Robert De Niro had always been an actor’s actor, the kind of performer whose work is dissected and analyzed in acting classes, held as a prime example of how it should be done. So it’s little wonder that he managed to assemble an incredible and impressive A-list cast for “The Good Shepherd” — Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Michael Gambon, John Turturro — all in one, three-hour movie: a casting agent’s wildest dream come true. This is his first directorial work in 13 years (his debut had been “A Bronx Tale”) and as with his last foray, he gets in front of camera as well as stays behind it. “The Good Shepherd” shows De Niro in a serious, uncongenial mood, which he carried over into the Tokyo press conference, given in early August to promote the film.
What accounts for the 13 long years between your first directorial work and “The Good Shepherd?”
I actually started on the project eight or nine years ago. I didn’t want to do anything that didn’t interest me and was looking around for a worthwhile project. This script (by Eric Roth) looked terrific and I was eager to do it, but all the necessary factors didn’t fall into place until 2003.
The cast is very impressive, are you happy with the result?
The casting is the one of the most important things about a movie, especially for something as heavyweight as this. If the actor is not right it makes things that much more difficult. My first choice for the role of Wilson was John Turturro, but the shooting schedule clashed with him taking care of his mother, who was unwell at the time. It got to the point where I had to shoot scenes around him and without him, just to give him an extra two or three days to change his mind. But then his mother passed away and John agreed to play another role, that of Wilson’s assistant. My next choice was Leonardo DiCaprio but his schedule didn’t fit either and so I asked Matt Damon to come on board. Of course, I was very happy with what Matt did for us — he was wonderful. He had to work under duress, and had to agree to a big pay cut . . . We all had to take a cut.
Is the movie your commentary on the current state of the US government or politics?
The movie is a personal story, not so much a political one. I don’t profess to know what the real conflict is between being loyal to your government and being loyal to your son — I just tried to make it as believable and honest as possible. I wasn’t thinking of now or yesterday; but I did think the theme was pretty important and basic. It’s not any personal reflection at all.
Is it difficult to switch from being in front of the camera to going behind it?
When you’re an actor you don’t have to think about the whole picture, you’re there to do a job and that’s it. The trade-off is that you have to do what other people tell you, and on the set it’s often freezing cold or burning hot. A director gets to sit there in a warm coat and give orders, but he has to stay with the film and wrestle it though post-production and promotion.
What was the scene that gave you the most trouble?
I finished the movie a year and a half ago so it seems kind of far away, now. But the interrogation scene that Turturro did was a very tough scene. It took four days of intensive shooting and by the end of it everyone looked like they really had come out of interrogation chambers. Scenes like that are hard because you had to keep the tension and pace going, hour after hour — even during breaks and makeup time, etc. But when I think of it now, every scene was hard. There was nothing that came easy.
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