If director Brian De Palma was sometimes criticised for settling for style over substance in his thrillers, this feature-length documentary about his career is reassuringly basic in its approach. Barring archive footage and one, solitary moment, directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow divide their retrospective between sequences from De Palma’s movies and interviews with the filmmaker himself, seated in front of a grey fireplace.
It’s the kind of move that could be regarded as lazy or tentative in some circumstances, but Baumbach and Paltrow are shrewd enough to recognise that a director known for his technical flourishes needs room to breathe; and besides, De Palma and his movies are interesting enough subjects that they hardly need further embellishment.
Even De Palma’s structure is straightforward: we start at the beginning, when the future director of Carrie and The Untouchables was a kid, growing up in a privileged if somewhat unhappy middle-class family. A self-confessed computer nerd, might have become a scientist had he not fallen under the spell of Hitchcock while at Columbia university. Like many other filmmakers of the ‘movie brat’ era, it was De Palma’s early short films soon led to his first low-budget features in the 1960s: Murder A La Mod, Greetings (both 1968) and The Wedding Party (1969).
De Palma takes us through the director’s movies in chronological order, all the better to see his growth as a filmmaker – and how the setbacks in his career affected its trajectory as much as the successes. His first studio movie, Get To Know Your Rabbit (1972) was such a bruising experience that De Palma retreated to low-budget filmmaking with the psychological thriller Sisters (1973) – the first in a string of genre movies that are by turns aggressive, operatic and controversial.
The veteran director proves to be an unflinchingly honest interviewee throughout Baumbach and Paltrow’s documentary – the combative, even surly demeanour of interviews from his early years mellowing here to wry candour. The filmmakers have evidently sat with De Palma for many hours, gradually winning his trust and, it seems, his respect as fellow directors. There’s a moment when, during his reminiscences about the 1993 gangster film Carlito’s Way, De Palma says, “You’ve had this, right? Where actors get fixated on a single scene?”
De Palma isn’t, however, a psychological dissection of a filmmaker who revelled in alternately spying on or murdering his leading ladies. When asked about this recurring motif, De Palma trots out the line he’s given in interviews since at least the 1990s, like the time he sat down with Mark Cousins for a frosty episode of Scene By Scene: he just likes photographing women. Viewers who’ve read about De Palma’s life will also recognise a familiar anecdote from his teenage years, which goes some way to explaining the voyeurism and anger in his work.
What De Palma does offer is a new appreciation of the breadth and depth of its subject’s career, and how his technical intelligence fed into some of the intricate scenes of suspense in American cinema. De Palma not only delves into how several of these moments were conceived – the extraordinary rotating shot in Blow Out, the extended prom sequence in Carrie – but also offers some fascinating insights into what went on behind the scenes. De Palma’s memories of what went on with the cast of Obsession are hilarious, and go some way to explaining the variable quality of the leading performances in that movie. Look out, too, for some great anecdotes about De Palma’s clashes with screenwriter Robert Towne on Mission: Impossible.
In looking back on his work, De Palma displays an amusing air of satisfaction over his achievements – “It was pleasing to see them make all the mistakes I managed to avoid” he says of the various Carrie remakes – and sober reflections on the movies that didn’t go to plan. Now in his 70s, De Palma’s philosophical about the effects of age on creativity, and the directors’ handling of these more introspective moments is disarmingly intimate.
Brian De Palma’s best films may be behind him, but this absorbing retrospective provides a reminder of just how long and creative his run of form was; even the movies that didn’t quite work were made with real craft and a seriousness of intent. Elegant and made with evident care and affection, De Palma’s a fitting tribute to one of America’s most distinctive filmmakers.
De Palma is out in UK cinemas on the 23rd September.