Oliver Stone is no stranger to high stakes — whether it’s the gruesome battlefields of the Vietnam War or fraught presidencies. In Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and the Movie Game, he draws from the dramatic — and entertaining — plot points of his own life. In this exclusive excerpt, Stone, 73, describes the making of Scarface — overcoming a tense relationship with star Al Pacino and discovering a young Michelle Pfeiffer in the process.
Excerpt from Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving, Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and the Movie Game by Oliver Stone
My anger throughout this period was wholly subconscious and mostly emerged in writing sessions. I was, overall, grateful to be doing well and back in the business. I had a job, I was well paid, and I was thirty-five. In my bones, I felt that I’d direct again. After eight or nine weeks, I sent the first draft of Scarface off to New York. Marty and Al liked it very much, no question. But Sidney Lumet told Marty it was violent and exploitive. [Producer Martin] Bregman did not agree, and to my chagrin, Sidney withdrew. I suppose Marty was expecting it, because he didn’t care for all the political angles that Sidney generally liked, and he went quickly to Brian De Palma, who’d suffered a significant financial setback with Blow Out and saw this, like Marty did, as a big commercial comeback film. De Palma had apparently tried earlier to make a deal with Marty on a draft (written by David Rabe) using the 1932 version, but bowed out.
I returned with Elizabeth to New York from Paris early in the winter of 1982, reconnecting with the city I’d abandoned in 1976. Warily avoiding the dangerous temptations of Los Angeles, Elizabeth and I bought an apartment on a high floor overlooking Madison Avenue in the East 90s, which allowed us to run our two new Labradors around the reservoir in Central Park. Blessedly, Liz was off the coke too and back to a healthy lifestyle. We wanted a child, and we consulted a doctor, who couldn’t imagine what the idiot doctor had told me ten years before regarding my fertility, haunting me with thoughts of chemical warfare. He injected me with the latest technology, quite confident that Elizabeth and I would succeed. This possibility raised my spirits enormously.
Meanwhile, Bregman went painstakingly through the script with me, with Pacino separately making incisive suggestions. We never discussed the Born on the Fourth of July debacle, but as I grew to know Al better, I found him surprisingly humorous, coming up with one-liners to fit Tony Montana, whom he was evolving into with a broad Cuban accent and all. It surprised me that Al had never snorted cocaine or known anything about drugs. According to Marty, he’d had a serious problem with alcohol when younger but was now completely dry. Yet he had no problem behaving onscreen like the ultimate coke addict. Al definitely belonged to the “Method” school of acting, worshiping the aloof Lee Strasberg, who with his wife seemed to be making a rather good living teaching theater to a new generation. Al also kept a respected acting coach, Charlie Laughton, close to him, which greatly irritated Marty, who still wanted to“manage” Al in all ways, particularly his “warped” thinking. Al, to my mind, always had one goal — the play. Nothing else seemed to exist.
I continued to refine the script, and without much delay, Ned Tanen at Universal, Bregman’s friendly studio, agreed to make the movie for some $14 to $15 million, which was quite good for a violent gangster film that, even on paper, was gathering a reputation for being “over the top” — another Midnight Express type of extravaganza from Oliver Stone, now paired with the excessive and violent Brian De Palma, who’d made Dressed to Kill and Carrie. Bregman asked me to take DePalma down to see the locations and meet the figures I’d come to know while researching. Brian was a cold man, like Alan Parker — it comes with the territory — but he wasn’t threatened by me and seemed to want me around. So did Bregman, who stayed very much in control of the film, sitting with Brian through every casting call. At one session I attended, I fought hard for Glenn Close to play the role of Al’s mistress in Scarface, as she’d been great in the reading. I’d written the original Elvira role as an upper-class New York girl whom I knew, slumming in South Beach with a gangster boss when Tony meets her. Marty dismissed my idea as nuts — “She’s got a face like a horse!” He was married to a beautiful actress, Cornelia Sharpe, a blond, and generally had a big thing going for blonds. Marty and De Palma ultimately chose a twenty-four-year-old newcomer, Michelle Pfeiffer, who scored hugely in the film and went on to a distinguished career. But at the time, I had to grudgingly rewrite Elvira’s part down to make the role more of a materialistic South Beach bimbo.
Al asked Marty to keep me on the set to help him, presumably with a director he wasn’t quite sure of. At first I was glad to stay on, although I was being paid only in per diem to cover my expenses, but I regarded it as a learning experience. Al was still, at this time, quicksilver of nature, turning on a dime, very sensitive to his environment, eyes, ears, skin on fire. If he saw a new face on the set, he’d react. He was just that way. At all costs I’d avoid his line of sight when he was in acting motion lest my concentration disrupt his own — somewhat like particle waves. Billy Wilder described this sensitivity in recounting how Greta Garbo banned him from Ninotchka for appearing in her sightline. It wouldn’t be easy to direct Al, but De Palma seemed indifferent to that; he was never really an actor’s director like Lumet, whom Pacino had wanted. De Palma, it seemed to me, was more interested in the “big picture,” and in that vision actors were more or less an important part of the scenery.
When the shooting finally started in South Beach in November of 1982, it wouldn’t take long for problems to emerge. Each day in the early rushes, Tony Montana’s “scar” would change form, even move around Al’s face a little, like a living worm. This created quite a stir, as no one seemed able to fix it until a new makeup man emerged who could maintain a consistent scar; but if one looks closely at some of the early scenes in the film, that scar has a mind of its own.
We also didn’t last long on location. As I remember it, we were there less than two weeks before Cuban exile community leaders managed to get us thrown out of the city. First, they started the ridiculous rumor that Castro was financing the film. And when they got hold of a script, they wanted Tony Montana rewritten as a communist agent infiltrated into the US as a “Marielito” by Castro. Above all, they insisted we were distorting their so-called “contributions” to American society, which to my mind consisted of a highly politicized anti-Castro radicalism that included financing various terrorist organizations, one of which blew a Cuban domestic airliner out of the sky, murdering some eighty people. No matter what dialogue we gave Pacino about hating the Castro regime, it didn’t matter to this humorless and rigid right-wing group. Our hasty exit from Miami would make the film’s already reckless image worse, but Bregman and Universal took a firm stand in positioning the departure as a planned retreat to the safety of the studio walls.
Excerpted from Chasing the Light: Writing, directing, and surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador and The Movie Game by Oliver Stone, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on July 21, 2020.