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I Heard You Paint Houses: Scoring Scorsese

  • Robbie Robertson The Irishman score.png

Being asked to compose the score for the highly anticipated, three and a half hour film, The Irishman (sprawling over 50 years) is enough to make any musician nervous. It helps when you’ve been working with a director like Martin Scorsese since the ‘70s, says Marty’s go-to score guy and all round goodfella, Robbie Robertson.

“I wasn't that interested in doing movie music, per se,” admits Robertson. Martin Scorsese must have made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, as he nonetheless managed to churn out a hell of a lot of film scores for the director, including The Last Waltz, Raging Bull, The Color of Money, Casino, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street, and most recently, The Irishman.

Immediately hitting it off while working together on The Last Waltz, Robertson and Scorsese did not only become collaborators, but good friends along the way (he affectionately refers to the director as ‘Marty’). “There were times in just about every movie with Marty that I thought, ‘God, I don't know what to do! I'm not sure I can do this!’ – which makes it exciting. But working with Marty is a completely different experience to what you would think it would be. For The Irishman, I did the score and I chose some of the music that we used in it as well. It's turned out fantastic; I'm very proud.”

Speaking in a deliberate, measured voice, Robertson talks to Headliner at The Village Studios in LA – where he does all of his composing work (surrounded by a treasure trove of guitars and pianos). Of course, Robertson is not just known as Scorsese’s go-to score guy. The Canadian musician and songwriter is best known for his work as lead guitarist and primary songwriter for The Band, which were instrumental in creating the Americana music genre.

In fact, Headliner is pretty confident it could fill an entire issue covering Robertson’s career so far: (Bob Dylan! Ronnie Hawkins! The Band! His own solo work!) However, we’re here to focus on The Irishman, Scorsese's new American epic crime film starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and a coaxed-out-of-retirement, Joe Pesci.

Set over many decades, the critically acclaimed film follows Frank Sheeran (De Niro) as he becomes a hitman involved with mobster Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and his crime family, including his time working for the powerful Teamster, Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). With a production budget rumoured to be $159 million (Netflix picked up the tab) and clocking in at a marathon 209 minutes, it is among the most expensive films of Scorsese's career, not to mention his longest.

“Netflix is almost in a different business in a way,” says Robertson. “It is questionable whether this movie could have been made without Netflix, because there is a very, very expensive special effects process in this because it takes place over 50 years.”

Sophisticated ‘youthification’ digital techniques spared the older cast having a face full of tracking dots (or makeup) in order to convincingly play their much younger selves – it’s very good, and it’s very expensive.

“There was a lot of de-aging done to De Niro, Pacino and Pesci – they had to look as young as they would have been during those periods,” he nods. “It's extremely expensive, and it's a very tedious process to complete, but in the movie you just watch this story – you’re not sitting there thinking about that. And if you do think about it, it passes in a few seconds and you're just into what's happening. They did it brilliantly; they did it as good as you can do it at this stage in special effects.”

What’s The Score?

Scorsese is known for his meticulously-planned sequences; does he have an equally fixed idea when it comes to the score, or is there room for creative interpretation?

“You know, it's a combination of both of those,” Robertson answers. “Because it takes place over such a long period of time, Marty's not looking for a traditional score at all. I needed to find a sound and a flavour that had a timeless quality to it, so you didn't say, ‘Oh, that sounds like it's right out of the ‘70s’, or ‘that's late 80s right there’. I had to find this other worldly thing that just lives out there in the air somewhere, and it can land at any point.”

Easier said than done. Capturing that timeless sound took much trial and error – and a lot of experimentation: “Eventually, I found this theme that occurs a lot throughout the movie, and Marty liked some of my new songs for the film, so all of these things started to blend into one another creatively in a really nice way.”

Although accustomed to working with Scorsese, a film that jumps back and forth between a time period of 50 years was new to Robertson: “Yeah, this is a different animal!” he laughs. “Even after all these years of working with Marty! It's never been about traditional movie music...when people watch it they’ll see what I'm talking about. There's a certain mood to this film. It's not your usual gangster fare at all. There is something about it which is authentic and in some ways, quiet.”

No bar room brawls or gang shootouts this time, then?

“No, it isn't a bunch of gangsters running around shooting everybody and screaming and carrying on. It's unusual, and it's three and a half hours long. But that’s just the way to tell this story, you know? Other filmmakers would have been uptight about it and cut it way down, but for Marty it works just the way it is.

“There's a lot of stuff happening underneath the characters’ breath, which feels so real, because it's based on a real story,” he points out. “So finding a haunting mood for this movie was something that I thought that I needed to discover. I went back and forth on different ideas until, boom! It was like a bull's eye. I was just thrilled that something had this quality, and it was a sound and flavour of music that I'd never done before.”

Read the rest of the article in Headliner Magazine here.

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Words: Alice Gustafson.