American Cinematheque members will have an opportunity to see a sneak preview of De Palma on Sunday, June 5th. If you are not a member and would like to join our organization and see this sneak preview, click here. Our De Palma retrospective is June 1 - 4, 2016. The documentary De Palma opens theatrically June 10.
Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s De Palma is one of the best movies about moviemaking that I’ve ever seen, a documentary on a great director in which that director’s story serves as a metaphor for the seismic shifts in the American film industry as a whole. The film is deceptively simple, consisting entirely of one long interview with Brian De Palma interspersed with clips from his movies; Baumbach and Paltrow eschew interviews with any of De Palma’s collaborators, critics, or champions, opting instead to let the director and his work speak for themselves. Leaving no film out and progressing in chronological order from De Palma’s first short to his latest feature, Baumbach and Paltrow extract a wealth of fascinating stories, insights, and observations about classics like Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and The Untouchables – as well as commercial and critical disappointments The Bonfire of the Vanities and Mission to Mars. A feast for De Palma fans, it’s also essential viewing for anyone who cares about how and why American movies have changed, as De Palma’s career trajectory mirrors and comments upon the evolution of Hollywood as a whole. It’s an extraordinary work, worthy of its subject, and I was honored to speak with De Palma, Baumbach, and Paltrow about the project on the eve of its release and the Cinematheque’s De Palma retrospective.
Jim Hemphill: Let’s start at the beginning. How did this documentary initially come about?
Brian De Palma: I’ve known Noah for twenty years, and we’ve been having dinners together with Jake and Wes Anderson for around ten years – whenever we’re all in New York at the same time, or in Paris, we get together. It started because I missed the fraternity of directors I used to be a part of in the late sixties and seventies and eighties – I missed hanging out and talking movies. Noah and Jake and Wes and I all live within a few blocks of each other, so it’s easy to organize a dinner and have everybody show up.
Noah Baumbach: I first met Brian at a birthday party. I was a great admirer of his, and after a few drinks I summoned the courage to walk up to him and say hi and just got him immediately talking about his movies. I was probably somewhat aggressive. [laughs] Brian was really engaged, and we talked a lot that night and even shared a cab ride home. I thought that was it, but Brian went out, unprompted, and rented my first movie, Kicking and Screaming – I was between my first and second movies at the time – and called me about it. We started hanging out, and meanwhile Jake and I became friends separately—
|Paltrow, De Palma, and Baumbach|
De Palma: Jake and Noah were very interested in some of the new digital filmmaking equipment, and they were experimenting with a new camera and turned to me to be part of their experiment. I’d been telling them all these stories, so they sat me down in Jake’s living room and asked me questions like they would if we were sitting having dinner – Jake operated the camera on a tripod and Noah monitored the sound. I sat there for a week; every day they told me to come over and wear the same coat, and we’d talk until I got exhausted.
Hemphill: One of the things I loved about the movie was that it wasn’t just a portrait of a director, it was a portrait of an era – you really got a sense of the film industry at large over the course of the last fifty years.
Paltrow: We tend to romanticize the seventies, but one thing we learned talking to Brian is that it actually was that cool! And we knew that going in from our conversations with him, but playing to the camera he really made the point in a concise, entertaining way.
Hemphill: Did you always know that would be part of the point of the documentary?
Baumbach: We didn’t fully see that emerge until we had the chronology all laid out in the editing room; that’s where we really experienced the coherence of the other narratives that are implicit in Brian’s personal story.
Hemphill: The movie follows a very clear line from the beginning of De Palma’s career to his most recent work…was that structure there in the interviews themselves, or did you piece it together that way in the cutting room?
Baumbach: It was always designed to go from beginning to end. There were digressions – we’d be talking about The Wedding Party and that would lead to a point about Mission: Impossible – but we wanted a chronological account of his career. And we didn’t want to make a movie about what other people thought of him, which is why there are no other interviews – we wanted to document Brian telling it his way. In that sense it’s not a work of journalism or even analysis – it’s just about Brian sharing his story.
Paltrow: Those kinds of decisions and selections are where what you might consider the “directing” really comes in. You have this visionary director who you happen to be friends with, so that’s what you’re trying to channel – you don’t want to affect it with other people’s opinions. That’s something else.
Hemphill: Brian, was it different being interviewed by filmmakers as opposed to journalists or critics?
Palma: Absolutely. There’s a big difference, because they've been through the same experiences and have the same concerns and therefore have a better understanding of what you’re talking about. I would encourage other directors to always have directors conduct their interviews! [laughs]
Hemphill: Did looking back at your career while shooting the documentary, and then again when looking at the finished film, change your opinions about any of your films?
De Palma: Not really. You know, some of the ones that got really negative reviews, like Bonfire or Mission to Mars…they’re skillfully put together. Maybe they didn't fit what the critics wanted from them at the time, but they kind of stand on their own.
Baumbach: Brian’s personality is so much a part of all of his movies, so even in the less well received ones there are always amazing De Palma sequences – you can watch any of his films and find things that are exciting in them.
Hemphill: Did you find your appreciation of any of the films increasing after making the documentary?
Baumbach: I think both of us found a deeper affection for Carlito’s Way. In the documentary Brian tells a story about the movie coming out in theatres and doing okay, and then him watching it at the Berlin Film Festival and thinking, “I can’t make a better movie than this.” I know exactly what he means, because from a filmmaking standpoint that is a great director harnessing all his power in one movie. It’s remarkable that way, and undeniably impressive.
Hemphill: Brian, what was your reaction to the finished documentary? When did Jake and Noah show it to you?
De Palma: We shot the interviews for a week or so, and then nothing happened for a couple of years. When they had time they started to assemble the film from the tremendous amount of footage they had shot, and one day they said “do you want to look at this?” and I said “Yeah, sure!” I thought they did an extraordinary job of illustrating what I was talking about. It was quite flattering to see these things I had worked on and forgotten over the years…it’s a great assemblage of some of my best – and maybe some of my not so great – moments.
Jim Hemphill is an award-winning screenwriter and director whose latest film is The Trouble with the Truth. His writings on cinema have appeared in Film Comment, American Cinematographer, and Film Quarterly, and he is the author of a regular column on directing for Filmmaker Magazine.