Behind the Camera on SERPICO
Before shooting began, Sidney Lumet and the production company had to cast 107 speaking parts. They decided to use mostly unknown actors. Lumet said the best way to strengthen the sense of reality was not to use actors for whom audiences had a lot of previous associations. Even Pacino, despite his high exposure in The Godfather (1972), was still relatively new. "Back then, we could work with lesser-known actors because there wasn't the pressure for a big opening," Bregman said. "The film, the story was most important." This was often the case in the early 1970s but the focus is very different today.
Principal photography on Serpico began a year after Serpico's resignation from the police force.
Lumet likes to do very simple things on the first day of shooting, like basic entrances and exits, to let actors and crew get used to each other and make them aware that things will move very quickly. He will often shoot just a single take and move quickly to another set-up. He said this process also helps to spot weak links in his team. The first day on Serpico, he worked at three different, fairly far-flung locations. Pacino was initially stunned, especially after coming off the methodically low, deliberate process of The Godfather. But he and the rest of the cast soon learned that this fast pace had the benefit of keeping the inner tension of the narrative and the characters alive.
Associate Producer Roger Rothstein gave Lumet high marks as "a tremendously organized director" who was able to motivate everyone to do as many as 35 set-ups in a single day.
Serpico was shot entirely on location in New York City in every borough except Staten Island. A total of 104 locations were used. This worked well for Lumet, who knows the city inside and out and has a memory bank full of neighborhoods, buildings, and streets he calls on for any New York City-based film he directs. For instance, for one scene, he remembered having spotted a building in the meat-packing district with a deep shade of red, so he scheduled his shoot there. "With a film like this, location is important. You go first to where it actually happened, but often reality is dull, so you have to heighten it." That may have been the thinking behind filming Serpico's home at a location on Minetta instead of the real location at Perry and Greenwich streets in the Village, which was a few blocks away.
Lumet was pleased with the cooperation of the NYPD, especially in light of the subject matter and the proximity in time to the actual events depicted in the movie. "I'm not apologizing for corruption, but they had their code, and it's painful for them, that kind of movie...It should be painful for them. But I shot in four live station houses with their work going on at the time. The NYPD were wonderful." Two officers were directly assigned to the movie, and Lumet wondered what their reaction would be. "As soon as they saw the truth we were going for, how it was not a Hollywood version, they not only weren't a problem, they more actively helped," he noted.
Because Pacino's character goes from a clean-cut recruit to bearded and long-haired, the picture was shot in reverse. This allowed Pacino to start with the beard and hair and gradually trim or remove them as the earlier scenes dictated.
Since filming was done in the summer heat, details of winter scenes, such as defoliated trees and visible breath, had to be simulated.
The actors were allowed to do some improvisation in their scenes. Reportedly, much of Pacino's explosive reaction in Serpico's last abortive meeting with his former captain was off the cuff.
Lumet said Pacino always needed to be in the character's state of mind in any given scene and could not shed that state off camera, so he behaved accordingly at all times, either happy, joking, and laughing for a lighthearted scene or angry and lashing out at everyone if the scene they were working on called for that behavior. "It's a tough way to work but it sure results in brilliance," Lumet said, adding that this method often spilled over off set, too. Pacino would sometimes go in character to different neighborhoods, some of them dangerous. One story has it that Pacino was so in character while filming Serpico that he pulled over a truck driver and threatened to arrest him for exhaust pollution.
Woodie King, Jr., now an acclaimed stage and screen producer-director (Death of a Prophet , Segregating the Greatest Generation ), was originally cast as a young street thug but he broke his leg while filming a chase scene and was replaced. He returned to the set two months later to play Leslie's friend Larry in the party scene.
The principal photography onSerpico began right after July 4th, and the film was scheduled to open by Christmas. That left four and a half months for shooting, editing, and mixing, an "insanely short time" in Lumet's estimation. Therefore, the editing had to take place during filming, something Lumet normally doesn't like. Without the luxury of time, it was necessary to finish shooting a scene and rush it to editor Dede Allen, who had to cut the footage within 48 hours and have it ready for delivery to the sound department.
Speaking of the production in a later interview, Lumet said, "Serpico, just physically and in terms of logistics, gives you the problem of keeping your emotional theme work in perspective. You have to ask yourself not only 'Where am I physically?' but 'Where am I emotionally?' I think I was more tired after finishing Serpico than almost any movie I've ever done. There was also the obligation to the real Frank Serpicoto be honest with his life and not exploit it."
by Rob Nixon