For over 40 years, filmmaker Brian De Palma has received equal parts praise and criticism from cinephiles, but rarely has his entire filmography been laid out in front of you as well as it has in the new documentary called simply De Palma.
Directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow—two independent filmmakers in their own right—De Palma takes a look at the filmmaker through the years with a comprehensive interview talking about each one of his films. Watching this doc, it’s impossible not to respect and appreciate what De Palma has achieved with films like Dressed to Kill and Body Double, which helped to define the modern erotic thriller, and acclaimed hits like Carrie, Scarface, and The Untouchables—all considered genre classics in their own right.
At 76-years-old, De Palma has more than earned the respect he receives from his peers, and Den of Geek had a rare opportunity to talk to the director recently, as well as with Baumbach and Paltrow in a separate interview.
De Palma originally met Noah Baumbach’s mother Georgia Brown when she came down to the Florida set of Scarface to interview him for The Village Voice. However, the helmer only met Noah 20 years ago at a party. “We hit it off and started to hang out together,” he says about getting the ball rolling on the doc. “We all live downtown, so there’s a proximity. We say, ‘Let’s go out to dinner’ and we can round all of us up in five or 10 minutes. This grew out of discussions we used to have at dinner over a period of years. They were interested in some new digital equipment, so they bought this digital camera and they wanted to try it out and make a record of some of the things we had discussed at dinner over the years. We went over to Jake’s apartment, and Jake operated the camera and Noah handled the sound, and then we just sort of had a conversation like we had over dinner over many years.”
“There was never any sort of formal creating of a movie,” he continues. “They basically made all these videos and put them away for a couple of years. The interviews were done five years ago, and then we all went off and made our own movies and a couple years passed. Then when they had some time, they said, ‘Maybe we can do something with this’ and then they proceeded to spend an extensive time editing it and going through the hours of interviews.”
Paltrow also recalled the impetus to explore De Palma’s career in a filmic manner.
“I think he probably recognized it was going to be an interesting movie because he speaks in this sort of way, and I don’t think a lot of people do that,” Paltrow said about the interview process.
“In a way, the work was done before going into it, because we were already so close,” Baumbach concurs. “If you were an outsider or a stranger coming to interview somebody, you have to get through a certain formality and you’re never going to get to a really honest discussion anyway. That work had already been done just by the fact we all knew each other so well.”
De Palma similarly gleaned a unique value in not only his relationship with the younger filmmakers, but in the particular fact that they are filmmakers first, as opposed to an outside journalist looking inside of an artist’s craft.
“It’s directors talking about their work, so you try to be as frank as possible. And these are friends and directors, so it has a different quality rather than being interviewed,” De Palma says.
De Palma doesn’t cover much of the filmmaker’s personal life other than a brief mention of his ex-wife and producer Gale Ann Hurd, who produced Raising Cain.
Understanding this careful omission, Paltrow explains, “We’re approaching the whole thing through the movies, so you’re not asking really personal questions about someone’s life, because it’s not the way you’re getting into the subject. If you’re really going on a chronological path through the films themselves, there are personal stories that segue with what’s going on while he’s making a movie, but that’s not what’s leading it.”
Baumbach adds, “The personal was only relevant to the degree that Brian felt it was relevant to the movies he was talking about. It isn’t an act of journalism in that way, but at the same time, the feeling going into it was, ‘Let’s have an open, unedited conversation. Let’s just talk freely,’ and Brian did, knowing that when we put this together, we’re not going to include anything that anyone feels uncomfortable with.”
De Palma famously had to struggle with getting his films rated by the MPAA, yet that didn’t hinder him from trying to push the envelope. “The ratings board really started in ’68, and Greetings got an ‘X’ but so did Midnight Cowboy,” De Palma recalls. “So, it didn’t prevent it from being shown. As the years went on, they got more aggressive, and you sort of had to negotiate with them movie to movie, and it got very difficult for movies like Dressed to Kill and also Scarface.
“It’s all politics, to some extent, but you send a movie in and you hear back that they’re going to rate it ‘X’ unless you want to make some changes. Then you say, ‘Give me some ideas about what you’re talking about,’ and they say, ‘Well, there’s a lot of blood in one scene and there’s too much language in another scene.’ So, you make a few cuts and send it back. That’s the way it goes until you say, ‘No, I’m not making any more changes.’ It’s basically a negotiation.”
Given this deliberate give-and-take process, it naturally leads to asking the director which of his films he thinks have ended up the closest to his original vision without compromise.
“I would say for the most part, I was very fortunate, because a lot of my movies were made independently and later sold to the studio, so I had more or less control over a movie from beginning to end,” De Palma says. “I came up in an era when the director took control for about a decade, so we were given a tremendous amount of freedom and were able to retain final cut. It’s very different today, because a lot of the directors and the producers, and the studios come out of television where it’s like the old studio system. Basically, the studio controls the cut, and the writers and producers are the strongest elements on a movie.”
Possibly not as known about De Palma was his decision after the successful Carrie to teach students at Sarah Lawrence how to make their own movies, resulting in the 1979 picture Home Movies.
“Where Home Movies falls in his filmography is so surprising,” Baumbach says about this decision. “Even at that point, that he went back and did that is pretty remarkable.”
“I took a whole year off to make Home Movies at Sarah Lawrence and taught a production course where the course was to make an independent feature, and to explore all aspects from the financing through distribution,” De Palma says about returning to his alma mater. “That took a tremendous amount of time but it was very valuable to the students that were involved in the course. The frustrating thing about teaching film, especially production courses, is very few people are going to go anywhere. The odds of succeeding in this profession are huge so unless you have the determination and the talent, and the good luck, then you’re not going to go very far.”
Director Mark Romanek was one of De Palma’s students during that course after apprenticing on the shoot of The Fury, and so was Keith Gordon, who acted in Home Movies and went on to become a director, working on shows like Homeland and Fargo.
Clearly working with the students helped to recharge the filmmaker’s batteries, as his next film would be Dressed to Kill, followed by Blow Out, Scarface, and Body Double, all of which have been highly regarded by the filmmakers De Palma has influenced.
“I was always interested in different genres and getting away from my particular obsessions, getting a really good script and trying to articulate it as creatively as I could,” he says about his proclivity towards the thriller. “I was very fortunate to have incredible collaborators like Oliver Stone on Scarface, David Rabe on Casualties of War and [David] Mamet on The Untouchables.”
De Palma famously moved to Europe to get away from the Hollywood studio system, but since has moved back to New York, though it seems to be harder for the filmmaker to get things made then back during his heyday.
“You are constantly writing material and developing other people’s scripts, but it all comes down to can you cast it in order to get it financed, and it takes time,” De Palma laments. “The equipment has gotten a lot easier and cheaper, so you can make movies very inexpensively now, so that’s changed a lot. My movies, because they require elaborate set pieces, cannot really be shot in 20 days with four actors. They’re a lot more visually elaborate, so I can’t really profit from the economical renaissance of this digital filmmaking. I need a certain amount of resources in order to carry out these complicated visual designs.”
De Palma describes his next political thriller, currently called Lights Out—that name will probably change—as a “combination of Mission: Impossible and Wait Until Dark.”
“Movies are usually judged against the fashion of the time, and the fashion changes,” De Palma explains when asked how he feels about his movies becoming more highly regarded decades after their initial release. “If there’s any kind of interesting and lasting qualities in terms of visualization, story, character, they transcend their opening. If they fail when they came out and people keep looking at them 30 or 40 years later, you must be doing something right.”
De Palma is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and if you’re in New York, you can also catch many of De Palma’s films at a comprehensive retrospective being held at the Metrograph on the Lower East Side. You can also read some of the De Palma flicks we think are worth seeking out right here.