Nicholas Pileggi had been a crime reporter for 30 years when his 1986 book “Wiseguy” — about a low-level mob associate-turned-informant named Henry Hill — came out. It was so authentic and often disarmingly funny that it convinced Martin Scorsese to break his vow that, after “Mean Streets,” he would never make another crime movie again. Pileggi and Scorsese collaborated on the script, and the result was “Goodfellas.” (The name “Wiseguy” was already taken by a then-TV show.) Since its release in 1990 it’s gone from a surprise hit and Oscar contender to an even loftier rep as an endlessly rewatchable and quotable classic.
“Goodfellas” has recently been restored, heralding a Blu-ray reissue, and it plays for a week at Film Forum starting Friday. To commemorate the 25th anniversary, Pileggi — who admits he almost accidentally didn’t return Scorsese’s calls, having thought they were a prank by his New Yorker colleague, film critic David Denby — spoke to Metro about its authenticity, why Joe Pesci’s Tommy pronounces Henry as “Hendry,” who came up with the iconic “You think I’m funny?” scene and how Henry Hill reacted to its success.
How did your collaboration break down?
I’d never written a script before. I never went to film school. He really was a teacher to me on writing the first draft. But I knew the language. And I knew the story. It’s a movie by both of us. An example: If you look at the book, or even the script, that scene where they go to the Copacabana, in the book it’s like two sentences, three sentences. You get it. You can’t write, “And then he saw another guy who’s eating a sandwich, and then they made a right turn, and the waiter nodded his head.” You can’t do that in a book. But Marty saw that in the book and saw that as a Steadicam shot taking the audience through the kitchen, up to the Copacabana. It’s an unbelievably seductive scene. That was all the director and the cinematographer.
Seeing as you were new to this, how did Scorsese mentor you when you started working together?
He said, “Take the book and structure it the way you see it as a movie.” So that’s what I did. And he said, “I’ll do the same thing.” So we both did it. And we both kicked out his stint in the military, we both kicked out almost the same stuff. The storyline we came up with was come upon by the two us each independently. We both sat down and looked at each other’s outlines and we realized we had come up with the same outline. We both laughed.
Were there notable ways the structure changed over the many drafts you two wrote?
The script doesn’t open the way it opens. It opens with him looking out the window at the cab stand. Basically the way the book opens. Once the structure was there Marty realized it was too slow. This is a gangster movie. He came up with the notion of starting it with the body in the trunk. Then you have the story take him up to the part where they kill Billy Batts, and the movie begins again from where it started. This way you start with this extraordinary, insane moment.