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Martin Scorsese on Reuniting With Robert De Niro for ‘Irishman,’ the Sinatra Biopic That Got Away

LONDON – “The joy of creating a film has to be in making something, even in the worst circumstances. It’s about the passion,” Martin Scorsese told a packed audience at a special event celebrating the director’s career at London’s BFI Southbank on Wednesday night. “To retain that passion is the key.”

Scorsese spoke about his passion, his work with film preservation and how the industry has changed during his long career. The Oscar-winning director also spoke about his upcoming project “The Irishman,” though he avoided mention of the rumors currently swirling around financing and rights to the film, including the possibility that Netflix could take worldwide rights in an eyebrow-raising deal.

The long-gestating “Irishman” is set to reunite Scorsese with Robert De Niro for a ninth time and would mark his first collaboration with Al Pacino. “Al and I have been trying to get to do a movie together since 1971. I’m looking forward to it. Bob and I haven’t worked together [on a film] for 20 years,” Scorsese said.

The film is set in a world similar to that of his other mobster films “but in a very different way,” he said, adding that he was interested in “what it means to get back into that world.” He also said he might revert to the source book’s original title, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which he likes.

Scorsese is used to projects taking a long time to come to fruition. He admitted that “Gangs of New York” became “an obsessive endeavor for many years” and it was only in finally completing it that he felt ready to turn back to working on his latest film, “Silence,” which took nearly 30 years to be realized. “When I was told I was insane I knew I wanted to hold onto it,” said Scorsese. “I knew it was something I had to do at some point, when circumstances allowed. We just fought through.”

Inevitably some projects, including separate biopics about legendary crooners Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, fell by the wayside. “I’m sad about the Sinatra one,” admitted Scorsese, saying it was the project that didn’t work out that hurt the most.

The tools now available to filmmakers are so much greater than before, he said. He went into moviemaking with a “painting and drawing” approach, and nowadays, modern technology, including CGI capabilities, have made filmmaking more like painting than ever before. “You’re creating an image, painting an image. You’re not capturing an image. It’s open this way. You can do anything,” Scorsese said.

He is also a passionate advocate of film preservation, and formed The Film Foundation to further that cause. The poor-quality color film stock of the late 1970s, which faded quickly, led him to shoot 1980’s “Raging Bull” in black and white, and he said George Lucas had deliberately shot “Star Wars” as if the film had already faded. “It is a spiritual and cultural obligation,” Scorsese said of the need to preserve film for future generations.

Wednesday night’s public event sold out the 450-seat BFI auditorium within seconds of going on sale last week. In attendance were fellow directors Stephen Frears, Amma Asante and Alice Lowe, as well as actors Damian Lewis, Tuppence Middleton and David Walliams.

The event, which will be broadcast on BBC Two on March 4, came at the end of a two-month comprehensive retrospective of the Oscar-winning director’s work at the BFI, which ran alongside a program of personal favorites and influences curated by Scorsese himself.

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