Al Pacino says studios used to take risks on films like ‘The Humbling’

LOS ANGELES – Al Pacino is wiped out. He's tirelessly promoting an independent film after hitting the red carpet circuit (or “syndrome,” as he puts it) in the fall and he is, as ever, balancing a number of on-going projects, the most recent one being a David Mamet play written for him specifically. On top of it all, old rotator cuff injuries from his sporting days are acting up. But Pacino is a warrior. “No problem,” he says after wincing from the pain. “I'll be fine.”

Ostensibly we're talking about Barry Levinson's “The Humbling,” which is angling for an Oscar-qualifying run this month. In the Philip Roth adaptation, Pacino stars as a famous actor who has, for lack of a better phrase, lost his mojo. It's a curious note in Pacino's filmography, fascinating for his commitment to the role, which he says spoke to him. In David Gordon Green's “Manglehorn,” which premiered along with “The Humbling” at the Venice Film Festival and will be released in 2015, he plays a tactless locksmith who never got over the love of his life.

Both are intriguing choices for an actor who quite obviously could do anything he wants at this stage. And both had their separate challenges. Read through the back and forth below as Pacino and I chat about that, the democratization of the film medium and wariness of that “red carpet syndrome” I mentioned.

“The Humbling” begins its one-week qualifying run in Los Angeles tomorrow. It opens in theaters Jan. 23.


HitFix: So I want to talk about both “The Humbling” and “Manglehorn” here, because it's interesting. They almost feel like birds of a feather to me.

Al Pacino: Oh they are?

Yeah, just in terms of the characters being sort of outwardly unlikable.

Oh, that's too bad. I was trying to make them so likable! No, I'm joking. [Laughs.]

Well you certainly pull back layers and you give reasons to empathize, which is obviously your job as the actor. But was that part of the intrigue at all for you?

No, part of the intrigue – I think the thing I did, this thing I did that's coming out in March, “Danny Collins,” that's a likable character. The script, written by Dan Fogelman, you could feel a lot of heart in it. These scripts, like when I read the book of “The Humbling,” I was told to read it because it was something I might be interested in and I realized if you're going to make a movie, or be a part of a movie from its inception, that it's good if it's something you know, if it's a world you know. And I thought “The Humbling” was a world that I came out of, really. The familiarity with the subject and the world of it would help me to get a movie on, to go through the rigors of making a movie in that fashion. It's an appropriate age for me and the issues are absolutely something I can understand and relate to completely, so that's not quite true of “Manglehorn.” It's a different thing. But “The Humbling” was something I felt that, if we did something and I made a connection to it – anyway, I purchased the book. So then I went in and got Barry Levinson, because I thought he'd be right for it and we talked about it. I knew we had to adapt it from the book, which means we had to give it more of whatever we know about the humor of that world. Barry felt the same way, that it needed humor to buoy it up. Because it's such a tragedy. It's so dark. But at the same time, we did find it funny. I remember the first time I read the book, I said, “This, to me, is funny. That an actor who has done this his whole life, suddenly wants to get out of it and become a real person. Or he thinks of people as real people and he's not a real person.” So there was something that struck me about that.

Was that a feeling you sort of shared?

Oh, and Barry. Barry Levinson and I did. And we got Buck Henry to write it, and Buck can't think of any way to write but dark comedy. He's consumed by it. So we just let him go and Barry and him worked together, they worked apart, and they came up with this mixture, this hybrid of a script. But it became, to us, infinitely playable. It was something we can have fun with and at the same time relate to. It took us years. That's what usually happens with these things.

How long ago did you start on it?

Probably about four years ago. You read the book and you get the people and the waiting for the scripts to come and all of that. But during that time we talked about it and there was a few times we thought it wasn't going to happen. How do you do it? How do you get the money for it? Millennium came along and Avi Lerner came along and wanted us to pursue it, and again, it was not the usual kind of film for him either. Barry thought it would be good if we did it really independent, if we really went into that style. I was happy with that because little movies of my own, which was a pretty independent style of doing movies, on the run, what you can get when you can get it. I did it with “Looking for Richard,” I did it with “Salomé,” I did it with a few other movies on my own that I made that nobody's ever seen. I felt I could survive in that environment, and so did he. Once Avi Lerner gave us some money, we'd go and shoot in increments. Six or seven days, then we'd go away from each other for a few weeks, come back, shoot another five or six days, and actor availabilities, it's always difficult. Because we're not a commune when we come together to make movies. Everybody's separate. But we got 20 days of shooting in there. And when I was away doing something, Barry would edit. He's ever-changing, Barry Levinson. He's always doing something different in the movie, tries things.

Which sort of surprised me in some ways, the avant garde flavor of the film. Did you expect him to have that specific kind of a vision for the project?

I did in a way, because I did Kevorkian [HBO's “You Don't Know Jack”] with him, and I like the way he works. He's very loose. He's very open. He's the most open director I've ever worked with, the most available. He always has his idea. He has his goal. But at the same time he allows this stuff to just enter it. And so it's exciting to be around someone like that, because you trust his brain. He's very smart. He's always thinking. He's like a young filmmaker.

I want to ask something sort of broad, which is, you know, just looking at what you do and your work, you always stay very busy and you always seem curious, trying things out. Like I saw you on Broadway in “Glengarry Glen Ross” doing the Shelly part a few years back, which was fascinating. But I'm curious if at this point in your career, you've seen a lot, you've done a lot – if not all of it – is there something where you feel unfulfilled in your career, something that you're still searching for?

I must feel that way a little bit. I'm a big advocate for “bring the body and the mind will follow.” Because the creation of a thing – to me, the play is the thing. Everything has always been, for me, an empty canvas that I paint on. So if I paint on something, either I've got something to say with it or it's not very good and doesn't mean much. So every fresh film is a fresh canvas. So if I still have a desire to paint something, that's good, I think. As far as a desire – there's so many things in my life now, so many domestic things I have to deal with, options of films to make and plays to do. I'm right now working on David Mamet's new play, which is interesting to work with him and develop a play with him that he wrote for me. It's very interesting. The good news about it is it's there and I'm going to keep developing it and we're going to do it next year.

What's that called?

It's called “China Doll.” But at this point, I did three movies and I guess I'm a little tired of it. Because then comes the movies and you've got to do a lot of this [press]. I mean I was in the festivals with two movies and I was on too many red carpets. I'm starting to get like a bull when he sees red, “Whoooo! A red carpet! And I'm gonna go on it!” It's like red carpet syndrome. And it's tough. But at the same time, I wasn't prepared for it. If I had one movie in these festivals, at least it would have been a little easier to do. You do one red carpet and then you have two in one night. It's a bit surreal. It's like when I was on stage in the old days – not long ago, actually – when I was doing eight performances of a Shakespeare play. I would get up there and do these soliloquies, and what would happen is I would do the soliloquy, and I had just done it in the afternoon at 4:00, and there I was at 7:00 doing the same soliloquy that went on forever. And I was thinking while I was doing it that I was repeating myself. I thought, “I'm saying every line twice. And the audience is being very friendly. Because they know I've lost my mind and they're being tolerant.” [Laughs.] Because this was so embedded in me, it gets you groggy. So some of that was happening to me during the festivals.

That strikes me as an element of the business that certainly must have changed considerably in your estimation over the decades.

It's changed. Yeah. I have seen it. It's very much marketing now. And how do you survive, a little film like “The Humbling?” All of a sudden you're out there with everything else, and you just say, “Well, we're here, too,” basically. “That's it. OK.” In the old days it just didn't work that way at all. You had a studio that usually did these films. I did, like, “Panic in Needle Park.” A studio did that film and today you couldn't get a film like that done by a studio.

I guess there's also something about technology and the democratization of the medium, where virtually any movie that can be made will be made.

Yeah. And so the scales are – in a lot of ways movies sometimes just require a certain amount of money, otherwise they can't be made. And some film directors can't work without a budget that they require, which is the way they shoot films. And they're wonderful. Some of them are great filmmakers. But they can't do a movie with less money than they're used to. And conversely, it works the other way. I've seen great filmmakers who make independent movies get a big budget, they don't know what to do with it. So the films that were great at a low budget, now when they do a film at a higher budget with all the money they need – it's what makes you roll. What rolls you? Actors, it's pretty much the same. It's nice to have more time with a part, but mostly we aren't burdened with that. Directors are.

Let's talk a little bit about “Manglehorn” and working with David Gordon Green. What was that experience like for you.

David is a good guy. Yeah. He's a strange guy at times, but at times not at all. I really liked him. And “Manglehorn” – it's far away from me now, so let me see if I can collect it in my mind. I had a meeting with him. We were going to do a commercial. They wanted to use me and David directed it. But I sort of felt strange about doing it, and I remember giving voice to that. I talked about what I wanted it to be and what I liked about it. And there was David, a sweet guy, I met him there. And I never saw him again. A year later, he had a movie for me. I never did the commercial. I don't know what happened to it. And he had a movie for me. He wrote this “Manglehorn” for me, based on that meeting. So I don't know what he was seeing! [Laughs.] But it was great. And then of course I saw his movies and I was just trying to find the time to fit it in between all the things. And I didn't understand the movie all that much, but I worked with him and tried to get into it in some way and find it. Finally it came out and we made this movie. It was pretty good, I think.

What made you decide to take the plunge?

Well, I knew he had this sort of certain vitality, a certain originality in him. And he so wanted me to do it, and…

Did he make you feel obligated? [Laughs.]

He did a little bit! And then I took a chance, too. But it was tough being in Austin. Austin's a great place, but it's too far away from my kids here. So I would get back as much as I could. And of course films the way they are, they didn't shoot for a long time, so it made it possible. But I always thought, “This is a very interesting kind of movie” and “Where is he going with it?” Unusual for me to be in that. But I liked him so much and I liked the people. I love Holly Hunter and Chris Messina, and all the people he worked with. Because they all knew each other.

Something else I wanted to ask about – and hopefully you haven't been too besieged by this question lately – but Mike Nichols…

Oh, Mike Nichols. That happens in life, where we lose someone and it's palpable,” Pacino told me recently. “Everybody feels it. There's a void there. They're gone. I loved him. I just loved him. He was probably the greatest director I ever worked with.

What stands out to you about that experience on “Angels in America?”

First of all, I knew him, so I would consider him a friend. We didn't see each other a lot. We were on two coasts. But he's helped me a lot in my personal life. He made the movie in such a way that – the very great ones, if you're lucky enough to be around them when they're making a movie, the environment is so actor-friendly, crew-friendly, people-friendly and warm. True, I was doing a great writer's work – Tony Kushner – but of course. But still, it was so easy. And you knew you were in the hands of a master. You knew that a master was going to be acting as a sensor, because he so knew what he wanted and understood things so deeply that you didn't think about it. You just thought, 'I'll do this or I'll do that and I know that I'm going to be taken care of. This man will mold it and make it, will sculpt it, will do something with it. So it gives you a sense of freedom. Hard to find anyone like that again.

I'm running short of time here and naturally have a list of movies I'd love to ask you about. I'm going to zero in on one that was sort of formative for me: Michael Mann's “Heat.” It's been nearly 20 years, if you can believe it, but that film has always meant a great deal to me and I've had the pleasure to get to know Michael a little bit over the years, but what can you remember of that experience?

I made two movies with Michael, and both of them, in a way, he shocks you. That he can take a subject that has been done – well, not with the tobacco movie. That was never done, and then he did it and made a movie that gave you cold shivers when you saw it. He captured it in such a way that made it poetic, at the same time horrifying, his sense of how to show power – real power – and really scare the shit out of you. But with “Heat,” he took this story that he felt so passionately and he shot it and it meant so much to him, and then he delivers this movie, and – it's hard to say anything about it except: Wow.