Steven Zaillian pens an epic for Martin Scorsese

January 31, 2020 Danny Munso

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from our longer interview with The Irishman screenwriter Steven Zaillian from Issue 41 – our Oscar issue – of Backstory.


If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

Oscar Lessons: The Irishman
Steven Zaillian on the writing of his epic collaboration with Martin Scorsese.
By Danny Munso

Steven Zaillian turned in his first draft of The Irishman to director Martin Scorsese back in 2008. Based on Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, which chronicles the life of Mafia hitman Frank Sheeran, Zaillian’s script is a sprawling epic that details the relationships between Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) with Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). The film has spawned many debates about its brilliance, its three-and-a-half-hour run time and even the accuracy of Sheeran’s story. (For the record, the filmmakers have never claimed the story to be completely historically accurate.) It was also nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay. Astoundingly, it’s Zaillian’s fifth Oscar nomination—he won in 1994 for writing Schindler’s List—cementing him as one of the great screenwriters of his generation. Zaillian spoke to Backstory about the challenges of bringing this story to life.

Backstory: Once you read Charles Brandt’s book, how did your adaptation process start?
Steven Zaillian: My process in this case was to read the book a couple of times. It’s an excellent book, and I read it a couple of times to try and zero in on what parts of the book to concentrate on and what the themes of the book are. Then it’s a matter of construction and architecture and trying to put it in some sort of manageable form as opposed to it being some sort of A-Z biography.

What form does that construction take for you? Are you big on notecarding or outlining?
I outline like crazy, and I do it in a number of ways. I make lists on yellow notepads, I make cards, I put cards on the wall, I put cards on the floor—and what I’m really doing is I’m trying to see the movie and see it as a whole singular thing. In a way it feels like busy work, but I’m thinking it through as I’m doing it and I’m also putting off the writing—which is important [Laughs.] I can feel like I’m working without having to actually write any scenes yet. Then I reach a point with all the outlining where I can’t do any more of it but it still helps me to think it through that way. It’s an important part of the process for me, but the memorable moments in most of the films I write aren’t on those cards. The obvious moments are on those cards—they’re the signpost scenes. Usually, the things that are memorable are the subtleties just from a moment in the scene that I won’t know about until I write it.

How did you land on the framing device for the film where Frank, Russell and their wives are driving to Detroit for a wedding?
I don’t remember the exact moment, but it was sometime when I was outlining the first draft. I laid the story out chronologically first, and then toward the end of the book in the context of the story, he writes about the trip to Detroit. I thought maybe that’s a way to start the film—with this drive. And then as I was working on it, I realized it could be the framing of it all. What I liked about it is the story catches up with it and continues on from there.

What was your favorite scene to write?
I very much like the two scenes with Tony Pro [Stephen Graham as Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, of the Genovese crime family] and Hoffa: the one in the prison and then one when they get together later on for a meeting. I really enjoy how both of those scenes devolve into a fight. Both scenes were extremely fun to write. I got a lot of enjoyment out of watching those scenes. The other one I love is the one scene Harvey Keitel is in. It’s interesting because when he was cast to play Angelo Bruno [boss of the Philadelphia crime family, called the Gentle Don], I thought, Why on earth is he doing this? He’s only in one scene. So when I met him after the film came out, I asked him that. He said, “Well, because it’s a good scene.” That was a really nice thing to hear.

What was the toughest thing to write?
I don’t know if it was a problem area but the biggest change I made from the first draft to the last was in the first draft there was quite an extended sequence of many scenes about Frank’s experience during World War II. That took up a big part of the book, and it seemed important to put in the script. It was later that Marty and I decided maybe it wasn’t necessary. So it’s one of the few times I remember where I took this really long sequence that shows what happened—which is always the way I prefer to do scenes rather than tell—and reworked it into a scene where he just describes what happened over a glass of wine in a restaurant. It was an interesting thing for me to take something that was so visual and so powerful in terms of how it would be shot and then translate that into a scene of dialogue.

If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

For more info about all the other amazing articles in issue 41, view our Table of Contents.