Robert De Niro and Al Pacino hold a unique place in the public imagination.
Known for their intensity and unforgettable performances in some of the grittiest, most respected urban dramas of the past 30 years, until now the Oscar-winning actors have shared only a few minutes of screen time. Righteous Kill marks the first time audiences will see them together in almost every scene of a movie.
"When you're told that you can you come and work on a movie with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, it's very hard to say no," says producer Rob Cowan. "These two guys are iconic. I think that for everybody it was kind of a magical thing and it drew a lot of people to the project. It was certainly terrific watching them on set."
Randall Emmett, co-chair of Emmett/Furla Films and one of the film's producers, had been looking for a property for Robert De Niro for some time. "When Avi Lerner and I came across this script, we felt it was perfect for him. He responded to it, and then the next step was kind of backwards, because we didn't have a director. The first name that came to us was Jon Avnet, a director we'd worked with before and respected."
Lerner, co-chairman of Millennium/Nu Image Films and the producer of over 200 films including The Black Dahlia and Rambo, says he was impressed by the way Avnet works. "I like his efficiency. I like the fact that he's a director and a producer from the independent world and understands the way we work. And he's a very, very sensitive person. He knows how to show the relationship between characters."
For his part, veteran director and producer Jon Avnet was elated to have a chance to work with De Niro, who has won two Oscars and been nominated for four others. Avnet went to New York to meet De Niro and talk with him about the script.
When the conversation turned to casting, De Niro suggested Al Pacino for the role of his partner.
"You know, Al and I weren't actually in any scenes together in Godfather 2," says De Niro. "We did Heat about 13, 14 years ago and it was great, but we were only together for a few minutes on screen. When I said, 'Well, what about Al?' Jon just grabbed onto that."
"Bob suggested I play the role," recalls Pacino. "I read the script and felt it would be a good opportunity to work with Bob in a role I thought I could play."
Speaking of working with his old friend and colleague, De Niro says: "If you know each other as long as we've known each other, you can draw on that background. And even if it's a subtle sort of imperceptible thing, the comfort level is there because we have known each other so long. So interesting things kind of emerge."
"Bob and I get along well--always have," adds Pacino, "So we have a mutual trust which always helps.
Everyone involved in the film knew immediately that Righteous Kill was becoming a once in a lifetime opportunity. "Once we knew we had them both, we all had to accept the reality of the responsibility," says Emmett. "These are two legendary guys that the whole world looks at as the greatest actors of all time. Now we have to go make the movie."
Screenwriter Russell Gewirtz hadn't even considered the possibility of having two of Hollywood's most honored actors in his second film. "I don't think of actors when I write," he says. "My characters have no faces, they're not actors. They're just who they are. In this case, what was most important to me was that the two characters had to be equally matched. You have to believe a relationship between these two, a brotherhood. And I can't think of a better pairing than these two actors."
Gewirtz burst onto the movie scene with his first film, Inside Man, an ingeniously plotted heist movie that was named one of the American Film Institute's Movies of the Year for 2006. "After I finished writing Inside Man, I had this idea for a cop movie," he says. "When I completed it, it took quite a while before it went anywhere. It wasn't sent out to all the studios the way Inside Man had been. I didn't get to buy that house I was looking at, and I got exposure to the long slow road of trying to get a movie made in Hollywood.
"After Inside Man hit, we got a lot of buzz and eventually the script made its way to Jon Avnet and Bob De Niro and then we had a movie," he continues. "And then we got Al Pacino and we had an event."
Like Inside Man, Righteous Kill is packed with complicated characters, sharp dialogue and unexpected plot turns that counter audience expectations. In writing the movie, Gewirtz says he decided to begin from the end of the story and work backwards.
"I came up with the twist first. When I write a script like this, I look for that one moment-- generally at the end of the movie--that's going to make people say, 'What did I just see? I've got to watch this again.' I had that feeling when I watched The Usual Suspects and it inspired me. That's when I started thinking, 'I wish I could do that.'"
In the world of Righteous Kill, things aren't exactly as they appear, observes Avnet.
"The storytelling is unusual. There's a fascinating character drama at the center of the piece that has its origins in a friendship that is 30 years old. In this drama, you basically are unraveling the layers until you get to the core of the characters. What are their secrets? What are their vulnerabilities? What are their idiosyncrasies?"
Cowan anticipates the film will receive a lot of attention at home and abroad.
"We've got two of the biggest stars in the world and I think people always like to see what they're doing," he says. "Plus, it's a great cop thriller, and a complex psychological story. This movie is all amped up leading towards the third act and it's a full-on rollercoaster ride trying to figure out how the person that you've invested all your time in is going to be able to get out of this situation."
Producer Randall Emmett adds: "Audiences love the unknown, and they love trying to figure out what's going to happen before it happens. We're all like children, when we go to the movies, and we sit there, and we try to figure out is it going to be this ending, did he do it, then who did it, and that's what attracts us all to thrillers.
"Righteous Kill definitely has a lot of great drama, great characters and De Niro and Pacino," the producer continues. "But after the audience gets over that amazing moment of these two great actors working together, they're going to enjoy this movie because there's so much heart; there's so much intensity."
CASTING RIGHTEOUS KILL
With De Niro and Pacino signed on, the producers knew the film would attract a high-caliber cast, but they weren't prepared for the onslaught of attention it received.
"When we first started casting the movie, all of Hollywood heard about it," says producer Lati Grobman. "We had every agent in town calling us. But we all only wanted what was right for the story, and we ended up with the perfect cast."
Avnet is known as an actor's director, having worked with some of Hollywood's most respected stars including Robert Redford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates, Jessica Lange, Richard Gere and countless others.
"I love the process," says Avnet. "I love trying to create an environment where actors are free to create. I hired Nancy Klopper as casting director having worked with her many times in the past. She was great. "I listen very carefully to actors, and even though I plan almost all the shots in the movie before I shoot, I'm much more interested in how they would perform it than how I may have conceptualized it. I am the safety net for the actors. I want them to stand on those marks and look their fellow actors in the eye and, as James Cagney said, tell the truth."
Avnet's collaborative spirit impressed De Niro. "He is a very respectful director," says the actor, who has himself directed two acclaimed films, The Good Shepherd and A Bronx Tale. "He knew what he wanted to get from us, and, at the same time, gave us enough room to be creative. You have to have that in order to get the best out of people."
"Jon Avnet loves actors," says Pacino. "That's very helpful. He's with you 150%. I would describe his directing style as fast and furious--but he knows what he's doing."
In addition to De Niro and Pacino, Righteous Kill's dazzlingly diverse cast includes veteran actors and newcomers, plus a few unexpected choices, including Curtis Jackson (a.k.a. 50 Cent) and skateboard champion Rob Dyrdek.
"I think I treated everybody exactly the same," says Avnet. "Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo are no different than Al and Bob, in the sense that I say to them all, 'Do you have any other ideas?' It is very typical for me to work with actors over and over again."
Carla Gugino plays crime scene detective Karen Corelli, whose dark personal life complicates her work relationships. "She is a person who's such a perfectionist at work and then has this penchant for what you might say is rough sex," says Gugino. "I wondered how realistic that was and what was fascinating was in talking to these people in this field, it became clear to me that it was actually something that was completely understandable."
Gugino describes herself as pretty tough, but says she had never seen anything as disturbing as some of the crime scene photos she saw while preparing for the role.
"The pictures really gave me some perspective," she says. "I think that if you have to deal with that kind of horror on a daily basis, there's a part of you that has to shut down in order to just survive and look at it very clinically."
The actress was initially dismayed to find that all of her intimate scenes were scheduled in the first two days. "Those two days were pretty brutal, but having to delve in like that introduced me to the shadow side of the character."
She calls her castmates "an extraordinary group of people. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, I mean it's incredible. I remember the first time I saw them both standing there together, I think we were doing the camera test and they were talking. It was amazing because their voices are so iconic. To see them together in one frame was very powerful.
"And also Brian Dennehy and John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg," she continues. "I always feel you want to work with the most incredible people you can work with to bring up your game, so to have the opportunity to work with all of these guys was definitely exciting. There was no walking through it; everybody was in there really digging in trying to figure it out."
Tony Award winner Brian Dennehy plays the head of the homicide squad, Lieutenant Hingis. "I had to fight my way into this picture," says the actor. "Most of the picture is Bob and Al playing off of each other and that is literally a once-in-a-lifetime event to work with two actors, two stars of this caliber, which is why I wanted to be there.
"Both Al and I are tremendously involved in the theater, which gives us a kind of a shorthand communication," Dennehy says. "And Bob was just so open and friendly and accessible. I had met him before over the years, but never worked with him. You can't help but feel a certain amount of intimidation when you're confronted with these two legends."
Dennehy, a huge fan of Avnet's acclaimed drama Fried Green Tomatoes, says of the production, "It's been a great experience. There are a bunch of people involved in this thing that have made it rather special and unique. You know, these things just don't happen that much." Avnet had already worked with Dennehy on Broadway when he produced "Inherit the Wind" this past year. "I like him as an actor. His theatrical background allows him to find the character in an economical manner."
Rounding out the homicide detail are Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo as partners Reilly and Perez, two up-and-coming cops competing with the older detectives to solve the mystery. Wahlberg and Avnet had become friends while working on the television series "Boomtown," in which Wahlberg starred and which Avnet executive produced and directed.
"Donnie is very talented, very gifted improvisationally, as well as being able to stay on book," says Avnet. "I always get a very, very fresh performance from him. A lot of our work took place months before we started shooting and it continued into rehearsals and shooting."
Wahlberg says he would have been willing to sweep floors for the chance to work with Pacino and De Niro. "I actually got to go toe-to-toe with those guys, which was just tremendous fun, much more fun than I ever would have expected," he says. "The only moment of nerves I had on this whole movie was during the softball game scene.
"I was pitching and Jon told me to make sure I was throwing strikes," recalls the actor. "I said, 'Don't worry, I'll throw strikes.' But then Robert De Niro steps into the batter's box, and as I'm about to pitch, it occurred to me, if this pitch is inside, I'm going to hit Robert De Niro. But if it's outside, I'm going to have Jon Avnet screaming at me in front of everybody. I felt like I was trying to throw the last strike in the World Series. What are you going to do? I'd rather have Jon yell at me than hit Bob De Niro in the head, so I threw the pitch about six feet outside. Then I heard Jon Avnet screaming over a mega, 'Donnie, you idiot, throw a strike!'"
Like so many others in the cast, Leguizamo calls this film a career highlight. "De Niro and Pacino have truthfully been my heroes," says the actor, who grew up in New York. "When I saw De Niro in Mean Streets I thought, 'I'll never be that good, nobody could ever be that good.' The same for Al in Dog Day Afternoon."
"They both live in New York, you know," Leguizamo continues. "There is something about being a New York actor that's very different than being an actor from anywhere else. There's a sense of reality, an edge. I tried to stay in New York for that very reason, to try to stay real and try to keep it together."
Working with Jon Avnet, he says, has been something of a surprise for him.
"Jon's a much more gentle, paternal type director than people think," he says. "He really takes care of everybody. He's like a coach--he comes back and he says that was good, we got what we wanted, we got to push hard, we got to do it a lot of times. He's a real morale booster."
For the role of drug dealer Spider, Avnet went with his instincts when he selected Curtis Jackson, a superstar in the music world, but still new to acting. "This is a smart guy," says Avnet. "He read with me, rehearsed with me and then showed up at the reading with everyone and held his own. He wanted this. He knew that to stand up there with De Niro and Pacino, is not easy."
Jackson admits to being anxious when he first met the pair. "It was at the table read. My legs were shaking underneath the table. They've been in so many movies that I've enjoyed that just being in the same room as them was exciting."
"Being in scenes with De Niro and Pacino, I found myself picking up their habits and working like them," he continues. "It felt like they were actually leading me through the scenes."
Pacino has high praise for his co-stars. "Brian Dennehy is a consummate actor with a lot of experience and very easy to work with. Carla Gugino is extremely gifted and enjoyable to work with as are John Leguizamo, Donne Wahlberg and Curtis Jackson."
Avnet also took a chance when he cast Rob Dyrdek, a professional skateboarder, in the small but important role of Rambo, a street pimp. "I thought I could get something fresh," says the director. "The idea of a skateboard pimp, it felt right to me."
Writer Gewirtz says that he never imagined having a cast this accomplished for his film. "Of course I never imagined the cast of Inside Man either," he says. "I have been unbelievably lucky in the kind of actors who've responded to my writing. I guess now I've become accustomed to having dream casts."
ABOUT THE DIRECTOR AND SCREENWRITER
JON AVNET (Director and Producer) has directed, written and produced more than 50 motion pictures and television movies over the last 25 years, from box office hits like Risky Business and Fried Green Tomatoes to the critically acclaimed "Uprising" and "The Burning Bed" for television. His work has won or been nominated for multiple Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, Tonys, Directors Guild of America and Writers Guild of America awards, as well as Peabody, Humanitas and CableACE awards.
Avnet recently directed "The Starter Wife," USA Network's Emmy-nominated six-hour miniseries starring Debra Messing, Joe Mantegna, Miranda Otto and Judy Davis. Based on the novel by Gigi Levangie Grazer, it aired last summer as the highest-rated limited series on cable and earned Judy Davis an Emmy as Best Supporting Actress in a miniseries.
On Broadway, Avnet produced the Tony Award-winning "Spamalot," as well a "The History Boys" by Alan Bennett, which received six Tony Awards including Best Play. Avnet also produced "The Pillowman," "Inherit the Wind," "The Seafarer" all nominated for Tonys for best play. Most recently he produced the Mike Nicholsdirected "Country Girl" starring Morgan Freeman and Frances McDormand.
In 2004, Avnet produced and co-financed with Aurelio De Laurentiis the feature Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. The film was shot entirely on a blue-screen stage in London and was comprised of 2,200 CGI shots.
In 2002 and 2003, Avnet executive produced with Graham Yost and directed "Boomtown" for NBC. The series received a Peabody Award, an AFI Award, a Humanitas Award and the Television Critics Association Award for Best Drama and Best New Drama.
In 2001, Avnet directed, co-wrote (with Paul Brickman) and produced the miniseries "Uprising" for NBC, which won raves from critics as the first TV production to deal with the Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, specifically the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Starring Leelee Sobieski, Hank Azaria, David Schwimmer, Jon Voight and Donald Sutherland, "Uprising" was nominated for a Golden Globe and a DGA Award and won the ASC Award for cinematography, as well as an Emmy.
Avnet also received a Christopher Award for "Uprising" and the prestigious Janus Korchak Educational Award.
Prior to "Uprising," Mr. Avnet produced Rodrigo Garcia's "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her" starring Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Cameron Diaz, Calista Flockhardt, and Kathy Baker. The filmmaker previously directed and produced Red Corner, starring Richard Gere, for which he was honored with the National Board of Review's Human Rights award. He also directed and produced Up Close & Personal, starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. Avnet directed, produced and co-wrote the highly acclaimed Fried Green Tomatoes, starring Jessica Tandy, Kathy Bates, Mary-Louise Parker and Mary Stuart Masterson. It received multiple Oscar, Golden Globe and Writers Guild nominations.
His first directorial outing (which he also co-wrote and produced) was the TV movie "Between Two Women," starring Colleen Dewhurst and Farrah Fawcett, which earned Dewhurst an Emmy for her performance. This was his second film with Farrah Fawcett. She starred in "The Burning Bed" which received 8 Emmy nominations and is still the highest rated movie for television ever to air on NBC.
In 1983, Avnet produced Paul Brickman's film Risky Business, which launched Tom Cruise's career. Avnet also produced Brickman's next film, Men Don't Leave, starring Jessica Lange, Joan Cusack, Kathy Bates, Arliss Howard and Chris O'Donnell.
Teaming with Jordan Kerner, Avnet produced the features Less Than Zero, When a Man Loves a Woman, David Frankel's "Miami Rhapsody", the three Mighty Ducks films, George of the Jungle and Mama Flora's Family, based on the Alex Haley novel.
Avnet is Chairman of the Board of Directors at the American Film Institute and serves on the Board of Overseers of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. Avnet participates as a mentor in the Director's Lab at Sundance and its sister program, Emergence, in France. He also lectures at numerous universities worldwide.
RUSSELL GEWIRTZ (Writer) enjoys the rare distinction of having his first original screenplay purchased upon completion and then realized by some of the most respected names in the business. The movie was Spike Lee's Inside Man, starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster, which earned over $180 million worldwide in 2006. He currently has two feature projects in development with Inside Man producers Imagine Entertainment and Universal Pictures: Inside Man 2 and a yet-to-be-titled heist film starring Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Seth Rogen, to be directed by Brett Ratner.
Born and raised in Great Neck, Long Island, Gewirtz is a graduate of Tufts University, where he majored in computer science. From there, he went on to become an attorney and later worked in retail in New York at a family-owned business. After brokering a lucrative real estate deal, he left New York for several years and spent time in France and Brazil. It was at the Cannes Film Festival that he originally pitched the idea for Inside Man to Daniel Rosenberg and became a Hollywood screenwriter.
Gewirtz's new screenplay, American Blood, looks at terrorism and cultural identity through the eyes of an Arab-American who gets drafted into the dangerous and complex world of the CIA. Gewirtz, with his producing partner and longtime friend Daniel Rosenberg, has also completed two pilots for NBC and is currently working on a third for ABC.
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