Get Danny DeVito started on a topic he has a boundless enthusiasm for, and then get comfortable.
Today, the topic is controversial former Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, a man both celebrated for helping the working class wrest livable wages from employers and reviled for his thuglike tactics and misappropriating money from the union's pension fund. Which, not coincidentally, is also the topic of Mr. DeVito's latest movie, "Hoffa," which opens Christmas Day. It's the third film Mr. DeVito has directed and, by far, the most ambitious, assured and polished.
"This was a man who always had the [most guts] in the room," Mr. DeVito declares of Hoffa. "He was a man who came from poverty -- his father died of black lung, his mother took in washing. He went in when the union was 35,000 members strong, and when he went to prison, it was 1.9 million members strong.
"The pension fund that he helped create in 1957 was worth about $50 million. When he went to jail in 1967, after managing the fund for 10 years, it was worth $550 million."
Mr. DeVito rattles off some more statistics about Hoffa, then offers an appraisal of what accounted for his success. "He wouldn't take no for an answer. That was it, that was the main thing. Just go in, take it. This is what was best for the people in the union, and I feel this is what's best for me, making this movie." Sheepishly, he snaps from his impassioned oratory. "I get caught up in this."
Mr. DeVito's obsession with his subject shows in nearly every frame of "Hoffa." Jack Nicholson stars in the title role and Mr. DeVito co-stars as a fictionalized amalgam of his right-hand man and confidant, Bobby Ciaro.
The film, a series of flashbacks framed around the day of his mysterious, still unsolved, disappearance in 1975, essays his early days as a local union man in Detroit through his glory days as the powerful head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and up to his downfall and imprisonment.
Richly told and dazzlingly photographed, with an awe-inspiring sense of scale, it's one of the few movies in recent years that deserves to be called an epic.
And DeVito is happy to explain, as meticulously as you like, how he painstakingly constructed the movie, how the set design, startling juxtapositions from era to era and vast and dazzling array of camera movements comment on the action.
"You don't want to make it easy," he said, punctuating his comment with a laugh. He'll give you historical background on precisely how vital unions are for the working class. He'll recite for you some of his favorite lines from the film, praise his actors lavishly. He knows his movie inside out, and he knows he got it right.
But then, as Mr. DeVito joked, "You can't compromise, that's for sure. Every detail of it has to be right, otherwise, Jimmy's coming to get you."
Certain to be foremost among criticisms of the film is that it makes a hero out of Hoffa, who some charge was a mob-friendly crook who abused his power and the Teamsters' pension fund. "Everything they say is just stuff you've been fed before -- every once in a while, some nuts are gonna come out of the woodwork."
But Mr. DeVito doesn't try to suggest that Hoffa didn't consort with disreputable sorts.
"If you really study it and look at history, in the early days, when there were struggles, he had to ally himself with people who could help," Mr. DeVito explained. "Because on those picket lines, you had men and women who were not pugilists, who were not head-busters, just workers. Management would hire people to come in and break heads. He had to align himself with people who would help out.
"There's gonna be somebody who's gonna say [about Hoffa's corrupt side], 'Oh, I didn't get my root canal paid for.' But if you held an election with the rank and file the day he disappeared, Jimmy Hoffa would've won hands down. I haven't met anybody who says that he didn't do right by him. He was in business with the people who built Vegas -- so is the governor of Nevada. Why is Jimmy Hoffa the thug?
"He always said that if anybody else took the job then, they'd be the target of all those attacks. It wasn't Jimmy Hoffa they were going after -- they were going after the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters. Because the families that run this country don't want that -- you couldn't have one guy with all this power, who can dictate the wages that these people are gonna be paid."
Mr. DeVito is equally avid about every aspect of his film, beginning with playwright David Mamet's script.
"When I read it, it was like getting hit over the head with a shovel," he recalled. "Mamet's my favorite, he's a terrific writer. I chose not to put credits at the beginning because I just wanted" -- he pounded his hands together to reinforce his point -- "to go in, dive in, like that image of the truck running over you at the beginning of the film. That's the kind of experience I want you to have."
And though many have accused Mr. Nicholson of sloppy and broad acting since his financial windfall with "Batman" in 1989, Mr. DeVito maintains that in this case, "He was very, very into it. Jack knows a lot about a lot of things, and from the first meeting when I said, 'I have this script about Jimmy Hoffa,' I hadn't even given it to him yet, and even while we were talking about Jimmy Hoffa and the script and how excited I was about it, Mamet, this, that and the other thing, I could see him making little body adjustments. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he had this image of Hoffa, and was trying [it] out."
Mr. Nicholson and Mr. DeVito met on the set of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the 1975 film that won Mr. Nicholson his first Oscar. "He and I are from the same part of New Jersey -- he was born in Neptune, I was born in Asbury Park -- that's like right across the street," Mr. DeVito said. "I didn't know him growing up, but I had heard about him in Asbury from a cousin who was friends with his sister and had seen him in the movies."