His film career only consisted of five movies, but they were some of the biggest, most well known movies of his time. He had large roles in each film, but his name goes relatively unknown. John Cazale is the subject of the documentary short I Knew It Was You that premiered at Sundance this week. Director Richard Shepard spoke with realscreen about working on his first doc and gaining the trust of Meryl Streep.
Before he died of bone cancer in 1978, John Cazale worked with some of the biggest names in both acting and directing and all the films he was in were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. His acting career comprised five movies – The Deer Hunter, The Godfather (parts one and two), Dog Day Afternoon, The Conversation and The American Way – and he is credited as an inspiration to many of the actors with whom he worked.
Director Richard Shepard (The Matador) was also an admirer of Cazale’s and when he went to look for more information about the actor he couldn’t find much. Though Shepard has worked exclusively on fictional feature films and television shows, he decided to break into the doc arena if only so that he could learn more about his favorite actor.
‘I thought, ‘Maybe someone should make a documentary about him,’ and then ultimately I figured, ‘I guess that’s something I could do,” remembers Shepard as he talks about the beginnings of I Knew It Was You, which took three years to make. ‘I just assumed, if in 30 years no one has done it yet, I had better get going.’
Shepard remembers going to a revival cinema with his father to watch The Godfather when he was a boy. Then he saw Dog Day Afternoon and he loved Cazale’s performance again, but he didn’t make the connection that it was the same actor. ‘Then I realized this one guy was in these five movies that I really loved. Then, once I was in NYU film school, it became the cool thing to be like, ‘Oh I love this actor, because I happen to know he only did five movies.”
Starting work on the film was a slow process that started not with fund-raising but with a phone call made to Cazale’s brother, who Shepard found in the phone book. ‘It took us a long time to get past that first discussion to shooting and then getting these actors to talk to us. But eventually it became this snowball where everyone was excited to talk to us about it.’
Work on the film came to a standstill when Meryl Streep declined comment. Though she wished Shepard and his team luck, Shepard knew that he didn’t have a film unless he could speak to Streep, who was Cazale’s fiancé when he died. ‘Once she saw that our hearts were in the right place, that we loved John and we wanted to make a movie that celebrated his work, I think she realized this was something she wanted to be a part of and once she said yes it did ultimately become a lot easier.’ At that point HBO came on board with financing, reclusive actors such as Gene Hackman agreed to speak with Shepard and his team, and the film really got off the ground.
The short doc started out as a biography of the actor but once Streep credited Cazale as someone who taught her a lot about acting, and then Al Pacino said the same thing, it became more a film about the craft of acting.
After Sundance Shepard plans to do the festival circuit before I Knew It Was You debuts on HBO later this year. I Knew It Was You will screen three more times at Sundance; tonight at 6pm and Saturday at 12:45pm and 11:30pm.