Legendary filmmaker Brian De Palma is a terrific raconteur, and in Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s “De Palma,” he tells some juicy stories about actors and the making of many of his some three dozen movies in a career spanning half a century.
De Palma is funny, flamboyant and egotistical, as well as self-effacing and wistful about opportunities lost and the fact that his best films are probably behind him. He notes that the films people talk most about are the ones a filmmaker makes when he is in his 30s, 40s and 50s, notwithstanding “The Birds.”
Featuring an enthusiastic film-by-film account of his many hits (“Carrie” and “Mission: Impossible, among them) and misfires (“Mission to Mars” and “Passion”) he provides some fascinating behind the scenes tidbits:
In “Dressed to Kill,” the man in drag who slashes Angie Dickinson’s throat in the elevator is Michael Caine’s stunt double. They didn’t want to waste the great actor’s time. The only problem is the stunt double looks nothing like Michael Caine.
Robert De Niro wore silk underwear when he played Al Capone in “The Untouchables” (1987) because the gangster wore them in real life. De Niro also had a hard time remembering his lines. Fifteen years earlier in “Get to Know Your Rabbit,” Orson Wells couldn’t remember his lines, and co-star Tommy Smothers didn’t like a lot of De Palma’s ideas.
In “Obsession,” Cliff Robertson was a horror to work, and when he realized Geneviève Bujold was running away with the film, he tried to sabotage her in key scenes they were together.
In “Casualties of War” (1989), Sean Penn whispered “television actor” into Michael J. Fox’s ear to get him riled up.
On a personal note, De Palma’s father was an orthopedic surgeon, and he often watched his father perform operations, so he was used to the sight of lots of blood.
When his father cheated on his mother, De Palma followed him and confronted him, to his father’s astonishment. This may have fueled the director’s compulsion for creating scenes in films where people are being followed.
De Palma’s major influence is Alfred Hitchcock. As a kid he saw “Vertigo” at Radio City Music Hall and said it made a lasting impression. He brags that other filmmakers claim Hitchcock’s work inspires them, but he is the only filmmaker to actually “follow his form.” Like Hitchcock, he makes use of split screens and long tracking shots. Films like “Body Double,” “Carrie” and “Scarface,” for better or for worse, are defined by his love for over-the-top baroque situations, so you almost always know when you are watching a Brian De Palma movie.
De Palma’s been accused of misogyny in portraying violence against women. And then there’s his fetish with stilettos and corsets. He’s unapologetic and loves beautiful women and putting them in peril, because he says that’s what you do in suspense movies.
Following a New York Film Festival press screening of “De Palma” last week, Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach took part in a Q&A moderated by Film Comment contributing editor Amy Taubin.
Paltrow (his mother is Blythe Danner) said the genesis of the film was a series of conversations and dinners with the filmmaker for more than a decade. They came up with the idea of turning this into a film five years ago, which would be a version of their discussions with De Palma. “The interviews themselves were kind of an extension of our friendship,” said Paltrow.
Baumbach said, “We wanted to talk about filmmaking and the process, and it wasn’t a gossipy conversation. It wasn’t like we were going to go into areas that might have been uncomfortable for him. We really kind of would let him guide, knowing that we were going in order (of his films) but we would let him kind of lead the way.”
Even though friends with De Palma for more than a decade and regularly regaled by his stories, Baumbach and Paltrow claimed to be surprised by how charismatic he was. “I think the thing we were both struck by was just how electric he was on camera. How good he was at telling these stories, how he told them in exactly the same way on camera as he would at dinner and so articulate and direct and sort of made for cinema,” said Paltrow. “He’s really good.”
The filmmakers noted that De Palma’s story is also the story of the film industry and that it was baked into De Palma’s experience. “The fact that he also has worked in every possible way, he’s worked independently, he’s worked on huge studio movies. He’s done very personal movies within the studio system. He’s come onto movies after another director left. He’s really done so many versions of what can happen professionally in Hollywood,” said Baumbach. “When we were putting it together, there were these other storylines going on that were very interesting and existing side by side with just the very matter-of-factness of Brian telling us about his career.”
As to how De Palma influenced his own career, the “Frances Ha,” director cracked, “Isn’t it obvious?”
Before he ever saw any of De Palma’s film, Baumbach said he remembered hearing about them from his parents, who loved the director’s films.
“There’s something about even the way you talk about a Brian De Palma movie that is kind of shocking and alluring and interesting, so by the time I was old enough to start seeing them, which was in the 80’s – I think ‘Body Double’ was the first one I saw in a theater of that kind – I felt like I was going to be let in on some kind of secret. It felt like the adult world in some kind of peculiar way or some dark version of the adult world, and that experience of discovering his movies had a big impact on me and represented what movies were awaiting me as I got older, and then once you start seeing them, they kind of go in your head and they don’t come out.”
I agree with Amy Taubin, who said at the conclusion of the screening and Q&A, “Oh, this movie makes me want to go back and look at every Brian De Palma movie.”
“De Palma” will screen Wednesday, September 30 at 6 p.m. at Alice Tully Hall.