The accomplished actor discusses his latest directorial effort
Press junkets are fascinating to me because they really debunk your expectations. I expected Robert De Niro to be a loquacious guy, someone who had a wealth of experience and was willing to babble about it. This is not the case at all. Robert De Niro is very quiet and soft-spoken. Matt Damon summed him up perfectly by referring to him as an observer, the kind of guy that can just disappear in a room. The Good Shepherd has been almost a lifetime project for him, but he was somewhat vague in quantifying it. He didn't seem at ease with the press, which is understandable, so here are the best excerpts from his press conference.
The Good Shepherd was originally a John Frankenheimer project. Can you discuss how you came to it after he died?
Robert De Niro: John Frankenheimer gave me the script. He was trying to get it done and I was working on another script. But as time went on, I really wanted to do the movie. We agreed that if you [Frankenheimer] do The Good Shepherd, I'll do the second part and that's how it started.
What's sustained you throughout this long period of making the film?
Robert De Niro: I was always hoping to do it and I was always in touch, talking, discussing actors we wanted for the film. I felt that once 9/11 happened, I thought we couldn't do it...but life went on and people started showing interest.
Do you see any comparisons to Coppola's "Godfather"? Someone said this is De Niro's "Preppy Godfather."
Robert De Niro: It was started by Coppola and Eric Roth [screenwriter]. Then it went through with other directors. There were certain parallels. That was about a secret society and this is about another type of secret society, but very Americana. One of the best lines in the movie to me is in the Joe Pesci scene where he says, "What do you people have?" and Matt Damon says, "the United States of America - the rest of you are just visiting."
Is this story relevant today?
Robert De Niro: I know I am supposed to say I think it's relevant. I don't know if it is. It happens to become relevant, in certain ways, because of what's happening and all the attention to the CIA in general. The only direct thing is the interrogation scene. We researched it and that came to mind because it was so simple and effective and powerful and horrible. I felt it would be a good thing to do in that scene.
The film is a compilation of several people and several events. How accurate is your portrayal? And what did you learn researching the CIA?
Robert De Niro: I learned that people in the intelligence world are very smart and are very interesting people. The deception, which you always hear about and has been seen in other movies, is fascinating. I tried to make it as believable as possible. There was also this mythology supporting it. I wanted to have it as credible and real as possible.
Can you talk about casting Matt and Angelina?
Robert De Niro: I was originally going to do it with Leonardo DiCaprio. I went to Matt and he said he would do it. There are only a few actors I would do it with and I've been very lucky to do it with him on every level.
Why did you want him?
Robert De Niro: Because he could do it. You already go through an enormous amount of work and you at least want to believe that the people in it are doing it for the right reasons.
Robert De Niro: Same with her. I was very lucky to get her. She had always wanted to do it. We had a few meetings. She surprised me even more with what she did.
You are such an accomplished actor. When you direct, do you encourage the actors to take on your style or do you accept theirs?
Robert De Niro: I like to think that they have to find it in their own way. But it doesn't surprise me if it creeps in how I would do it. So that's possible, but they ultimately have to be the ones that are comfortable with what they're doing.
The filmmaking, particularly the cinematography, was very impressive...
Robert De Niro: That's Bob Richardson, he's a wonderful cinematographer and I couldn't have done it with out him. It was a collaborative process. The actors will come up with something different. Bob Richardson will come up with something. I'll come up with something. It always needs that kind of change in direction and I have the flexibility to do that.
Can you talk about the climactic airplane scene? Did you worry that Matt Damon's character would lose all sympathy in that scene?
Robert De Niro: I never worried about the sympathy for the character. If you followed the story, you'd get empathy for the character and for the dilemma of the situation. So that was something that I was okay with that.
There are many scenes showing the secrets of Skull and Bones. How did you research the rituals?
Robert De Niro: We got information from things that were written in books. I just wanted to pull it together and make it a rich ceremony of a sort. And what wasn't, I don't even know if it matters. We just wanted to try and figure out what it could be without making it silly or sensationalized. Like the mud wrestling, we heard that happened so it made it okay.
The film runs pretty long. Did you end up cutting a lot?
Robert De Niro: Yes, I had to take a lot of stuff out. But I'll put it in the extended version and some other ones in the DVD version. I'm happy with the version we have now. I think there might still be parts that are confusing. You don't always have to have the answer to everything. There are certain trajectories, character-wise, that I took out so that we could focus on the other characters.
What were the other parts of the story?
Robert De Niro: One thing is the brother returns, and then he disappears again...which I might use in a second instalment.
Would a sequel to this be your next film?
Robert De Niro: I don't know what I'm doing next, but if I could do another part of this story, I would. After that I'm not sure.
The Good Shepherd is in theaters December 22nd and is rated 'R' for some violence, sexuality and language.