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Al Pacino on Scarface 35 years later: ‘Bombast was what we were trying to say’

Al Pacino on Scarface 35 years later: ‘Bombast was what we were trying to say’

When he declared that the world (and everything in it) was coming to him, the audience cheered. When he shot Robert Loggia (that chazzer) the audience cheered. When he wore a white brimmed ladies’ hat and flirted with Michelle Pfeiffer the audience cheered. But when he got blown away by a sawed-off shotgun at the end, the audience cheered at that, too. When people say they love Scarface, they love every bit of Scarface.

The Oliver Stone-penned, Brian De Palma-directed rags-to-riches fable is 35 years old, and an anniversary screening at the Tribeca film festival was a reminder that this vulgar, brutal and, um, powdery gangster tale is every bit as entertaining as you remember. Though close to three hours, it zooms from the first electronic Giorgio Moroder beat to its final discharge of bullets. That a dazed, sourpuss Al Pacino slumping in a banquette surrounded by neon-lit mirrors half-listening to Richard Belzer make cocaine jokes is only one of this film’s indelible images tells you something.

After the rowdy screening, De Palma, Pacino, Pfeiffer and Steven Bauer came out for a nearly 40-minute chat.

Pacino, wearing a yellow scarf over a black shirt, was lively and gregarious, and explained how the film germinated after seeing Howard Hawks’ 1932 Scarface at a repertory theater in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. He dialed up producer Martin Bregman in New York, with whom he worked on Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico (and later Carlito’s Way and Sea of Love) and said: “I want to be Paul Muni.”

Oliver Stone was commissioned to write a script and Sidney Lumet, who was the original director, had the idea to adapt it to the Mariel boatlift, in which 125,000 Cuban refugees came to Miami in 1980. Pacino and Bauer, who was born in Cuba with the name Esteban Ernesto Echevarría Samson, spent a month together, hanging out and creating backstories for their characters. “He helped me with everything Cuban,” Pacino said, who, in case you don’t know, is not Cuban, of Bauer.

At its release, Scarface was notorious for its language. The F-bomb is dropped 207 times, or 1.21 times per minute. (It was a record holder until Eddie Murphy: Raw came out four years later.) “Bombast was part of what we were trying to say,” Pacino offered as explanation. This led to De Palma discussing the difficulty he had with the censors to get an R rating instead of an X.

“I’d had battles with the ratings board on all the movies I made, and this was a last skirmish,” he said. He sent three different versions and when the final one still got an X, he went back to his original and said: “We’re going to war with these people. And we won.”

Things got cringeworthy (but at least spirited) when the panel moderator, Jesse Kornbluth, asked his first direct question of Michelle Pfeiffer after the 16-minute mark. “As the father of a daughter,” he began, “I’m concerned with body image. The preparation for this film: what did you weigh?”

The capacity crowd at the 2,800-seat Beacon Theatre booed and hissed, and one woman shouted: “Why do you need to know?!” As Kornbluth got defensive, Pfeiffer responded: “Well, okay, uh, I don’t know, but I was playing a cocaine addict, and that was part of the physicality of the part.” Being a pro, she was able to spin a yarn out of this inelegant question, and explained how it was supposed to be a three- or four-month shoot, but the filming went for six months. “I was starving by the end of it. I had members of the crew bringing me bagels, they were so concerned – I was living on tomato soup.”