By Susanne Beck
There are a handful of parks around the world that have been referred to as “Needle Park,” because heroin addicts have shot up in them. But the authentic Needle Park (a dubious distinction, but part of our lore) was on the Upper West Side: a sliver of a traffic island, wedged between Broadway and Amsterdam, off 71st Street, which played a leading role in a 1971 film classic.
The Panic in Needle Park — now 50 years old — stars a little-known Al Pacino (in his first full-length film) and Kitty Winn, as heroin addicts in love. In his review at the time, Roger Ebert noted that the film was “indeed a love story, and more specifically a carefully observed portrait of two human beings. If you go to see needles and blood and depravity, you may well be disappointed; the movie is more intelligent than your expectations.”
David Kehr, from The New York Times, commented: “A QUINTESSENTIAL 70s MOVIE… Schatzberg was one of the most gifted and original filmmakers to emerge during the 70s.”
Fifty years later, the Film Forum is celebrating the movie’s original release and its place in American cinema with a reunion for the cast and filmmakers at the theater at 209 West Houston Street, on October 11. The rest of us can stream The Panic in Needle Park on Criterion Channel.
West Side Rag had the privilege of speaking with the 94-year-old director of the film, who is also an acclaimed photographer and long-time Upper West Sider (86th Street). Jerry – “please call me Jerry” – kicked off the conversation with a compliment. “I love the name of your newspaper,” he said. Get that man a link!
Excerpts from our conversation are below. They have been edited for length and clarity.
WSR: How did you decide to cast Al Pacino in the lead role?
JS: I fell in love with Al four or five years before I worked with him. I went to see him in a play with my manager who was his manager. While he was on stage, I said to the manager, if I ever do a film, I want to work with that person. Then, we went backstage and he was a totally different person, because on stage you’re one thing and backstage you’re another. I was totally impressed with that, too. We became very tight.
We had a little difficulty when he was considered for Scarecrow [Schatzberg’s 1973 film]. He wanted to change things. I wouldn’t change them. They weren’t the things that should be changed. He was trying to get more film time or something, I don’t know… We didn’t talk to each other for two years. He had gone to Warner Brothers by then and done the Godfather. So, he was a star now.
WSR: What about Kitty Winn?
JS: Fox wanted to change the actress. Someone I knew had found Kitty in San Francisco. I thought she was perfect. But they wanted me to use Mia Farrow. They wanted more name power or something. I said, “Are you kidding? Mia Farrow as a young junkie? How do we explain Frank Sinatra?“
WSR: What kind of preparation did you have to do to shoot such a realistic film in that location?
JS: Al and Kitty were not superstars then, so they had a lot of time – maybe a month and a half. Usually you get a week or two. So, we got to know each other quite well. Al is very easy to know, sometimes. Well, most of the time.
We were able to go to seminars at a hospital. A guy there told his story about how he and his girlfriend wanted to kick the habit. And he did, he actually kicked the habit and got her to kick it, but then he just got a longing for it. He felt lonely and brought her back in it too, which is terrible.
They didn’t know if we were drug users or anything. We were just like them. We had a lot of time to see who these people were. Also, a lot of the people who were actors on the film had used drugs before, so they knew what the score was.
WSR: What was it like in that small section of the Upper West Side in the early 70’s? Did you use any of the neighborhood regulars in the film? What were some of the challenges of shooting in that space?
JS: I used what I had around there to make my film. We had to clear the park to shoot. In those days you had to get permission to photograph in the street. Today, everybody takes pictures everywhere. But not back then. For some shots, I didn’t have the luxury of saying I would like a dolly, or this or that. The film had to be budgeted properly. When I wanted to get a different view, a different perspective….I saw this building. It’s still standing across the street, then it was under construction, 20 or 30 stories high. I got permission and went up.
The terraces weren’t closed in yet. So, I got down on my belly and crawled to the edge…I was terrified. But there was my shot. So, I called to my cameraman. “C’mon Adam. Get down on your belly and get over here.” He moved out to the edge. I gave directions as to where Kitty would walk from and to, and how to track her. Then I asked him if he was good, and he said yes. So, I said, “Okay you are on your own” and I got the hell out of there.
WSR: Do you ever go back to that location and just hang out?
JS: I will tell you a funny story. Pacino sometimes carries a character with him after a film. So, I was walking up Broadway once and I hear this thing, sort of subconsciously, “Hey Chico.” And I didn’t think anything of it and I walk a few more blocks and I hear it again, “Hey Chico.” I turn around and there is Pacino sitting on the benches they used to sit on [during the filming]. He was reminiscing. Chico was the name of one of the characters. I’m always walking around there, going into Apple to get some advice from them, because I’m terrible with my computers. I know there’s a shot of all the junkies on the bench where we shot. They have changed the benches around, though. They put them in different places. And, for the most part, it seems drugs are gone from there.
WSR: How much did the film hue to the original screenplay that Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne wrote?
JS: Quite different. My way of working is, if I don’t like dialogue, I change it. It has to work for the character. Sometimes the writer doesn’t know how to speak to the character. But the actor knows how to speak to the character. I’ll probe them and push them until they come up with dialogue I think is good. The producer was a brother of one of the writers. Every day after dailies, he would walk out angry and wouldn’t even talk to me. I change what I think is right for the character.
WSR: And what about a soundtrack for the film? Did you consider one?
JS: There is no music on purpose. I was asked once if New York had a part in the film, and I said yes. I had a score done, but every time I put a cue in, I hated it, so I took it out. The street sounds are really the music. And that’s what I have there.
WSR: What’s it been like to live on the Upper West Side for so many years?
JS: I get used to each change that comes along. They’ve built some terrible buildings and stuff, but you get used to it. When everyone was moving to Soho, I actually thought of moving. But I am so glad I didn’t. At night, Soho becomes a boring, terrible place. Then everybody moved to the East [Village], then Brooklyn. Everyone I meet moved to Brooklyn. But on 86th Street where I live, as soon as you start walking to the park, it’s a neighborhood.
WSR: You were once quoted as saying if you had the guts, you’d go back to photography. After all these years, why haven’t you?
JS: I look at all my photographs and it’s the street stuff that I love the most. I walked into the park one day, and I saw a woman sitting on a bench. She reaches into her shopping bag and pulls out a snake about five feet long and four inches around. She’s holding it and making faces. I like it so people don’t know I’m taking their picture. That woman is making faces at the sight of a snake on her shopping bag, which is from Bloomingdales, and says the Main Course. I love that photograph. When I find things like that, I give myself a pat on the shoulder and I walk on to the next one.
WSR: What are you trying to capture in your photographs?
JS: I try to find the humor in life. And I usually find it. There’s always a picture out there.
For more information about Jerry, his films and photography (and to see the snake photograph), click here.
Correction: The original illustration of Verdi Park was wrong. It has been corrected.