Glenn Kenny: ‘Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas’

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Glen Kenny. Photo by Zach Barocas.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis sits down with film critic and writer Glenn Kenny, whose new book “Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas” details the making of Martin Scorsese’s iconic film about New York City mobsters. Kenny talks about the surprising impact on tabloid tv on the aesthetic of the film as well as the people behind the scenes who were hugely important to the film’s success.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the Home Edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell.  Were you wondering what Glenn Kenny's been doing for the past 31 years? Well, he has been putting together his terrific new book "Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas," which begins in December of 1989 with a conversation with Martin Scorsese, then dovetails to March of this year with another conversation with Martin Scorsese. The book really is about lives lived. And I was struck by something in the book that Scorsese said that really made me rethink the movie, which is, he says, in a way, the most like television I've ever done.

Glenn Kenny: That was one of the things that interested me when I met him in 1989, when he talked about tabloid TV and how it was influencing this movie that he was at the time editing with Thelma Schoonmaker. I thought to myself, well, how could that be? I understood it a little better when he talked about "The Untouchables," the television show with Robert Stack. That at least had some sort of aesthetic connection to some of the things Scorsese had been doing and also to his own taste. He loves those hardboiled directors like Samuel Fuller, guys who did B movies in the 50s, who also directed television. In that period, there was a lot of give and take, back and forth, so that made sense to me, but tabloid television made no sense to me. And yet when I saw the film, there it was. But it was also at the same time as it was tabloid television, it's also "Jules and Jim," the use of still photos is "Inside Edition." But it's also Truffaut and Chris Marker, which is kind of funny.

KCRW: Well, not as funny as television. The book is so much fun to read. It's really as much the history of a couple of people, whose lives are woven throughout the book: Joe Reidy, his first AD, and his ex-wife, Barbara DeFina.  I was wondering how conscious you were that when you first spoke to these people, they wind up being kind of, in other ways, the glue that holds the book together.

Kenny: When I spoke to Barbara DeFina for the first time, I was certainly not at all aware of that. I always considered it peculiar that DeFina and Scorses had gotten married and then had gotten divorced, and then continued to work together on films, she working as his producer for almost 10 years after breaking up as a couple. And I always thought, well, how does that work? 

When I first interviewed DeFina, she's a very soft spoken woman. She's physically small; she's very modest in presentation, and she was very quiet. I asked her a bit about the marriage relative to her professional relationship to Scorsese, and she said, "Well, he has his demons, but so do we all," and that was that. And then, a couple of weeks after we first spoke, she said, you know, I don't think I said enough to you that I want to say about this movie, and also her working relationship with Scorsese. And she didn't say it for two reasons. 

One is she's thinking of writing a book of her own, which she may well do, and also because she was being discreet. As we spoke on subsequent occasions, like she said, just by bringing up the making of the movie for her, it kicked up a hornet's nest, and she decided she wanted to tell me some of the things that she hadn't told anyone before, which is that she felt cheated out of a producer credit. She's an executive producer; she felt she should be a producer. 

A lot of lay people listening will think, well, who cares? And maybe executive producer sounds a little different, maybe even better. But if you're inside the movie industry at all, and you understand how credits and their hierarchy of credits, in terms of your career in Hollywood, that is something that you do get, but that is something she felt she should have had. And she does feel that if she had had it on "Goodfellas," it would have made a difference even though she has that credit on "Cape Fear," and she has it on "Casino," which are two big films and two films that were somewhat more successful financially than "Goodfellas." And so from here the floodgates open. 

But it's also this unusual situation for me because I'm writing a book about "Goodfellas." I'm not writing a biography of Scorsese...yet. And I'm not writing the story of Scorsese's personal life and his marriages. But, in as much as the personal relationship between DeFina and Scorsese and its breakdown, impinged upon the making of "Goodfellas, that became an interesting thing. And after the book was prepared and Barbara read it, she was even more forthcoming about certain things. There was a bit of a back and forth about her feelings relative to Illeana Douglas, who has a small role in "Goodfellas," and who was Scorsese's girlfriend at the time that the marriage was breaking up.

KCRW: It's funny to me when you say that's not a Scorsese biography, because I feel like it is. It's such a thoughtful look at the way his entire life becomes a part of the way he works, and I think you do this in a way that other writers on him haven't done before because they talk to him almost solely about movies. Involving these other people, and it's a great piece of reporting, by the way, in a lot of ways makes it about both Barbara and Joe Reidy. I can feel your affection for these people and your connection with them immediately.

Kenny: Yeah, I like both Joe Reidy and Barbara De Fina a lot, and I also like Martin Scorsese a lot, but the thing about Joe Reidy to a certain extent and Barbara to even more of an extent, even Illeana Douglas, now that they're outside of the realm, so to speak, there's a feeling of estrangement.

I remember many years ago, overhearing my friend, Gavin Smith, who was once the editor-in-chief of Film Comment magazine and now works in programming. And he was talking about a young person who worked at Film Comment, and that person had gone to get a job in the production office of Martin Scorsese. He was talking about this guy and saying, you know, he thinks he's going in there, and that because he's there, he's got an in and that he's going to be inside of the Scorsese bubble, but somebody needs to tell him that's not going to happen. 

That fascinated me, and I discussed it with Gavin after: the idea of the the Scorses bubble, and it's something that I think accrued around him much more after the making of "Goodfellas" because it was after "Goodfellas" that the productions he made had larger budgets, different kinds of exposure for him. He told Amy Taubin that I want to be a player. I want to be a Hollywood player. And as Irwin Winkler has pointed out, Scorsese's the greatest American director of independent films who's never made an independent film.

 He did start producing other people's movies; he eventually established these sinecures with places like HBO and Netflix. And he is a player, he has his nonprofits like the World Cinema Foundation and the Film Foundation that do film restoration, so he's pursuing his passion in that respect. He's not a player, the way Spielberg became when creating DreamWorks. He's not a mogul, but he does oversee this kind of machine. He's always been surrounded by people who are very protective of him. But you know, in this year subsequent to "Goodfellas," it became a thing, also a thing that if you were expelled from it, that was a bad thing. And you know, you can't get back inside. 

KCRW: Again, I think it's a biography and a very telling one about Martin Scorsese, and I guess I was really struck by those two people because they did have that proximity to him and used their contact as a way to really inform us as to how Scorsese works and how the movie got made. As a piece of reporting and like Wiseguy," the Nick Pileggi book, "Made Men" is a book about characters to me. 

Kenny: Joe Reidy said to me, point blank, "You know, I fell in love with the guy." He's, to this day, one of the most respected and greatest first assistant directors in the business. He's incredibly respected, and he learned very quickly when he first started working with Scorsese. Imagine getting a job working for Martin Scorsese, and your first picture is more or less, "The Last Temptation of Christ," a picture that was notoriously difficult to make. He gets thrown into the fire right away, and he learns quickly about how to deal with Scorsese.

 It's funny how, as film critics, you and I talk about directors a lot. And we don't always think about the people whose job is to help the director with his vision, and at the same time, help the director while achieving that vision. And that's one of the things that Joe really illuminated for me: what he would do for Scorsese and how he would tackle certain problems. And Joe also gave a very vivid account, as did Barbara De Fina, of how the cinematographer of "Goodfellas," the great, Michael Ballhaus, not just a great shooter, not just someone who's a great cinematographer, but a great source of reassurance.

KCRW: As you mentioned in the book, Ballhaus really gave Scorsese the freedom through his own confidence. Actually, Scorsese talks about being liberated in the camera movement, which was kind of shocking to me to hear that.

Kenny: Right, because there's always something else; he always wants to push it farther. He's all about wanting you to see the way he sees and if you ever try and conceptualize that and make it into a reality, that's a very difficult thing. Scorsese had seen the work that Ballhaus did with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Fassbinder was kind of a maniac and also worked very, very quickly, shooting "Beware of a Holy Whore," an early film that he did with Ballhaus was shot in seven days, two of which had to be scrapped because Fassbinder fired an actor, but it also looks incredible. So he was this combination that was almost impossible to find, especially with a film cameraman, someone who's really, really quick, and also really, really brilliant.

KCRW: What you're saying about Ballhaus I think this really informed this part of Scorsese's career from "Goodfellas" on, or really, I guess, "The Color of Money," which is: we felt the confidence in the camera movement. Given that he's so often making movies about anxiety, this really gave them a kind of an emotional floor, a mooring that they had been missing before that.

Kenny: Also, if there was ever a director for whom the steadicam was invented, Martin Scorsese is one of them, obviously Kubrick being another. It's fascinating in "Goodfellas," because a lot of the times when you get these camera movements that are from a particular point of view, it's not just the protagonists, but it's Scorsese. 

In "Raging Bull," a lot of the characteristics of Jake LaMotta, the protagonist: this obsession with being the best and also the sexual obsession he has with his wife, Vicki LaMotta. She's at the public pool, and she's kicking her feet in the water, and the camera's just looking at the legs kicking the water in slow motion. That's Scorsese himself, whereas with Henry Hill, it's him but it's also other people like the famous steadicam Copacabana shot that occurs during the sequence that's narrated by Karen Hill played by Lorraine Bracco. That whole idea is to put you in her head as she's being swept off her feet by this guy and his access to this world of glamour and celebrity and getting everything handed to you by these people at this famous nightclub. Also when Karen goes to visit Henry in prison, and she sees Janice's name in the log book. There's all those inserts of the log book and then it fixes on that one signature, and Karen freaks out, that's Scorsese, too.

KCRW: As you were putting the book together, again, I really do see parallels between this book, and Nick Pileggi’s book "Wiseguy," in just the way that it details the history of the time, the history of the city. I'm thinking about that part you're detailing the bamboo lounge and that's now a Toyota dealership and all those kinds of things. It really does feel like it's a history of that period, and it feels a lot like what Pileggi does as a reporter to me.

Kenny: Well, that's a really high compliment because I happen to think that Nick Pileggi is one of the great crime nonfiction writers. He's right up there with his cousin Gay Talese, and I admire the books reporting on New York at that time period, and also the way that this is harder to do than people think it is. The book is not just Henry Hill speaking to Pileggi. It's Karen Hill. It's Henry Hill's former girlfriend, the one called Janice Russo in the film, and several other people. And Pileggi was able to give each one a distinct voice, which is not as easy as some might think. 

He says he was very lucky to find Henry Hill. I think that the stories that he wanted to tell were such that had he not found this guy, he would have not stopped looking until he found someone like him, because this was a book that needed to be written. And so for myself, writing this, I didn't just want to write a film book, I wanted to write about the mob; I wanted to write about New York City. I wanted to write about the things that "Goodfellas" was about and how they related to the people who made the movie. I wanted to talk to Nick Pileggi about his relationship to Nora Ephron, who wrote two film scripts based on her dealings with mobsters who were introduced to her by Pileggi, including one that's kind of about Henry Hill, the script for "My Blue Heaven," which ended up starring Steve Martin and Rick Moranis. All of these people I talked to: Pileggi, Scorsese, De Niro, they're as much New York legends as Hollywood legends, probably more so New York legends. So you want to write about that as well because that, to me, is like Scorsese's father in the prison dorm scene saying about the pork and the sauce, "It's the flavor." That's the flavor.

KCRW: I think what's so much fun about the book is that I think it really gives you a chance to stretch out and do a kind of writing that I've never really seen from you before, which is to create an atmosphere. I wonder if you felt pushed by this in a way you hadn't felt by other things you've written before?

Kenny: Prior to doing this book, I had been working with my agent Joseph Veltre at Gersh, who's a longtime friend. We worked on several projects, and one of the projects that we worked on was something that was not a film book. I wanted to write a book about the history of Times Square, not the entire history of Times Square, but about the transformation of Times Square, going all the way back to 1975, a time when there was a notorious serial killer of prostitutes in the Times Square area named Richard Cottingham. Then going from there and taking that all the way up to the ‘90s and Disney and how on the night that "The Lion King" opened on Broadway, Rudy Giuliani padlocked all the pimp bars and the drag bars and any other kind of bar of that ilk and how he shut the whole place down. 

It had this amazing cast of characters as you might imagine from wealthy and influential architects and movie studio executives, insane New York mayors, two of them at least, Koch and Giuliani, and then actual street people, who I got to know in the ‘80s when I was trying to write a story about the transgender community for Rolling Stone that eventually just didn't happen. So that kind of writing had been something I'd been wanting to do for some time. 

KCRW: The book really is finally, I think, about the end of a way of life, the romantic spirit that way of life created, but also the end of a way of life for Scorsese because he was basically at the point of "Goodfellas" about to become the Martin Scorsese of legend rather than just a Martin Scorsese, who was known primarily to film buffs. You know, we can see that really in the book ending of "Made Men," your conversation with him in 1989, versus your conversation with him this year, and he is very much a different person at this point in his life.

Kenny: I think that's true. He said to me in March that every movie between "Raging Bull" and this one has been a knockdown, drag out fight. And I remember back at Premiere, I would talk to him when he would do a film, like “Kundun” or like “Bringing Out the Dead.” And he would talk about these movies as if they were the last movies he'd ever make or the last movies he'd be allowed to make because he's gone through these fights, and they always take a toll on him. 

Barbara De Fina had a very interesting counter to that. She said, well, the real problem film was "King of Comedy," and everything we did after that was kind of an attempt to rehab, and that "Last Temptation" doesn't even figure in that equation because of its one-off quality of being this deal that was put together by super agent Mike Ovitz, but that Scorsese's real rehabilitation with studios was "The Color of Money," which he proved that he could make films on time and under budget. When I spoke to Scorsese in March, he almost pooh-poohed "Color of Money," which many of us think is a fine film. He's like, that's a little mild, that's not 100%. 

So when I'm talking in the preface about Scorsese working in a kind of diminished mode in the 1980s, I kind of had to word that carefully because I don't want to take away from the films, which, in many cases, are very fine. But there was this sense that it wasn't the excitement of the 70s that was happening with his work. It wasn't as galvanic. It was first rate, and it holds up. But it wasn't, you know, making people tear their hair out. 

I mean, "After Hours, is a vicious, vicious movie, but in a different register than a lot of what Scorsese had done. And yes, it's actually true that to a certain extent, "The Color of Money" has a comfortable, reassuring quality. That is not something you necessarily associate with Scorsese films, and its best scenes are the ones that get out there on the edge, such as the scene between Paul Newman and Forest Whitaker as the pool player, who Newman's Fast Eddie mistakes as someone who's kind of slow at first and then gets completely fleeced by.

Credits

Host:
Elvis Mitchell

Producer:
Rebecca Mooney