In 1978, director Martin Scorsese turned the camera on his friend and roommate, Steven Prince, whose real life seemed more fascinating than anything a screenwriter could imagine. The documentary that emerged, American Boy, was to become Scorsese’s lost film, as it was never officially released.
Quentin Tarantino was to take one of Prince’s true stories about how he injected adrenaline into the heart of a woman who overdosed, to create one of the most memorable scenes in Pulp Fiction and perhaps independent film itself.
Thirty years later, filmmaker Tommy Pallotta revisits American Boy and its raconteur subject Steven Prince in the documentary American Prince. Conceived by Pallotta as a self-portrait of Steven Prince, it comprises new footage of Steven’s storytelling, clips from scenes in American Boy and relevant Scorsese films.
The film is available now on Bit Torrent, and after just a week had reached over a 100 countries. The current count is 123. LWLies spoke to Pallotta, who produced Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly (2006) and Waking Life (2001) and directed The High Road (1996), to discover more about his current project.
LWLies: What motivated you to make American Prince?
Pallotta: My movie is essentially a love letter to American Boy. I guess you could say my ultimate hope is that interest in my film leads to a proper release of Scorsese’s film. My documentary is conceived as a self-portrait of a man that I and obviously others have seen as a fascinating subject. Making the movie was also motivated by my personal friendship with Steven, which developed long after he had left the movie business and was working as a building contractor. That’s his occupation to this day and he elaborates on this career jump, which he saw as necessary for his very survival, in American Prince.
LWLies: Why do you think Scorsese’s original documentary has never been officially released and remained a bootleg?
Pallotta: Well, I don’t think there is a lot of money to be made with it. Also it is an hour long which is a weird length for a movie because it is not really a feature or a short. I don’t really know the answer to that question. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to do this - to solve that mystery.
LWLies: Why did American Boy have such a profound effect on you?
Pallotta: I saw the movie for the first time probably in the late ’80s or early ’90s, and then I got a bootleg copy of it on VHS. It just became a favourite of mine. It has gained cult status through the years with cinephiles and in my opinion influenced a generation of film makers. When I saw Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction of course I knew instantly from where the scene in which adrenaline is pumped into the heart of a female character, played by Uma Thurman, came.
LWLies: What do you find so compelling about Steven Prince?
Pallotta: Principally he’s an incredibly talented storyteller who is very cinematic in the way that he relates stories so you can almost take any of his tales and think of it as a scene in a movie. This is certainly his special gift. At the time of American Boy he was living with Scorsese, and I imagine Scorsese probably thought the same thing that I did - that he would be a pretty straightforward yet fascinating subject to centre a documentary on. You just have to turn the camera on this guy and let him speak … Another important reason I made American Prince was to present fresh stories by Steven that in my eyes are great material for another generation of filmmakers.
LWLies: How close a friend and working colleague of Scorsese’s was Prince, and in what era of the director’s life?
Pallotta: He was living with Martin Scorsese so they were very close friends. They lived together for about five years in the mid to late seventies and they also worked together on a number of Scorsese’s movies. This time frame spanned Taxi Driver, The Last Waltz, American Boy and New York, New York. Their home was a house in Mulholland Drive where Robbie Robertson the Canadian singer/songwriter and guitarist, a member of the rock group The Band, also lived.
That era of filmmaking particularly interests me. And that particular orbit of characters that lived in this house. For me, the focus of American Prince came with those years, those films and that house. What was interesting to me was that these individuals all came together. They were in their thirties and had effectively left their wives and joined together and formed this kind of dysfunctional family and sort of went crazy for a couple of years but in the process made incredible art.
LWLies: So was American Boy actually filmed at the house on Mulholland Drive?
Pallotta: No, American Boy was filmed at a friend’s house. Scorsese didn’t tell Prince that he was going to film him prior to that evening. He just invited him over to a friend’s house.
LWLies: In what capacity did Prince actually work with Scorsese?
Pallotta: He acted in some of Scorsese’s films. For example, he played the gun salesman in Taxi Driver. He also worked on the production of some films such as New York, New York. So I’d say he was a friend, a sort of right-hand man and he was the guy who created the chaos but also brought a focus to it all.
Also to my mind Steven’s bold personality served as an inspiration to Scorsese in later movies. I have read in interviews that Scorsese used his documentaries to work out ideas for later films. So in terms of American Boy, I think he used it to explore ideas he implemented in Raging Bull. You can see some of Steven Prince in the Jake LaMotta character. I think he also used Prince as a study for the character of Travis in Taxi Driver.
The interesting thing about a documentary is that you get to think about a person in a way that you never had before. You really start to examine them and go back and forth, especially in the editing process. It does give you special insight into a person’s character. You can see that in Scorsese’s work. All of his characters are very psychologically based.
LWLies: Are there any other reasons why you decided to make this documentary on Steven Prince at this point in your career?
Pallotta: I started out in independent filmmaking. I have been creating films most of my life and have been very fortunate to make bigger and bigger projects. However the last two years before I made this I was working on a sizeable project, with a pretty big director, that never came through. I felt as if I had wasted two years of my life trying to make a movie through the studio system and basically playing the Hollywood game. I just felt I was not very good at it. So I wanted to do a valid project very quickly that I did not have to ask permission for from anybody.
When we made this movie everyone donated their time and effort for nothing. I just paid to rent a hotel room one night to shoot the documentary, when my friend Richard Linklater was in town and could serve as a fresh audience for Steven.
LWLies: Why did you decide to release the film on BitTorrent?
Pallotta: I was keen to distribute the movie in a new way and reach an audience that I previously could not. And that was about kicking away the barrier of a studio or a TV network in between the work I created and the audience. File sharing is extremely exciting from the perspective of a filmmaker. One of the amazing things about American Prince is that in less than a week, with no budget and no marketing behind it, it reached well over 100 countries. That kind of global reach is so enticing to me and has so much potential.
It’s definitely not a solid business model. You cannot make movies and always give them away for free. But it’s certainly a fun thing to play around with and I’m sure people will come up with novel and viable business models that complement file sharing. I always intended American Prince as a computer film for BitTorrent distribution rather than general cinematic release.
This is also about giving something back to a community that I find interesting and have benefitted from. File sharing is one interesting way of reaching new audiences. I don’t see it as a substitute for cinematic releases. I personally am happy to spend money on seeing a good movie. At the same time, I know a lot of people have seen the movie I produced, A Scanner Darkly, on BitTorrent and I don’t have a problem with that.
LWLies: Finally you have described American Prince as a self-portrait of Steven Prince. What do you mean by that?
Pallotta: I wanted to narrow my focus to Steven’s subjective slant, rather than interject multiple perspectives. This is the first in a trilogy of self-portraits that I plan to distribute in the same way. The second, that I have just finished filming, is about Sasha Grey , one of the most famous US adult film actresses who has recently crossed over to mainstream film to play the female lead in the new Soderbergh movie. I want to make a third one about Alex Jones, a controversial US journalist with a strong online presence whose work includes documentaries such as End Game – Blueprint for Global Enslavement.