Tag Archives: The Godfather

I Knew It Was You: The Sixth John Cazale Film

A few months ago, when Richard Shepard’s documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale aired on HBO, I wrote a post about it, going on and on (and on). Well, today the DVD of that doc hits the stores. (Inexplicably, it’s not yet available via Netflix, but if you add it to your queue, they’ll get the idea!)

The DVD’s bonus features include 40 minutes of outtakes from the interviews with Al Pacino and playwright Israel Horovitz; all of “The American Way,” a 1962 short film featuring Cazale (only clips are shown in the doc); and an audio commentary by Shepard. I’m a fan of Richard’s other commentaries (i.e. The Matador) as they are funny and informative, real How To’s for independent filmmaking.

OK, I’m biased. I’ve known Richard for a dozen years. I’ve worked for him, played poker with him, and, hell, he even recorded one of his commentaries in my living room. One of our favorite pastimes was hanging out with Adam Lichtenstein (the documentary’s editor) and talking endlessly about 70s cinema.

Recently, Richard gave me some time to talk about the film and its effect on him as a filmmaker…
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Richard Shepard: I am really happy the doc is even getting out on DVD. Y’know, for a forty minute short to come out on DVD is not an every day occurrence.

Stephen Altobello: A forty minute doc barely has a market in the first place, much less on DVD. It was awesome that BAM did a Cazale festival last year [screening all five of his films] and screened your doc a couple of times with it. I can imagine for a revival house that a Cazale festival is a license to print money.

Richard: That is so true. You would think they would do this all the time. There was just a screening of Dog Day Afternoon up in San Francisco where they showed the documentary, and I can imagine going forward in my life showing this movie in various film revival places, whenever they show those movies. Because it is a perfect companion to them. I kept joking that I was interested to see the Netflix demands for these movies after its aired on HBO. I think any Film Lover who sees one second of so many of those movies gets that Film Lover Erection.

Stephen: Sure. I’m picturing people having double feature nights, where they show your film and, say, The Godfather. It would be also awesome if it lives, like you said, in a revival house capacity. That it becomes known as the sixth Cazale film.

Richard: That would be insane if that was the case.

Stephen: Have actors and directors come up to you after seeing the film?

Richard: Well, it’s an unintended positive consequence of this documentary in that it is so actor packed that if you’re sending out a script, trying to get an actor attached to it, sending this documentary with it, it’s like people see this and they suddenly believe, truthfully or not–and I would like to believe its truthfully–that I love actors and the craft of acting and understand its importance. So in some strange way, it’s like this incredible catnip for actors for me getting them into other projects. Which is not what I intended, obviously, but I certainly don’t mind that consequence, and certainly every actor that has seen it has been extraordinarily moved and positive about it. It’s not like I’m getting phone calls from Brad Pitt, but it is strange how many meetings I go to and parties and whatever, and people are like, “Oh my God, you made that movie, I loved it!”

Stephen: I guess the big question is, since you’ve immersed yourself for so long in this project, do you feel you have been directing actors differently, better, more intuitively? How has it paid off for you in that sense?

Richard: Well, yesterday we were auditioning actors and this actress was really good, but she just wasn’t listening at all, and it was this weird moment where I am like, “She really can say her lines great, but she is not really listening to the other lines and not really reacting in any organic away.” And while everyone in the room was like, “She was great,” I’m like, “She was great, but let’s watch the tape of her because you’re going to see she is not acting because she’s not reacting, and thus we’re going to die moving forward because there is no real heartbeat there.” And that realization came from what I learned from Cazale, and I was like, “Wow.” I think I have a different eye than I might have even had a year ago, and I would like to see how that extends to actual work, as opposed to an audition process.

Stephen: Right. I suppose if you were an asshole, you might have a stack of those DVDs at your auditions and that would be your way of saying they didn’t get the role: “Here, take a copy on your way out.”

Richard: Or pay for one and maybe you’ll get a role! [laughs]

Stephen: About your interviewing process for the film, I heard you explain you’re not an interviewer but just very, very curious, which is a real difference. I hadn’t seen that many interviews with Pacino, but I was surprised at how generous and sincere he seemed. Were you similarly surprised during the interview?

Richard: Yes. I felt that when that interview was done that we didn’t need to do any other interviews and we would still have a documentary. He really came into that room wanting to talk. It was almost as if when we finished, he was upset that we were leaving. Which, by the way, is a great place to be if you’re doing a documentary, because it’s like, he was just ready…he came very thoughtful and passionate and emotional. I think that Pacino appreciates that we were coming at it from a place of love, and he didn’t think we were being disingenuous. He really came in there and said, “I’m giving you myself. This is all I’m doing today. I’m going to do this. I’m going to eat a dinner and have a glass of wine, and that’s my day.“

Stephen: I was so amazed. Everything you just said, by the way, reads in the film. What vibe you got while doing the interview, is on the screen. Sometimes a great interview doesn’t necessarily mean it will be great in the doc. And you lucked out there. I had a similar lucky experience interviewing Scorsese about The Last Waltz. Nobody would ever talk to him about that film more than what it would take to get from Taxi Driver to Raging Bull. It would get, like, a paragraph. And he gave me ninety minutes on The Last Waltz when his assistant assured me I wouldn’t get even an hour with him.

Richard: And he was probably thrilled about it, because, a) he doesn’t talk about it a lot and b) he is sitting next to someone who loves the movie and is smart about it. There is nothing better than giving an interview to someone who knows what they’re talking about. When I was promoting The Matador…my God, there was one day at the Toronto Film Festival when we did a three straight press junket and it came right after three straight days in France doing the same thing. It was six straight days, every fifteen minutes a different interviewer. And it was mind numbing on a level that you can’t even imagine. I was, like, this is the hardest work I have ever done! Trying to make these answers seem fresh. Trying to remain enthusiastic. Trying not to punch someone in the face. And so I know there’s nothing better than talking to someone who is passionate about your film and doesn’t feel like, “I am just a piece of the process as well,” or, “I have to do twelve interviews today,” but instead is like, ”I want to sit down with you and talk about your movie in a real way.” Those are the best interviews because you’re like, “Oh, I am totally connected to this person.”

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So, this holiday season, what could be a better gift for the Film Lover in your life than a DVD of one of Cazale’s films, coupled with I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale?

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Discovering I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale

A wonderful documentary will be premiering tomorrow night, June 1, at 8pm on HBO. It’s called I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale. Clocking in at a mere 40 minutes, it’s a profile of one of the best character actors of the 70s. Well, Hell, of all cinema.

Here’s the trailer…

I’m lucky to be friends with the doc’s director, Richard Shepard, and its editor, Adam Lichtenstein. When I saw the film at its Brooklyn premiere last August, I sent them an e-mail with my reaction, which was pretty laudatory. At the end I wrote: “PS So when is this gonna be on HBO? Maybe I’ll finally start my blog in time and put these e-mails up as a post.”

Gratefully, HBO gave me a few months to start Peel Slowly and get my sea legs. So, as I promised, here’s excerpts from that e-mail, written hours after I saw the doc and still on a high from it…

I imagine calling a film “a valentine” is something of a diss, and yet you found a way to be loving without being shameless, touching without being maudlin, and most importantly, you put Cazale on a pedestal but make us damn sure he belongs there. There isn’t one quote that isn’t supported by a clip or a still that does it justice.

This stuff is very tricky for me. I have a real problem embracing anything that scrutinizes 70s cinema. I don’t know why. That Raging Bulls, Easy Riders book, those docs from a few years ago, Stephen Bach’s book about Heaven’s Gate [Final Cut], and so on–all these things do too much of one thing or not enough of another. Adam had already forewarned me that this was NOT a doc about 70s cinema, per se, but in some nutty way, it’s probably the best thing I’ve seen that captures the importance of that era and the shift away from classic looks, classic acting, classic choices of prior decades. I have this theory that if you do it well, you can study one aspect and in turn summarize a much larger trend or period. John Cazale–and the contributions he made to those films–does that.

It’s also been a long fantasy of mine to make a doc about character actors, and I think your doc proves my point. One of these days, I’ll make that one.

The length is perfect! Perfect. I’m of the mindset that every film is too long, and every documentary is too longer. I really appreciate this film’s length, even though its probabaly excluded you from a lot of festivals and venues, right? Well, screw them. Ten minutes shorter and I’d be too hungry for more; ten minutes longer and I’d start thinking, Man, this guy’s forehead is really big!

It’ss the only time in the last 25 years I’ve thought Al Pacino was cool. Now, I’ve never been a Pacino junkie–I’m just a huge fan of some of the films he’s been and his contributions to them–so the fact that he’s evolved into this Patron Saint of Overacting bores me to tears. He bears no resemblance to the guy in the films you reference. So, coming into this doc, I was already prepared to take him with a grain of salt. And sure enough, there his is: bushy hair, leather shirt (OK, I don’t know if it was leather, it just seems to me that that’s what he wants to wear), husky voice (which I think is fake). And miraculously, for all of his praise he never ONCE sounds like he’s bullshitting. He seems unable to top himself in praise of his old buddy, and it always feels genuine. He still looks like an asshole (to me) but clearly isn’t. And I think there’s two men to thank for that: John Cazale and Richard Shepard. A really well-prepared and genuine interviewer can bring the best out of people, encourage them to shrug off the pat answers, and let their guard down.

I’m really grateful you made this film.

sma


Though you might not believe it from what you just read, I do have a gripe about the film—one crucial clip that I felt was missing—and so I’ve decided to post it here. (Consider it a tease for the doc.) It’s the “banana daiquiri” exchange from The Godfather, Part 2, when Michael and his brother Fredo are talking over drinks in Cuba:

A man, helpless and out of his element, asks his kid brother for some help, and the brother gently responds, with good humor. Sweet and subtle (two words I don’t normally associate with either Godfather film). To me, it’s the films’ best positive example of the transference of big brother/little brother status. (As opposed to the negative example, which is, of course, Fredo hugging Michael around the waist, while sitting in the chair.) It’s a perfect example of actors feeding off each other (which is discussed at length in Shepard’s doc). It also may be Michael’s lone likable moment in the film, and therefore Coppola really needed it to be there. (If you’d like to see the whole scene, I posted that as well.)

Interestingly, there’s a version of the screenplay for The Godfather, Part 2 (labeled “SECOND DRAFT”) that doesn’t have this scene at all. When it entered the shooting schedule is a mystery, but it’s a huge contribution to the notion that Fredo is the real heart of that film (if I remember correctly, this notion is discussed in the Cazale doc).


Anyway, regarding Richard Shepard’s documentary, It Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale…see it.

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The Godfather, The Big Chill…The Cutaway

Picture an edit room, with a filmmaker, an editor and a lot of cigarette smoke. They watch a scene again and again, and finally the filmmaker says, “There’s something missing. The timing’s all wrong.” And that’s when the editor comes to the rescue, and for this post, we’ll say it’s a cutaway that saves the day.

In film terminology a cutaway is “the interruption of a continuously filmed action by inserting a view of something else. It is usually, although not always, followed by a cut back to the first shot” (Wiki). There are many reasons a filmmaker and editor would settle on using a cutaway, sometimes to mask a problem in the shooting, other times to help tell the story cinematically. Many current TV shows, such as 30 Rock and Family Guy, use cutaways as a form of punchline. (Quickly becoming the lamest kind of joke on TV, I think.) My favorite reason for a cutaway is to help the pace, to allow the viewer to absorb information the way the filmmaker intended.

Here’s some examples…

The Godfather (dir. Francis Coppola, editors William Reynolds and Peter Zinner) has a fantastic cutaway early in the film, when Michael is telling Kay about his father’s relationship with singer Johnny Fontaine. It happens right after Michael says, “That’s a true story.”

Dramatically, he’s dropped a bomb, both for Kay and for us, and I think the cutaway to Johnny, which does three things. First, Michael’s pause is now incredibly long (11 seconds!), which is a hint of the Michael to Come: silent, calculating. Second, even though Kay is not looking at Johnny Fontaine, she’s clearly confused and stunned and re-thinking everything she ever thought of him, so why not see Johnny at that moment? And third, ideally, we’re doing something similar: we’ve been given our first taste of how brutal it might get and need a beat to process it.

How would it have played otherwise? Since we’ve all seen the film so many times (admit it), it’s hard to say. But here’s a simulation, the end of that scene with the cutaway removed


Next is something early on in The Big Chill (dir. Lawrence Kasdan, editor Carol Littleton). Meg (Mary Kay Place) and Nick (William Hurt) are talking about their friend Alex, who’s recently killed himself.

I expect that in the edit room they realized this scene had two endings: Nick’s joke and Meg’s comment. The cutaway allows Nick’s quip to get a healthy laugh from the audience as well as establish how dark his humor is. But Meg’s line is just as important. The cutaway to the street—not to the interior of another car and another conversation, mind you—lets us process each piece of information equally.

The last sample is from left field. God’s Step Children (dir. Oscar Micheaux, editors Patricia Rooney and Leonard Weiss) is a low-budget 1938 all-black-cast melodrama. Micheaux made his films outside of the studio system, and this was his 38th film since 1910.

The plot concerns Naomi, a light-skinned black woman who can pass for white. She and her brother Jimmy are unaware that she was adopted and are tortured by their attraction to each other. Here’s a scene where they see each for the first time in years. Since most of you haven’t sees this (few have), I’ve edited out the cutaway, to enable a before-and-after demonstration. Pay attention to their kiss.


OK.  Now, look at the end of that scene with the cutaway:

I know it’s crude filmmaking, but humor me and think of what that cutaway accomplishes: That innocent, split-second kiss is now 5 seconds long, which makes much more of an impression of forbidden love than any of the writing, acting or shooting.

So whether it was a New York edit room in the 70s, a Hollywood cutting room in the 80s, or God-knows-where in the 30s—I think the same thing occurred: the filmmaker’s point was crystallized thanks to the cutaway.

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Hyman Roth’s shirt(s)

A significant difference between the two Godfather films is that the first was made on a very low budget, while the second, benefitting from the success of the first, was quite a different story.

On the audio commentary for The Godfather, director Francis Ford Coppola repeats endlessly about compromised locations, restrictive shooting schedules, and constant corner cutting. On the commentary for The Godfather, Part II, he explains it was just the opposite: he was the goose that laid the golden egg and everything he needed was at his fingertips. That’s what makes this story from that commentary all the more amusing. It’s about one of the scenes in Cuba, with Lee Strasberg, and it’s a nice reminder that Coppola got his start with the barebones-yet-resourceful Roger Corman.

Before & After


Perhaps this is why Coppola decided to have Lee Strasberg topless in the next scene…

Hyman's hair shirt

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