‘We were dead in the water’: How Martin Scorsese’s new film ‘The Irishman’ almost never happened

Eleven years passed with no funding. Then Netflix showed up.

Al Pacino (center) and Robert De Niro (right) in Martin Scorsese's new film 'The Irishman.'

They say that Hollywood is a place where wonderful things almost happen. That’s not how it turned out for Gerald Chamales, whose story behind producing “The Irishman,” the latest sensation from Martin Scorsese starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, is its own tale made for the silver screen.

At 68, Chamales lives in Los Angeles and runs his own investment firm. His father, a novelist, wrote “Never So Few” that became an MGM war film starring Frank Sinatra. But that was a distant connection to Hollywood. Aside from buying theater tickets and popcorn, Gerald Chamales was just not in the movie business.

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It all changed in 2006 when Chamales’ wife Kathleen attended a talk from author Charles Brandt at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference in Idaho. Kathleen brought home the author’s novel “I Heard You Paint Houses” and Gerald read it immediately.

“It was riveting,” Chamales said. “It solved the mystery of the death of Jimmy Hoffa, the unsolved Joey Gallo hit, and other crimes.”

The couple returned to the Sun Valley bookstore where Kathleen purchased her copy and discovered through the owner that the author happened to live nearby, and called him to the store. Brandt, a former investigator, spoke with the Chamaleses for three hours about his book and it landed Gerald with option rights to the author’s work.

Meanwhile, in Manhattan, Robert De Niro stumbled onto a copy of the book and, according to Chamales, backed out of a greenlit Paramount film because he became obsessed with making a movie out of “I Heard You Paint Houses” instead.

In New York, De Niro was trying to figure out who owned the rights to this book. Now back in Los Angeles, Chamales had lunch with Jake Bloom, a friend who practices entertainment law and represents several A-list actors.

“I wanted his advice about what to do because my option period was going to run out. And then he gets back to the office, and his phone rings.”

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It was De Niro, of course, calling to find out who owned the rights to “I Heard You Paint Houses.”

My client has the rights,” Bloom told De Niro, and negotiated a deal on the spot.

“I got upgraded from friend to client in a millisecond,” Chamales said.

Robert De Niro and his Tribeca Enterprises business partner Jane Rosenthal brought in director Martin Scorsese. Then Steven Zaillian signed on to write the screenplay. Zaillian previously collaborated with Scorsese on “Gangs of New York” and the Academy Award-winning “Schindler’s List,” and also wrote “American Gangster” and “The Falcon and the Snowman.”

“He’s only the greatest living screenwriter,” Chamales said. “Now we were off to the races.”

But what’s a Hollywood story without its dark moments of gloom?

“We had all these big names involved,” Chamales said. “But none of the studios wanted to finance a three-and-a-half-hour long movie. The exhibitors—the people who own the movie theaters—said they couldn’t make money on it. Since they didn’t want it, we were dead in the water.”

Eleven years passed with no funding. Then Netflix showed up.

According to Chamales, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings became personally involved. “[He] fell in the love with the idea of Netflix creating an extraordinary work of art.”

Within a few days, the deal—with significant capital to option the material for three years—was done.

Netflix got its work of art. De Niro got his movie. And Chamales got a producer credit. You could say that he is in the business now.

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“It’s been the ride of a lifetime,” Chamales said. “I’m just hoping the next one we do doesn’t take all these years. But still, I’m not complaining.”

“The Irishman” is showing at Coolidge Corner Theatre and Kendall Square Cinema from Nov. 15-20, and begins streaming on Netflix Nov. 27.

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