Five months ago, director Martin Scorsese appeared on the indie studio A24′s podcast opposite British filmmaker Joanna Hogg and told her he was concerned. In the midst of chatting about their shared regard for shooting in the 35mm format, he said that while he shot much of his gangster film “The Irishman” that way, there was also “a great deal of CGI” because the decades-spanning plot called for the “youthification” of stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino.
“We’re so used to watching them as the older faces,” Scorsese said, explaining his concern. “When we put them all together, it cuts back and forth ... Now, it’s real. Now, I’m seeing it. Now, certain shots need more work on the eyes, need more work on why these exactly-the-same eyes from the plate shot, but the wrinkles and things have changed. Does it change the eyes at all? If that’s the case, what was in the eyes that I liked? Was it intensity? Was it gravitas? Was it threat?”
Hogg responded, “It’s quite complicated.”
And so it is. We finally got a closer look at those complicated eyes in a trailer that dropped during De Niro’s Wednesday appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” The Netflix film, based on the 2004 book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” jumps through the life of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro) as he recounts the hit jobs he says he carried out for the Bufalino crime family.
This means we see him as a 20-something, as an elderly man and as everything in between. We also encounter characters played by Pesci (Russell Bufalino); Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa, whose assassination Sheeran and Bufalino plot); Ray Romano; Bobby Cannavale; Jesse Plemons; and Anna Paquin.
Other than its remarkable length — after everyone balked at the 210-minute runtime, Scorsese trimmed it to a mere 209 — and cast of Oscar winners, “The Irishman” has attracted the most attention for the CGI that so worried its director. While on “The Tonight Show,” De Niro joked that the de-aging process “took a lot of work,” but that he was happy “because maybe it’ll extend my career for another 30 years.”
We, too, are happy, because if you have even a shred of a reason to de-age some of Hollywood’s most esteemed actors, you should definitely do it. The world has become a high-speed Tilt-a-Whirl and, in certain contexts, it’s best to lean into the chaos. Scorsese seems to get this, as does Ang Lee, whose upcoming movie “Gemini Man” features Will Smith playing an assassin who must fight a younger clone of himself. Lee didn’t take the easy route of simply casting Smith’s rapper-actor son Jaden in the role, because, well, when does he ever take the easy route? (Case in point, “Gemini Man” also employs the same, polarizing high frame rate that Lee used in 2016′s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”)
Perhaps they took a cue from David Fincher’s 2008 film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which centered on a man (Brad Pitt) who ages in reverse and scooped up three Oscars — for best art direction, makeup and visual effects. While the past few months have reminded us of how lovely it can be to see Pitt in his normal form, there is an argument to be made in favor of seeing him transform from an elderly man technically the age and size of a child, to a child the age (but not size?) of an elderly man.
There have been less ambitious de-aging efforts, of course, including a scene from “Captain America: Civil War” in which Robert Downey Jr. plays a teenage Tony Stark — a notable visual effects job that Fallon referenced in the De Niro interview. There have been also slightly terrifying entries into the canon, such as the recent “It: Chapter Two’s” decision to digitally alter Finn Wolfhard’s face because he grew up too much in the few years between the original film, released in 2017, and its sequel.
You win some, you lose some.
It’s unclear where the de-aging in “The Irishman” will rank in terms of its believability, as the effects featured in the trailer seem to have improved upon what was in the initial teaser. Regardless, Scorsese can rest easy knowing that his film’s CGI faces will never be as horrific as the half-human, half-vampire baby Renesmee in the final installment of the “Twilight” saga (which, mind you, was already a replacement for a scary animatronic baby the cast and crew deemed “Chuckesme”). We still have nightmares.