Goodfellas", lol. Who killed MORE humans, the mafia or the Bush Crime Family? Who stole MORE money? They say Mitt Romney leaned how to be a Vulture Capitalist watching the scene in " Goodfellas" where the hoods take over the chump's restaurant. The Italian-Americans got an old saying about Rudy Giuliani, "Rudy got rid of the Mafia in NYC and then the US government took over organized crime" LOL Taking about an evil mob, the Republican Corporate Ho Party turned us all into the United Suckers of America. Conservative wackos need to learn a con is a CON... The trick is to recognize IT and NOT GET PLAYED FOR A FOOL, right? It used to be called bribery, collusion and all those crimes covered by the RICO Act. How come they can get away with a white bred corporate crime wave of epic proportions but our jails are filled by pot smokers? WHY IS THAT? These Wall Street guys ruined our economy with their reckless policies and deregulation, so why aren’t the American PEOPLE standing up to them? WHY AREN’T THE FED’S PROSECUTING? How did all the well paid law enforcement miss the Corporate Crime Wave that occurred during Bush/Cheney? Waste, fraud, abuse of power and corruption on a scale not seen since the Robber Barron Era. THE GREATEST LOOTING OF A NATION’S WEALTH/RESOURCES IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND and I didn’t see one Wall St. derivatives manager get clubbed or pepper sprayed. Stop being played for FOOLS, suckers! managia la America, spoact.blogspot.com ©2012 by Frank E.

Leightwinst 10:09 pm, 7-Nov-2012

My favourite film of all time. Great article.

Richard Luck 10:17 am, 7-Jan-2014

So, has anyone seen The Wolf Of Wall Street yet?

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