I Was There: A conversation with filmmaker Brian De Palma

While at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, Trevor Hogg was able to take part in a group chat with Brian De Palma who spoke about working within the Hollywood studio system, the video game industry, screenwriting, collaborating with music composers, the remake of Carrie and filmmaking during the 1970s…

“The studios offer you movies occasionally, you either want to do them or not,” states Brian De Palma during a Toronto International Film Festival round table interview with eleven journalists from Canada, America, Australia, United Kingdom, and Germany.  “I’ve always been able to work within the studio system.  If your budget gets big you have a lot more meetings which was true on Mission to Mars [2000] which was the most expensive movie I’ve ever made.  It was the early 1990s, around Bonfire [1990] when you started to get stacks of notes. Everybody would have notes for you.  That’s when I remember there was a lot more hands on in the studio system.  Normally you would have a few meetings and they would let you go off and make the movie.   You would have to deal with them in the previews stage.  In the day of the director, long and far gone, you could bowl your way through them like with Scarface [1983].   We had a preview in Texas.  There were walkouts and cards in which people said, ‘It’s the worse movie I ever seen.’  I basically said, ‘Sorry.  That’s it.  I’m not changing it.’  That was lucky in those days but it has gotten harder.  I don’t think the young directors have final cut the way we older directors do.  The studios would prefer to deal with a director who they can control and control the cut.  They don’t like working with directors of my generation because we’re stubborn, old and crotchety.”  De Palma has had a varied career from the horror of Carrie [1976] to the period crime drama of The Untouchables [1987] to the espionage of Mission: Impossible [1996].  “I’ve made independent films for nothing and big science fiction epics. They don’t cast directors like that. It’s who has the big box office hit and can we put it together?   The agents and the studio heads have lunch; they put these things together.  People are not hired because of their experience and talent usually.”

When asked about situations where filmmakers have been told by the studios to convert their movies to 3D, Brian De Palma replies, “That’s a sad position to be in as a director because you shouldn’t do it.  3D is a specific technique like split screen, split diopters, long steady cam shots, and montages. It needs a specific use. To throw it in in order to charge five or six dollars more for the glasses is a mistake and you’re going to finally say, ‘I’m not going anymore because this has nothing to do with 3D.’”  The native of Newark, New Jersey notes, “I’m aware of new technology and now we’re carrying around a video camera all the time.  Pretty soon you’re going to be walking around, ‘What happened to me yesterday?  I’ll play it back on my glasses.’  The problem with that to some extent is people are doing this instead of living life which I’ve observed all the time.  You see in a restaurant you see a man having dinner with an attractive lady. ‘What’s happening here?’  You can’t seem to be unattached to the Internet.  Don’t you want to see what is in front of you, the sky outside, the trees, weather and the ambience in the room?”  De Palma is in tune with video game industry.  “I know a lot about it.  The developments in video games are fascinating to me being an ex-computer builder. It’s too much to do.  They need help God knows; their storylines are all derivative of all the other B genres.  The dialogue is pedestrian. Fortunately, they are now beginning to use some actors so the lines read a lot better.  It’s going to evolve because the graphics are going to get better and they’re going to look more like movies. When they start evoking a few emotions instead of running around shooting people that’s going to be a big step and it’s going to happen.”  A career change is not going to happen anytime soon.  “It’s a huge job.  Believe me I lived in Silicone Valley for two years and met a lot of people in that area; just the thought of what you would have to do to make it good makes my head spin.”

“I try to construct things along a certain dramatic thing going from one thing to another, states Brian De Palma when describing how being a screenwriter has influenced him as a director and vice versa.  “I can see the whole film in my head, unlike some director-writers who start with characters and move from that. I would say somebody like Paul Thomas Anderson [The Master] is character oriented in the way he creates his movies; so is Noah Baumbach [The Squid and the Whale] who is dependent upon it.  I like these movies because they’re different from the way I would approach something.  That’s why I’m happy to work with somebody else’s script because they have created the characters and I can start working on all of the cinematic things.”  Music plays a critical role in the storytelling.   “Different composers work differently.  Don’t give Bernard Herrmann any temp tracks, he’ll kill you.  I gave him a temp track of his own music and he nearly murdered me.  He was furious and screamed at me.  ‘Get rid of that horrid stuff.  Stop! Stop! I can’t hear that!’  It was Vertigo [1958] I was playing for him.  I used Johnny Williams in The Fury [1978]; he did a fantastic score.  It was one of my favourite movies.  It is hard to remember how I worked with Johnny but he is in the Herrmann’s school. Some composers like you to temp tracks in so they have an idea musically what you want.  Other composers like [Ennio] Morricone you have to describe classical pieces and that gives them ideas.”

One project on hold for Brian De Palma is the cinematic adaptation of Toyer, a novel and stage play by Gardner McKay about a lunatic who psychologically toys with his beautiful female victims and puts them into a medical induced coma.  “It was bought by a guy who went out of business so I don’t think we’re going to see that one.”  With his latest effort Passion, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, being a remake of the French thriller Crime d’amour (Love Crime, 2010), De Palma has no problem with Carrie being remade by Kimberly Peirce.  “I know Kimberly quite well; I met her in Paris about 12 years ago.  Kimberly used to live in New York so we used to go to the theatre together; I tried to encourage her to go back to work after the success of Boys Don’t Cry [1999] and it took her about five or seven years to make another movie which is that second novel problem. ‘You should go back to work because I’m telling you after a big success you can bet that your next movie is not going to be as successful.’ Kimberly finally went back to work and got something on developing a whole ton of stuff that didn’t work out and she did Stop-Loss [2008] which was quite good.  Kimberly emailed me about six months ago about this Carrie thing and we got together on Skype; we had a couple of conversations about why did I do the script this way? How the script was developing the way she was doing it.  We talked about casting a little bit and I wished her the best of luck.  Kimberly is a talented director and I’m sure it’s going to be an interesting film.”

No conversation with Brian De Palma would be complete without a discussion about filmmaking during the 1970s who casts a critical eye towards Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood by Peter Biskind.  “The first thing you discover and this is probably true of a lot of biographies is, ‘Who talks to the biographer?  Is it the bitter ex-wife, the unhappy girlfriend or the partner who got screwed out of a deal?  They do a lot of talking.  The people who like and respect the filmmakers they don’t talk at all like me.  That’s why you see me very little in this book. I would know all of those situations. I was there in the 1970s. I saw it all.  I could see this was taking a gossipy, drugs, girls, rock ’n’ roll, and I shied away from it immediately.”  As for his perspective of what it was like, De Palma remarks, “We worked hard trying to get into the studio system. We helped each other. We helped with scripts and casting. [Paul] Schrader came to me with Taxi Driver [1976]. I read it.  I gave it to Marty.  I introduced Marty [Scorsese] to Bobby [De Niro].  I helped Marty with Mean Streets [1973].  We were all living in the same area. I got an email from Steven [Spielberg] the other day.  I met Steven because my girlfriend at the time Margo Kidder [Superman] knew him from the lot at Universal.  The first time I met Steve we were going to homosexual baths in Manhattan scouting locations for Cruising [1980] which I reminded him of and we started to laugh.”

Many thanks for Brian De Palma for taking the time for this interview and to learn about his latest cinematic effort make sure to read Passion Project.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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