“There’s Always Something Personal, Always Something a Little Different”: Jerry Schatzberg in Conversation with Joshua Z Weinstein

The writer-director of Menashe sits down with one of his cinematic heroes, a 1970s directing great.

Jerry Schatzberg could be my grandfather, and sitting on his couch we talked like we were family. We come from the same DNA: Jews born in New York City who were drawn to documenting humanity, scenes, and music. We talked about all the important subjects like doing blackbirds and taking Al Pacino to a whorehouse. To say he looks good for 91 is a understatement. It is a reminder that having a reason to get up in the morning is all you need.

I interviewed Jerry because all I want you to do is watch his 1973 film Scarecrow, which I stumbled upon at Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema. It is a gem of a picture that singularly captures the America of the ’70s but feels relevant to the present day. It’s fresh and vibrant and heartbreaking and alive. Scarecrow features some of the best performances Pacino and Gene Hackman gave in their careers, and is grittily photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond. It has become one of my favorite films of the ’70s.

Schatzberg is a restrained master who began his career as a photographer taking snaps of Bob Dylan. He did not make his first film until he was 40, Puzzle of a Downfall Child, starring his then-fiancée Faye Dunaway. His filmography reads like a who’s who of cinema, and he often worked with actors early in their careers, including Pacino, Meryl Streep and Morgan Freeman.

It was a privilege spending an afternoon with Jerry in his apartment, and I want to make sure his work continues to be seen.

Weinstein: The first time I heard about your films was a few years back at Tarantino’s movie theater out in L.A.

Schatzberg: He did a week of my films.

Weinstein: Yeah, exactly. When I saw them, I was like, “How did I not know about you, who you were or your movies!?”

Schatzberg: I get that a lot.

Weinstein: How old are you now?

Schatzberg: 91.

Weinstein: You’re not 91!

Schatzberg: No, I’m really 37.

Weinstein: I knew it. You and Keith Richards are proof that drugs are OK.

Schatzberg: Yeah, well I didn’t get into it as much as he did. We were friendly, though, because I photographed them [the Rolling Stones] one time they came here. He said to me, “Hey man, you into that stuff?” I said, “No, not really.” I stopped taking drugs when I did Panic in Needle Park. I just stopped. And he says, “Then how come you did a film on drugs?” I thought for a minute and said, “I could probably do a film where a woman has a baby; I can’t do that either.”

Weinstein: Not only do you take photos and make films but you also were a part-owner of a nightclub, and I read a quote that said you did a lot of drugs back then to stay awake so you could run the nightclub and work.

Schatzberg: Well, I didn’t know I was taking drugs, I was taking things that kept me awake at night and to keep me awake in the day. I didn’t think I was becoming a pill freak. Michael [J. Pollard], he was in Bonnie and Clyde, funny-looking little guy with a big nose. Good actor. One day he said, “You’ve gotta get these blackbirds.”

Weinstein: So were you at the club every night? Were you actually watching the tills? How involved were you?

Schatzberg: I wasn’t watching the tills, I was just watching the people. Most of the people that came were my friends, so I’d sit there drinking. At that time I was still drinking, and they’d sit down at my table with me, the Stones, and then I’d sit down with them and Dylan. I mean, they were great times.

Weinstein: What year is this?

Schatzberg: Maybe ’65, ’64.

Weinstein: And you got Hendrix and a lot of other amazing people to come.

Schatzberg: I think the Doors were the first people in there, and we didn’t know them. They didn’t even have a record out yet. And we had Buffalo Springfield before they had an album, and then we had this guy Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. Chas from the Animals heard this guy, they convinced him to go to London, and he came back Jimi Hendrix. The opening night of my second club, which was about a year later, he opened the club with live music for us.

Weinstein: Were you watching movies during this time period?

Schatzberg: I’ve been watching movies since I was eight, but not the kind of movies I make. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. I’d go to the movies Friday, Saturday and Sunday with my father and my mother, with friends, and it was usually double features in tiny neighborhood theaters.

Weinstein: Back then, it was very common for everyone to go to the movie theater, because it was a few pennies, right?

Schatzberg: My father was a gambler and he and my mother used to go to the casinos over in Jersey; there was one right near the side of the bridge. He used to give me a dollar to go to the movies and have dinner. With a dollar you could [do that], and save money besides.

Weinstein: So how old were you when you made your first film?

Schatzberg: 40.

Weinstein: At what point did you start seeing European films?

Schatzberg: I was about 27.

Weinstein: Do you remember then what really excited you?

Schatzberg: I’d go to 42nd Street, which had two or three cinemas that showed Italian and French films. It was really just the very special people used to go there. Battle of Algiers was one of my favorites. I’m not very good at remembering names, but all of those [European] films affected me. My films are really more European than American. They call me a French director.

Weinstein: So you don’t really see an art film till you’re 27, and 13 years later you make your first film …

Schatzberg: I was just going to the movies all the time. I didn’t know about making movies, even. My father was taking out an insurance policy and the insurance salesman asked, “You’re a nice young man. What do you wanna do when you grow up?” I looked at him: “I wanna own a movie theater.” Because I would go to the movies all the time.

Al Pacino and Gene Hackman in Scarecrow

Weinstein: I’d like to talk a little bit about Scarecrow because when I saw it a few years back, it became one of my favorite films of the ’70s. I was just shocked by the talent who worked on it. Vilmos Zsigmond shot it right after The Long Goodbye, which I love.

Schatzberg: The Long Goodbye is what made me want to work with him.

Weinstein: Oh man, and Hackman did it right after The French Connection.

Schatzberg: He had done The French Connection and Pacino had done The Godfather.

Weinstein: Did it feel like there was magic on that set?

Schatzberg: We were traveling cross-country … the magic disappears when the actors don’t get along all the time, and they didn’t ’cause Hackman was a real pain in the ass. He started the first week of rehearsals: “I don’t get along with any directors I work with.” I said, “Oh.” We did get along. I mean, we had one big fight. I came to the set one day; I’d been up most of the night figuring the scene. There was so much dialogue. So I came to say, “Hey, let’s rehearse this and let’s cut out as much dialogue as we can.” And Hackman says, “Oh fuck!” I said, “What’s the problem?” “Nothing, nothing.” “C’mon, tell me.” “No, no, let’s go.” Finally, I said, “Come on, let’s go down the alley here. Let’s talk it out. You know if you’ve got a problem, I wanna know what it is.” He says, “I’m sick and fucking tired of you two guys [Schatzberg and Pacino] deciding at night what’s gonna be my dialogue.” Hackman knew I’d done a [previous] film with Al, and he was paranoid about that. So I didn’t hang out with either one of them. You know, when Hackman puts on the costume, it’s the character; when he takes off the costume, he’s Hackman. And Al carries the character around with him all the time. So they’re two different guys, but I knew what I was getting from them and that’s all I cared about.

Weinstein: Is the whole point of directing making your actors forget they’re in a role?

Schatzberg: For me, it is. If I start seeing a film and I don’t like the acting, I lose interest in the film. But it’s also my way. I’m used to going around and throwing something at somebody. I did a whole scene with Dylan where I kept looking for props around the studio and I’d throw him something, just to see what he’d do.

Weinstein: I saw one where he’s holding a Jesus photo.

Schatzberg: Yeah, that’s one of them. I took my keys and threw them at him and he started playing with them.

Weinstein: From trying to get great portraiture, do you learn skills for working with actors?

Schatzberg: I don’t know. When I see somebody whose work I really like, there’s always something personal, there’s always something a little different. I’m not photographing somebody’s name, I’m photographing somebody. And you couldn’t get a better name than Dylan. But I don’t care about that. When he covered up his face like that or cleaned his eyes – how many people can take that picture?

Weinstein: I always find the best way to shoot a person is never with two eyes in front. You want to feel like you’re capturing them, observing them. Subconsciously, it tells the audience this is real.

Schatzberg: I mean, it’s so much more interesting for the audience.

Weinstein: I’m very similar to you in that idea. You’re not making films or art for yourself. Your art is made to be shared and if the audience is not engaging with it …

Schatzberg: Then why are you’re doing it?

Weinstein: What’s the point, exactly? But also you’re not making “commercial work.”

Schatzberg: Well, because with commercial work you know what they’re doing, and everybody knows what they’re doing.

Weinstein: Did you ever flirt at all with trying to do something huge for Hollywood?

Schatzberg: Oh, yeah. But man, it’s awful.

Weinstein: What was the biggest budget movie you made?

Schatzberg: Maybe Honeysuckle Rose, but that was fun. The actress was a pain in the ass. Amy Irving.

Weinstein: With Willie [Nelson]? I saw Honeysuckle first and then I saw Thief by Michael Mann and I was like, “Wow, Willie.” He was acting for a little. I had no idea.

Schatzberg: He first did a film where he had a small part, maybe the one for Sydney Pollack [The Electric Horseman].

Weinstein: I was a touring musician, so I kind of know that world. One of my favorite cutaways in Honeysuckle is early in the movie: there’s a woman giving her baby a Coors can. Do you remember that at all?

Schatzberg: I may not remember it, but I know I did it.

Weinstein: How much of your films are off the cuff? Because when I watch Scarecrow, there are moments that feel like improv, like the conga line in the bar. Was that written or …?

Schatzberg: No, the action was in [the script] somewhere, but to stage it and everything was all up to us to do. Anytime I can give the actors something to react to – because that’s what they’re doing, they’re reacting – I’ll say something to the actor.

Al Pacino and Gene Hackman in Scarecrow

For the scene in the beginning at the diner, Hackman didn’t like the actress I chose for the waitress. When they order, Hackman orders what he wants. And then as the actress is walking away, [he says,] “And French fried potatoes.” I tell her, “When you deliver that stuff, give him the wrong order.” And so she comes with the food and she gives Pacino his order and Hackman goes to take his dish and he looks at her and says, “Is this your first day?” That’s Hackman’s humor, Hackman being ornery to her because he didn’t like her.

Weinstein: And the scene where they are in a store and Hackman’s trying to shoplift so Pacino runs around as distraction. How much of that was spontaneous when camera started to roll?

Schatzberg: None of it was staged. Al and I used to walk the streets all the time. Al had done The Godfather already, so Al was wearing a big heavy coat and a hat so nobody could recognize him. Then after walking for an hour, he’s like, “Nobody fucking recognized me.” He was hiding under his hat and coat, but was really waiting for people [to say], “Oh, you’re Al Pacino.” We went to a whorehouse as I was looking to cast a couple of gals for a scene in the bar. They line up in the waiting room, just like they would if real customers were there, and they’re lining up in a semicircle when we come in. One of the whores, looking at Al, says, “Why do you look so familiar?” We don’t say anything and then she points and says, “You’re in The Godfather, you’re an actor.” And she says, “Jesus, you’re so small. I thought you were bigger.” It was all out there, and then she crushed him.

Weinstein: How often is a first take enough for you? Do you always do backup takes if you have the first take?

Schatzberg: Not really. But sometimes in the editing room, you don’t know what you’re going to do, and you need something.

Weinstein: You lose actors; they can’t repeat themselves. They have a couple of brilliant moments, but that’s all they have.

Schatzberg: I mean, Meryl Streep will never do the same thing she did in earlier takes. If she did it good, did it bad, she changes it the next take.

Weinstein: That’s because she wants to give you options or because it makes her a better performer?

Schatzberg: Well, it’s probably both. But she just feels that she wants to give it to you fresh. She wants to give something new, and probably a better choice.

Weinstein: When you got the script for Scarecrow, did you know it was going to be as good as it came out?

Schatzberg: I didn’t know what it was because Al had been talking to me about a film he was doing.

Weinstein: Scarecrow?

Schatzberg: Well, I didn’t know it was Scarecrow, but a film he was doing. He was telling me different things, which I liked, and so my agent sent me the script. I said, “David, you sent this to me. Was it Al who wanted …?” “Yeah.” I said, “Why?” “Well, the two actors can’t get along with the director.” ’Cause there was a director assigned to it. “They don’t really want to do the film with him.” At one point, Al and I were walking in the street and both of us were very guilty about that.

Weinstein: The thing about Scarecrow is it’s very controlled. It’s your film, it’s not the script’s film, because it’s so much about the space. It’s about the moments.

In the ’70s, you made movies that are some of the best of that time period, which for me means the best of all time. Did you realize at the time these films were special?

Schatzberg: I keep getting asked this, but no, I didn’t. I just had an idea and wanted to make a film about my experience photographing models.

Weinstein: Are you surprised about your influence? I went to college with the Safdie brothers, who are big fans of your work.

Schatzberg: They were brought up right around here, ‘cause whenever we have lunch it’s always at Barney Greengrass. You remind me of them too.

Weinstein: I’ve known Josh since he was 18. Who are new filmmakers you like? Who inspires you these days?

Schatzberg: I like Josh and I love the Mexicans. I’m friendly with two of them.


Weinstein: What do you think of Roma?

Schatzberg: I loved it. He captured a part of his life and in a way that only he could do. I don’t know Iñárritu well, but I’m very close with Guillermo [del Toro].

Weinstein: Iñárritu seems like a very serious dude.

Schatzberg: And Cuarón. I’ve spent a lot of time with them so, hell, we laugh a lot. Guillermo’s hysterical. Really, he’s funny.

Weinstein: I love the Dardenne brothers. You know them.

Schatzberg: Yeah.

Weinstein: I think they’re definitely some my very favorite filmmakers working today.

Schatzberg: Yeah. And I could say the other brothers …

Weinstein: The Coen brothers? Oh God. I mean, they are my generation’s Hitchcock.

Schatzberg: They seem like old filmmakers. Because they’ve been around making good films for such a long time.

Weinstein: I love P.T. Anderson.

Schatzberg: Yeah, I think he’s brilliant. Oh, and then he did another Daniel Day-Lewis movie last year about the clothing designer in London.

Weinstein: Phantom Thread. It’s an interesting time; I feel that a lot of directors are making films that the average person is not going to watch.

Schatzberg: Well, I’ve been through that for a long time. It took years to make Puzzle of a Downfall Child and that only cost a million dollars. The Seduction of Joe Tynan, one of my lesser films, was the only one that really made money. Did you know Scarecrow was originally cast with Jack Lemmon and Bill Cosby before I was on the project? It would’ve been a different film. It might’ve been a great film and probably would’ve made a lot of money.

Weinstein: Wow, that would have …

Schatzberg: been a different film.

Weinstein: [Pointing at films in Schatzberg’s living room] A Star is Born over there.

Schatzberg: I almost did the last one, the one with Barbra Streisand. But she wasn’t in it then.

Weinstein: Was that because you knew Joan Didion before?

Schatzberg: No, but Joan was interviewed because some Germans started to [make a] documentary and they asked her, “How does Jerry work with the dialogue?” “Well, he doesn’t like my dialogue, but he doesn’t like any dialogue.” I love that. I just don’t pay attention to the dialogue if I don’t like it. The intention of their film is there in my film, but they don’t think it’s their film. The guy that wrote Scarecrow says, “It’s a good film, but it’s not my film.” I can’t help that. Unless you become the author of the film, it’s not gonna be your film.

Weinstein: Panic in Needle Park today feels like such a modern movie. I’ve had a few friends O.D. from fentanyl and other sorts of narcotics, and that film kicks me in the gut – it’s hard to watch.

Schatzberg: I like pretty much all of my films because they don’t age that easily. When I see Panic when [Pacino]’s wearing bell bottoms, I get a little nervous. I don’t even want the customs to look old and it looks a little dated to me, coming from the fashion world. But, you know, things do age and things do become outdated.

Weinstein: But just like your films have aged well, you look freaking great for 91. I’m 35 right now – what do I do to make it another 60 years?

Schatzberg: Just keep working. It’s all you can do.


All images of Jerry Schatzberg and Joshua Z Weinstein by Maeghan Donohue.

Joshua Z Weinstein is the director of Menashe, Drivers Wanted, and Flying On One Engine. He is the cinematographer of Bikini Moon, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, and Code of the West.