“This Was Not a Crime Story, This Was a Love Story”: Harold Becker on the Great Al Pacino/Ellen Barkin Noir, Sea of Love
In 1989, Al Pacino returned to the screen after a four-year hiatus to appear in Sea of Love, a thriller that reinstated him as a major star and cemented novelist Richard Price’s status as one of the great American screenwriters of his era. Price’s script, which follows a detective (Pacino) who falls in love with a suspect (Ellen Barkin) in a string of murders of men placing personal ads, has a rock solid construction that allows for a multitude of tonal shifts and digressions, all of which are orchestrated to perfection by the film’s director, Harold Becker. In Becker’s hands, the murder mystery becomes a gateway to a complex and moving drama about loneliness, jealousy, and obsession that also happens to be one of the most fascinating and absorbing procedurals of the 1980s thanks to the director’s rigorous attention to journalistic detail. Sea of Love is also a terrific New York movie, with Becker applying his photographer’s eye (I highly recommend checking out some of his still photography) to vibrant, chaotic city streets that only serve to make the isolation of Pacino and other characters in the film more profound. When it was released, Sea of Love was one of those movies every director dreams of making, an artistic, critical, and commercial success that seemed to please everyone. Almost 30 years later, it has aged into a classic, an example of flawless Hollywood craftsmanship that, like Casablanca or Rear Window, operates on multiple levels without seeming to strain for its effects. It’s a great romance teeming with eroticism, an ingenuously structured mystery, a philosophical study of what it means to connect with other human beings, a lively workplace comedy, and a poignant urban tragedy, all at the same time. Becker’s ability to keep all of these elements in balance — and his impeccable taste when it comes to putting together his ensemble, which includes John Goodman, Richard Jenkins, Samuel L. Jackson and many other terrific actors — is remarkable, and par for the course from the director of other gems like The Onion Field, Vision Quest and The Boost. The American Cinematheque will be paying tribute to Becker and his work this Friday night with a double feature of Sea of Love and Malice at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, with the director appearing in between films to speak. I interviewed him a week before the event to ask him how Sea of Love came together and what the steps were toward creating a film noir masterpiece.
Filmmaker: I think Richard Price’s script for Sea of Love is one of the great American screenplays of the 1980s. How did it come to you?
Harold Becker: Believe it or not, that script had been around for years. Sydney Pollack had seen it, I’d seen it — they were shopping it around. When it first came to me Al wasn’t attached, and even though I loved Richard Price’s writing I have to admit I was initially put off by the personal ad thing — it was my own prejudice, I just didn’t get it. Now, of course, I think more people are meeting online than in bars and in person. Anyway, a couple of years before we made Sea of Love, I met Al and we were interested in doing a film together called Johnny Handsome, but we never could figure out the ending. The premise was that a bank robber with a grotesque face goes to jail, then is given plastic surgery that makes him unrecognizable so he can make a fresh start. Al did a makeup test and looked at himself in the mirror and became the character, and it still gives me chills when I think about it — maybe we should have made the movie, Al still talks about it. The problem is that we thought that maybe if this guy changed internally, revenge would no longer be in his heart, but the ending was a revenge ending, and even after going around it for about six months Al and I couldn’t make it work. I went off and did another picture, The Boost, and then I got a call from Tom Pollock, who was the head of Universal. Was I interested in doing Sea of Love with Pacino? Yes, no question. I was on a plane the next day, or close to it.
Filmmaker: Aside from working with Pacino, what attracted you to it? You had already done some great cop movies like The Onion Field and The Black Marble…
Becker: What I understood from the beginning was that this was not a crime story. This was a love story. The procedural and the suspense, that’s the easy part. The hard part was doing a convincing love story because that’s what takes it over the finish line.
Filmmaker: Well, it helped that you had Ellen Barkin, who is wonderful in the movie. What led you to choose her?
Becker: I had seen her in some good stuff, Tender Mercies and Siesta — I loved her in Tender Mercies — and I saw the talent. And when you make a movie with Pacino, the water raises all the boats. All of the performances go up, because he inspires the people he’s working with and is held in such high esteem by the other actors because of his talent and his work ethic.
Filmmaker: Since you brought up the other actors, let’s talk about some of them. The ensemble in this movie is really strong. John Goodman—
Becker: John Goodman was living in a cold water flat, and Al and I both loved him. Al got him into the Actor’s Studio. At the time he was a great talent, but he was struggling. I was cutting the picture and he came to see me. He said, “I’ve been offered this television thing,” and me, being pure, said, “You can’t take that, you’re at the edge of a great film career!” Of course, it was Roseanne, and he took it. If he had taken my advice he’d still be in the cold water flat.
Filmmaker: Going down the list, you have some incredible people in very small parts — Sam Jackson, for example, is only in one scene at the beginning of the movie.
Becker: I never met him until he came on set, I just picked him from some videos the casting person, Mary Colquhoun, sent me. He was electrifying, and the funny part of the story is that he was supposed to be a drop and pick-up, because we shot the interior in Toronto at the beginning of the production, and the exterior at some catering hall in New York up on 155th Street as one of the last things on the movie. He only has two minutes in the film, but years later he said to me, “That was one of the best gigs I ever had, because the production manager forgot to put me in drop and pick-up, so I got paid for the whole goddamn movie!”
Filmmaker: Actors like him add so much to the movie. I feel like here and in all your work you pay so much attention to the specificity of every role, no matter how small.
Becker: Think of it this way. You’ve got a piece of music going, and a horn comes in. If it’s out of tune or off just a little, it will destroy you for the next five, ten minutes. That’s how I feel about it. On my first feature, I had extras, and when I needed a line my producer said, “You can get it. They’re all ready to give you a line.” Well, I didn’t get it. I had to dub the line, and it was painful. It taught me a lesson: there’s no such thing as a one-line person. It adds up. All of the details add up. It’s why I have technical advisors in every area. If I’m doing a scene where the detectives walk in, and they put on the gloves, and they’re checking the body, I want a guy in there who has done it. Because otherwise you borrow from the memory of what you’ve seen in other movies, and maybe those movies were wrong. When I worked with Joe Wambaugh on The Onion Field, he got me the judges who had been sitting on that case 20 years earlier. I learned very, very strongly there what you get from that kind of authenticity.
Filmmaker: That sense of realism extends to the scenes in the movie that have nothing to do with the cops or the investigation. I’m thinking of something like Pacino and Barkin’s first love scene together, where their feelings about each other keep shifting from attraction to suspicion to vulnerability to anger…it’s so honest and believable and the kind of thing that’s so difficult to pull off. How you create an environment to facilitate that kind of work from the actors, especially when you’re dealing with the added difficulty of explicit sexual content?
Becker: Part of it is giving the actors complete privacy and a comfort zone. When you make a film, it’s a public event — there are 60 to 100 people standing around. You have to cut that down so that the only people in the room are the sound man and the cinematographer — for the scene you’re talking about, I had the cinematographer operating so that we could keep it down to just a few people and not throw the actors into a public exhibition. The key thing is spending enough time with the actors. Al and Ellen and I rehearsed that scene on the weekend and improvised with the script supervisor in the room taking notes so that everyone knew exactly what was going to happen when we shot it. Then when you have an actor like Al, everything is real. I’ll give you an example: in the last scene of the movie where Al and Ellen are walking down 57th Street and he’s trying to get her back, I asked Universal to give me 400 extras so that I wouldn’t have normal people getting too close to the actors and looking in the camera. Of course, Universal cut it to 100, so we didn’t have enough to keep people running home from work out of the shot. All of a sudden, a big guy walks right into the frame and bangs into Al, knocks him back. Al, being the great actor he is, took it in stride and just kept talking like was in New York and walking down the street and bumped into somebody. It’s in the film. That’s what I mean about the focus of a great actor.
Filmmaker: That scene is emblematic of one of the things I love about Sea of Love, which is the context of the city always being very prominent in the frame. I know you shot the interiors in Toronto, did you get resistance from the studio about shooting the exteriors in New York?
Becker: Oh yeah, Universal thought we could shoot the whole picture in Toronto and save millions. Maybe if I didn’t come from New York I wouldn’t have felt this way, but I said, “I will not shoot exteriors in Toronto. Toronto is not New York.” Luckily, I had a very good producer in Marty Bregman, who is also from New York and understood. You get so much from New York, not just the locations but also the people — you get out on the streets and you’re bombarded. There were a lot of people in the background who were just there, they weren’t our extras.
Filmmaker: The crowds serve a kind of ironic counterpart to the theme of loneliness in the film. The characters are surrounded by other people but can’t connect to them. Pacino really conveys that idea beautifully.
Becker: And he’s the kind of actor who will give you something a little different each time, so if you have eight or nine takes you’ll have eight or nine options to choose from. In general, he and I would agree after shooting on what the best take was, but that’s also where a great editor can be enormously helpful. I had David Bretherton on this picture, and he had a real sensitivity in terms of both the performances and keeping the transitions going. He was on the set with me as well as in the editing room. You don’t do it by yourself, that’s for sure.
Filmmaker: Did you sense that you had something special in the editing room? You had to have known you were getting great stuff.
Becker: I knew we had something. I remember the studio wanted to open it the same day as the Ridley Scott picture, Black Rain. My wife Susie [Susan Becker, the costume designer on The Lost Boys, True Romance, and many other notable films] said, “Are you crazy? I don’t care how happy you are with the movie, you don’t want to open against Michael Douglas and Black Rain.” The studio didn’t want to move it up a week because then it was a week after Labor Day, and according to all of the great minds, the weekend after Labor Day is a dead week. You always wait two weeks. Well, we opened the week after Labor Day, and we had a box office hit. But you never really know you’ve got something until it opens. I remember when I made The Onion Field, it was done as a pure independent film — Wambaugh raised the $2.2 million himself, and he said to me “Harold, you’re never going to have enough money on this movie, but you’re going to have more freedom than you’ll ever have again.” It was true. Then when we went to the studios for distribution, they all turned us down. They didn’t wait — they saw the film in the afternoon and turned it down by the next morning. Eventually we got Embassy, and they didn’t have much money to market it, so we figured the movie was going to die. Joe said to me, “I’ve written another script, and I’ve raised the money for it. I’m ready to go into production. It’s a black comedy called The Black Marble, and we’re going to make back the money on that that we’re going to lose on The Onion Field.” Well, somehow when The Onion Field opened in New York there was a line around the block, and even though we only opened in 10 cities the picture did very well. It kept chugging along and made money. The year we opened The Black Marble, I got the best reviews I’ve ever gotten and the picture opened on Friday and closed on Sunday. So you never have any idea.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.