Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Ingmar Bergman: On Art and War

Shame (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)

‘Ingmar Bergman’s simple, masterly vision of normal war and what it does to survivors. Set a tiny step into the future, the film has the inevitability of a common dream. Liv Ullmann is superb in the demanding central role – one that calls for emotional involvements with her husband (Max von Sydow) and her lover (Gunnar Björnstrand). One of Bergman’s greatest films, this is one of the least known.’
                                                                                                                      – Pauline Kael
‘Bergman’s magisterial confrontation with war, set in a characteristically ambivalent decor, either a peaceful farm somewhere in Sweden or a landscape from Goya secreting intimations of disaster. Here live a man and wife, indifferent to the war until it arrives on their doorstep to strip their lives to the bone. Presenting war with shattering power as a blindly destructive force, Bergman uses it brilliantly as a background to the real pain: the way the couple are forced to look at each other, and to realise that the only honest feeling they have about their relationship is shame. It ends with one of the cinema’s most awesomely apocalyptic visions: not the cheeriest of films, but a masterpiece.’
                                                                                                        – Tom Milne, Time Out

‘When I see Shame today, I find that it can be divided into two parts. The first half, which is about the events of the war, is bad. The second half, which is about the effects of war, is good. The first half is much worse than I had imagined; the second much better than I had remembered....One might say that the authenticity of the second half is disturbed by an overblown scheme involving a wad of paper money that changes hands several times. This scheme reflects an influence from American dramaturgy of the 1950s....When I made Shame, I felt an intense desire to expose the violence of war without restraint. But my intentions and wishes were greater than my abilities. I did not understand that a modern portrayer of war needs a totally different fortitude and professional precision than what I could provide. Once the outer violence stops and the inner violence begins, Shame becomes a good film. When society can no longer function, the main characters lose their frame of reference. Their social relations cease. The people crumble. The weak man becomes ruthless. The woman, who had been the stronger, falls apart. Everything slips away into a dream play that ends on board the refugee boat. Everything is shown in pictures, as in a nightmare. In a nightmare, I felt at home. In the reality of war, I was lost.’
                                                                       – Ingmar Bergman, Images: My Life in Film

‘The Shame’ is Ingmar Bergman’s 30th film – a film in which improvisation has played a major part. ‘But improvisation must be prepared for,’ says Bergman.

A November noon; a small room in the Svensk Filmindustri studios. Ingmar Bergman, ensconced in a beautiful, baroque armchair, talks. He is interviewed by Take One’s Swedish correspondent, Lars-Olof Löthwall.

Q: During production of ‘The Shame’, you made certain minor alterations from time to time. Previously, the manuscript has been Holy Scripture to you, isn’t that so?

A: No, actually I worked in this way with Persona. With Persona, I had ample time, I had an ensemble of virtually two characters, and it cost nothing to begin experimenting, to try improvising.

But the basis for all improvisation must be preparation. If I haven’t prepared, I can’t improvise. If I’ve made careful preparations I can always improvise. Then I know I have something to fall back on. What I detest is formlessness. That terrifies me. It is seldom that mere formlessness in a work of art conveys anything vivid. More often it gives an impression of effort. But a combination of improvisation and planning – that’s good.

Q: You shot quite lengthy sequences in ‘The Shame’ which you didn’t at first think were suitable.

A: I’ve always done so, that has been my practice for the last ten to fifteen years. You see, one has to begin somewhere in a film; when you do, you’re likely to be far out from the centre of eventual interest, you find yourself disoriented. No matter how well you prepare, you don’t really know how a film’s going to look when you’ve finished it. Above all, you’re not sure of the tone, and that’s tremendously important...for which reason I always have a margin of at least a week for retakes, usually at the tail end of the production...

When we begin a film, the actors know as little about it as I do. Usually I overwork them, as well as myself, in the first week. I’m looking for something. All the time, in this first medley of images I’m in search of some strong, key expression. Now, if you try forcing this into existence by an effort of will, your work of art will be dead and thin.

Q: When you’ve written your manuscript and it’s ready for you to start shooting, it’s pretty well set up as a visual continuity. Do you work in such a way with your imagination that you can then – if one may express this in a banal way – close your eyes and see the film as a sequence of pictures?

A: No. Well, bits and pieces of it, yes. But it would be intolerable, for me and for those working with me, if, at every moment, I were to try and shape the film by force, if I insisted on a sequence of detailed, preconceived pictures to illustrate the conception I had as I envisioned or wrote the script.

When I write I must try to capture something in words which for all useful purposes, you might say, can’t be expressed in words. Later it is necessary to translate the words again so that in quite another context they’ll come alive. To be sure, so long as I have a firm grasp on my point of departure, there will always be an inner relationship between the original vision I had and the completed, materialized picture-sequence.

While that original conception must always be in the background, I must not let it become too dictatorial, since, for one thing, I must be prepared to modify it when I switch from writing to directing. For another, my actors, too, have a right – to say nothing of an obligation – to draw straws, to choose among alternatives. The whole process is essentially creative. You write down a melodic line and after that, with the orchestra, you work out the instrumentation.

Q: In an interview you said that if you once lost your feeling for play you’d be finished. But in ‘The Shame’ you’re actually very close to the intense centre, you have got something deep inside, in a grip...

A: But that’s a game, too. I believe that every seriously intended work of art must contain an element of play. If we believe otherwise, we commit ourselves to a colossal exaggeration. I believe that in this feeling of a game we can find a stimulating sense of shaping a universe, shaping people, shaping situations: we experience the passion of holding up a mirror and finding out what that mirror reflects...

Look at the great ones, like Churchill, Picasso, Stravinsky. Picasso and Stravinsky, both, have the eyes of a child, they have ‘humour lines’; they suggest some kind of secret feeling for the game.

Q: Games and games! Your script girl claims that when you did ‘The Silence’ and Ingrid Thulin was supposed to be dying, alone in a hotel bed, she spiced up the situation by doing a cha-cha before taking the scene!

A: Certainly; I’ve often noticed this: if you’re concentrating on a serious story, a deeply serious, perhaps tragic situation, a desperately painful involvement, you have a bursting need for jumping off into the opposite – into a lively clowning mood.

Perhaps because the moment of pain which was the nucleus of your creation is now far behind you, experienced long before you wrote it down, and even further away from the production of the film. Each and every artist who creates does so by building on his own painful experience, on a moment of agony which does not necessarily exist at the time of his performance. Of this we are reminded – sometimes with a secret smile – behind the mask we are assuming. This doesn’t mean that the experience will then seem less genuine. On the contrary.

Q: You have often mentioned the moment of pain which is the kernel of a film’s inspiration. Can you trace ‘The Shame’ back to such a moment?

A: No. That’s a long and tangled thread. It’s an experience of humiliation. A long, painful experience of man’s humiliation.

For some time, since the first moment of recognition, I have wondered how I would have sustained the experience of a concentration camp, of being forced into such a damnable position. How noble would I have been?

At the bottom of everything there lies this abomination to which man is exposed, the world over: they club his head in, they scream at him, they assault him, they terrorize him.

The older I get the more ghastly it seems to me. And the harder it is for me to live with in my conscience.

This is what we’re attempting, modestly, in The Shame: to show how humiliation, the rape of human dignity, can lead to the loss of humanity on the part of those subjected to it.

Q: You must despise films that glorify war, that interpret war as a manly adventure...

A: I think they are swinish.

Q: You have said that working with actors involves talk. In getting responses from them, isn’t it largely a matter of confidence, or what?

A: There is nothing more mysterious in it than that they have confidence in my ear and that I have confidence in their ‘inner hearing.’

Q: The rumour that you threw a chair through the window, and such-like, has never accurately been established...

A: I did so. That happens when one is afraid. The more insecure you are, the angrier you get. Or the more afraid. And fear is transformed into anger.

You can’t just stay being afraid.

I used to be very dependent on people’s opinion of me: I was tyrannically vulnerable to criticism and was unhappy for days if anyone said anything wounding to me or about me. Today I don’t care about anything except the life I have with friends and the work I have to do. This is all that’s important to me.

I have no need of power.

I have no need to be influential.

I have no need to be a participant in, or a shaper of, Swedish cultural life.

I have no desire to justify myself before criticism.

I have no need at all to be aggressive. I hate that.

I want to look around at the world, above all to read books and fill the gaps in my education which are a result of the uninterrupted work I have pursued since my student days.

Q: Do you experience the times when you don’t work as empty?

A: Not at all. Once I did, but only for short periods. I never had any free time. Spare time is something I experience as an unbelievable delight! To have a good book in my hands and actually immerse myself in it...

I have often thought that I should devote myself to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. I mean methodically. Actually stay with it. That takes time and patience. I have two kinds of spare time: one kind is only fugitive – attendant on my getting up in the morning and going to bed at night, eating and perhaps taking a walk. The other kind is methodical spare time, when I take a certain time every day to sit down and do something I believe is interesting. But it must be done at a specified time or the day just flies away.

Q: You like working by schedule?

A: I love to.

Q: You have said that it is more important for the public to feel than to understand.

A: To feel is primary, to understand is secondary. First feel, experience – and then understand. Self-evidently, the main thing for the public is to have an experience. Later they can bring intellectual processes to bear. That’s always a pleasure. And eventually the intellectual process, itself, may elicit a new feeling.

When the audience misunderstands a film...The Silence, for example – it became a great success because people went to see it not for the film’s sake, but to see certain parts of it.

By now, The Silence is as innocent as a kindergarten infant by comparison with the films made since. It’s no fun to make pornography when everyone else is making it...

Q: How do you see your future as a film-maker shaping up?

A: I know I’ll stay with it; if I make my films cheaply enough I can stay with it as long as I have reasons for making films. Nobody, however indirectly, can prevent me. For one reason: I no longer have occasion to be afraid. Of critics, for example: before now they were either sawing off the branch I sat on, or making it stronger for me. I depended on them for my livelihood...There were few moments in my life when I wasn’t gambling with my existence.

If Smiles of a Summer Night hadn’t been an international success I would have been virtually finished. I had just had The Seventh Seal refused, in manuscript. When Smiles of a Summer Night became a success, after its showing at Cannes, I drove to Cannes to see Carl-Anders Dymling and laid that script on the table and told him: ‘Now or never.’ Then he accepted it.

Q: You have said that among films by others you have especially liked were ‘Lady With a Dog’, ‘Umberto D.’, ‘Rashomon’. Have you added to that list?

A: Yes, with Fellini’s II Bidone (The Swindler). I have a great admiration for Fellini. I feel a sort of brotherly contact with him, I don’t know why exactly. We have written brief, confused letters to each other many times. It’s amusing...I like him because he is himself, he is who he is and what he is. His temperament is something I have a feeling for, though it’s quite different from my own; but I understand it so damn well and I admire it, colossally.

He is said to be enchanted by my films. That experience is mutual.

Q: How many times can you see a film? You have a private collection of 200 films.

A: How many times depends on how much I like them. I have seen Les Vacances de M. Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday) countless times.

I sit and wait for the parts I enjoy. These can be whole sequences, great moments or just details.

Q: You have maintained that you are self-taught, yet surely a number of directors must have had a certain influence on you?

A: I have not been subject to influences from another director’s artistic style. But influences are not specifically those that come from one’s own occupational involvement. You can be influenced by anything around you: modern photography, TV reportage, pop music – which I find fascinating.

The whole life-way influences one.

But film-makers exert the least influence over me. Because I don’t see the world the way they do. Formally, I achieve my results by going my own way.

I don’t need help from anyone else’s means of expression.

Naturally I am influenced, at large, by the new mode of film-making, by the feeling for film as film, where actually you don’t need lighting effects, for instance, and in which you can get effective results without complex equipment. By these means we can return, in a sense, to the origins of film, when it was simple: when you set up a camera in a bush. I have always found this congenial. A purely technical extension of territory attracts me.

Q: Is ‘The Shame’ to be your last black-and-white film? You have been discussing colour very much lately.

A: I don’t know. Colour is interesting. I was at home with some friends Sunday afternoon and a young girl, about 15, came to the house. She had been to the movies and seen a film which I admired personally. But she was contemptuous: It wasn’t in colour! Then I thought: this is the new thing today; this new generation finds nothing stimulating in a film unless it’s in colour.

It has been a long time since I saw a colour film which I found inspiring. Yes, I was very impressed by the colour in Agnes Varda’s Happiness. There I felt the colour was deeply sensual.

Colour is best when it isn’t colour. That may sound banal, but it’s a fact.

Q: Music is finished, you said.

A: In The Shame it has come to that point. No music any more.

Q: You have seldom made a film with a purely literary foundation; usually it’s from your own manuscript. Does this mean that you don’t think books should be filmed?

A: I think it’s hard to film books or short stories. The material is too rich, it often fences in the film. It’s hard to create from it. I don’t know. I feel no temptation to try.

Q: Films which never become films – why can’t you make novels out of them?

A: I am not a writer, I am a film-maker. I have no need to express myself with words.

Q: Yet your scripts are written with such literary pregnancy.

A: That’s for practical reasons: so that my co-workers will understand what I mean.

Once I had a literary inferiority complex. I haven’t any longer. For some time I harboured the illusion that I would write a play or a novel or a collection of short stories, or whatever. I’ve entirely given up that idea. I am completely satisfied to express myself in my films.

– An Interview With Ingmar Bergman by Lars-Olof Löthwall. Originally published in Take One 2, no. 1 (September-October 1968): 16-18


Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Nicolas Winding Refn: Faith and Violence

Valhalla Rising (Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)
Nicolas Winding Refn was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1970. At the age of 10 he moved to New York with his parents, who both worked in the film industry. After graduating from high school, Refn attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, but found the environment difficult to cope with and was soon expelled. Back in Denmark he was accepted by the Danish Film School but he never took up his place, having decided to drop out prior to the start of the first term. After seeing a short film by Refn on cable TV, a Danish film producer offered him 3.2 million Danish kroner to adapt his short into a feature. At the age of 24, Refn was writing and directing his gritty and uncompromising feature film debut Pusher about a drug dealer in over his head. Pusher became a cult hit and won Refn widespread critical acclaim. 

Refn explored the seedy underbelly of Copenhagen further with Bleeder – a stylized and grim tale exploring the relationship between two friends living on the city’s margins. Bleeder premiered at the 1999 Venice Film Festival and proved a big domestic hit. Fear X, Refn’s third feature and his first in English, is a complex, evocative drama starring John Turturro as a man searching for his wife’s killer. Co-written by renowned novelist Hubert Selby Jr and with a musical score by Brian Eno, Fear X received positive reviews but was a commercial failure. Refn returned to the mean streets of Copenhagen with Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands and Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death, completing the renowned Pusher trilogy and consolidating his critical status.

Refn was next approached to write and direct Bronson, a violent and surreal film about one of England’s most notorious criminals. Featuring a remarkable performance from Tom Hardy, Bronson combines theatrical tradition and British pop cinema of the 1960s to make a movie about a man who creates his own mythology. After the success of Bronson, Refn co-wrote and directed Valhalla Rising – a bleak and relentless film set in the middle ages about a silent, one-eyed prisoner who escapes from his captors and falls into the company of a group of Christian Vikings preparing to embark on a crusade. Uncertain whether One-Eye is a visitor from heaven or hell, they take him with them on their ship across the sea. 

Returning to Hollywood, Refn next directed the hugely successful Drive in 2011 – a retro genre movie based on a James Sallis novel starring Ryan Gosling as a stunt-car driver who moonlights as a getaway driver. 

While Drive was in preproduction, Nicolas Winding Refn spoke to Adam Stovall of Creative Sceenwriting Weekly about his recently completed Viking odyssey and his approach to screenwriting:

Valhalla Rising (Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)
‘Valhalla Rising’ opens with a man, One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen), beating another man to a bloody pulp. Then another, and another, and another. Once there is no one else to defeat, he is released and crosses the barren Nordic landscape, accompanied by a boy (Maarten Stevenson). Eventually, they find themselves on a ship with Vikings searching for a new land. More beatings ensue. ‘Valhalla Rising’ is the latest film from director Nicolas Winding Refn, who co-wrote the film with Roy Jacobsen. CS Weekly sat down with Refn to discuss his tale of faith and violence, and how the two are often found in each other’s company.

What was the initial seed of the idea?

When I was five, I was at my parents’ friend’s house and they had a pulp sci-fi novel with a spaceship on the cover. I can’t remember why it was there or what happened, but the obsession with traveling into outer space has been very much a part of what I do. I became interested in making a Viking film that was a film about the discovery of America, because for the Vikings to go out and travel the oceans was the equivalent of us going to the moon.

Can you walk us through how that initial seed became this story?

When you sit down, you come up with all the obvious solutions, and you try them out and see that they don’t ring true, and you get kind of frustrated. It wasn’t until one night, I was having some kind of dream, maybe I was trying to meditate, but the idea of a mutant man who has no past or present and lives on top of a mountain came to me. That was the genesis, because what would happen if that was how the film opened? The idea of the child came about because he needed a companion to travel with. If he had a person his own age, it would be a friendship. If it were a woman, there would be a tension of love and sexuality. A child, however, makes it almost innocent in a way.

The man and child travel the wasteland and encounter a group of Vikings who are off to the Holy Land. Originally, they were pagans who were basically being outlawed by the Christians, who, in the 1100s, were spreading through the North either by violence and war or they would use money to buy influence and sell Jesus to the Vikings. People who didn’t believe were on the run, and America was an interesting concept.

Valhalla Rising (Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)
Originally the film had a more conventional kind of approach, a more conventional kind of story structure. I called Roy Jacobsen, who is a very famous Norwegian novelist, and is also a historian on these matters. I felt like I knew nothing of this history, so it was essential that I find someone who could be part of this journey. Well, two weeks before we were supposed to shoot, I had a complete meltdown and was just lost. I shut down the movie, I said I wouldn’t make it, sorry, bye. Budget had been spent and people were panicking. Roy Jacobsen flew up and sat with me for a few hours in my apartment trying to talk some sense into me, but it wasn’t happening. Until, finally, he said to just make them Christian Vikings. I asked him if there were Christian Vikings, and he said absolutely. They were Vikings, but they were Christians as well. They would travel all around to fight wars. They were warriors and mercenaries in Russia. Suddenly, the whole film became about the future, not about the past. Christianity became an order that was about the future. Everything had always been about the past, and I couldn’t relate to that. I couldn’t get my mind around it. So, that changed everything, and I swapped what the characters wanted to achieve.

The movie is about faith and the rise of mythology. One-Eye goes through four stages. He is born out of mythology. Nobody knows who he is or where he comes from, you only know that he doesn’t belong to anyone for more than four or five years. Then he escapes slavery and becomes a warrior, then he becomes God. Then he becomes Man when he sacrifices himself. And then he’s a ghost, who returns to the mythology he rose from. Then there’s the relationship with the boy, who says he wants to find home – which is very existential because he doesn’t say where. The boy claims that One-Eye speaks through him. It’s like the boy becomes organized religion, because everyone becomes superstitious again, and the boy manipulates everyone else. Also, when the Christians travel for war and they take hallucinogenic drugs to become stronger, that’s true – they would actually do that.

Valhalla Rising (Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)
Your films are known for having these very strong central characters. Do you tend to start scripts with a character in mind or a story?

The way I usually come up with an idea is I come up with what I would like to see. That’s usually based on character. Then I wrap a story around that character. Bronson, for example, there was no story, because Charlie Bronson’s life is not that interesting. Michael Peterson’s life is not that interesting. But the transformation from Michael Peterson to Charlie Bronson was interesting. That came about when I asked myself what this guy would want and realized that he would want to be famous. Then I knew, that’s what this movie is about. That’s usually how I approach everything I do, follow one person’s point of view and a story comes up around it.

What is your habit? Do you have a number of hours you like to work, or is there a page count you’re going for?

I consider writing very painful, and I don’t think I’m very good at it. I wish I was, because I certainly admire it a lot. I write longhand to begin with. If the story is complex, or if I need to be challenged not to repeat myself, I bring in other people – once with Hubert Selby, Jr. and once with Roy Jacobsen. When I sit down to write, though, it’s usually with a pack of index cards and a pen, just writing things down that I would like to see. Eventually that evolves into some kind of story. When it has to be shown to financiers, or people who don’t know me very well, I will sometimes bring a writer in to polish it verbally so it doesn’t just read as ‘Man walks, sees sign, crosses.’ Things you would be sent back to school for. To make it a sellable document, it sometimes needs to be polished up. But it also comes from me being dyslexic. I am very dyslexic and I have trouble reading and writing.

Pusher II (Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)
How important is outlining to you?

Outlining doesn’t become important until I have the core structure. I believe everything is structure. In that way, oddly, art is a complete, organic element – and in that organism a mathematical evolution is apparent.

How particular are you about your workspace and how you work, both alone and when you’re working with someone else?

In that sense, I am completely collaborative. I like to work at night. I can’t go into an office every day, but I admire people who can just sit down and write. I have to go through a process where I try to do everything that can keep me from writing. Dishes, cleaning up, looking through old email, deleting junk mail, anything that takes me away from writing – and once I’ve done everything I can and there’s nothing left, then I start writing because once I start, I cannot stop. I become unbearable to be around, and when you have kids and a wife, that’s difficult because you have to be theirs. So, that means I work at night, sometimes for a couple of hours, sometimes for a long time.

I have many different movies I want to make, so I’ve begun to enjoy the process of making films simultaneously. For example, while [my next film] Drive is in preproduction, I’ve also started preproduction on the film after it, which is called Only God Forgives. That’s a movie I’ve written myself, an original idea. It’s good because having Drive on one side, I can put things in that movie and other things into Only God Forgives, and know I will make both movies. I can sort of steal from both.

Bronson (Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)
Do you listen to music while you write, or do you find that distracting?

I love all kinds of music. The way that I work is, I sometimes come up with a musical approach to the film before there’s an actual story. Each movie I’ve made so far has a musicality to it. Pusher 1, my first film, is The Ramones. Bleeder, my second film, was definitely glam rock. Fear X was basically Brian Eno, who became the third person I ever hired on the movie. He would send me sounds and music ideas as me and Mr. Selby worked on the script. Pusher 2 is Iron Maiden. Pusher 3 is Neil Diamond. Bronson is opera. Valhalla Rising is Einstürzende Neubauten. Drive is Depeche Mode. I definitely prefer to listen to music while I write, it’s certainly the closest thing to cocaine I can get while I write.

– Adam Stovall: ‘He Came From Myth: Valhalla Rising’s Nicolas Winding Refn’. Courtesy of Creative Screenwriting Weekly.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Oliver Stone: Scarface Nation

Scarface (Directed by Brian De Palma)
In his book Scarface Nation, critic Ken Tucker assesses the lasting cultural impact of Brian De Palma’s 1983 cult hit Scarface – an exuberant blood-drenched spectacle the author calls the ‘ultimate gangster film’ and a work of pop art that has taken on ‘an unruly life of its own’ in the years since its release.

Taking its cue from Howard Hawks’ 1932 original, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is the titular Scarface, a Cuban immigrant whose violent rise to the top of the southern Florida cocaine industry mixes the outrageous with a stylised realism. For all its trashy excess, the filmmakers root the story in a density of incident and character detail, coupled with a relentless pace that never lets up over its almost three-hours running time. Doomed from the moment he attains power, De Palma emphasises Montana’s alluring yet repellent lifestyle, setting the explicit violence, initially at least, against a backdrop of pastel-pop visuals and bright sunshine.

Dismissed by critics on its release and failing to make much impact at the box office, Tucker recounts how the movie gradually ‘got away from its [middle-aged, white] creators’ and became a hit among ‘largely young, black and Hispanic’ fans. 

As the movie shifts visual gear from the opening impressionist sequences to the vivid expressionism of the second half, so Montana’s relentless pursuit of the trappings of wealth leaves him spiritually desolate and isolated. As screenwriter Oliver Stone has stated: ‘Luxury corrupts far more ruthlessly than war,’ a concept he explores in the film’s underlying critique of unbridled materialism and the dark side of the American Dream.

Tucker makes a case for how De Palma’s work redefined the way modern films addressed on-screen violence and drug-use and how its attitude towards women, money and drugs came to be embraced by hip-hop and gangsta rap. As the film captured the attention of urban audiences via home video, it became a focal point for a subculture that was, in the early 1980s, just beginning to emerge. In tracing the cultural fallout of the movie Tucker shows how the makers’ anti-drug and anti-materialist message transitioned in its underground pop-art phase, into a celebration of the criminal life-style by those who identified with Tony Montana’s swaggering consumerism and tragic sense of fighting to the end. 

Whatever one thinks of the film’s flaws, or Pacino’s over-the-top performance, a quarter-century after its release, Tucker writes, ‘it remains elusive yet pervasive, the movie that will not go away, but which pops up where you least expect it.’

In the following extract from an interview with the film’s screenwriter Oliver Stone, Stone discusses the background to the writing of Scarface and his thoughts on the film as a cultural phenomenon:

Scarface (Directed by Howard Hawks)
The version of Scarface that you wrote was not so much a remake of the original ’30s film but a reinvention in a sense. What was it that appealed to you about remaking the film and having it deal with the drug trade?

The origin of the movie is an interesting story. I had directed The Hand, and it had failed at the box office. It was completely ignored; in fact, I took a heavy hit. If you go back and check the reviews, there was a lot of personalization in the reviews. It was probably because Midnight Express really hit people hard, and some people went after me. It was also a period in my life when I needed inspiration; I felt stale as a writer. [Producer] Martin Bregman had approached me, and I said I wasn’t interested in doing it. I didn’t like the original movie that much, it didn’t really hit me at all, and I had no desire to make another Italian gangster picture because so many had been done so well, there would be no point to it. The origin of it, according to Marty Bregman, [is that] Al had seen the ’30s version on television, loved it, and expressed to Marty as his long time mentor/partner that he’d like to do a role like that. So Marty presented it to me; but I had no interest in doing a period piece. Then he called me months later: Sidney Lumet had stepped into the deal. Sidney, who I had met from [my script] Platoon, was a New York director and he had worked with Al quite a bit. So there was a lot of linkage there. Sidney had a great idea to take the ’30s American prohibition gangster movie and make it into a modern immigrant gangster movie dealing with the same problems we had then – we’re prohibiting drugs instead of alcohol. Prohibition against drugs created the same criminal class as [prohibition of alcohol] created the Mafia. It was a remarkable idea. The Marielitos at the time had gained a lot of publicity for their open brazenness. The Marielitos were the ‘crazies.’ They were deported by Castro in 1981 to America. At the time, it was perceived he was dumping all the criminals into the American system. According to the police enforcement in Miami Beach, they were the poorest people, the roughest people in the prisons, who would kill for a dollar. How could you get this outlandish, operatic character inside an American, contemporary framework? It’s very difficult if you think about it. Al is a brilliant actor. I worked with him on Born on the Fourth of July in 1978. He was genius in a room. I saw the rehearsal for Born on the Fourth of July in 1978 with a full cast. He was on fire in that wheelchair. On fire! It stayed with me for ten years. I put as much of that energy as I could into working with Tom [Cruise] in another way.

Did you tailor the role of Tony Montana to Al Pacino?

Of course, from the get-go. It was Al. Scarface grew out of this Lumet idea of the Marielitos coming to America, the brazenness, the drug trade, making it big, taking over from the old Cuban mob. I went with it and wrote the script. I researched it thoroughly in Florida and the Caribbean. I had been in South America recently and did some research there. So I saw quite a bit of the drug trade from the legal point of view as well as from the gangster point of view. Not many people would talk; it’s a very closed world.

How were you able to get in touch with those people?

I was exposed in certain situations on both sides of the law. I went to the Caribbean – there’s no law down there, they’ll just shoot you in your hotel room. It got hairy; it gave me all this color. I wanted to do a sun-drenched, tropical Third World gangster, cigar, sexy Miami movie. Pacino’s accent was derided at the time [laughs], yet people imitate it to this day. It may not be literally accurate but what the fuck, it works!

I remember you had said in Playboy that at the time you researched the film, you saw a lot of things going on in the drug trade that later played out into big things like Iran Contra.

Oh yeah, the shit was heavy. In Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Miami Beach, Miami Dade, there’s different law enforcement departments, DEA, the FBI, plus Justice, so you have a lot of organizational activity and bureaucracy. And you gotta think about how they interact with each other and how much they all compete. This was the beginning of the drug war. The stories were outlandish. The story of the chainsaw was one of the things that happened that was on the record.

So that was a real incident that happened?

Yes, but not done that way. I dramatized it. They were rough, the Colombians played rough. So I moved to Paris and got out of the cocaine world too, because that was another problem for me. I was doing coke at the time, and I really regretted it. I got into a habit of it, and I was an addictive personality. I did it, not to an extreme or to a place where I was as destructive as some people, but certainly to where I was going stale mentally. I moved out of LA with my wife at the time and moved back to France to try and get into another world and see the world differently. And I wrote the script totally fucking cold sober.

Writing the script, was it in any way a therapy in weaning yourself off the drug?

Oh, it was more than that. One of the things that’s bugged me, and I think a lot of writers will agree with this, is we spend money on our vices and we pay through the nose for our mistakes. I’ll admit that coke kicked my ass. It’s one of the things that beat me in life. As a result, getting even, getting paid to make a movie about it – and making it a good one on top of it – there’s nothing better. But to go back and finish the story as to how the film originated: Sidney Lumet hated my script. I don’t know if he’d say that in public himself; I sound like a petulant screenwriter saying that; I’d rather not say that word. Let me say that Sidney did not understand my script, whereas Bregman wanted to continue in that direction with Al.

Do you feel the story might have been too strong?

Yeah, I think that he felt there was too much gratuitous violence, which was the ultimate rap on the film that came from the critics. From Sidney, it went to a couple of other projections, and then we went to Brian [DePalma], which was a good idea. And Al liked him and trusted him. It turned into a film that has its own history. It basically took off with Brian and Al, and Bregman was the control pilot.

Being that you had a cocaine habit, do you feel it gave your script a different perspective than if you had never tried the drug?

Probably so, because the big switch point for me in the script is the fall of the king. I see Al turning paranoid in that movie, I see it perhaps because I was more attuned to it. But the paranoia of coke is the most striking [aspect], the fire of it. I’ll give you an example. You’re down in the Caribbean, you’re doing coke, you’re drinking at a bar with three Colombian management guys. They run the cigarette boats out there with tons of shit every night. They go right to the Florida coast in these cigarette boats. They fly across the moon, they skim the ocean at night, it’s really incredible, full speed. Then they slow down to nothing, they whisper in the night, and you can’t hear the engines. Then they sneak up past the coast and the by-ways, past the Coast Guard. It’s really a trip. You do this, and you get into that world. All of the sudden, you’re flashing coke in the hotel room at four in the morning; you’re talking the coke talk about how great things are. They started boasting, and I started telling them I was a Hollywood screenwriter. They thought I was an informer because I dropped the name of a guy who had been one of my helpers, who was making money now on the defense side of the ballgame. But the guy had previously busted one of these three guys when he was a prosecutor. So at four in the morning, that gets dangerous! Two of them went into the bath- room and I thought they were gonna come out and blow me away. But you know, the truth of the matter is I got out by bullshit, by the skin of my teeth. I was nervous the whole night, nervous beyond belief. That never could have happened to me if I had been straight. And they never would have taken me to any conference, nor would I have the necessary élan to approach them. I would have been totally out of sorts. You can’t do it from one side of the coin.

[Stone refers to a printed draft of the script for Scarface.] I enjoyed this very much because it’s one of those scripts like Wall Street where it’s filled with zingers. We worked on the zingers a lot; they come from the subconscious. What I love about original writing is you can really let out some of your deepest feelings. Sometimes you’re amazed at what comes up. You say stuff that you don’t think as a civilized being you’d say.

So there were some lines of dialogue in the film that reflected your views?

Oh, many of them. That’s the beauty of originals – you can be subversive. Your most subversive side can pop up and you can say anything through a character. You’re not saying it; Tony’s saying it or Manny’s saying it. You can say something so outrageous and if the actor goes along with it, nobody recognizes it as you, and you got away with it in a way.

The restaurant scene where Al Pacino delivers that great monologue is one of my favorites in the film.

‘Say goodnight to the bad guy,’ yeah, yeah, yeah. Where is that? Hold on... [turns pages] Oh yeah, here it is: ‘Is this it? Is this what it’s all about, Manny? Eating-drinking-snorting-fucking, then what? You’re fifty, you got a bag for a belly, you got tits with hair on them, your liver’s got spots and you look like these rich fuckin’ mummies.’ I was in a restaurant in Miami thinking those thoughts [laughs]! Because everyone’s over-fed down there and they live manicured lives. They have Cadillacs, manicured fingers. So I was thinking, man, what could be worse than this kind of death? Luxury is corruption. Corruption lives in luxury. [Continues reading] ‘Is this what I worked for with these hands? Is this what I killed for? For this?’ Well, is this what I killed for is obviously a little over the top, but that’s the direction the script was going. This sounds very Shakespearian: ‘Is this how it ends? And I thought I was a winner.’ How about the one about the women? ‘First you gotta get the power....’

Yeah! That’s one line everybody always talks about, how did you come up with that?

I thought about it: first you gotta get the money in America in my opinion. This was me in 1981–82 when I saw the system in my thirties. First you gotta get the money, then the power, then the chicks. That was the way it works... I think! [laughs]

That sounds like the natural order.

I think in dramatic terms where you hear that kind of concept, it’s power that’s always last, or it’s first, but it’s really the second. It’s funny because the thing that they wanted was not the power but the chicks [laughs]! This one I got from a car dealer, ‘What’s a haza? It’s Yiddish for pig. It’s a guy who’s got more than he needs so he don’t fly straight anymore.’

You got that from a car salesman?

Yeah, not the dialogue but the description of a haza more or less. A guy who wants too much, a pig, a greedy guy. There’s a few in the movie business, I really know ’em! There’s nothing worse than a haza because they pig out. It’s okay to want money and to make it, but when you want too much money then you fuck the other guy. That’s the real drug war in my opinion, in the ’80s anyway. Guys would get to a place and they’d always blow it because they’d want more. Or they were incompetent. They’d go to a place where they had three thousand people working for them and they couldn’t do it any more. They’d go crazy; they’d become paranoid or hit their own supply, or they would become really paranoid. Look at Escobar – the guy went nuts.

What’s interesting about the dialogue in ‘Scarface’ is how often ‘fuck’ is used.

Actually in the script, there’s probably a hundred and something, I think Al made it three hundred and something!

Why was the word used that much?

Because I’d heard it a lot between Vietnam and Miami [laughs]! Also in New York City. It’s not like I grew up in rural town life; I grew up in the heart of the city. If you read the script, the word fuck is used deliberately, it’s not just thrown away. It’s used for rhythm. But Al managed to use it his way by inserting it more and finding the right rhythm. He used it well. I mean with Universal, it was a really tough film, it was really hated at the time.

I remember before ‘Scarface’s release the controversy about the ratings board threatening to give the film an X unless the chainsaw scene was cut down.

Yeah, but it was even more than that. It was the amount of revulsion. I was in LA at the time and the amount of revulsion of so many people inside the industry toward it. Like, ‘This was a horrible thing to do to our industry.’ The critics were so cruel, except a few of them who got it. There was such revulsion, very much like Natural Born Killers, the bad boy complex, the bad boy movie. It was too much. We had gone one step over. Brian was in the hottest water of all.

When the script was done and the movie was being made, was there any concern from the studio then or did that come after the film was done?

It was a tough movie to make. I think Bregman really championed that one through with Ned Tanen, president of Universal at the time. Ned was his friend and I think Ned was the guy who took the hit. But I’m glad he made the movie. The way they made the movie was torturous for them. It was scheduled to shoot for three months, and it went almost six. I would have shot it another way, but that was Brian’s domain. I learned a lot from Brian. He was very generous; he let me watch everything.

So you were allowed on the set while the movie was being made.

Yeah, at Al’s request too, because dialogue changes were going on all the time.

There’s something interesting I noticed in how Tony has his downfall. Throughout the film he does a lot of bad things, but when he tries to do the right thing and prevents a mother and her children from being killed, that’s what brings about his assassination. 

That was intended. It was based in fact on the idea that he was pure in a way. In his honesty there was something pure, and his honesty is such that he cannot kill the innocent child. He just can’t, and it costs him his life.

Let’s talk about the process of writing the film. I remember reading in James Riordan’s biography of you, that your wife at the time, Elizabeth, said you wrote in a very dark room and you shut out the lights of Paris while you were working. Did you feel you needed to be in an environment like that to write the film?

Yeah, I guess so. It’s concentration. It’s basically a womb. I still do it on the movie set because I’m sort of known for building this black cave and carrying it around with me with every shot. But it really is important. It’s not like hubris; I just need separation and concentration. Because what goes on in the movie when you’re directing it is very complicated, there’s a lot of things distracting you, and there’s many levels of thought. But you have to really get the essence of the script. You have to remember what it is you started out to do with the scene, because you’ll get lost otherwise. I think what I do is I reconnect to the origin of the scene. I study the script and I ask, ‘What was it I intended?’ Then I know where I’m going. So I need that womb.

Did you work a specific schedule when you wrote ‘Scarface’? Did you try and write a certain number of pages a day?

No, I’d work forward on a weekly basis. I was not too strict about it, but I would say by the end of the week, I’d like to be here in the process. I believe in going back and getting the first look. The first draft, the first structure is really important. The first draft is formed roughly over six weeks –could be seven or eight, could be three or five, but let’s say six. And doing it in a six-week rough gives you a taste for the movie better. Do it fast, don’t get stuck. Bob Towne probably spent a day fixing a line, but I’m not sure that’s the right solution. I respect him very much as a writer, it’s just a different style of working. With Midnight Express, I had exactly six weeks, they were pushing me hard. And I did it. The first draft did hold up.

So for ‘Midnight Express’, the movie was pretty much the first draft?

It held up, yeah. On Scarface, a lot of improvements were made, but I wouldn’t call Scarface a six-week draft, frankly.

How much longer did you work on revisions after you completed the first draft?

Oh, that was a painful process, because we’re talkin’ Pacino here [laughs]. He was in his heyday when he loved to rehearse. There were a lot of revisions, a lot of revisions of dialog, but the structure didn’t change that much.

You used to work on a typewriter in those days; do you still use one?

No, I’ve moved on. I tried a computer, I’m not wild about the keys. So I use longhand and dictation. I dictate into a machine; I don’t dictate to another person. I’m going over it alone in a room into a machine, and I often retape and retape. I like to speak, I try to act it out. I’ve always done longhand and typing. Now I try to do it through dictation. I think I’m more focused, and you also get into characters. Now that I’ve been around actors a lot of my life, I do some of the acting myself. Sometimes I come up with some crazy stuff. It makes you work a lot harder at externalizing. You can’t fuck around [laughs]. You’re hearing yourself right away. You gotta step up, you’re in the arena. You’re an actor now, you’re no longer a guy hiding in the shadows on the sidelines. It’s an interesting way to work.

You had mentioned earlier how ‘Scarface’ was received very badly when it first came out, but years later it’s really grown in popularity. I hesitate to say it’s a ‘cult’ film, but it’s gained a life of its own.

Oh definitely. We knew that back then. I would hear stories; people would come up to me and say, ‘A bunch of us lawyers we get together to watch Scarface. We know the lines.’ You’d hear these stories for years. You’d know because people are telling you, and that is the way I judge movies. I have to – look at my career. I mean, I’ve gotten more slams than Bob Evans! There are very radical points of view on me, right? Ultimately, I believe real people who come up to me and tell me in the street. This black dude came up to me the other day, it’s really funny, I thought he was gonna rob me. It was in a parking lot about midnight after a movie. A black dude, about 6’ 2’, strong lookin’ guy comes up to me and circles me as I’m about to get in my car. He says, ‘Hey, are you Oliver Stone?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘You do that football movie?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Man, that was a really good movie. Man, that said some things, man.’ I was relieved! He appreciated that I did a film about a black quarterback. That was more real for me than a review in the New York Times, honestly.

Why do you feel ‘Scarface’ became popular years after its release? Do you feel it was ahead of its time?

Scarface was definitely on the money, it was right on. It was exaggerated, but it was close to the truth, but nobody got it at the time. Miami Vice plunged in right where we [left off]. Michael Mann saw it right away; he told me that. He saw the power of it. They cashed in on it more than we did. They made money on it, we didn’t! I think sometimes the pioneer dies, you know. The pioneer doesn’t make the money. He’s the guy who does it, he dies out, then the next wave is the one that makes it.

For you, what is the relationship between screenwriting and directing?

It’s a process. Screenwriting is really the beginning, the first stage. It’s like giving birth to the fetus. And I think directing is very much civilizing the thing, bringing it on to an adult stage – educating it, clothing it, taming it. Turning it into a civilized human being. And that includes the editing stage as well because I believe directors must work through the editing. They just go hand in hand. I see no conflict at all. It’s just another stage of development, and it makes sense for you to follow through with it.

I need that sense of having seen it on paper. When I wrote those screenplays – Scarface, Midnight Express – all the directors commented that it was like... Brian De Palma said, ‘It’s like seeing it on paper.’ I make it very clear, sentence by sentence, the direction I’m going. Each sentence outlines a shot. I always wanted to direct the films I was writing. If you love movies it’s like the top position. It’s the one thing you want to do.

Did you write to get the story on paper or were you writing for the reader?

Both. That was the issue, of course. After you get the money, then you go and tilt the screenplay in the revisions. You tilt the screenplay more towards actor, more towards director, and away from the more difficult side of getting the money. Often the earlier drafts would be written with an eye towards the sensational or the, you know, descriptions that deliberately would attract the attention of the financier. That’s the school I’m coming from, the School of Rejection. So, you have to realize the script has got to get made before we can start to get into this business of talking about artistic merit. But the passion was the same.

The passions I expressed were related to personal experiences in my life. When I wrote Midnight Express, I was very angry with the Turkish system. The theme was injustice. I saw it like a Les Miserables. Passion governed Platoon and Salvador. Wall Street was very much coming from a desire, again, to make a business movie because my father had worked there. So, I tried to go into that world and write an intelligent movie with Stanley Wiser. Stanley did the first draft, based on my notes. I told him what I wanted and he wrote while I continued editing Platoon. That was an episode where I was swamped and I needed some help. Stanley hung out with a lot of the people on the Street, turned in a first draft, and we went to work. On that one, we could have benefited from a few extra months. But I rushed it not to get caught up in the... I was just worried about the whole preciousness of this thing. It goes to your head....

I knew I had a lot to learn as a director. I had only done Platoon and Salvador and they were war films and there was a great charm to both in some areas. But, I really knew I had to push on and find out other things. In a sense, you could say I became more director than writer at that point, that I became interested in my ability to direct and what I could do as a director. So, my emphasis went there where I had been writing for so many years. I didn’t neglect it, but I didn’t pursue it with the same... it wasn’t the only thing any more. So, I used the advantages of the system, getting other writers to work on material. There’s no reason not to. I don’t have a need to prove I do everything.

– Extract from ‘Oliver Stone Interviewed by Erik Bauer and David Konow’. Creative Screenwriting, Volume 3, #2 (Summer 1996) and Volume 8 #4 (July/August 2001)