In the summer in New York, everything is covered in airborne grit; it’s not anything so clean and fine as dust, and not quite ash, just ambient black specks pirouetting through the air in a kind of Brownian motion toward any uncovered surface. Every arm and thigh in the city is slick with sweat: When the air isn’t still and glassed-in like a hot bell jar, it’s buffeted by moist, swollen zephyrs. It takes a thunderstorm to wring all that humidity out of the air, let the crust of grime wash from buildings down to the street, where by noon it will dry out enough to flake to bits, and be cast forth on the wet hot wind.
Everyone with enough money deserts the city for weeks at a time. Select portions of Upper Manhattan look not dissimilar to an evangelical church after the Rapture: Behind the high windows is an enormous absence. Those left behind are free to envision orthodontically perfect grins and bronzed limbs sprawled out by the sea, while we gasp for air.
By August, it’s the proles and tourists that control the sidewalks. The entire psychiatric profession hits pause. The air gets thick as caramel; the sun a disc of violent light; the thunder starts long before the rain arrives, if it ever does. The bodega line grows to conga length, and everybody’s buying ice. It gets hard to eat.
There are days when it’s so hot outside — or the A/C is on the fritz or just dripping feebly — that the whole damp fabric of the heat hovers like a chloroformed rag around my face. On days like this, my throat feels pinched and arid. It begrudgingly accepts cold water and cold coffee and little else.
Running on cigarettes and stimulants, I get shaky. My brain feeds on itself and excretes neuroses. Bad memories waft up in brackish gusts — loves lost and friendships ended, searing fumes of shame and regret. It’s too hot to become a madwoman in an attic — heat rises — but it’s also too hot to control my nerves and my anger, my fear of the future and rumination on the past.
All this is my betrayal of an essentially American doctrine of resilience. In this country, we are supposed to turn suffering into motivation; the will to work ought to stay intact no matter the time of year. The flow of capital never ceases, and neither should you. In New York, city of wealth and capitol of capital, the doctrine of work reigns in the congested streets from the north Bronx down to Brooklyn, condenses in the air and runs down our clenched jaws in salty drops. The pursuit of success — in work, in love, in investments — should never stop or sleep; neither should you, even if, in the heat, all you want to do is halt your bloom.
On days like this, I have precisely one solution to get out of this crucible of inner bile. It’s not medicine or moderate exercise or even HVAC repair. It’s not Superman’s icy Fortress of Solitude, or a ticket to the tropics. In fact it will cost less than ten dollars and only a few blocks’ worth of fortitude. It will require a blender, a few tomatoes, a piece of old bread, a little oil and vinegar and salt. It will require someone to feed, even if that someone is only hungry, baking, trembling little you.
There’s a quiet alchemy to cooking — a stillness of the mind brought on by rhythmic actions of the hands. There’s a congruity of mental and physical effort that’s rare in my life, so driven by a restless and self-cannibalizing mind, that I come to crave it. I enjoy cooking more than I enjoy eating; when drunk or anxious or sad, I cook too much, more than I can eat, and scramble to find hungry friends. Peeling garlic — slipping the pale cloves out one by one, prying the skins loose with my thumbnail – is a small act; peeling a head of garlic, mincing it, letting it foam aromatically in sizzling butter, is a little reclamation.
I got divorced a few years ago and fell apart spectacularly. I cried in public so often I learned the etiquette of crying in public — minimize noise, carry tissues, mutely shake your head if ever offered help. (New York City is a wonderful city in which to cry in public, as no one wants to offer any help.) A month ago I left a very good job in less-than-ideal circumstances, and I found out the muscle memory of grief was intact in me. Each circumstance represented my life diverting from a path that was easy to explain, appealing on paper; if not authentically ennobling, or enough to make me happy, being married and working at an institution with an excellent reputation were circumstances I could point to as external evidence of my worth.
In the aftermath of each I had to learn — slower than I’d hoped — how to rebuild myself piecemeal. Absent a husband, I had to muster friends who didn’t mind my ghostly presence on their couches, as I struggled not to disappear into my own grief. Absent the good job, I found out who cared about me only because of the job, or who would let the taint of scandal drive them away.
Each time, I learned to let fragments of me die and turned to nourish other parts. When the clamor in my head overcame me, I let my hands work at the cutting board, in the slow, sawing rhythm of return.
In the full and ghastly heat of summer, or in the grip of powerful emotion, it can be too much to ask of yourself to stand in front of a stove. Enter the cold soup — friend of the weary and the scorched. I have built a repertoire over the years — gazpacho foremost, but also other exemplars of the genre: Russian yogurt-and-radish soup, Hungarian sour-cherry soup, French vichyssoise topped with a fan of chives. Each asks so little of you and gives so much. There are few things on this Earth that can quench your thirst and fill your belly and soothe your restless heart at once.
In each crisis of mine in recent years, there was one friend who distinguished herself — who visited me in my mouse-infested first post-divorce apartment; who gathered my things and helped me move away from it; who slept in my bed when I couldn’t stop shaking, and watched marathons of sleazy true-crime shows with me. In Russian, one term for a perennial companion is a sobutilnik — “a friend who will share a bottle with you.” My own spin on this excellent word would be someone willing to make soup with you; to chop and blend and pour into the bowl. My best friend’s avid delight at the punch of garlic in the mix is better than rubies. There is little better than someone who understands that what you offer, when you offer a perfect soup, is all your love.
I first tasted Andalusian gazpacho in Spain with my mother; I made it for the first time with the man who would become my husband. It differs from most gazpachos I have encountered in America in that it is thick and smooth, a soup, not a salsa in a glass. The key is a heel of stale bread, which, when combined with olive oil, binds the broth, thick and cool and pale. When my husband left me I waited a year and made it again. Now I have made it for my mother, for friends, and even for myself, the first to receive my ire, the last to receive my gifts.
In the dog days of summer, when the grass dries pasta-pale, wildfires fill the news, and the skies portend collapse, find yourself a soup companion, and make gazpacho. Make too much — ideally, enough to fill the biggest container you have. Like resilience, you have to make it yourself; like healing, it will look a little different each time. Like forgiving yourself, it will brace you, make you stand upright again, cease the tremor in your hands. With each cold sour spoonful I restore myself, dilute the bile in my mind and my heart, return. Vinegar and oil and bread, bell pepper, cucumber, tomato, whirred and poured into a jar and sealed for tomorrow, and eaten at midnight anyway. One trip to the grocery store is all it takes me to remember that — even wending my way circuitously in a world of straight lines — I am moving forward, that there is cool and comfort to be had in this ashen city I love.
Andalusian-Style Gazpacho Serves 2 to 4
1 pound vine tomatoes (don’t use beefsteak tomatoes, please) 2 medium-size cucumbers 1 fresh green bell pepper 1 small red onion 2 cloves fresh garlic 1 chunk stale bread, ideally French or Italian A few generous glugs of olive oil (about a cup) Two generous pours (about 2 tablespoons) of red wine or sherry vinegar Salt and pepper to taste
1. Soak the bread in water for five or ten minutes, then squeeze it out with your fist till it’s a soggy solid.
2. Chop up all the vegetables and the garlic. De-seed the cucumbers and tomatoes unless you like tomato seeds getting stuck in your teeth.
3. Put all of the above in your blender or food processor.
4. Add the liquid ingredients and spices.
5. Pulse until it turns a pale red, reminiscent of vodka sauce.
It’s kind of bewildering to think that there hasn’t been a major New York retrospective of Al Pacino’s films until now. But maybe now is also, in its own way, the perfect time. Starting today, the Quad Cinema presents “Pacino’s Way,” a 34-film salute (running through March 30) to the legendary, New York–born actor’s extraordinary career. The breadth of the work on display is staggering — obviously, it includes triumphs like The Godfather and Serpico and Heat (and Carlito’s Way, and The Insider, and Donnie Brasco, and The Panic in Needle Park, and…) — but it also includes some of his lesser-known work, like the little-seen Local Stigmatic, a passion project from the late Eighties, as well as much-reviled titles like Revolution and Bobby Deerfield. (He’s got a lot to say about those, by the way. Read on.)
Central to this retrospective are two films directed by Pacino that haven’t before had a proper release. Wilde Salomé is a freewheeling, collage-like documentary he made about his obsession with, and efforts to stage, Oscar Wilde’s notorious drama of sexual self-destruction, Salomé. And then there’s Pacino’s film of the play itself, Salomé. Both works star Jessica Chastain, who was an unknown at the time. I spoke to Pacino recently about some of these movies, his beginnings in experimental theater — and also about whether he sometimes takes things too far.
Where did the obsession with Oscar Wilde and with Salomé come from?
I was in London and saw the Steven Berkoff production of Salomé. I’d never heard anything like it. As florid as the language was, it was the real thing: real poetry, coming from a place of deep passion. I didn’t even know it was Oscar Wilde who wrote this. “I would like to meet the writer,” I thought! [Laughs] It was so unlike Oscar. I mean, his plays are classic and great, but this really spoke to me in a different way.
Then, I played it in costume, in a production that was done at the Circle in the Square. Robert Ackerman directed it, and I enjoyed the experience. But it stayed with me, for some reason. I started trying to interpret it in different ways. I saw Man and Superman done at a podium, and it was a wonderful experience hearing that play; I thought maybe a Salomé reading like that could go over — because perhaps a costume and big sets can get in the way of the play a little bit. I wanted to present it in a somewhat abstract, avant-garde fashion, and allow the imagination to do the rest. I was in L.A. visiting my youngest children, and I was going to stay there. I thought, “What will I do while I’m here?” I started thinking on doing a documentary.
Is that when you met Jessica Chastain?
I did a little reading of it, in L.A., and I was casting the part of Salomé. She was unknown at the time, and came in to read for us…and she took me over. I remember looking over at the producer Robert Fox at the time, as she was reading. I said, “Are you seeing this? Or am I dreaming?” I knew at that moment: “All right, I’m gonna film this thing.”
I remember hearing over the years about her performance in Salomé and how she basically booked a lot of her early parts out of that.
Yes. That’s true. Director friends of mine, people I’ve known, heard about it and wanted to see it, so I sent them footage of what we were doing. It was so clear that she was a real actress and that she had this charisma and this classical feeling — and yet she could also do anything, pretty much. And they hired her! Right on the spot. It was great. While we were filming, I said to her, “I only hope that this film can live up or come close to what you’re doing as Salomé.” That became my goal.
At what point then did you decide it would be two films — the documentary Wilde Salomé and then the film version of the play, Salomé?
Making the documentary, you’re sort of writing as you go, trying to find the direction. Films don’t work much as collages; they need some sort of dramatic storyline, as fake as it may be. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew there was a point for this somehow, so I made a film of the actual reading we were doing on stage; my producers thought it would be a good side thing, if we put out the DVD. But then I realized there’s something going on here; this can be a part of the experience. I thought the actual Wilde Salomé didn’t have enough; it didn’t complete itself. I really also wanted a full-out experience of Salomé and what we did. So, now, there’s Wilde Salomé, and then you can also see the film of the play Salomé.
This is very much in line with the other films you’ve directed. Not just Looking for Richard, your film about doing Shakespeare’s Richard III, but also Chinese Coffee, which I love, and which is about two writers who get tangled up in each other’s fictions. All of these films are about the creative process. You investigate it not just in terms of subject matter, but also through the very forms of the films themselves. Where does the fascination with process come from?
It probably comes from early on in my life. I would have these talks with Judith Malina, who played my mother in Dog Day Afternoon, and who was the founder, along with Julian Beck, of The Living Theatre, which was my inspiration. And that was all part of the phenomenon that was going on in the Village in the Sixties. A lot of people don’t know I came out of the Village scene, and my association with The Living Theatre. I read that little bit of that Bob Dylan book [Chronicles], which is wonderful, and I read where he was, what he was doing. We had to have passed each other in the streets. It was a great place to be because it was a renaissance, and we all sort of were part of it. And you could be poor there; I don’t know about being poor in Manhattan anymore.
Judith was the most amazing of people. We would talk about the collective work, which was coming out of the Brecht ensembles. We tried it when we were at the Public Theater doing a version of the Bertolt Brecht play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which parallels the rise of Hitler and the rise of some Chicago gangster in the vegetable business. It’s kind of farcical — a satire with horror in it. Joe Papp allowed us the room, and for months we, collectively, thirty of us, worked on the play. We had a director…we had actually two directors there. And John Cazale was a part of it, and Richard Lynch, all these people. You’d start off with a scene and you’d have thirty people looking at it, and you’d get input with thirty different ideas. You’d talk about things for hours and days, and then you’d get up and do a little of it, and you’d go back and talk about it more. What you finally wind up doing together is forming a world. It’s called the world of the play, and once you have some handle on that, it gets easier to act in those things — you do less acting and more living. I was enamored with this. That process of working is not feasible in the commercial world. But Judith Malina was a real champion of that sort of idea. I was in my thirties when it happened; I don’t know how I’d feel about it now.
Besides the one that you’ve directed, have there been other films along the way where you feel like you’ve been able to have that kind of collective, collaborative process?
I don’t think so, just off the top of my head, because it’s another world. But every once in a while, you know, you’re talking to a few of your co-actors, and it’s so interesting the way they respond to things. Actors, mainly. Because it gives them something to do other than learn the words. It’s a little more difficult in this day and age because as soon as you hit that set, they’re in it; they don’t even rehearse. It’s every man for himself. You’ve got to go in there and figure it out on your own. But Bob De Niro also once told me, “Don’t rehearse unless you rehearse with people who know how to rehearse.” He makes a good point!
I talked to Michael Mann last year about Heat and he said something interesting contrasting the way you and De Niro approached your parts. He said De Niro would be the guy who asked a lot of analytical questions about his part and about his motivations, but that you just absorbed the scene weeks in advance and had it bouncing around in your head as a way of building out the character. Does that sound right?
Yes, at times, because I work relative to what is around me. The role, the amount of time, what I’m doing, who I’m doing it with. I really like to approach roles, if I can, alone. It’s almost like writing about the character. Consuming it. I used to say “channeling it.” But I require more rehearsal than I usually get, and so I have to figure out how to cope with that. The thing I remember with Heat is saying, “Well, what are these mood changes the character has?” I thought, “All right, he chips cocaine, this guy.” And it turns out he did! Every once in a while I’d ask Mike, “Could you shoot something?” Because the audience doesn’t know he’s chipping cocaine like a nut, and they’re thinking, “What’s the matter with him?” And so we even shot something. But it’s not in the film. So, sometimes I look a little irrational. But that’s the source I used. I thought it added a kind of interesting texture to a cop.
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In a lot of your earlier parts there is a kind of understated quality — the characters are very watchful, always absorbing things. In later years, you’re unafraid to go big, to at times be almost theatrical. Was that a conscious decision, or an evolution?
I think sometimes I went there because I see myself kind of like a tenor. And a tenor needs to hit those high notes once in a while. Even if they’re wrong. So sometimes they’re way off. There’s a couple of roles that, you know, the needle screeched on the record. But if I ever see a movie that I feel, “Oh, gee, I went too far,” I just fast-forward it a bit and move on. [Laughs] If I had to do it again…I don’t know, I might still do it that way. I think what happens is once you do it one or two times, it becomes a signature.
In Scarface, for instance. Brian [De Palma] said right at the start, “This is an opera, and this is what we’re gonna go for. This is not down-and-dirty realism.” And we called it Brechtian. That’s what we went for. Oliver Stone allowed for that in his conception and writing of the script. I saw that character as bigger than life; I didn’t see him as three-dimensional. It’s like, you know, Icarus and the sun; I saw him fly with that thing. That was the dynamic of Tony Montana that we went for.
When I saw Paul Muni do the original Scarface, I only wanted to do one thing and that’s imitate him. And of course my performance is not at all like what he did, but I think I was more inspired by that performance than any I have seen. I called Marty Bregman after I saw it, and said, “Marty, I think we should try to redo Scarface. Howard Hawks of all people!” And of course he got Lumet, who came up with that great idea of having him come in on the boat lift — a Cuban refugee. That broke the ice. Oliver went in there and wrote that script. Then somehow Lumet and Marty Bregman didn’t agree on the way to go with the film, so Brian did it. And he did a great job.
When [the Quad] offered me this [retrospective], I thought, if we’re going to do this, I would rather it be a lot of roles that are different — including roles that I sort of failed in. That’s sort of what it’s about: You’re seeing an actor’s struggle, and getting there and not getting there. An actor isn’t even aware that that’s happening. Because you take each thing on, hopefully, like it’s the very first thing you ever did.
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There are a number of films in this retro that weren’t well-received when they came out. I’ve always quite liked Revolution, which was a huge dud.
It was absolutely destroyed. There are people who have throughout the years known what Hugh Hudson did in that film — some of the work he did in that as a filmmaker is just simply extraordinary. We stopped filming six weeks too early, and we should have gone back. At the same time, I said, “Hugh, I think there’s a step to be made here.” And for twenty years we kept trying to communicate and get together. We wrote a narration, which is in the film now. We spent money to do that. They cut a little more out, too, I guess. It all seems to help the film; it lifted it.
There’s another thing about certain films that didn’t work. I don’t like to look at them again, but when I watch them in retrospect, sometimes I’ll see something interesting. I was never a big fan of Scarecrow, for some reason. I don’t know why, at that particular time. And probably I don’t know still if I’m a fan of it or not. I haven’t seen it all. But Quentin [Tarantino] has this theater where he shows different movies from different eras, all in 35mm. To me, that’s the test: 35mm. He says, “Al, take a look at this. Come, take a look at Scarecrow.” I said, “Well, you know…” I was reluctant to see it. But he said, wisely, “See the first five minutes, Al. Just look at the first five minutes.” Well, I went and I saw the first five minutes, and it was…a revelation. Because you have Vilmos Zsigmond, you have Jerry Schatzberg, together. Two great photographers, working on a location. And that opening on 35 is shocking! Jerry Schatzberg gets these two guys in that five-minute span to connect when they absolutely are opposite ends of the world.
We have something here in this country that everything should work. Well, I don’t believe in that. I really think there are aspects in film sometimes that in and of themselves work, and are worth going to see. I had an old European guy once tell me that. “You know, Americans have this thing with film that it’s gotta work, and what does that mean? It always works for you — a film that works for you doesn’t work for me, works for someone else, though.” But when you see a moment that is captivating…well, it’s worth it, isn’t it? You don’t look at someone’s fifty paintings. You look at the painting! One painting! That’s enough.
Another film in this series that I’m excited to see on a big screen is Bobby Deerfield, which is a gorgeous movie, but which was also considered a disappointment.
Yeah, well, I wasn’t a big fan of that. I saw it a hundred years ago, didn’t want to see it again, naturally. And then one day a couple of years ago, I was sitting in my house and it came on, and I watched it. And it is imperfect, of course — but ultimately, it got me. Because so much of the film is the time. You perceive things because of what’s around you; that’s part of our game. What I responded to in Bobby Deerfield is that in it, you saw something revealed in this character, low-key — something I was going through in my life at that time. It wasn’t a performance that was coming at you, but it was something personal, and it showed. I saw it on a TV set, in the intimacy of my home, so perhaps that had something to do with it, and so many years had passed, and the memories of it — it was revealing. Maybe on the big screen it won’t work. But I figured, you know, show the ones that didn’t work, too. You can see the effort, and the contrast. But then there’s the roles that do come along once in a while where you say, “Oh, gee, I want to do this. I want to paint this. I want to express myself through this role.” That’s the luxury. That’s when you’re lucky.
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What are some parts over the years that felt like that?
They come once in a while. I had it with The Indian Wants the Bronx, one of the first things I did Off-Broadway, and a really fortunate debut for me. A big step in my life, and certainly in what they call a “career.” Because I didn’t even know what a career was when I was in the Village in the old days. I just didn’t even think about it. I thought, “Where’s the paint, where’s the canvas?” That was what was in the air, in the streets, in the cafes that we performed in. You do sixteen shows a week, so you’re getting practice. Hopefully by the end of the sixteen, you know a little bit more than you did with the first show. That’s been my mantra: Just keep doing it. But I certainly remember feeling a certain expression when I did Pavlo Hummel, which I did in ’77, ’78. I felt it there. My roles in film, I certainly felt it in Scarface — that I was speaking to something. I was thinking just the other day, there’s a performance and then there’s a portrayal, and there’s a difference. When you finally get a certain thing, it becomes a portrayal. The others sometimes fall into the category of performance. But mostly what you’re always trying to do is get to the personal — because that’s what art is. It’s got something to do with how you feel about what you’re doing.
So many of your films have been genre movies: a cop thriller, a gangster movie, whatever. Take a movie like Sea of Love, which has a fairly conventional, predictable mystery structure, but you and Ellen Barkin completely transform it. By the end, we’ve been through this intense emotional experience. That’s something few actors can do on a regular basis.
I guess when you look at the roles objectively, you can see how different they are from each other. So, probably the guy in Sea of Love is different than the guy in Heat, or the guy in Insomnia. And then when you look at the gangsters, from Michael Corleone to Tony Montana, they may be in the same genre but they’re different. I know that I’ve consciously tried to separate the two. I try to find the difference in characters. Like Lefty in Donnie Brasco is different than Carlito in Carlito’s Way.
But there’s a four-year break between Revolution and when Sea of Love came out. I stopped doing movies for four years. I just didn’t want to do this anymore. I did three things in a row that didn’t come off. One was, of all things, Scarface, which did good business, but had a real backlash — it was run through the mill. Then there was Author! Author! And then there was Revolution. Those three were not only not received well, they were really criticized in a way that made me think, “Well, what am I doing? I don’t want to keep doing this.” I did the films, yes. You do them sometimes because you try things. And my great friend and producer, Marty Bregman, who produced some of the biggest films I did, said to me a while back, “What’re you doing, Al? What’re you doing?!” I said, “What do you mean what am I doing? I want to explore certain things.”
He says, “You don’t explore with this! Go Off-Off-Broadway, explore! Don’t do it on the street!”
I said, “Well—”
“No! It’s not…no! Don’t do it there!”
He was right, because there is such a thing as a career, and I’d never looked at it that way. That’s why they have tryouts out of town, you know? You don’t do everything there on the main stage. Because you’re not there for the avant-garde films you make; you’re there because you made successful films that were commercial. That’s why you’re there. You start understanding that.
What made you come back?
During my hiatus, guess what, I went broke. My accountant. It’s happened to me twice. So, there it was. No money! And I was living with my great love, Diane Keaton, and she would look at me and say, “Well, what are you doing?” Because any money I had I spent on The Local Stigmatic [a play by Heathcote Williams that Pacino spent some years turning into a film]. I had a real belief in that. I made a film of it, which I think you’ll see in the retrospective — a very interesting, crazy little thing. But I went to it, and worked on that, I had fun, and I didn’t want to be on the main stage anymore. Diane turned around one day and said, “What, you think you’re going to go back to living in a room? Like the old days?” She said, “You’ve had money for too long now. You gotta get back to work.” She used to read a lot, and had a lot of different things going on all the time. She was very active. She found Sea of Love for me. She said, “This script is good, and it’s good for you.” I read it, and I brought it to Bregman, naturally. Marty got it done. And it was a kind of resurgence for me because I came out and did that, and I did a few more films. You know, the old comeback.
There are those movies, what would you call them? More. A movie that will reach a larger audience. I would imagine The Irishman will have a larger audience. You’re playing with someone like Martin Scorsese, one of the great film artists of our time. At the same time he’s doing something that has come to be known as popular. Did you read that book, I Heard You Paint Houses? It’s wild. Wow. It’s a very interesting script. And there’s Marty at the helm of this tapestry he’s making. You never know what something’s going to be, but I think he’s really going to make something interesting there, no doubt about it.
Everybody’s excited obviously because it’s the first time you’re working with Scorsese. But you’re also reunited with De Niro, and then he’s reunited with Joe Pesci — all these expectations now.
Absolutely, yes, yes. But Scorsese’s got the script that he’s written with Steve Zaillian. The composition is there. Certain films have a shot. [Scorsese] is a great, great man. He’s a great person to work with, and to work for. There’s a trust you get with some of these directors. Barry Levinson’s one of them, too. They just make you feel like you’re taken care of. Warren Beatty too, same thing. No matter what, their equilibrium, their judgment is something you trust. And it gives you a certain freedom.
Have there been directors along the way who pushed you, or challenged you, in ways that you didn’t quite anticipate?
There have been some in the theatre. But I remember…well, this one’s a sad story. I was doing a play, and the director came up to me in front of the stage, he pulled me down to the foot of the stage and said, “Listen, Al, here’s the thing. This guy goes here and this guy does this, and when he does this, he does this. And he’s been doing that, and does this. You see?” I said, “Yeah. You know a lot about this character. I think you should play him yourself!” And that was it — we were finished after that! No more talking, no more friends. It was over. But that was me early on. Not me now, I have to say; I’ve been through so much that I wouldn’t do something like this again. Not that I’m against it. To this day, I don’t care for people who tell me what the character is. I can’t believe it’ll help me.
The best direction I ever got in my life in the theatre was by my mentor and dear friend Charlie Laughton. I was young, and doing Richard III. Charlie had helped me throughout my life; I met him when I was seventeen. He was older, he was a teacher of acting and a poet, and he was with me in Boston when I was doing Richard, with the great David Wheeler, the Theater Company in Boston. I had done The Godfather, and my life had changed. Everything had changed. I was drinking and doing everything you do when you’re going through this sort of drama, you know.
So, anyway, there I was in Boston doing Richard III. It was the opening, and I was working in this experimental way of doing it. Then we got to The Loeb, in Boston — I hope I got that right. And when I came out for the second act, two thirds of the audience was gone! [Laughs] And I thought, “What the fuck did I do?” My experiment had gone awry. And the set, which was all wrong for the play. And they were leaving. But as it went on, I continued on with it, and by the end of the two- or three-week run, it sort of got a little better — I mean, they weren’t all leaving. I was getting ready to leave, and Charlie said, “No, don’t go yet, Al. There’s something going on there.” David Wheeler said, “Let’s go,” and we went to the Church of the Covenant, and did it in a church. And I came out of the pulpit for the opening: “Now is the winter of our discontent…” and that was it. I was there. So, it happened. I tried it again…I even made a film of it. At that time, my life was so big, it could absorb Richard, you know. It stimulated my imagination.
But I remember doing a scene where I said all kinds of things, and I came out and I talked to the audience to tell them what I was going to do next. And I did it, and Charlie called me afterward, and said, “Al, remember one thing. When you come out to talk to the audience, everything you’ve done already, they’ve seen!” How about that? Talk about that changing you. I mean it was extraordinary. That’s the kind of direction one can tolerate.
‘Pacino’s Way’ Quad Cinema March 14–30
Wilde Salomé and Salomé
Open March 30th, Quad Cinema
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“Most of the winter we didn’t have heat and hot water,” says Juanita Jefferson, 60, a resident of the Breukelen Houses public housing development in Canarsie. “We never had a problem like this before. I had to pull out my extra clothes, walk around in blankets. I have heaters in every room.”
Her neighbor Annette Tomlin, 55, says she went two weeks without heat or hot water during the January cold wave. “I’m kind of accustomed to it now,” says Tienico Ragland, 37, who lives in the attached building next door.
The Breukelen residents are not alone. The New York City Housing Authority estimates that by early February, 80 percent of its 180,000 apartments had gone without heat or hot water at least once this winter, affecting more than 320,000 people. Breukelen Houses Tenant Association president Calvin Drumgo says he’s been getting “23 to 24 calls a day” from tenants complaining about it. On February 27, a group of NYCHA tenant leaders from across the city filed a lawsuit demanding that a judge appoint an independent monitor to force the authority to provide consistent heat and hot water, among other complaints.
On a recent weekend afternoon, however, the three-story buildings on Glenwood Road have the opposite problem. With the temperature a relatively balmy 40 degrees, the heat is blazing.
“If it’s freezing outside, don’t expect heat. If it’s warm outside, expect heat,” says Ragland, standing in her orange-painted hallway wearing a light summer dress.
“It fails to regulate,” says Tomlin, a freelance healthcare office worker who’s lived in her first-floor apartment for 23 years. She says tenants go from “like a sauna” to “shivering like you’re in Alaska.”
Breukelen residents say the complex’s boilers haven’t been replaced since the development opened in 1952. The New York State Homes and Community Renewal agency projects the “useful life” of a steel boiler at 25 years. Drumgo says NYCHA has promised the development will get a new boiler in 2020 — two winters away. (Neither NYCHA nor the City Hall press office responded to multiple requests for comment from the Voice.)
The repair problems at the Breukelen Houses are just part of a larger crisis threatening to overwhelm the city’s housing authority. Decades of government disinvestment coupled with aging buildings have increased the backlog in NYCHA’s capital budget, which covers major renovations such as replacing roofs and boilers, to more than $20 billion, estimates Community Service Society senior housing policy analyst Victor Bach, more than triple what the gap was in 2011.
This, he says, would only be worsened by President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal 2019, which would “effectively eliminate capital subsidies” to NYCHA, cutting them by $210 million. It also proposes reducing operating subsidies by $130 million and raising rents by 17 percent or more for many tenants.
NYCHA, says Bach, is “moving in the right direction, but clearly not enough to deal with critical problems” like boiler upkeep.
The Breukelen Houses development, pronounced “Brook-Ellen” by its residents, consists of thirty buildings spread over five blocks near the East 105th Street stop on the L line. It’s relatively low-rise as city projects go, with some buildings three stories tall and others seven. The 1,595 units officially have 3,605 residents, according to NYCHA figures; Drumgo says the actual number is more than 5,000 thanks to off-the-books family members and roommates.
When the development opened on November 6, 1952, it combined the social benevolence of the New Deal — the belief that the government should help working people move from overcrowded tenements to spacious, clean, new apartments — with the optimistic prosperity of postwar America. With hundreds of new single-family and two-family homes also built in the neighborhood, Canarsie’s population more than doubled between 1950 and 1970.
That era ended in the 1970s. Many of Canarsie’s white residents had arrived after fleeing the nearby neighborhoods, leaving Brownsville and East New York as crime rates went up as those areas became predominantly black, and East Flatbush as “blockbusting” realtors panicked white homeowners into believing they’d get stuck in a ghetto if they didn’t quickly sell their homes at half price. Canarsie’s white residents violently resisted black people moving in and black kids being bused into neighborhood schools, as several houses sold to black families were firebombed.
South of Linden Boulevard, then the boundary between Canarsie and Brownsville, the Breukelen Houses were home to the neighborhood’s largest concentration of black residents. The project was fairly evenly mixed between whites and blacks in 1970, sociologist Jonathan Rieder wrote in Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism; by 2000, it was about 90 percent black, with most of the other residents Latinos.
That year, the election of Ronald Reagan, whose social Darwinist worldview expressed resentment of taxpayers subsidizing the “dependency” of the undeserving, led to 50 percent cuts in federal aid for low-income housing, while residents of federally subsidized housing were hit with rent increases. In 1998, Governor George Pataki cut off state subsidies, leaving NYCHA with a $60 million a year budget shortfall; a few years later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg cut off additional city subsidies. By 2006, NYCHA was running an operating deficit of more than $200 million a year. Between 2002 and 2016, the authority’s total staff, serving 326 developments with 2,462 buildings, was reduced from about 15,000 to 11,000.
The budget cuts have taken a particular toll on the workers who maintain NYCHA buildings’ aging boilers. The number of heating plant technicians has fallen from 370 in 2012 to 256 today, and that includes 12 who came on the job in January, says Kevin Norman, director of the housing division of Teamsters Local 237, which represents them.
NYCHA’s intention “was to shrink administrative positions, but front-line management and caretaking staff at the developments were also affected,” the Community Service Society wrote in a March 2017 report, “Public Housing: New York’s Third City.” “Tightened resources meant poorer management and fewer repairs or improvements to its aging buildings.” By 2014, the city’s triennial Housing and Vacancy Survey found more than one-third of public housing residents reporting at least three problems such as lack of heat, rodents, and water leaks, more than 50 percent more than residents of privately owned housing — a gap that escalated sharply after 2008.
Meanwhile, as rents in private housing soared, NYCHA, where rents are generally set at 30 percent of household income, became the main source of housing for New Yorkers who make less than $40,000 a year. By 2014, based on income figures from the Housing and Vacancy Survey, NYCHA buildings must have accounted for more than half the 333,000 apartments in the city that rented for less than $800 a month.
“Unlike lower-income tenants in the private rental market, their crisis is not affordability, but whether they can survive the deterioration of their buildings and homes, and the institutional failings of an authority attempting to stem the decline with only marginal support,” the CSS “Third City” report said.
In 2015, a city comptroller’s audit ranked the Breukelen Houses’ repair backlog worst among NYCHA developments in Brooklyn, with 897 “noncurrent work orders” as of the previous July, and 44 outstanding Department of Buildings violations and 6 outstanding Environmental Control Board violations as of the previous September.
Tenants at Breukelen Houses complain about the slowness of repairs. Several apartments have plaster bubbling out of the walls from water leaks. In one woman’s home, the flap over the door peephole is a piece of duct tape.
“When it rains, I have to put down rags,” says Jefferson, who’s lived in Breukelen since 1983. “I’ve seen this project go down terribly. It used to be beautiful out here. It was great living.”
In his State of the City speech this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio said his administration has put $2.1 billion in city money into major capital investments in NYCHA, and $1.6 billion for operating expenses, intended to reduce the authority’s ordinary-repair backlog. That, he added, has paid for “almost a thousand new roofs for residents who suffered from mold and leaks” and “new boilers and heating systems in the developments that need it the most.”
“The City of New York under my administration has, pound for pound, year for year, contributed more to NYCHA than ever before in history,” he told WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer on February 16. De Blasio also stopped charging NYCHA more than $70 million a year for police services , and has committed $100 million a year for roof replacements. But he told Lehrer that the added $2.1 billion in capital funds had to be spread over several years to be spent “effectively.” The maintenance problems at Breukelen Houses go deeper than money, says Calvin Drumgo. The individual manager at Breukelen is good, he says; asked what’s causing the overall problems, he gives an all-of-the-above answer: “Mismanagement. The lack of funds. The lack of workers. The lack of workmanship. The lack of leadership at 250 Broadway [NYCHA headquarters]. There’s no accountability for heat and hot water, which is something fundamental for people to live.”
The city is also in the process of leasing vacant land such as parking lots at four public housing projects to developers, to construct buildings that would be half market-rate and half “affordable.” Half the proceeds would go to the affected project, and the other half to NYCHA’s general fund. In January,the city announcedthat it had selected Two Trees and Arker Companies — both significant contributors to de Blasio’s campaigns — as developers to build 500 units at Wyckoff Gardens in downtown Brooklyn. These plans have drawnopposition from residentswho say they haven’t been given a voice in the process and fear they would bring more gentrification than repairs.
NYCHA management is so centralized, Norman says, that workers need approval from the borough office to buy light bulbs. To keep heating systems functioning, he notes, you need enough workers to monitor boilers continually and check pipes constantly. Yet the authority has let the heating staff dwindle through attrition, while asking Local 237 to stop training workers on the grounds that the union’s program needed to be revamped.
Victor Bach adds that NYCHA needs to reform its management to make it more effective. Only in 2016 did it extend its hours so development managers and maintenance staff are available after 4:30 p.m., he notes.
The way the authority handles heat complaints lacks transparency, he adds. NYCHA is required to comply with the city’s heat laws, but complaints about heat in public housing go not to the city’s main 311 number, but to NYCHA’s internal hotline. (If residents call 311, they’re told to call that hotline.) Unlike privately owned buildings, violations and complaints at NYCHA buildings aren’t listed online by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Department of Buildings. And if NYCHA fails to make repairs, it’s not subject to HPD’s Emergency Repair Program, in which the city hires contractors and bills the owner. All this should change, Bach says.
NYCHA has also not provided information on the age of its buildings’ boilers to Bronx Democratic councilmember Ritchie Torres — “something we’ve been requesting for some time,” says a Torres spokesperson.*
“We need things to be addressed right here, right now. It’s just excuse after excuse after excuse after excuse,” Tomlin says, sitting on her couch, pointing out the duct tape on her radiator. “Housing shouldn’t have waited 25 years to look at something you knew was going to depreciate.”
“I’m blessed. I’m grateful,” says a 56-year-old woman who doesn’t want to give her name. “But I shouldn’t have to live like this.”
Over the winter, she says, she kept her oven on at night so the apartment would be warm when she got up at 4 a.m. to get ready for work as a fraud investigator.
“I work hard. I work twelve hours a day,” she says. “I should be able to come home to a nice decent comfortable apartment.”
*UPDATE: A spokesperson for Councilmember Torres emailed after publication to say that “the Council received the information on Feb. 5th, the day before the hearing on boilers.” The Voice has requested data on the ages of NYCHA boilers and is awaiting more details.
On the night of January 7, as temperatures around the city plummeted to 6 degrees, a pipe burst in the hallway at 1231 Broadway in Brooklyn, cutting off the cold water supply to Gabriel Martinez’s second-floor apartment.
Nine days later, Martinez stood on the sidewalk in front of the Bushwick building, wearing a heavy sweatshirt and a gray-striped black wool hat, and said it still hasn’t been fixed. The problem, he and other residents said, are the building’s absentee landlords, who they and tenant advocates charge are refusing to make repairs in hopes of driving out low-income tenants in the fast-gentrifying neighborhood.
A four-story, six-apartment building with a furniture store on the ground floor and tan paint flaking off the Corinthian columns that flank its upstairs windows, 1231 Broadway has had chronic problems with heat and hot water for years, tenants say. “Every winter it’s the same thing,” said Martinez, a stocky 30-year-old assistant electrician from Mexico City who’s lived in the building for five years and pays $1,600 a month for a two-room apartment. “Most of the time, it’s cold.” The building typically gets two or three hours of heat a day, he said.
“¡Tanto frio!” — it’s so cold — said Veronica Damian, 35, a thick black parka protecting her due-in-a-week baby. There’s no heat, her husband, Julio Merino, 34, said in Spanish through an interpreter, and the hot water is a weak trickle.
The couple, immigrants from Mexico’s Oaxaca state, have lived in the building since 2009 and pay $1,550 a monthfor a three-room apartment. When they’ve complained about the lack of heat, they said, their landlords have threatened to call immigration. Last winter, Damian said, one of them told her, “I’ll call immigration if you don’t leave,” and turned off the hot water in their apartment. When she objected, he raised his hand as if to slap her, but Merino threatened to hit him back if he touched her.
On January 13, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development issued three class C violations, which are deemed “immediately hazardous” and are supposed to be corrected within 24 hours, for the lack of cold water in Martinez’s apartment — one each for the kitchen sink, toilet, and bathtub. HPD gave the owners until January 29 to certify they’d fixed the problem.
The tenants’ lawyers, from Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, would rather have HPD fix the pipes and the heating system through its Emergency Repair Program, for which the landlord would be billed — doing so is “infinitely faster” than trying to get a Housing Court judge to order repairs, explains the organization’s deputy program director, Gregory Louis. They’ve also filed complaints with the city New York City Commission on Human Rights, on the grounds that the lack of basic services and harassment of tenants, all of whom are Spanish-speaking, represent discrimination against Latinos and immigrants.
Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A legal advocate Kevin Worthington describes the owners, brothers Hanny Chum Chang and Chen Ting Chang, as “trying to keep under the radar.” (Property records available at Property Shark list the owners as Chiang Kao Chang and Chen Ting Chang.) They have not registered the building with the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal, so it’s not covered by rent stabilization — although it should be, as a building of six or more units built before 1974 — and it was last registered with HPD in 2001, when it had a previous owner. HPD has issued four violations for failure to register in the last three years, most recently in November.
The Voice was unable to contact the owners: The phone number listed for Chiang Kao Chang at Property Shark was not in service.
The problem is not one of a marginal owner or an old-school slumlord trying to milk a few more winters out of an aging boiler, says Shekar Krishnan, director of Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A’s Preserving Affordable Housing Program. “It’s absolutely a pattern of harassment,” he says. “This is a tactic of forcing tenants out and replacing them with others who can pay higher rents.”
“This is not new,” Boris Santos, a staffer for City Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, told a rally of about 30 people outside the building on Tuesday, his remarks interrupted by a J train thundering overhead. The neighborhood, on the border of Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, has been experiencing “heavy waves of gentrification,” he said.
This stretch of Broadway, southeast of where the J and M subway lines divide at Myrtle Avenue,was the scene of massive looting during the 1977 blackout, and property records indicate that 1231 Broadway was likely abandoned for several years in the 1970s and early 1980s. The area is now in a secondary phase of gentrification: New luxury buildings are infiltrating among the weathered-brick tenements, and the low-budget music venues that signified the previous hipster phase have been shuttered or upscaled.
The block is also included in a plan to rezone all of Bushwick that the city has been developing over the past five years, with aid from councilmembers Reynoso and Rafael Espinal and some input from community residents. The plan would likely allow denser development on commercial avenues like Broadway while limiting the height of buildings on residential side streets — which would make a small building like 1231 Broadway a prime candidate to be torn down for a larger one.
In November, New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman announced a settlement in which Graham and Greg Jones, owners of three buildings less than three blocks away, agreed to pay $132,000 for aggressively pushing buyouts on tenants. The two bought the buildings, at 1075 Greene Avenue, 920 Bushwick Avenue, and 946 Bushwick Avenue, in 2016, and within a year, 33 of the 105 tenants had either taken buyouts or moved out for other reasons. The Joneses now advertise renovated apartments for $2,769 to $4,200. The $132,000 fine — $4,000 per vacated apartment, or about two or three months’ worth of rent increases — will go to a city fund for affordable housing.
Julio Merino, a restaurant-kitchen worker with a close-trimmed goatee, said one of the owners once accused him of being a drug addict. “The landlord has a history of always harassing people in the building,” he added. “That’s the way he manages it.” And in a heavily immigrant neighborhood, threats to call immigration carry weight. People have fear, he said in Spanish: “They don’t open the door for anyone.”
“It’s no accident that this group of people is being treated this way,” says Louis.
The city’s weak housing code enforcement exacerbates the problem, the tenants’ lawyers say. “The landlord is getting away with it in a legal system that doesn’t address emergencies very well,” says Worthington.
The city does respond to complaints, says Louis, but it seems as if getting it to act requires “efforts to accentuate the need.”
HPD performed a building-wide inspection of 1231 Broadway on Wednesday, an agency spokesperson told the Voice. “If the building owner fails to correct immediately hazardous ‘C’ class violations, HPD’s Emergency Repair Program will take the appropriate action,” they said. “HPD is also open to pursing legal action against owners to enforce compliance with the housing quality standards.”
The building already had 62 open violations, according to HPD records posted online, with half issued since December 7. The 18open C violations include the three for the lack of cold water in Martinez’s apartment, a no-hot-water complaint from the winter of 2016, several for an illegal lock on the building’s front door, and threefor the boiler room being locked, the first from December 2016. Other violations include mold, mice, roaches, and broken plaster and tiles.
“HPD is continuing efforts for owner outreach,” the spokesperson added, noting the landlords’ failure to register the property. Failure to register brings a fine of $250 to $500, and can also prevent a landlord from evicting tenants for not paying rent.
Tenants at 1231 Broadway phoned in complaints that the heat was off on December 9, December 27–28, January 1–2, January 7, and January 16, when they also said there was no hot water. Martinez reported the broken pipe January 8, and complained about the lack of cold water again on January 11.
The city has received more than 61,000 separate complaints about lack of heat since October 1, according to HPD. The agency says its 217 inspectors have attempted more than 63,000 inspections for lack of heat or hot water, and more than 250,000 overall. Last winter, it received more than 109,000 separate complaints, tried to inspect about 121,000 buildings and apartments, and issued 3,449 heat and 5,659 hot water violations. It charged landlords $1.8 million for heat-related emergency repairs, and collected a similar amount in civil penalties from 3,544 heat-related lawsuits.
Advocates want to see a tougher crackdown. “It’s not about waiting for the city of New York to do its job,” Imani Henry of Equality for Flatbush told the Tuesday rally. “We have to force de Blasio to arrest these landlords.”
“We’re talking no heat in the middle of winter,” says Krishnan, with only a “belated response” from HPD. “The landlord should be fined and held in contempt.”
“This is criminal behavior,” says Louis. “A priority has to be made.” It’s time, he suggests, to apply “broken windows” policing to “actual broken windows.”
The true heart of Michael Mann’s Heat is revealed a little more than an hour into the film. No, I’m not talking about the classic coffee conversation between Robert De Niro’s master thief, Neil McCauley, and Al Pacino’s obsessed LAPD cop, Vincent Hanna — that fantastic and immortal face-off comes a little later. I’m talking about a pair of scenes that, at first glance, might seem somewhat extraneous but, when put together, hold Heat’s essence.
In one, we see Hanna and his colleagues with their families at a bar. He and his wife, Justine (Diane Venora), are dancing, a rare moment of domestic intimacy between them. Suddenly, Hanna gets a message on his pager. Justine looks away, knowingly; she understands how this goes. Hanna immediately heads to a crime scene, where a teenage sex worker has been killed by Waingro (Kevin Gage), a former member of Neil’s crew who, it happens, is psychotic.
While Hanna is investigating the scene, the victim’s mother shows up, distraught. As she approaches, he moves to intercept her — he doesn’t want this woman seeing the ghastly state of her daughter’s corpse. He grabs her, and suddenly, they wind up in a strange embrace. And then — in a brief gesture that Mann lingers on, slowing down the action and ramping up the music — they dance. Hanna and the mother start turning, arms locked around each other, and it looks like nothing so much as a mournful slow dance, an equal and opposite intimacy to what he was doing moments ago with his wife. It’s a potent echo.
Mann likes to talk about Heat — which hits Blu-ray this week in a gorgeous new edition loaded with extras — as a contrapuntal, dialectical story. (That is among the many topics I recently discussed with him in an interview.) And the cat-and-mouse game between these two protagonists, the thief and the cop, both of whom we find ourselves thoroughly invested in, certainly shapes the film. Heat follows two men who get in each other’s heads and wind up influencing each other’s actions.
But there’s another counterpoint at play here, between these men’s work and their emotional, domestic lives. In Hanna’s case, the film is structured around the toll that being a detective — a job for which he feels he must keep his instincts sharp — takes on his marriage. In McCauley’s case, it’s the opposite. When we first see him, he lives in an empty, beautiful house, and is intimate with no one. Later, when he meets Eady (Amy Brenneman) and falls for her, he begins to open up. And suddenly, his emotional life starts to take a toll on his work.
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It’s this contrast that gives Heat such depth and turns it into something resembling poetry. Hanna struggles throughout with his marriage, with the fact that he’s never home for dinner, never emotionally available, never a real husband. Neil, once he becomes involved with Eady, starts to turn into the man Hanna refuses to be — the kind of person who might call home to check in when he’s out with others. As Hanna’s relationship falls apart, McCauley’s thrives.
And, in a final reversal, it’s the family man lieutenant who walks out on his attachments in order to get to the monklike career criminal. Toward the end of the film, Hanna sits in the hospital with Justine, waiting for word on her daughter, Lauren (Natalie Portman), who has just attempted suicide. (It’s another moment of rare domestic intimacy.) And yet again, Hanna gets a message on his beeper. With Justine’s encouragement this time, he’s off — in a funny, throwaway shot, Mann shows Pacino briskly trotting down the stairs, almost skipping, a free man.
It’s Neil, in the end, who can’t cut things loose — or acts to do so too late. He tries to take Eady with him on his getaway. Then, in a selfish act of vengeance, he detours to kill Waingro. By the time Neil does walk away — when he literally sees the heat (aka Hanna) coming around the corner and has to abandon his girlfriend — his fate is sealed.
Here comes one final convergence, which brings together the film’s twin counterpoints — cop and robber, work and home. Vincent was sitting in a hospital, holding hands with Justine, when he was called away — much as he’d been dancing with her earlier when he was summoned to the murder scene. Now, near the runways of LAX, after he has finally shot McCauley, he finds himself holding hands again — this time with the master criminal drawing his last breath. It’s not that, at long last, McCauley is dead and Hanna is alive. In the movie’s final shot, each man is perfectly still. They belong together. For both, this is the end of the line.
Michael Mann’s 1995 masterpiece, Heat, comes out this week in a brand-new, fully loaded and beautiful Blu-ray edition. To explore further what makes this epochal crime drama so special, I recently talked to the director.
The story of Heat was based on real-life personalities. There was real thief named Neil McCauley, and Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna was based on legendary Chicago cop Charlie Adamson. How close are they to the real-life models?
Hanna is fairly close to a combination of Charlie Adamson and a couple of other law enforcement people I’d known who were primarily hunters. Guys who, if you really asked them, “You have to tell me what motivates you, and you’re only allowed to say one thing,” their answer would not be, “To serve and protect.” They certainly have a moral compass, but that’s not the single motivating engine. It really has something to do with being at the tip of the spear. They’re predators, and the more difficult the target is, the more they’re attracted to it. Typically, they’re very self-aware. And that’s Hanna. As he says to Justine, “All I am is who I’m going after.” He’ll leave behind the wreckage of marriages, and he’ll never say, “Well, that just didn’t work out,” as if there’s some third-party responsibility. He’s the author of everything that happens to him in his life.
As for McCauley, what we borrowed from the actual Neil McCauley was his professionalism, and the high regard that Charlie had for him. Charlie would speak of him in glowing terms. “This guy was terrific. What a professional! We were sitting in Wieboldt’s department store in Chicago, and we had cut into the crew. We knew what they were gonna take down. We were inside the store when they were doing a burglary, going after the safe, which had a lot of cash in it. And one thing was out of place, and this guy walked away from months of preparation and investment!” Charlie admired that.
The characters are also quite forthright. They talk about how their minds work. Was that also true of the real-life people?
Yes. Charlie’s partner was Dennis Farina, who was a detective in Chicago when I first met him, during Thief. They lived a very aggressive life, and Charlie was very forthcoming. When he had contact with Neil McCauley, he looked forward to having a dialogue. And he’d be very flattering because he wanted Neil to be forthcoming. They’d have personal conversations: Do you have a woman? What’s your life like? What’s your life view?
There was an overt and an ulterior motive to Charlie doing that. The overt motive was that he was fascinated with McCauley, because the guy was great at what he did. The contradiction, that McCauley would blow him out of his socks without thinking twice about it, isn’t really a contradiction. The ulterior motive was that Charlie understood himself so well that he knew that his subconscious mind was picking up aspects of McCauley that he may not even recognize at the time. He knew there might be a critical moment three months later in which he would have to make a snap decision: Do I go left or do I go right? What behavior can I predict this guy is likely to do? He knew that, in those totally intuitive decisions, what he knew about McCauley would be a deciding factor. So he always wanted to accrue more information, get more in contact with him.
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This idea of predictive behavior — both the cops and the crooks in the film try to know as much as possible about everyone so that they can predict their next move — isn’t this a reflection of what actors and filmmakers do? Aren’t you essentially trying to predict how a character would act in these circumstances that you’ve created?
I’ve got a theory, which probably holds no water whatsoever, about why there’s so much genre content in media — meaning police stories, crime stories, so much of that. It’s because of the nature of the medium. Detectives detecting do what writers and directors do in the inverse: We have an idea for a character, and our character has origins that we invent. Those origins become an engine that causes him to do certain activities and express himself and have different attitudes based on who the character is. And then those activities have consequences and leave behind certain effects.
But a detective works all the way at the other end. He sees the remains of a crime — the leavings. He starts to work backwards to what happened. What was the activity? And if this was the activity, what could I discover about the motivations of the person whose identity I do not know? And how can those motivations allow me to predict his future activity, so that I can intercept him and find out who he is? So, if you’re a detective and there’s a burglary of, I don’t know, a retail fur store — this is a simplistic example — then you know that the motive of the thief is probably cash money. That means he’ll have to fence the furs. You can predict his behavior, and you start working fencers who fence furs. You work backwards. The process, even though it’s an inversion, is very similar.
You fill out the emotional lives of all these characters — not just the main two guys. Were you at all concerned at the time about how expansive the film was?
Not at all. That was my central ambition. I didn’t set out to do a genre piece that would conform to a set type. It’s not a cops-and-robbers film. To me, it’s human drama, period. And it’s a very ambitious film, but in its ambition it was to be two things. One was kind of a counterpoint: Could I pull off a very contrapuntal film in which there are really only two protagonists? The second was that I wanted to dimensionalize everybody — that everybody should have a life. Whether it’s Hanna and Justine, Neil and Eady, Chris and Charlene Shiherlis, Waingro and his psychosis, Breeden, the Dennis Haysbert character, Lilli … everybody had a life. That’s how I got emotionally engaged in them, and more invested in the outcome of what happened.
In the case of the two protagonists, Hanna and Neil McCauley, I separated them out because each is an engine that drives the thesis and the antithesis into the ending. I decided that only those two would be totally self-aware. That’s why they have a unique rapport. And the ambition behind this was: Can I have a drama in which, at the same time, we’re 100 percent invested in Neil McCauley getting away, and we’re also 100 percent invested in Hanna’s intercepting him? We don’t want the interception to occur, and yet we’re thrilled about the potential of it occurring, all at the same time.
But they really are two different people. McCauley was state-raised, angry and aggressive. And an autodidact in prison where — working on his body and his mind — he developed real discipline. And that’s his doctrine now: distance, no associations that can increase the risk of apprehension, with the plan to delay the emotional life he so desires — the Technicolor-Fiji ideal — till after he’s scored and splits.
There’s also another counterpoint in the film, between home life and work. Pacino’s scenes with Diane Venora are shot in these almost Antonioniesque angles, with a lot of flat surfaces and carefully composed shots. But when he’s out on the street, it’s a lot of handheld — we’re very close to him, in his head, as he’s surveying the terrain.
He is truly alive on the street. As he says to Justine, “All I am is who I’m going after,” after she says, “You think it could work out between us?” in the waiting room of the hospital. He’s not successful at home — that’s part of his prioritization. He’s most alive in that cool groove of deep concentration. That’s his inspiration: When he sees a piece of physical evidence and then he overhears a conversation, he puts two plus two plus two and it equals 11, 12 or 13, because he suddenly has an epiphany or he sees a pattern nobody else saw. That is his drug of choice, if you like.
There’s this scene when Hanna is out with the other cops and their families. He’s dancing with Justine, and he gets called away, to go check out the girl that Waingro has killed. At the crime scene, the girl’s mom shows up, and it’s an incredibly sad moment: Hanna goes to embrace her, and they suddenly start turning around, and it’s almost a dance — it’s basically the same dance he did with Justine. You see the kind of sacrifice that work involves — even dancing with his wife is taken over by the job.
Yes, and in the scene that follows, he gives Justine this sense that, when a tragedy occurs, he doesn’t close himself off to it and abstract it, the way a good homicide detective would. He absorbs it, because it feeds him information — even if it’s traumatic as hell. So he doesn’t stay distant to that mother’s anguish. He feels that pain, and he uses that. He’s a very unusual character.
You were working on the script for a long time — through the 1970s. How did it change over the years?
The big change was discovering what the ending should be. The contrapuntal ending: Hanna has just killed Neil McCauley, who is fortunate enough to pass away in the company of the man with whom he’s closest in a way, who’s the most like him and understands him the best. Once I realized that that’s how the movie should end, that meant I could build everything off of that. I never had that ending quite right that way, until whatever rewrite it was that led me to sit down with producer Art Linson in the Broadway Deli — which is no longer there, but it’s where Neil picks up Eady — and I asked him if he wanted to go produce this thing with me. He read it, came back and said, “You’re out of your fucking mind. You have to direct this.”
De Niro and Pacino give career-best performances here, but how were they different as actors to work with? Do they approach their characters differently?
Yes, but the differences are simply individualistic. We all come from the same basic place about building a character inside you, and being able to do what that character does — which then allows you to push even further. To say that an actor has one method of acting versus another method of acting is false with the guys I’ve worked with — who are the best. Pacino’s method of acting is the Pacino method, that’s it. For Al, it’s very much about internalizing the way somebody feels. He memorizes scenes two weeks before he’s gonna shoot them. He wants them to roll around in his consciousness. He’ll dream about them. And Bobby is terribly smart — brilliantly analytical. “Why does this guy do that?” and the specifics are all very important. You know, what he’s wearing — all that detail is very expressive of character and feeds something to him. Pacino’s less concerned about what he’s wearing.
I think my favorite moment with De Niro is this tiny little bit when he’s busted Ashley Judd for having an affair with Hank Azaria. They’re in the hotel room, and De Niro’s looking at her and says, sternly, “Clean up, go home.” And then he repeats it, “Clean up, go home.” It’s such an odd repetition, but it feels completely right for that moment.
It might be my favorite part of his performance. There’s something in that moment — he is 200 percent Neil McCauley. He is the boss of that crew. He’s taking responsibility. He’s being protective. “Clean up, go home”: I’ll keep the lie. I’ll keep the marital betrayal that I’ve just discovered, which potentially is dangerous to our security. And it turns out it is — because Pacino discovers Hank Azaria, and they use him to get to Ashley Judd.
The other little moment that always jumps out at me is the little grin De Niro gives right when he’s decided he’ll break with his pattern and go after Waingro. The thought process that passes through his face when he’s in the car, and then right at the end there’s just a little hint of a smile.
We shot that one night, I didn’t get it. We went back another night, I thought I had it. I didn’t have it, and we went back a third night. While we were out there at the airport, I’d say, “Let’s take an hour and go shoot that moment again.” And then we got it. [Laughs] It’s one of those really intangible things, but when you get it, it really pays off. Responding that way is a deviation from his discipline of distance and separation. It’s an error, but it’s thrilling to him — he’s responding viscerally, intuitively, spontaneously.
You very subtly underline the fact that it is an error by having Pacino say, right before that, “He’s gone, he’s left. I know how his mind works, and he’ll be gone by now.” That highlights the fact that McCauley has broken with the discipline that has kept him alive all these years.
Yeah, and then when Al goes to the hotel, what does he see? He sees a girl [Amy Brenneman], alone in a car. If he and De Niro hadn’t had the coffee-shop scene — if he hadn’t stopped to say, “I want to know more about you,” and had that face-to-face [during which De Niro tells him he has a girlfriend] — he wouldn’t have known about the girl in the car. And it may not be her. She may be somebody else. But the way she’s sitting there, alone in a car, it just clicks with something he learned during that coffee-shop scene.
In many scenes, the background feels vital to what’s happening emotionally. In Neil’s house, we see the waves in the background or the city lights stretching out into the distance. I know it’s often hard to keep the background in the shot while you’re trying to focus on actors, especially in night scenes. And I think this is one of the reasons why you turned to video in Collateral. Was it a challenge here?
The challenge wasn’t so much to keep the background in the shot as it was [figuring out] what is the physical environment in which to have a scene, so that it’ll impact how the audience is feeling and amplify what’s going on. It all starts with scene analysis: the dramatic content of the scene, what the scene is telling us, how should it make the audience feel. I want you to feel the alienation of somebody who has the absolute minimum in that place. He lives in a world of abstraction. That’s why I picked that location, with the ocean out the window. And the windows are kind of dirty, you know — he doesn’t pay much attention to maintenance. He’d probably have a fork and a knife and a spoon, a coffee maker, and that’s about it.
“Never do anything you can’t walk away from in 30 seconds flat if you see the heat coming around the corner.” Where did that line come from? Is it your line, or is it something you heard in your interactions with cops and ex-cons?
I’m trying to remember … I think it’s my line, from Charlie Adamson’s description about how Neil McCauley lived his life. Or how you’d have to live your life if you were gonna be as effective as you can possibly be as a professional thief. The more attachments you make, the more vulnerable you are. Get in a big romance, you run away to Brazil, after six months you have a bad night, you’re really lonely, you pick up the phone and call her — and they have you.
I’ve always wanted to ask you this: Were you ever a fan of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films?
You know, actually I’m not. [Laughs]
People compare your work to his all the time.
I haven’t seen all of his films. I think he’s a very good director. I think it’s historically very interesting because they derive from American film noir cinema, so it’s kind of the French version of that. It’s like when I first heard English bands, in 1965. I’d been a big devotee of Chicago blues and spent a lot of time in 1961, ’62, and ’63 listening to Muddy Waters in his local bar — and these were not white blues joints. And to hear these British bands, like the Animals, trying to do this music … it always felt very derivative at best.