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The Hemi Q&A: Robert De Niro & Jane Rosenthal

The founders of the Tribeca Film Festival talk to Hemispheres about the rigors and joys of establishing “Hollywood on the Hudson”

Author Chris Wright Illustration Stanley Chow

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A little over 25 years ago, Robert De Niro started courting a Disney studio executive named Jane Rosenthal. A dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, De Niro wanted Rosenthal to help him establish a Hollywood outpost in lower Manhattan. At the time, this wouldn’t have seemed like the best of ideas. New York was not known as a movie-friendly location (many films set in the city were shot elsewhere) and Tribeca, the area De Niro had his eye on, was not exactly the tony downtown neighborhood it is today. Besides, the Hollywood film industry already had a home—in Hollywood.

But De Niro was persuasive. Rosenthal succumbed, and between them the pair set up an enterprise that now incorporates a major film center in Tribeca, a production company with dozens of movies to its name (Cape Fear, Analyze This, Meet the Parents), a distribution branch, screening rooms and an arts academy. The most visible result of their partnership, however, is the Tribeca Film Festival, which De Niro and Rosenthal launched in 2002 in order to provide a boost to a lower Manhattan neighborhood still reeling from the September 11 attacks. Since then, the festival has showcased thousands of movies, generated well over $750 million in economic activity and helped establish New York as a filmmaking hub.

This month, the Tribeca Film Festival enters its 13th year, with a new sponsor in United Airlines. “Hollywood on the Hudson” is firmly established, and the duo’s adopted neighborhood is in the midst of a sparkling revival. Hemispheres spoke with the pair, via conference call, about their plans for the future, video game shoot-outs in the Supreme Court and the prospect (unlikely) of De Niro pursuing a singing career.

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Hemispheres: I wanted to start by touching on how you two got together. You were introduced by Martin Scorsese in the 1980s, yes?
Robert De Niro: When did we meet, Jane?
Jane Rosenthal: We met in ’88. You were doing Midnight Run.

Hemispheres: Your partnership seems to have paid off. What is it that made you two click so well?
De Niro: Well, yeah, I mean, it’s, um, we enjoy working together. God, I don’t know.
Rosenthal: After 25 years, you know what the other one likes, and you know what the arguments are going to be.
De Niro: I always joke and say she’s my professional wife.

Hemispheres: That sounds like a dreadful euphemism.
De Niro: Heh. It does.

Hemispheres: This idea that you could establish an outpost of Hollywood in lower Manhattan, that couldn’t have seemed like the most obvious move.
Rosenthal: Bob had this vision of being able to have a place in New York where writers and directors and filmmakers could gather, because there wasn’t anything like that, that kind of community space. And that’s what the Tribeca Film Center was and is.

Hemispheres: But it must have raised eyebrows at the time.
De Niro: Well, you know, people are like that. But the building is great, and people started coming. Harvey Weinstein was one of the first, then Spielberg took a floor.  

Hemispheres: I have this vision of all these movie moguls crowded around the coffee machine in the kitchen, waiting for their turn. Were there moments when it was touch and go?
De Niro: In the beginning it was hard. There were always problems, always a lot of moving parts, always brush fires. It wasn’t easy.
Rosenthal: Bob always talked about giving back to New York. But, you know, you’d say Tribeca to someone and they wouldn’t know where it was. The area was pretty deserted. We were all very excited when a deli opened up across the street.

Hemispheres: And now you have Tribeca Enterprises, this multi-tentacled company. Where might that take you? 
Rosenthal: I don’t have a crystal ball.

Hemispheres: Okay, but are there plans to build further, to turn it into a massive entertainment conglomerate?
De Niro: We just don’t know. People always talk about planning this or that, five-year plans or 10-year plans, but from the beginning I didn’t know where this would go. I just wanted to do it.

Rosenthal: Bob said something very reassuring to me in the early days: If it doesn’t work out, you can always be a hostess in a restaurant. But Bob’s an artist; I’m a producer. If you can’t trust your instincts in this business, then what can you trust? I suppose if you had a Harvard Business School study on how not to do this, we’d be in it.

Hemispheres: Let’s talk about the film festival. That’s done all right.
Rosenthal: When we started the festival, it was a way to help our community after 9/11—OK, we’re going to put on a show to give people a new memory, to make the community feel normal again. I don’t think either of us envisioned that, 13 years later, we’d still be doing it.

Hemispheres: Since then, you’ve generated hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity, and the Tribeca area has been transformed, so in some sense it’s mission accomplished. What does that mean for the festival in terms of its identity and its aims?
Rosenthal: We’ve discovered that there’s a need for a great film festival here. The New York Film Festival is terrific, but it’s different. We screen video games, which are a form of  immersive storytelling. We do a lot of things that are on the edge of where digital and analog meet. We’re trying to show what kind of work is being done right now.

Hemispheres: You have gaming this year, but also interactive music videos, whatever those are. Robert, what’s your grasp of all this new media stuff? Are you up to date with it?
De Niro: No!

Hemispheres: So no plans for a 3-D version of Taxi Driver?
De Niro: Oh God.

Hemispheres: My only real experience with video games is that I’m constantly telling my daughter to stop playing them.
Rosenthal: But there are some great video games. There’s a really great one about the Supreme Court.

Hemispheres: Does it have Scalia and Ginsberg shooting lasers at each other across the chamber?
De Niro: Wow. That sounds like a game I should be playing.
Rosenthal: No! It’s educational. Sandra Day O’Connor created it.
De Niro: Wow.

Hemispheres: Back to film. You obviously spend a lot of time looking at the independent film industry. How’s it doing? Is it in good shape?
De Niro: I look at it in relation to when I was in my 20s. There are so many films being made now, and so many opportunities for actors. In my day, there were studio films, a few independents and then an even smaller number of experimental films. Today it’s a whole different thing.
Rosenthal: The other thing is, the technology has changed so much; anyone can grab a camera.

Hemispheres: Which isn’t necessarily a good thing. If you look at the industry I’m in, where anyone can go online and play journalist, you find you have to wade through masses of horror to get to the good stuff.
Rosenthal: It’s true. At film festivals now you have a lot more mediocrity. Almost every movie I look at—I shouldn’t say it like this—but I often feel that they could use a good editor, or they need to learn how to tell a story. The rigor of spending time on a project seems to be getting lost.

Hemispheres: For someone who runs a film festival, isn’t that sacrilegious? Shouldn’t we applaud the very effort of getting out there and giving it a go?
Rosenthal: I do applaud any artist who goes out there and makes a movie, but I also feel that the reason we have Martin Scorsese or … [A public relations person comes on the line to say Rosenthal has been disconnected, and that they’re working on reconnecting her.]

Hemispheres: So.
De Niro: Where are you, in London?

Hemispheres: I am.
De Niro: How’s the weather?

Hemispheres: It’s not beach weather. How’s New York?
De Niro: A big snowstorm’s due in tonight.

Hemispheres: Shall we just carry on with the interview?
De Niro: OK.

Hemispheres: One thing you hear a lot these days is that the art of filmmaking is on the wane—that it’s about spectacle rather than storytelling. Is this something that concerns you, or is it partly that propensity people have to pine for the good old days?
De Niro: When you say “spectacle,” you mean…

Hemispheres: Monsters and car chases.
De Niro: It still boils down to the story. You always need a story.

Hemispheres: Yes, but the companion argument to that is that the new medium for storytelling is television—starting with “The Sopranos” and working through “Breaking Bad.”
De Niro: For me, movies have an importance, if you will, or meaning.

[Rosenthal comes back on the line.]

Hemispheres: Hi, we were just talking about the idea that TV may have
become a better medium for storytelling than cinema.
De Niro: And I was about to say how there are better things on television now. In earlier days—I won’t say the old days—television was something you kind of looked down on as an actor. But now it’s different. TV doesn’t have the excitement of the movies, but the quality of work is better in many cases.

Hemispheres: So is it the job of a festival like Tribeca to revive the storytelling tradition of cinema, the artful side of things?
Rosenthal: On one hand, we have great documentary films, short films, international films, first-time filmmakers. But we have fun, too, and that’s part of our goal. We are as much a movie festival as we are a film festival.

Hemispheres: A lot of people show up to these things hoping to see famous people. Does the festival try to cultivate its celebrity attendance rates, or does that take care of itself?
De Niro: A bit of both. We invite people from the movies who are well known. What would you say, Jane?
Rosenthal: As a producer, you know that nothing takes care of itself, so you have to plan.

Hemispheres: Will you be at the event this year, Robert?
De Niro: I will. I love going to festivals.

Hemispheres: They’re one of those occasions where you can binge-view movies and not feel too guilty about it.
De Niro: Right. A few times I’ve been president of a jury and have been forced to see films every day, and it’s like a movie holiday.  

Hemispheres: What else do you have going on? Any new projects?
De Niro: Ah, well. Sometimes I’m afraid that films won’t happen if I talk about them. Scorsese plans on doing a movie called The Irishman, with myself, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino. It’s based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses.

Hemispheres: Speaking of which—your father was a painter, of course, but I heard somewhere you’d taken up painting lately. Is that true?
De Niro: Me? No. I’ve never had any interest in painting.

Hemispheres: Oh. No other talents at all? Singing?
De Niro: I don’t know. I am doing other things. There’s one project that’s in another direction. But, again, I don’t want to say too much, because I’m afraid they’ll be talked away.

Hemispheres: I understand. I told my friends I was interviewing you, then felt sure it would fall through. To be honest,
I was nervous about this—I’ve heard you’re quite difficult to talk to. But you’ve been lovely.
De Niro: Well, ah, um, you too.

Hemispheres executive editor Chris Wright has spent a number of sleepless nights since this interview devising witty responses to De Niro’s question about the weather in London.

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