Before Scarface launched a boatload of T-shirts, posters, memes, and dubious imitations of Al Pacino’s cocainized Tony Montana, the film, written by Oliver Stone, was just a movie in trouble.
In this excerpt from his new memoir Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and The Movie Game, Oliver Stone recalls how he found himself caught between Pacino, Scarface director Brian De Palma, and Scarface producer Marty Bregman after a rough-cut screening of the movie that would soon become beloved as a classic of ’80s excess. Everything would work out, of course—in just a few years, Oliver Stone won the Academy Award for Best Director for Platoon, which also won Best Picture. Pacino and Bregman continued their long professional collaboration with Sea of Love and another De Palma film, Carlito’s Way.
De Palma’s next film after Scarface was Body Double, another very ’80s, freakishly watchable film that wasn’t an immediate success but has earned a ravenous cult following. And soon after he made another Al Capone-indebted gangster epic (one that got more initial respect than Scarface), The Untouchables. Stone eventually reunited with Pacino, this time as a director, in the adrenalized but surprisingly affectionate Any Given Sunday, another Miami-set tale of machismo, greed, and desperation.
Here’s Oliver Stone, recalling that fateful screening.
Bregman invited me to see a “rough cut” of Scarface but warned me that I should talk to him first, right afterwards. Clearly he was worried about my talking to Pacino, whom he knew I was close to creatively. He said if I told Al my problems, “it’ll only make things worse — you know Al. He’ll go nuts.” When I saw the “rough cut” one morning in a typically small, crummy New York screening room, I grew massively depressed. All our work seemed to have gone up in flames. Now, it’s true that I hadn’t had much experience seeing directors’ rough cuts, but at two hours and 49 minutes, this was not that, which would’ve been in the four-hour range. It had clearly been worked into a “finer cut” stage with some added effects, music, and so forth, but this was a mess. The beginning and the end were going to be okay, but the middle needed a tremendous amount of attention. I understood that; as a screenwriter, you can’t attach yourself emotionally to the outcome of a film, but how else could I have written it? The overall sluggish pace, the lack of cohesion and meaning overwhelmed me.
Marty, suddenly and suspiciously, took to his bed sick for three days. He was unreachable. I think he knew that I’d have “problems” with it, and he knew Al would be on my case. Al did call right away — and invited me to his Upper East Side apartment. He was disturbed, and the fact that I hadn’t seen the rough cut till now further agitated him. He told me Marty and Brian had apparently discredited us to each other, saying, “Oliver knows nothing about film” and “Al is a lunatic.” The truth was that Al was smart, savvy in what works or not in drama, and it was a good idea to listen to what he had to say. Al did have good ideas, and sometimes, like many of us, when he sensed resistance to his idea being thought through, he’d be upset. Yet he also could be obtuse and difficult. I decided I’d try to help the situation by presenting notes on the rough cut to all of us.
Which is exactly what Marty did not want me to do. I wrote roughly five or six pages of notes, addressing almost every scene, and presented them to Al at the same time I showed them to Marty and Brian. This, as it turned out, was a huge mistake. Marty, rising a little too quickly off his sickbed, went ballistic, castigating me on the phone and then in person. I was a “traitor,” I was leading a revolt against his authority, I’d jeopardized the film, and so forth, and Brian was 100 percent in agreement with him and very angry at me.
It was easier for Marty to pick a fight with me than with Al. And looking back, I realize if I’d been the director, I too would’ve been furious about my screenwriter talking directly to the star, undermining my authority. But this was a different dynamic. In this case, I had worked on the script far more closely with Marty and Al than with Brian. And it was Al who’d asked me to step in as a co-counsel in this dispute. Yet Al failed to defend me when Marty came down on me for betraying him. I’d trusted him to do so, wrongly. He was weak, evasive in that way, and I probably should’ve stayed out of this husband-and-wife storm, because ultimately, as is often the case, I was cut out as the friend. Al, over the years, maintained his love-hate relationship with his mentor/father figure Marty, while my own deep relationship with Marty ended harshly, and with it any prospect of doing my Russian dissident film. I wouldn’t see or talk to Bregman until Born on the Fourth of July surprisingly came around again six years later. And then the tables would be turned.
Ultimately Al persisted, and some of the notes I wrote were addressed, some not. I would hear things about the film in the coming months, about the Ratings Board giving it an X in October of ’83 — a rating that would’ve doomed the film commercially. Marty and Brian went back more than once with recuts, particularly with the chainsaw scene, and when Brian reportedly protested that he would go no further, the board acquiesced to giving it an R rating. There were publicity campaigns and premieres and so forth, but I had no contact with them or, for that matter, with Al, who never bothered to call me. I was as cut off as I’d been on Midnight Express — the typical fate of a screenwriter who cares too much.
The film opened on December 9, 1983, and by the expectations of the industry was more of a flop than a success; it ultimately made $66 million domestically. Over time, though, with foreign revenue and cable TV, and then all the ancillary deals, it yielded a great deal more revenue to Universal Pictures and to the “gross dollar” participants Bregman, Pacino, and De Palma. As a fixed “net gross” participant, I received only union “residuals” from television and video sales, ultimately a tidy sum, but hardly what they called in the film industry “a payday.” The audience reactions at the premiere, I gather, were mixed. For many it was “too much.”
Reviewers like Roger Ebert out of Chicago, the leading TV and Middle America influence, and the quirky Vincent Canby of the New York Times were very positive, but most were generally negative and sometimes cruel, separating their cult-like devotion to De Palma, who had a semi-Hitchcock status with them, from Pacino and myself—that violent writer. “A De Palma Movie for People Who Don’t Like De Palma Movies” read the title of Pauline Kael’s review in The New Yorker. “He’s stripped of his gifts. His originality doesn’t function on this crude, ritualized melodrama; he’s working against his own talent . . . a long, druggy spectacle — manic yet exhausted, with De Palma entering into the derangement and trying to make something heroic out of Tony’s emptiness and debauchery.”
Her review typified a new kind of self-conscious film criticism, and it ruined a lifetime of going to the movies for me. A sort of super-fandom wherein the critic, putting himself or herself between the movie and the audience, reveled in his or her subjective, specialized knowledge of the filmmaker, as opposed to just watching a movie without knowing who made it — as when we were young. The audience, for the most part, might not know who directed it, and it shouldn’t matter. A film exists on its own merits — no cheating allowed (reviews, money thrown at it, promotions, etc.).
I saw the film for the first time in a packed theater on Broadway with a paying audience, mostly Latino and black, which gave the film street cred, and right there I knew it was a better movie than the film crowd thought — and that it would last. I knew it from riding the New York subways. I knew it from hearing people talk on the street. I knew it from the people who shouted back at the film, who’d repeat the lines and laugh on the playgrounds and in the parks. These people knew it in their gut. The War on Drugs was bullshit from beginning to end, a fraud sending them to prison in massive numbers. These people knew that Tony Montana had a code of honor of his own, and as fucked up as he was, he was true to his nature till that end. He was a free man. I heard from his family years later that Pablo Escobar, the emerging king of cocaine at that time down in Colombia, adored it and screened it many times. And within a couple of years, the white folks who knew the drug world came to appreciate it. Michael Mann plunged right in with the TV series Miami Vice (1984). He saw the power of it, acknowledged it to me, and cashed in more than we ever did. By the time I made Wall Street in 1987, the young white guys down there were quoting it back to me at viewing parties.
The film would live on strangely in my life, an inside-the-park home run, an entrée to a certain wild, transgressive sector of our society. For years, people would congratulate me and quote me lines from it. Gangsters and their ilk would buy me drinks, champagne, in such faraway places as Egypt, Russia, Cambodia. I could’ve made a great deal of money by accepting a sequel, but my “gangster” thoughts were ready to explode into the new milieu of Wall Street.
Scarface was not The Godfather. It lacked the family and the sense of a tragic arc. But it was a juicy, crude opera of a drug dealer’s life set across a slimeball American materialism flowering in South Florida, the madness of a dream that always wants “more … more … and even more.” Greed was indeed good. The ’80s had arrived.
Adapted from Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and The Movie Game by Oliver Stone. Available on July 21, 2020 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2020 by Oliver Stone. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.