Humanizing Criminals: Goodfellas and Casino
He said, “My name is Marty Scorsese, I’m a movie director.” I said, “I’ve been waiting for this phone call all my life.” An in-depth interview with writer Nicholas Pileggi.
By David Konow.
Nicholas Pileggi barely knew who mobster Henry Hill was when he accepted the offer to write his story, but it turned out to be the best decision he ever made. The resulting book, Wiseguy, became a best-seller that Mario Puzo himself called, “One of the few true pictures of the criminal life.” It also attracted the attention of Martin Scorsese who saw a movie in it’s pages. Pileggi and Scorsese collaborated on a script that went through twelve drafts and as he told Scorsese biographer Mary Pat Kelley, “every one of those drafts was fun”. When the script was finished, the late director Michael Powell called it “one of the best constructed scripts that I have ever read…it is not just a script on paper, it is very much alive.”
The finished film, Goodfellas, showed a mafia the movies have never shown. Goodfellas would go on to become one of the most influential films of the ‘90’s and the frame of reference for countless young directors. Pileggi then wrote Casino which told the story of how the mob controlled gambling, how they eventually got their foothold into Vegas, and how they lost that power forever. Again, another natural for the big screen and another successful collaboration for Scorsese and Pileggi.
Both Goodfellas and Casino exposed the truth behind the criminal underworld by focusing on a handful of central characters. The tribulations in their lives reflect the downfalls of the world they belong to. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill finds the only way out of the mob is to betray the only family he’s ever known. In Casino, a love triangle destroys the mob’s grip on Las Vegas. Pileggi’s way of focusing on these characters and making them real to the reader is a perfect match for Scorsese’s film-making, which never flinches when the going gets rough.
I met with Nicholas Pileggi in his New York home while he was fielding phone calls and working on scripts. On the wall of his office is the painting from the dinner table scene in Goodfellas (“One dog goes one way, one dog goes the other way…”) which was painted by his mother, and a photo of his wife, Nora Ephron, directing a film. There were videotapes everywhere of the Martin and Lewis show for research and a bottle of Dean Martin “Amore” wine. Many of the books that cram his shelves have the words blood, honor, money and betrayal in the titles. One book on Nick’s shelf could sum up why Goodfellas and Casino have appealed to so many film-goers: “Criminals are Human Too”.
What first got you interested in being a reporter?
I just found it fascinating work. My last two years in college, I got a job as a messenger then later a copy boy at the Associated Press. It wasn’t a hard job to get at the time, because we’re talking about the early 1950’s. So nobody really wanted to be a reporter in those days, it was not a great job. But I got it, I was an English major at school, and I loved being in the forefront of what was happening. You were always there. The thing that everybody was interested in the next day, the reporter was at the day before. It provided me a fascinating look at life, and so I just started living that life. I just started doing it.
What drew you to the criminal underworld as a subject?
Well, because I started as a police reporter, which is sort of the lowest level of journalism and I just got stuck there. I wasn’t good enough to go anywhere else so I stayed a police reporter. I worked at the AP for seventeen years and usually what would happen is you would work two or three years as a police reporter, then go into rewrite, then to the bureau desk and the foreign desk. But I never got there, I never even got into the office to write, I just always wound up being a police reporter until I was thirty. I didn’t begin to write really until I was thirty years old. Then, I began to do magazine articles, usually about the only subject I knew which was cops and robbers and courts. That’s how I got started in it.
What kinds of incidents would you run into as a police reporter? Did any of it ever work its way into your screenwriting?
I covered Albert Anastasia getting shot, I covered the Joe Colombo Civil Rights League, I covered all this stuff that we now look on history of the period and say, “oh boy, that really happened” and I covered all that stuff. I was there as a reporter. But I think the thing that stands out is no one event but it’s the ambiance, the style, the essence and the attitudes of the time. The flavor of the period, that’s what stands out. You capture an essence of the period. You get the emotional peaks, you get a sense of what the emotional resonance of the period was. All periods have a sort of mood and there’s a quality to them. Being a reporter allowed me to listen to that. Once you have that, all of the events that you’ve covered in the end are only events. A murder is a murder is a murder. But if you can pick up the mood, the quality of the people, the lifestyles of the people that don’t get on the front page of the newspaper, that’s the essence of the period that allows you to make whatever you’re writing much more vivid and much more accessible.
When did the book Wiseguy come together?
That was much later, I’d say 1980. I didn’t finish it for about three years, it took a long time to do because I was working at the same time as I was writing the book.
When the book was finished, New York Magazine bought it, condensed it into two chapters and put it on the cover of the magazine, which was a great launch for the book.
When you first started writing Wiseguy, was it difficult to get the central characters in the story to talk?
No. The main character in the book was of course Henry Hill. You gotta remember the only way I got that book was that he gave himself up before I got into it. In giving himself up, he needed a lawyer and he needed money. His lawyer went around to publishers and said, “Listen, we got a great book here in this guy. You wanna talk to him?” Simon and Schuster bought the idea and they went around looking for writers to write. I was lucky enough that they picked me. So I did it.
The book uncovered a lot about the Mob that the public didn’t know about at the time.
There were a number of books about (the mafia) at the time, but there were no books that I could tell from the point of view of a really little guy. A new book would be from the point of view of a little guy who’s basically like a solider in Napoleon’s army. And it gives you a very interesting look at the army if you get it from a G.I. That’s how I thought of Henry, as a G.I. in a little crew in Queens. See they never even got to Manhattan! You notice in the book, once in a while they’d come to the Copacabana, and that’s a big day in the city. Everything they robbed at Kennedy Airport. This was not John Gotti time. And when they finally made a huge, five million dollar score, they all just came apart. They came apart on coke, they came apart on greed and they all started killing each other because they didn’t trust each other. And that’s the end of Goodfellas because it starts happy and it ends bad. That, I think, was the appeal of the book. Plus the fact that Henry was a really terrific person to do a book on. He’s very smart and he could crystallize things in language. In the film, when Ray Liotta says “How much money you want?” and she (Lorraine Bracco) goes, “Like that” (holds his fingers apart a few inches), I didn’t make that up, that’s the way they talked. All that stuff was real. What I did was vacuum clean Henry and got all that material from him.
Was Henry’s life in danger when he was speaking to you?
Oh yeah, always. Constantly. He was under a marshal service, they’d have to sneak him into town, sneak him out of town. He was still testifying (when I spoke to him).
So how would you arrange interview sessions?
I met with him in the United States Attorney’s Office. When he would be flown in to talk or to be debriefed by the FBI or U.S. Attorneys, he would be there for a week or a month. They knew part of his deal with the government was he wanted to do a book. They couldn’t talk to him 24 hours a day, so when they no longer wanted him, I would be able to interview him. Two interesting things happened: One, everything he told the government, which he told me of course, was true. Because if he ever lied to the government, they would throw him out of the witness protection program and he’d be dead in a week. What he was telling me, I could then check with the government and they were happy to check with me because they didn’t know whether he was telling me new stuff. So I knew what he was telling me was true. The second thing that was very important in this case was that he was being questioned by FBI agents and U.S. Attorneys…I mean, you think a reporter knows how to ask questions! These are really professional askers of questions because they have more information than reporters ever have going into debriefings. They knew exactly what to ask him and as a result, when he would come to talk to me, he would of been debriefed and reminded of things he would of never thought to tell me. They were doing a lot of my initial spade work for me. We didn’t work it out that way, I didn’t plan it that way, it was only after that I looked back on it that I realized what a blessing it had been that I was debriefing him the same time the government was. Once I got him talking about growing up and they got him talking about the same subject…you know what happens when you start remembering what it was like in high school, the more you think about it, the more you remember. And that’s exactly what went on with Henry Hill and that went on for several years.
Were you ever in danger for writing Wiseguy?
Oh no. I think reporters are clearly in danger if they’re in Honduras or if they’re in war zones where you have insurgents and fourteen year old kids with AK-47’s. I mean yeah, that’s your danger for a reporter, but covering this stuff? By the time I had Henry Hill, the government already had him. He was a certified witness. The people he was testifying against were privy to everything the government was going to use against him. The lawyers were all over the place. I’m basically the same thing as a court stenographer. Who’s gonna go murder a court stenographer?
Do you feel keeping the focus of the story of Goodfellas and Casino to just a few central people was better than having a lot of characters in the film?
Wiseguy is a book about organized crime and how it works. And you see it from real people. Casino was a much more complicated story because it was really the story of an industry, how that industry works and the history of that industry, otherwise you don’t understand it. But I couldn’t just write this long, sprawling thing. I had to find people through whom to tell the story. That is the key if you write non-fiction. Who are the people through whom we can tell the story? I worked on Casino for years until I found the people through whom I could tell the story of the Casino industry. I had the man who was the master gambler who they needed to run the Casinos, the mobsters who put together the connections, the Teamsters to make the loan, the front man who got the money from the mobsters and the Mafia muscle-man who was there to keep everybody in place. And he falls in love with the gambler’s wife and it brings everything down. It was the perfect dramatic story through which we could tell the story of the Casino industry and that’s what we made a movie about. There was a lot of criticism that there were no heroes. Indeed, there were none. I like Frank Rosenthal (name changed to Ace Rothstein in the film) very much, I think he’s a charming smart guy but lots of people just hated him. And the way Bob played him, he played him just like Lefty Rosenthal. He’s not an endearing person at all, he’s mean, he’s mean to his wife, he’s obsessive about numbers. And Tony Spilotro was a total psychopath. They weren’t nice people but the book is based on reality. A lot of the lines they say in the movie, they said in real life.
And in Goodfellas, Henry’s downfall with cocaine symbolizes the entire mob’s downfall with drugs.
Absolutely true. See, the old guys like Paul Vario (name changed to Paul Cicero in the film) didn’t want anybody in narcotics, but he didn’t need the money from narcotics. Paul was getting all the loan shark money, all the gambling money, he was an old guy, he had a lot of cash. He didn’t need any money. Henry, where was he? He didn’t have Vario’s bookmaking operations going, he didn’t have the loansharking, he didn’t own forty restaurants. He was out hustling all the time, they were stealing liquor, grabbing suitcases out of Kennedy Airport. Then narcotics come along and they can really make a huge amount of money. That’s what happened in the ‘60’s. The bosses were in total control, the mob guys in their twenties had nowhere to go and they didn’t want to sit around like a bunch of jerks waiting to get in. They wanted to make some money on the side cause they’re Mafia guys, that’s what you do. And so narcotics was a great way to earn. The bosses say ‘No narcotics’, I mean these are not law believers, these are law breakers. So even when the mob bosses say ‘no narcotics’, what do you mean? They’re not gonna listen to the bosses, they’re not gonna listen to anybody. That’s why they are who they are.
How soon after the book came out were you approached by Martin Scorsese?
The book came out in 1985. It was out maybe a month. He was shooting The Color of Money in Chicago and he called me from there. I had seen everything he had done including the movie he did with his mother and father, Italian American. There was a message at New York Magazine that he had called and I thought it was my friend (film critic) David Denby. I thought he left that message as a joke! So I didn’t even bother calling him back, I thought it was total bullshit! Then he got my home number. He said, “My name is Marty Scorsese, I’m a movie director.” I said, “I’ve been waiting for this phone call all my life.”
Had you ever written a screenplay before?
No. It was the first script I ever wrote.
Was it hard to make the transition from reporter to screenwriter?
No, I worked with Marty. You just have to figure out what’s our movie? It was Henry’s story, his rise and downfall. We needed the scenes with the little kid looking at this world and in the end when he betrays it all. We knew where we were going, then it was just a matter of what from the book do we want in the movie and how the scenes are going to break down. So we did a straight chronology. We did a story outline for the scenes, we didn’t write the dialog yet. After we did that, we looked at and he said, “It’s too slow, how else can we open it?” I said, “What about the scene where he’s got the guy in the trunk of the car and they hear him knocking?” So he knew to start with energy. How did this guy wind up in the trunk? Who are these guys? What’s goin’ on? Then you go from this violent scene to these nice guys hangin’ around, he always wanted to be one of them, he’d rather be a wiseguy than the president of the United States. It’s a great opening.
Do you think it was taking a risk opening the film with such a violent scene?
No, it was the only way to open it. I didn’t even think it was that violent. People think Goodfellas is a violent movie but I see movies all the time where people are getting stabbed. I think because it was so vividly done and the actors were so good that the violence impacted the audience. That’s an important thing to show. When you show violence in a movie, I think it should be real violence because it’s not fun. I love The Terminator, but you watch that film and thousands of people get murdered and in the end it doesn’t matter, because it’s like a cartoon. But I think that has an effect on desensitizing people to what real violence is. You see somebody get hit in the head with a lead pipe, and he shrugs it off – Bullshit! He’ll be three months getting out of the hospital, he’ll have double vision, ringing in his ears-the effects that violence have on the body are unbelievable and so it should be depicted for the price you have to pay. Whenever Marty has to use violence in a movie, it has to be real for that reason. And I think we did that in Goodfellas.
So did you see those scenes with paying audiences to see how they reacted to them?
Oh yeah. The audiences were very responsive. It was a street person’s movie. And the wiseguys all loved it!
How close do you think the actors in Goodfellas came to the real people?
I don’t know, I think DeNiro probably really did. Tommy DeSimone who was loosely based on Joe Pesci’s character was over six feet tall and unbelievably handsome. Joe will never be over six feet and he’s good looking but not a handsome matinee idol type. But Joe went for the terrifying humor of the guy. That was totally Joe’s creation. An amazing performance. He turned what started out as a very funny guy into a very terrifying guy. When he got killed, a lot of people were really sorry to see Joe out of the movie because he brought so much energy to it.
It’s been said there are no good guys in either Goodfellas or Casino. How do you get the audience to feel for the characters ?
Well, I don’t think you feel for them. I think that’s why these movies aren’t as successful as movies where you have heroes. I don’t think Goodfellas and Casino combined made $100 million. So you’re not really talking about the kind of movies that move Hollywood. I mean, we’re not going to do a studio any good. It’s a miracle they let us make movies to begin with!
And yet when you see Goodfellas, you do get a sense why people liked to be around these guys because they had fun, money, women…
It’s all social. They grew up in certain neighborhoods. These are truly blue collar working class neighborhoods. They are the richest people in their neighborhoods and they don’t leave their neighborhoods. Those are the neighborhoods they feel comfortable in. They are part of that social community and they are looked up to as terrible and terrifying people, but they also know them. Everybody in the neighborhood knows a couple of them. If they have a wedding, a christening, that’s who they invite; the people from the neighborhood. That’s their community. But they can never trust anybody outside of their little group and as you see in the end of the movie, they can’t even trust the little group.
A great deal of Scorsese’s movies are improvised. Did you ever structure a script with room for improvisational scenes?
No, I think we write the scenes as best we can and sometimes when you’re lucky, the actor has really gotten into that character and something occurs to the actor to try something in addition or better to the script. When your actors are people like Joe Pesci and Bob, they really can improvise. In the “You make me laugh scene”, Joe had actually seen something like that happen in a mob social club with a gangster. He tried it in that scene and I think it’s one of the best things in the movie. The people on the set had no idea what he was going to say and that’s why they all looked so shocked. Joe told Marty, “I’m gonna try something, just keep going.” Joe got started and their fear was that these were lines they hadn’t heard. What’s going on here? And you can see it on their faces. Ray didn’t have a clue what Joe was doing. Marty kept the cameras going and Ray went with it.
A lot of film-makers in the ‘90’s have been heavily influenced by Goodfellas. How do you feel about that?
It’s great. I’m honored.
Did you ever think it would have a younger audience?
No, I had no idea it would be as successful as it was. I had no idea it would resonate as it did in the beginning and that it has continued. That’s what’s so shocking. I keep thinking of it as a cult movie but it’s not a cult movie really. You think of a cult movie as something that a couple of hundred thousand people like and they have secret screenings of it at midnight. But Goodfellas was really a major commercial movie and it’s quite fascinating that it had that appeal. I don’t know what that appeal is. Fifteen year old girls who like Goodfellas is shocking!
What are the best things about collaborating with Martin Scorsese on a script?
When you do a movie with Marty, when you’re doing scene breakdowns, he’s already storyboarding. He’d say, “I want a window shot”, and he makes a little drawing of a window with an eye looking out. He’ll put down a notation in a scene what music he wants. I mean, can you imagine when you’re working on a script, not even doing dialog yet! He has a total vision of the film, it’s all in his head. He read Wiseguy, thought about it, he would stay up at night, look at his movies, think about it – but that’s what he’s doing, he’s putting the movie together in his head. When we sit down, he already knows where he’s going with this. I’m in a sense a facilitator. I provide the data and he and I together begin to block out the scenes. I could of written the script for Wiseguy, somebody could of given me a couple of bucks to write it and then they could have given it to some director and had another gangster movie. That’s the importance of the director. He’s closer than a friend. He and I have such similar backgrounds. We’ve taken different paths in life but I feel so at home, so comfortable working with him.
So it’s almost like you’re not working.
It is. It’s like we just carry on, go crazy, yelling, screaming and laughing. When we’re working on scripts, Julia Judge – who’s one of his assistants – says, “I don’t know how you guys work in there, you’re always laughing!”
Is there anything cut out of the film that we haven’t seen yet?
It was a lot longer. I think we had another twenty minutes on it but I don’t know whatever happened to that. Warner Brothers wanted it shorter than it is. They wanted it around two hours (Author’s note: Goodfellas is 146 minutes in length). The scene they wanted to take out was the scene where Henry is being followed by the helicopter, which of course is the whole disillusion of the movie. That’s critically important but they didn’t see it that way. You see, they were trying to get a nice two hour movie. The first time they screened it, poor Warner Brothers, seventy one people walked out. I’ve never seen seventy one people walk out of a screening. It was one of those test screenings where you sit and write (on a card). Well, if you’re a studio executive, that just terrifies you!
Besides the length, did the studio want any of the violence cut?
Well, there was too much violence, there was too much “fuck”, it was too long, seventy one people walked out…That’s why they didn’t open us in a lot of theaters. I don’t even know if it opened in a thousand theaters, they put it in second run theaters. Then the reviews came out a week before the movie’s release, and they were phenomenal. All of the sudden, Warner Brothers realized: “Holy smoke, we’re gonna have a hot movie here.” They felt that Bonfire of the Vanities, which came out at the same time, was going to be the hot movie. That apparently did very well at test screenings. Bonfire went in all the big theaters and we got all the little theaters. The reviews came in, poor Brian (DePalma), he got murdered. Then they tried to reverse those theaters as best they could.
So it was almost like in the seventies when a movie would play the small theaters first and it would build.
Yeah, but they weren’t looking to build this one, I think they were looking to dump it. The reviews changed the movie.
When you were preparing to make Casino a film, with Goodfellas as revered as it was, were there any concerns about following it up?
No. You just keep doing the kind of stuff that you do. Every movie is a new experience.
Both Goodfellas and Casino not only showed the gangsters making money and the violence but it also showed the turmoil it caused at home in the marriages.
You can’t write about the events of these lives just talking about their professional guise. You gotta talk about them as complete characters. Usually, they’re married. What’s the relationship with their wives; with their kids; how does that impact the narrative? The other thing I always did was talk to the wives. Geri was dead by the time I wrote Casino, but I got a hold of her daughter, her sister, who was invaluable, one of her friends who was a hooker, people who drove her around in cars. I went to the courts and I got all the depositions she’d ever given in various cases. In her will, she wrote letters to her daughter. One of those letters is in the book the book. It’s very important to have complete characters because then people forget they’re reading non-fiction.
To the readers who want to be the next great screenwriters, what advice would you give them?
I think one of the things that’s really interesting to me, I get a lot of kids coming to me that are smart, a lot smarter than I was at their age. Now they’re out of college, they know movies and they would like to get into screenwriting. And there have been enough people who have succeeded so you know the goal is there. But what they don’t have is they don’t have any stories, in a sense, because they haven’t done anything. They haven’t lived in a way…most of them have not been the subjects of terrible deprivation. They have good teeth, they don’t have peptic ulcers that no one’s taken care of, they’re not going blind with glaucoma because their mothers haven’t watched their eyes, their mothers aren’t drug addicts where they’re beaten up by boyfriends. There’s a whole series of wonderful material that they’ve happily not had to endure!
So my suggestion to a lot of them, is if you’ve got the time is go out and (get a job) and keep notes. It doesn’t matter what you do. In other words, you can get a job in a company, if you could ever get a job as a reporter somewhere in the mid-West, it doesn’t matter where it is, you don’t have to work for the Times, you’re not going to be a journalist. What you’re going to be is someone in the street finding out what happens. Even if you got a job as a legal liaison, a community affairs worker for the police department, without even a badge, someone who works in a station house, you would see more about life, especially if you are artistically inclined and want to do that work. It’s so much better to get that kind of reality-based experience for a couple of years, any kind of experience. Work in a Big Mac place, whatever is available to you in a professional capacity, you’ll find somewhere in there the idea for a movie. And in there is where you’re going to find a movie that no one has ever seen. That experience you have is your experience alone. Work experience is invaluable because as a result of that experience, and the whole time you’re taking notes, people are exposing themselves to you like you would never get them to expose themselves.
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