Movie News & Reviews

Saw ‘Scarface’? ‘Carrie’? Meet the man who directed them

Brian De Palma and Al Pacino on the set of ‘Scarface.’
Brian De Palma and Al Pacino on the set of ‘Scarface.’ A24 FILMS

The way Jake Paltrow describes them, the films of Brian De Palma were a gateway drug, the entry point in his transformation from movie fan to serious cinephile.

“I was really into low-budget horror movies when I was young,” he says. “Then I started discovering De Palma’s stuff. You could describe a lot of his earlier movies as horror — Body Double, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, The Fury — but there was a lot more than that to them. He was using some of the techniques of horror films in the service of an extremely personal kind of filmmaking. His movies communicate on a lot of different levels, and they’re all sophisticated in their own way. They are not simple films. They just happened to merge nicely with the genre. Watching them, I was learning so much about film language without realizing it.”

When Paltrow grew up, he became a filmmaker (he made the comedy-drama The Good Night, with Penélope Cruz and his sister Gwyneth, and the sci-fi adventure Young Ones, with Nicholas Hoult and Michael Shannon). In the documentary De Palma, which opens Friday at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, Paltrow and his co-director Noah Baumbach (Mistress America, Frances Ha) pay homage to the man who helped inspire their own art by putting him in front of a camera and letting him talk about all his movies in chronological order.

De Palma runs through the 76-year-old filmmaker’s entire canon, starting with his 1968 debut Murder à la Mod, the thriller he directed at the age of 27, under the influence of the French New Wave; his Hollywood breakthrough hit Carrie, a box office hit that earned two Oscar nominations and introduced the last-minute jump-scare that became a staple of horror pictures; the gangster saga Scarface, which boasts one of Al Pacino’s most iconic screen performances (second only to The Godfather); the enormous flop The Bonfire of the Vanities, his ill-conceived adaptation of the Tom Wolfe bestseller; and his most recent film, Passion, starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace as warring corporate vamps.

The film is stuffed with small revelations that hardcore De Palma fans — and they are legion — will savor: his favorite of all his movies (Carlito’s Way); the reason he loves using long, elaborate takes (“You can document the emotion happening on screen in real time”); his biggest disappointment (the box office failure of Casualties of War); the reason he quit Hollywood after spending a year making the $100 million Mission to Mars (the drudgery of supervising special effects wore him down).

Although De Palma has never been press-shy, the movie reveals a facet of his personality that was present mostly in his films, not in his interviews: a sharp, cutting sense of humor. There’s an uncommon sense of intimacy hearing him talk about how about Cliff Robertson tried to sabotage the thriller Obsession because he was jealous of his co-star Genevieve Bujold, or how he couldn’t get Robert De Niro to remember his lines on the set of The Untouchables. You don’t feel like you’re watching an interview. You feel like you’re having a conversation with De Palma, one on one.

Baumbach and Paltrow, who were friends of De Palma before they ever met each other, say that was one of the motivations for making the film: to convey a sense of the man they knew as a friend first, a famous filmmaker second.

“We all live four blocks away from each other [in New York City],” Baumbach says. “We wanted to make a film that would not only be an archive of Brian talking about all his movies but also a document of an aspect of our friendship. We wanted to see if we could capture on camera a condensed, organized version of the kinds of conversations we were always having at dinner. We have a privileged relationship with him, so this was a way to share that with everyone else.”

De Palma was shot over a period of several days in 2010 in Paltrow’s apartment. The director was an eager participant in the recounting of his life and career, from his childhood and college days to his present status as Hollywood exile (in the documentary, De Palma repeatedly makes the point that he could never make a movie within the current studio system).

Although Paltrow and Baumbach say they were originally worried De Palma would turn them down, “he agreed right away and was completely involved,” Baumbach says. “He showed up every day in the same outfit, and he knew what was required. He was really comfortable in front of the camera, because we were having versions of conversations about movies we would have had anyway. All three of us were all aware this had to be coherent — the movie had to tell a story — and Brian understood that intuitively. He was able to tell these stories in clear, articulate ways. We never went back and reshot anything. When he tells that funny story about [the battle he had with United Artists over the budget of] Carrie, that was all done in one take. His timing is perfect.”

Baumbach says he cut his own voice asking De Palma questions out of the film, to avoid distracting the viewer. The documentary uses copious footage from De Palma’s movies (including the little-seen original ending of Snake Eyes) as well as behind-the-scenes photos (such as Steven Spielberg visiting the set of Scarface) and snippets of De Palma’s formative influences — most notably, of course, Alfred Hitchcock.

Although De Palma spends more time on some of his movies than others (The Black Dahlia and Passion, for example, get brief mentions), Paltrow says the documentary needed to include all of his films, even the shorts he made as a college student.

“We wanted to do everything,” Paltrow says. “This film wasn’t an act of journalism: We were there to chronicle Brian’s entire career. It’s not just about the highs. Organizationally, it gave us a clean way to conduct the interviews, because we knew where we were going from moment to moment. If you do it chronologically, you don’t forget anything. And the shared space between directors is their movies. Your common language are these things you’ve made. So getting into it that way made the most sense.”

De Palma’s career has been analyzed in so many books and articles, there would seem to be little left about his work for a documentary to uncover. But the movie is stuffed with amusing anecdotes and bits of trivia, such as what, exactly, Sean Penn whispered into Michael J. Fox’s ear in their last scene together in Casualties of War. And even Paltrow and Baumbach, who know De Palma so well, learned things about his films they didn’t know before, such as the fact that the famous 360-degree shot in Blow Out was intended to mirror the spinning reel of John Travolta’s tape recorder.

The biggest revelation to them was De Palma’s explanation of his Hitchcock influences. Many of his critics have often blasted him for being derivative, but the director explains in De Palma that Hitchcock created a unique language for cinema — a way of telling a story visually that had never been done before — and that he hasn’t been copying Hitchcock as much as he has been expanding on his foundation.

“That was something Noah and I only really understood at the end of making this movie, what he said about Hitchcock being a language and how he’s a practitioner of it and speaks it,” Paltrow says. “It’s not about appropriation. And he’s done it consistently throughout his career. It’s not about making a one-off Hitchcockian thriller or even about genre. It’s about telling a story visually first. That’s very specific to Hitchcock and, in some ways, almost invented by him. But Brian really is the person who has done that the most since then.”

Rene Rodriguez: 305-376-3611, @ReneMiamiHerald

If You Go

In celebration of the release of the documentary ‘De Palma,’ which opens Friday, the Miami Beach Cinematheque, 1130 Washington Ave., will host a month-long retrospective series of Brian De Palma’s earlier films. Tickets for each show are $11 ($10 students/seniors, free for Cinematheque members). Each screening will be introduced by a local film critic. For more information, visit www.mbcinema.com or call 305-673-4567.

▪  ‘Sisters’ (1973), an ingenious twist on Rear Window, about a journalist who witnesses a murder through an apartment window, starring Margot Kidder; 8:50 p.m. June 30, introduced by Dim the House Lights /Miami New Times critic Juan Barquin.

▪  ‘Carrie’ (1976), an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a teenage girl with telekinetic powers, starring Sissy Spacek; 8:50 p.m. July 7, introduced by Miami Herald critic Rene Rodriguez.

▪  ‘Obsession’ (1976), a twist-filled riff on ‘Vertigo,’ starring Cliff Robertson and Genevieve Bujold, based on a screenplay by Paul Schrader; 8:50 p.m. July 14, introduced by Indie Ethos critic Hans Morgenstern.

▪  ‘Dressed to Kill’ (1980), the story of a psychiatrist (Michael Caine), his patient (Angie Dickinson) and a razor-wielding maniac; 8:50 p.m. July 21, introduced by Miami Art Zine critic Ruben Rosario.

▪  ‘The Fury’ (1978), a thriller about two teenagers gifted with psychic abilities; 8:50 p.m. July 28, introduced by Humanizing the Vacuum critic Alfred Soto.

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