Reprising some familiar stories but filling in plenty of fond nuance, the lead actors and director of Scarface marked the film’s 35th anniversary with a crowd-pleasing Q&A session Thursday night at the Tribeca Film Festival.
After a screening of the 1983 film, director Brian De Palma joined Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer and Steven Bauer (who played Tony Montana’s gangster partner) to reminisce. As they were brought onstage one by one, the sold-out Beacon Theatre crowd let out loud, concert-worthy roars and gave Pacino a standing ovation before anyone had uttered a word.
“Bombast was part of what we were trying to say with the movie,” Pacino said. “It was bigger than life.”
Pacino recalled stumbling on the original 1932 Scarface when it was playing at the long-shuttered Tiffany Theatre on Sunset Boulevard in L.A. Seeing star Paul Muni on screen, he remembered thinking, “I want to be him! I want to be Paul Muni.” He called producer Martin Bregman, backer of Pacino gems including Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and Carlito’s Way, to ask if he could pursue the remake rights. Sidney Lumet was attached to direct for a time, and Pacino said the late director came up with the idea to turn the antihero played by Muni in Howard Hawks’ original into a Cuban immigrant in Miami. (Bregman, who was in the Beacon audience, got a prolonged ovation from the panelists and the crowd during the session.)
In trying to get the MPAA ratings board to sign off on all of that bombast (including 226 uses of the word “f*ck”) without an X rating, De Palma said a shot of a clown getting shot proved highly problematic, but in the end he prevailed thanks to a “very nice presentation” to the board, arranged by Bregman. As to the profanity, Bauer recalled that many critics, including Time’s Richard Schickel, highlighted the number of f-bombs as a major theme in their reviews.
As to the famous chainsaw scene, “That was in [Oliver Stone’s] script,” De Palma said. (Stone did not attend, but got several shoutouts.) “He did all this reporting in Florida and he based it on these gangsters who were chopping up bodies with chainsaws and dumping them in the garbage.” De Palma said the violence, while intense, had a point. “I thought that we had to show that these were different kinds of gangsters. I thought, ‘Right at the beginning, let’s show the kind of violence we’re going to be dealing with.’ “
Moderator Jesse Kornbluth, trying to involve Pfeiffer in the conversation, struck a jarringly tone-deaf note. On the same stage where the festival had kicked off the night before with a powerful statement about female empowerment in the premiere of the Gilda Radner documentary Love, Gilda, he decided to ask about Pfeiffer’s weight during production of Scarface.
“As the father of a daughter, I am concerned with body image,” he said, in a less-than-promising prelude. “In the preparation for this film, what did you weigh?” Stunned by the blunt question, which arrived without the typical gesture of, say, a comment about her actual performance, boos and jeers began to ripple through the audience. “This is not the question you think it is!” Kornbluth protested to the audience. After a long pause, Pfeiffer gamely replied, “Well, OK … I don’t know. But I was playing a cocaine addict.” She forged ahead and recalled her approach. “As the shoot went on, I tried to time it so I became more and more emaciated. The problem is, the movie went six months” – Pacino cut in, “eight months!” – and the climactic scene kept getting delayed. “The crew kept bringing me bagels because they were so worried about me,” Pfeiffer said.
Bauer, who is part Cuban, also elicited some hoots in the audience when he talked about his response to people who were upset about the film’s depiction of Latinos and the Cuban community, an issue that has cropped up over the years given that the creative team was mostly white. “I tried to tell them, ‘Relax, man. It’s a movie.’ “