Flashback: Al Pacino on His “Amateur Status” As a Director on the Eve of “Wilde Salome”‘s Premiere in Venice

The Venice Film Festival begins today, officially opening the floodgates to the fall festival season of various wonders and delights. While world premieres such as Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” and George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” will resurface soon with North American fetes at New York and Toronto, respectively, one film that appears will remain out of reach for American audiences, at least for now, is Al Pacino’s “Wilde Salome,” a documentary about the actor’s 2006 revival of “Salome” in Los Angeles and his requisite investigation into the material and its author Oscar Wilde. (A trailer can be found here.)

While I haven’t yet seen the film myself, I can attest to the fact that it will thoroughly probe Pacino’s creative process as well as that of his artistic influences since I remember the actor/filmmaker was in the thick of editing the film he was then calling “Salomaybe” back in 2007 when a DVD boxed set of his work was released and he took the opportunity to give a rare talk on the Fox lot.

AlPacinoJessicaChastainWildeSalome “I stay with a piece long enough so it consumes me,” Pacino said at the time, on the reason why he’s been a big believer in documenting his work onstage for film and after six years in the making, it’s clear he meant it. (Patience does have its rewards — Jessica Chastain has since enjoyed the ripple effect of her onstage turn in the title role of Pacino’s production of “Salome” that led to her booking seemingly every movie gig available from “The Help” to “Tree of Life” this year.)

Since Pacino’s work behind the camera is rarely discussed (or appreciated as much as it should be), I thought I’d republish the piece I did for the now-defunct Premiere.com, which was an ample showcase for his self-deprecation, but also for his endless curiosity towards artistic expression:

“I don’t think I really need this,” Al Pacino muttered in his thick brogue, as he fiddled around with the microphone in a small screening room on the Fox Studio lot. He was there to introduce a screening of “Chinese Coffee,” one of three films he has directed that will be included in a new boxed set of his work, “The Al Pacino Collection.” A far cry from the commercial fare that Pacino has been doing of late such as “Ocean’s Thirteen” and “Two for the Money,” the bare bones productions of stage works that are obviously close to the actor’s heart are a welcome reminder of how magnetic Pacino can be.

Pacino actually admitted that he hadn’t planned to show these films in public and was going to leave them to his children, but now he’ll just have to save that area of the vault for his paintings, which he vowed never to show in public. Interestingly, what led the actor to make the three films in the collection – “The Local Stigmatic,” “Chinese Coffee,” and “Looking for Richard” – was that he wanted to preserve the performances of his stage work on film. “I like to make records of things I do,” Pacino told the audience shortly before adding, “I’m closer to a filmmaker than a director.”

He may not be a director, yet the boxed set illuminates Pacino’s meticulous soul searching and investigation of his craft as an actor, which in turn produce some riveting filmmaking. The three films in the set represent Pacino’s still-vibrant fascination with acting, but the actor also explores his reasons for making the films in a prologue and epilogue on each of the films where Pacino has free form conversations with New York University film professor Richard Brown. Both on the DVD and in person, Pacino seems to be pained when talking about stepping into the director’s chair.

AlPacinoWildeSalome2 “I enjoy my amateur status,” said Pacino, relating a quote he remembered from his friend, the poet Taylor Mead, when he was asked about why he doesn’t direct more. He added an anecdote about how he once previewed “Looking for Richard” to an audience and wanted to stop the film midway through and tell them, “We were only kidding around.” So why does he do it? “It’s reminds me of when I started out and we did things because we had an interest in them.”

In fact, the films in the Pacino set do not feel like the work of a polished director, but the rough edges are what make them so effective. Of the three films in the boxed set, “Looking for Richard” is easily the most well-known, since it is the only one Pacino released wider than the festival circuit. The film is a quasi-documentary on his staging of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” that investigates the mysteries of performance as much as it tries to reinvent the Bard’s tragedy about the short-lived king and Pacino recruited the likes of Kevin Spacey, Winona Ryder, and Alec Baldwin to assist him. The film has never been released on DVD before, but it is Pacino’s most explicit film that deals with acting and though he calls himself a lousy teacher, he considers the film a display of “teaching by learning yourself.”

The other two films in the collection, “The Local Stigmatic” and “Chinese Coffee,” both seem to be a product of Pacino’s time away from the silver screen during the 1980s, a decade in which he only made five films and returned to the stage. “The Local Stigmatic” was adapted from the Heathcote Williams play on the eve of the decade’s end and perhaps conveys some of Pacino’s disillusionment with being a celebrity through a plot that involves two rough and tumble Brits who have a chance encounter with a movie star in a film that Pacino himself professes to be “really weird and really interesting.”

“Chinese Coffee” is a little more straightforward as a two-hander that stars Pacino and the late “Law and Order” cast member Jerry Orbach as longtime friends and aspiring novelists who are divided by a manuscript written by one of them about their shared life. Pacino said he was fascinated by the fragility of friendship and wanted to create a film around a character who didn’t get recognition – something that the actor said he wanted to play himself when he was considering a biopic of the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani with Martin Scorsese that ultimately fell apart. Pacino picked up the reins himself by committing an adaptation of Ira Lewis’ Greenwich Village-set dramedy to film where Orbach’s Jake feels betrayed by Pacino’s Harry for writing a novel about their lives, not because of the content of the book, but because Jake couldn’t finish a novel himself. In discussing the film with the audience, Pacino compared it with a discussion he had with a classmate of his at the Actor’s Studio who wondered where their two paths diverged, to which Pacino said, “You wanted to act. I had to act.”

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