The Tribeca Film Festival celebrated the 35th anniversary of Scarface on Thursday night with “the greatest double feature in the history of the Beacon [Theater in Manhattan]:” a screening of the movie followed by a panel featuring three of the actors – Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer and Steven Bauer – plus director Brian De Palma.
The crowd was raucous throughout the screening, hooting and hollering each time Pacino delivered one of his signature lines or snorted his way through yet another small mountain of cocaine. Viewers brought the same energy into a bizarre, sometimes uncomfortable panel following the film – especially when moderator Jesse Kornbluth asked Pfeiffer about how much she weighed on the Scarface set. The audience promptly filled the theater with boos. Later, when the moderator offered a different prompt, an audience member shouted sarcastically, “Good question!”
Here are 10 takeaways from the discussion about the making of Scarface and its impact.
1. Maybe ask an actress about more than just her weight.
At one point, Kornbluth’s line of questioning turned cringe-worthy. “As the father of a daughter, I’m concerned with body image,” he told Pfeiffer. “In preparation for this film, what did you weigh?” Audible groans from the crowd turned quickly into a loud chorus of boos, forcing Kornbluth to defend himself. “This is not the question you think it is!” he insisted.
In general, though, the moderator floated softball questions to Pacino – “Who’s more evil, Tony Montana in this movie or Satan in Devil’s Advocate?” – and De Palma, repeatedly offering variations of “What is this movie about?” He did not extend that same courtesy to Pfeiffer, however, asking questions like: “You have described your role in this movie as a set piece … but you’ve also said that owning and claiming your performance within that is important. In terms of agency, which is a large idea right now for women – correctly – what is it like for you to claim your performance against what Al is doing?” [Groan]
2. The film’s violence meant that De Palma took hell from the ratings’ board.
De Palma fought for months to get Scarface to screens without an X rating. “I had battled with the ratings’ board through a whole bunch of movies I had made,” he recalled. “This was our last skirmish. I kept on submitting versions of the movie. They’d say, it’s an X. I’d change a few things, then I submitted it a second time and [still] got an X. I submitted it a third time and I think they were upset about … the clown that gets shot. At which point I said, I’ve had it with these people, I’m not taking anything more out. I told [producer] Marty [Bregman].”
His producer offered a very Scarface-themed response: “We’ll go to war with these people.”
3. There’s a reason behind all the cursing.
The moderator pointed out that the word “fuck” turns up 226 times during the course of Scarface, which translates to 1.32 fucks per minute of screen-time. When the film was released, the profanity shocked some critics. “What was [the cursing] put there to do?” Pacino said. “To heighten the already-heightened vision of Brian’s? I think that was part of it. Bombast was part of what we were trying to say in the movie.”
4. Scarface has now spawned an entire subculture of pop-culture tributes – it is itself an homage.
Pacino reminded the crowd that his film is, in fact, based on a 1932 movie – starring Paul Muni and written and directed by Howard Hawks – that had a profound impact on him when caught a re-run in a Los Angeles theater in the late Seventies. “I had heard about that film my entire life,” Pacino said. “I saw it, and that’s when it happened: I was stunned by the story and completely taken by Paul Muni’s performance. After I saw that, I thought, I want to be Paul Muni, I want to act like that.”
5. Oliver Stone is the reason a generation grew up saying, “Say hello to my little friend.”
Stone has built up an impressive resume as a director – Platoon, Wall Street, a slew of movies about Presidents – but before any of those landmarks, he was responsible for penning the script to Scarface. De Palma credited Stone’s gruesomely vivid scene of chainsaw violence for helping him “show these were a different kind of gangsters.” And when Pacino faced an inevitable question about the line, “Say hello to my little friend,” he said, “Oliver Stone wrote that, as he did so many wonderful lines in this movie.”
6. Sidney Lumet was originally slated to direct.
Pacino put together Scarface with help from Martin Bregman (in the crowd on Thursday), the producer behind classics like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. Originally the two men turned to the director behind both those films, Sidney Lumet, and asked him to help craft Scarface.
“We had Sidney Lumet for a while, whose idea it was to make [the story] Cuban with the boat-lift here in the Eighties,” Pacino explained. “In a way, Paul Muni’s character was an immigrant from Italy, [so it made sense].” “Things happened,” Pacino added cryptically, “and [Lumet] got separated.” De Palma, known at that time for his work on Carrie and Obsession, stepped up in his place.
7. Steven Bauer helped Pacino learn his Cuban accent.
Perhaps surprisingly, the conversation was dominated by Steven Bauer, who made the most of his time in the spotlight. He was a genial agent of chaos – cheerfully ignoring the moderator, cutting in and talking over his fellow panelists on multiple occasions, cracking jokes about cocaine addiction and telling a series of amusingly meandering, sometimes downright nonsensical stories about his time on the Scarface set.
A Cuban-American, Bauer was in charge of tutoring Pacino to prepare him for his role. But at first, Pacino doubted his costar’s Cuban origins. “Al goes, ‘I just gotta ask you something: Why’s your name Steve Bauer? If you’re really Cuban, why are you Steve Bauer?’ I said, ‘No one can pronounce Echevarria.'”
“I lived in Malibu in a little hovel off [the Pacific Coast Highway],” Bauer continued. “Al took a house – a beautiful house – and I would come over every day for breakfast. We spent every day for a month not reading the script, just talking about our lives. That was the secret. When people say, how did you get that chemistry? We spent all this time exploring and talking about our [characters’] lives in Cuba previous to the opening shot.”
8. But Bauer faced backlash from the Cuban community for being involved with the project.
“People didn’t know what we were going to depict what was actually going on in the city – the murders, the body count – at that time,” Bauer told the crowd. “A lot of the old-school Cubans were concerned with me to the point where they weren’t really sure that my participation in a Hollywood movie was worth me degrading or tainting the image of their accomplishments in society. What I tried to convey to them was: Relax, man, it’s a movie. Take it easy, and be happy for me.”
9. The shoot went months over schedule.
Pfeiffer said that filming Scarface was originally supposed to take two months; according to Pacino, it lasted eight. The person who suffered most was Pfeiffer, who was forced to maintain the physique of a cocaine addict throughout this time. “I literally had members of the crew bringing me bagels because they were all worried about me,” she said.
10. Pacino burned himself badly while filming the final shootout.
“In the gunfight at the end, I remember firing off rounds from that machine gun,” Pacino recalled. “I fired about 30 rounds, and then somebody shot me and I got hit … [In the movie,] I’m still sort of alive and ready – all that cocaine keeps you going – and I grabbed the barrel of the gun I just fired. My hand stuck to it [because it was still hot from firing]. We had to go to the hospital.”
So Pacino headed to the ER, covered with fake blood from his movie set. “This nurse comes up to me [after the wrap my hand] and says, ‘You’re Al Pacino.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She says, ‘I thought you were some scumbag.'”