Martin Scorsese’s 1990 blockbuster Goodfellas is a modern classic, an Oscar nominee that’s enjoyed a much longer shelf life than most Oscar winners. It’s surprising, then, to learn that the first audiences to see it were as dismissive of it as Scorsese is with Marvel movies. The famed director revealed in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that at least 70 people walked out of the first screen test because of its excessive violence. Scorsese noted that “screenings help a director determine what’s confusing and, especially in the case of a violent film, how much an audience ‘can tolerate.’
According to the EW story, the screen test helped Scorsese and the Warner Bros. studio executives with two important scenes in the movie. One was the very, very good opening sequence in which Pesci’s Tommy DeVito—a performance that scored him an Oscar win—stabs Billy Batts in the trunk.
“We noticed the moment Joe took out the knife people started laughing, they were outraged,” Scorsese recalls. “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 final scene ended up having four stabs.
The screen test also allowed Scorsese to keep in a scene studio executives were urging him to cut. In it, the gangsters sit with DeVito’s mother, who is played by Scorsese’s real mom Catherine, as Batts bleeds out in the trunk. The studio thought it was too long, apparently, but people in the screening responded well to it and that’s why it stayed put. It’s why Scorsese is thankful for early screenings. “[A preview screening version] doesn’t mean it was ‘my cut,’” Scorsese notes. “I’m in the process of making the film. I screen it for some people, they go ‘maybe you don’t need that,’ and maybe I do things, or maybe not.”
“Test screenings, for a while, were very helpful,” he adds. “I don’t know if it is anymore, at least for me.”
Scorsese’s upcoming The Irishman, which reunites a digitally de-aged De Niro with Pesci, has already garnered rave reviews, including from our own A.A. Dowd. The Irishman drops in theaters on November 1 before hitting Netflix on November 27.
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