Don Winslow’s Take On Scorsese & De Niro Doing ‘The Irishman’ Over ‘Frankie Machine:’ ‘I Blame Eric Roth’

Editor’s Note: Don Winslow, author of bestsellers including The Power of the Dog, The Winter of Frankie Machine, and The Force, is writing a week’s worth of columns for Deadline on his experiences in Hollywood. In today’s humorous installment, he talks how a green light for Frankie Machine with Scorsese and De Niro reunited went splat, after De Niro turned became infatuated with the story that became The Irishman., Winslow explains why, to him, the blame falls on Eric Roth, the Oscar-winning screenwriter who worked with De Niro on the superb epic The Good Shepherd. Another wonderful piece worth the price of my continuing to  wear a New England Pats shirt for the whole week (fresh hostage pic below). – MF


I Blame Eric Roth: Frankie, Bobby, Marty, Eric and Me

By Don Winslow

I blame Eric Roth.

For what?

In 2006, I wrote a novel titled The Winter of Frankie Machine, about a retired hit man in San Diego.
A few weeks after it came out, I learned that Martin Scorsese wanted to make a film of it with Robert De Niro as Frankie.

Scorsese and De Niro – not too shabby.

Not too shabby at all.

Like every other sentient being, I revered Godfather Two, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and on and on. I went to school on Mean Streets, The King of Comedy, and Casino. And now Marty and Bobby were going to make Frankie?!

I couldn’t believe it.

The project went on the storied ‘fast track’ – the writing team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien was hired to do the screenplay, everyone was excited. One day my phone rang at home and I answered it to hear, “May I speak with Don Winslow, please? This is Robert De Niro.”

Thinking it was one of my friends jerking my chain, I said, “Yeah, and this is Tinker Bell.”

Uhhh, it was Robert De Niro.

One of the greatest actors in the history of film – Vito Corleone, Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta, Lefty Rosenthal – was calling me at home. We had a great conversation, he said how much he loved the book, the character of Frankie, he asked a lot of smart questions.

But I was looking at my watch.

At the time, I was volunteering at the local high school, directing a play. It was a production day and I had to get to the school to let the kids in and run the show. Finally I said, “Mr. De Niro, this has been great, but I have to go.”

I explained the situation to him, and he couldn’t have been more gracious. Told me to tell the kids to ‘break a leg’. I did, and was shocked and dismayed that they knew him from Meet The Parents. But I have the distinction to say that I got off a call with Robert De Niro to direct a high school production of Guys and Dolls.

The project went forward.

I was on the phone with Koppelman and Levien, answering their questions, kicking around ideas. Script was written; if I remember correctly, locations were being scouted.

Green light.

It was a go.

Then Eric Roth stuck his beak in.

Now I like Eric Roth.

I’ve never met him, what I mean is that I really like his work. Who doesn’t? I think Munich is one of the best films ever made, and the man also wrote screenplays for Forrest Gump and The Insider. There’s nothing not to like about Eric Roth –

Except –

To help De Niro research his role for hit man Frankie Machine, Eric Roth sent him a book called You Paint Houses, Don’t You?, a quite good non-fiction work about a hit man.

For research, Bobby!

For research, Marty!

To make Frankie!

Not to like it better and decide to make it instead of Frankie Machine!

(Elmore Leonard cautioned against using exclamation points. Sorry, Mr. Leonard, but this time I’m using them. Because I’m yelling!)

But this is what happened.

Messrs. De Niro and Scorsese decided that they liked You Paint Houses Don’t You? better than The Winter of Frankie Machine, dropped Frankie, and went off to paint houses. They made a film called The Irishman that you might have heard of.

I’m not telling tales out of school. The whole crew that eventually made The Irishman did a Netflix documentary about it so I’ve had to get phone calls from every friend I ever had, and a few that I haven’t, to tell me about it. I really enjoyed those phone calls.

Among the people who didn’t call me were Marty or Bobby. (Koppelman and Levien did, something I’ve always appreciated.) But I’ll take the call guys, no hard feelings, and you know the number.

And guys, for my part, I have to confess that I haven’t brought myself to see The Irishman yet. I should, I will, I understand that it’s very good. Of course it is, the director and the star are two of the very best. I’ll always be proud – sincerely – that you were at one time interested in a book of mine.

Now, Eric…

We’ve never met, we’ll probably never meet, you strike me as a good guy, but…
…the next time you send research to an actor doing a character of mine, could you send him The Encyclopedia Britannica, a Wikileaks article or a doctoral dissertation? Something really dull? Something utterly un-filmable? Would you do that for me?

To you film lovers, if you go on Netflix and don’t see a DVD called The Winter of Frankie Machine, directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Robert De Niro…

Blame Eric Roth.

I do.

Buy Winslow’s book here.

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