Writing in a Very Dark Room – Oliver Stone revisits Scarface
An in-depth interview with controversial writer and director, Oliver Stone.
By David Konow.
“All I got’s my two balls and my Word — and I don’t break them. For nobody.”
-From the Screenplay of Scarface, by Oliver Stone.
Oliver Stone knew he was headed for trouble when he wrote the remake of Scarface, and trouble he got. The film was blasted by the critics upon its initial release in 1983, but since then the court of public opinion has weighed in otherwise. Now it’s safe to say that Scarface has become a modern classic, and considering the recent popularity of films that deal with the drug trade, it’s a film that’s ahead of its time as well.
Under the masterful direction of Brian DePalma, Scarface is an epic tale of a gangster’s rise and fall. On first viewing, some may be surprised to find out the film was written by Stone, but there are many themes in Scarface that often appear in his work. “To some, it’s a movie about cars, palaces, money and coke,” he told Playboy. “It’s not just about that. It’s about what those things do to you and how they corrupt you.”
With Scarface, Stone created one of the most vicious gangsters in cinema history, Tony Montana, which Al Pacino considers his greatest role. One of the script’s strongest points is its memorable dialog and many lines in the film stick in your head like the words to a song.
Scarface is a film that is popular with a wide variety of people. Brokers on Wall Street have told Stone they loved the film because it reminded them of their business. When watching the MTV show Cribs, which takes you inside the homes of popular musicians, many of the rappers have Scarface posters in their mansions. And some of the film’s biggest fans are real life criminals who have told Stone his portrayal of the gangster life was right on target.
Stone and his work often get bashed in the press, and what usually gets overlooked is that the man is a fine writer. For this retrospective of Scarface, he was happy to reminisce on one of his most memorable screenplays.
The version of Scarface that you wrote was not so much a remake of the original thirties film but a reinvention in a sense. What was it that appealed to you about remaking the film and having it deal with the drug trade?
The origins of the movie, it’s an interesting story. I had directed The Hand and it had failed at the box-office, I was completely ignored. In fact, it took a heavy hit, The Hand. If you go back and check the reviews, there was a lot of personalization in the reviews. It was probably because Midnight Express really hit people hard and some people went after me. It was also a period in my life when I also needed inspiration. I didn’t have inspiration at the time, I felt stale as a writer. (Producer) Martin Bregman had approached me and I said I wasn’t interested in doing it. I didn’t like the original movie that much, it didn’t really hit me at all and I had no desire to make another Italian gangster picture because so many had been done so well, there would be no point to it. The origin of it, according to Marty Bregman, Al had seen the thirties version on television, he loved it and expressed to Marty as his long time mentor / partner that he’d like to do a role like that. So Marty presented it to me and I had no interest in doing a period piece.
Then he called me months later, Sidney Lumet had stepped into the deal. Sidney, who I had met from Platoon, was a New York director and he had worked with Al quite a bit. So there was a lot of linkage there. Sidney had a great idea to take the 1930’s American prohibition gangster movie and make it into a modern immigrant gangster movie dealing with the same problems that we had then, that we’re prohibiting drugs instead of alcohol. There’s a prohibition against drugs that’s created the same criminal class as (prohibition of alcohol) created the Mafia. It was a remarkable idea. The Marielitos at the time had gained a lot of publicity for their open brazenness. The Marielitos were the quote “crazies.” They were deported by Castro in 1981 to America. At the time it was perceived he was dumping all the criminals into the American system. According to the police enforcement in Miami Beach, they were the poorest people, the roughest people in the prisons who would kill for a dollar. How could you get this outlandish, operatic character inside an American, contemporary framework? It’s very difficult if you think about it. Al is a brilliant actor. I worked with him on Born on the Fourth of July in 1978. He was genius in a room. And I saw the rehearsal for Born on the Fourth of July in 1978 with a full cast. He was on fire in that wheelchair, fire! It stayed with me for ten years. I put as much of that energy as I could into working with Tom (Cruise) in another way.
Did you try and tailor the role of Tony Montana to Al Pacino?
Of course, from the get-go. It was Al. Scarface grew out of this Lumet idea from the Marielitos coming to America, the brazenness, the drug trade, making it big, taking over from the old Cuban mob. I went with it and wrote the script. I researched it thoroughly in Florida and the Caribbean. I had been in South America recently and did some research there. So I saw quite a bit of the drug trade from the legal point of view as well as from the gangster point of view. Not many people would talk, it’s a very closed world.
How were you able to get in touch with those people?
I was exposed in certain situations on both sides of the law. I went to the Caribbean, there’s no law down there, they’ll just shoot you in your hotel room. It got hairy. It gave me all this color. I wanted to do a sun-drenched, tropical Third World gangster, cigar, sexy Miami movie. Pacino’s accent (laughs), people imitate it to this day and it was derided at the time. It may not be literally accurate but what the fuck, it works!
I remember you had said in Playboy that at the time you researched the film you saw a lot of things going on in the drug trade that later played out into big things like Iran Contra.
Oh yeah, the shit was heavy. In Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Miami Beach, Miami Dade, there’s different law enforcement departments, DEA, the FBI, plus Justice, so you have a lot of organizational activity and bureaucracy. And you gotta think about how they interact with each other and how much they all compete. This was the beginning of the drug war. The stories were outlandish. The story of the chainsaw was one of the things that happened that was on the record.
So that was a real incident that happened?
Yes, but not done that way. I dramatized it. They were rough, the Colombians played tough. So I moved to Paris and got out of the cocaine world too because that was another problem for me. I was doing coke at the time, and I really regretted it. I got into a habit of it and I was an addictive personality. I did it, not to an extreme or to a place where I was as destructive as some people, but certainly to where I was going stale mentally. I moved out of L.A. with my wife at the time and moved back to France to try and get into another world and see the world differently. And I wrote the script totally fucking cold sober.
Writing the script, was it in any way a therapy in weaning yourself off the drug?
Oh it more than that. One of the things that’s bugged me, I think a lot of writers will agree with this is we spend money on our vices and we pay through the nose for our mistakes. I’ll admit that coke kicked my ass. It’s one of the things that beat me in life. As a result, getting even, getting paid to make a movie about it and making it a good one on top of it, there’s nothing better. But to go back and finish the story as to how the film originated, Sidney Lumet hated my script. I don’t know if he’d say that in public himself, I sound like a petulant screenwriter saying that, I’d rather not say that word. Let me say that Sidney did not understand my script, whereas Bregman wanted to continue in that direction with Al.
Do you feel the story might have been too strong?
Yeah, I think that he felt there was too much gratuitous violence, which was the ultimate rap on the film that came from the critics. From Sidney, it went to a couple of other projections and then we went to Brian (DePalma), which was a good idea. And Al liked him and trusted him. It turned into a film that has its own history. It basically took off with Brian and Al, and Bregman was the control pilot.
Being that you had a cocaine habit, do you feel it gave your script a different perspective than if you had never tried the drug?
Probably so because the big switch point for me in the script is the fall of the king. I see Al turning paranoid in that movie, I see it perhaps because I was more attuned to it. But the paranoia of coke is the most striking (aspect), the fire of it. I’ll give you an example. You’re down in the Caribbean, you’re having coke, you’re drinking at a bar with three Colombian management guys. They run the cigarette boats out there with tons of shit every night. They go right to the Florida coast in these cigarette boats. They fly across the moon, they skim the ocean at night, it’s really incredible. Full speed, then they slow down to nothing, they whisper in the night, and you can’t hear the engines. Then they sneak up past the coast and the by-ways, past the Coast Guard. It’s really a trip.
You do this, and you get into that world. All of the sudden, you’re flashing coke in the hotel room at four in the morning, you’re talking the coke talk about how great things are, they started boasting, and I started telling them I was a Hollywood screenwriter. They thought I was an informer because I dropped the name of a guy who had been one of my helpers, he was making money now on the defense side of the ball game. But the guy had previously busted one of these three guys as a prosecutor. So at four in the morning, that gets dangerous! Two of them went into the bathroom and I thought they were gonna come out and blow me away. But you know, the truth of the matter is I got out by bullshit, by the skin of my teeth. I was nervous the whole night, nervous beyond belief. That never could have happened to me if I had been straight. And they never would have taken me to any conference, nor would I have the necessary elan to approach them. I would have been totally out of sorts. You can’t do it from one side of the coin.
During my first interview session with Stone, he prefaced our talk by saying he hadn’t read the screenplay for Scarface in some time. For the second interview session with him, he had a copy of the screenplay with him and we both had fun revisiting it.
I enjoyed this very much because it’s one of those scripts like Wall Street where it’s filled with zingers. We worked on the zingers a lot, they come from the subconscious a lot. What I love about original writing is you can really let out some of your deepest feelings. Sometimes you’re amazed what comes up. You say stuff that you don’t think as a civilized being you’d say.
So there were some lines of dialog in the film that reflected your views?
Oh, many of them. That’s the beauty of originals is you can be subversive. Your most subversive side can pop up and you can say anything through a character. You’re not saying it; Tony’s saying it or Manny’s saying it. You can say something so outrageous and if the actor goes along with it, nobody recognizes it as you and you got away with it in a way.
The restaurant scene were Al Pacino delivers that great monologue is one of my favorites in the film.
“Say goodnight to the bad guy,” yeah, yeah, yeah. Where is that? Hold on…(turns pages) Oh yeah, here it is: “Is this it? Is this what it’s all about, Manny? Eating-drinking-snorting-fucking, then what? You’re fifty, you got a bag for a belly, you got tits with hair on them, your liver’s got spots and you look like these rich fuckin’ mummies.” I know why. I was in a restaurant in Miami thinking those thoughts (laughs)! Because everyone’s over-fed down there and they live like manicured lives. They have Cadillacs, manicured fingers, so I was thinking, Man, what could be worse than this kind of death? Luxury is corruption. Corruption lives in luxury. (Continues reading) “Is this what I worked for with these hands? Is this what I killed for? For this?” Is this what I killed for is obviously a little over the top, but that’s the direction the script was going in general. This sounds very Shakespherian: “Is this how it ends? And I thought I was a winner.” How about the one about the women? “First you gotta get the power…”
Yeah! That’s one line everybody always talks about, how did you come up with that?
I thought about it, first you gotta get the money in America in my opinion. This was me in 1981-82 when I saw the system in my thirties. First you gotta get the money, then the power, then the chicks. That was the way it works…I think (laughs)!
That sounds like the natural order!
I think in dramatic terms where you hear that kind of concept, it’s power is always last, or it’s first but it’s really the second. It’s funny because the thing that they wanted was not the power but the chicks (laughs)! This one I got from a car dealer, “What’s a haza? It’s Yiddish for pig. It’s a guy who’s got more than he needs so he don’t fly straight anymore.”
You got that from a car salesman?
Yeah, not the dialog but the description of a haza more or less. A guy who wants too much, a pig, a greedy guy. There’s a few in the movie business, I really know ‘em! There’s nothing worse than a haza because they pig out. It’s okay to want money and to make it, but when you want too much money then you fuck the other guy. That’s the real drug war in my opinion, in the eighties anyway when I was researching, was guys would get to a place and they’d always blow it because they’d want more. Or they were incompetent. They’d go to a place where they had three thousand people working for them and they couldn’t do it anymore. They’d go crazy, they’d become paranoid or hit their own supply, or they would become really paranoid. Look at Escobar, the guy went nuts.
What’s interesting about the dialog in Scarface is how much the word “fuck” is used.
Actually in the script, there’s probably a hundred and something, I think Al made it three hundred and something!
Why was the word used that much?
Because I’d heard it a lot between Vietnam and Miami (laughs)! Also in New York, New York City. It’s not like I grew up in rural town life, I grew up in the heart of the city. If you read the script, the word fuck is used, it’s used deliberately, it’s not just thrown away. It’s used for rhythm. But Al managed to use it his way by inserting it more and finding the right rhythm. He used it well. I mean with Universal, it was a really tough film, it was really hated at the time.
I remember before the release the controversy about the ratings board threatening to give the film an X unless the chainsaw scene was cut down.
Yeah, but it was even more than that. It was the amount of revulsion…I was in L.A. at the time and the amount of revulsion of so many people inside the industry toward it. Like, “This was a horrible thing to do to our industry.” The critics were so cruel, except a few of them who got it. There was such revulsion, very much like Natural Born Killers, the bad boy complex, the bad boy movie. It was too much. We had gone one step over. Brian was in the hottest water of all.
When the script was done and the movie was being made, was there any concern from the studio then or that came after the film was done?
It was a tough movie to make. I think Bregman really championed that one through with Ned Tanen (then the President of Universal) at the time. Ned was his friend and I think Ned was the guy who took the hit. But I’m glad he made the movie. The way they made the movie was torturous for them. It was scheduled to shoot for three months, and it went almost six. I would have shot it another way, but that was Brian’s domain. I learned a lot from Brian, he was very generous. He let me watch everything.
So you were allowed on the set while the movie was being made.
Yeah, at Al’s request too because dialog changes were going on all the time.
There’s something interesting I noticed in how Tony has his downfall. Throughout the film he does a lot of bad things, but when he tries to do the right thing and prevents a mother and her children from being killed, that’s what brings about his assassination.
That was intended. It was based in fact on the idea that he was pure in a way. In his honesty there was something pure and his honesty is such that he cannot kill the innocent child. He just can’t, and it costs him his life.
Let’s talk about the process of writing the film. I remembered reading in the biography Stone (by James Riordan), your wife at the time Elizabeth said you wrote in a very dark room and you shut out the lights of Paris while you were working. Did you feel you needed to be in an environment like that to write the film?
Yeah, I guess so. It’s concentration. It’s basically a womb. I still do it on the movie set because I’m sort of known for building this black cave and carrying it around with me with every shot. But it really is important. It’s not like hubris, I just need separation and concentration. Because what goes on in the movie when you’re directing it is it’s very complicated, there’s a lot of things distracting you, and there’s many levels of thought. But you have to really get the essence of the script. You have to remember what it is you started out to do with the scene because you’ll get lost otherwise. I think what I do is I reconnect to the origin of the scene. I study the script and I say, “What was it I intended?,” and then I know where I’m goin’. So I need that womb.
Did you work a specific schedule when you wrote Scarface? Did you try and write a certain number of pages a day?
No, I’d feel that towards the weekly basis. I was not too strict about it, but I would say by the end of the week, I’d like to be here in the process. I believe in going back and getting the first look, the first draft, the first structure is really important. Like I’d say, by the end of the week, I’d like to be at this area of the script. The first draft is formed roughly over six weeks, could be seven or eight, could be three or five, but let’s say six. And doing it in a six-week rough, gives you a taste for the movie better. Do it fast, don’t get stuck. Bob Towne probably spent a day fixing a line, I’m not sure that’s the right solution. And I respect him very much as a writer, it’s just a different style of working. With Midnight Express, I had exactly six weeks, they were pushing me hard. And I did it. The first draft did hold up.
So for Midnight Express, the movie was pretty much the first draft?
It did hold up, yeah. On Scarface, a lot of improvements were made, but I wouldn’t call Scarface a six week draft frankly.
How much longer did you work on revisions after you completed the first draft?
Oh, that was a painful process because we’re talkin’ Pacino here (laughs). He was in his hey-day when he loved to rehearse. There were a lot of revisions, a lot of revisions of dialog, but the structure didn’t change that much.
You used to work on a typewriter in those days. Do you still use one?
No, I’ve moved on. I tried a computer, I’m not wild about the keys. So I use long hand and dictation. I dictate into a machine, I don’t dictate to another person. I’m going over it alone in a room into a machine and I often retape and retape. I like to speak, I try to act it out. I’ve always done longhand and typing. Now I try to do it through dictation. I think I’m more focused and you also get into characters. Now that I’ve been around actors a lot of my life, I do some of the acting myself. Sometimes I come up with some crazy stuff. It makes you work a lot harder at externalizing. You can’t fuck around (laughs). You’re hearing yourself right away. You gotta step up, you’re in the arena. You’re an actor now, you’re no longer a guy hiding in the shadows on the sidelines. It’s an interesting way to work.
You had mentioned earlier how Scarface was received very badly when it first came out, but years later it’s really grown in popularity. I hesitate to say it’s a “cult” film, but it’s gained a life of its own.
Oh definitely. We knew that back then. I would hear stories, people would come up to me, “A bunch of us lawyers we get together to watch Scarface. We know the lines.” You’d hear these stories for years. You’d know because people are telling you, and that is the way I judge movies. I have to, look at my career. I mean, I’ve gotten more slams than Bob Evans! There’s very radical points of view on me, right? Ultimately, I believe real people who come up to me and tell me in the street. This black dude came up to me the other day, it’s really funny, I thought he was gonna rob me. It was in a parking lot about midnight after a movie. A black dude, about 6’2, strong lookin’ guy comes up to me and circles me as I’m about to get in my car. He says, “Hey, are you Oliver Stone?” “Yeah.” “You do that football movie?” “Yeah.” “Man, that was a really good movie. Man, that said some things man.” I was relieved! He appreciated that I did a film about a black quarterback. That was more real for me than a review in the New York Times, honestly.
Why do you feel Scarface became popular years after it’s release? Do you feel it was ahead of its time?
Scarface was definitely on the money, it was right on. It was exaggerated, but it was close to the truth and nobody got it at the time. Miami Vice plunged in right where we (left off). Michael Mann saw it right away, he told me that. He saw the power of it. They cashed in on it more than we did. They made money on it, we didn’t! I think sometimes the pioneer dies, you know. The pioneer doesn’t make the money. He’s the guy who does it, he dies out, then the next wave is the one that makes it.
The last question I wanted to ask is about something that you said Premiere that got a lot of attention. It was a joint interview with Darren Aronofsky where you said: “I’m ready to go soon, I’m talking about a final movie, the final movie.” You had said this a while back now. Are you still planning to make your final movie?
Actually, that was misunderstood. I think that made the world press again. A lot of wires came out on that saying I’d announced my retirement. Then I saw (wires) from England from the movie critics praising that I was getting out of movies! So it was really a nice little circle. But if you really read the Premiere article in the spirit of it, you’ll see the context. I think it was a wistfullness about being, you know, I wish I were young again and could have the same energy as Darren has. But I’ve done a lot, achieved a lot. I’m saying now each movie really does count, you put your heart and soul in it, and you can’t take it lightly. So every time you invest a piece of yourself or peel off another layer of skin, it’s gonna cost you. And at the end of the day, how much skin can you give? I’m talking in that philosophical sense, maybe I don’t have that much more to give. But by doing that, I’m gonna go out like The Wild Bunch, I’m gonna go out with a bang! I’m gonna do something that’s gonna rock. I’m not gonna go out with a whimper. I’m not saying I’m retiring, maybe I do have the energy for another seven pictures, I don’t know. I’m not that old you know!
I think you’ve definitely got more movies left in you.
I think so. I do. I think I have a way of seeing things that most people don’t.
This article first appeared in Creative Screenwriting volume 11, #1