“I was really into low-budget horror movies when I was young. Then I started discovering De Palma’s stuff. You could describe a lot of his earlier movies as horror, Body Double, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, The Fury, but there was a lot more than that to them. He was using some of the techniques of horror films in the service of an extremely personal kind of filmmaking. His movies communicate on a lot of different levels, and they’re all sophisticated in their own way. They are not simple films. They just happened to merge nicely with the genre. Watching them, I was learning so much about film language without realizing it.”
Director, Noah Baumbach
In 2010, over a span of thirty hours, spread out over one week, Academy Award nominee Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), and Jake Paltrow (Young Ones) interviewed director Brian De Palma. The all-encompassing documentary “De Palma,” co-directed by Baumbach and Paltrow, has an approximate running time of 110 minutes. The film, throughout which on-set photographs and film clips are interspersed, details, in chronological order, every facet of Brian De Palma’s career. The documentary, which premiered in Italy on September 9, 2015 at the Venice Film Festival, is not shot through a critical lens. Instead, it allows the director a forum to set the record straight on all of his films; the lauded ones, as well as those that are considered controversial, or have been critically derided. In fact, no critics or film historians are used in the documentary, it is all De Palma answering Baumbach and Paltrow’s questions. (As an aside: The interview with De Palma took place in Jake Paltrow’s living room, and for the sake of continuity, De Palma wore the same shirt every day he was interviewed. Furthermore, Baumbach and Paltrow remain off screen for the entire duration of the interview).
The documentary begins with a clip from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” De Palma comments that when he saw it for the first time, in 1958, at Radio City Music Hall, that it left an incredible impression on him. To paraphrase: As De Palma evolved as a filmmaker, he began to view “Vertigo” as a showcase as to what directors do in regard to creating illusions. He feels that a filmmaker’s job is to create characters that make the audience want to get invested in the story, and emotionally attached, so that a viewer cares whether or not the character lives or perishes, triumphs or fails. The work of Alfred Hitchcock, and all that it entailed had such a lasting impact on De Palma, that when he made “Sisters” in 1972, he asked Oscar winning, and legendary composer, Bernard Herrmann (Psycho) to come out of retirement, and score the film, which he did. De Palma, in discussing the first session he had working with Herrmann, stated that he made an error by screening a version of “Sisters” in which he had incorporated one of Herrmann’s previous scores. He relays that Herrmann grew irate, screaming for the film to be stopped because, Herrmann stated, hearing previously used music in a new film, not yet scored, would ruin his creative process.
While the film doesn’t spend any appreciable time on his life outside of filmmaking, it does touch briefly on his youth. In addition to always being a lover of the ladies, De Palma talks about the fact that long before film became an interest to him, science was his passion. When he attended Columbia University, in New York City, he concentrated his studies on math, physics and Russian; it wasn’t until he discovered La Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) films, directed by amongst others, Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless), that he began to seriously consider film a career choice.
De Palma signed up for Cinema 16, which was a New York City film club, where avant-garde, independent shorts, and experimental films where showcased from 1947 through 1963. The club was run by Amos Vogel, a writer, teacher, and the founder of the New York Film Festival, which began in 1962. De Palma submitted a short film for three straight years, and in the third year, he won for his short “Woton’s Wake.” A while later, he saw a casting notice for a graduate project at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, so he went there, and got into a graduate play, where he met Tony Award winning director and writer, Wilford Leach (The Pirates of Penzance), who became his mentor. De Palma states that it was through Leach where he began to learn the skills needed to be a director. De Palma’s first feature, “The Wedding Party” (1969), which he worked on with Leach, came out of a workshop at Sarah Lawrence College. The feature showcased on-screen performances from workshop actors, such as two time Oscar winner, Robert De Niro (The Godfather: Part II), Academy Award and Golden Globe, nominee, Jill Clayburgh (An Unmarried Woman), and Emmy nominee, Jennifer Salt (Nip/Tuck).
From that moment forward in the documentary, as previously stated, there is no area of De Palma’s career that is not delved into. In addition to many other topics, he speaks about the lawsuits that accompanied his 1974 film “Phantom of the Paradise.” Furthermore, he relays the fact that he was going to hire a different actress, other than Oscar winner Sissy Spacek, for “Carrie. Spacek was a set-designer on a De Palma film, and even though she had booked a commercial for which she was being paid, she opted to skip out on the guaranteed money and part, in order just to have the opportunity to audition for the film adaptation of bestselling author, Stephen King’s novel. De Palma discusses how when he made his homage to “Vertigo” with the 1976 film “Obsession” he cast, a then unknown, John Lithgow (Dexter), who would go onto win multiple Golden Globes and Emmys, and so far be nominated for two Oscars.
Throughout the interview, De Palma comes across as intelligent, witty, sincere, and self-deprecating. He is forthright when pointing out his shortcomings with certain of his films, for example, the critically panned “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Conversely, he didn’t shy away when it came to discussing actors who let their egos get the better of them, such as Oscar winner Cliff Robertson’s (Charly) behavior on the set of the film “Obsession.” De Palma also just as easily gives credit to people who have done good work for him. He sings the praises of, among others, two-time Academy Award winning production designer Richard Sylbert (Carlito’s Way), and BAFTA, Emmy, and Oscar winning, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
There is a wealth of additional information relayed by the director during the documentary, which for those of you who are interested, I will refrain from mentioning, so you can hear it for yourself. For fans of De Palma, I would categorize this as a must watch film. In general, for lovers of cinema, who enjoy learning about the behind the scenes aspects of filmmaking – managing the different personalities involved on a film set – keeping those who finance the production satisfied – and a veteran director’s creative process, this is also a film not to be missed.