Summer 2017

Forgotten Masters

Through their work with actors, Ulu Grosbard, Jerry Schatzberg and Michael Ritchie raised the bar on realism during Hollywood's '70s renaissance


Al Pacino and Gene Hackman huddle up with Jerry Schatzberg on Scarecrow (1973), which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. (Photo: Everett)

In the 1970s, directors had the run of the house. Liberated from the old studio system, personal projects and ambitious epics were the order of the day. It was also an era in which directors no longer operated behind the curtain; they made the covers of newsmagazines—Stanley Kubrick was on Newsweek in 1972, Robert Altman in 1975—and film scholars wrote books with titles like The Director's Event and The Film Director as Superstar. Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese were indeed superstars.

Directors Ulu Grosbard (1929-2012), Michael Ritchie (1938-2001) and Jerry Schatzberg (b. 1927) launched their filmmaking careers in the 1960s, and in some cases remained active until the early 2000s, but they made their most memorable works in the 1970s. In that decade, Grosbard directed Straight Time (1978), starring Dustin Hoffman as a hapless ex-con; Ritchie, The Candidate (1972), featuring Robert Redford as an idealist who tests the political waters; and Schatzberg, The Panic in Needle Park (1971), with Al Pacino and Kitty Winn as a couple struggling with addiction.

There is nothing slick or romanticized about these films. They are marked by naturalistic performances, with protagonists whose rough edges are not smoothed over. As The New York Times noted about Straight Time, it's a movie "so cool it would leave a chill were it not done with such precision and control."

Grosbard was able to nurture subtle, psychologically nuanced performances from his cast. Robert De Niro, who starred in Grosbard's True Confessions and Falling in Love, says that in offering direction to actors, Grosbard would "err on the side of more real [and] not pushing something or punching it up."

CLASS ACTS: Ulu Grosbard, right, works with Dustin Hoffman on Straight Time (1971), a gritty, unsentimental drama about an ex-con struggling with life on the outside. (Photo: Everett)


Robert Redford was drawn to the almost messy realism of Ritchie's early TV work when he recruited the Harvard-educated director for Downhill Racer (1969).

"I told him I wanted to create the feeling of 'You are there,'" Redford says. "Which meant we would be doing it in a documentary-style fashion, which served his purpose well. He loved that idea… The camera would move around a lot and catch things people said that they weren't expecting to be heard."

Ritchie recalled a similar spirit that guided The Candidate in a DGA Visual History interview with Jeremy Kagan. "There wasn't even a script when we started shooting. It was truly make it up as you go along."

That Ritchie was a media advisor to John Tunney during his 1970 race for the Senate, and his screenwriter Jeremy Larner wrote speeches for Eugene McCarthy, provided a kind of safety net of credibility to all of this filmmaking on the fly.

"Redford loved to work in a kind of accidental style of filmmaking, which I like, too," Ritchie told Kagan. "I would set up a scene, but I would not tell him everything that was going to take place in the scene. I would not tell him if a phone was going to ring, and I would just say, 'If a phone rings, you can answer it or not answer it—it's your choice—or you can be frustrated by it.'"

Redford, who describes the late director as "smart, very tough-minded, willing to take risks," was open to letting Ritchie place him in uncertain situations.

"We'd go to a factory, and I'd be advertising myself as Bill McKay," Redford says of the would-be senator he played. "When the whistle blew, they just wanted to get home … People went right past me, ignoring me, and we used that in the film to show that my character was really having a struggle getting traction … It was humiliating sometimes."

Occasionally, Schatzberg, too, would plant surprises for his actors, as in the opening scene of Scarecrow (1973), in which Al Pacino and Gene Hackman play drifters who form an uneasy alliance.

"There was a car that was supposed to come through that wouldn't stop for them, but then I told my assistant, 'I want another one to come by,'" Schatzberg says. "They didn't expect the second one, and they see it coming, and Al starts walking toward the car and Hackman looks at Al and he starts walking toward the car and they both start walking, [then] they start running a little bit [and] start screaming at one another. None of that is scripted, but it gave them something to react to."

Some actors would object to being taken by surprise in this way; others are liberated by it.

"Some of the movies today are made to the beat of a drum and there's no time for improvising or experimenting," says Pacino. "With Jerry, he was inventing as we went along, just because sometimes the locations provided ideas and stimulated the imagination."

UNPREDICTABLE: (Top) Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and Grosbard film Falling in Love (1984); (Bottom) Schatzberg on the set of Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), which tapped into the director's fashion photography background. (Photos: Photofest)


If Grosbard was open to so-called happy accidents, he was much more controlled about it. "Ulu was sort of a perfectionist, and it really took him a great deal of time to really feel prepared," says actress Rose Gregorio, whom Grosbard married in 1965. "A film for Ulu always was at least a year's project, even if they had the money."

Once a film was underway, Grosbard was equally meticulous. He especially valued rehearsing with actors. "It also was good for him because, by the time they had rehearsed it a little, he got ideas for staging," Gregorio says. "In rehearsal, the actors can do things spontaneously that come out of the work they've done, which determines the blocking."

In the John A. Gallagher book Film Directors on Directing, Grosbard says he sought to run a "relaxed set," similar to that of Elia Kazan, with whom he worked as an uncredited assistant director on Splendor in the Grass. "The key is to relax yourself so you can listen, hear, and respond," Grosbard told Gallagher. "You're on the spot, yet you have to find a way to be open to what's going on."

Says De Niro: "He wasn't a guy who was high-strung or any of that sort of stuff, and had a good sense of humor… He just was a very easy guy who understood people working out whatever their way of creating something or being in character. He was always supportive of that."

Schatzberg, whose initial claim to fame was as a photographer for such leading magazines Esquire and Vogue, would often enlist his cinematographer to heighten the believability of his performances. The DP Adam Holender, who collaborated with Schatzberg on four films starting with Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), and the director screened Gillo Pontecorvo's documentary-like historical dramaThe Battle of Algiers in preparing to make The Panic in Needle Park.

"What was wonderful about The Battle of Algiers is you really believed all that happened in front of the camera wasn't staged, but that the camera just happened to be there and it was really life," said Holender in Vincent LoBrutto's book Principal Photography. As a result, Holender shot some exterior scenes on lenses as long as 600mm or 800mm.

Pacino remembers the challenges of staying in character with the crew so far away.

"The two of them had this kind of voyeuristic idea about the movie … and I think that that paid dividends," Pacino says. "When you're a movie actor, you're also sort of doing a kind of a dance with the camera … So, in a way, a camera's proximity is important to an actor, and this is rarely done. I don't think I've made another movie like that."

The cinematographer Owen Roizman, who worked with Grosbard on Straight Time and True Confessions, says he aided the director in making the former "as raw, as gutty as possible." Roizman lit one scene in an employment agency from overhead, which kept Hoffman's "eye sockets kind of dark … As a guy who'd spent most of his life in prison, he didn't want people to see what was in his eyes," Roizman says of the character. "Ulu loved that—Dustin hated it."

If visuals underscore character, Ritchie had a way of crystalizing the moment as a way of summing up the whole. In a way, it was a foggy image of a phantom skier at the end of Downhill Racer that defined the themes Redford wanted to explore when discussing the project with Ritchie.

"The word comes out that there's another skier on the hill that's beating his time and so everybody leaves him," recalls Redford. "But then this kid falls, and then they come back to him, and at that moment … he realizes, 'It's only a matter of time before somebody beats my time and then where will I be?'

"I [wanted] to end it with a pyrrhic victory where the character has struggled to get to this point, and as he's risen up on people's shoulders, he's wondering, 'Wait a minute? What happened here?'" adds Redford—in an observation that could apply equally to his aspiring senator in The Candidate.

CINÉMA VERITÉ: (Top) Robert Redford practices ski moves with Michael Ritchie for Downhill Racer (1969); (Bottom) Redford reteamed with Ritchie for The Candidate (1972). (Photos: (Top) Everett; (Bottom) Photofest)


Ritchie and Redford hatched plans for a third film in the same style as part of a trilogy about winning in America—this time, to be set in the world of business—but the director opted to make the ill-fated horror film, The Island (1980), instead.

"Michael had achieved some notoriety that he hadn't had before and he was offered bigger films and he wanted that experience," Redford says. "I regretted him moving onto other things, and particularly regretted his death. We stayed friends."

Although Ritchie became a sought-after director of comedies in the '80s and '90s, it was his '70s work that sealed his legacy.

"My role as director frequently is in finding the truth, cutting away the falseness that has been necessarily put in by the writer in order to sell his script," Ritchie told the DGA, "which is a delicate job because clearly somebody at the studio liked all that phonus balonus."

Schatzberg's nonconformity also defined him as someone who could never work easily within the industry establishment. Following the success of Scarecrow—which was awarded the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival—Schatzberg signed a two-year deal with Warner Bros., which he now regrets. "They never approved anything I worked on," he recalls. A series of atypical films followed, including The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979), about a liberal New York senator, and the Willie Nelson musical Honeysuckle Rose (1980).

Even in these efforts, however, Schatzberg's penchant for the everyday, the ordinary and, above all, unvarnished reality shines through.

"They always say that I'm always doing films about marginal people—well, United States senators are marginal people to me, too," Schatzberg says. "I love honesty. I don't like to really fake things, unless it is absolutely relevant to what we're saying."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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