Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese
Nicholas Pileggi knows wiseguys.
The New York-born journalist spent 30 years profiling the goings-on in gangland before his breakout book—appropriately titled Wiseguy—hit shelves in 1986. That non-fiction opus would become the backbone of the Goodfellas' script, which Pileggi penned with the film's director, Martin Scorsese.
Nick and Nora's Playlist
Without Pileggi's wife, author Nora Ephron, Goodfellas would never have been made. Scorsese loved Wiseguy like a mafia don loves favors, and he knew he had to turn it into a movie. So, he called Pileggi—and Pileggi thought it was a joke. (Source)
We can't blame him. It's not every day that you get a call from Martin Scorsese. By the time Wiseguy hit his nightstand, the director had already established himself as a movie-making titan with films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull. You can see why Pileggi thought he was being punked.
So, Scorsese went around Pileggi to Ephron, and the rest is history. They say that behind every good man is a good woman; sometimes that good woman tells you to call Martin Scorsese back, pronto. Ephron herself wrote and directed her own string of hit films, like When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and the mafia comedy My Blue Heaven, which, just like Goodfellas, tells the tale of a former mobster navigating life in the Witness Protection Program. You might say exiled mobsters was the Ephron-Pileggi family business.
Little Marty From Little Italy
Scorsese's own upbringing in New York made him the perfect director to bring Pileggi's reporting to life on the big screen. "Marty grew up in Little Italy, and his best friend was the son of the Mafia boss there," Goodfellas' director of photography Michael Ballhaus told GQ magazine. "When he was a kid, he had asthma, so he couldn't go on the streets. He went home and watched movies on television, hours and hours. He told me once that if he were a big guy, like his friend, 'I probably would have been one of them'" (source). Simply put, Scorsese knew how to tell the story of guys like Henry Hill and Paulie Cicero because, well, he grew up with guys exactly like them.
Fortunately, he turned to a life of winning Oscars instead of organized crime.
The Real Deal
Ultimately, Goodfellas' script sticks close to Pileggi's book, and it reeks of authenticity—you know, in a good way. Wiseguy draws upon hundreds of hours of interviews with the real Henry Hill, resulting in one seriously faithful mob movie. As Roger Ebert notes, "The screenplay by Pileggi and Scorsese distills [Hill's] memories into a fiction that sometimes plays like a documentary, that contains so much information and feeling about the Mafia that finally it creates the same claustrophobic feeling Hill's wife talks about: The feeling that the mob world is the real world" (source). In schoolroom terms, Pileggi did the homework, and Scorsese turned it into one heck of a class presentation.
Tradition? Who Needs It?
Of course, Pileggi and Scorsese's collaboration wasn't all rainbows and pepperonis. According to Script Shadow, Pileggi, ever the reporter, wanted the movie to follow a traditional, tidy, linear narrative. Scorsese, on the other hand, wanted the narrative to be twitchier and more episodic.
Flashbacks? Bring 'em on. Freeze frames? You got it.
As evidenced by the fact that the final script starts in 1970 and promptly jumps back in time to 1955, Scorsese made Pileggi an innovative offer the journalist couldn't refuse.
Pileggi and Scorsese's creative compromise resulted in an Oscar-nominated screenplay that stays faithful to Henry Hill's real story but kicks it up a notch. "As it adopts the flat tone of Henry, its principal narrator, it also reflects Henry's jittery and driven concerns. It moves from sequence to sequence with slightly crazed speed, as if anticipating one of the cocaine highs that, finally, were to be Henry's undoing," explains The New York Times' Vincent Canby (source). The combination of Pileggi's coolheaded reporting and Scorsese's vivid, often frenetic, visuals creates a movie that puts the "motion" in "motion picture" and ensnares audiences like an FBI sting operation.
In the end, Goodfellas' script does right by Henry Hill but still pops like a Tommy Gun in all the right places, creating a lasting, realistic look at mob life in the mid-to-late 20th century that even hot-tempered Tommy DeVito could get behind—you know, if he weren't a fictional character. And dead. "Mob guys love it, because it's the real thing, and they knew the people in it," Pileggi told GQ. "They say, 'It's like a home movie'" (source).