Passion Project: Brian De Palma talks about Passion

With a group of eleven journalists, Trevor Hogg had an opportunity to have a chat with Brian De Palma about his latest cinematic offering Passion…

While promoting Passion (2013) at the Toronto International Film Festival, American writer-director Brian De Palma participated in a round table interview to discuss his latest cinematic effort.  “I thought the relationship between the women was terrific,” states De Palma when discussing the French thriller Crime d’amour (Love Crime, 2010) which stars Kristen Scott Thomas (The English Patient) as a ruthless marketing executive and Ludivine Sangier (The Swimming Pool) as her revenge seeking assistant; the two women have been replaced by Rachel McAdams (To the Wonder) and Noomi Rapace (Prometheus) in his English remake.  “The premise was quite good but when you’re the most obvious person for the murder and how do you wiggle your way out of that?  I didn’t think it was a great idea showing who murdered Christine [McAdams] because then you have another 40 minutes of ‘I know who did it.  Now I can explain it to the audience how she did it.’  I tried to avoid that so the audience is guessing who did it right until the end of the movie.   Because it was an older and younger woman there was an implied sexuality to it.  The girls played it a lot more broadly; they teased and manipulated each other.  There wasn’t a commercial.  I created the commercial out of something I saw on the Internet and used the whole idea of the phones all the way through the movie.”  The $30 million production required European monetary support.  “Half of the financing came out of Berlin.”  The German city also served as the principle location for the story.  “Originally, we were thinking of doing the movie in London and shooting on the stages in Berlin but after seeing a lot of Berlin I said, ‘Why don’t we do it in Berlin? It’s an international company.  It could be done in any of the big international cities.’”

“There were good characters in the original script that Alain Corneau and Natalie Carter had done,” states Brian De Palma.  “I started to do the cinematic constructions and story things that would make the thing more mysterious and interesting to the viewer.”  Rachel McAdams, Noomi Rapace and Karoline Herfurth (The Reader) fully embraced the roles they had to play.  “The girls were intense so I had to give them a lot of space to do what they had to do.  When you’re in a situation like that you try to be quiet and calm.  You let them play the scene and see what they do.  They had a definite idea of what they wanted to do and would try different variations of it.  A good director should sit back and watch what the actors are doing, try to help them if they need some help, get the camera in the right position to catch what they’re doing, and give them suggestions if you want to push the scene one way or another.  The girls were intense; they were almost like a tag team playing back and forth.  It was amazing to watch.”  De Palma purposely inserted a number of shots with both McAdams and Rapace within the frame interacting with each other.  “I tend to like not to intercut close-ups and over the shoulders.  I find it boring.  I see it on television all the time. Any idiot can shoot it.  You shoot this.  You shoot that.  And that’s the scene.  Normally I like the actors to play the scene out in a wide shot and if you look at movies in the 1940s and 1950s they do it all the time.  You say, ‘Why aren’t we still doing that? I want to see the whole actor’s body. I don’t want to see this head thing all the time. What about their whole body?’ It drives me crazy.”

When questioned about the use of the split screen at a key section in Passion, Brian De Palma answers, “It’s quite simple.  Noomi is at the ballet. I’ve got to show her at the ballet at the same time it seems that the murder is taking place at the house.  On one side of the screen you see the ballet and this close-up of Noomi.  You say, ‘Oh, she must be at the ballet and couldn’t have possibly been at the house.’  Meanwhile you see all of this stuff going on at the house.  When the point of view shots begin you don’t see anymore close-ups of Noomi because that close-up is revealed later in the movie as taking place when she is underneath the scaffolding.  The juxtaposition of the two images seals in the audience’s mind the fact that Noomi is at the ballet.”  To capture the disorientation of the protagonist in his picture, the veteran helmer adopted a camera shooting style associated with film noir.  “Isabelle [Rapace] takes a lot of drugs; she wanders around in a haze and doesn’t know exactly what is real, what did happen or what did not happen.  That’s when the noirish look takes place.  Isabelle is pretending; she is a murderess.  However, Isabelle is fooling everybody in the film as well as the audience.  She says, ‘I don’t know what happened.  I took so many pills. Help me.’  You’re supposed to empathize with her.”  De Palma adds, “I like film noir like anybody else; I like those shadows and blinds, and to have the chance to use them at a tilted angle.”

As for the origins of the Internet ad that triggers the lethal rivalry between the characters portrayed by Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, Brian De Palma reveals, “At one point I had this incredibly complicated commercial based on Inception [2010] with three dreams on top of each other, they finally get to the vault and there’s the phone.  It was elaborate and some of my director friends looked at this and said, ‘Come on!  Get rid of that Inception thing. Do something else.’  I said, ‘I love this Inception thing.’  I was looking on the Internet seeing what they were doing with phone commercials.  I stumbled across this thing which these two girls [created]. It’s almost exactly what they did.  They walked around L.A. with people looking and the commercial went viral.  We discovered later they were two advertising executives.”  In regards to the film score provided by frequent collaborator music composer Peno Donaggio, De Palma notes, “The cues are specific.  In the beginning it is go to work music. Then it is the erotic music.  Danni [Karoline Herfurth] is in love with her boss [Noomi Rapace] who won’t go out to dinner with her.   Danni is hurt as she looks out the window.  There is the lyrical sad music when Noomi gets humiliated.  It is a simple piano thing as she stumbles down the hallways, drops everything, and goes into the elevator and her car.  Then we have the dream music which is this strange obsessive odd stuff and we have the dream music in the end which is emotional and climatic.” Two men had previously worked together on Carrie (1976), Blow Out (1981), and Dress to Kill (1980).  “With Peno [Donaggio] I worked on temp tracks for each of the cues.  I changed them. As he composed something I said, ‘No. It’s not right.  Maybe I’m giving you the wrong direction.’  I’ll try something else until we came to something that seemed to work for the particular section of the film.  One of the most difficult things was Noomi’s breakdown because I used the opening of Contempt [1963]; there is nothing more beautiful than that.”

There was nothing thematic or archetypal about having a blonde, a brunette and a redhead on the big screen.  “Rachel came with her blonde hair,” recalls Brian De Palma.  “Noomi decided we should go with the black look for her because she creates everything in her brain and is not concerned with what’s around her. Rachel is the politician, the wheeler and dealer.  Noomi is constantly thinking and trying to get ideas.  Danni is the beloved assistant who is in love with her boss.  I saw Karoline [Herfurth] in Tom Tywker’s Perfume [2006]; she had this great red hair and I said, ‘Lets keep it red.’”  The American helmer kept in the mind the genre of the tale.  “This is a murder mystery.  The characters have certain aspects but they have to fit in to the architecture of the murder mystery.  In this movie everybody seems to be in love with Noomi, a very mysterious girl.”  Subsequent to screenings at the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals, eOne has acquired the North American distribution rights from SBS Productions for the 29th feature film by De Palma; audience members in the U.S. and Canada can expect an early 2013 release of Passion.

Many thanks to Brian De Palma for taking the time for this interview, and for more of his insights make sure to read I Was There.

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

  • Hansome

    Noomi Rapace is a fine actress. Must see this movie.