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In Scarface, Tony Montana's Miami Was Mostly Filmed in LA

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Universal Pictures

A key location in Miami movie history was just sold late last month, though it wasn't on Ocean Drive, Calle Ocho, or any of the city's iconic streets. It was in California, near Santa Barbara. The palatial estate from Scarface, which served as the backdrop for Tony Montana's famous headfirst dive into a pile of cocaine and his "say hello to my little friend"-shouting last stand, sold for $12.26 million, roughly a third of its asking price. Despite the movie's place in Florida and hip-hop lore, faux Miami locations are actually the rule, not the exception.

Pacino's turn in the immigrant-turned-crime lord tale, a tweak of the coming to America narrative dressed up in pastel, disco beats and blow, pays homage to South Florida's flashy landscape. While the origins of the story can actually be traced back to Chicago (the film is a remake of the original 1932 Scarface, where actor Paul Muni stars as Tony Camonte, a very loose stand-in for Al Capone), the 1983 film appears to be squarely set in the Miami of its time. Which makes it disappointing that, like many Hollywood productions, it cheats by using California as a stand in for numerous locations.

The crew only spent 12 days in Miami. But don't just blame the producers; as director Brian De Palma once said, the actors and crew felt like they were run out of town. Cuban-American City Commissioner Demitrio Perez, Jr. was the leader of a vocal minority that feared the movie's negative portrayal of Cubans and fought to change the story; at one point, he sent a letter to producer Martin Bregman asking if he could rewrite the film to make Montana a Castro spy. Bregman refused to budge, saying the movie wouldn't give Miami a bad reputation ("It already has that image," he replied), and after months of protests, decided to move the bulk of the film shoot (and take millions in economic benefits) to California. Key spots, such as the Babylon Club, were shot inside a Hollywood sound stage, with a building in Davie, Florida standing in for the exterior. Despite the fight over the film and locations, the producers still needed to shoot specific scenes in Miami, so the movie still stands as a time capsule of the era, especially the exterior shots, which show a time before subsequent waves of investment transformed the city's coastline with mega-developments.


Freedom Town
On of the first places we see Montana, the temporary shelter for Cuban exiles in Miami, was filmed at the intersection of I-110 and I-10 in Los Angeles near Santa Monica. These exiles were part of the Mariel Boatlift of 1980, where roughly 125,000 Cubans seeking asylum were transported from the Cuban port city to the United States. In response to an economic downturn, the Cuban government gave citizens the ability to leave, so the U.S. government set up a boatlift to transport refugees to Florida. It was later revealed that many of those who took part were actually released from Cuban jails and mental institutions. Despite the geographic incongruity, the director, Brian De Palma, kept the dialogue authentic; supposedly the 600 extras used in the riot scene only spoke Spanish. The scene was based on a real camp that was set up under I-95 in North Dade.


Little Havana
Home of Miami's famous Calle Ocho, arguably some of the most famous Cuban-American real estate in the United States, this key neighborhood was actually played by LA's Little Tokyo (a Miami skyline mural was painted on one wall by the crew). The sandwich shop where Tony briefly worked at, El Paraiso, was actually an LA spot that had the sign covered up during filming. According to production notes from the film, while actors were dressed in clothing befitting the tropical locale, they were suffering through a rare stretch of cold weather in California. The real Little Havana, or La Pequeña Habana, was once a Southern and Jewish enclave west of downtown that gradually changed as Cuban immigrants arrived.


Sunray Apartments (Chainsaw Scene)
The notorious botched drug deal and chainsaw scene at the fictional Sunray Apartments, supposedly based on a real event screenwriter Oliver Stone found in a Miami police report, took place in an apartment building on 728 Ocean Drive that now has a Johnny Rockets on the ground floor. Despite (or because of) the grisly scene set inside, the 10,000-square-foot commercial building, which once had a modeling agency, attracts a steady stream of film fans.


Frank Lopez's Mansion
The home of the aging was played by a multimillion-dollar estate on Key Biscayne, on 485 Matheson Drive, as well as the Atlantis Condo in the Brickell neighborhood (featured in the opening credits of another '80s classic, Miami Vice. This is the first place where Tony sees Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the glass elevator. In real life, the building was owned by another leader, Richard Nixon, who actually owned the property next door and used it as his "winter White House" during his time in office (he came here to escape DC as the Watergate scandal unfolded).


Fontainebleau Miami Beach
Playing itself, this grand Art Deco resort on 4441 Collins Avenue was the backdrop to Tony and Manny (actor Steven Bauer, the only actual Cuban in the cast) attempting to pick up chicks. Both Miami Vice and Goldfinger have shot at this signature hotel, designed by Morris Lapidus, with its gently curving facade, Versailles-inspired garden and "Stairway to Nowhere" in the lobby, which, as the name implies, goes nowhere. Another historic Miami hotel, the Carlyle, also makes a cameo in the film.


Babylon Club
Created whole cloth within a Hollywood soundstage, this fake nightclub, which seems to vibrate with Giorgio Moroder's Italo disco score, was an exercise in extravagance, with purple carpeting, Greek statues and an onyx dance floor, as well as a seemingly endless series of mirrors (which made shooting without catching a camera reflection difficult). The mirrored panels that line the club were mounted on soft, spongy boards and covered in clear plastic, so shootout scenes could be reshot without cleaning up broken glass.


Tony's Mansion
The 10-acre Santa Barbara estate that served as the symbol of Montana's success, known as "El Fureidis" ("Tropical Paradise"), was originally designed by Bertram Goodhue, an architect known for monumental architecture across Los Angeles, including the city's public library. One of his few residential commissions, this estate was built in 1906 for James Waldron Gillespie, who traveled with Goodhue all the way to India to search out inspiration for the design. The trip paid off; the home features incredible details, including towering bronze doors, murals depicting Alexander the Great and a ceiling inspired by the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome. Celebrities including Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein visited, Thomas Mann once owned the home, and couples from Charlie Chaplin and Oona O'Neill to John F Kennedy and Jackie Onassis stayed in one of the many bedrooms. The extensive tropical gardens, which frame views of the ocean, even inspired Walt Disney, who used them as a model for his park's Jungle Ride.


Alejandro Sosa's Bolivian Estate
Built by Addison Mizener, the palatial estate on Casa Bienvenida, also in Montecito, California, served as the home for the South American drug lord. The 32-room Spanish hacienda was built for Alfred Dietrich in 1930.

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