“This wasn’t the way it started,” Al Pacino chuckled, during the sold-out post-screening Q&A for the 35th anniversary screening of Scarface at the Tribeca Film Festival last night. “When Scarface first came out, it was extremely controversial, as you can imagine. But it stays in our lexicon, in a way. It’s part of our culture.”
It’s certainly a case of a motion picture’s half-life far exceeding its initial expectations — which were no doubt colored by a flurry of bad press and reports of a production veering wildly out of control. The resulting film, a baroque bacchanal of splattering blood, voluminous blow, and unapologetic scenery-chewing, was decidedly of its moment; its fashion, its synthesizer score, and its coked-dusted “everything to excess” aesthetic practically plaster “EARLY ’80s” into every frame. But its themes and preoccupations, the way it gets at the rot deep in the core of the American Dream, continue to reverberate.
The origins of the project vary, depending on who you’re asking (and when). Reporting from around the time of Scarface’s 1983 release pegged it as a pet project of Martin Bregman, the talent agent who transitioned into producing with Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, both developed for his client Al Pacino with director Sidney Lumet. A chance late-night TV viewing of the original 1932 Scarface — Howard Hawks’s tale of bootlegging Chicago gangsters, inspired by the exploits of Al Capone — got Bregman’s wheels turning. He instantly thought of Pacino for the leading role, the story goes, and engaged Lumet to again direct.
However, in recent interviews, Pacino has claimed he got the idea after a revival screening of the original movie at the Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles. “I went and saw that film and called Marty Bregman after,” he said at a Q&A in 2011. “I said, ‘I think we could do this thing. There’s a remake here.’” Whichever story is true, Bregman next reached out to Oliver Stone (then best known as the screenwriter of Midnight Express) about penning the script. Bregman had attempted to produce Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July screenplay for Pacino, so there was a relationship in place, but Stone was initially uninterested in Scarface.
“I didn’t want to do an Italian Mafia movie,” Stone tells Matt Zoller Seitz in the book The Oliver Stone Experience. “We’d had dozens of these things. But then Bregman came back to me and said, Sidney has a great idea — he wants to do it as a Marielito picture in Miami. I said, That’s interesting! Sidney’s idea was a good one.”
“Sidney’s idea,” which Stone adapted into the film’s opening crawl, went like this: In the spring of 1980, roughly 125,000 new Cuban exiles departed the Port of Mariel for the shores of Florida. A fifth of these Marielitos were rumored to be “undesirables,” petty thieves and worse, released from Cuban prisons and mental institutions and sent to the States as a middle finger from Castro.
Intrigued by the hook, Stone took the assignment and spent two months in South Florida doing research — and coke. “I started to hit the trail in ’79, and continued till ’82,” he told Seitz. “I don’t think my writing benefited from cocaine, but I did write Scarface completely sober.” He holed up in Paris to do so, away from the chemical temptations of Miami and L.A., and banged out a Stone special: big, boisterous, provocative, and operatic. Everyone was wild about it except Lumet, who departed the picture due to that old standby, “creative differences”; all Bregman would say at the time was, “Lumet wanted to make one kind of movie and I wanted to make another.”
Enter Brian De Palma. Asked why he stepped into the picture as a gun for hire in 1983 (he usually originated his own projects), the Carrie and Dressed to Kill director gave two reasons: “I’ve always wanted to make a gangster picture and I’ve always wanted to work with Al Pacino.” Pacino had mentioned the film when he met with De Palma about working together on Blow Out, though John Travolta ended up starring in that one; its commercial failure was a big motivator for De Palma taking on Scarface when Pacino and Bregman came calling. Both of the projects the filmmaker was developing to follow Blow Out — a dramatization of the 1969 murder of labor leader Joseph Yablonski and an adaptation, again with Travolta, of the nonfiction NYPD corruption exposé Prince of the City — fell apart. (He and Lumet ended up switching projects; after De Palma was dismissed from Prince of the City, Lumet made the picture with Treat Williams in the lead.) De Palma figured he’d knock out this highly commercial gangster movie and get back in the industry’s good graces. Should be an easy gig, right?
“Spokesmen for Miami’s Latin community are reportedly nervous at the potential bad image that could result from the movie Scarface, now heading into production,” went the item in the August 4, 1982, issue of Variety, the first public indication of the controversy that had been simmering since Scarface set up its production office in the city earlier that summer. The producer and studio commenced a rotation of private negotiations and a public PR battle over the film, with the mayor’s office uncomfortably in the middle (representative Marylee Lander told Variety, “It’s just a gangster movie set in Miami … We’ve never seen our office with a censorship role.”)
City commissioner Demetrio Perez led the charge against the picture, while Miami Herald columnist Guillermo Martinez penned an editorial voicing their main concern: that the stories of the Marielitos were fueling anti-Cuban sentiment in Florida, which would be further amplified by a film that would “tell the nation and the world that the prototype of the U.S. gangster of the 1980s was a Mariel refugee.” (In a New York Daily News editorial following the film’s release, Miguel Perez charged, “the movie fails to say that even among those Marielitos who had criminal records, there were thousands whose offenses were so minor that they would not be considered criminals here, and thousands of others whose ‘criminal record’ was based on their opposition to the Communist regime.”)
“Well, Tony Montana was a gangster,” Stone explained to Seitz. “His mother and his sister represent the clean-cut Cuban community. His mother scolds him: You’re a scumbag, get out of my house! You’re ruining your sister! So there is a strong morality in the movie. I knew about the criticisms even in advance, that Cubans were not like that. But I’m sorry: A lot of Cubans did become Marielitos. If I’d done it about Colombians, they would’ve said the same thing: You’re anti-Colombian.”