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Hewing to a tight 36-day shooting schedule, filming on the upcoming movie ‘Being Flynn’ was at 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.
It was then that Robert De Niro first fully inhabited the homeless countenance of Jonathan Flynn, his character, and walked the streets of lower Manhattan.
Director 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 real-life 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. Producer Andrew 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’ [...] 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 and 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.”