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Conversation with the Founders

Before the annual Directors Brunch, the 2010 Tribeca filmmakers were treated to an intimate conversation with Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal. Be a fly on the wall!

Robert De Niro / courtesy Getty Images
Robert De Niro: Directors BrunchFilmmakers who bring their films to New York City for the Tribeca Film Festival scatter the minute they get here, as they are headed out to premieres, screenings, interviews and afterparties around the city. Once a year, however, the directors are invited to gather without their producers, their families, their handlers, the paparazzi, etc.—at the traditional Directors Brunch. While brunch is always a lovely affair, this year’s event came with a bonus: an hour before the brunch, all the directors (of features and short films) were invited to an intimate, private conversation with Co-Founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal.


The Q&A, held at the SVA Theater, was moderated by TFF Executive Director Nancy Schafer. For the directors, it was their turn to ask the questions—a departure from the post-screening talks they’d been having at the Festival. While the question on everyone’s mind (at least those who make narratives) was, “Will you please be in my next movie?” Schafer encouraged the directors to use the rare opportunity to talk with two filmmaking veterans about their careers, the industry, and the new ways filmmakers have to get their stories heard.


Rosenthal and De Niro started out by talking about how the two of them came to be business partners in Tribeca Productions. Rosenthal began, “I was a studio executive at Disney, working on The Color of Money. Marty [Scorsese] asked me, ‘Why are you a studio executive?”’ He encouraged her to meet De Niro, who was working on Midnight Run at the time, because he was starting a company, building a restaurant, etc., in Tribeca. “We talked for a year, and I told him I would come once he got things together. Bob joked, ‘The worst that could happen? You can always waitress in the restaurant.’” Soon after, De Niro directed his first feature, A Bronx Tale.


How does De Niro like directing himself? “It’s okay. You have to make sure you have it covered properly. I didn’t want to get too picayune watching my own performance. [With A Bronx Tale,] Chazz [Palmintieri] and the DP would tell me what they thought.” Schafer asked De Niro about his fascination with the CIA, which led him to directing The Good Shepherd. “That world fascinates me. I got the script, met with [screenwriter] Eric Roth, and invited him to work on the project. We agreed that if I directed The Good Shepherd, he would write a sequel.” He laughed, “I’m still waiting for it.”


Director Dev Benegal (Road, Movie) asked, “Your movies are seen around the world. What are you looking for in a project to find that universal element?” De Niro explained, “It can be a small story, but it has to have a universal feel, with a scope or grandness to it in a way. Also, who’s directing it? As an actor, I look to see if it’s well-written. It’s all about the script. Script, script, script.” Rosenthal concurred, “Story, story, story.” De Niro continued, “You want to find universal themes that everyone can related to. Like with the Meet the Parents stories, there are always fathers, sons, fiancées, and in-laws. Everyone can relate to that.” 


Road, Movie sex & drugs & rock & roll


Mat Whitecross (sex & drugs & rock & roll) asked, “With the digital revolution, it’s easier to make smaller films, and easier for audiences to access them. Do you worry about piracy?” Rosenthal: “First and foremost, we have to solve the piracy issue, and we have people in the industry and the government working on that… It’s so exciting—not since the [advent of] color television have we had such a vast array of new toys to play with. It’s easier for artists to do their work, and to get it out to the world. It’s exciting for filmmakers to push the boundaries of what they can do.” 


Josh Sternfeld (Meskada) followed up: “Do you think that actors are approaching their craft differently with the ease of digital filmmaking?” De Niro answered, “I don’t think so, because an actor still wants to be able to be true to what he’s doing. How it’s presented and how it’s covered is up to the director and the production.” 
De Niro offered that he does not mind watching films on a small screen: “I’ve watched a number of docs at the Festival on my laptop, and I am able to connect directly with the story. It’s different from the communal experience of watching a film in the theater, but I enjoy it.” Still, he added, “I wouldn’t want to watch a movie on an iPhone—that’s just too small.”


Nancy Kapitanoff, who co-directed the short film Out of Infamy: Michi Nishiura Weglyn, asked Rosenthal about the future of documentary films and the process of getting them out to the world. Rosenthal was enthusiastic about Tribeca’s new initiatives, Tribeca Film and TFF Virtual, presented with Founding Partner American Express®: “Mainstream media does not cover a lot of these stories—it’s important to get them out to the public. I can’t predict, but…” Schafer concurred, “We have two docs on Tribeca Film now: Climate of Change and The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. We love docs. We want to show more, buy more, and get them out there.”


Out of Infamy: Michi Nishiura Weglyn infidel DohaTFF at TFF: Just Like Us


Other questions followed, about Tribeca’s future, and its plans for expanding the TFFV, expanding into other countries, and more. Rosenthal: “We started Tribeca as something we wanted to give back after 9/11. With Doha Tribeca Film Festival, we reached out to partner with a Middle Eastern country, [which felt like] a natural growth. We’re not sure where else we will go. Tribeca was never started as a traditional festival, so we are not bound by what other festivals do.” Schafer agreed, “We’re also very young [as a festival], so we get to see what happens.” 


The conversation also wound around to comedy, as there are several films in this year’s Festival that are quite funny. De Niro commented on Josh Appignanesi’s film The Infidel, about Muslim/Jewish identity, which De Niro was halfway through (on his laptop!): “It’s very funny, just terrific. And pretty blunt!” Rosenthal agreed: “Ten years ago, we couldn’t have shown that film. When we started, it was really hard to do comedy. We had Jon Stewart moderate a panel that first year [of the Festival] about how comedy had changed in the wake of 9/11. It would be good to bring that back next year in TFF’s 10th year—the evolution of comedy [over the last decade].” 


Director/comedian Ahmed Ahmed (Just Like Us) followed up: “NYC put out the olive branch to the Middle East after 9/11 with the Tribeca Film Festival. Were you at all worried about that?” Rosenthal explained, “As artists, we can push things and go places that politicians can’t—without an agenda or a point of view. That’s clearly what we try to do.” Schafer concluded, “We’re lucky we live in New York. We get to tell the hard stories and show the comedies.”


2010 Directors Brunch
Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro, US Economic Envoy to Northern Ireland Declan Kelly / courtesy Getty Images


Following the conversation, the whole group headed over in the rain to The Park on 10th Avenue, where the official brunch was hosted by two Irish entities, Invest Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Screen. Our hosts genially suggested Ireland as a location for the filmmakers to use in their next films. So next year? Maybe we’ll see a slew of comedies set in Ireland.


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