Jerry Schatzberg’s best-known movies are still his 70s touchstones: the indelible road movie Scarecrow, and Panic in Needle Park
with Al Pacino as a junkie on the very pre-stroller Upper West Side.
Schatzberg’s filmmaking followed a bountiful career in photography —
from fashion shoots to Bob Dylan, Fidel Castro and anyone you can think
of. His movies likewise boast a roll call of acting talent: Faye
Dunaway in his directorial debut Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Pacino and
Gene Hackman hoboing in Scarecrow, Morgan Freeman as a 42nd Street pimp in Street Smart, young Meryl Streep as a coltish politico in The Seduction of Joe Tynan.
For Anthology’s partial retro, the director, now 81, took a moment to
look back at his wide-ranging films and emotional dynamics onscreen and
The L: What inspired Puzzle of a Downfall Child and its fragmented story of a model? Jerry Schatzberg: It was about a friend of mine. When they don’t
need you anymore in that profession, they say goodbye, and that’s the
end of it. At the time I actually made tapes of my friend talking; she
didn’t quite remember what reality was, what was fantasy. And we felt
that was the way to tell the story. I became friendly with Faye Dunaway
and she became part of the project. She’d just done Bonnie and Clyde.
The L: Your next film Panic in Needle Park, was Pacino’s first big role, as a junkie. JS: I passed on it at first. But my business manager said, “Al
is interested.” And I had seen him a few years ago on stage and thought
he was sensational. So I went back to the producers and said how silly
I was. The street in the movie was 68th, 69th, where the junkies used
to hang out. It was where white kids downtown could get drugs;
otherwise you had to go up to Harlem.
The L:Scarecrow teamed Pacino, Hackman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. JS: I brought Vilmos in because of the work he had done for
Altman. Originally, I thought about keeping the camera moving all the
time, because they’re on the road. Vilmos saw it as more of a fairy
tale. And that’s the way we went. The last couple of years I’ve been
writing a sequel to Scarecrow — 30 years later.
The L: Between Panic and Scarecrow, you seemed interested in marginal figures. JS: I was interested in those people even in the photography. I
guess that comes from being born lower middle class in the Bronx. It’s
the way I think. I love that I found fashion, because I don’t know what
I would do. I’d probably buy an ice cream truck and go from town to
town selling ice cream.
The L:The Seduction of Joe Tynan, about a wayward senator, captured some tricky family dynamics... JS: And the reality of what happens in life for politicians.
Maybe if I did that film over it would be a little more sophisticated
in certain areas. But I was able to get a really good cast. They were
all people from New York theater. And I wanted to get away from the
television reputation of Alan Alda. Everyone knew him from M*A*S*H.
The L: The first 80s film in the series, Street Smart, features music by Miles Davis... JS: It was my dream, because I used to go to Birdland three or
four times a week. And when Miles was there, I’d always sit in that
first table up front. One night I was there, and I was friendly with
[drummer] Chico Hamilton. Miles finished his set and came over. Chico
says, “You know Jerry Schatzberg?” And he looks at me and says, “Yeah,
I know that motherfucker.”
The L:Reunion captures the Nazi-era friendship between a Jewish and an aristocratic teen. JS: I remember growing up, my closest friend was Sidney
Hertzberg. He was a poor kid, and according to his life I was rich. And
he and I would make these plans about when we were a certain age, if we
had not seen each other, we would meet at this theater, the Loews
Paradise I think. He started manufacturing clothes out in New Jersey,
and he’s a millionaire now.
The L: How was it working with Harold Pinter, who wrote the script? JS: Great collaborator. He sent me a letter three weeks ago that
he had just watched the film again and loved it. At Cannes [in 1989],
the trade papers were touting it to win a prize. But we got nothing.
And then it was badly distributed. They pulled it after three days.
The L: What are you working on now? JS: I’m thinking of doing a documentary for Thierry Frémaux, the
artistic director of the Cannes film festival and also the director of
the Institut Lumière. They’re having a festival next year and he asked
if I would consider doing stills and a film of Lyon. So I’ve been
looking at documentaries. I saw one last night that I thought was
terrific: Man on Wire. He’s total showbiz. You’d have to be, and crazy. •
The Films of Jerry Schatzberg, September 5-11 at Anthology Film Archives
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