Brian De Palma: The Strawberry Ice Cream of Filmmakers
Beautiful women, classical composition, a dreamlike quality, and classy locations…that’s how you can describe much of the work of Brian De Palma. And those are certainly some of the descriptions his latest film, Passion, have been receiving ever since its Venice premiere; in usual De Palma fashion, the reaction to his remake has been split. To the director himself, that may not be such a bad thing. Whether you come out loving or hating Passion, at least you’ll still know it’s a De Palma picture.
The director was kind enough to make time to speak with us before Passion’s New York Film Festival premiere, in which we discussed his style, dealing with ranting and raving, and why beautiful women need film:
After the premiere at Venice, a lot of critics were calling the film very much a “De Palma picture.” What do you think people mean by that, and do you take that as a compliment?
I think that’s a good thing. When a director’s style is so evident in his work that you immediately identify it after he’s made so many movies…it’s like a certain type of ice cream: you go, “Yeah, strawberry, my favorite!” Or, you know, “Strawberry, I hate it!” Either way, you know it’s strawberry.
[Laughs] That’s a good way of looking at it. What do you associate with what a Brian De Palma movie means?
I have certain types of subject matter, a certain visual style, and I do certain techniques and grammar that have evolved over decades. It’s very much me.
How do you think it’s evolved? Do you ever look back at your work to see how it ties together or changed over the years?
Yeah. Obviously, you do certain things. I have a rather large paint box full of certain plots and montage elements I like to use. It’s like John Ford’s landscapes. There are certain things you say, “Well, let’s have them run through there again.” It’s the same picture I’m very comfortable with, and that keeps repeating in your work.
You still look for challenges within that style, right?
I think my career has met every challenge imaginable. [Laughs] I’ve tried every form that’s out there except the western. I love the landscapes of the western.
Haver you ever been interested in doing a western?
I’d do one, absolutely.
A theme in some of your work is characters feeling trapped, even in something like Snake Eyes. For Passion, you use that barred-in widow shades effect, so do you think it fits that theme?
We don’t really think about it like that. We sort of address the aesthetic problems of the piece. For Snake Eyes, the whole idea was you never leave the casino, which is the same idea that a casino never wants you to leave. For other films, the landscapes are very important. I think about them all the time, because I’m very scrupulous in finding visuals that illustrate and magnify the themes in the film. The world the girls live in is a very important location.
Obviously a lot of those visuals come from your dreams. What dreams did you use for Passion?
I myself get a lot of ideas from my dreams. I wake up many times during the night thinking about certain aesthetic problems, which sort of figure themselves out in my dream. For this movie, I got the idea of the phone commercial in a dream. With this I was always thinking, “How am I going to end it?” I decided to go with this whole extended dream sequence.
The last time you made a thriller you deconstructed the genre with Femme Fetale. For this, did you want to do the same or make a straight thriller?
The problem with this is it’s a police procedural in many ways. I felt what was effective about the original movie was the first scene revealed who did it. After that, then it’s seeing how all these phony clues were set up, which I didn’t find all that interesting. Actually, I looked at 10 years of CSI, to see how exactly they use clues to solve cases. I said, “My God, this has been done to death 1,000 different ways.” You can’t do a police procedural in a movie anymore. Television has already done it 27 different ways. I had to come up with a way to make the confession seem absolutely real, but then get into the surreal world.
I haven’t done any police procedurals, because it’s usually people talking to the accused at a table holding up evidence. Besides having to shoot that, I have to find a way to make this interesting. Also, having to simplify the clues. In the original movie, she left four clues, four things that had to be deconstructed. I just got it down to the bloody scarf, to make it as simple as possible.
I love one quote of yours for Passion about the drawer filled with S&M items. At one point you told your production designer, “That may be a little too much.” I think a lot of people would find that ironic coming from you. [Laughs]
[Laughs] I know! The stuff she put in there were the darndest things I’ve never seen before. I think I said, “Some of these have to go away. Take that, that, and that out.” Still, it’s pretty bizarre, at least bizarre enough for me.
When you approach a scene like that, or violence, do you ever think about how an audience would respond?
You don’t really think about that. You think about what seems right for the scene when you’re doing it. Then, of course, you get a reaction from the audiences and the critics. You know, with the chainsaw in Scarface and the journal in Body Double, where they go, “Oh, my God!” There’s a lot of ranting and raving.
Do you ever enjoy seeing that ranting and raving?
No, because you usually get a lot of heated responses and people screaming at you. It’s not very pleasant to live through. You say to yourself, “Well, this is the time when you got to live through the reaction, for the first time.” Then, you know, history has been correct. They’ll either be reveered in decades to come or respected after the fact.
But don’t you find that satisfying on some level, getting reactions either way, with very little shrugging?
I don’t think too many people have shrugged through my movies. [Laughs] It’s very polarizing, with people saying it’s fantastic or that it sucks. It’s, more or less, been like that through my career.
Especially when you’re doing something different. Like, some of the people who loathed Redacted didn’t acknowledge that it was trying something different.
Yeah. To me, it seemed innovative. A lot of people kept on talking about the actors over-acting, that they were unrealistic. I would say, “Have you ever seen videos posted on YouTube?” What are you talking about? [Laughs] It’s, like, please! The commercial in Passion that I do is based on an actual commercial.
I believe your original idea for that was a riff on Inception.
Yeah, it was. It was a very complicated three-dream level Inception.
That’s interesting, since you’re known for classical influences. How often do you find yourself inspired by modern films?
Well, I’m inspired by anything that touches my imagination, which is why I think I’m the only living director who actually goes to film festivals to see the movies. I’m looking at stuff all the time. I go see the movies that rarely get into this country. I’m interested in what everyone else is doing. When I see what I consider an interesting idea, it’s, like, “Wow!”
What do you usually look for in those festival films?
The great thing about the film festivals in Montreal and Toronto is the ability to move in and out of the theater if you’re seeing things that don’t interest you. I only had a few days to look at films in Toronto, but, I don’t know, I looked at seven films in one afternoon. If I see nothing there that catches my eye, I’ll just move on to the next movie. I’m going to the movie that nobody usually attends. I don’t go to the big tickets, because I can see those in New York. I want to see the ones which are really strange and only have ten people in the theater. I go completely by chance, since I don’t read extensive reviews or introductions. I usually just go, “This sounds sort of interesting.”
You’ve mentioned being a big admirer of his, so I have to ask, did you get a chance to see The Master in Toronto?
No, I didn’t, unfortunately. I’m an admirer of Paul [Thomas Anderson]’s, obviously. I thought Magnolia was fantastic. I’m the one who understands the films completely.
[Laughs] There’s already been a lot of debate over what The Master means as well.
Well, when you’re pushing the envelope, that’s what’s going to happen.
You shot Passion on film, which is always surprising now. Why didn’t you go with digital?
The reason we shot on film is…I mean, it has a lot of beautiful women. On film you can light them beautifully. I’m sure that’ll change. Digital doesn’t lend itself to the class of beautiful lighting. I chose the cinematographer specifically because he knows how to light women. I like beautiful women, dressing them, and making them look as beautiful as they can.