With The Irishman coming to theaters and streaming next month, director Martin Scorsese took some time to reflect on is iconic mafia drama, Goodfellas starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta, including how much test audiences hated it.
Although the 1990 film has gone on to be one of the most revered dramas, Warner Bros. executives weren’t so confident. Based on a novel by Nicholas Pileggi, Goodfellas explores the lives of gangsters in a very raw and violent way. Two things the test audience of Orange County, California didn’t appreciate. There were allegedly 70 walkouts and an overwhelmingly disgruntled crowd. Martin Scorsese recalls that after the initial screening, executives were terrified, and it became “a constant battle until a few weeks before release.”
A test screening can do two things: tell you what’s working and tell you what’s not. Unfortunately, it’s entirely dependent on the people let into the room. In the case of Goodfellas, the audience made it very clear what they could “tolerate” from the violent film, and for some, it wasn’t much. The movie opens with a scene featuring Tommy DeVito (Pesci) repeatedly stabbing gangster Billy Batts with a kitchen knife. The final version of the “body-in-the-trunk” scene is disturbing as it is, but before the screening, it was even more so. Scorsese put it this way.
“We noticed the moment Joe took out the knife people started laughing, they were outraged. When he stabbed Billy Batts in the trunk, after the first two [stabs], people started leaving. And then he did it a third time and more people left. And then I asked [editor Thelma Schoonmaker], ‘How many more we got left?’ And she says: ‘Seven.’ So okay. We didn’t need them leaving this soon, okay? We see the knife, we get it.”
The fix was easy enough. Show four stabs, and then keep the audio of the murder, but focus on Liotta’s reactions, something arguably more powerful. The screenings did help reaffirm some of Scorsese’s decisions to the studio, however. Generally, people “hated the picture,” but they did enjoy the scene with DeVito’s mother, played by Scorsese’s actual mother. The filmmaker said that before the screening they wanted it cut, so he’s thankful to the audience for helping him sway them. Ultimately, Goodfellas went on to earn six Oscar nominations, with Pesci pulling in a win.
Overall, screenings can be helpful or harmful depending how they are utilized. Nowadays, many people with a twitter handle want to assess a film for its merits and weaknesses. Sometimes, like in the recent case of Sonic the Hedgehog, fans get their way. In Scorsese’s opinion, however, screenings were never meant to disrupt his intentions or change his mind. He reiterated that the version first revealed in the screenings wasn’t his “cut”, It was just part of the process that helped suggest tweaks and small revisions on the way to achieving his overall vision.
The Irishman will hit theaters on November 1 and debut on Netflix on November 27. This story comes to us from Entertainment Weekly.