This Oscar-winning director reveals the secrets of working with De Niro and Pacino

The Comedian 3 Alison Cohen Rosa Sony Pictures ClassicsAlison Cohen Rosa/Sony Pictures ClassicsTaylor Hackford (R) on the set of ‘The Comedian’ with Robert De Niro.

Taylor Hackford is a veteran director who, over his 45-plus-year career has created some of Hollywood’s most memorable works.

Finding notice in the late 1970s by winning an Oscar for his short film “Teenage Father,” he’s gone on to direct notable titles including “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “Ray.” But he’s also been able to work with two of the best living actors of all time.

His latest movie, “The Comedian” (in theatres nationwide on Friday), stars Robert De Niro as an ageing insult comic trying to stay relevant. This comes 19 years after he worked with Al Pacino in the steamy thriller “The Devil’s Advocate,” in which Pacino plays the devil.

Not many directors have had the distinction of working with both De Niro and Pacino in their careers.

Hackford talked to Business Insider about working with the two legends.

Taking charge of a De Niro passion project.

Alison Cohen Rosa/Sony Pictures Classics
'The Comedian.'

Robert De Niro had been trying to make 'The Comedian' for years. Martin Scorsese was even going to direct it at one time. But last year, after another project fell through for Hackford, he got the call to come on and shoot 'The Comedian.'

He admits he wasn't instantly sold since he knew it was a De Niro passion project, but he accepted and found out working with the actor was 'a dream.'

'De Niro really respects directors,' Hackford said. 'He encouraged me every step of the way to take charge. That's a gift. He wants direction.'

Pacino gave him the greatest improv performance he's ever seen.

Warner Bros.
'The Devil's Advocate.'

Hackford notes that both De Niro and Pacino are very dedicated in their preparation before filming begins. But there's also room for spontaneity.

Before shooting the end of 'The Devil's Advocate,' in which Pacino's character reveals he's the devil, Hackford asked Pacino and his costar Keanu Reeves to improv the scene.

'I told them to forget the text, just feel the room, and I saw Pacino walk in and do the most incredible improv I've ever seen in my life,' Hackford said. 'Out of the middle of nowhere he stars to sing, 'I met her in Monterey, in old Mexico,' and that's from an old Frank Sinatra song I hadn't heard in 30 years. I said, 'Where the hell did that come from?' and he said, 'I don't know, I just felt like singing it.''

Hackford put that moment in the final version of the scene, but instead of Pacino singing, he dubbed it with Sinatra singing.

'I thought, the devil could sound like Sinatra if he wants to,' he said.

De Niro is no slouch at improv, either.

Alison Cohen Rosa/Sony Pictures Classics
Leslie Mann and Robert De Niro in 'The Comedian.'

In 'The Comedian,' Hackford points out that De Niro had to be quick on the draw, as he was placed in situations with major comedians who never stayed on script.

'We made the film in 27 days and I didn't do a lot of takes. I wanted spontaneity,' Hackford said. 'Bob had to respond, and there's some real moments I'm so proud of. The Friars Club scene with Cloris Leachman, she was throwing zingers that De Niro wasn't ready for, but he responded right on the spot. Then the scene with comic Jessica Krison, the general framework was that De Niro and Leslie Mann were going to walk through the shot, but what Jessica and Bob did was all riffing, that scene is all improv.'

The secret to working with legends.

Carlos Alvarez/Getty
(L-R) Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.

Hackford said he's never been scared to go to an actor and give them direction if it's needed, but for the most part he allows them to work, especially when you have talent like De Niro and Pacino.

'Pacino and De Niro have different styles, but deep down they are real pros and will make it work,' he said. 'I know not to step on their toes. You find a common language and you only intrude when you feel they need it. Outside of that, you give them the freedom to make something work.'

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