Robert De Niro – The Actor and Filmmaker Shaped Chazz Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale As His Directorial Debut
by Brad Balfour
On February 26, 2014, the First Time Fest team held a special event in tandem with Tribeca Enterprises in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of A Bronx Tale, Oscar-winning actor Robert De Niro‘s directorial debut. Since the concept of the fest is to celebrate directors and their debut features, this film screening served to hail a career benchmark for De Niro and Chazz Palminteri, its star and story creator.
Though De Niro has since done another film as director, 2006’s The Good Shepherd, he had a powerful personal connection to this story.
Though Taxi Driver really made him a figure to reckon with, several of his earlier films such as Mean Streets and Godfather II really drew on his Italian heritage and life growing up in Manhattan‘s Little Italy.
That background served him well for appreciating A Bronx Tale and transforming Palminteri’s story into something both personal and universal.
In anticipation of the sophomore festival’s schedule from April 3rd to 7th, 2014, De Niro detailed the development of this film during a discussion after this anniversary screening. And since he has a deep love for festivals — as the founder of the Tribeca Film Festival in its 13th year this April 16-27th — it also served a suitable celebration of both festivals.
This Q&A is based on the transcript of the night’s talk.
Apparently Chazz decided that if he was ever going get a good part he would have to write A Bronx Tale for himself — and perform it, first as a one-man off-Broadway production. How did you come across his wonderful play that you eventually directed as your first movie?
He did, exactly. He was doing this one-man show when I was in LA. [I] heard about it and then saw it. We started talking about my doing it as a director. It was a long process.
Chazz had received offers to have the film done and turned them down. What was he waiting for?
He wanted to make sure that he could play the part of Sonny in the movie. I said to him, “Well you have a lot of offers” and it seemed at the time he did. In Hollywood everyone wants something and it’s a feeding frenzy for a certain thing. At that time this was what A Bronx Tale was for movie studios the way as I understand it.
So he had the piece that was given lots of attention. I said to him, “If you want to be able to play the part of Sonny, it’s going to be tricky because they’re going to buy it from you if you opt to sell it to them. At the end of the day, they’re going to want to have someone with a name to hedge their bets. They’re going to probably come to me. So let’s just eliminate that whole process and tell me that you’ll give it to me to direct and I’ll promise you I will guarantee you that you can play that part.”
That’s what happened. We had Savoy Pictures at the time wanting to do it and they were more likely to agree to the terms. That’s how it started and how it happened.
You hadn’t directed movies before. What made you want to do this?
I wanted to direct a movie for a while and wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I realized that you always want to tell the perfect story. To make your movie your letter to the world. I’d say it’s not quite what I’d imagined as my letter to the world, but it’s a movie I understood and liked. If nothing else, it’s something that I wanted to do as my first film and commit to doing it.
It was a practical move. I liked Chazz and the nature of it and all this stuff. I could at least attempt to make something special out of this material from my understanding of that world.
At that point, you were coming off an amazing six-film collaboration with Martin Scorsese. Were you concerned that expectations would be too high?
I didn’t care about all that. Who cares about the comparison? It was about just doing my thing. The movies that Marty and I had been doing to that point were wonderful experiences. But my doing the movie as a director with this material as it happened to be with Chazz was what it was. [It] had nothing to do [with anything I’d done before]. It just happened to be of that subject that I happened to have a little bit of understanding of.
I was happy to do it and take my chances. In my world, when you want to direct a movie, you jump in and take the leap of faith of directing. Finding a director of photography and all the other people, the department heads of a film and then going ahead, moving forward and shooting… it is a big step. To me, that’s what I needed to do and did.