“I’m driven by unrealistic ideas”
I’ve seen twelve Brian De Palma films in my lifetime—a seemingly healthy number when you consider the industry. A guy like Terrence Malick began his career just five years after Brian and it’s only his seventh film that hit DVD this week. Unfortunately for me, twelve doesn’t come close to equaling half of De Palma’s filmography. It’s a problem I always say I’ll rectify considering I’ve missed biggies like Blow Out and Carlito’s Way, but not one that would prevent me from checking out Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow‘s new documentary about him. De Palma may ruin some endings as it moves through 1968’s Murder à la Mod to 2012’s Passion, but it’s done in a way that only makes me crave finally watching them more.
The story behind the film is an intriguing one with the endeavor sprouting from an unofficial dining club consisting of the trio. Baumbach and Paltrow are thirty to forty years De Palma’s junior so they grew up on his films and therefore an obvious fascination in his insight and stories. Word is that Brian didn’t realize they were making a movie when he sat down to record the tales he had already told them over multiple dinners and I believe it. You can tell his words aren’t necessarily for an audience verbatim. He’s speaking to peers about an industry and shared knowledge, leafing through a Rolodex of his own inspirations to clarify decisions made and regrets never forgotten. This isn’t a biography; it’s a master class in directing.
Don’t get me wrong: the anecdotes are great too. Whether it’s calling Bernard Herrmann scary upon first meeting the legend, describing Sean Penn knocking Michael J. Fox to the ground during Casualties of War, or juggling two different screenwriters in two different rooms while developing Mission: Impossible, the behind-the-scenes nostalgia can be enjoyed by cinephiles and casual fans alike. But for me it’s the shoptalk that puts De Palma a cut above other straight interview films. His explaining without ego—these are merely facts—that he recommended Taxi Driver to Martin Scorsese upon realizing Paul Schrader‘s script wasn’t for him or that he laughs watching remakes of Carrie fall prey to mistakes he purposefully avoided is to understand the artistry involved in cinema beyond the Hollywood machine.
We listen as he talks about Alfred Hitchcock‘s influence, his use of split-screens and eventually split diopter shots, and the importance of a good score. He admits he doesn’t love some of his films, explains the difference between developing a project and coming on board late in the process, and embraces the technical side of things in order to work out issues early so the actors can do what they need to do: act. Some of the greats are mentioned as adversarial (Cliff Robertson, Oliver Stone, and even Orson Welles to name a few), some as friends (Robert De Niro‘s first credited feature was Greetings). Pauline Kael championed him when many didn’t; he yearned to helm a huge success and ultimately walked away from Hollywood once he did.
There’s so much jam-packed in De Palma that it’s almost surprising to realize it’s only 107-minutes long. How could that be enough time to document fifty-plus years in the industry? Well, it’s possible when everything heard is coming from the source himself. Baumbach and Paltrow literally just point the camera at Brian and let him talk. He’s answering question at some points, but we never hear anyone’s voice except his own. This is his story as only he can tell it without the filter of misogynist or violent labels and without the grand scope of box office trajectory and legacy. De Palma epitomizes himself as a workingman who loves the job. He knows most directors’ best work happened when they were younger, but he keeps going regardless.
It’s definitely not a puff piece, though, so don’t be surprised when he keys in on mistakes or unavoidable points of acquiescence. Despite being in charge and fighting tooth and nail for his vision, sometimes compromises are inevitable. But he finds positives in the bad times and purpose in the good. He’s honest about his appropriation of Hitchcock’s visual style—calling himself the only proponent who’s continued his tradition and modernized his techniques. He admits when casting was wrong and even when one film needed to be recut differently than how it was shot. But as long as he achieved his “three great endings,” (I’d say he’s had more), he’s happy. He’s always known his strengths and has built a career on utilizing them to their full extent.
This type of specific insight into the process does make the film a bit unwieldy for audiences expecting more of that aforementioned anecdotal levity, but it’s not made for them. This is a document to preserve the posterity of a cinematic great who has probably been as maligned as he’s been praised throughout the decades. It also captures a spirit of movies De Palma admits has gone away. The camaraderie he, Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas had is all but gone today and the creativity that goes into setting up shots eradicated by computerized pre-visualization coded in clichés. He fought the ratings boards, studios, and producers to make unique visions and they’ve stood the test of time as a result. This is greatness immortalized.
 Al Pacino and Brian De Palma on set of CARLITO’S WAY as seen in DE PALMA.
 Jake Paltrow, Brian De Palma and Noah Baumbach for DE PALMA.
 Sean Connery, Brian De Palma and Andy Garcia on set of THE UNTOUCHABLES as seen in DE PALMA.