AMERICAN PRINCE'S TOMMY PALLOTTA By Scott Macaulay
Even if you consider yourself a literate, well-viewed, cinema completist, you may not remember the name “Steven Prince.” I could jog your memory and tell you that he was influential to the films of Quentin Tarantino, Rick Linklater, and, most directly, Martin Scorsese, and the name still might not ring a bell. If that’s the case, don’t stress — I didn’t recognize the name either, even though I vaguely remembered that there exists a Scorsese film, American Boy, that I’ve never seen, and that Prince’s one scene in Taxi Driver, in which he plays Easy Andy, a fast-talking gun dealer, is one of the movie’s most memorable.
If you’re like me then and can’t place Prince, Tommy Pallotta wants you to see his new short feature, American Prince, which premieres at SXSW. It’s a fascinating filmic time capsule that depicts the man as a kind of Zelig-like figure within ‘70s American and later independent cinema. It also casually but persuasively argues for new production and distribution practices that take into account our ability to share media across the internet.
Reprising the set-up of Scorsese’s documentary, American Prince takes place during one long evening in which Prince, an engaging late-night raconteur, spins out for Pallotta, Linklater, a couple of cameramen, and a few uncredited female admirers, the story of his life in the movies. In addition to being a pal of Scorsese’s and appearing in the doc and Taxi Driver, he also worked on the set of New York, New York, plays a part in that film (it lands on the cutting room floor,) and for a while around The Last Waltz, lives with the director and Robbie Robertson in their house on Mulholland Drive. Stories of a manipulative Liza Minelli, Prince’s shooting out the windows of Bergdorf Goodman, and his later brief stay at the house that was the famous John Holmes Wonderland Avenue murder scene are illustrated with film clips from the relevant films as well as from the younger Prince found in Scorsese’s doc. In one sequence from American Boy, Prince describes reviving an OD’d friend, a sequence Pallotta intercuts with its beat-for-beat evocation in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. “His personal life affected independent American cinema in a much more profound way than people know,” Pallotta says. “ Scorsese used the documentary as a character sturdy for Travis Bickle, and obviously Quentin Tarantino used the clip to great effect in Pulp Fiction. And Rick [Linklater] and I used his one of his stories in Waking Life.” With all these stories and clips flowing and knitted together by Prince’s outrageous and sometimes poignant narration, the film is like a long dream about our collective lives in the movies. “What we were attempting to do in American Prince is to blur the line between cinema and memory,” confirms Pallotta. “When we remember things, we remember them as a movie.”
Pallotta first met Prince about ten years ago in Austin. When he decided to make the movie, Pallotta said, “I had been meeting with once a week for a year, listening to his stories, and then I brought in a writer to sit with him to transcribe the stories. So even though it took only one night to film it was in pre-production for a year.” Pallotta invited Linklater to stop by for the shooting, and the director can be seen on the couch occasionally lobbing a question Prince’s way. “I needed someone there who had never heard the stories before and who he would respect,” Pallotta says. “Rick was visiting that night, had fresh ears and an encyclopedic knowledge of the movies, and I knew Steven respected him.”
“The movie was one night, two cameras, one take,” continues Pallotta. “It was a night of just hanging out, and the question became later, do we film more? But I thought it had to be that one night. The aim wasn’t to do a documentary in a strict sense — it was to do a portrait of a person. The things that he elects to highlight [in his storytelling] are what I wanted to emphasize, and the things he didn’t [I didn’t explore]. It was a very conscious choice on my part not to delve too deep, to leave a little bit of that mystery there. If you fill in your own lines, it becomes a more interesting portrait. I’m throwing out the idea of the objective documentary. I look at photography a lot, and I look at a portrait or a still photo and can have multiple interpretations [of what the photo represents]. This is a self-portrait of Steven Prince and the way he sees the world. I didn’t want to talk to different people and have multiple perspectives. I just wanted it the way he saw it.”
What Pallotta calls “a little bit of mystery” are narrative ellipses that give the documentary a surprising narrative pull. Why are we here in this hotel room and why are listening to Prince? Perhaps more to the point, what exactly did Prince do during the Scorsese years, and why did the director suddenly seem to disappear from Prince’s life? At first glance, Prince seems to be the kind of figure one might see on Entourage, except that in the ‘70s, when, as Pallotta points out, “the studios let people be crazy and creative when making their movies,” this position required, perhaps, a different skill set. In one of his tales, Prince describes being approached by producer Irwin Winkler on the set of New York, New York: “Irwin came in, closed the door behind me and said, ‘How much?’ I said, ‘Excuse me?’ ‘Just tell me how much money you want to be working on the movie? ‘I said I want a per diem, $1,000 a week and a car…. I want a Corvette Sting Ray, white, red leather seats….’ We finished shooting and they pushed that big door open, and there it was, right outside of the soundstage. It had seven miles on the odometer. I thought to myself, yeah, this could be interesting!”
Later, after living with Scorsese and Robertson and the various girlfriends and starlets who drift through their Los Angeles house, Prince detaches from their orbit. “The question of the movie is, why did he leave the business?” says Pallotta. “I think it’s pretty obvious why by the end. He was going to self-destruct.” Towards the end of the film it is clear that Prince has left his Scorsese years behind on multiple levels. He talks about becoming a carpenter and taking pride in jobs well done: “If you know the right way to do it, and you don’t do it the right way for whatever reason – money, whatever reason – that’s wrong. There’s no integrity in that. It will end up coming back on you. A carpenter I learned carpentry from in Texas… would say, ‘You are only as good as the mistakes you can fix. That’s as good a carpenter as you’ll be.”
“I care for Steven,” says Pallotta, “and at the end my audience was him. I admire someone who puts himself out there like he does. He just saw [the film] recently and he said the same thing he said when he saw American Boy. He was speechless. He is going to be at the screening, so I’m assuming he approves of it. My hope is that this movie will motivate American Boy to come out properly.”
But as much of the movie is born of Pallotta’s affection for Prince, it’s also an outgrowth of his career-long interest in new media and new forms of storytelling. To make the film Pallotta not only relied on digital cameras and laptop editing systems but also YouTube and file-sharing networks as well as Fair Use arguments with regards to the clip usage. The movie was made for next to nothing, none of the clips in the film are formally licensed, and Pallotta envisions a distribution model outside of the typical one.
Explains Pallotta, “In a weird way, it’s like a YouTube movie. We were pulling sources from YouTube and BitTorrent channels. It occurred to me we are now making films almost entirely on the computer. I remember the linear way of shooting movies on film, editing on film — well, now you can make a doc and grab stuff from YouTube. It’s very liberating as a creator to do that, and it also gets into issues of ‘who is the author?’ When American Prince premieres at SXSW we are going to release it on BitTorrent, post parts of it on YouTube, and we are going to stream it in low quality via [our website]. I wanted to make an experiment and see what happens when you are not precious with your material, to see what kind of relationship you can have with an audience instead of the standard one of holding your content back until you get paid for it.”
Does he expect to make money? Pallotta answers, “The profit motive isn’t gone, but the profit potential [for this film] wasn’t great in the first place. So instead of limiting myself I decided to play with it. If people are interested, maybe there’s a different way of commoditizing [the film]. It was a passion project, everybody donated [their time and services]. It cost nothing — the only real cost was time. People were on board to try something different.”
Finally, then, what does Scorsese think of a film that’s very much a bookend to one of his own pictures? “I’m trying to [get in touch with him] now,” admits Pallotta. “Hopefully I’m not going to piss him off. You try not to alienate the icons of the film world. But I’m a firm believer in freedom of expression, and this movie comes from a very good place. It’s not trying to exploit anybody.”
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