11 Things We Learned About Goodfellas From Saturday’s Tribeca Q&A

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Last night, the Tribeca Film Festival presented a 25th anniversary screening of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas as its closing night event. After the film, actors Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi joined The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart onstage for a Q&A. (Joe Pesci couldn’t make it, De Niro joked, and instead sent a message: “Fuck fuck fuckity fuck fuck fuck. Fuck.”) Scorsese and producer Irvin Winkler, still filming their long-anticipated Silence in Taipei, also couldn’t make it, but sent in video messages introducing the film. Here are some of the things we learned from the discussion.

Author and co-screenwriter Pileggi didn't believe it was Scorsese calling him.
After Wiseguy, Pileggi’s book about the life of Henry Hill, came out, Martin Scorsese called the writer numerous times to talk about adapting it. Pileggi, a writer for New York (hey!) at the time, said he would get “these pink slips saying, ‘Call Marty Scorsese.’” But he refused to believe it was Scorsese calling; he thought they were messages from David Denby, then the magazine’s film critic. Scorsese, unable to figure out why Pileggi wasn’t calling him back, got someone in his office to call Pileggi’s wife, the late Nora Ephron, and told her to tell the writer to call him back. Pileggi came home that night to an irate Ephron: “Are you crazy? Marty Scorsese’s been trying to reach you! Call him back!”

Ray Liotta was the first person the filmmakers met with for the lead role.
Even though Liotta hadn’t done too many films before landing the lead role in Goodfellas, he was the first person the filmmakers had met with, thanks to a recommendation from Robert De Niro. But it took him a year after that to get the part. What sealed the deal was when he ran into Scorsese at the Venice Film Festival, where Liotta was appearing in (the very underrated) Dominic and Eugene and Scorsese was presenting The Last Temptation of Christ. He cornered Scorsese in the lobby of their hotel. And, as Liotta put it: “The way that I said ‘hello,’ it just seemed to happen.”

Joe Pesci's "funny how" scene was improvised during rehearsal.
The infamous and much-quoted “funny how” scene, where Joe Pesci’s Tommy freaks out Ray Liotta’s Henry by taking exception to the comment “You’re a funny guy” was actually based on something that happened to Pesci himself, when he made a similar remark to — and got a similarly testy retort from — a mob-connected guy in Queens. When he happened to tell this story during rehearsal before shooting, Scorsese had the idea of adding it into one of the scenes. So the actors made up the scene in rehearsal, and then it was scripted. However, when Pesci started improvising during the shooting of the scene itself, Scorsese made him dial it back and stick to the script.

Paul Sorvino was so creeped out by his character that he almost bailed on the shoot.
Talking about portraying the gangster Paulie, actor Paul Sorvino (who really is one of the most articulate Q&A guests — more events with him, please) talked about how he wanted to leave the film right before shooting started, after four weeks of preproduction and rehearsal. “I called my manager and said, ‘Let me out of this, I can’t do this,” he recalled. While the “externals of the role — the walk, the talk — [of a] middle-aged Italian American man from New York” were pretty easy for him, Sorvino said he had difficulty with the character’s inner life, and “the weird bifurcation of character … At home, they’re family people. When they’re out, they’re shooting people, they’re killing people. That really is so far from me … When I was trying to find this, I was really at a loss. So I called them up and said, ‘Get me out.’” But then, Sorvino recalled, he went to fix his tie in the mirror, and suddenly saw Paulie staring back at him. “And it scared the hell out of me. ‘Oh, that’s the guy.’” He also recalled how, for him, playing the character didn’t require any acting “choices” on his part. “When you find the spine of that character, it’s like an inhabitation, from which you might need an exorcism. When you find that spine, it makes all the decisions for you … [People say,] ‘I like your choices.’ ‘What choices? I found the guy, and the guy made all the choices.’”

The celebrated "Layla" sequence was designed to match the music.
Scorsese spent some time during his intro video talking about the importance of music in the film, and particularly how the last movement of the Derek and the Dominos song “Layla,” which is famously used in the film during a montage of dead bodies being retrieved, was chosen beforehand. The sequence, Scorsese said, was designed for "Layla," and the music was then played back on set to match the camera movement and the actors’ blocking.

The scene at Tommy's mom's house was mostly improvised.
In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Tommy’s mom (played by Scorsese’s own mother, Catherine, whose appearance onscreen last night got the loudest applause from the audience) fixes the lead trio of hoodlums a huge impromptu meal when they stop at her house to get a knife to use to chop up a body in their trunk. Scorsese noted that the scene only contained about two lines of dialogue in the original script. But the actors all improvised with Scorsese’s mom, and the result was a scene that, according to the director, was very much like what a dinner table conversation at one of their houses would have been like.

The real Henry Hill was pleased with Ray Liotta’s performance.
Liotta said that Scorsese didn’t want him meeting with former gangster Hill before the shoot. But after the film was released, Liotta “got a call to meet him in a bowling alley in the Valley, with his brother.” When a somewhat scared Liotta came to the bowling alley, Hill walked up to him and immediately said, "Thanks for not making me look like a scumbag." Liotta’s bewildered response: "Did you see the movie??" Liotta also said that he would see Hill later on, and realized how much the man still struggled with his addictions. “He had the gene … We saw him, we were going to a brunch somewhere in Venice, and he was against a tree, at eleven o’clock in the morning. He had a tough life.”

Though Scorsese didn’t want Liotta talking to Hill, the filmmakers did reach out to Hill to find out how Robert De Niro’s character should hold a ketchup bottle.
“Quite often, we had questions for him, and I would reach out to him,” Pileggi said. He recalled that in the aforementioned scene where Tommy’s mom cooks for everybody, De Niro wanted to know how his character Jimmy would get ketchup out of a bottle — would he slam it on the bottom, hit it from the side, use a knife, etc.? “It’s those little moments of insane authenticity that make Marty’s movies work.”

Test screenings were a disaster.
In his video, Scorsese offered up this tidbit: The initial test screenings for Goodfellas, all held in Los Angeles, were disastrous, making the film’s subsequent acclaim that much sweeter.

Martin Scorsese still wanted to edit the film even after it premiered.
Pileggi recalled that he sat next to the famously perfectionist Scorsese at the film’s premiere at the Ziegfeld. After the movie started, “I get this elbow. ‘We should’ve cut that. You see that? With Paulie? It should’ve moved.’ ‘Marty, Marty. You’re in a tuxedo. It’s the opening of the movie. We’re at the Ziegfeld. Editing is over!’”

An unnamed Tribeca restaurant owner refused to serve Scorsese and Pileggi after the film came out.
Scorsese also recalled that a Tribeca restaurant he and Pileggi used to frequent before they made the film shut its doors to them after the film’s release, because the owner took exception to the film’s portrayal “of a certain ethnic group.”