DEPALMA, AN OFFICIAL SELECTION AT THE VENICE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2015 AND THE NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2015, WILL SEE EXPANDED RELEASE ON JUNE 24 (MARKETS TBD).
One of the most talented, influential, and iconoclastic filmmakers of all time, Brian De Palma’s career started in the 60s and has included such acclaimed and diverse films as Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way, and Mission: Impossible. In this lively, illuminating and unexpectedly moving documentary, directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow engage in a personal and candid discussion with De Palma, exploring not only his life and work but also his singular approach to the craft of filmmaking and his remarkable experiences navigating the film business, from his early days as the bad boy of New Hollywood to his more recent years as a respected veteran of the field. In the end, what emerges is a funny, honest, and incisive portrait of a truly one-of-a-kind artist, and an exhilarating behind-the-scenes look at the last 50 years of the film industry through the eyes of someone who has truly seen it all.
Q&A WITH DIRECTORS NOAH BAUMBACH & JAKE PALTROW
Q: What was your first experience with a Brian De Palma film?
NB: My first experience with Brian’s movies was hearing my parents talk about them. I remember them talking about Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Obsession and the link to Hitchcock which was fascinating to me then, because I was already a big Hitchcock fan. As a kid it was exciting just to hear about the movies, they sounded so shocking and full of sex. Body Double was the first of his movies I saw in a theatre. I remember going to see it in Park Slope – and running into my mother there. I wish I could go back and experience many of his films for the first time again.
JP: Body Double was my first. I have a strong memory of it because I had to lobby my parents to let me see it, as I wasn’t allowed to see R-rated movies then. I was a Hitchcock fanatic and I’d read it was inspired by Rear Window, so I was able to use that as an argument. I was also very into monster movies at the time and Rick Baker kind of creature effects– so Brian became a bridge for me between B-movies, special effects and cinema. In retrospect, I probably was too young for Body Double when I saw it. It sort of scarred me in a way – but maybe in a good way. It really stayed with me. It had such an odd quality and it felt so real and so visceral.
Q: Is there one film or an element of De Palma’s work you consider most influential?
NB: I find nearly all of his films so watchable, available and compelling in that same way Hitchcock’s films are. Even if you come into a De Palma film three-quarters of the way in on television you want to stay with it no matter what. I’ve watched parts of The Untouchables so many times that way. You know because it’s him, there’s always going to be some great concept for the sequence itself and an amazing idea for what the camera should be doing. I especially love that whole time period from Sisters to Body Double, all the thrillers.
JP: For me, the part of Brian that felt so influential is that were very few directors who took over my head and imagination to the extent that he did – to the point that I started to see the world through his way of seeing things. Brian is such a strong filter for what movies are in general for me. And I love how he creates these very visceral fantasies. It’s heightened, it’s impressionistic, and strange things are happening, but it’s happening in the world as we know it. It’s not Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut New York where you’re in a totally unreal environment. In a film like Carlito’s Way, it’s a New York that really exists, a New York that we know, and can navigate, but still feels storybook and dreamlike.
Q: De Palma has a lovely confessional manner in the film – it almost echoes the sharp, funny tone of a written memoir – and there’s a purity to it. Did that evolve out of your already established friendships with him?
NB: We always saw the film as a conversation with our friend … who also happens to be Brian De Palma. A lot of what works in the movie comes from a real intimacy amongst friends. It started because we’d had so many conversations like this at dinner that were so fascinating and so funny. We cover new territory in the film, stuff we never talked about at dinner, and the film is much more comprehensive than any single conversation. Anyone who does a lot of media interviews, as Brian has, develops a public persona where you’re always performing to some degree – but this was different, because it was really just the three of us having an open, honest conversation about making movies-only we filmed it. Jake and I had no agenda other than to let Brian tell his stories the way he wanted to tell them. We didn’t use notes; we just let it be a natural flow of conversation, though there were a few great stories we knew we wanted to hear again.
JP: We were always gratified by how unguarded Brian is when he talks with us. The stories he shares, the advice he gives, the experience and the clarity he brings were so valuable to us, that led us to realize anyone might get that same enjoyment from these conversations. And even selfishly, we really just wanted to document Brian’s stories for our own pleasure. As soon as he agreed to do the film, we put it together in a week or two. But only when we started shooting did we realize the film it was going to be. He’s so articulate and electric, and what he’s saying is so fascinating, and all those things instantly came together.
Q: And yet despite the intimacy you have with him, you chose not to include yourselves in the film – nor to interview the countless people who’ve worked with De Palma. What was behind those choices?
NB: Jake and I had the idea from the beginning to remove our own voices. I had in the back of my head a book that Lillian Ross wrote, The Player, which is a series of interviews with actors that don’t include the questions so it’s just the actor’s words. There is the feeling that Brian is talking directly to you as a viewer, yet he’s doing so with the comfort and shorthand you would only have when talking with a friend.
JP: I think we both felt: if you have Brian telling these stories, what more do you need? The big thing for us was that we really didn’t want to influence at all the tales he wanted to tell. This film is about his subjective experience as an artist and we were more interested in how he remembers the things that happened to him than how anyone else might remember it. It’s really a film about a director made by directors. If you’re a fan of someone’s work learning how others see him isn’t really necessary. The pure engine of the film is the process of how you make movies – how you get interested in doing it initially and how the process evolves.
Q: Some people may be waiting for De Palma to address the issues of violence and women that have long arisen around his films. There will always be analyses of his films as advancing certain sexual tropes or, alternately, of excavating the male gaze, but De Palma simply says he always did what was best for the storytelling. Did you have any temptation to probe that further?
NB: No, because we explicitly weren’t trying to get specific answers out of him about anything — except filmmaking. The film is not a work of investigative journalism. Our interest was to take Brian at his word –the film is structured to his words.
JP: There will always be people who enjoy psychoanalyzing Brian through his films … but the idea we wanted to pursue was to try to engage directly with Brian’s narrative and let people take away whatever they take away from that. We weren’t attempting to interpret his experiences.
Q: The film is also an amazing treasure trove of wall-to-wall film clips from several generations of filmmakers – many from De Palma’s extensive filmography of course but also spanning from Eisenstein to Scorsese. What was that selection process like?
JP: That was really the directing work of the movie for us: pulling the best sequences out from 30 or 40 hours of footage. It was totally intuitive – it really came down to what we thought would be most exciting, illuminating and entertaining. We wanted to present the clearest version of the person we were inspired by and fell in love with. We were really trying to share our personal experience of Brian.
Q: De Palma talks evocatively about Hitchcock having created a recognizable cinematic language that he has then employed in a variety of ways to tell other stories. It’s a wonderful revelation, but it also raises the question of whether those Hitchcock linguistics will ever be used again in this way. Do you think there will be someone who takes the torch from De Palma?
NB: I think Brian is right that he is the only person who really took up that mantle so specifically and completely.
JP: There are many other directors who have done things in a Hitchcockian vein, of course, and there are other directors who are interested in pure visual grammar, but I believe Brian is the only one to use Hitchcock’s language where it is at once inextricable, but at the same time a noticeable evolution of it, a dialect of its own if we’re speaking in these terms.
Q: In the film De Palma talks about the idea of having to “adjust to the system.” Is that part of any long-lived career in moviemaking?
NB: That’s another one of the narratives that we discovered as we were making the movie: the way that Brian demonstrates what it takes to have a long career in the movie business under any circumstances. He continued and thrived through times of enormous change-working independently and in the studio system.
JP: I think when he talks about “adjusting to the system” he’s mainly talking about how you make what you’re interested in and how you can do that with creative freedom. When Brian started studios supported that way of making movies for a time and then stopped. There were and are still ways of maintaining creative independence it’s just very different from when he started.
Q: What kind of working relationship did the two of you have together?
NB: Jake and I have been friends for a long time, and our families are close, so it felt quite natural to do this with him. During the interviews, if one of us would forget to ask something the other would always seem to remember. And since we each had different entrees into Brian’s movies, and we each brought our own personal connection to one movie or another, Jake would naturally take the lead in some areas and I would take the lead in others. When it came to cutting the film, it took us awhile because we both had other projects, but it was a highly pleasurable experience and we were in agreement about most everything.
JP: It’s really been fun and I’ve never worked with anybody else in this way. We’re very much on the same page about stuff and instead of it being more complicated, having the two of us seemed to expedite the process. It was a bit of an unknown when we went into it – having to balance two points-of-view and two energies but being friends and making a film that really emerged out of that friendship made it so nice. When you make a film alone, there’s a fatigue that can set in as well as second-guessing, so having someone else to do this with was really rewarding.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the movie?
NB: I don’t know that I have one single favorite moment, but there are many places where Brian says things about films and filmmaking that I haven’t heard said in that way before. There are many moments where he crystallizes what it feels like to be a moviemaker, what the concerns are, what the struggle is, and he says it in a way that is very Brian and goes straight to the heart of things.
For example, I like when he says: “People don’t understand that directors don’t plan their careers. We do the thing we can do at the time and start from scratch many times over.” There’s always a mythos as a director that you’re following some kind of conscious narrative, but that’s not the case. Movies are beasts that you have to get up and running and a thousand random events go into when and how they happen. Part of the joy of talking to Brian is getting to hear how someone succeeded – and failed – and succeeded again – during this specific time in American filmmaking covering the 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s.
JP: I find that his Carrie story sums up everything making movie is—how you see the film yourself, how you think it can be, how financiers think it should be and then how it really is. He tells that story with the best timing and so concisely it is blisteringly funny. And again, I think his talking about Hitchcock’s language is a really precious takeaway because I don’t think anyone’s touched on that before and you almost need Brian talking about it to understand that concept.
Q: How might the film be taken by someone who is young and maybe just discovering De Palma or never seen one of his films before?
NB: You don’t need to have seen any of Brian’s movies to enjoy this movie. The film is a profile of Brian, but it’s also about the art of filmmaking and the movie business at large. I think anyone with even a passing interest in movies would only find it fascinating. But how could you watch this movie and not want to go out and watch Brian’s movies? It would be amazing to see this movie as a kid and then rent all these movies for the first time.
JP: My hope is that those who don’t know De Palma will be struck how truly cool Brian is and how cool these movies are and how influential they are on the movies we are watching now. His movies are filled with basic patent elements of filmmaking. His movie making has been a linchpin certainly for me and for Noah and also I think for an enormous number of other filmmakers people love.
FILMS REFERENCED IN DE PALMA (Listed Alphabetically)
Barry Lyndon: directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1975
Battleship Potemkin: directed by Sergei Eisenstein, 1925
Blow Up: directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966
Les Bonnes Femmes: directed by Claude Chabrol, 1960
Breathless: directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1960
Les Chinoise: directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1967
Deliverance: directed by John Boorman, 1972
Don’t Look Now: directed by Nicolas Roeg, 1973
Fatal Attraction: directed by Adrian Lyne, 1987
The 400 Blows: directed by Francois Truffaut, 1959
The Hand: directed by Oliver Stone, 1981
Harry and the Hendersons: directed by William Dear, 1987
The Magnificent Ambersons: directed by Orson Welles, 1942
Mean Streets: directed by Martin Scorsese, 1973
North by Northwest, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1959
Prince of the City, directed by Sidney Lumet, 1981
Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1960
Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1954
Sexworld: directed by Anthony Spinelli, 1978
Star Wars: directed by George Lucas, 1977
Strangers on a Train, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1951
Sweet Smell of Success, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, 1957
Taxi Driver: directed by Martin Scorsese, 1976
Vertigo, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1958
Weekend, directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1967
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
Noah Baumbach (Director) was born and raised in Brooklyn. His films include Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg, Frances Ha, While We’re Young and Mistress America.
Jake Paltrow (Director) was born September 26th, 1975 in Los Angeles, California. His films are Young Ones and The Good Night. He has directed several television shows including Boardwalk Empire and Halt and Catch Fire.