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Skull and Bones and the CIA: Robert De Niro's 'The Good Shepard'

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Khaleej Times

Spy high expectations

7 January 2007

FILM FANS know to lower their expectations when they hear a movie is some filmmaker's long-delayed pet project. Usually, there is an awfully good reason why those movies take forever to get made.

But 'The Good Shepherd' could defy the conventional wisdom. It is the pet project of none other than Robert De Niro, who took about eight years to bring his story of the CIA's founders to the big screen. De Niro has not directed a film since 1993's 'A Bronx Tale,' but he returns to the director's chair for this Cold War thriller and also takes a supporting role.

'The Good Shepherd' stars Matt Damon as an emotionally frozen secret agent who willingly sacrifices his family life for his country. Angelina Jolie co-stars as Damon's long-suffering wife.

At 63, the brilliant two-time Oscar winning star of hit films from 'Raging Bull' to 'Goodfellas' and 'Meet The Fockers,' De Niro has three films lined up for release next year. One is the drama 'Sugarland,' to be directed by Jodie Foster, which will mark their first big-screen reunion since 'Taxi Driver' three decades ago.

Although you played a retired CIA agent in 'Meet The Parents', you have never shown much curiosity about this genre of film before. Have you always been interested in spy movies?

I was raised in the Cold War, and I find that stuff fascinating. I'm interested in espionage. And other than the films that were made from the John le Carre books, I never saw any that were that good. I never saw any American films that were that good.

How would you describe your star, Matt Damon?

I'm biased, but I think he was great. I'm extremely happy with Matt and what he did. I couldn't have asked for a better performance, contribution and support. Across the board, he was just great.

And Angelina Jolie?

Angie was wonderful. She has great instincts. She connected to the character from the beginning so that made it easy for me to direct her. And she put her own personal touch on the part, made it her own. It wasn't the way I thought of it originally, but what she did internally, her whole demeanor, it was terrific.

'The Good Shepherd' draws a straight line between involvement in Yale's secretive society The Order of Skull and Bones and the early CIA. How deep is the connection?

A lot of the guys were part of that elite group, Skull and Bones, at Yale. And a lot of them wound up at OSS, which was the early version of the CIA. So screenwriter Eric Roth and my researcher got as close as we could get to create our scenes based on what we had learned. The rest was just creative interpretation.

What is your take on these secret societies?

I don't know what to think. I don't say this disparagingly, but I never had an interest in any fraternities of any kind. I'm sure that there are positive things in that culture.

Your last directing gig was 'A Bronx Tale' 1993, a very impressive debut. Why wait so long to do it again?

Well, I worked on this film for about eight years. You always hear that films are 15 years in the making. Well, about 13 of those years are just getting it to the point where you can just get it done and get it out. It was a struggle to get the money, to get people to put up the money. We had a few false starts.

It is hard to believe that an actor of your stature has trouble getting monetary backing.

It is hard. This script was already around, going from director to director. It started with Francis Coppola. It was one of 10 scripts that had been around, considered too hard to produce, too ambitious. And there are things I had to take out. It was kind of scary for the money people.

Will you direct more?

I'm not going to direct many more movies, maybe three more and then that's it. I'd like to continue with this story, maybe from 1961 until the fall of the Berlin Wall, show what happens to the characters and how they wind up. I'd love to do it. I wouldn't take another seven years though.

Were you at all rattled by the task of directing such an ambitious film?

It was daunting, and I never felt that I had my arms around the whole thing. I took it little by little, day by day. I was reading about the monarch butterfly. They fly from somewhere in New England to Mexico, about 2,000 miles. Generations of them come and go. But they somehow know how to complete that journey. Well, I had to forget about all the stages of this production, how long it takes with pre-production, shooting the movie, post-production. It's a long, daunting process.

You have had a long association with Martin Scorsese. But some day you could be squared off against him for a Best Director statue. Your thoughts?

I don't know what's going to happen, but if that ever came down, Marty should get it. Period. He should have gotten one a long time ago..

Further Reading:

Craftyness - Obelisks, Statutes & Plots: The 'Master' Planned Community