Brian De Palma interview
Brian De Palma is one of the great American directors and he’s still going strong in his 70s. De Palma’s latest film Passion, a remake of a 2010 French film by Alain Corneau, Crime d’amour, revolves around corporate competition between two female executives at an ad agency, resulting in intrigue and eventually murder. Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace star in the remake. The French version starred Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier.
“There are certain things that worked quite well in the Corneau movie and other things that I thought could be improved. I didn’t like the idea of revealing the identity of the killer in the middle of the movie,” De Palma tells Free Press Houston during a recent phone interview.
“I wanted to keep the audience guessing until the end. I filmed the second half in a dreamlike reality so the audience could identify with her blurred sense of reality. In the Corneau film, you observe, how can I put it, a lot of tedious expositional scenes with a lot of information being elicited between Isabelle and her lawyer and the district attorney from across a table. That’s stuff we see on television all the time. I wanted to be more imaginative with the exposition; it is after all a murder mystery and you have to explain how it all works at the end,” adds De Palma.
One climatic scene uses a split screen to depict parallel action. One one side of the screen is the set-up for a murder while on the other side is the ballet “Afternoon of a Faun.” While Nijinsky originally choreographed Debussy’s ballet, De Palma uses a contemporary version of the piece choreographed by Jerome Robbins. “I saw a video of the Robbins choreography on YouTube many years ago. I thought it was extraordinary and I wanted to figure out a way to use that ballet in a movie,” says De Palma.
Speaking about his visual penchant for split-screen imagery De Palma explains: “Split screen is a kind of involving technique. Every movie that I’ve put it in, it’s been in a different way. I first used it in this documentary I made about a play, Dionysus in ‘69, in which I was shooting the narrative of the play while my co-director was shooting the reactions of the audience to the play. It was an environmental work and the audience was literally part of the play.
“In Sisters, I had the idea of seeing this murder from two different points of view — from Jennifer Salt’s point of view and then the point of view of the guy dying in the room. Then bringing the screen together when Jennifer brings the detective back to the apartment.
“In Carrie, I used it in the destruction of the prom sequence. But I found that was not a great use of the technique because split screen isn’t really good for action sequences. It’s a kind of meditative form of filmmaking.
“In Passion, it lent itself. Split screen is something you have to slowly watch because a lot is going on, and I felt that these two images against each other would be extremely captivating.”
De Palma would be the first to admit he sees more movies than the average director. “I’m the only director I know of who goes to a film festival just to look at the movies,” says De Palma. “Toronto is the best for me because I can move from one screening to another very quickly. I can see as many as five, six, seven movies in a row. Montreal is also very good too. I’ve been attending these festivals since the late ‘70s.”
FPH: Sissy Spacek, in addition to starring in Carrie (1976), was also the set dresser on your previous film Phantom of the Paradise (1974). Had you seen Spacek in Badlands (1973), and when did you know you would cast her as Carrie?
De Palma: Not until I saw her screen test. I had somebody else in mind for the part. Sissy had a commercial she was going to do that weekend. She asked me what I thought and I said, ‘Sissy, I’m leaning towards this other girl.’ But she blew off the commercial and did the audition, and it blew everybody away. And yes, I had seen Badlands.
How did you get hooked up with Paul Williams for Phantom of the Paradise?
Kind of by luck. It’s difficult to get big rock groups, or established songwriters, to write complete scores for movies. We were very fortunate that Paul liked the material and had the ideas for the songs as well as the permutations of the original song that the Phantom sings.
In Passion we see a video that goes viral. Was that based on a real video?
Yes, that’s based on an actual video. I got that idea because of a video made by two girls, and that’s what you see. I almost exactly duplicated it in the film. They put it on the Internet and it went viral, and later it was discovered that it was done by a couple of advertising executives.
I’ve heard that composer Bernard Herrmann was responsible for dropping the third act of Obsession (1976)?
Paul [Schrader, the screenwriter] was very unhappy the way we did not do the third act as he’d written it. He divorced himself from the movie because of that. What did happen was Benny’s idea that you didn’t need the third act. It had nothing to do with whether he’d do the movie or not. He said to me you don’t need the third act; it’s just a repetition of what happens at the end of the second act. And he was right.
Many of your movies feature conspiracy plots. Blow Out (1981) is practically a template for how the Zapruder film was re-edited. And Snake Eyes (1998) concerns a military coup and assassination. What helped to form your opinions on such matters?
I’m a child of the ‘60s. That’s when we discovered our government was and is still lying to us so blatantly. I’m fascinated with revealing the truth behind the lie. Look at this whole NSA issue — Oh, we just happen to be eavesdropping on everybody. Can you really believe that anything you do on the Internet isn’t on some server in the basement of some NSA establishment?
Passion opens in Houston this weekend at the Sundance Cinemas Houston.
— Michael Bergeron