Feature Interview by Brad Balfour
On the heels of his Kennedy Center Honors (along with Bruce Springsteen, Dave Brubeck, Mel Brooks, and Grace Bumbry), legendary actor Robert De Niro is on the silver screen again. While he's being lauded for past laurels, he's also garnering kudos for his latest film, Everybody's Fine, a comparatively modest work that has recently been released after making a festival circuit tour -- most recently it had a special feature screening at the 2009 Denver Film Festival.
Based on Oscar-winning director Guiseppe Tornatore's 1990 hit Italian film, Stanno tutti bene (which starred Marcello Mastroianni as an Italian bureaucrat on a veritable travelogue across Italy in search of his adult children), English director Kirk Jones transfers the story to the States and De Niro.
The 67-year-old actor plays retired widower Frank Goode who used to string telephone wire -- a job that encouraged interaction -- but is a guy not good at communicating or even knowing what's going on with his kids. When his wife was alive she handled his quartet of kids; now, as adults, they are spread across the country, so Frank goes on a surprise tour to re-connect with them.
Though the narrative falls flat at times, De Niro makes up for it with his passion and understanding of his character. And the interplay between him and the trio of actors playing his kids -- Drew Barrymore, Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale -- is authentic and affecting. A great turn this late in his career, De Niro shows a softer side and redeems himself for some of his recent, lesser movies.
Ever since he established himself through his breakout performance in 1973's Bang the Drum Slowly, De Niro has racked up quite a track record of cinematic achievements --culminating in various Oscar nominations and two wins. In '74, De Niro received an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role in The Godfather: Part II and won Best Actor for Martin Scorsese's 1980 boxing film, Raging Bull. The New York born and bred De Niro has made a unique partnership with his fellow Italian American Scorsese, establishing quite a catalogue together from 1973's Mean Streetsto Oscar noms for best actor in two of Scorsese's greatest films, Taxi Driver (1976) and Cape Fear (1991).
In 1993, De Niro made his directorial debut with the touching A Bronx Tale and directed the epic CIA historical, The Good Shepard. Now De Niro heads his own production company, part-owns various restaurants and other real estate in lower Manhattan, and, in response to the 9/11 attack, co-founded the Tribeca Film Festival.
At least in Everybody's Fine, he neither plays a character who kills someone or plays a parody of Robert De Niro as either a crook or cop who kills someone. Instead, he has made a seasonally appropriate movie about a parent's loss and the enduring relationship with his adult children.
Getting De Niro to speak on much of anything is a bit of trick -- not unlike his character in this film. So when a crop of journalists sat down for an Everybody's Fine press conference with Jones and actor Sam Rockwell and this the veteran New Yorker, they were seriously tested.
De Niro deferred to Jones unless they were directly addressed to him (and Rockwell wasn't asked much anyway). Fortunately. enough questions were asked to produce some decent answers, but nobody will ever call Bob De Niro longwinded...
Q: When did you get involved with the process of making this film?
RD: Kirk and I had a meeting and he told me the story and what it was based on. He had photos of the whole project -- the traveling across the country -- and I was impressed with how passionate he was about the project. I could see that he was special and doesn't do movies often. This will have been his third [after two long hiatus between each of his other films, Nanny McPhee and Waking Ned Devine].
So that informed me obviously [about how] he cares so much. I saw the original [Italian film] and [Kirk's] other two movies, and then I read the script. We then just decided when to do it.
Q: How does your personal life affect the roles you pick and the way you play them?
RD: Obviously, I related to Frank and drew on my own experiences like I do in all my parts. You draw on whatever's relevant to the part you're playing; it makes it more personal. There was a lot here of course.
I have five children, and two grandchildren. But also, going back to Kirk being the director and his caring [about the project], that's the anchor of the whole thing [here]. So that's really, really important.
Q: More important than the role itself?
RD: Well, yeah. It's not more important but it's equally as important. He has to steer the ship, it's his baby, so he's got to make choices and all that. I put myself in his hands so to speak.
Q: You watched the original Italian movie; how did you relate to the Marcello Mastroianni character? What do each of the fathers have in common?
RD: It was just a different type of movie. I love Mastroianni. Since I was kid I always watched his movies. He's been in great films part of the great Italian tradition, obviously. But it was a different thing, totally. Kirk made it his own. The structure was there and all that stuff. But it was totally different.
Q: Possibly the most moving moments in the film are when we see Frank's telephone calls to his kids. When was the last time you heard a busy signal? Do you get nostalgic for those times or are you into the techno-gadgets?
RD: [Like] Twitter?
Q: Do you tweet?
RD: I don't twitter. Somebody told me about it. I didn't know what it was.
Q: How do you feel about new technology?
RD: I only know how to use a computer. I don't even know how good I am at it. I slowly use the little things and get emails and look at videos on the computer and use an iPhone. I guess I use it adequately.
Q: Did anything in this movie remind you of an experience you had with your own father --after all he was a major abstract expressionist painter -- or as a father with your own children?
RD: My father was pretty easy on me about what I wanted to do, to be an actor and stuff like that. My grandfather was much more strict, more old-school, old time Italian than my father ever was. That was my impression of him.
My father came from that to New York City to get away from certain things and they raised me kind of easily. And the fact that I wanted to be an actor, well, that was okay with them and my father.
And I try not to be too strict with my kids because certain things they have to do. But at the same time I don't want them to get away with anything. But I think I try to rationalize with them, and argue, "Now look I'm very good with you about certain things unless you do this. You have to now do this. That's only fair."
Of course, there are times when that stuff doesn't work. I'm not the all-knowing, all-seeing... But in general it works pretty good.
Q: You mean like the curfew kind of things?
RD: I don't put a curfew -- you know, [tell them] "do this" -- I'm flexible with certain things that the kids have to do. It's not like a curfew where they have to go to sleep at a certain time.
Q: Do you approach your comedic work differently than your dramatic work?
RD: Well, this is a more gentle sort of -- what would you call it -- comedy than say Meet the Parents. It's more of a dramedy.
Q: You've worked on every scale of film from mega-productions to an indie-budgeted one like this film, as a producer, director or an actor. What's the difference in working in indies versus large films?
RD: Well, the difference is you have more time. When you have more -- just a lot more -- then there are a lot more people on the set, a lot more trucks, [and such]. It's a big production. I don't know. I mean, making movies that are very simple, ultimately -- I always wonder when I walk around a big movie and you see all these trucks and this and that -- I think, "Just to get this, you've got to get all these people."
And of course, those are only certain movies that do that. It was good. This to me is a normal time to shoot -- I think we shot eight weeks? So eight weeks is a pretty good schedule. It's an independent film. An independent is going to be less than what goes on this film I think. It costs less to make. And a shorter schedule, like five weeks. Four weeks.
Q: Will you be doing more films like this?
RD: I will.
Q: Do you have some things in mind?
RD: Some, yeah...
Q: You signed a deal with CBS for three pilots to be shot in New York City. What kind of shows do you watch and will we see you taking a part on television?
RD: Maybe. I don't watch much TV other than the news. Really. I'm busy and I'd rather be reading and doing stuff. There's good television. I just don't watch a lot of it.
Q: So your interests are in producing?
RD: Yeah, we're producing these shows. That is -- that's good. But to this point -- and once those start happening I will watch them. Work on them. But in general before that, I'm not that tuned in to television and such. But there's a lot of good stuff.
Q: Are you doing another Meet the Parents?
RD: We're doing a third one -- Meet The Little Fockers.
Q: You've built a career on playing tough guys, gangsters, police officers. How important is it to you to do something different, something softer? Do you think about how people perceive you from movie to movie; does that concern you at all?
RD: No, some people do that and sometimes I play off that because it's a certain thing you do -- you can make fun of it in certain movies. Like in Meet the Little Fockers, it's also titled, Or The Godfocker. And I asked Greg [Glienna, one of the writers] --because I have a feeling if something happens to me -- will he [De Niro's character Jack Byrnes] be the Godfocker?
Q: The film deals with lots of adversity in many ways. Do you have any ways that you deal with adversity in your own life?
SR: Depends on the adversity, I guess. I do different things to calm myself down. Exercise. That's a good thing. [There are] different ways to battle adversity. I can't think of any other ones [right now].
Q: You've dealt with a lot of adversity. You've overcome 9/11 nearly devastating your beloved Tribeca. How do you deal with it?
RD: Which adversity are you talking about?
Q: Any adversity...
RD: I'm here, aren't I?
For other articles and editorial work by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com