Interview: Brian De Palma
The oft-repeated assessment that Passion is Brian De Palma’s “return to form” comes right on schedule. Similar claims have been made every 10 years since 1992, when he released the borderline-parodic erotic thriller Raising Cain, and again in 2002 with his Parisian tour de force Femme Fatale. It can be argued that De Palma has been exercising an eternal return to form since 1976, when he first broke into the mainstream with Carrie using the split-screen technique he explored in Dionysus in 69 (70).
For some, De Palma’s familiar flourishes of style are his saving grace, a satisfying constant that irons out the bumps in what many consider an uneven career. After so many years of reappraisal, a consensus no longer exists over which of his films are hits and misses. Now that the peanut gallery has quieted down: the long take that opens The Bonfire of the Vanities (90) is worth another look, Body Double’s misogyny appears tongue in cheek, Mission to Mars (00) is a touching ode to idealism, Snake Eyes (98) a flashy morality play, Femme Fatale (02) is his unsung masterpiece, and let’s not forget about that three-hour cut of The Black Dahlia (06) which supposedly exists.
After more than 50 years of filmmaking and on the cusp of his 73rd birthday in September, De Palma forges on, insisting that he is immune to criticism. With Passion, his remake of Alain Corneau’s final film, Love Crime, he has made a sleekly shot, female-dominated corporate noir. Up next is Happy Valley, based on the Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, starring Al Pacino as Paterno.
De Palma has done hundreds of interviews over the course of his career, but fresh from a recent Summer Talk hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the filmmaker took a few minutes to answer some questions about style and repetition.
I read that you used to sit in the front row at screenings of your films and face the audience. I didn’t see you do that tonight during the clips at the Summer Talk.
Well, I was watching the audience because I was right in front of them. I used to do that in order to see how they react—to comedies of course—but even with suspense movies you’ve got to see when they tense up, when they laugh at certain things, when they don’t. I used to watch audiences all the time.
Passion has been touring Europe for about a year now. How do you anticipate the response in the U.S.?
The responses are usually the same. They’re very polarized: some people think it’s great, and others think it’s awful. The Europeans are split too. This has sort of been the history of my career; it’s not too surprising.
The [negative] perceptions are rather fixed. It’s always “sleazy.” This is one thing I would never say about this movie. These girls look great, the locations are fantastic, the clothes, the shoes—what is sleazy about this movie? When you hear things like that, it’s because of Body Double and other movies I made in the past. It’s like they have a De Palma tip sheet. It doesn’t look like they’ve really looked at what’s on the screen.
Tell me about Happy Valley. Have you cast an actor to play Jerry Sandusky?
No, we haven’t got an actor cast for Sandusky. It’s taken me almost a year now to write the script. We’re budgeting it now and figuring out where we’re going to shoot and how we’re going to do it, and Al’s got his schedule and we’ve got to figure out how to make that all work.
It’s a change of pace after Passion, but this won’t be the first time you’ve taken on issues of morality, ethics, and loss of innocence.
The interesting thing about the story is that everybody has a different point of view. Like I said in the Talk, it’s like in Lawrence of Arabia: everybody sees it a different way.
Who knows what actually happened? What did Joe [Paterno] know and what didn’t he know? The testimonies are very different. All of that stuff is very subjective.
Casualties of War
You overlapped testimonies in two of your most political films, Redacted  and Casualties of War . Some of the dialogue during the interrogation scenes in Casualties reappears in Redacted, which mirrors the plot and characters of the earlier film.
Yes, it does.
It’s interesting because both of the films are based on true events.
Did you see a parallel there?
The big problem—well, there are obviously parallels, but the irony is that the actual dialogue that the principals said in the case was fantastic, but I couldn’t use it for legal reasons. The lawyers came in and said, well, you can’t have him say this and you can’t have them say that. So that’s when I decided to use Casualties of War as a boilerplate because it’s essentially the same situation. I re-created the dialogue that I had written before and a lot of it just came out of improvisation, because I had the actors play those scenes 27 different ways.
Wasn’t the interrogation in Casualties one of the scenes that you cut and then put back in for the DVD release?
Yeah. There are two interrogations of Michael J. Fox that I took out of the original release and put back for the DVD.
I heard that there’s a Blu-ray of Snake Eyes  coming out in September.
[shrugs] Probably. I mean, there’s always a Blu-ray or something coming out.
I guess the original tidal-wave ending won’t be a feature on the disc?
Ohhhh, the tidal wave. I don’t think so.
I have a particular Hitchcock question that I’d like to ask you: what do you think about his frequent use of rear projection?
Well, he came from an old studio system in which you can get away with some of that stuff, but when he got into the Sixties and the Seventies, the rear projection started to look pretty hokey. You know, the painted backdrops in Marnie, that street in Philadelphia with the painted backdrop. It’s all because of the tradition that he made films in. And maybe it worked in black and white, but it really doesn’t work in color, and in those last movies he did, there’s back projection and in the cars you start to notice the seams showing.
When you’ve used back projection, have you ever noticed that it looked a little unrealistic but then went with it because it worked in the film?
No. I forget the last time I used back projection, I used it in Scarface …
It looks great at the end of Blow Out , very stylized.
Oh yeah yeah, with the swirling, and in The Fury  there’s that twirling back projection. Yeah, but that’s supposed to be a little hyper-reality.
It’s always bugged me that in Robin Wood’s book on Hitchcock he suggested that his use of rear projection became intentionally hokey. He later refuted that theory, but it’s something I’ve thought about a lot.
No, no. [Hitchcock] grew up with a certain way of doing things and I don’t think he quite saw that it wasn’t working any more. They used to shoot everything in the studio. The Warner Brothers street, the MGM street—you saw them in movie after movie and everybody kind of accepted it. But when the French New Wave people started to see the films [in Europe], you certainly couldn’t do that anymore.
You’ve had quite a revisionist audience over the course of your career. The dominant criticism at first was that you were parodying Hitchcock, then you seem to have traveled through this wormhole and suddenly you’re parodying yourself. The tagline for Raising Cain in 1992 was something like “DeMented, De Palma…”
Yeah, “Deranged, Demented, De-something, De Palma.”
This idea was being sculpted, of what makes up a De Palma film. I read that you tweaked the press release for Raising Cain after a test screening and added the description “wickedly funny.” Did you have to let the audience know that it was okay to laugh at certain scenes?
Well, I’ve heard that a lot about my movies. I find some of this stuff very funny, diabolical as it is. But that’s my particular vision of the material, and it’s me. I forget what one critic called it—she had a name for it—it wasn’t the demonic laugh, it was…
The De Palma cackle?
Yes, the De Palma cackle! It’s the De Palma cackle!
Does that refer to the audience’s cackle or the cackle that you have in a lot of your films?
I don’t know, but when I see the way that Rachel grabs Noomi [Rapace, in Passion] and kisses her, I laugh! It’s so outrageous, but it’s something that’s so right for the character to do.
She lets out this maniacal cackle in the office party scene that reminded me of a shot in Femme Fatale. There’s that wonderful long take of Rebecca Romijn sitting on the pool table and cackling—it’s very sustained and weird.
It is. But Noomi did that at the time of the shooting. I didn’t know what she was going to do and Rachel just kept leaning into it: “It’s all a big joke! Come on, laugh!” And then Noomi looks at her and does this crazy maniacal laugh.
I think that’s the De Palma cackle.