Cinema icon talks about this weekends new movie ‘What Just Happened’

There’s often a fine dividing line between fact and fiction, and in Robert De Niro’s latest movie What Just Happened? the edges get even more blurred than usual.

Double Oscar-winner De Niro (now a very youthful looking 65, and in remission from prostate cancer, which struck him in 2003)plays Ben, a high-powered Hollywood producer who is said to be among the top thirty wheeler-dealers of his ambitious peers. Ben occupies an uneasy place between the ruthless studio chief and his finance backers, his star, and an eccentric British director as he tries to get his “visionary” new film, titled Fiercely, to Cannes for the Film Festival, and onto screens around the world.

The trouble is that his director has shot an ending that is so bloody and appallingly violent that audiences are recoiling when they see it in test screenings. If that wasn’t enough, his next film is about to start shooting later in the week, and his star, Bruce Willis has put on a few pounds and has also grown a huge bushy beard which, despite it being totally unsuitable
for his role, he is refusing to shave off.

“It’s based on a genuine reminisce of a career in Hollywood by the producer Art Linson”, explains De Niro, “and Art, who is a genuine old friend of mine, named names in his book. He didn’t pull any punches about the people on his pages. As soon as I read it I thought that it was a remarkable piece of work, I laughed until the tears were running down my face, and I told him ‘Listen, you have to make a screenplay out of this, and I’m going to stand over you until you do. And when you’ve written it, I want to have first refusal on playing Ben! Put creative people together, and there are bound to be sparks.”

And here comes the amazing interweave with truth and make-believe that is What Just Happened? Fictional Ben is real-life Art, Sean Penn plays Sean Penn, the hero of the movie with the dodgy ending, Bruce Willis is Bruce Willis, and 99.99 per cent of the events actually happened.  “Fiercely is scheduled to appear in the Cannes Festival if the ending can be doctored to something that the studio boss approves of”, explains De Niro with an engaging grin, “and What Just Happened? was actually at the Cannes Festival this year, as the closing movie. So we had to shoot scenes where our fictional characters were walking up the red carpet, and then go through the whole thing for real a few months later. The thing was that people in the crowd tended to get a bit confused, and when we were filming the material that we wanted, some of them were calling me by my real name – with lovely French accents – and then shouting out that phrase that everyone does when they want to impersonate me! It was: ‘Bawbee…Bawbee…are you talking to me? Are you talking to me?’ At the time, it was pretty funny!”


Bruce Willis, in the film plays himself as megalomaniac and ill-manner and obstinate “and nothing could be further from the truth”, laughs De Niro, “he’s a very sweet guy, and he read the script – and totally got the joke.Same with Sean Penn, again as himself, but a ‘himself’ that is SO pretentious! No foundation in fact there, either. Art told me that the way that Bruce’s star behaved was actually based on an incident that he once had with Alec Baldwin, and that when the director throws a huge tantrum in from the studio executives, that’s also something that genuinely happened. If you want to know the gory – truthful – details, I suggest you read his book, because it is such a mirror of life in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles. In the film, the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

You could say that the book – and the film – is a little on the bitter side, but I liked that, because ‘bitter’ for me also usually mans that there’s a lot of humour in there as well. Mind you, what makes one man think that something is extraordinarily funny, and what makes someone else see it as tragedy, is another matter. I’ll agree that when you are struggling, some things might not strike you as hysterical, that’s for sure. We’ve made a comedy-drama that has a very European feel to it, and all we’ve done, in fact, is compress the book into a simple time frame of a couple of weeks”.

Linson’s screenplay was “a labour of love, he was always telling me how hard it is to write one”, says De Niro, “I never have. That’s not one of my skills. My job is to read and to interpret the scripts I want to make, not to write them. But I have been involved in the production of a lot of movies, and believe me, I know that that is not an easy task. It’s getting the project financed and up and running, and cast, and then keeping the studio involved sweet by having a tight rein on the budget. You have scheduling moments that all boil down to one thing – money. The bottom line is that never a day passes when something doesn’t have to be juggled and fixed. So I like it when all I have to do is act, and not get bothered and involved with all of that. Acting looks simple though – done well, it ain’t.And it should never look as if it is done well, it should just look natural. That happens if you have any aptitude for it. Directing is fun, but also (like acting) hard work.

“The sad fact of this business, however, is that you never ever leave it – it tends to leave you, in whichever field you work. You are only ever as good as your last couple of pictures, and if you are causing the finance people to lose money, they don’t want to know. I’ve always thought ofproducers in particular leading a particularly difficult life – a bit like snails slowly crawling up a sheet of glass – it’s not so much the race to get up to the top, it’s the effort to stay where you are, without sliding all the way back down again. There are only a few God-like presences in our industry who are above all of that, virtually unaccountable to anyone else – you never really get to meet them, and they are never in jeopardy.”

He reflects, sipping on a glass of still water: “Another sad fact is that both Art and I know people who have lost their jobs in the last few months, for whatever reason. It’s always happening. I don’t think that it is anything to do with the credit crunch, though. Hollywood survives through the good times and the lean times – because the simple fact is that people all over the world want to be entertained. That’s the bottom line”.


Is What Just Happened? a case of biting the hand that feeds him? De Niro raises an eyebrow and denies that emphatically. “Everyone knows this world” he says, “I knew that making the movie would be fun – and it was. It’s almost…therapeutic, if you like!”

Has he ever found himself in a position when no one has returned his calls? No, says De Niro, touching a nearby piece of wood, “I never have, thank God. But I don’t think it is actually like that. It’s more a case of no one calling you, if you’ve been in something that has truly bombed. I have, fortunately, had a career so far when all my calls have been fairly complimentary. It is, I agree, always nicer when things are well received.


But this is probably not a film to show to agents – or producers.” And no, he says that he “simply cannot recall any outrageous antics or over the top demands when I’ve been on a set. I’ve heard about them, of course. Everyone has. But as far as I’m concerned, I’m out there to make a film, not to measure up the size of my Winnebago, and to check out what facilities it has. I treat others as they treat me. I think that I’m a pretty easy-going guy, all in all. You’ll have to ask other people about how dreadful I am to be with!”
He’s a shrewd cookie, is De Niro – he’s invested wisely in property, in land, and in restaurants in New York “So that I can always find at least once place that I can’t be thrown out of”. He’s married to Grace Hightower, and has been for twenty-plus years (they have a son, Elliot, 10) and he has two other grown-up children, a son and a stepdaughter from a previousmarriage, both of whom are actors. His lineage is a glorious mix – Italian, Irish, Dutch, French and German, but, he says sadly: “No English or Scottish. Apologies!” And he has three homes in or around New York City, and says: “I only go to Los Angeles if they pay me well”. They usually do – over $20 million a film.

Acclaimed director Barry Levinson (himself an Academy Award winner) was the man behind the lens for What Just Happened? He and De Niro are mates, and have worked together before. “We only had a shooting schedule of thirty-three days”, says De Niro, so we zipped along pretty fast, which I liked, because it gave the whole project a lot of energy.”


One of the key scenes in the film is the moment when the audience at a preview screening are asked to fill in reaction cards, outlining what they think of the movie. “Test screenings do have a validity”, says De Niro, “and directors do indeed take them very seriously. And we all know of films that have been seriously altered after a bad reaction, before the studio has finally allowed their release. I’d never ask the practice to be stopped, it’s all part of the process to me, but maybe it works a little better with comedies – if the laughs aren’t coming, can you tweak anything so that they do?

“I do remember being told of a dinner where Marty (Marin Scorsese) flew infrom Seattle after a test screening of Goodfellas, and they said to him ‘How did it go?’ and he said ‘It was dreadful – the reaction has been terrible, and half the audience walked out during the show’. Everyone said how sorry they were – and the dinner went on. As does life. So there are clearly times when you can trust an audience, and others where you clearly cannot.”

So how does he think that producers – and agents – handle their stressful lives? “No better nor worse than the rest of us”, he says, “and that includes lawyers, journalists, actors and people who wait on table. You learn (hopefully) just to get on with it. Everyone knows how to handle good news – it’s the bad stuff that needs the work! In every job there’s a lot of struggle, of jealousy and of vanity.”

His hugely successful Tribeca Film Productions, the Tribeca Film Centre andthe Tribeca Film Festival in New York all go on from strength to strength.The Festival’s mission is to project the city as a major film-making centre and to help established and aspiring film-makers reach the broadest possible audiences. “It just gets better and better”, he agrees, “I’m very proud of what we have achieved”

Why does he think that audiences will warm to Ben? “Because he’s got a sense of humour, because there’s some sadness and drama in his life, and hestruggles to make a living. What’s not to admire or identify with in that mix?”

Talking of men with character, he reflects that his President in waiting, Barack Obama, “is going to be huge wake-up call for America – and the world. I was so gratified by the turn-out that he inspired, and I’ve been waiting and praying that someone like him should come long for years. The international response has been amazing, too, and there is a profound need for someone like him right now!”

Next, the man who started out his acting career as The Cowardly Lion in a school production of The Wizard of Oz at the age of only ten will star in . Everybody’s Fine with Kate Beckinsale, and a movie called Frankie Machine. There’s a project, too, with Martin Scorsese that he says “is at a very advanced stage. I want to work with Marti again. And with Al (Pacino) because they make me feel good.


“What Just Happened” is at Irish cinemas from November 28th