Street Scenes

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Being Flynn Robet De Niro

Hewing to a tight 36-day shooting schedule, filming on Being Flynn was at last set to begin in March 2011; however, a few weeks before principal photography, the filmmakers mobilized a small unit to take advantage of considerable snowfall in New York City and shoot footage. So it was that Robert De Niro first fully inhabited the homeless countenance of Jonathan Flynn and walked the streets of lower Manhattan.

Paul Weitz and cinematographer Declan Quinn kept a discreet distance with a skeleton crew. Amidst a snowstorm, the man moved slowly and deliberately. Nearby pedestrians avoided and ignored him.

Also nearby was Nick Flynn, who remembers, “I have never seen anything like it, this man walking across the street. He was unrecognizable; his face was transformed. Here was so purely, so completely a homeless man – and also someone maintaining some dignity although beaten by the circumstances of his life.

“I suddenly thought of Mr. De Niro’s performance in The Deer Hunter, showing a man’s determination to get through the situation he was in. On Being Flynn, I saw firsthand how he uses his body and works so subtly.”

When this quick preliminary round of shooting was completed, De Niro decamped to the Greenwich Hotel, which he co-owns, to clean up. There, hotel security was promptly called over because of reports of a homeless man visiting. The situation was resolved without incident.

Tempting fate again, during the main shooting schedule the camera crew lensed at the Staten Island Ferry terminal; in the scene, Jonathan is at work – dressed as Uncle Sam, sporting a sandwich board, and handing out tax refund pamphlets. Miano reports, “The cameras ran for about five minutes before any passerby started to recognize Robert De Niro under that costume. By then, we had good footage of people walking all around Jonathan Flynn.”

Nick closely observed De Niro’s incarnation of Jonathan as filming progressed. He found the portrayal to have “a certain level of grandeur – and humanity. Watching him, I remembered Taxi Driver – how he uses his body and works so subtly. That he’s a very physical actor was important to this portrayal – my father at the time could be intimidating and fly out of control, so there had to be that vulnerability from Paul Dano in scenes of them one-on-one.”

Family history aside, Nick says, “One big reason that I agreed to a movie being made in the first place was that there would be no stereotyping the homeless as victims. Mr. De Niro’s interpretation embodied my hopes.”

In the weeks before filming began, the two were in daily contact; De Niro also met up with Jonathan Flynn, who now resides in a long-term care facility. Nick remembers, “My father was in good shape that day, telling stories that were profane and funny. He talked about how my mother was the love of his life.

“It can be hard to follow my father’s train of thought – it’s more like a carnival ride – but Mr. De Niro took it all in deeply, and picked up on how my father would speak in these long phrasings and stretches.”

De Niro was further aided in convincingly incarnating Jonathan by the hair and make-up team of Jerry DeCarlo and Carla White; and by costume designer Aude Bronson-Howard, who has collaborated with the actor on a regular basis for over a decade.

Like De Niro and Weitz, the costume designer had been on board the project for a while before filming began. Like Nick Flynn, she had “a father who was indigent for a number of years, whom I went two decades without seeing. This story was particularly compelling for me, but for everyone on it Being Flynn has been a labor of love.

“Earlier, Mr. De Niro had suggested I read the book, which made me even more alert to homeless people and how they looked. After doing general research, I discussed Jonathan Flynn up front with Mr. De Niro, Paul Weitz, and Nick Flynn.”

She offers, “Given the family’s history, there very few images that we had to work from; a lot of it had to do with how we all thought he should look. Nick would tell us whether we were on the right track or not, or we might do a fitting with Mr. De Niro and intuitively feel, ‘That’s not the way to go.’

“Nick’s clothing may reflect a lack of structure in his life, but Jonathan’s was more difficult because he’s a bit of a fabulist and puts on pastiches. I imagined all of his clothing as well-worn, because he’s been living in it.”

DeCarlo relied on Bronson-Howard’s overall costuming “to give me the feel of what the hair should look like; it’s not so simple as, because someone is a street person, their hair is going to be dirty. The research we did found some people who have jobs but sleep in a shelter at night. The casting department brought us a wide variety of people to work with; anything or anyone too freshly cut or styled, we did make dirtier.”

White clarifies, “We weren’t making everyone look horrible; ‘homeless’ is different things with each person, and many staying in a shelter will bathe. But we did have to research skin diseases, and on the street and in pictures we saw hands and nails that proved people were having a rough time. Mr. De Niro maintained his own nails in a ragged manner, which I never discussed with him but which impressed me.”

Separately, DeCarlo met with Paul Dano at the latter’s home, “and we looked at pictures of Nick Flynn through the years. We discussed how to blend Paul’s look with Nick’s look; since Nick had many throughout the years, there was one particular photograph we fixed on. Nick came over at one point and said, ‘This hair looks great!’”

When Bronson-Howard quizzed Nick on clothing worn during the times depicted in the movie, he revealed to the costume designer that he often wore clothing that had been donated to the shelter. “Nick is now actually rather stylish with his dissembled pieces,” she comments. “But back then, it was just being grungy.”

As with the city not being actively named, Weitz “didn’t want you to be able to put your finger on exactly what year it was, so Aude, Carla and I didn’t go for ‘period’ styling,” reports DeCarlo. “The flashbacks are scenes in a lower-middle-class area, so we couldn’t have anything ‘pop’ anyway. As time progresses in the story, Paul didn’t ever want to see anything that was too contemporary, either.”

With regard to the film’s earliest depicted period of Nick’s life, Bronson-Howard remembers that “for Jody, Nick told us what ambiance she conveyed, rather than specific items of clothing worn; there was no money around the household, so she didn’t have a big wardrobe.”

White notes that “for Jonathan’s one appearance in a flashback scene, we did not try to make him look younger in any way; he is playing ball with his son, but this is just Nick’s memory of what he had hoped for back then – despite his father’s absence. So we chose to leave Jonathan looking as he does after Nick has seen him for the first time in years.”

In working with De Niro, DeCarlo ascertained that “he is the kind of actor who pulls the character up from within, from deep down inside. He knew that it would be better to have his hair longer for this project, but I believe that for him the visual pieces – hair, costumes, make-up – are secondary.

“Jonathan Flynn’s look at the beginning of the picture is more together. As his life falls apart, he becomes more disheveled, yet we see scenes where he continues to groom himself.”

White says, “Paul Weitz wanted a realistic look for the characters; we had to get the characters across to the audience but not have obvious make-up that viewers will be aware of. For Paul Dano, it was especially subtle; you work around the eyes to make him look a little more rough, a little more disheveled. His acting would take care of the rest.

“We tried to achieve only some of Jonathan’s stages through make-up; for example, reddening Robert De Niro’s skin for when Jonathan is out on the streets at length.”

Bronson-Howard elaborates, “We had phases for Jonathan; by phase 7, he’s not in good shape at all because of alcohol, outdoors exposure, and his own arrogance.

“I had found that people who sleep outside on subway gratings wear layers and layers. So we show Jonathan with toilet paper in the ear flaps on his hat; and three or four pairs of gloves, all gaffer’s-taped-together as one unit.”

The costume designer states, “There is no one more dedicated than Robert De Niro; if there are five racks of clothing, he will try them all on to make sure that the end result is right. For that ‘pre-shoot’ in the snow, we tried on things at the Greenwich Hotel and then out he went.”

De Niro and Dano were not the only dominant on-screen presences to be transformed; Emmy Award-winning production designer Sarah Knowles (Warm Springs) and her team made over interiors of the now-shuttered St. Patrick’s Old [Cathedral] School in Manhattan’s SoHo as the movie’s Harbor Street Inn shelter. By way of contrast, the remnants of a gutted Greenpoint, Brooklyn bar became the seedy Good Times, the strip joint-turned-living space that Nick and his roommates reside in.

Real life and reel life locales were on a bit of a loop, as Nick elaborates; “Good Times was where I lived while working at the homeless shelter in Boston. When I left Boston, I lived in Brooklyn – just 10 blocks from that gutted bar which we were shooting in.”

For Nick, being a regular presence on set was something he found satisfying. He remarks, “For me, memory is always like a film.  You go through an experience and then ‘see’ things afterwards.

“As I would sit and revisit this emotionally charged territory with my father and people in my life, something else would often be found in those moments as the scenes unfurled. In telling this story, I never wanted to limit the emotions, or easily phrase them. So it was very rewarding and sometimes unnerving to watch these talented artists at work. When the takes were working, you could see the emotions passing over the actors’ faces, one turning into another. That, to me, was the closest possible representation of my reality in those moments I’d lived through.”

The rapport between De Niro and Dano exceeded everyone’s expectations; there was an actor-to-actor connection, but it was one punctuated with interactions that mirrored the dissonance between their characters. Dano enthuses, “Working with him was inspiring. The first day I was on the set, it did hit me – I’m in the ring with Robert De Niro! – and unfortunately it was with the camera rolling. I had to very quickly extinguish those feelings, because we both had our great parts to play.

“I wasn’t always sure what was going to come out of him, which is what you want from any actor you’re working with. There were a few moments where he’d pull a line out of nowhere, and I’d be processing it and trying to not smile because he had upped the ante. Luckily, it would mostly happen when I was not in the shot.”

Miano recounts, “They were playing out one scene where Jonathan is arguing with his son, and I thought, ‘This is a moment I’ll remember forever; two terrific actors going at it with each other.’”

Nick marvels, “Their scenes together are so powerful; they have to battle each other emotionally, and also convey a love story.

“I would watch the actors do 10 takes and at least 5 completely different ones would seem perfect to me. Paul Weitz was open to trying things in many ways. I don’t know how he keeps it all balanced in his head, directing a movie and then working with the film editor.”

As part of ensuring that the movie’s representation of the homeless was accurate, Nick arranged for filmmaker meetings at several non-profit organizations that he and Taylor are actively involved with.

The filmmakers visited the Bowery Mission in lower Manhattan as well as the AIDS Service Center (ASC). Cast and crew met people with empowering stories of rebounding from homelessness and addiction. Weitz was so impressed that he moved to incorporate some of them – and some of their own stories – into the film.

Among the non-actors cast in speaking parts was Lorenzo Murphy. He remembers, “My sister told me, ‘Someone from your poetry group [at the ASC] is trying to get in touch with you.’ That was Nick Flynn. So I did a screen test, and got cast as a morphine addict. I didn’t know how that felt, so I did a little research.

“Doing the scene scared me because it was like being back in NA [Narcotics Anonymous] again. That’s how real it was; Paul Weitz nailed it. I feel that this movie will inspire people to listen to someone’s story and do better in their life.”

Miano notes, “We take casting actors very seriously; it may be my favorite part of making a movie. But having these non-actors in the movie lent us that much more authenticity, and these men’s experiences lent themselves so seamlessly to what we were looking to achieve. These may be brief moments in the movie, but they’re among the most real. Their faces are ones you remember.

“Through Nick and Jonathan’s experiences, in reconnecting with each other and their shared past, Being Flynn directly address a question that we all ask ourselves; ‘Are we destined to become our parents?’”

Dano comments, “Nick has persevered, and one of the aspects of this story that I find so truthful is that it ends on a note of, ‘You are still going to struggle to deal with everything, though maybe not daily any more.’”

 

Having come a second time to the end of a journey to get his story told, Nick muses, “What I found in writing the book is that on one level it’s about me, my father, and my mother. But when you work on something like this long enough, at some point it transforms into something larger; hopefully, into something universal.

“In talking to actors, extras, and crew members on the shoot I found that people felt connected to the material; everyone has a complicated relationship with a loved one. It might be a parent, a sibling, or a child with whom they are trying to navigate their way through. I was lucky enough to do so.”