Harvey Keitel jetted to the Locarno Film Festival over the weekend from the Paris-set of French director Amanda Sthers’ English-language comedy “Madame” to receive a lifetime achievement award, handed to him Saturday by director Abel Ferrara on the fest’s open-air Piazza Grande stage, in front of roughly 8,000 spectators. Before holding a public conversation on Sunday about his career, Keitel sat down for a more intimate chat with a small group of international journalists. Excerpts:
How did you feel about being handed the prize by Abel Ferrara, who of course directed you in “The Bad Lieutenant”?
Abel, to begin with, is one of the important talents I’ve met in my life. He’s a maverick. That film, when I travel around the world, everyone seems to know it, and it seems to affect people in a very positive way. It excites their own talents. One of the important things I’ve heard people say about “Bad Lieutenant” is it’s the best anti-drugs film they have ever seen. I was glad to hear that because it certainly was our intent to show things in an honest way. The religious aspect of the movie is another incredible chord that Abel and his writer, Zoe Lund, struck. But I’m not going to speak any further, because the movie speaks far better than I can speak.
I’d like to ask you about “Fingers” by James Toback, a film I don’t think got the recognition it deserves. Do you agree? Also, how did you guys hook up on what was his first feature?
Well Jimmy was a little ahead of this time with “Fingers.” I don’t remember where I met him I think it was at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I remember back in those days he was a very slim guy with a great jump shot, he played basketball in college. And the story he wrote dealt with social mores in a way that was different with how anyone else had dealt with them at that time. So we had a difficult time getting the movie made. But then the owner of Faberge, whose name escapes me [George Barrie] agreed to finance the movie. Jimmy did deserve more recognition for that film. Over the years we’ve spoken and said: ‘my God! If this could come out now, what a hit it would be! We worked very hard on it, even on promoting it. We decided to fight the production company for the poster that we wanted. To do this Jimmy and I did our own survey: we took the photo that the production company wanted and the photo that we wanted, and we went outside City Cinemas 1,2,3 in New York on a weekend and asked people waiting in line which they preferred. Then we took our results back to the production company. They looked at us like we were nuts, but eventually the image that we liked did become the poster.
What did you think of the “Fingers” remake done by French director Jacques Audiard, titled “The Beat That My Heart Skipped.”
I’ve heard it was very well done, but I haven’t seen it.
Quentin Tarantino has said that you were one of the first people who read the script for ‘Reservoir Dogs.’ What impression did it make on you on first read?
It’s difficult to say what I thought, except this — and it’s going to sound perhaps a little airy-fairy: I was just moved in a certain way to where my mind yawed (it’s a word used by astronauts). And that was it. It was a brilliant script, I didn’t think a word had to be changed in it. It was a very powerful feeling, the same one I had when I read Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” and maybe another time or two in my career.
You recently attended the “Taxi Driver” 40th anniversary reunion at Tribeca. Do you get nostalgic about those days?
The time of “Taxi Driver” was a terrific time for me. It was my beginnings with De Niro and Scorsese. That was a good way to begin. I was doing a Broadway play at the time, with George C. Scott, so it was a very full time, being introduced to the Actors Studio, being around wonderful talents. Doing workshops with such talents that you never saw on the screen. And most of them you never will, because show business is such a tough medium to get into.
Your name has been mentioned in press reports as a possible cast member of Scorsese’s next film “The Irishman,” which will reunite him with De Niro. Are you on board?
I have not been asked.
Among great American actors you are considered the one who has worked most often in Europe. In particular, you’ve appeared in several Italian films. Can you talk to me about your collaboration with the late great Ettore Scola, who passed away earlier this year.
Ettore was just a great person, a great director, though perhaps not such a great husband. He was the second European director I worked with after Bertrand Tavernier. He called me to be in “That Night in Varennes.” Here’s a little story, to tell you how wonderful he was: Ettore was at the Venice Film Festival right at the same time when they were showing Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” around Europe. And all the priests in Italy were banning the movie, telling Catholic audiences: ‘do not go see that movie, it’s irreverent,’ even though they had not seen it. That day Ettore was on the phone with me, and he told me: ‘Harvey, the journalists at the festival have just asked me what I thought of ‘Last Temptation of Christ.’ I told them I thought it’s a great movie, and [like the priests] I also have not seen it!” That was Scola’s wit.