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Scarface: Why the Iconic Miami Film Was Not Even Shot in Miami

"Scarface” was released in December, 1983. The film’s domestic box office gross was $45,408,703.
October 02, 2007 By Matt Meltzer in  | 12 Comments

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If there is one movie that undeniably represents Miami during the 1980’s, it is Brian DePalma’s remake of “Scarface.” Is this necessarily a good thing for a city that has more image problems than Lindsay Lohan after a failed stint in rehab? Probably not. But then again, between tourist shootings, rigged mayoral elections and countless police corruption incidents, there isn’t much a 3-hour movie could do that Humberto Hernandez has not already done. This all being said, the 1983 film has become an icon of the Cocaine Cowboys era that was 1980’s Dade County. And the damn thing wasn’t even filmed here.

He loved the American dream. With a vengeance

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I am not going to go into great detail about the plot or premise of the film. Any self-respecting Miamian can recite the movie backwards, and it is a requirement before receiving a Dade County voter registration card that you can recite the entire “Say goodnight tot the Bad Guy” speech with a perfect bad Cuban accent. If you have not seen the movie, listen to 50-or-so rap albums and you’ll hear every line. If that’s not enough, venture over to the house of your nearest hip-hop megastar and catch it on one of their 45-inch plasmas that has it playing 24/7. If you are too lazy to do either of these, here is the quick down and dirty….

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Career Cuban Criminal Tony Montana comes to Miami during the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. He starts out as a small-time drug hustler then, through a series of opportunistic business dealings and some mildly used force, becomes the king of Miami cocaine. He gets into some legal problems, gets desperate, double-crosses a Pablo Escobar-esque Bolivian kingpin, and is eventually killed after introducing some of said kingpin’s assassination squad to his “little friend.” This particular “friend” being a grenade-launching machine gun. There are some side stories involving his sister and his best friend and his coke-addicted wife, but the guy who everyone idolizes is Tony Montana. Tony is played by Al Pacino, who apparently thought Montana was another character from the Godfather given his unique take on the Cuban accent.

“The world is mine, it’s just gonna take a while”

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When the movie was first released, it got what could be called mixed reviews. The extreme violence portrayed in the film, which garnered the original cut an X-rating from the MPAA, was a bit much for critics at the time. Though the film ultimately grossed $65 million worldwide (the production budget was a paltry $15 million) it was never considered a “hit” in the sense of a “Star Wars” or “Jaws.” Over the years it gained a loyal, if still small, following for its gruesome imagery and unforgettable dialog. As the years passed, more and more people became fans of the film. By the movie’s 20th anniversary Universal had digitally remastered it for theatrical re-release so every teenager in Westchester and Kendall could go and scream dialog at the screen. Since then “Scarface” has become a pop culture icon, posters adorning dorm rooms from Miami to Seattle, T-Shirts in every souvenir shop in South Beach and framed movie stills hanging in the dens of some of America’s most upstanding individuals. “Scarface” even spawned its own video game, introduced last year.

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The film has become a phenomenon on par with the Beatles or “The Simpsons,” and has become a symbol of South Florida. What many who are not experts on “Scarface” do not realize, though, is that save for a couple of scenes, the entire film was shot in Los Angeles. “Freedomtown,” which in real-life was under I-95 in North Dade, is actually a junction between the Santa Monica and Harbor Freeways. Tony’s first employment, at a Little Havana cafeteria, is actually a storefront in Little Tokyo (signage was changed for production). And why was the big-budget movie not filmed on-location? Was it fear of hurricane damage? Prohibitively expensive storm insurance?  Concerns over being mugged or killed during production? No, no, of course it wasn’t. It was, once again, the work of a local politician blatantly pandering to the Cuban Exile community.

“This town is like a great big turkey just waiting to get plucked”

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When producer Martin Bregman first read Oliver Stone’s script and heard director Brian DePalma’s pitch for the film, he had planed to shoot the whole thing in South Florida. After all, an updating of the 1932 classic based on the life of famed mobster Al Capone would be perfect for an area then leading the nation in homicides. While many films had been shot in Miami, this was to be a major milestone picture; an epic using the city as both backdrop and supporting character. But when word of the plot got to the Cuban Exile community, some people were not exactly welcoming the production crew with open arms.

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Apparently some Cuban refugees, particularly ones from the Mariel boatlift, saw the depiction of one Marielista as a complete indictment of everyone who came over during that particular historical event. They feared it would make it look as if everyone who arrived in the spring of 1980 were an assassin, murderer or rapist. Never mind Dade County’s skyrocketing crime rate after the boatlift. Never mind the region’s growing reputation as a drug-smuggling hub. This fictional movie was going to make the world see Miami and its residents as a bunch of lawless, drug-dealing thugs. Many Cuban community leaders voiced their concerns, but production crews came early in the summer to begin constructing sets and selecting locations.

“Say hello to our little friend, Commissioner Perez.”

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Never a group to be silenced, the Cuban community’s cause was taken up by City Commissioner Demitrio Perez Jr., who demanded a rewrite in the script if the city was to allow Bregman and company to use city property for filming. Instead of a freed felon, Perez insisted the movie be rewritten so that Tony Montana was a spy working for Castro who was sent to infiltrate the US government. He went so far as to send a letter to the producer, who, not familiar with the way things worked in Miami was a bit dumbfounded. He politely informed Perez that if he would like to make a film about a Castro spy, he could write the screenplay and submit it to him, but that “Scarface” would be filmed as it was written. As it did to most people from outside the area, the controversy made no sense to Bregman. He tried to reassure locals that the movie would not portray them in an inaccurate light.

“It’s obvious to me that they are afraid I am going to depict the Cuban community as a bunch of animals,” Bregman told the Herald. “That’s not the type of movie I make. If they don’t want us there, we’ll leave. Believe me this is not going to give Miami or that area a bad image. It already has that image.”

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Local leaders who were trying to make the city more attractive to the film industry were dismayed. The mayor as well as several other city commissioners (including current Miami mayor Manny Diaz) tried to convince Bregman that Perez was just a vocal minority and that the city welcomed “Scarface.” And, more importantly, the predicted $10 million it would pump into the local economy. Many trying to make the city appealing to movie producers also feared that this incident would make future studios leery of filming in South Florida, fearing an uprising by the exile community every time they were not portrayed in a fashion which they found acceptable.

The City of Miami Beach passed a resolution saying they welcomed the film, and leaders did everything in their power to convince Universal to stay in town. Governor Bob Graham even appealed to the producers, along with the Chamber of Commerce, practically begging them to shoot the movie in South Florida. After talking to the governor, Bregman had decided to stay.

But the controversy persisted. In late August, as the production team was threatening to pull out, Perez proposed a voter referendum that would ban the filming of movies that were considered detrimental to the city’s image. Perez, of course, never defined what “detrimental” was.

“Say good night to the bad guys”

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As callers to mainstream talk radio wholeheartedly bashed Perez, some media outlets told a different story. One editorial in the Herald’s Spanish publication, El Herald, called the threats of leaving an “empty threat,” while another, in the English Herald, stated that the portrayal of a drug lord as a Mariel refugee would perpetuate their image as criminals. Fearing another uprising and constant local controversy, Bregman cited the editorials as “inflammatory” and pulled production from South Florida for good. The movie was to be shot in Los Angeles, as even appeals from the governor, the City Commission and the Chamber of Commerce were not enough to drown out the angry voices of the exile community.

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But producers knew they had some scenes, including the now-infamous South Beach chainsaw massacre, which could not be filmed in LA. In an unprecedented move, Universal agreed to let a Cuban review panel preview the film before it was released to determine whether or not it needed a disclaimer. This disclaimer would state that the movie depicted one fictitious Marielista, but that it was not meant to be representative of the community as a whole. In return they would drop their protests and allow the movie to be filmed. Producers were so disgusted with Miami they still opted to film the vast majority of “Scarface” in LA, spending only 12 days and considerably less money in South Florida.

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Oh, and that review panel? Well, of course they decided “Scarface” needed a disclaimer. However, if you watch it, you might be hard pressed to figure out where it is. It comes in the opening credits, as DePalma gives the viewer the historical context of the time. It talks of the Mariel Boatlift and Fidel emptying his jails of criminals and sending them to Miami. It features a clip of Castro talking about how his country did not want those people, and that he was flushing his toilets on the United States. At some point, it is mentioned that one-fifth of the Marielistas had criminal records. Most viewers would see this and say “Wow! A fifth of them were criminals? No wonder that city went to shit!” in Dade County we see it a little differently. “See,” we can say, “80% of those folks were harmless immigrants looking for a better life.” When you live in Miami, sometimes you have to see the glass as 80% full. Even when the other 20% is made up of toxic waste.

“Scarface” was released in December, 1983. The film’s domestic box office gross was $45,408,703.

Related Categories: Movie Reviews

About the Author: Matt Meltzer is a featured columnist at Miami Beach 411.

See more articles by Matt Meltzer.

See more articles by Matt Meltzer

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12 Comments on

"Scarface: Why the Iconic Miami Film Was Not Even Shot in Miami"

Suzy says:

Great review Matt and you were right, many Cubans did find offense to the movie because it did portray them in a negative light. 
I remember this being filmed when I was a kid.  Tony Montana’s house in the movie actually belonged to one of my schoolmates Vanessa.  The shoot, a few blocks away from my home, attracted spectators and brought way too much traffic to the quiet residential streets. 
As a whole, I LOVE the movie and there isn’t a single Cuban-American in my generation (that I know of, of course) that hasn’t called someone else a ‘filthy caca-roach.’

Posted on 10/02/2007 at 2:48 PM

Upset Fisherman says:

I’m sure that all of you in Miami are aware of the 4 missing crew from the sport fishing boat “Joe Cool”.  The captain of the boat was Jack Branam, he lived with his wife and two children in his grandparent’s mansion on Star Island.  Jack told me on a previous charter that the mansion was used as part of the set while making the movie Scarface, he also said that the mansion once belong to Al Capone. It is quite ironic and sad that the two men accused of his death were on their way back to Cuba before they ran out of fuel.

Posted on 10/04/2007 at 3:24 PM

Raul says:

I couldnt fathom the cocaine cowboys of Miami 1980s to be bigger parasites than many of South Floridas elected and sadly reelected officials .
ONLY in Miami are people as loyal to do nothing speech giving politicians as sheep are to shepards before they slaughter them
As a Cuban American I am truly embarrassed even the youth here seem incapable of free thought and as blindly loyal to inept parasites as the elderly

Posted on 05/21/2008 at 6:37 AM

Bank says:

Nice article. I have a site like this, and like anything on the internet the difficult part is actually getting people to visit the site, this is often the hardest part.

Posted on 12/06/2008 at 5:59 AM

Matt Meltzer says:

My name’s Matt, but thanks.

Posted on 12/08/2008 at 8:14 PM

lanea says:

Scareface is one of the realist movies ever made. It gives you action and a sneak insight on the cuban thug life in Miami streets in the 80’s. It also provides drama and mischief. if I had to rate the movie it would be a 10 across the board. This Lane’a and I approve this message.

Posted on 09/26/2010 at 6:15 PM

Ewok says:

This is really ironic why it wasn’t shot at Miami.  Nevertheless, Al Pacino was at his best in this movie.

Posted on 12/13/2010 at 12:21 PM

Gino Marquis says:

I Stongly beleive that Scarface 2. Should be made and I also Beleive that I would play the Role of is Son who’s seekiNg Revenge!!Life is feeding me with all those Ideas for part 2 why Im Not sure But its a dayly opperation!Life as thought me everything for the Role and to help me to be @ the Top for this Fantastic Challenge!

Posted on 05/14/2012 at 4:26 PM

Benito says:

Whats with all the hurt feelings of Cubans who live in Fl when a movie could really be about one of their countrymen? Like today people bitchin about Castro-no trade with Cuba come on move on with your life. Its like Obama playing the old race card when slavery didnt involve his decendents or most of the people that think they are owed a liveing. Be proud your cuban american as most of you’s work hard & arent looking for that free ride!

Posted on 03/10/2013 at 6:44 PM

Martin says:

How about be glad your in america, do the right thing, go to work…and if you do not like it here do something to make it a better country or move to another one…

Posted on 02/06/2014 at 5:15 PM

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