Brian De Palma Maybe Has Peaked, And He Knows It

I could hardly believe how easy director Brian De Palma was to talk to when I spoke to him in advance of the release of his 29th feature film, Passion (out on VOD August 1 and in select theaters August 30). He was generous with his time and refeshing with his candor. He was relaxed, open to critique, and surprisingly humble for someone who's directed bonafide classics (Carrie, The Untouchables and Scarface) and cult favorites (Body Double, Dressed To Kill, Femme Fatale), alike. He was willing to discuss subjects that might make other directors bristle—the possibility of unintentional comedy in his work, or the idea that his films are "camp." He even came come close to admitting that at 72, he's most likely peaked as a director.

Passion is his first film since 2007's multimedia montage about the Iraq war, Redacted, and something of a return to form. Taking as his subject a power struggle between advertising agency boss Christine (Rachel McAdams) and her initially mousey protege Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), De Palma returns to his favorite themes: erotic obsession, betrayal, murder, and woman-on-woman cruelty. It's highly stylized and melodramatic, equally delicious and ridiculous.

I talked to De Palma by phone earlier this month. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

RJ: Passion is a remake of Alain Corneau's 2010 movie Crime d'amour. Did you find it difficult to put your spin on preexisting material?

BDP: No, because I like the manipulative relationship between the two women, but I wasn't too happy with the way that the mystery was done in the Corneau movie—they revealed the murderer right in the middle of the movie. And the rest of the movie is basically showing how all these phony clues with a lot of flashbacks, and you know flashbacks can really slow things up. I thought it was better to keep the audience guessing right until the end.

Would you say that it's fair to call this a return to form? It feels a lot like your '80s movies specifically.

Yeah, because it’s kind of an erotic thriller. And [there’s longtime collaborator Pino Donaggio’s] music and these long silent sequences, very much like my movies of the '80s.

Where do you draw the line between cultivating style and repeating yourself?

Oh, I don't think we're aware of that basically. “Oh it's been done,” “Oh this is very similar to Dressed to Kill or Body Double, or whatever.” That's because it's me! They don't really criticize Picasso or Gauguin or van Gogh whose paintings are very distinctive. Some people paint the same thing over and over again.

In some reviews, the word “camp” has been used to describe Passion. I read a really old interview with you, in which Variety's review of Carrie was brought up and that word was also used and you kind of bristled at it. Have your thoughts on this word changed?

I've been through this for so many years, it's hard for me to really pay much attention to it. I have my followers and then I have my detractors. You know, because I have a kind of very distinctive style and a very, cinematic way of approaching things, some people like it and some people don't. And there is not much to convince one side to come over to the other. Sometimes I find that perceptions… we've heard them all before. It sounds like they’re quoting some boiler-plate Brian De Palma, just put you to sleep.

The antagonistic dynamic between women in Passion is something you've long explored on screen. It's interesting that this movie comes at a time when that dynamic is so prevalent on television, specifically on reality TV. What’s the difference between your interest in the topic and what we see on trashy TV?

Women trashing each other reality TV is not something I'm too familiar with, but maybe [Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace] are because they really worked it.

They certainly did. There’s a distinct an element of fun in this movie.

Oh yeah! Absolutely. Demonic fun.

No matter how gruesome or serious your movies are, there is usually that element. That’s intentional, right?

It's the famous De Palma cackle I've been reading about for decades.

What do you think about people laughing at unintentionally funny elements of your work? Is that insulting to you as a director?

Well, you can go over the top. You can push something too far. I do very stylized stuff and sometimes it goes too far. In Body Double when, he's embracing her and I'm doing this delirious 360 degree tracking shot around her as they're kissing, the audience started to laugh. It was just too much. I was pushing it too hard.

Do you regret doing that?

You know, Body Double is the kind of movie that people always talked to me about. It got massacred by the critics when it came out, but I can't tell you how many people come up to me to this day and talk to me about Body Double. So who knows… times change.

I think part of appreciating De Palma is appreciating your willingness to go over the top, or to push it almost to the edge where it might over the top.

You're usually criticized against the fashion of the day. But the fashion of the day changes. And works that live on somehow transcend the fashion of the day. A movie that was so attacked, I don't know why everybody remembers it so well.

In Passion, the dynamic between Christine and Isabel is erotic. I've heard people make this claim that men are unable to write about female intimacy without conjuring sex or pushing it into that realm. I wonder what you think of that critique.

I think that's kinda nutty. I'm very, very comfortable in groups of women. I went to a graduate school at Sarah Lawrence when there was nothing but women, so I'm used to being in classes with women, I'm used to being around the lunch table with women. I'm used to groups of women and the way that they kind of play with each other. So it's something I'm very comfortable with, and I find kind of fun and original.

Do you have a preference for exploring female dynamics and female characters versus men?

Yeah, I like to photograph women, I like to work with women. I like to hang out with women. I like the way they look. I like to dress them up. I like to dress them down. I think Godard or somebody said, “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,” and, you know, he's sort of right. Somebody else said the history of movies is men photographing women, which is very true I think. [Laughing]

What do you like about hanging out with women?

I like the way they think and the way that they interact with each other. They're very playful. And have great senses of humor. It's always been that way with women.

When you survey your career, how have you experienced the film industry’s changes?

With the advent of video and the fact that you can make movies for practically nothing now, I think that's a big change. In my day, you had to raise thousands or hundred thousands dollars to do a feature, and that's not the case today. Now you can make it for nothing, the case is you gotta get people to see it: Submit it to a lot of film festivals, and if your movie is really good… It gives you a tremendous amount of freedom, and there are no more excuses about money. In order to make a movie today, you basically need a good script, the ability to cast it correctly, and then you go out and shoot it and show what you can do, it's very much like writing a novel. But if you can't do that, you're not going to fare very well.

Is that galvanizing to you? Do you think that your productivity, your actual output will increase? Or do you think it will be another five years before another De Palma movie?

No, no, no, I don't think it's going to be another five years, but as I go into my sixth decade of making movies, you sort of just want to make the kind of movie that really appeals to you. When I look over the years at how many movies I made from decade to decade, you know, in your thirties, your forties, your fifties you turn out a lot of stuff, then it sort of settles down. And that's fine.

There is a widely held belief that artists peak at some point. Do you ever think about that?

I agree with that. I think Tarantino said something like that too, I think that it's true. And I'm a great student of directors over the many years. I've read all the books and watched their work, and I think you made your best movies in your thirties, your forties, your fifties. And if you do anything good after that, God bless you.

So, for the record, you're saying that you peaked?

Could be. Could be. When you're got movies like Carrie and Untouchables and Scarface out there, I don't know.

That's awfully humble for somebody who spends his days directing people.

Well, it's just a reality. Making a really great movie is a kind of convergence of a whole bunch of things that happen at a certain time in your life. And it doesn't happen a lot.

Do you like Passion?

I do like it, I like it a lot.

Are you actively working on your next project?

Yes, I'm working on a Joe Paterno movie with Al Pacino.

How is it going?

It's going good—we have a very good script. And now we're in the process of budgeting.

What is it like to reunite with Pacino?

Two, old warriors going up the mountain one more time.

What's your favorite movie of yours?

Oh come on, that's the question nobody can answer because it's like, "Which child did you like the best?"

Does it ever change? Do your preferences sort of bubble to the top, or do you just never go there at all?

It's interesting, I was listening to an interview with Oliver Stone recently at Karlovy Vary, a festival somewhere in the Czech Republic. They showed Scarface and he was reflecting on not seeing it for many years and he had the same reflection that I did: He was amazed by the performances in Scarface. When they showed it at the 30th anniversary—who remembers, whatever anniversary it was—I hadn't looked at it in a movie theater in a long time, I thought, “These actors are just unbelievable.” And as you've seen [your movies] through your life you have different feelings about them.

Are you happy?

Yeah.

Happier now than ever?

I'm really quite happy. I have two delightful daughters, one is at college, the other is in high school. I'm working on stuff, but I quite enjoy life.

Does it get harder as you get older to keep the pace?

Well you shouldn't try to keep up the pace. It's like an old prizefighter. You know, it's—I don't want to say a young man's trade, but middle-aged man's trade, somewhere between that and young. And you should enjoy what you've done, be proud of the work that's worked out and has a life.

It must feel really satisfying to look back on six decades and have so much to show for your time.

Yeah, I mean, you know, I was at a party the other day and some people were saying, “Approaching 60 [years in the industry] are you happy with what you've done?” I said, “Yeah! Absolutely!”

[Image via Getty]