Volume 19 Issue 50 | April 27 - May 3, 2007

A Downtown Express Special Supplement

Tribeca Film Festival 2007

Photo by John Filo

Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro: The (Non)Interview

Filmmaker Lori SIlverbush doesn’t sit down with cinematic icon and founder of the Tribeca FIlm Festival

By Lori Silverbush

“Interview Robert De Niro? Sure, I can handle that.”

This was my blithe response when I was asked to reach out to the great actor/director for a companion piece to Downtown Express’s coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival, founded by De Niro and his partner Jane Rosenthal six years ago. (Full disclosure: I’m not a journalist, but one of my films played in the TFF’s inaugural festival in the aftermath of 9/11, and the festival has held a special place in my heart ever since.)

The Tribeca Film Festival was the rare — possibly the only — festival born to instant prestige (even Sundance spent years germinating as the U.S. Film Festival in its pre-Weinstantino days). Tribeca’s cachet didn’t just come from De Niro’s celebrity, or the de facto involvement of the Nieporents and Keitels that came with him, or the top-tier sponsors like Amex and GM who were panting to sign up. It came from the fact that De Niro himself had become shorthand for a certain type of role, or film — troubled, diffident, hard to know, vaguely ethnic — that was a metaphor for downtown itself. And there was a certain screw-you quality to that first year’s fest, too. After watching and rewatching the towers toppled by demagogues hating on Western culture, we were going to be part of an event — right there — that celebrated the most loaded, decadent reflection of Western culture the world has ever known: movies.

But, not being a journalist myself, I had no way of knowing what all real journalists know.

De Niro doesn’t do interviews.

And when he does, he doesn’t do them for scrappy, pissant filmmakers like me without a single published article to wave under the nose of his vigilant flacks. The angle — a young filmmaker interviewing an icon of filmmaking — was touching as hell, but De Niro wasn’t going for it.

So what now? I supposed I could write a piece that reels off the basic Google details — born to two artists in Hell’s Kitchen, exchanged glances with hood-rat Martin Scorsese in his rough teen years, only to partner famously with the director in “Mean Streets” and seven more films. Winner of two Academy Awards — Best Supporting for portraying a young Marlon Brando portraying Don Corleone in “Godfather II,” and Best Actor for Jake La Motta in Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” Established Tribeca Films to develop film and TV projects from his New York headquarters. Recent director of Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie and Self in “The Good Shepherd.” Famously reclusive, monosyllabic interviewee.

Hell, I figured. I’m an indie filmmaker. We’re used to the tough subjects. I’m going to do better than the journalists who’d squandered their shot with the banal, embarrassingly personal questions an artist like De Niro hates. I would ask Mister De Niro (honorific added for respect) the types of insightful, penetrating questions only a fellow filmmaker would know to ask. Like “Who did your craft services?” and “Steal any locations?” He’d instantly sense a commonality between us, and a lifelong friendship would be forged.

Well, that’s all been dashed. No interview. Not gonna happen. So I’ve decided instead to post a few of the questions I didn’t ask Mr. De Niro, and extrapolate the answers based on gut alone (and Google). Here goes:

Me: Mr. De Niro, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview.

RDN: Call me Bob.

Me: Your portrayal, Bob, of Travis Bickle, in “Taxi Driver” was No. 42 on Premiere magazine’s List of 100 Greatest Performances of All Time. How does that feel?

Bob: I was robbed. Shoulda been No. 41, easy.

Me: Is it true, Bob, that you played Travis right-handed even though you’re a lefty?

Bob: Yes.

Me: Why?

Bob: He’s a righty.

Me: You own a number of restaurants. How does that compare to making a film?

Bob: You eat better.

Me: Name the role you were offered you most wish you had taken.

Bob: Frank Costello in “The Departed.”

Me: Name the role you were offered you’re glad you turned down.

Bob: Dick Tracy.

Me: What’s the secret to great acting?

Bob: There’s no secret. Show up.

Me: Surely there’s more to it than that.

Bob: Never indicate. People don’t try to show their feelings, they try to hide them.

Me: (Stunned, appreciative silence.)

Hovering Publicist: We’ve got time for one more.

Me: How does it feel to be a demi-God to hundreds, nay thousands of young(ish) filmmakers like me?

Bob: What’s with the “demi”?

Me: Sorry, a God.

Bob: Jesus, that’s too much pressure. For me, it’s all about the work.

Me: God’s work.

Bob (laughs): No, that would be “The Departed.”

Lori Silverbush’s short film Mental Hygiene appeared in Tribeca’s 2002 inaugural festival. Her feature film debut, On the Outs, was released in 2006. She is currently writing and directing a film for Focus Features.

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