Jerry Schatzberg Recalls Al Pacino’s ‘Ego Trip’ After ‘The Panic in Needle Park’

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Move over, Clint Eastwood — the 91-year-old “Cry Macho” director isn’t the only nonagenarian American director intent on staying busy. At the age of 94, filmmaker Jerry Schatzberg hasn’t directed a movie since 2000’s “The Day the Ponies Come Back,” but still feels like he could make his swan song. “I’ve recently decided I’d really like to do one more film,” the New York-based director said in a phone interview with IndieWire last week, sounding a bit raspy but energized nonetheless. “I don’t know what it is yet.”

He added that he recently heard an interview on WNYC with author Atticus Lish about his novel “The War for Gloria.” Curious, Schatzberg sought out the book and has been thinking about it adapting it. “Most of my friends can’t believe I’m the age I am because I don’t act it,” Schatzberg said. “I don’t really think about it. If it catches up to me, it catches up to me, but I’m not looking to that.”

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However Schatzberg’s next directing gig shapes up, he has plenty of reasons to stay busy with the body of work he’s accumulated over more than half a century. “The Panic in Needle Park,” the gritty saga of NYC heroin addicts that introduced Al Pacino to the world, celebrated its 50th anniversary in July and receives a special screening at New York’s Film Forum this week in a 4K DCP restoration. Decades later, Schatzberg still has vivid memories of the movie and its dramatic impact on Pacino’s career.

The movie, an adaptation of James Mills’ novel scripted by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, utilized a radical documentary-like aesthetic to capture the misadventures of Bobby (Pacino) and Helen (Kitty Winn) as a pair of addicts whose lives spiral out of control. Schatzberg, who started his career as a photographer, was inspired to make movies injected with a visceral social realism after seeing “The Battle of Algiers” in the late ’60s.

“I just felt it was so honest and that’s the way I wanted to work,” Schatzberg said. While he made his debut with 1970’s “Puzzle,” it was “The Panic in Needle Park” that allowed him to get close to his subject matter, researching the streets of New York and casting real heroin addicts to populate the cast. (The actual shooting up in the film was done with saltwater.) “Once I started researching I learned quite a bit,” Schatzberg said. “A lot of the actors already knew about shooting up. I made it very clear that I didn’t want any drugs involved in the shoot. If I found out, I’d dump them. I found out after the film that there was one character who a druggie and did shoot up during the film, but he didn’t interfere with it.”

In any case, Pacino’s jittery, combustible addict at the center of the movie dominates the spotlight. Schatzberg was first exposed to the young actor’s talents on Broadway, and met him after one performance. “We went backstage after the show, there was this totally different person,” Schatzberg said. “You could see that he was acting before. I was very impressed with that.”

It didn’t take long for the project to launch Pacino’s career: After Paramount screened footage for Francis Ford Coppola, the director cast Pacino in “The Godfather,” and the rest is history. By the time Schatzberg reunited with Pacino for 1973’s “Scarecrow,” the actor was a star — and more demanding as a result. Schatzberg said that Pacino complained that “Scarecrow,” a road movie in which he starred as an enterprising businessman alongside Gene Hackman, didn’t give him enough screen time.

“First, his manager wanted him to see the film,” Schatzberg said. “I said, ‘Sure,’ and when he left, he said, ‘It’s not Al’s film, it’s the other guy’s film.’ I said, ‘That’s not true, but if you do believe that, don’t tell that to Al.’ He immediately went back and told that to Al, who called and said he’d like to see the film.”

When Pacino came to the Warner Bros. lot to watch the movie, he left without talking to Schatzberg. “I called Al and said, ‘What’s up?’ He said, ‘I think it needs editing.’ Everything he told me to do would put him on camera instead of off-camera. He was just going on an ego trip.” Nevertheless, Schatzberg said he tried reediting the movie to meet Pacino’s demands, “but it didn’t work for me, so I said I can’t do that, it’s not what the film should be.”

Pacino complained to Warner Bros. executives to no avail. “Two or three weeks later, I see Al walking towards me with a girlfriend,” Schatzberg said. “I’m just about to go out and hug him and he walks right past me. I was very upset about that.”

The pair didn’t speak for almost three years. “Then, I’m in a restaurant and he walks in,” Schatzberg said. “We looked at each other, I got up, he got up, and we just hugged. Finally, it was cool.”

These days, Schatzberg stays in regular contact with Pacino and they often co-present screenings of “The Panic in Needle Park.” But Schatzberg has plenty of other activities keeping him busy, including working with his archivist on a new website to upload all of his photography work (with features early images of Bob Dylan, among others) and opportunities to screen new films. He traveled to the Cannes Film Festival in July, where Palme d’Or winner “Scarecrow” screened on the beach, and spent several days in Paris afterward. “That was enough to feed me and get me going again,” he said. “I’m watching a lot of old films. I look at films by Kazan, who I knew before he died. There’s something about the way he worked is the way I like to work, too. He’s very real and honest about the way he approached acting.”

Schatzberg is also engaged with newer generations of filmmakers, including sibling duo Joshua and Benny Safdie, whose own naturalistic New York movies have been compared to Schatzberg’s work. “I’m delighted by that,” Schatzberg said. “Josh called me shortly after his first film and he told me he loved my work. That’s why I do this.”

Despite the restrictions of the pandemic, Schatzberg credited New York with keeping him going. “I still walk a lot,” he said. “I stay aware as much as I can. I want to know what’s going on in the world. Living in the city all the time has made me that way. As long as you’re comfortable doing something, you can do it.”

“The Panic in Needle Park” is now streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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