Filmmaking Legends on How New York’s Era of Decay Sparked a Creative Revolution

In the 1970s and early ’80s, New York City embodied the revolution taking place in American cinema. It was brash and brutal, crude and powerful, sexy and grimey, and had a swagger that was unmistakable.

It was also a low point for the city. The Bronx was burning, crime was rising and city hall was broke. But even as respectable folks fled for the safety of the suburbs, New York became a canvas for talented filmmakers. From “The French Connection” to “Saturday Night Fever,” it posed as the setting of classic films that ushered in a new era of on-screen realism. It was the age of De Niro and Pacino, Scorsese and Lumet, talents who upended the sterile and factory-like approach to making movies that dominated the studio system.

It’s a revolution in filmmaking that’s over. Just as Times Square, the setting of “Taxi Driver,” has been replaced by a fantasyland for tourists, movies have had their harder edges sanded off. Instead of psychotic cabbies or law-bending cops, we get superheroes and battling robots.

The New York/New Jersey Issue

To memorialize that period of artistic achievement, Variety spoke with six filmmakers behind the very best of New York cinema.

William Friedkin
The French Connection (pictured above)
The 1971 thriller centered on a driven police detective (Gene Hackman) who will stop at nothing to bust a drug syndicate. Oft-imitated, particularly for its set-piece car chase, but never equaled, the film snagged five Oscars, including Best Picture.

“I made ‘The French Connection’ so it looked like a documentary. It looked as though the camera just happened upon these events. I would do things like when staging a scene, I wouldn’t show it to the camera operator. He would have to search for the action as a documentary camera man does.

I did months of research. I went around every day for full shifts. I went to all the areas in Bedford Stuyvesant and Harlem, the 28th precinct. I saw all the aspects of the life that the cops we’re dealing with. There were black cops as well as white cops, and they all had the same basic attitude towards minorities. That’s what I reflected in ‘The French Connection.’ What I beheld is what I showed. When I hired Roy Scheider and Gene Hackman I sent them out for a month before they played cops in the film. They brought a lot of their own dialogue to their parts.

The police don’t operate the way they did in the ’70s. They were the princes of the city. They held court in the streets. If you did what they did today, you’d be prosecuted.

The seventies was a time in American cinema when there were more original films, even the genre films were unique and memorable. We were able to make the films we were interested in and loved. That time has changed because the audience has changed. I don’t believe it’s cyclical. This is the way it is now. I think what is coming is a further diminishment of people going to theaters.”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Gadd Prods./Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5879228h)Kitty Winn, Al PacinoPanic In Needle Park - 1971Director: Jerry SchatzbergGadd ProductionsUSAScene StillDramaPanique à Needle Park
CREDIT: Gadd Prods./Kobal/REX/Shuttersto

Jerry Schatzberg
The Panic in Needle Park
The 1971 drama about heroin addicts in love introduced Al Pacino to moviegoers and stunned critics with its unflinching portrayal of drug abuse.

“The studio didn’t want Pacino because they said he was too old. We went through the charade of casting, and at the end we said it’s got to be Pacino. I read a lot of New York actors. The last one to come in to read for me was De Niro, and he was pretty good. One afternoon I’m on Third Avenue and looking into an Army Navy store, and I hear a voice in back of me saying, ‘hey man, I really want to do that part.’ It was De Niro.

We hired Kitty Winn [to play Pacino’s love interest]. I said, ‘How do you feel about the nudity?’ People who are living together and are druggies don’t pull the sheets up or grab a towel. They just live. When it came time to shoot, she kept putting off those scenes. I said we don’t have any more days. I found out her grandfather was Gen. George Marshall, and she was concerned about her grandmother seeing it.

The executives wanted Mia Farrow for the part, and I thought, she just divorced Frank Sinatra — nobody is going to believe her as a heroin addict.

You work with two actors and you find out what one needs. Al you had to hug and kiss. He needed love. Kitty was much stronger because she was brought up in a military family.”

Taxi Driver
CREDIT: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Paul Schrader
Taxi Driver
The 1976 drama — Schrader wrote it and Martin Scorsese directed — about Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) and his violent plan to save a teenage prostitute (Jodie Foster) embodies Big Apple rot.

“I wrote it in Los Angeles. I was living mostly in my car. I just set it in New York because you wanted to have a city where the taxi is an all-important facet of everyday life. I got a number of the streets wrong, running the wrong way and stuff. Marty [Scorsese] said, ‘You know Sixth Avenue doesn’t go uptown.’ I said, ‘What are you going to do — change the avenue or change the script?’ The metaphor was the taxi and this troubled guy and New York City was the best place to have that metaphor roll around.

It was a unique period in the history of motion pictures. It’s not going to come back. The confluence of post-World War II events, the Baby Boomers coming of age, created a golden decade for movies. It was the times, it wasn’t the talent.”

Saturday Night Fever
CREDIT: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

John Badham
Saturday Night Fever
John Travolta became a star, decked out in a white suit while dancing to “Stayin’ Alive.” That’s the film’s signature image, but the 1977 hit was more than that. It offered a penetrating look at working class Brooklyn and a young man who dreams of a brighter life across the river in Manhattan.

“I didn’t know what disco music was all about, but I understood this life. This was a guy with great talent who was trapped in an environment and doesn’t have the courage to get out. It resonated with me even though I’d spent all of five minutes in Brooklyn.

Travolta worked for three months on the dancing. He was phenomenal, bouncing down on his knees and jumping back up and all those slides. We used to finish the take and literally had to peel the wardrobe off him he was sweating so much. We were such a low-budget show that we dried the suit off with a hair dryer so it would be ready for the next take.

[Producer Robert Stigwood] represented the Bee Gees, so it was always going to be their music. We played the songs when we did the dances. I said to Barry Gibb, ‘You can do anything else to the songs when you’re finishing them, but don’t change the tempo. If you do, the actors will look like klutzes.’

They were not through the roof at Paramount about the movie. They were worried because of the bad language and the rape scene. The language people used was sexist and racist and homophobic. [Then Paramount President] Michael Eisner and [Paramount Chairman] Barry Diller asked me to cut some of it down, but Robert Stigwood said, ‘don’t cut a thing.’ He believed that was how people talked. ‘Mean Streets’ had come out and he saw similarities to it.”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5880690a)Michael BeckThe Warriors - 1979Director: Walter HillParamountUSAScene StillAction/AdventureLes Guerriers de la nuit
CREDIT: Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Walter Hill
The Warriors
The 1979 thriller was based on Xenophon’s “Anabasis” but added a twist to the Greek tale by centering it on warring gangs.

“It’s a fantasy dystopian picture with obvious social undertones. I thought nobody would ever let us make it because it didn’t lend itself to stars. But Paramount had a big success with ‘Saturday Night Fever,’ and this was about kids from Brooklyn.

We had a lot of trouble staying on schedule. In a lot of ways it was our own fault. We were California oriented. The movie had to be shot outdoors and it had to be shot almost entirely at night. What we had miscalculated was how short the nights were in New York. The New York contract at that time called for an hour crew lunch, and we didn’t have money for caterers, so the crew would be dismissed. They’d go off to a restaurant to buy their lunch, but by the time you reassembled, it was not on the dot of an hour. I think we were ten days over and in those days that was perceived to be catastrophic. Nowadays it’s no big deal.

It wasn’t the first what they call a gang movie, but it was the first one that accepted that the institution is not the social problem. You saw it from their point of view, which was it was a reasonable social choice in an aggressive, hostile world. This was pre-Giuliani. The crime in the streets was a big issue and the city was broke. I remember Pauline Kael said that the movie illustrated that the city didn’t work.

There were a number of violent incidents that were around the movie and there were questions if the movie inspired the violence. What happened was the audience for the movie were the gang populations. They went to see it and they would run into their old enemies in the theater. That made for a volatile situation.”

CHANNEL 4 PICTURE PUBLICITY124 Horseferry RoadLondon SW1P 2TX020 7306 8685ESCAPE FROM NYESCAPE FROM NYTx:04/10/2004This picture may be used solely for Channel 4 programme publicity purposes in connection with the current broadcast of the programme(s) featured in the national and local press and listings. Not to be reproduced or redistributed for any use or in any medium not set out above (including the internet or other electronic form) without the prior written consent of Channel 4 Picture Publicity 020 7306 8685
CREDIT: Contract Number (Programme)

John Carpenter
Escape From New York
The 1981 dystopian sci-fi film gave the world Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), an antihero who must rescue the U.S. president. Its depiction of New York City as a city so far gone it’s been converted into a maximum security prison took place at the tail-end of Manhattan’s era of lawlessness and decay.

“It began with a sci-fi story about the most dangerous planet in the universe having to send in the most dangerou man on a suicide mission. But I’d also remembered seeing ‘Death Wish’ and it just painted New York as crime ridden, frightening and dark. I combined those things.

Kurt told me, ‘I know how to be Snake Plissken.’ He wanted him to be cool and iconic. What he did was play him as Clint Eastwood.

There was also enormous distrust at the time. There was Watergate, the Vietnam War. People thought their government was lying to them. I don’t think the film would work as well today. People wouldn’t accept New York as a hell-scape. Now it’s such a Disneyland area. I guess I’m a lousy prognosticator of the future.”

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