by Dan Lybarger
Al Pacino and John Cazale in ďThe Godfather Part II,Ē as seen in the new documentary ďI Knew It Was You.Ē Photo by Steve Schapiro, Courtesy of HBO.
Itís unlikely that youíd ever hear someone say, ďIíve never seen a bad John Cazale movie.Ē During his short film career, Cazale never became a marquee actor. Nevertheless, if somebody did utter that unlikely sentence, it would certainly be true.
Cazale had a consistency that would rival James Deanís. Every feature film he appeared in was nominated for a Best Picture. If Cazaleís name isnít familiar, his films certainly are.
He played Michael Corleoneís bumbling brother Fredo in The Godfather. The filmís co-writer and director Francis Ford Coppola liked Cazaleís work in the first Godfather so much that he expanded the role in The Godfather Part II and wrote a role specifically for Cazale in The Conversation.
Cazale was a close friend and frequent acting partner with Al Pacino and played Pacinoís frighteningly unstable accomplice in Sidney Lumetís Dog Day Afternoon. The actorís final role came as Robert De Niroís longtime friend in The Deer Hunter.
Cazale died of cancer at the age of 42 before The Deer Hunter debuted, but any serious discussion of his movies requires an analysis of his contributions. Both Coppola and Lumet have publicly said that Cazale had an ability to bring more to his characters than was provided in the scripts. His co-stars like Pacino, Gene Hackman and Meryl Streep all say that Cazaleís work forced them to give better performances.
The new documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale offers viewers a long overdue examination of the actor and his work. Richard Shepard, who is probably best known for directing The Matador and The Hunting Partyand for winning an Emmy for helming the pilot episode of Ugly Betty, has spent three years searching for information and recollections about Cazale. I Knew It Was You includes three rare clips of Cazale that have been unseen for decades. Thereís a scene from his only television appearance and from the 1962 short film The American Way.
More importantly, Shepard was able to get press-shy performers like Pacino and Streep, who was romantically involved with Cazale, to discuss in detail what Cazale meant to them and even what he taught them about acting.
As of this writing, the film is currently playing at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. It will debut on HBO later this year. During our telephone conversation, Shepard and I talked about how he went from becoming a John Cazale fanboy to offering what may be the definitive account of the actorís legacy.
Dan Lybarger: Why is John Cazale your favorite actor?
Richard Shepard: Itís an interesting question. I think when I was a kid, I just responded to him, something about the sadness in him. I just really responded to him before I even knew who he was. And then as I got older, he just kept popping up in my favorite movies.
And I just connected to him. I mean this guy was always perfect. And so he became my favorite actor in a strange way. I didnít seek him out. He just sort of worked that way.
DL: Heís not a household name, but a lot of people have responded to him. Both Premiere and Entertainment Weekly did substantial articles on him.
RS: There have been articles about him, but not a lot. Thereís a lot of misinformation. You go to IMDB, and someoneís written that he was engaged to Meryl Streep. And thatís not true. Thereís just a lot of information thatís wrong.
But thereís also not a lot of deep information. Because the fact of the matter is that no one ever really examined what made him so good and how his talent as an actor basically influenced the best generation of actors that weíve ever had.
In the documentary, you have Al Pacino and Meryl Streep talking about what they learned about acting from him. Itís interesting that heís not a household name, which is why we called the movie I Knew It Was You. Because obviously thatís a line from Godfather Part II. But itís also sort of exactly right.
We recognized the face, but we donít really know who that guy is.
DL: Just like when you talked to folks out on the street, showing a photo of him with the cast of The Godfather, in the documentary.
RS: Exactly. It was unbelievable. I actually thought that would happen. I didnít think anyone was going to say, ďJohn Cazale.Ē I thought theyíd say, ďFredo.Ē And they did.
We were out there for two and a half hours. I think two people said, ďJohn Cazale.Ē But everyone knew Fredo. Anyone who would stop and talk to me knew who Fredo was. And a guy on the street said, ďI knew it was you, Fredo.Ē I said, ďOh my God. Itís the title of the movie.Ē
DL: Isnít this documentary the first time Meryl Streep has talked about him on the record?
RS: Sheís talked about him a little bit when she was doing press for One True Thing. She talked about it because cancer was in the plot. Sheís very private about her personal life. Sheís extremely private. She didnít talk to us until a yearís worth of effort ended with her finally agreeing. She doesnít like to talk about her personal life. And thatís fine.
I think she ultimately saw the bigger merit of this story, that we werenít out to exploit him or them. It was more an examination of John and his acting in a strange way, even though the emotional tug of the movie comes from their relationship. Itís not all about that. Once she realized she wasnít being used, she came on board fully and supported us ever since, which is awesome.
DL: I know that De Niro and Pacino are both pretty press-shy, too.
RS: It was really strange. Iíll tell you once Meryl Streep said yes to us, itís like the floodgates opened. All these other people were like, if Meryl will talk to you, then I will talk to you.
And people like Pacino were literally thanking us. They were like ďI loved John, and thank you for making this movie.Ē That sort of vibe.
Thatís pretty unbelievable. I mean I was thanking him. ďThank you so much for doing this documentary.Ē And it happened where Gene Hackman rarely talks, but it was great that we got all these people. And we also found that the younger actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Steve Buscemi were eager to spend time with us, too.
It was clear there was a lot of respect for this guy, and like you and me, we know him and like him, and we want to know more about him.
Heís sort of a filmmakerís hero. But I think that most of the general public doesnít know him.
DL: When you had Coppola and Lumet, both of them said that Cazale did things that werenít in the script that made it into the final cut.
RS: If you listen to what Pacino says he dug deep into the character and brought more to these characters than what was on the page. I think thatís why Coppola worked with him three times and why Pacino did three movies and ten plays with him. Why these people continued to work with him all the time was that he brought more than what was there and as a filmmaker or an actor, thatís what you want.
If you look at his parts, in The Godfather, heís barely in it. But Coppola clearly responded to what he was bringing, and he was like I need to give him more. This is a guy who will make something out of nothing. What will happen if I actually give him more? Which you can see by The Godfather Part II, heís giving him a prime part.
DL: One of the things thatís really striking about your doc is that heís been dead for 31 years, and people still remember him vividly.
RS: Itís amazing, and in a strange way, you can see people like Meryl Streep and Al Pacino sort of come alive (in the film). Itís almost like they bring him to life. And you can see them being moved. You can see so many people coming to tears. He clearly touched a lot of peopleís lives in a major way, and heís been dead for 31 years, but somehow talking about him has brought him back to these people, and it was very emotional.
There was a lot of tears in a lot of interviews.
I come from narrative movies where no oneís crying (laughs). Itís a different vibe. Iím just sort of talking behind the scenes.
It was weird because Iíve never done a documentary before, and there was sort of like almost a kind of like a responsibility. I felt a responsibility to John to do this correctly. I donít mean to sound pompous because Iím not trying to say whether the movie works or not. This is a guy that I just love, and Iím honored that all these other people want to share their time about him. I kept the picture of him in the editing room, and I kept saying to the editor, ďHeís watching us, dude. We canít fuck this up.Ē (laughs)
Theyíre not going to make a second movie about him. This is it. Itís taken 30 years for one movie, so letís not fuck it up.
DL: It didnít look like you had a lot of B-roll to use on this guy.
RS: None. He never did one single on-camera interview that we can find on ABC, NBC, CBS, on Merv Griffin, on Dick Cavet or any of those shows. He never appeared in them. There was no B-roll for the movies. There were no on-set interviews. It was like a different era. And he wasnít interviewed.
So thereís no footage of him talking outside of those five movies. Itís really weird. That was one of the challenges of (I Knew It Was You), and I hope that you felt it had a vibrancy to it. We just had to use the energy of the people telling the story because we didnít have a lot of other stuff to use.
DL: Itís like The American Way, the TV clip you had, and thatís it.
RS: When we found the TV clip, it was like, ďOh, my God!Ē When you see that I donít think that John is fully formed as an actor (laughs).
DL: Dog Day Afternoon is one of my favorites, but Cazale and the real Salvatore Naturile could not have been more different.
RS: I think Lumet touches on that in the film. Pacino says (Lumet) wanted to cast a 17-year-old (Naturileís approximate age). But Pacino was like this guy you need to audition him. The day that they (Lumet and Cazale) met, he wasnít at all what Lumet was looking for, but there was just something about him.
He was able to show a totally different side than (Lumet) had seen before in either The Conversation or The Godfather movies. Heís totally not menacing in The Godfather movies. Heís a wannabe you wouldnít trust with a gun at all. Fredo is clearly not made for that business. In Dog Day, he is an angry guy, and you can see it. You really feel his anger. And thereís a lot of tension from his performance.
I think that just sort of showed the range. He was really capable of anything. Something that didnít make the documentary was people like Coppola talking about if (Cazale) had lived, he would cast John as a bad guy in a movie because he wanted to see that side of him.
And Richard Dreyfuss (a friend of Cazaleís who is in the documentary) was like, I think he would have made an interesting off-romantic lead because he was very sensitive like that. And these are roles he never got to play because he died. He got sick right when he was just starting, even though he was 40. It wasnít like he had started acting in movies when he was 20. And thatís whatís interesting. He didnít get into the movie business until he was in his mid-30s. He had a run of 1971 to 1977, you know six years.
DL: Actors often compete for the spotlight, but in some ways he may have been the greatest supporting player ever because he was a really good springboard for the leading men and ladies he worked with.
RS: And he made the actors around him better. I agree with you that he was the greatest supporting actor, but his support was not just in telling the story but in giving the world that the other actors had to be acting in a legitimacy. So they gave their best performances in his presence, not all of them. But there was consistently great work from all the people he was working with. I think thatís why they liked him so much because he made them better. I think they liked him as a human being.
But actors and directors want the best, and he was able to bring it out in these people, and I think itís because he had a true integrity about what he was doing. He lived and breathed acting.
I kept asking people, ďWhat was he like? What did he do for hobbies?Ē They were like, ďYou know, he liked a beer. He liked to smoke. He liked to chill out.Ē He was an actor, and thatís what he loved to do. And when he wasnít in a movie, he was in a play.
DL: And his nickname from directors ď20 QuestionsĒ seemed to tell it all.
RS: Exactly. Thatís interesting. When Meryl Streep said that, itís like ďWow. Thatís interesting.Ē He was always trying to figure out, well, you can play this role one way, but letís really figure out who this guy is. And Pacino says he didnít always need an answer. And I think thatís really interesting because itís not like he was asking whereís this guy from.
It was like give me an idea what kind of world he lived in. It doesnít have to be concrete. Itís just something for me to start digging and figuring out. He was clearly sensitive, and thereís something super sad about him. There just is and was in everything about him. Thereís a real, haunting sadness in him. And he clearly was able to tap that. And thereís something sensitive about him.
He wasnít afraid to show a vulnerability that a lot of actors just shy away from it. I think that Sam Rockwell or one of them says in the movie that (actors) want to play weak, but they want to show you theyíre strong. John never had to do that. He never had to say, ďIím acting. Iím really cool.Ē He said Iíll play someone weak, and heíll be weak. And heíll be complex, and youíre going to care about him anyway.
Thatís a real challenge because a lot of times if an actor is playing a character thatís weak. Theyíll be doing something. Thereíll be some twitch. Thereíll be some acting so you know that theyíre acting (laughs).
He just didnít need to do it. He had a real confidence about himself. And I think itís really clear in the documentary.
We didnít know what the movie was when we started. We just wanted to learn about John. And slowly it became clear once Pacino and Streep were talking about what they learned from him, that it was really going to be a movie about acting, respect and what he brought to the game. And how people like Steve Buscemi can watch The Deer Hunter and notice that heís zipping up his fly. That was insane when he said that. Iíd never seen (that moment), and Iíd seen the movie nine times.
I ran back home to my DVD to look at it, and oh, my God, heís right! Itís amazing.
DL: Because of Cazaleís formidable if brief legacy. Did you think that 40 minutes was enough time in the documentary to really establish it?
RS: Did you?
DL: I think for the most part because youíre showing his greatest hits. The movies he starred in tended to be about three hours long. Youíve got the stuff in (the documentary) where you can show he had made his mark.
RS: I think we felt at a certain point, we didnít have any B-roll footage. We did do the highlight reels of the movies, and we couldnít show 20 minutes from The Godfather. First of all, we couldnít afford it. Second, rent the movie if you want to watch 20 minutes of it.
Part of this is letís not be concerned with the length. Letís not do this for a feature, short or anything. Letís just try to do this in a way thatís exciting so that weíre not repeating ourselves. We interviewed 23 people, but we could have interviewed 50 people. But at a certain point, we had the key players.
We were just trying to give you an idea of what he meant and what his acting meant and a little bit of what he was as a human being, certainly the parts where we do talk about his background and where it shaped his idea of finding the pain as an actor and all that stuff. But I felt it was the right length. This is my final cut. It wasnít like somebody forced me to do it at 40 minutes but what made sense.
DL: We donít see his brother until late in the film.
RS: I didnít really give a shit about his childhood. Thatís why I sped through it. I cared about his childhood when I heard that his father was overbearing. That made sense to me in terms of how he was as a human being.
I didnít need to know they slept in bunk beds. It wasnít The Biography Channel. It would have been fascinating if heíd been beaten as a child or if he was a child prodigy. If it was inherently fascinating, I would have spent more time on it.
To me the part of the story where his brother had an emotional impact was where he was talking about when John got sick. I didnít really need him to be telling me growing up in Gloucester, MA. I really just didnít care because it didnít ultimately have anything to do with John as an actor.
And thatís why we do that whole sequence where we go through his whole history in about six seconds. I wanted people to know here are the facts so that if you are someone who is interested in the facts. You have them. But I donít need to dwell on it.
DL: It was impressive to know that he could do Shakespeare, but because he did it on stage, no one can ever see it again.
RS: Thatís the thing about theater, especially theater thatís not captured on film. We were praying someone videotaped Measure for Measure, but it does not exist.
DL: But that poster with his face and Streepís is pretty amazing.
RS: As a Cazale geek, Iíll tell you it was nothing but fun. I was just bathing in it, it was just so fun.
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originally posted: 01/20/09 22:50:53