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Jerry Schatzberg on Models, Gene Hackman’s Retirement and the Scarecrow Sequel

Roy Scheider and Faye Dunaway in Puzzle of a Downfall Child

Jerry Schatzberg hated working in his parents’ fur business. They sold their coats to retailers wholesale and only came in finite templates. Schatzberg was frustrated by their lack of variation, and wondered why no one ever mixed and matched the furs into something new. Bored in the showroom, he read Town & Country—not out of an early attraction to fashion, but because it was the only magazine ever there. 

Despite that, he found himself shooting fashion photography years later. He figured he’d have to cultivate interest in it somehow, so looked to do it in a way that did. At forty he’d direct his first film, The Puzzle Of A Downfall Child, a story based in part on his relationship with the model Anne St. Marie, and dispersed from there. He’d turn down John Dunne and Joan Didion’s script to The Panic In Needle Park until his friend Al Pacino mentioned he was interested, and went on to direct him in his first lead role. At 53, Sydney Pollack asked Schatzberg to direct a film about country music starring Willie Nelson. Not instinctively drawn to the material, Schatzberg will evaluate that there isn’t much to country music, and will make Honeysuckle Rose without much to it accordingly.

Schatzberg lived amongst celebrities and the places they were made. The first discotheque he ran, Ondine, hosted The Doors’ first New York gig. As a celebrity photographer, he shot everyone from Aretha Franklin to Fidel Castro. He accumulated a massive network that proffered him the avenues of his career. He did Puzzle for Anne St Marie, he did Panic for Pacino, and he did Honeysuckle Rose for Pollack. The material often came to him, and the relationship that brought it was usually the draw. This might explain an oeuvre that is so anonymously bent to the shape of its source material that trying to draw a throughline back to Schatzberg would derange you. The content never seemed to call to him, so he always had to wring it for what it was worth. 

Puzzle Of A Downfall Child played this Thursday, December 12th on 35mm as part of The Museum Of Arts and Design’s “The World Of Anna Sui” exhibition. They invited Filmmaker to Schatzberg’s home to talk to him about his life and career. Upon arrival, one of his archivists answered the door and his archival director joined in on the foot traffic later out of breath. At 92 years old Schatzberg moves nimbly and keeps himself very busy. To live a long life all you have to do, he has suggested, is to keep working. He gestured me to a painting of a woman made of marble leaning in a dark doorway. It is Gene Hackman’s first foray into painting, his interpretation of a fantasy Schatzberg had, which, in fledgling strokes, takes itself as serious as you can imagine Hackman taking anything. 

Filmmaker: How do you know Anna Sui?

Schatzberg: I met her through Vincent Gallo. He invited me to one of her shows. But I’m sure I must have met her sometime in the ’60s. I go to all of her shows because they make me feel good. I took photographs of her a little while back.

Filmmaker: And how do you know Gallo?

Schatzberg: An Italian actress I knew was making a film with Vincent in Italy. She asked him: “If you had your choice of being photographed by anybody, who would it be?” And he said me. So she called me very excited and gave him my phone number. He came and we became buddies. I haven’t seen him in a while because he’s in California now. I haven’t talked to him in a while. In this business you become very close to people, but everyone goes their own way because there are so many things they’re working on.

Filmmaker: Do you still shoot?

Schatzberg: I’m always shooting. I’m a photographer. Even if it’s not with a proper camera, or a big camera, I’m on my iPhone taking pictures. I think if you’re a photographer you’re a photographer. I don’t do any commercial work. People occasionally ask me to do some editorial work, but I stopped doing photography per se at one point, and I got rid of my studio because I started to make films. I’ve been making films for about forty years now, and I decided at one point to get my work archived. Anna’s my archivist. I thought “Oh it’ll take me a year,” and that was ten years ago, so. 

Filmmaker: When you got into film that quickly became your priority?

Schatzberg: Well, I wanted to make this one film because it had to do with somebody that I knew, a model, the basis of this film [Puzzle Of A Downfall Child]. Vogue asked me if I would like to do Paris collections and I said, “Yes, of course.” I figured I’d take this model with me who was my favorite model, Anne St. Marie. She was quite well known and they said “No. We’ve seen her too much. We want someone new.” I was really annoyed at that. She spent her whole life being a wonderful model and when it came time to do a collection they were looking for somebody new. So, I was looking for a way to tell her story. I was going to do a series of stills and have somebody do the text. I got a call one day from some producers asking if I’d be a technical advisor on something they were doing on ABC for the World’s Most Beautiful Women. They had picked six women that were beautiful cosmetically and had good minds and good hearts.

I asked: “Who’s the director?” They didn’t have a director, and I had been fooling around with a motion picture camera. I showed them what I’d been doing, they liked it and said “Fine.” So I became the director. We went to London and the first woman was Antonia Fraser. I think I met her when she was still married to Lord Fraser. They divorced and she married Harold Pinter. I had met Harold on a shoot. So, I knew the people involved except the producers from California. They were always fighting with one another. I did the first episode on Antonia, and I had an agreement with these guys that if I got a job in New York I’d be able to do it and come back again.

We were waiting on Queen Sirikit from Thailand. She kept cancelling. I really had to get back to New York to do something, so I did. About a day after I left she came into London. I couldn’t come right back so the producers decided they would shoot it. And, in their usual way, they kept fighting with one another. The network got pissed and cancelled the whole thing. But it made me realize I should probably tell the story of the model on film. 

I was friends with Faye Dunaway. [This collaboration was soon after they broke off their engagement.] She asked me how my work was coming along and I told her about it. She got very excited about the character and committed herself to it. She had already done Bonnie and Clyde,so she was already an entity. I got one deal with a writer at Warner Brothers. He wrote something that was not very good.

So I got rid of him. Then I was in an elevator in California and the elevator emptied out and someone at the back said “Aren’t you Jerry Schatzberg?” Photographers are not usually recognized, but I had met him at a party. He asked “What are you doing out here?” I told him I was looking for writers and he mentioned he knew one [Carol Eastman] that just wrote a script that a director turned down. I read the script and loved it, so I made an appointment to meet with her and Faye. I thought she’d come and kiss my ring or something. But after we talked with her about the project, she said “Oh that’s nice,” very nicely, and left. 

Carol came by one day and I wanted her to listen to these tapes [that Schatzberg had recorded of Anne St Marie]. She was saying “Oh I’ve got a friend in a car and I’ve got to take them to the dentist.” She was already planning her escape. So I said “Would you listen to some of it?” And she asked “How long is it?” I told her two hours and she goes “No. No. No.”  “Well whatever you can listen to, listen to.” She listened to the whole two hours and was really affected by it. Paramount turned it down. They thought they were going to get Blow Up. My film was much deeper than Blow Up. Our agents had made a film with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward with Universal. They knew if they could make a film they could produce one. So they read my script and loved it. Joanne had a friend that went through the same experience. So we co produced it and that’s how Puzzle Of A Downfall Child got made. Joanne and Paul were very supportive and did not get in the way in anyway.

Filmmaker: I’ve never understood why it was that models are treated so horribly on set when actors, in a neighboring profession, are pampered.

Schatzberg: You can’t make a generalization, but when I was working the highest paid model was Jeanne Patchett and she was getting sixty dollars an hour. When Cindy Crawford and the supermodels started to work they were getting $600,000 a day to do what they were doing. The whole business changed in ways like that. 

Filmmaker: It seems like you amassed this giant network through your work running discotheques and your photography that allowed you to take different avenues in film.

Schatzberg: I thought that was the film I was going to make and after I finished that I’d go back to photography. Someone had sent my agent the script The Panic In Needle Park. They knew of me, I knew of them, the writers James Mills and Joan Didion. When I read it I turned it down because the lab had scratched the last 6 minutes of my first film’s negative and I was very upset about that. I went to my manager’s office and he said “You know, there’s a good script out there. It’s called The Panic In Needle Park.” And I said “I think I just turned it down.” It didn’t feel right because of what happened to the first film and I had a lot of friends who died from drugs. 

By this time he was managing Pacino, and I had seen him on stage four or five years earlier and loved him. Then he said: “Well, Al is interested.” I had always told him if I were ever going to do a film it would be with him. So, I went back and reread the script. It’s a totally different reading when you’ve got a character you can think about doing. I went back to the writers and producer, apologized to them and told them about how foolish I was. So we started over and made The Panic In Needle Park. That was invited to Cannes, and from that I got another offer. So I just started making films. 

Filmmaker: You’ve said that when you photograph a subject you have to fall in love with each other. How does that philosophy compare to when you’re working with actors?

Schatzberg: That happens when you’re working with an actor or model. There’s something that goes on. I just think I have to know more about them. I usually would sit down and talk with models for an hour before shooting if I could. It makes them feel relaxed and it makes me feel relaxed and it gives you something to talk about. It feels more like your friends than you’re there to do a job.

Filmmaker: Who didn’t you fall in love with as a subject and what was the effect on the photograph?

Schatzberg: I was asked to photograph David Merrick. He came in to my office and for some reason said “I feel like I’m visiting the dentist.” So I asked “Why? Are you frightened of me?” “I’m not frightened of anybody!” I had done a job for him and I didn’t like the whole experience. But someone I knew suggested he get me to photograph him. He didn’t know who Schatzberg was. And I realized I really didn’t like him. But I took photographs that are some of my best photographs. They make him out to be so awful. Photographers can do that. Your life’s in our fingers. One of my favorite set of photographs, not one of my favorite subjects. 

Filmmaker: I read that Gene Hackman didn’t like the actress who played the waitress in the opening diner scene in Scarecrow, so you played on that by directing her to mess up his order.

Schatzberg:  We were casting most of the time traveling. We did some casting in Hollywood but we’d just pick up locals. I have no idea why, but for some reason he was like “Why her?” Then I said something like “You just do your job and I’ll do mine.” Hackman and I got along very well, we could talk to each other. But then he used it. She wasn’t an accomplished actress or an accomplished waitress. So he used that when he asked her “Is it your first day?” He’d make remarks like that. He’d start ordering, and when she left he’d start to order again so she’d have to stop and come back. They used it. That’s what happens when you work with great actors like that. I love Gene.

Filmmaker: Do you like oners like that that give you opportunities to play with actors in a scene? 

Schatzberg: I go by instinct a lot. I don’t read these books about these single shots where you go up and down, over and around and through the tunnel. If I think it works for me, it’s what I do. I remember in Scarecrow, in that diner, Gene said he didn’t feel comfortable sitting at the table and that maybe they’d sit at the counter. That’s great for me, whatever makes them comfortable. I’ll rearrange my shots. 

In the opening hitchhiking scene on the road, these two guys meet and Hackman doesn’t want to talk to anybody. Pacino’s just the opposite, he says hello, Hackman just ignores him. As they’re walking Hackman tries to keep ahead of him so that if a car comes he’ll get the first grab at it. Pacino sees nothing’s going to happen so he goes to the other side of the road, and Hackman still makes sure to stay in front of him. It was planned that two vehicles would come by that they would react to, but they didn’t know I was sending a third vehicle out to see how they’d react to that. They reacted fantastically—they went for a whole scene, started running after the car and everything. It was difficult to repeat that, but we knew where the scene was going after that. After the scene Hackman thanked me because I gave him something to do. That’s what actors do, they react.

Eevery once in a while an actor will suggest something. In that scene in the prison where Pacino falls, Hackman told me to tell the actor in the bed closer to Pacino to get up. I didn’t ask him why. He’s doing his work as an actor. So the guy gets up and Hackman puts his hand on him like “I got it. Don’t worry.” He just wanted to add that little bit to show who’s in charge.

Filmmaker: Are you always looking for ways to surprise your actors? 

Schatzberg: Whenever I can. Always feed them. Actors are always reacting; it’s what their job is. Anytime I can give them something to react to, I will. If I don’t like it, I won’t use it. We build from that to give them something else to react to. You always want something fresh, something natural, something real. I use really good actors, so I can usually get something from that. 

Filmmaker: Can you remember a similar instance on Puzzle Of A Downfall Child? 

Schatzberg: When she comes to the studio for the first time and the photographer has something planned, doesn’t tell her what it is, and his assistant comes out with some kind of large bird — a vulture or something — Faye didn’t know that was going to happen. So she reacted. The first time it’s put on her arm it flies away and they have to bring it back. 

Filmmaker: You can tell.

Schatzberg: You can tell that she’s not a bird person. [laughs] 

Filmmaker: You’re always doing a lot with sound. Sound over black, or in Puzzle you start with voices off screen and still frames that have to find where those voices are coming from. Later, Lou’s present tense voiceover is used over the dialogue in a flashback. 

Schatzberg: The advantage I had with something like that is that Carol is a very good writer. She would write things like that into the script and I would interpret it for the film. The thing I’ve been working on for about six years opens up with a scene someone watches from up on a roof. From the roof we see a guy flying through the air, jumping around, but as we get closer we see what he’s doing. You find out that he’s going through some calisthenics.Then we learn about why he’s doing that as the film goes on.

Filmmaker: Most of your films feel completely different from each other stylistically. People always try to do things for the sake of the material, but I think you might actually do it at a level that’s very bizarre to me.

Schatzberg: I think that’s what it is. I let the material inspire me. The fact that they’re different is because of the subject matter. Honeysuckle Rose has nothing to do with anything except that Willie Nelson smokes dope all the time. In Panic it’s heroin. They’re different stories. Usually the story will somewhere reflect my life. Through what has been written, or rewritten, we get to that story. If I’m watching a good director, I don’t want to see the same story twice. I want to see something different. And the reactions of the actors—I don’t always want to see someone screaming and hollering. We all have different parts of our character and use them at different times. 

Filmmaker: Maybe it has something to do with you starting films at an older age. You’ve talked about how you didn’t start out young like Scorsese, pouring yourself and your life right into your films. You went outwards after Puzzle and never returned.

Schatzberg: First of all, I never went to school. All the filmmakers that were around at that time—De Palma, Spielberg—went to school. Somebody’s up in front of the class telling you what it is to make a film. I never had that, I just picked it up from all these books [gesturing to the shelves of films, books, and magazines that cover his walls] and stuff like that. Before there was a school no directors went to school. They just made their films. Because they work for a studio, if their films are successful, a studio wants them to make the same kinds of films. So some of that got in there. My choosings are all different. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not good.

I don’t think there’s any rules. When you goto school there’s more rules.Just learn how to choose good actors and give them clues. We all make the movie. It’s not made by one person. 

Filmmaker: You were put up in an office at Warner Bros. for a couple of years and nothing came of it. What’d that time look like? 

Schatzberg: Scarecrow won the Palme at Cannes and they wanted to get a hold of that. They give you a contract, they give you an office, and they give you money each week. I came from not getting money each week because I was scrounging to make a film. They hired me to sit in an office and develop scripts. Well, I didn’t develop the first three scripts that I did. Or I did, but I hired a writer to do them. I worked with Carol Eastman six hours every night over dinner.

I think Scorsese also had a very solitary life. He had rheumatic fever or something and stayed in a lot. That’s how he learned a lot of those things about film. My life was different, so I used things from my life to tell my films. We all do that. Any writer will do that. Once I started working with Carol I saw where she was coming from. John Dunne and Joan Didion were essayists who became screenwriters. So much of their work comes from essay writing. The things they worked on were different because they were attracted to books, like the book that was written about Needle Park, and then they read the article James Mills, the author of the book, did. So they got involved in that, and I think they lived in the hotel that we worked in for a week just to get a feeling of what was happening there, to get it into their own experience. 

Again there’s no rules. Schools try to make the rules, the ones who break them become more successful. 

Filmmaker: Do you work with rules so far as you make your own film to film?

Schatzberg: I never thought about it. I take each written word, each sentence, each page, and ask myself how I’m going to show it. I don’t think: “Is there a rule for this?” [Referring to his thought process behind a new script he’s been working on for six years] I think: I’ve got this guy who is a jewel thief. He’s a cat burglar who jumps on roofs and climbs over fire escapes. He’s an active person, so I have to show that he’s active. He’s up on this roof working out every day on a trampoline. We don’t find out he’s a thief ‘til later on. He has a very bad experience with a woman. He accidentally kills her kid in an automobile accident. Now he wants to make up to her. He meets her anonymously. He finds out where she lives. At first she’s totally catatonic, so he works his way around. He goes to the same coffee shop she does every week and sits near her so she’s aware of him. 

He makes her laugh once, breaks the ice, and they start talking. At some point he feels confident enough to tell her who he is, not that he killed her kid, but that he’s a thief and that it’s what he grew up doing. He’s not a bad thief. He doesn’t carry a gun. When he robs people he usually takes one or two items, he doesn’t clean them out. Wealthy people might think they forgot a jewel or two in the restroom. But when he tells her what he does she’s intrigued by it. “You mean you actually jump fire escapes?” She wants him to take her along sometime, she’s excited by it. She finally convinces him. He puts her on a training schedule so that she’s able to do what he does. She knows she’s got to work for it. 

I started this one from scratch. Now I want to hire a writer to write the dialogue, otherwise everyone will be talking the same way I do.  You can’t take someone like Willie Nelson who’s not an actor and give him a voice that’s not his. You have to work with him, that’s his voice. He hasn’t done a lot of films so you don’t know his voice, and he’s not going to sing through the whole film. Everything’s different. Every problem has to be solved somewhere along the line. Otherwise every film would look alike and feel alike. Boring. 

Filmmaker: What’s happening with the Scarecrow sequel you wanted to make? 

Schatzberg: When I finished the first draft, Hackman wasn’t reading. He won’t read anything, he won’t do anything, he’s retired. It’s still at the back of my mind, because it’s been ten years since I’ve done a film. The film takes place 30 years after the original film. They own the carwash that they wanted to own. The one that’s changed the most is Lion (Al Pacino). His wife who told him his kid was killed, she’s having trouble with the kid now. The son’s a musician and songwriter that sings in nightclubs. The nightclub people are all gangsters and they make him do different things for them. She’s worried about that so she tells Lion the truth, that she lied, and that she wants him to come help take care of him.

But she doesn’t tell that to him at first, because it’s Hackman who answers the telephone. She’s so nervous and doesn’t know anything. So she spills the whole thing. But Hackman doesn’t know that she told Lion his kid was dead. So we have to solve that whole problem. He’s furious at him for not telling the truth at first. They makeup and decide they’re going to get this kid straightened out. So they start on the road again. They go back to Detroit. Hackman and his wife Frenchy adopted an Asian girl and they take her with them. She’s just like he is. She swears as much as he does, she’s tough and all that. She’s going to be part of the gang that goes there. Then when they meet they form a romance, Hackman’s adoptive daughter and Lion’s son. There are a lot of elements going on there. 

I tried to get to Gene but he just won’t read anything. He made up his mind. That’s what’s great about Gene too. I’d like to see more films because he’s always good. Fortunately the character’s 30 years older than the original character, so maybe one day he’ll change his mind so we can advance. His character still wears a lot of clothes but they’re a little more expensive than the ones he wore before. They’ve got a very successful car wash. Lion’s the one who really runs it. Hackman thinks he’s running it. The Pacino character goes back to school and becomes computer savvy, but lets Hackman think he’s running it. Hackman still tries to pull a fight with everybody that rubs him the wrong way. It’s the same underneath philosophy. 

Filmmaker: I don’t understand material or fashion. Do you think growing up to parents that were furriers made you more aware of that, or informed your work in fashion photography and film? 

Schatzberg:  It may have informed it in some way because I hated working in the fur business. That’s why I got out of it. But I used to sit in the showroom every once in a while and the only magazine they got was Town & Country. I didn’t know about fashion, but I used to go through that magazine, because it’s all we had. I remember that Milton Green was the photographer that worked a lot in that magazine. I met Milton later on in life. Milton was really a manager, he wasn’t really a photographer. When he got involved with Marilyn Monroe he started photographing. 

We’d make some coats up for wholesale to department stores. But they were always made with one of three colors: A little Peter Pan color, a little pointed color, and one other color. There were two bodies that they had and different sleeves. It was always those choices that they had, there was never anything really interesting. My family worked with Persian lamb. They had a private clientele. If they ever wanted to buy a mink coat they went to a friend of my father’s who made them, made-believe that they were ours, and sold them to them — same as buying it from a wholesaler. I didn’t think much of what we did, I didn’t think they were very wonderful, and it always annoyed me that everything looked the same. If it was a mink coat it was those three sleeves, those three backs, those three colors. I didn’t understand why they didn’t mix furs, combine them and make them something else. 

Then the fur industry went into demise because people were complaining about killing animals just to make coats. Rightly so. So the whole business went down, including my family. Eventually they got out of it and retired. But then came the French designers who started mixing furs. They made more of them. I thought that was interesting. Before they were just mechanics. 

Not much is done to fur, but the ones that are done are done beautifully because you’ve got a real fashion designer making the coat. 

Filmmaker: Would you say you had an early interest in fashion then?

Schatzberg: Not at all. I thought it was boring. Later on, when I got into the business, well, you’ve got to find something interesting about what you’re doing. So I started to think more about it. I did watch the styles of fashion and what went on just because it was what formed my photographs. It was what they wore, and I had to make designs out of them. 

Filmmaker: Do you relate less to films that are constructed more from this academic background?

Schatzberg: I think it depends. I saw a film a couple weeks ago, and I’ve seen four of five films by this director, and it just reminded me of the same films he’s done. But he also makes other films that don’t. 

I don’t know how creative I am, I just do what I feel. I think there are a lot of creative kids out there. A friend of mine, an English photographer, made a statement saying there are no more photographers. He was being a little bit angry with the rest of the world because they’re not using him all the time. But maybe he didn’t keep up with what was going on. He was a big star when he was a big star. 

I really like when I see beautiful fashion photographs. I like the truth in them. My models weren’t just standing there. Sometimes they were. When you work for ten or eleven years you don’t get a gem each time you’re out there. But for a period of time a fashion photograph was a fake person. I had my models running across the paper so that they were real but in a different atmosphere. They weren’t in the street running, they were running across paper. What they were doing in the clothes was honest.

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