Why Filmmakers Thought Al Pacino’s Scarface Should Never Be Made

Nothing succeeds like excess, even if Oliver Stone is involved, but Brian De Palma’s Scarface scared Hollywood with too much movie.

Al Pacino as Tony Montana Dies in Scarface
Photo: Universal Pictures

Al Pacino created an urban legend with Tony Montana, and Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983) is an icon of the gangster film genre; one of an unholy trinity alongside The Godfather (1972) and Goodfellas (1990). But when it premiered in New York, Steven Bauer, who played Manny Ribera in the film, remembers Martin Scorsese turning around halfway through the movie to warn: “You guys are great, but be prepared, because they’re going to hate it in Hollywood. Because it’s about them.”

The same could be said about the original Scarface. Studio filmmakers saw producer Howard Hughes as a rich interloper, bullying his way onto the lot with too many guns blazing. Conversely, Brian De Palma’s Scarface is about excess, and how success depends on it. Oliver Stone’s screenplay for the ‘80s movie used a gangster as an allegory for the Reagan administration’s war on drugs and the capitalistic greed of the era. Many in Hollywood saw it as an indictment of their system, and their overindulgences in an age of excess—and an act of blasphemy. While 1932 Tinseltown thought a mob movie like this would be travesty, some in De Palma’s generation thought it would be sacrilegious to remake the thing at all.

Not Scorsese though. The Goodfellas filmmaker once considered doing his own reimagining with Robert De Niro in the title role. But his vision of Howard Hawks’ gangster classic from ‘32 wasn’t what studios were looking for either. Still, the graphically violent story written by Stone repulsed traditionalists, and scared off the remake project’s first director: Sidney Lumet, who helmed classics like 12 Angry Men, Failsafe, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, and who had been working in the gangster genre since playing a 10-year-old Second Avenue Gang member in the 1935 stage play, Dead End.

Lumet passed Scarface off to De Palma, trading it for the true-life police corruption film Prince of the City, but not before coming up with the defining distinction between the two films with the razor-scarred lead named Tony. It was Lumet’s idea to change the title character from an Italian immigrant to a Cuban deportee, and beer bootlegging to coke dealing. The decision would come back to haunt the production as much as it propelled the Pacino film to classic status.

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History Repeats Itself

De Palma’s Scarface is not a remake. It is an adaptation, and it was made lovingly and with great respect for the source material. The idea originated with Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon producer Martin Bregman, who saw a late night showing of the original on TV. Wondering why there hadn’t been any recent “over-the-top” mob movies, he called Lumet and Pacino, who remembers it differently. The actor claims he saw Scarface at the Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles and called Bregman. They both agree Lumet immediately accepted taking on the project, and proposed the historic setting:

“In May 1980, Fidel Castro opened the harbor at Mariel, Cuba with the apparent intention of letting some of his people join their relatives in the United States,” reads the opening crawl of Scarface. “Within seventy-two hours, 3,000 U.S. boats were headed for Cuba. It soon became evident that Castro was forcing the boat owners to carry back with them not only their relatives, but the dregs of his jails. Of the 125,000 refugees that landed in Florida an estimated 25,000 had criminal records.”

Stone went out to check those records. He came back with a composite character of one refugee who set criminal records. “There’s a prohibition against drugs that’s created the same criminal class as [prohibition of alcohol] created the Mafia,” Stone told David Konow for his 2015 article “Writing in a Very Dark Room.” The Cuban gangsters at the center of Stone’s research were called “marielitos” and “had gained a lot of publicity for their open brazenness.”

The screenwriter spent two months in South Florida doing research. Police officials opened up case files with graphic photos of the casualties of drug-empire battles. Stone, whose 1986 film Salvador follows a photojournalist into Central America, flew to Ecuador and Bolivia for a deeper investigation and spoke with real-life crime lords.

This also echoes the original film. Hughes wanted to make a realistic gangster film and based it on the 1929 non-fiction book about Al Capone, Scarface, written in 1929 by Armitage Trail. Hughes hired scriptwriter Ben Hecht because of the former newsman’s familiarity with the Chicago underworld and his acquaintance with real-life mobsters.

Stone’s script mixed aspects of Hecht’s story with his investigative findings, though self-admittedly filtered through the cocaine-fueled research journey. Stone named the main character after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, put a killer spin on the script, and tossed it like a Hail Mary pass. Bregman loved it. Lumet was expecting a thoughtful, political screenplay. Stone delivered mind-blowing anarchy, a menace to society over social justice.

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Lumet left over “creative differences,” even though most of the story points were his, and Stone faithfully adhered to them. Lumet’s films were gritty and realistic portraits of corruption and desperation, but Stone’s interpretation proved too severe even for him. Scarface needed a director who could see the operatic possibilities of extreme brutality. De Palma dropped out of directing Flashdance to choreograph the artistic movement of carnage.

“Give me the most beautiful pictures you can,” the newly installed De Palma would go on to tell John Alonzo, the Director of Photography for Scarface. “I’m going to place violence inside of them.”

Picket Signs in Picturesque Locations

Scarface was originally planned to be shot on location in and around Miami. The production was met with protests concerned with the vilifying message of the gangster story. The Miami Herald ran an editorial that voiced concerns over whether the film would fuel anti-Cuban feelings in Florida. The article pointed out that the majority of the crimes, even among the gang members, were minor offenses, most for opposing Cuba’s Communist government. 

“I did think that they’d kill us if we stayed in Miami,” costume designer Patricia Norris said in Ken Tucker’s 2008 book, Scarface Nation. “There were members of the community who hated us because they thought we were doing a pro-Castro movie, which was absurd, but their anger was very serious.”

It didn’t help that Scarface starred non-Cuban actors portraying Cuban immigrants as violent criminals. Miami Commissioner Demetrio Perez called Pacino’s portrayal “the propagation of pernicious racism.” Stone explained both sides were depicted, with Tony Montana representing the criminal, and his mother and his sister representing the law-abiding majority of the Cuban community. The criminals sent their own representatives.

“There were real drug people around, Colombians who came on the set,” Norris said in Scarface Nation. “The day a fellow sat down in a chair next to me, and crossed his legs, and I saw a gun strapped to his ankle, I knew I wanted to get back to Los Angeles.”

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The vast majority of Scarface was shot in Southern California. The crew came back to Florida for two weeks of location shots along Miami’s South Beach.

X Marks the Spot

De Palma is an intuitively subversive director, often paying cinematic homage to Alfred Hitchcock in what had already become a career motif by the time he directed Scarface. Hawks similarly suffused his 1932 movie with seditious undertones. He inserted an “X” into every murder scene to mirror the twisted gash which disfigured Paul Muni’s murderous gangster Tony Camonte. The 1983 film only had one X to contend with. It came from the MPAA Ratings Board.

Major studios couldn’t do anything with X-rated films. It was a kiss of death, a car bomb in a testifying witness’s car. None of the media at the time accepted advertising, and most theater chains refused screenings. Mainstream entertainment couldn’t take advantage of the infamy, like independent auteur Melvin Van Peebles, who used the rating as a revolutionary rallying cry for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. To the majority of the commercial-film viewing public, “X” meant smut.

”We have been officially designated as a pornographic film,” Bregman told the press. He’d already prepared his appeal to the board in advance. He knew the rating was coming.

De Palma cut the film three times, each submission getting an X rating. The director refused to edit any further. Bregman asked for a description of objectionable scenes. The Board’s list drove De Palma to the press. Journalists debated the rating system. The word “censorship” was tossed around. More panels convened. Bregman lined up witnesses, calling in homicide detectives, psychiatrists, news reporters, the head of Miami’s organized crime bureau.

Ultimately, Scarface earned its R rating at its final arbitration hearing by a vote of 18 to 2.

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Rumors of an uncut version of the film abound, but the initial release is the director’s vision. The infamous chainsaw scene is unchanged. De Palma never filmed any footage of the chainsaw cutting into Angel Fernández (Pepe Serna). Even the shot of Angel’s severed arm, which De Palma intended to cut, stayed in the R-rated release.

De Palma reasoned that if each of the movies he’d submitted were initially rated X, the lifted restriction applied to all of them. “We’re gonna put the movie exactly the way I originally cut it,” De Palma said according to Laurent Bouzereau’s 1998 documentary The Making of Scarface. “I got an X on the third, I got an X on the second, I got an X on the first. We’re going with the original version.”

The move was not unprecedented. Scarface may not have been a remake, but the similarities didn’t end with storylines. The 1932 film was originally scheduled to be released in 1931, but the Will Hays Office, the New York State Board, and other state film commissions demanded recuts due to the excessive violence. The film may have been paying the price for previous gangster films Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, which had been pushing the boards to distraction.

Censors demanded Tony Camonte be punished and condemned for his criminal ways. Hughes had a new ending shot, though Hawks and Muni had already moved on to new projects and weren’t involved. Hughes trimmed objectionable scenes, added a disclaimer, and even subtitled the film “Shame of a Nation,” to de-glorify the charismatic antihero.

The review boards rejected the changed submissions, so Hughes released the original cut in states with less stringent standards. The film premiered in New Orleans. Public demand forced it to be shown in other states. Scarface didn’t hit Chicago movie houses until 1934. While the film was a hit, it didn’t do as well as it would have on its initially planned date.

Critical Mass Confusion

De Palma’s Scarface premiered on Dec. 4, 1983, at the National Theater in New York, and was released in 1,000 theaters on Dec. 9. It opened in second place behind Clint Eastwood’s Sudden Impact. The numbers did not change Hollywood’s initial appraisal.

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“By the expectations of the industry, [Scarface] was more of a flop than a success,” Stone concludes in his book, Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and The Movie Game.

Initial reaction to the film seemed to confirm the industry’s skittishness to the new level of graphic extremes being opened to criminal-themed entertainment. “Believe me, you didn’t want to be around for the preview of Scarface,” De Palma remembered in Brian De Palma’s Split-Screen: A Life in Film by Douglas Keesey. “People were outraged—you saw people running up the aisle. I remember the opening night party. I thought they were going to skin me alive.”

The opinion was reflected by the critics. “Reviewers like Roger Ebert out of Chicago, and the quirky Vincent Canby of The New York Times were very positive,” Stone writes in Chasing the Light, “but most were generally negative and sometimes cruel.”

In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael titled her review “A De Palma Movie for People Who Don’t Like De Palma Movies.” Rex Reed deemed Scarface a “pointless bloodbath” in The New York Post. Andrew Sarris declared the film “camp for the coke crowd.” But since Sarris wrote for The Village Voice, that could also be taken as a positive assessment. Indeed, it aligned with Stone’s reaction.

“I saw the film for the first time in a packed theater on Broadway with a paying audience, mostly Latino and Black, which gave the film street cred, and right there I knew it was a better movie than the film crowd thought—and that it would last,” Stone remembers in Chasing the Light. “I knew it from riding the New York subways. I knew it from hearing people talk on the street. I knew it from the people who shouted back at the film, who’d repeat the lines and laugh on the playgrounds and in the parks. These people knew it in their gut. The War on Drugs was bullshit from beginning to end, a fraud sending them to prison in massive numbers.”

Most of the bile aimed at Scarface was directed specifically at “that violent writer,” as Stone calls himself in Chasing the Light. But he wasn’t wrong. The film presented an urban fantasy to the generation growing up when strict drug sentencing threatened what should have been easy take-home pay while also making it more violent. Sean Combs says he watched the film 63 times “for the lessons,” in Scarface: Origins of a Hip Hop Classic.

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Scarface was the first home video blockbuster when home videos cost $79.95 each. Punk band Blink-182 is named for how many times Tony Montana says “fuck” in the film. People were counting. Don’t get Bregman started on attempts to sanitize Scarface for network television, he reportedly thought executives would be crazy to try.

We Need the Bad Guy

“I never done nothing to nobody that didn’t have it coming,” Tony Montana promises in Scarface. The original film had it coming. De Palma and Stone’s adaptation is the definitive version to most people. Tony Camonte chases the American Dream, but Tony Montana is the American Dream. Scarface could be the best remake of all time. It’s certainly Pacino’s favorite movie.

“The picture had a fire to it,” the actor said in Al Pacino: The Authorized Biography, by Lawrence Grobel. “It was probably the most popular picture I ever made, but the reaction to it was stranger than any of my other films. That picture did something to me. It was a lot of movie. You go to a movie, you get a lot of movie with Scarface.”

This may be the real reason filmmakers didn’t think Scarface should have been remade. All that movie was too much to live up to. Scarface changed motion pictures, pushing barriers, and setting new standards, just like the original motion picture. The gangster films had to go over-the-top to show what was under the surface. It keeps criminals honest. Tony Montana says he’s always telling the truth, even when he’s lying.Scarface is available on Netflix.