There’s an outlandish plot point in Robert De Niro’s new comedy – one of those plot points that’s hard to believe would ever happen in real life.
But in the business of show, you never really know what’s happening behind the scenes, the wheeling and dealing it takes to get a movie up on the screen.
The Comeback Trail, starring De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones and Morgan Freeman, is about making movies, specifically making flicks in the 1970s when you’re a second-rate producer who owes a debt to a mob boss, so you cook up an insurance scam involving an ageing actor on your new production.
When you’re desperate, you try desperate things.
The Comeback Trail may be a satire of the industry, but the wild antics aren’t that unfamiliar to De Niro, who has been a working actor for five decades He says he’s definitely come across people like the dodgy Max Barber, the character he plays.
“I did, of course I did,” De Niro tells news.com.au over the phone from New York. “But if I ran into a guy like the character I play I wouldn’t take him too seriously.
“I also did a movie called Mistress, which was directed by Barry Primus and that was based on his experiences. It was based on all of these guys he met [when trying to find financing for his work] who wanted to put their girlfriends in his movie.
“Guys who were in the pancake business or this or that, and they had a mistress they wanted to get in. I’ve had some things with people who, well, it can happen at any time. It doesn’t have to be in the ’70s, it can happen any time.
“People think they can get the money they need [to finance a movie] based on your name or who’s directing and sometimes it’s not so simple. So, they scramble the way my character scrambles.”
De Niro first worked with The Comeback Trail director and co-writer George Gallo on Midnight Run, a 1988 comedy. It’s taken them three decades to come back together, but that’s not for lack of trying.
“We were talking over the years about stuff here and there. I knew him when I was a young man and now I’m an old man doing this part after so many years of us knowing each other.
“I like George, he’s a terrific guy. He’s very jolly and has a great attitude and he’s great with actors and everyone. So it’s all very positive and fun, which helps. And because of the kind of movie it is, it has to be that, you need that joviality.”
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De Niro revealed that when he first received the script, he put on a reading to “get a sense of what it needs or lifts it off the page a bit, as I like to say”.
“I do that a lot, I like to have a reading of [scripts] with a few actors, who double and triple up on parts. Some of them are being considered [for a role] and others are just doing a favour.”
De Niro, Gallo and the team shot The Comeback Trail over five weeks in mid-2019 with the expansive deserts of Albuquerque, New Mexico as the setting for the fictional movie within the movie.
Which means there were horses and a particularly fearsome bull around the set. Tommy Lee Jones as the ageing Western actor Duke Montana did many of his own horse stunts.
De Niro got up on a horse too, and in a rare personal anecdote, shared, “I took my little daughter on a ride with some people who had the horses, and she actually got on, it was fun for her especially”.
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The notoriously private De Niro has six children but only one of them, born in 2011 via surrogate to him and estranged wife Grace Hightower, is young enough to be “my little daughter”.
Sharing a story about his daughter, unprompted, may be a small thing for the current generation of stars who document every part of their lives on social media, but for someone like De Niro, exposing any part of himself that isn’t about his work doesn’t come so easily.
De Niro is a reticent and taciturn presence on the publicity trail – a few decades earlier, at the height of his global fame after visceral turns in the likes of Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter, he rarely gave interviews.
Now, with different publicity demands and an explosion of TV, print and online outlets all clamouring for access, De Niro is a more frequent promoter of his work – or he’s publicly denouncing Donald Trump.
But there is no talk of politics today, it’s all about the work. And De Niro works a lot.
For someone who is 77 with the kind of illustrious career he has had, De Niro has made on average three movies a year for decades. That’s the kind of pace even successful actors in their 30s can’t keep up with.
Many of those projects are comedies like The Comeback Trail, despite saying on a Hollywood Reporter roundtable a year ago that he agrees comedy is more difficult to do and that he couldn’t do what people like Billy Crystal and Adam Sandler can.
“Comedies are fun to do if they’re written well and I can do them,” he says. “Certain things I can do, certain things I couldn’t.
“But they are fun. If the director is good and understands how to get that out of actors, then it’s fun. I like doing them.
“And if the director has written it, that’s good too. I like when a director writes something. It doesn’t have to be that way, many times it’s not, but it’s a good thing in certain ways. Then they know how to adjust it and direct you or guide you.
“They created it so ultimately, if you ask a question about how they think it even should be done, they can give it to you. Not that a director who hasn’t written a script can’t do that. But for me, a lot of the times, it’s an advantage.”
Even though he had a great time working on The Comeback Trail with people he came up with in the industry, De Niro says he didn’t necessarily spend a lot of time reminiscing about movie making in the 1970s.
“I think people just want to do their thing and work together and have a nice time. I just do the work, sit around between takes and sometimes talk or reminisce. But I’m pretty straightforward.”
Zach Braff, who plays De Niro’s nephew on The Comeback Trail, gave an interview in which he said he was intimidated by De Niro’s legacy and had to pump himself up before a scene in which his character had to yell at his onscreen uncle.
Asked if De Niro often comes across younger actors whose reverence for him is something they have to overcome, he says, “Possibly at times, but then it goes away quickly once everybody starts working. We’re all there to get it done and do it as well as we can.
“Zach was great, he was really terrific to work with, as everybody was. Tommy Lee Jones, Morgan, everybody.”
Despite his prolific work ethic, De Niro hasn’t made a movie since The Comeback Trail which wrapped 15 months ago. He says he misses being on a set.
“There’s not much going on now, we’re all waiting. We’re going to shoot Killers of the Flower Moon with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. We’re waiting on when we can start getting ready, preproduction and so on.”
Killers of the Flower Moon will be De Niro’s 10th collaboration with Scorsese after last year’s lauded The Irishman, and De Niro’s fourth with DiCaprio – the pair first shared a screen in 1993 film This Boy’s Life.
With American and European cities going into further lockdowns as coronavirus continue to plague so many industries, including entertainment, it might be a while before we get to see Killers of the Flower Moon on the big screen.
As a founder of Tribeca Film Festival, De Niro is invested in the future of the theatrical experience. In a year when big studios have offloaded some of their cinema titles to streaming services, De Niro says he doesn’t know if that’s a trend that will continue once some form of normality resumes.
“I think that you can’t take away from the theatrical experience, especially with comedies. In an audience, even when people don’t know each other, the laughter is infectious.”
He’s hoping that once there’s a viable vaccine available, things will return to normal.
“I think that things will go back to the way they were pretty much as long as people feel safe,” De Niro says.
“We’re starting to see now that there are vaccines that will start coming out and I’m hoping that will be the thing that will bring things back to normal.”
The Comeback Trail is in cinemas now
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