The ornate Beacon Theatre served as the perfect setting for the Tribeca Film Festival’s 35th Anniversary of “Scarface,” Brian De Palma’s baroque epic of American greed. The film’s wide and enduring appeal was evident in the diversity of the rowdy, sold-out crowd, which even featured some confrontations during the movie over Tony Montana acolytes in the crowd quoting dialogue aloud.
After the film, Tony himself (Al Pacino) joined the crowd along with Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), Manny (Steven Bauer), and Brian De Palma to discuss the film. Despite the moderator losing the audience with poor questions and some loquacious interruptions from Bauer, the filmmakers shared some stories on the making of the film and reflections on its place in the culture.
The Project Started With Pacino
While the original original idea for “Scarface” began with Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht when they made the movie in the thirties, the idea of a modern remake came to Pacino after seeing the Hawks version at a revival house on Sunset Ave in Los Angeles. “I had heard about that movie my whole life, even my grandfather had mentioned it… so I saw it, and that’s when it happened. I was stunned by the story and just completely taken by Paul Muni’s performance. I thought, ‘I wanna be him. I wanna act like that.’”
Afterward, he called producer Martin Bregman (who was in the crowd at the anniversary, but didn’t speak), whom Pacino had worked with on “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” and called his “go-to partner” to pitch the idea of a remake. Bregman saw the original as well and started putting together the project, starting with writer Oliver Stone.
At one point, Sidney Lumet was to direct, and although he left the project, he made a lasting impact by translating the Italian-American milieu of the original to the Cuban community in South Florida.
Ample Rehearsal Shaped the Performances
Pacino gave credit to his authentically Cuban co-star Steven Bauer for teaching him language and mannerisms. Bauer shared a story from the set about being teased by Pacino. “If you’re really Cuban, how is your name Steven Bauer?” and replying that it was a stage name because no one could pronounce Esteban Ernesto Echevarría Samson.
The pair reminisced about the luxury of rehearsing for months to develop chemistry while living near to each other in Malibu. Bauer said that people like Martin Sheen and Johnny Carson would drop in, only for Pacino to correct him that Carson would walk by and never say hello.
“But we spent a month, not even reading the script, just talking about our lives, is the secret,” said Bauer. They discussed their characters’ lives in Cuba before the beginning of the story and what Pacino taught Bauer was “the knowledge you have of each other as people, as the characters…will imbue the performance.”
De Palma Fooled the Ratings Board
“I had battled with the ratings board, through a whole bunch of movies I had made, and this was our last skirmish. I kept on submitting versions of it, and it got an X, so I changed a little bit, took a few more things out, and submitted it again, and it got an X. So I submitted it a third time, and I think they were concerned about the hits in the clown, remember the clown who gets shot?”
“So I said I’ve had it with these people, I’m not taking anything more out, and I told Marty and Marty said, ‘We’ll go to war with these people.’” But after failing with three previous efforts, De Palma decided to just go with the original version. “They said, ‘You can’t do that!’ and I said, ‘Why not?’ and they didn’t have a response to that.” De Palma credited Bregman with the effort and said that he considered beating the ratings board a great victory.
The moderator asked De Palma if he thought elements like the chainsaw attack were over-the-top, but De Palma replied that the chainsaw was the result of Oliver Stone’s reporting in Florida and also that he wanted to show that these were a different kind of gangster.
The most memorable question of the night was also its worst, when the moderator said, “As the father of a daughter I’m concerned with body image,” and asked Michelle Pfeiffer about her weight during filming, earning boos from the crowd and an incredulous look from Pfeiffer.
Pfeiffer did not answer the question but explained that maintaining Elvira’s physique was even more difficult than she planned. “The movie was only supposed to be a three or four-month shoot, and of course I tried to time it so that as the movie went on, I became thinner and thinner and more emaciated,” explained the actress. (“Without getting addicted to cocaine,” Bauer interjected).
“The problem was, the movie went for six months. I was starving by the end of it….I literally had members of the crew bringing me bagels because they were worried about me. I was living on tomato soup and Marlboros.”
Later on, Pfeiffer told the crowd what she learned from working with Pacino. “Watching him fiercely protect his character, really at all costs, without any sort of apology, and I have always tried to emulate that. I’ve tried to be polite about it, but I think that’s what makes great acting.”
Regarding her character’s subservience, she said, “I was in my early twenties at the time and hadn’t really thought about that at the time, but I really feel that sometimes you can do a lot more for a cause as an artist by really presenting to people what is the truth, not sugarcoated, and I felt that by allowing people to observe who this character is and the sacrifices she’s made, said more than getting up on any soapbox and preaching to people.”