Yesterday on Feb. 24, Examiner.com was on the scene at Village East Cinema for a special benefit screening, which celebrated the 20th Anniversary of Robert De Niro's directorial debut "A Bronx Tale." Robert De Niro was in attendance and participated in an intimate Q&A. The evening was hosted by Tribeca Film Institute and First Time Fest, with proceeds benefiting both organizations.
"A Bronx Tale" tells the story of Calogero Anello (Francis Capra playing Calegero age nine and Lillo Brancato playing Calogero age 17) growing up in the Fordham neighborhood of the Bronx during the 1960s. After he witnesses a murder committed by Sonny LoSpecchio (Chazz Palminteri), Calogero refuses to rat him out to the police. Sonny then takes him on as his protege, creating a balance between the love of his father (Robert De Niro) and the love of Sonny, both trying to do what’s best for young Calegero as he navigates the challenges of his own life.
The movie follows Calogero as he grows up in the Bronx, facing the pressures of becoming a man in an Italian neighborhood of New York City. It is a funny, touching, and tragic story, well directed and well acted by a cast of many first-time and unprofessional actors.
Check out highlights from the intimate conversation with the legendary Robert De Niro.
"A Bronx Tale" is based on Chazz Palminteri’s one man play of the same name. When asked how he discovered the play, De Niro said that he first saw the show in Los Angeles. It was getting a lot of attention from Hollywood, but Palminteri would only sell the rights if he could play the role of Sonny LoSpecchio. De Niro told him that wouldn’t necessarily happen, as, once the studios owned the script, they would want to cast a name in what would be one of the central roles of the film (probably himself, De Niro joked). So, he told Palminteri they could cut out the middle man (the studios) and De Niro himself would direct (a name). As to why he wanted to direct the film, he said that, in addition to wanting to direct a film for a while, he liked the material and felt he had some connection with it in terms of characters, time, and place. He said he thought he could make something special with the material.
De Niro then talked about the shooting of the film. The first day on set he had to direct the kids. Having never directed kids before, he wasn’t sure how to approach the task, but he had to “whatever he had to do” to get them to do what he wanted, and whatever it was seemed to work. At the end of the day, he knew he had to let them do what they wanted to do within the confines of what he wanted them to do. Directing the other actors, he said, was easier. He feels that actors are inherently good at directing other actors, oftentimes better than directors with no background in acting. Actors have an understanding of the craft and are better able to communicate with and draw performances from fellow actors than a director, who has only theoretical knowledge. Most importantly he let the actors be free in their characters, let them become immersed in their roles with as little hindrance as possible.
In choosing the actors to play the children, De Niro said he wanted to cast people from the neighborhood. There was no way professionals from other regions of the country could capture the authentic flavor and texture of the place of the film. These kids, he said, knew the life and knew what it meant to grow up in the Bronx, and they were the only people who could make the world of the film feel true. The younger actors also complimented the tone of the movie. De Niro said they knew what it was like to be young boys in the culture of the film wanting to be men, much like the characters they portrayed, and they brought authenticity to the coming-of-age elements of the theme.
Music plays an important role in "A Bronx Tale." De Niro described it as a “third character,” an element that gives insight to characters, change, and theme. While initially Palminteri and De Niro wanted to get more obscure song choices from the period, he ultimately went with what worked for the movie. That, he said, was the most important. While some of the songs in the film are very popular (The Beatles’ “Come Together” perhaps being the most recognizable to contemporary audiences), he said they all worked for what he was trying to accomplish.
When asked if any film influenced or inspired "Bronx Tale," De Niro said he followed his instincts, doing what he felt was right for the movie. None of his choices had anything to do with what came before, it was only about what he was doing then. While there are some similarities to Martin Scorsese’s "Goodfellas," De Niro said it didn’t influence his making of "A Bronx Tale." Scorsese did his thing, and he did his. All the choices he made came from a love of the material and a love of the period.
Making movies, De Niro said, is hard. No matter your budget, it’s a difficult process with many different moving parts and creative voices working together to make a final product. When there’s money involved in anything, he said, people want to make sure they get whatever they invested back, whether it’s $10,000 or $1,000,000. So, with money comes different voices all trying to take control of the work, making it sometimes tough for a movie to come out with a singular creative vision.
Since "A Bronx Tale" is an adaptation of Chaz Palminteri’s one-man play, when asked about how the story was changed during its transition from stage to screen, De Niro said it was simple: they took the characters from the play, wrote the script, and shot it. To fill those characters, they used real people from the neighborhood as much as possible (including the man the character of Eddie Mush was based on). These people would be able to find the connection to the material better and more naturally than actors who had no real knowledge of the world of the film.
When asked if it was hard to juggle the different roles required of him, while making the movie (he directs and acts in the film), De Niro said it wasn’t. While some directors play characters who are more or less in the whole film, his character doesn’t have a large amount of screen time. While it’s certainly possibly to direct and star in a film, De Niro said it’s a huge undertaking. He said his acting in "A Bronx Tale" was “small,” leaving him to be able to focus on other aspects of production.
Eventually, the floor was opened to the audience to ask questions. The first question was on the film's setting - Fordham. Is there still much of the same atmosphere in terms of racial tensions? Yes, De Niro said. In fact, the subject could be a whole other movie. On the question of how long between his initial viewing of the play and principal photography of the film, De Niro said there was a five to six year interim. When asked about the lessons in filmmaking he took from his first feature, he said there are always constraints and there will always be pressure about cost. Sometimes, though, budgetary limitations can inspire creativity in solving problems. Finally, the question came about whether his approach to acting has changed over the course of his career. De Niro gave this advice: With all due respect to Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and the other pioneers of acting methods, they are all “bull****.” What matters most is what works for the performer. “Don’t hurt yourself. Don’t hurt others. Do what’s true for yourself.”
The Second Time Around for First Time Fest is set for April 3 – 7, 2014, at FTF’s new home, NeueHouse (110 East 25th St.). NeueHouse will be the location for panels, workshops, selected film presentations, parties and filmmaker lounge.
The Tribeca Film Festival, presented by AT&T, will run from April 16 to April 27.
Stephen Jones contributed reporting.