Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Al Pacino at the Aero for Wilde Salomé and Salomé, by Kim Luperi

Al Pacino in Salomé

Al Pacino is the title character in David Gordon Green's Manglehorn, in theaters and on VOD now. On August 10, 2013, Pacino visited the Aero Theatre to screen two complementary films that he directed.

“How long do I keep talking like this?” Well, Al Pacino, you can keep talking all night long, if you’d like – and the audience at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica wholeheartedly agreed. The Hollywood legend brought his latest directorial projects, Wilde Salomé and Salomé, the former a docudrama about making of Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece and the latter being an adaptation of the play, to a sold out show at the Aero. Pacino, as both actor and director in these films, sat down for an in-depth discussion with moderator Geoff Boucher from The Los Angeles Times before taking several questions from the enthusiastic audience. Though the evening focused on the making of the two movies, Pacino’s theater background, and directing, he also occasionally shared stories from his more famous roles, and even confided in the audience that he gave Harrison Ford his career – yes, Pacino turned down the role of Hans Solo in Star Wars, because he said he didn’t understand the script!

It proved to be an eventful evening before the questions even started. While taking his seat, Pacino showed off the tattoo on his chest to the curious audience. It’s not real – he likes the idea of tattoos but not the permanence. A minute later, Pacino asked his girlfriend to stand up in the audience. Note: If you’re Al Pacino, don’t do that, because several women stood up and/or raised their hands, much to the amusement of Pacino and Boucher on stage.

At this particular screening, Wilde Salomé, the docudrama of the making of Wilde’s classic, preceded the “film play” Salomé.  Interestingly enough, the films repeat August 10 at the Egyptian Theater, once again with Pacino in attendance, but with the program reversed: Salomé will screen before the documentary. The director visibly grappled with how the films should be shown to the public, not only considering Salomé’s controversial subject matter, but also taking into account the logistics of which film should run first, which isn’t as simple as it may sound. Pacino asked the audience what they thought of the programming, having just viewed the documentary first, and through multiple "surveys" and a show of hands and voices, Pacino and Boucher comically couldn’t tell what the audience preferred. “I’m lost. I thought people – crowds – knew everything!” Pacino exclaimed. Ideally, he admitted he would like Salomé to run a few times a week in a theater, and then present Wilde Salomé hours or perhaps days later. Pacino revealed his reasoning, saying the audience doesn’t have any frame of reference when they watch Wilde Salomé, and many don’t know the story. Meanwhile, Salomé possesses a clearly defined start, middle, and finish and is accessible as well. He mentioned multiple times that Salomé is meant to anchor the documentary, which was meant for the audience to understand what he went through and see the effect Wilde’s piece had on him (and, hopefully, them).

Both movies heavily rely on Pacino and actress Jessica Chastain, who starred in the play with Pacino in 2006 before anyone knew who she was. Pacino admitted that Chastain pushed him to do something with the finished product, and he joked that since she’s a huge star now, it would be a great time to release the film! Regarding her casting, Pacino recalled that many girls came in to read, and he was getting to the point where he didn’t think he’d do the play. Chastain was recommended by a close friend who’d heard a lot about this “Julliard girl.” She walked in and started reading Salomé, purely from memory. Stunned, Pacino turned to producer Robert Fox, saying: “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?...She’s a prodigy. I got to do it now.” Just like that, all doubts disappeared. After seeing the finished product, Pacino didn’t hold back in his admiration of her turn as the title character, admitting, “I didn’t do anything…the performance is hers.”
Al Pacino and Jessica Chastain in Salomé 
Chastain’s quick rise to fame mirrored, in a way, Pacino’s own. The actor and director, who comes from a theater background, recounted how theater set his career on track. Though his Tony-winning Broadway debut was in the 1969 play Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, the actor looks to his off-Broadway turn in 1968’s The Indian Wants the Bronx as the game changer in his career, noting that he seized the moment and power that came with the attention he received, though the sentiment came with a friendly caution: It can happen at any time. The play was seminal, launching his Broadway and film careers, which started with starring roles in The Godfather Parts I and II (1972 and 1974) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975).

Al Pacino in The Indian Wants the Bronx
Though the public may be more familiar now with his movie work, Pacino admitted he is quite drawn to recreating theater on film, explaining that the challenges surrounding putting theater on film in the 60s, when he entered the craft, have somewhat softened. In particular, the sophistication of filmmaking today can complement the delivery that audiences would expect from the theater (though, he noted, it is not necessarily the way to go sometimes). Pacino affirms that he works hard to translate the on-stage language and approach in Salomé, though he admits it is an almost impossible feeling to recreate in a movie. That theatrical resemblance, though, is a goal Pacino will keep striving toward. In discussing the inherent difference between film and live theater, Pacino shared the story of seeing Hamlet on stage with Jonathan Pryce. Hamlet convulsed and spoke as his father in an exorcism during the scene in which he first witnesses his father’s ghost. Pacino eerily mimicked the actor convulsing, which he said was terrifying for the theater audience to take in as well. “This is what can happen in theater – you can’t do that in the movies, unless it’s Avatar or something. It’s another experience, it’s you and them.”

Pacino alluded to his stage work often. When asked if he’s ever played a character in his career that changed more than others, Pacino answered that he usually feels character growth in the theater, since it is “made for repeats,” whereas in movies, anything can happen at any time. Pacino shared an anecdote from the making of Dog Day Afternoon when Burt Harris, who was an AD on the film, whispered to Pacino to cry out “Attica” in the now-famous scene outside the bank. The line wasn’t in the script or mentioned at rehearsals, but the extras quickly chimed in, as if showing support for the character. Pacino noted that this is just one example of what can happen in movies and not on the stage.

Pacino, who hasn’t directed a film since 1996’s Looking for Richard, admitted that directing isn’t his forte; he thinks like an actor, not a director. However, he enjoys the energy that comes with directing – he was on set for Looking for Richard at 5:00am and working hard from there on out. Actors, on the other hang “pretty much hang out” until they are told to do something: “What…they want me to do what?” he joked. When asked if there was any particular director he worked with that stood out, Pacino honestly answered no. He has performed with many legendary directors, but he asserted that great directors aren’t about actors – they are focused on making a great movie. Even actors that turn into directors lose their sense of acting while they are at the helm, he noticed. “When it comes down to it, they are looking at something else…they have so many things to do…they want to get the day done.”

A question from an audience member inquiring as to why Pacino placed Salomé in the desert prompted another humorous anecdote about directing that has stayed with Pacino, this time involving Brian de Palma shooting Scarface (1983). Pacino, sitting at a table at a hotel in Miami, was getting ready to shoot when he saw a large crowd form by the ocean. Getting up, he saw Brian de Palma pacing in the surf, trying to figure out where to put the camera. “I thought that’s the horror of directing – just you and no one on your side. You just keep wandering around as a director, you don’t know where you’re going. The desert was inspired by that…this will be funny somehow. All it means to me is Brian de Palma at the beach.”

Brian de Palma and Al Pacino on the set of Scarface
Not wanting to leave out the important role writers play in the business, Pacino pointed out that actors would be nothing without writers and noted that certain actors relate to certain writers. “When you find that – a relationship with a writer – it’s a wonderful thing.” He thought he found that with O’Neill, but there were so many influences, for example Jason Robards in The Iceman, that he felt it was like doing Streetcar and being influenced by Marlon Brando – it can’t be done; rather, “you have to see it fresh.” Personally, Pacino looks for writers he can “speak through,” and advises actors to try different things, because “you never know where you’re going to make a match with a writer’s work” until you try.

The evening rounded out with an audience member thanking Pacino for making the films, declaring that she wants go home and Google Oscar Wilde now! Pacino thanked her, saying his goal was to whet the audience’s appetite for the play and Wilde, and he of course hoped the audience would find it interesting along the way. Well, according to the crowd at the Aero, they certainly did.