Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas released in 1990 and hasn’t lost popularity in the intervening decades. Based on the non-fiction book Wiseguys: Life in a Mafia Family by journalist Nicholas Pileggi, Goodfellas is about mobster and likable antihero Henry Hill and his life as part of the New York City Italian-American Mafia. Scorsese wanted the film to be so authentic he had real mafiosos on-set working as extras.
Stories from behind the scenes of Goodfellas reveal how the real mob feels about the movie, how involved Scorsese was with every little detail, and casting choices that would’ve changed everything.
According to co-writer Nicholas Pileggi, “Mob guys love [Goodfellas] because it’s the real thing, and they knew the people in it. They say, ‘It’s like a home movie.’” Some of the film’s authenticity stems from director Martin Scorsese growing up in Little Italy in New York City and his childhood best friend being the son of a Mafia boss.
Every detail had to be authentic, from the imported Italian suits to wads of the prop master’s own cash. Even some of the extras were members of the Mafia.
Nicholas Pileggi - who co-wrote Goodfellas - looked back on the film's unusual casting process, saying “We'd put the word out [to the Mob guys]: ‘Anybody who wants to be in the movie, come.’ [Scorsese] must have hired like half a dozen guys, maybe more, out of the joint.”
Kristi Zea, the production designer on Goodfellas recalled, “Sometimes the verisimilitude got too real. Somebody started pushing our counterfeit money, you know, the $100 bills.”
Warner Bros. now had to put [the wise guys] on the payroll, and they wanted their Social Security numbers. The wiseguys said, ‘1,2,6, uh, 6,7,8, uh, 4,3,2,1,7,8 - ’ ‘No, that's more numbers than you need!’ They just kept reciting numbers until they were over. Nobody ever figured out where that money went or who cashed the checks.
At the 25th anniversary screening of Goodfellas, Paul Sorvino said he’d been seriously considering quitting the film a few days before filming began because he didn’t know if he could play the aggressive Mafia boss Paul Cicero:
I was really lost, what do you do, I called my agent up and said, 'Get me out!... Then I was going to fix my tie and I saw this guy (in the mirror)... And it scared the hell out of me. That's the guy!
Christopher Brooks - the music editor for Goodfellas - recalled, “Marty once told me that he knew what all of the songs were going to be three years before he shot the film. There was no music supervisor. Marty is the music supervisor.”
In the film, Scorsese uses nostalgic ‘50s and ‘60s doo-wop songs to ground Henry Hill’s childhood days spent working for the Mafia in a recognizable historical period. As Hill becomes entrenched in mounting mob activities and substance abuse in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, songs like “Layla” by Eric Clapton and “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones jar viewers out of youthful innocence and into the unforgiving world of adulthood.
Scorsese explained his inspiration for the soundtrack, saying:
When I talk about recreating the spirit of that world, the music is as important as the dialogue and the behavior. From 1947 on, music scored what was happening in the streets, the back rooms. And it affected, sometimes, the behavior of the people, because this music was playing in the streets. Jukeboxes were brought out during the summer. Windows were open, and you could hear what everybody else was listening to. It expresses the excitement of the time. Simply, it's the way I saw life. The way I experienced life.