“In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.” There’s no end of great dialogue in Scarface and it was all written by one truly extraordinary man, William Oliver Stone.
Now best known for directing Oscar winning dramas like Platoon and Born On The Fourth Of July, Oliver Stone is one of the few Americans who actively sought action in Vietnam, quitting college in order to enlist. After two tours of duty, he returned to the US with a clutch of medals and no clear idea of what to do with his life. For a while he followed in the footsteps of his stockbroker father Lou. Then he turned his hands to writing, first novels and then screenplays. In 1978, Oliver Stone won the Oscar for adapting Midnight Express. Four years on, he was asked to try and update the 1930s Al Capone picture Scarface.
Stone was originally hired to faithfully adapt Howard Hawks’ gangster classic. But the state he was in cum the early ‘80s lead the writer to take things in a whole different direction. As he explains “I was a cocaine addict for about two-and-a-half years prior to writing Scarface. I knew that world, the drug world of the early ‘80s very well. And with Scarface I got a chance to expand that world by going to South America and seeing what the situation was like in Ecuador and Puerto Rico and Cuba.”
Being a political animal, Stone was keen to exploit a strange moment in Cuban-American relations when Fidel Castro emptied his prisons and asylums and sent Cuba’s maddest and baddest to Florida. As for drug kingpin Tony Montana (named after Stone’s favourite American footballer Joe Montana), he was the means by which the writer got back at the drug that was killing him. “Cocaine had screwed me so much,” Stone remembers. “It had taken so much of my money that now I needed to take my revenge and so I wrote Scarface. In the past, I’ve talked about Scarface as being a farewell love letter to cocaine, but it’s really me taking my revenge on the drug.”
Not that writing the movie proved easy. As Stone continues, “I had to go cold turkey. I knew cocaine was destroying my brain cells, so I needed to get clean and quickly. In the end I went to Paris and wrote the script there, drug free.”
Despite Stone’s sacrifices, Scarface performed only moderately well at the box-office. But as the writer explains, it wasn’t long before he realised he’d written something rather special. “Scarface wasn’t a mainstream hit because America has problems with leading characters who aren’t whiter than white. They can’t warm to someone like Tony Montana. But there were people who totally got the picture. The black and Puerto Rican communities in New York, people in Florida – they got the movie, they recognized the world we depicted. They respected us for putting their world on screen. And over the years, Scarface’s reputation has just built and built. To this day, I get stopped by guys – often guys from the hip-hop community – telling me how much they love the movie and they love Montana. And if I’m in Latin America, they just go insane. When we were trying to make Salvador down there, guys from the secret police kept coming up to me and saying, ‘Tony Montana! Lots of balls! Ratta-tat-tat!’ They love it.”