Filmmakers Jake Paltrow (Gwyneth’s brother)) and Noah Baumbach (husband of Greta Gerwig; ex-husband of Jennifer Jason Leigh) used their access to renowned filmmaker Brian DePalma to make a documentary about his life and work in 2015.
Succinctly entitled “DePalma.” the documentary features DePalma talking about his life and work, with little interference from his two friends and fellow filmmakers of the next generation (age 46 in Baumbach’s caes). (Baumbach received an Oscar nomination for original screenplay for “The Squid and the Whale).
DePalma confesses that his home was not a happy one and relates how he once followed his father (an orthopedic surgeon) to a tryst his dad was having at his office, breaking in, confronting him with a knife, and demanding to know where “the other woman” was hiding. He tells the story humorously, but we see a snippet of a similar plot device from “Dressed to Kill” with Matthew Modine and realize that DePalma’s early life influenced his films, as it will for anyone involved in a creative endeavor.
For instance, he dismisses his fondness for gore by relating how his father used to take him to the operating theater to watch him operate. “Real blood is more brown,” he says casually, discussing the Karo syrup make-up of the bright red buckets of blood used in films like “Carrie” and “Dressed to Kill.”
DePalma was also one of the first male students to be admitted to Sarah Lawrence when it went co-ed. You get the impression that he enjoys watching beautiful women from his voyeuristic films, but you also learn he was married three times, all of them brief liaisons. He has two daughters, aged 25 and 20, while DePalma, himself, is approaching his 76th birthday on September 11th.
THE DIRECTORS’ GROUP
DePalma was one of the breed of directors who helped one another and encouraged one another and grew up together in Hollywood, fighting the system. The group included such luminaries as Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, John Carpenter and John Milius. Commenting on today’s filmmaking process, where the bean counters have taken over, DePalma says, “The Hollywood system we are now working in destroys any creativity. This is not working.”
Most of the documentary is about battling with the studio or with actors (Cliff Robertson, Orson Welles, Tommy Smothers) or others (Bernard Herrman). Bernard Herrman, who is known as Hitchcock’s composer for nearly all of his films, was “scary,” according to DePalma.
BERNARD HERRMAN STORY
DePalma tells a story about inviting Herrmann in to view a film he was going to score. The filmmaker had placed a temporary musical score with the film, consisting of previous compositions Benny, (as he calls him), had done for Hitchcock films. Herrmann grabbed his head, as DePalma tells it, with a laugh, and says, “Get that sound out of here! I can’t work with that going on!” The workmanlike Herrmann would then watch the film, go home, write the music, and, generally send a very usable score in a very short time. DePalma recalls that Benny was working on both “Taxi Driver” and one of his own films at the same time, around Christmas, when he went to a showing of “Taxi Driver,” directed the orchestral accompaniment for that Scorsese film, went back to his hotel and died.
Over the years, DePalma was always compared to Hitchcock, and admits that seeing “Vertigo” at Radio City Music Hall when he was 18 in 1958 set the template for his filmmaking career. While he would do documentaries at times and sometimes turn out films that did not seem to be “Hitchcock Light,” he is the single director most associated with using a Hitchcockian style. As film critic Roger Ebert once said, “It is not just that he sometimes works in the style of Hitchcock, but that he has the nerve to.” You could add to that, “and the talent to pull it off.”
When DePalma was good, he was very, very good. I watched the end of “Carlito’s Way” on the big screen at the Music Box Theater in Chicago before the documentary began. I had just watched the entire film on video while vacationing in Cancun, start to finish. The extremely long shot of Al attempting to get on the escalator at Grand Central Station is a masterpiece. The scene where Pacino runs through a subway car on his way to the train station to meet his love and flee to Miami was highlighted by this story from the director.
“We were shooting on a subway train next to the one Al was running through. The trains had to be moving and we had to keep the speed of one train the same as the other, so as to keep the shot framed. It was difficult and it was made more difficult by the fact that it was about 110 degrees in New York City in summer and Al was wearing a long, heavy leather coat in this tremendous heat as he ran through the subway car. We shot the thing over and over until it was about 4 in the morning, when, suddenly Al’s train just left and pulled away. I said to the A.D. (assistant director), ‘What just happened?’ He said, ‘Al took the train home.’ I had to go to him in his trailer and, when I got there, he was all red and hot and sweaty and yelled at me, ‘What are you doing?” DePalma laughs.
CLIFF ROBERTSON STORY
His stories about Cliff Robertson’s performance in “Obsession” opposite Genevieve Bujold centered on Robertson’s appearance. He insisted on being extremely tan to the point that cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond dragged the actor over to a wainscoted tan wall and screamed, “I can’t light you! You’re the same color as the wall.” DePalma also mentioned Robertson would fade and lean out of frame so that the camera would have to follow him, leaving poor Bujold to try to find a spot to focus on.
Interspersed with DePalma’s amusing storytelling style are shots of the films that influenced him and shots of his own work. Watching a 1963 film with a very young Robert DeNiro (billed as Denero), then only 20 years old, acting in “The Wedding Party” which wasn’t released until 1969) is a hoot!
Even re-watching the end of “Carlito’s Way” brought with it the new realization that fellow University of Iowa classmate Nicholas Meyer (director of “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan” and “Time After Time”) was the music supervisor for the film. Given the fact that Viggo Mortensen has just appeared in another film I loved (“Captain Fantastic,” from the Sundance Film Festival and winner of a first director award at Cannes), I was reminded that he had a role as a crippled man in this 1993 film shot 23 years ago.
DePalma is a firm believer in using unusual camera angles to make things interesting and says, “It is the run-up that is interesting…The waiting is very important so you can ground yourself.” He also talked about the writers he had worked with, such as David Rabe, saying, “I came up in the era that you went down with the writer,” meaning that the firing of a writer would mean you walked as the director. He had some unkind words for Oliver Stone, who came onto his set and began distracting the actors by giving them conflicting directions so that he had him removed. At the time, Stone’s credit was for 1981’s “The Hand.” It was only 3 years later that DePalma would direct the now iconic video for Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” which gave Courtney Cox her chance to dance her way to stardom onstage with The Boss.
After Bernard Herrman no longer was around to score his films, DePalma worked with Ennio Morricone, as well, who has been an influence on Quentin Tarantino, as has DePalma himself.
Said DePalma of directing: “Being a director is being a watcher…You have a lot of egos in the room.” He also talked about his many budget and rating battles with the studios, saying, “You can lose yourself trying to make compromises.” He talked about haggling over a certain film that, he said, was going to cost $1.8 million (a pittance in today’s dollars). The studio made noises about letting him go if he couldn’t bring the film in for $1.6 million, so he went in the next day, talking a good game and saying that, if he cut this or that, perhaps he could do it for $1.6 million. And, said the self-confident director, “Then I shot it the way I had always intended to and it cost $1.8 million.” He also told an amusing story about cutting one of his films numerous times to avoid the “X” rating that was considered the Box Office Kiss of Death. After submitting it three times to the review board and getting an “X” rating three times for “Body Double,” he said, “I said. Okay, so it’s an ‘X’. And then I put back in everything I had previously cut out.”
If you are as big a Hitchcock fan as I was, you’d expect that there’d be at least 20 imitators lined up behind DePalma to carry on the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, but, alas, we have the Marvel World of Filmmaking now and there is no one who will pick up the torch after DePalma—who is soon going to be 76—hangs it up.
Here is a partial list of his film from IMDB, not counting his documentaries or short films…or the one he’s working on now:
Year Film Director Producer Writer Editor Subject Award
1968 Murder a la Mod
Greetings Silver Berlin BearNominated—Gold Berlin Bear
1969 The Wedding Party
1970 Hi, Mom!
Dionysus in ’69 Nominated—Gold Berlin Bear
1972 Get to Know Your Rabbit
1974 Phantom of the Paradise Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival — Grand PrizeFrench Syndicate of Cinema Critics Award for Best DVD Single DiscNominated—Hugo Award for Best Dramatic PresentationNominated—Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Comedy Screenplay
Carrie Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival — Grand PrizeNominated—Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation
1978 The Fury
1980 Home Movies
Dressed to Kill Nominated—Golden Raspberry Award for Worst DirectorNominated—New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best DirectorNominated—Saturn Award for Best Director
1981 Blow Out
1983 Scarface Nominated—Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director
1984 Body Double
1986 Wise Guys
1987 The Untouchables Blue Ribbon Awards for Best Foreign FilmNominated—César Award for Best Foreign Film
1989 Casualties of War 2nd place—New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director
1990 The Bonfire of the Vanities Stinkers Bad Movie Award for Worst PictureNominated—Golden Raspberry Award for Worst PictureNominated—Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director
1992 Raising Cain Nominated—Venice Film Festival — Golden Lion
1993 Carlito’s Way
1996 Mission: Impossible
1998 Snake Eyes
2000 Mission to Mars Nominated—Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director
2002 Femme Fatale Nominated—Sitges Film Festival Award for Best Film
2006 The Black Dahlia Nominated—Stinkers Bad Movie Award for Worst Sense of DirectionNominated—Venice Film Festival — Golden Lion
2007 Redacted Amnesty International Film Festival — Youth Jury AwardVenice Film Festival — Silver LionVenice Film Festival — Future Film Festival Digital AwardNominated—Venice Film Festival — Golden Lion
2012 Passion Nominated—Venice Film Festival — Golden Lion
2015 De Palma