I Supplied the Coke, Guns and Cash for ‘Scarface’
When it comes to movie sets at least, John Zemansky is a heck of a hookup. There is, in fact, almost nothing he can’t source — or manufacture. Case in point: He supplied Doc Brown with (faux) uranium. He bought the broom Mrs. Doubtfire famously rocked out on. And he provided Tony Montana with all manners of guns, cash and cocaine. Zemansky retired in 2007, but he still loves to talk about his time as a property master — whether it was helping bring Robert Zemeckis and the Back to the Future franchise into the Old West or securing a mountain of coke and weaponry for Brian DePalma and Al Pacino.
‘The plutonium Doc Brown used in the first Back to the Future picture? We just made that all up’
I grew up around the prop business. I didn’t really want to do it at first, but I decided to do it for a little while before figuring out what I really wanted to do. To my surprise, once I got into it, I really liked it.
I went to work in TV at first, but then I got lucky and got to work in features. I did 60-some pictures. My favorite projects were westerns, because I love antiques and I enjoy hunting for the real stuff. I did all the Back to the Future pictures, and the third one was my favorite because it was a western. I had to find Doc Brown’s gun, and then the effects guys added all the armatures on it.
A lot of prop guys like science fiction, but you can build anything. The plutonium Doc used in the first Back to the Future picture? We just made that all up. I doubt real plutonium looks anything like that, but how many people have seen plutonium anyway?
‘If Al Pacino didn’t feel like something was right, he wouldn’t move forward until he thought it was perfect’
Scarface was the second picture I did with Brian DePalma. DePalma was a very quiet guy — he was always thinking. Scarface was supposed to be a 61-day shoot, but it went to 120 days or something like that. We never seemed to be able to get started until 10 or 11 in the morning. I think some of that was Al Pacino.
If he didn’t feel like something was right, he wouldn’t move forward until he thought it was perfect. Also, he never worked past 6 p.m. — it was in his contract. The movie was running so far over that the studio wanted him to work later. But he found out that the studio executives were coming to the set to get him to work later, so he just didn’t show up to work that day.
‘The only gun on Scarface that wasn’t totally real was the one where Pacino says, ‘Say hello to my little friend’’
I have no idea how many guns I had to supply for Scarface. It was a lot. They were real guns, too. They’re props, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a real gun. It takes a real gun to fire a blank. The only thing that wasn’t totally real was the one where he says, “Say hello to my little friend.” That was an M16 with an M203 grenade launcher under it. They used those in Vietnam, but you can’t really get your hands on one, so I had to get it manufactured.
Pacino must have fired a thousand rounds out of that gun, and it was hot. When Pacino got shot, he fell on the gun and he burned his hand very badly. They had to take him to the burn hospital to fix his hand, and we shut down for three to five days after that.
Also, for that final shootout, the scene was originally shot with pistols, shotguns and a few oddball rifles. We spent a week shooting it, but DePalma looked at it and hated it. He said, “Let’s get some machine guns in here!” So we shot the whole thing all over again with automatic weapons.
‘When you’ve got stacks of money, usually just the top bill is real, and the rest underneath is dummy money approved by the government’
Depending on the scene, we’d use all real money or just some real money. For something like a poker game, that’s all real cash because, at most, it’s probably only $5,000. When you’ve got stacks of money though, usually just the top bill is real and the rest underneath is dummy money approved by the government. Up close, it looks like dummy money, but from a distance, you can’t tell.
I did a picture where I needed $175,000 in $100 bills. That was Brewster’s Millions and that was the most I ever had to get. I can’t remember how much I needed for Scarface, but most of it was that dummy money because a lot of it was in stacks.
As for the cocaine, nothing fancy or real there — it was simply powdered baby milk that I bought at the market.