You still don't know him unless you're a total cinephile geek (which hopefully many of you are), but John Cazale only starred in five movies and each one of those films — "The Godfather," "The Godfather II," "The Conversation," "Dog Day Afternoon" and "The Deer Hunter" — was nominated for an Oscar Best Picture. In fact, the five films garnered 40 nominations in total, but Cazale, the subtle, mannered and wiry actor best known for playing Fredo Corelone in "The Godfather" films was never once nominated.
Richard Shepard: Honestly, John was always my favorite actor from even when I was a kid, I just loved him. I remember my dad taking me to the Bleecker Street revival theater and showing "The Godfather" movies to me like when I was 14 or 15. I just loved him and didn't even really know why, it's so funny cause whenever you really think about the characters he plays — Fredo is like a pimp and a low level scumbag, but somehow I really responded to him and I think it was, there was some sadness in him. I think I was always a film geek and I would watch "Dog Day Afternoon" and at certain point I started putting it together that it was the same guy, it wasn't an instantaneous connection. And I think by the time I went to NYU film school in the early '80s it was just sort of that thing — the answer to the question who your favorite actor is this guy that most people were like, "who?" and I sorta became this cool thing to talk about it, plus he was in five of my favorite movies of all time. But as I got older I realized that it was more than just a young shtick, he really is such a phenomenal actor and all through my professional life and everything I've ever done, I've always talked about him with other actors and directors and always got a great response and I sorta realized that anyone who knows anything about film or acting loves this guys — even if it is a specific type of film geek thing — but there is something about him that affects people.
There's a lot of misinformation about him out there. Most people think he died of bone marrow cancer when he actually died from lung cancer and of course there's fallacies about his relationship with Meryl Streep.
Its true, it's weird. A few years ago I wanted to learn more about him and there's so little information out there and a lot of it was wrong. They say he was engaged to Meryl Streep, which was not true. So at some point I thought maybe someone should make a documentary about him and then I realized that I was in a position to do that even though i had never made a documentary. To be honest with you, it started out as a detective story, I didn't know anything. Half of the first interviews I was excusing myself because I asked some really rudimentary questions. A lot of time documentaries know the answers to the questions they're asking and they're just looking for talking heads to expound on the subject and that was not the case. I literally asked Meryl Streep, "so you were engaged to him," and she was like, "no." [laughs ].
The picture is much more a portrait of his work, the acting than it is about his personal life.
It was a detective story along the way and in a weird way I think it ultimately helped the movie cause I wasn't really sure what the angle of it would be about. And at a certain point, Meryl said she learned acting from John and Al Pacino basically said the same thing and then I realized the movie was really going to be about his acting, because he has an interesting story — yes, he died young, yes, he was with Meryl Streep which is obviously very interesting — but really his legacy is not his personal life, his legacy was that he was an absolutely fine actor who happened to work many times with the best actors of that generation and in a way and helped participate in the best performances they ever gave.
It's funny cause your experience mirrors many other film geeks experiences when you're a teenager and then come to realize he was in the five best movies of the '70s.
His run was incredible. I have joked subsequently that if he had lived his next film would have been the "Bad News Bears in Breaking Training" or something, at some point probably his streak of classics might have ended. But he wasn't just a guy that happened to appear in those five movies, he was just amazing in those films and that's what struck me. In in a weird way, he's not the lead in any of those movies — his time on screen is limited, but somehow that draws you in even more. He has a few histrionic moments in "The Godfather II," but in general he doesn't. His acting is much subtler, so in a weird way his performances grow each time you see it, as opposed to someone who is over the top or at least showboaty and you kinda get it the first time you see it. I also think that he helped these other actors tremendously. I think there's a reason that Pacino worked with him in three movies and a bunch of plays and Coppola did three movies with him. He made everyone else better and he made them absolutely real.
He's a cult figure. You either have no clue who he is or you cherish and adore his work.
I agree. there's a whole cult of people who's favorite movies are those who do know John. The response I received from this film at film festivals we've been to without a doubt is great. I get emails from people everyday from people who say, thank god you're making this movie and that's like, 'wow, that's cool."
What made Cazale stand out in your mind other than the obvious?
Supporting actors will try and overdo stuff so that they will get camera time and I've noticed that so many times and it's just like "just take it down a fucking notch, I'm not cutting to you, and especially not when you're doing stupid stuff." But John never did that I think he was always in the employment of the moment, you know he was a very moment to moment actor and those are the best actors because they — John was so great at reacting to other performances. Most of his performances, especially "Dog Day Afternoon" are just him reacting. It's all about him being in that moment, like just full blown in that moment. He really supports and elevates the other performances, he's just kind of wonderful in that way. John was always about the moments that are not highlighted in a script. And that was a big acting lesson to everyone around him; how to react. I think he went, I mean Meryl Streep says and I truly agree with her, he went so deep into these characters, he literally just appeared. I don't think — the idea that the guy playing Sal in "Dog Day Afternoon" is the same guy who played Fredo [in "The Godfather"] is almost impossible to see that. I mean there's sadness without a doubt in both characters but it's like he fully reinvented himself.
Meryl Streep was the key to getting this film made and financed, right?
It's true, it took us a year to get Meryl Streep and we didn't have HBO at this point and i was basically paying for it myself and I decided iI was going to cut a trailer for it to try and raise money. So we interviewed Sidney Lumet ["Dog Day Afternoon"] and we interviewed John's brother Steven and the third person we had to interview was Meryl and if we didn't get her there would be no movie and it took a year to get her and once she did, everything changed from that moment on, we were able to cut a trailer and everyone essentially fell in line after that.
Were you worried she wouldn't do it?
There were a few dark moments where her representatives said, "she wishes you well, but she's not going to participate in the film," and we thought this may never happen. But we stuck with it and eventually she said yes and that's when HBO came on board. Around the same time I had read in a magazine article with Brett Ratner and he had said John Cazale was his favorite actor and I thought that was the weirdest thing in the world. I didn't know Brett and his movies and my movies couldn't be more diametrically opposed — he's terrifically talented, he just makes a certain type of commercial movie which is not what I do. But I called him and said, "Look, I'm going to make this movie about John Cazale and he was like, "holy fucking shit" and Brett was like, "I'm going to get you the financing to this movie," and he literally made one phone call to HBO and to his word he got us our financing.
Was there anyone you wanted to get in the film that didn't appear in it?
Yes, we were given a finite amount of money so we said, we're going to interview as many people as we can in four months, so we gave ourselves this deadline cause we could have gone on and one with interviews of people who loved John. If we hold this open, we'll never finish it. But Christopher Walken was someone I really wanted, but he could never make it work cause of his schedule, and I was like do I hold this movie and they wanted to have it for Sundance 2009, so I just couldn't wait for everyone. but I will say I got about 95% of the people I was aiming to get. Michael Cimino [who directed Cazale in "The Deer Hunter"] was the only one who said flat out no to us.
Maybe it's because he's not comfortable with his public image these days (suffice to say he's changed his look).
Well, yeah, I even offered to interview him on audio tape because maybe I was thinking he doesn't want to be photographed because he's... strange looking or whatever, but he just wouldn't do it. And at a certain point I think he's just such a fucking fool, he made one of the greatest movies ever made. John was a major part of that and to not want to talk about that is dumb. C'mon, a lot of people have told me that after seeing the documentary the first thing they want to do is run out and rent a bunch of his movies and see them again. But Cimino was the only prick of the whole bunch, so fuck him.
Who Cazale was onscreen wasn't who he was in real life. He was kind of a ladies man it seems or at least did well with them.
Yeah, it's funny because clearly the guy was a sassy guy in real life, but not a leading man by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, he was sort of odd looking and had a big forehead. We wanted to have a funny thing in the documentary where Steve Buscemi is describing him as weird-looking and he's basically describing himself, it's so fucking funny. But he was definitely a character actor. You know, something that never ended up in the movie was kind of leads he would have had, what kind of parts he would have. And Richard Dreyfus is like, "I really would have liked to seen him play a leading man, a romantic lead, and I think he would have been able to pull it off." And I thought that was really interesting.
I was going to ask, where do you think his career would have gone had he not passed away so early?
He was really interested in theater and talked about maybe joining a theater company, but I assume he probably would have had a career somewhat similar to Christopher Walken's, you know? Being a great supporting actor in a myriad of different roles, going between theater and film. I surely think he would have been a household name if he lived. He would have worked all the time, you know? He would have been starring in Sundance movies, he would have been, who knows what, he would have been on "The Sopranos." The fact of the matter is he started his film career late age-wise – he was like 35 when he started his film career. But I feel like he would have always worked. I don't know if he would have become a movie star in the sense of the leading man above the title sort of thing.
Back to Meryl, this was probably one of the first times period that she talked about John, right? Certainly on camera, yes?
She's incredibly private about her personal life and she's never talked on film about John at all. She was in love with the guy and he dies, then she meets her husband who she's been with for thirty years. So just that alone is a little weird to go back and talk on a documentary about someone you've loved and lost when you are happily married. I think she was also a little – she didn't know who I was, she had never seen or even heard of "The Matador." It's not like Steven Soderbergh called her up, I think she might have had a different reaction.
She was like, "Who are you, and what do you want from my personal life?" You know, that was her initial reaction. And by the way, I get that. For me it was interesting because these actors, they go on these press junkets where they sit in a hotel for five days and answer the same fucking questions about their movie. And they're used to sort of giving canned answers that don't really dive into anything very important. And that's all part of the process of selling the movie. But here was a case where we were interviewing her solely about something very personal to her. And so my goal was, A) I'm not going to interview her in a hotel room, B) I'm going to tell her right from the start that I'm not an interviewer by profession, I'm doing this as a filmmaker trying to learn about him and I think that she sort of softened up to the point where she realized that our goal wasn't to do a triple heave on John Cazale. We were clearly coming in at the right angle.
It's a very private thing, you know especially when you talk about someone dying. I think one of the saddest points is, as a director, how we sort of handle his death because it's a very tricky thing you spend a lot of time getting into the details of someone dying. And I didn't really want to do that. I wanted to just deal with the emotional level of it. But I didn't want to sort of get into the minutia of the last few days of his life and all that, even though I had a lot of information on that. And I think just out of the respect for the people who talked to me, because one of the weirdest things about the whole process was how, I mean Meryl and Pacino and [friend and playwright/screenwriter] Israel Horowitz and Francis Ford Coppola, they're all like very emotional thirty years later. I mean, it's pretty amazing the impact he had. You know, and I wanted to respect that level of privacy up to, you know, as much as I could.
Do you have a favorite role or a favorite moment of his?
Well, Coppola basically made the role in "Godfather II" much bigger because he just knew what a great actor he was, which is a big one, but... I don't know if there's a specific moment but he had this way of looking that was so incredibly sad without milking the sadness that that's what I just think of. He just had the most expressive eyes, I don't know, since the silent era almost. He just was able to say something with a look.
There's some key people like Robert DeNiro and Gene Hackman who aren't really in the doc for very much.
Well, neither were particularly long interviews, they were on schedule. But you know, DeNiro said to us, "I don't think I want to do this film because, while I love John, I just didn't spend very much time with him. I don't really have much to offer. He was a very quiet person on the set and we didn't socialize that much at all. So I don't have all these crazy memories of him other than just doing the work." And I said, "Well, I think it's just important for you to be part of it because you do have feelings for him and you think he was a great actor so it would be important for you to talk." And Hackman said the same thing, Hackman said that he never talks to anyone on a film set. He doesn't sit with the crew at lunch, he doesn't play basketball with the crew at the end of the day, that he's a very quiet actor and he said that Cazale was very much the same. So he didn't real know him.
"I Knew It Was You: Remembering John Cazale" airs tonight on HBO. More air dates are here. Apart from all the '70s mavericks listed above, the documentary also features interviews with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Sam Rockwell. A DVD with extras is going to be announced soon. "One of the things we're going to do is put Pacino's entire interview unedited," Shepard told us, "Because he's got so many funny stories and things we just couldn't fit in, but were great. But it will be total fun for anyone who wants to dive into it the subject matter more."