Q&A: Jerry Schatzberg

The cult filmmaker on working with Faye Dunaway, discovering Al Pacino and his re-release Scarecrow

Arts+Culture Q+A
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Bronx-born Jerry Schatzberg has been celebrated for his trailblazing 60s fashion spreads and portraits of icons including Andy Warhol, Fidel Castro and Catherine Deneuve. And yet his best work, a clutch of films shining a light on the troubled outsiders, drug addicts and misfits at the edges of American society have become the inexplicably overlooked treasures of 70s New Hollywood filmmaking. His chilling debut Puzzle of a Downfall Child, starring Schatzberg’s then-ex Faye Dunaway, depicted the rise and ruin of a supermodel who suffers a shattering breakdown. He discovered Al Pacino for his follow-up Panic in Needle Park, the tale of a couple of New York junkies negotiating the mean streets during a heroin drought. His third, Scarecrow, is back in cinemas this month 40 years after its original release. Following two drifters who form a bittersweet friendship as they hitchhike across the mid-west, it captures arguably the best performances by Al Pacino and Gene Hackman on celluloid. From his Manhattan studio, the now 85-year-old gave us a rare interview – and revealed his one-time reign over New York’s nightlife as co-owner of legendary clubs Ondine and Salvation.

Dazed & Confused: You were expected to go into the family fur business – how did you end up in photography?
Jerry Schatzberg: My folks used to go out a lot with their friends and give me a dollar and tell me to get a meal and go to the movies. I went into the family business because I didn’t have anything else to do at that point – I was married, had two kids, and my GI bill had already expired. I hated it. I’d spend my lunch hour walking through a big retail photo shop, just fascinated by these cameras. One day I saw an ad in the Times for a Photographic Assistant and even though I had no idea what that was, I called. It was like falling down a rabbit hole! This studio, all black and white, touches of red, it was just like magic. My first job was for Bill Helburn – and later I set up my own studio.

You brought street photography into fashion in those early days, was that inspired by the life you saw around you in New York?
Yeah, I see a certain reality in the streets. I grew up in the Bronx, it was a melting pot of people that came to America. When I first got into fashion the models were still standing with their feet in a certain pose, their hands in a certain way. I wanted to give them the freedom of really walking, running, of just being real people. I still walk around the city, always take the subway, watch people, take photographs. Back then my film agent said I should move out to LA – ‘That’s where the business is’. I said ‘Yeah, but where do you walk?’ It wasn’t me, I’m a New Yorker.

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You’ve shot so many iconic names – who do you think you really captured the essence of?
I think I really got into the soul of Dylan. I’m always pleased when somebody likes the Blonde on Blonde cover. Faye Dunaway certainly – we first met when Esquire asked me to go to Florida to photograph her. She was in my first film, Puzzle of a Downfall Child. The story was based on my friend and favourite model, Anne St Marie. She helped me at the beginning of my career. I’d say ‘would you get up at four o’clock in the morning and do some pictures?’ and she would. I knew the problems she went through in life, and the basis of the script was one long interview I did with her.

Faye Dunaway is renowned as being fairly difficult to work with…
Oh yes. At this point she was being difficult for a number of reasons. One day I closed the set down at 11 o’clock in the morning, I mean she was impossible. There’s a scene in her dressing room where her character has a list of photographers she refuses to work with on the mirror, and Faye wrote my name on the list when we were having a little disagreement – I thought it was funny and left it in the film.

How did you deal with her character’s drug-induced mood swings?
We had a scale of how many pills her character had taken that day. We’d say, okay today you’re a four, and now you’re a nine, to figure out what state she’d be in.

DD: With your next film Panic in Needle Park, you discovered Al Pacino, right?
Panic was his first film – I saw him in an off-Broadway play and I thought, if I ever do a film, that’s the guy I want to work with.

DD: It’s been said that Panic reflected the reality of heroin addiction better than a documentary could. How did you get that authenticity?
At that time in New York in the 70s, you could see people shooting up in the alleyways. Joan Didion and John Dunne adapted the book Panic in Needle Park for the screenplay. Needle Park was Sherman Square, at Broadway and West 70th, and it was popular because it was where young white addicts could get drugs without going to Harlem. Keith (Richards) was funny – I knew the Stones, I’d photographed them a lot, once dressed as women – and they were in Cannes when I there with Panic in 1971. Keith said to me, ‘Hey, are you on the hard stuff?’ pointing to his arm, and I said ‘No.’ He said, ‘Then how come you can make a film like that?’

Did you and Pacino spend time with addicts?
We spent about six weeks hanging out at coffee shops where addicts hung out, going to seminars in hospitals. We’d sit there, separately, and the addicts just figured we were other addicts. In the scene in the drug-cutting lab, we cast extras who were ex-addicts, who told me how it’s done.

You were part-owner of a couple of clubs in New York before then, was that a business venture, or did you just want a place to hang out with your friends?
I was a fashion photographer and I used to hang out at discotheques, a friend of mine owned Le Club, and I thought it might be fun. First I had a club called Ondine, uptown. Salvation was the second one, on Sheridan Square. With Ondine, I had seen the Ad Lib in London, which was such a great club. I came back and said we’ve got to move on! Our manager knew all the young kids, the groupies, so we started bringing in bands from California. We had The Doors before they had an album, Buffalo Springfield before they had an album, Jimi Hendrix when he was still Jimmy James. Dylan would be there, when the Stones were in town they’d come, The Animals were always there, and it really took off. But my partners reneged on the deal, and that’s when I left and went downtown and opened Salvation. Jimi played the opening night. It was a wild time.

So how did the Salvation party come to an end?
I was getting ready to do a film, so I told Bradley my partner – who actually became a priest later – that I’d give up my share. He said ‘well if you’re going, I’m going’, and that was the end of Salvation. Somebody else bought it. And you know, you do get involved with a certain element with clubs…

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You mean organized crime?
Well, the people who have the cigarette machines, you better take them in, there are certain things you better do… The guy that bought Salvation from us thought he knew better than them, and it was only six weeks later that they found him out in Queens with some bullet holes in his head. It was a heavy scene.

Film-wise, did you see yourself as part of the 70s New Hollywood wave that included Scorsese, Coppola etc?
It wasn’t a movement like the new wave in France; we just wanted to make our own films and we had good executives who said okay. But yeah Scorsese was editing films from the room next to me, Coppola I had met a few times, especially because he wanted Al for The Godfather, but Paramount had turned Al down four times already. Coppola finally asked me to send footage of Al in Panic in Needle Park to convince them – that’s how he finally got the job, he was in The Godfather the next year.

It’s 40 years since Scarecrow was released – Gene Hackman always says it was his favourite role…
Hackman is very funny, so 80% of the time I’d just keep the camera rolling to see what he’d do or say. Pacino takes on a character night and day, Hackman, when he takes off his costume he’s Hackman. Onset Hackman sort of tried to intimidate Al, and Al can be intimidated, because he’s a gentle soul, even though he plays these horrific gangsters. I could have sat down and talked to Hackman and said ‘hey what’s going on?’ But I felt it was good for the characters so I just let it happen offset and onset – it seemed to work.

DD: Were you using real people as extras?

Oh yeah, we travelled across the country three times, and we’d cast the locals in bars and diners in Detroit or Denver. Like the bar where Hackman does the strip-tease, those were all pretty much alcoholics, winos, and I said, let’s see if we can pay them not to drink. Because you can’t cast faces like that, they’re unique. And it worked out beautifully.

DD: What are you most proud of in your career?

I’d have to say Puzzle, as time goes on it gets better. It wasn’t very well received in America. I would hate to pull out the terrible reviews I got in this country! It was Europe, especially France that supported it. The same people that gave me those reviews have changed their mind today. They say ‘Oh, it’s a great film!’ And I say, ‘Well, I wish you’d said that back then.’

Portrait by Jeff Henrikson

Scarecrow is re-released today, April 26

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