Jerry Schatzberg interview

A few years ago your humble scribe had the opportunity to talk with Jerry Schatzberg about his leap from being an in-demand photographer to movie director.

“I started in 1962, 1963 shooting musicians for Vogue and Town & Country,” says Schatzberg. “I had met the Rolling Stones in London and done a series on them. I had a reputation for photographing rock stars, directors and actors.”

One of Schatzberg’s most noted photographs was the cover of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album.

“I was working for Vogue, and they asked me to go to Paris for a fashion collection. I said I’d love to, and I wanted to take my favorite model and they said ‘No,’” says Schatzberg. “They wanted to find somebody new, and I objected to that. I wasn’t happy with the way they treated people. Models by the time they’re 29 or 30, they’ve finished their career.”

One assignment required shooting around the world with several women. “I did my first subject in London. While we were waiting for the next subject to come into town, I had to go back to New York. The producers were fighting with one another,” recalls Schatzberg. “I thought that was an interesting way to tell my story — not by stills, but by film. I started to research it. I worked for four years developing the story and script and got Faye Dunaway interested in it,” says Schatzberg about the film that would become his debut film, “Puzzle of a Downfall Child.”

Of the movies being presented this weekend, “Puzzle” may be the hardest to find. While “Panic in Needle Park” and “Scarecrow” are readily available on domestic Blu-ray and DVD, “Puzzle” can only be found as a Region B release.

“Panic in Needle Park” was Al Pacino’s first starring role in a film. “I’d seen him on stage and was impressed by his acting,” says Schatzberg. “After the show I met him, and this was four years before I ever did a film. After my first film my agent offered me another film, which was “Panic in Needle Park.” I turned it down because at the time a lab had botched up my negative from my then-current project, and I wasn’t in the mood to negotiate with anyone. Then I was in my manager’s office and he told me that Pacino was interested in the script. I re-read it and went back to the producers and apologized. We all made nice to one another and started to make the film.”

The script for “Panic” was from Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. “I worked with then for a while on ‘A Star is Born’ but eventually left that project,” says Schatzberg, referring the Streisand/Kristofferson version that came out in 1976.

“Scarecrow” may very well be the most impressive movie in Schatzberg’s filmography. “Scarecrow” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but was virtually ignored stateside. In the oft-forgotten film, Pacino and Gene Hackman play a couple of drifters who unite with the dream of opening a car wash in Pittsburgh.

“One day I received a message from my agent, I knew about the film because Pacino was involved and we had the same agent. I talked to Al and he was okay but Hackman was not happy with the director assigned to the film,” says Schatzberg. “My agent asked me if I was interested, and I said yes and we pursued that. I’d never met Hackman, but the meeting went pretty well. That’s how I became director on the film.”

About working with two powerhouse actors, Schatzberg admits, “Al has a different way of working than Gene does. They were two different personalities. I can’t say they were buddies but they were cordial to one another.”

The opening shot of “Scarecrow” has Hackman and Pacino meeting while hitchhiking on a country road. The sky looms large with storm clouds that add volume to the spine of the story.

“When you do a low budget film you have to take what you get,” says Schatzberg. “I was familiar with [Director of Photography] Vilmos Zsigmond’s work. The day before shooting, we had scouted around Bakersfield and that’s exactly what the weather was. We were looking at each other and said, ‘We missed it.’ The next day it was exactly the same, so we lucked out.”

Schatzberg would go on to make films as diverse as “The Seduction of Joe Tynan” and “Street Smart.” The former was written by and starred Alan Alda and featured Meryl Streep in one of her early roles, while the latter garnered a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod to a then-rising Morgan Freeman.

Another film Schatzberg directed was 1980’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” starring Willie Nelson.

“When I signed on, they told me that that Nelson’s contract called for six original songs,” says Schatzberg. “I traveled with him three months on the road and I kept saying, ‘Willie, we have to get some songs.’”

Schatzberg mentioned that the song could be considered for an Academy Award to encourage Nelson.

“Willie is well known for relaxing a lot, but finally we were on our way back to Boston for a rehearsal from Atlanta. I sat opposite him on the plane and I told him it’s time,” says Schatzberg. “He knew I was right, and he knew the contract and he started writing. You write about your family and being on the road.”

Nelson picked up on that last phrase and wrote “On the Road Again,” which has since become a country standard. Perhaps not oddly, some of the other songs that year that were Oscar nominated included “Fame” (the winner) and “Nine to Five.”

“The original script was written for Hoyt Paxton, and the name of his bus was the Honeysuckle Rose,” says Schatzberg. “I didn’t want to use it. Willie tells the story now that it was his bus that was named Honeysuckle Rose, but that’s not true. If I had heard the song before that, I would’ve named the film ‘On the Road Again.’ And it would’ve made a bundle more than it did.”

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