GLENN KENNY is the editor of A Galaxy Not So Far Away: Writers and Artists On 25 Years of Star Wars (Holt, 2002) and the author of Robert De Niro: Anatomy of An Actor (Phaidon/Cahiers du Cinema, 2014). His writings on the arts have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, and Humanities among others. From the mid-1990s to the magazine’s 2007 folding, he was a senior editor and chief film critic for Premiere magazine, where he commissioned and edited pieces by David Foster Wallace, Tony Kushner, Martin Amis, William Prochnau, and other well-regarded writers. He also wrote early features on such soon-to-be-prominent motion picture figures as Paul Thomas Anderson and Billy Bob Thornton. He currently contributes film reviews and essays to RogerEbert.com as well as to Vanity Fair Online, Decider, the Criterion Collection website, and other outlets. He has made numerous television and radio appearances and appears as an actor in Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film, The Girlfriend Experience, and Preston Miller’s 2010 God’s Land. His new book, MADE MEN: THE STORY OF GOODFELLAS, has been named a Best Book of the year by Library Journal and a Sight and Sound Best Film Book of 2020.
Order Glenn's book here.
Dave Watson: What led to this book? You chose a film that has maintained a revered status for now over thirty years.
Glenn Kenny: When I was a younger man I worked in a magazine called Video Review; about thirty years ago. We were doing an anniversary issue;. I wanted an essay by Scorsese because the magazine was doing some celebrity guest essays. I thought because of Scorsese’s commitment to restoration and preservation, he’d be a good person to talk to about how home video could affect the future of cinephilia.
He was keen to do it which was very flattering, but of course he was involved in stuff at the time. He asked that I come into his office and do it as an “As told to” piece. One of the things he was up to at the time was he was editing Goodfellas, which was then called Wiseguy, and that entered into our discussion. He was talking about how it was an unusual film for him, which it turned out to be very much so, coming in at about two-and-a-half hours, how it was going to be the fastest-paced movie ever made and certainly one of the fastest-paced in his canon. He was influenced by television on films, he was influenced by an old show The Untouchables, the TV show and not Brian De Palma’s film, he made that clear. Later there was tabloid TV, which was still part of our scene. So it was called Wiseguy at the time, and I didn’t know too much about it.
I left the discussion and wrote up the “As told to” piece, and a little less than a year later Goodfellas came out. I’d seen a lot of Scorsese films before so I felt sort of a personal connection to him. My friend and I saw Mean Streets, we're both Italian American kids in Jersey. We liked Scorsese’s films, loved New York, New York.
When Goodfellas came out it was a cultural touchstone. As we approached the thirty-year mark, my literary agent said how about a commemorative account, so that’s where the idea came from. An editor at Hanover Square Press picked it up. I was contracted to doing it and that became part of the process. I took some time to do it. I was working on the book, revising certain portions of it up until the last minute.
The manuscript was due March 15, 2020, and I completed my interview with Scorsese which comprises the final chapter on March 9. I wish I’d had more time.
DW: The structure of the book was interesting. Was it difficult or challenging?
GK: Well, the structure was determined by how it ended up coming together. I had this whole plan. You come into this book with, “I’m going to do it this way, do all these interviews…”
In summer 2019 I noticed I’m in the pool an awful lot, because I wasn’t getting all the interviews I needed. I certainly wasn’t getting Scorsese, and what’s going to end up happening is I’m going to chase down these people... and some people involved in the movie I couldn’t get to. I knew my opening chapter was going to be meeting Scorsese in 1989, it seemed perfect. I was a young journalist and he was making this movie I was writing about.
Having Scorsese come in the last minute and give his final word, that seemed to be a great bracket to put in the structure of the book. Then to have the Goodfellas-related book collection part at the end, not a humorous but entertaining postscript on how Goodfellas became a cottage industry to Henry Hill and other people, was something I discovered throughout the process of my research.
DW: I didn’t know about this cottage industry. Scorsese’s interviews seemed perfect. It shows he can lighten up and he’s funny. You said you were going to meet with Jay Cocks and he straightens up and says, “Jay never tells me anything anymore.”
GK: He and Jay have a close relationship and it’s very compartmentalized. They have very different lives even though they’re good buddies. When I’ve moderated panels with Scorsese, it’s a mob scene. People rush the stage with manilla envelopes, begging him to read their scripts. He gets in his Town Car and I’m left alone. Nobody wants to talk to me. It’s like David Hennings with Jeff Beck’s guitar outside the club in Antonioni’s Blow-Up. With Jay I can go to art galleries with him and walk the streets of Manhattan with him and nobody cares. But Marty is a funny guy. He’s an anxious guy. He can be moody, but he’s funny and congenial, and of course great to talk movies with, nobody better, really.
DW: Were there any surprises while writing this book?
GK: Yeah, I was surprised that the relations between one of the producers eventually had gotten so bad, you know. Barbara De Fina’s story was one she hadn’t told over the years, and she was involved with Goodfellas. When I approached her to interview her about Goodfellas she said, “You know, you just kicked up a hornet’s nest.” Things weren’t shocking, but they were surprising. She had a bit of a beef, has had a substantial beef with Scorsese for a substantial amount of time. For the purposes of this book she decided to reveal it.
You can’t force that, if the drama’s not there, the drama;’s not there, but the drama’s always there. I’m working on a new book now, it’s another making-of-film, I’m not going to tell you which film because we haven’t signed all the papers yet. There’s someone connected with Barbara a little bit, so I got in touch with her about Person X who said surprising things about Person Y, and Barbara said, “Movies are always drama.” And yet relatively speaking, the making of Goodfellas was not that suffused with drama. There’s the process itself, despite some personality clashes and some interpersonal relations that go with the director who’s married to the producer and will soon not be married to the producer, but other than that it was a relatively pain-free process.
DW: That’s what I gleaned from the book. Have you read The Devil’s Candy?
GK: Of course, and that’s a different thing. She (Julie Salamon) was there, and to De Palma’s credit he didn’t exert any control over her, he just stepped back and let her do her thing. That book is not reproducible for many reasons. Movies are made very differently now.
Things change over generations, and people forget, and some people think they can game the system. But I don’t think a director of that level is ever again going to give someone that kind of on-set access.
When Lillian Ross wrote Red Badge of Courage, which was a very unvarnished story of the making and unmaking of a film, John Huston saw her as a co-conspirator and he was on her side, to tell what he saw as his story. Julie Salamon wasn’t on anyone’s side, she was just calling it like she saw it.
DW: Goodfellas was made at an interesting time for Scorsese and De Niro. They hadn’t worked together since The King of Comedy, so about seven years.
GK: Yes, and The King of Comedy was a disaster for Scorsese and not for De Niro. It was actually an opportunity for him to jump off and do different things, and for Scorsese he was in “movie jail.”
DW: And only two years after Raging Bull, which lost Best Picture to Ordinary People. De Niro had quite a run in the eighties.
GK: He made Midnight Run, which turned him into a bona fide movie star.
DW: Not everything he was in was a hit, but as a two-time Oscar-winner his status was cemented. But then he and Marty re-teamed for Goodfellas. For Marty it was after The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988 and his segment in New York Stories in early 1989. Did they kind of have to re-figure each other out?
GK: It was a different kind of dynamic. I talked to De Niro about it and he just sort of shrugged.
Both Raging Bull and King of Comedy were scripts that De Niro, maybe didn’t push on Scorsese, but he approached him with them.
With Raging Bull he came to Scorsese in the hospital due to drug abuse, he was getting better, but still rough, and Marty said, “Okay, this will be my last Hollywood movie. I’m going to do this film, he’s going to pour everything into it, then move to Italy and make films on the lives of saints. Well, that didn’t work out.
But with Raging Bull, he got all these accolades. De Niro was controversial because of the method he used, putting on something like forty or sixty pounds. To fatten up, all this stuff. That became its own thing.
De Niro had been developing King of Comedy when it was an unpublished novel by Paul Zimmerman. There were many drafts of the script. In one of them there’s a note about Marty saying, “Why does everything have to be crazy or violent?”
Scorsese always has to find his way into whatever he’s doing. He said if it doesn’t come from him, then he has to work his way into it. He found his way into this film, it was a difficult film to make — although De Niro would say, “Not for me” — and then its subsequent failure at the box office was even worse.
So Scorsese was in movie jail. He made After Hours, an independent film. Producer Irwin Winkler came on the set and said, “When are you going to make a real film again?”
DW: After Hours was also his first collaboration with Michael Ballhaus, correct?
GK: Yes, and he didn’t come to Marty independently. He was brought as part of a package by the producers Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson. They had worked together on a movie called Baby, It’s You. After Hours was next. Dunne and Robinson had a close group of people including Jeffrey Townsend, the Production Designer, and they took Townsend and Ballhaus and approached Marty to direct. Scorsese and Ballhaus had an incredible affinity right off the bat, and they went from there to The Color of Money, then Last Temptation, then they took a little break, Marty worked with Nestor Alemendros on Life Lessons (of New York Stories) then they worked on several other films after that, really an important collaboration. The collaboration between Scorsese and Ballhaus is almost as important as the collaboration between Ballhaus and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, which came about not through Scorsese’s own contrivance. They loved each other. Michael Ballhaus is one of those rare people who was universally loved.
He did The Age of Innocence, The Gangs of New York, and it ended with The Departed which was awarded Best Picture. He also worked with Mike Nichols, I mean, this guy was just good.
DW: And his personality seemed to perfectly complement Scorsese’s.
GK: If you work with Fassbinder who was a genius, he was also moody. As moody as Scorsese ever got, he was never as moody as Rainier Werner Fassbinder. Ballhaus could also work with directors who didn’t know what they were doing, like Prince with Under the Cherry Moon.
DW: I’ve heard terrible things about it. It came out in ‘86 just after Purple Rain.
GK: It’s a beautiful film. It’s not Ed Wood-terrible, but it’s got some good things in it.
DW: You sort of answered this, but what's next?
GK: I’m working on my book, I write reviews every week in The New York Times, I write for Rogerebert.com, I teach at NYU. I’m hoping to get a vaccine, hoping we all get vaccinated and we can all enjoy a semblance of interaction before New Year’s 2022.
DW: Finally, what's your favorite cinematic moment?
GK: It’s sort of lore in my family. When I was a kid, my mom was pregnant with my sister, it was the summer of 1960. My parents took me to the drive-in movie theater and we saw Psycho. I was looking at the screen with a kind of awe. I was one, I don’t have an actual memory of that.
I do have a memory at the drive-in when I was about four and we saw North by Northwest. I have a very vivid memory of the scene where Cary Grant has had a bottle of bourbon poured down his throat and he has to drive like a normal person and live, and that’s something that’s etched in my consciousness.
DW: Why’s that?
GK: It looks kind of corny now with the rear projection and Grant mugging a bit, but, if you’re watching it as a child, and you’re only processing about sixty percent of what’s happening to you, it was an experience of the power of movies for sure.
DW: You mean, you were wrapped up in the character?
GK: Yeah! You think this guy’s gonna drive off the cliff!
DW: It’s a testament to the power of movies for sure.
Clip: North by Northwest
Dave Watson, founder and editor of Movies Matter, is a writer and educator in Madison, WI.