A Property of Movies: A Conversation with Brian De Palma

The director talks about his new movie, _Passion_, home video cinephilia, working with cinema's greatest composers, and more.
Daniel Kasman

Brian De Palma's new film Passion was one of our favorites at the Toronto International Film Festival. I raved and rambled on about the film in one of our correspondences (though, as you'll see, I was wrong about one key facet of the film's production):

A remake of the solid Alain Corneau corporate thriller Love Crime, De Palma plunges without hesitation into the iconography, audience expectations, and conventions of noirs, sex thrillers, corporate intrigue, post-Hitchcock films and Brian De Palma movies themselves, retaining the shell appearance of all of these things but hollowing them from the inside out. The result is something out of late Resnais—a study of a study. And that study, of course, is of the cinema image. Remember how Rebecca Romijn watches Stanwyck in Double Indemnity at the beginning of Femme Fatale, as if taking notes? The characters in Passion have taken notes from Femme Fatale: an abstraction based on a fiction based on a fantasy.

As Fernando F. Croce said in his answering missive from TIFF,

...it’s a wondrous feat (a series of feats, really) of misdirection. Who are these characters who look like Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace and Karoline Herfurth but are actually gimlet-eyed projections from cinema’s past? Abstractions, sure, yet when do abstractions exude such a feeling of heated flesh, of shards of fantasies being moved around the screen like drops of mercury? The layers upon layers of De Palma’s artifice dare us to find out. It’s a crazy, thorny spiral of a movie, not “campy” but funny.

Passion is getting its US premiere at the New York Film Festival, where I had the chance to sit down with Brian De Palma and try to tease the film, and films, out.

NOTEBOOK: Appropriately enough for this film, if you don't mind I'd like to clear up my confusion as to whether this was shot digitally or not. I initially thought it was when I saw it in Toronto, but I later read that it is in fact shot in 35mm?

BRIAN DE PALMA: It is shot on 35.

NOTEBOOK: It's getting so confusing now; things shot on film are projected digitally, digitally shot movies are projected on film. Your movie, Redacted, was a specifically digital project. Was shooting on 35mm something you wanted for Passion from the start?

DE PALMA: If you have beautiful locations and beautiful women and you want to light them correctly, you shoot on film. Digital hasn't really gotten to the level of the classic, beautiful photography we remember from yesterday.

NOTEBOOK: Was it nice to be back shooting on 35mm after the experience with Redacted?

DE PALMA: Well, it's kind of strange to see them loading [film] magazines that can only do takes of a certain length. You don't have that problem shooting digitally. No—it's the lighting, you're shooting beautiful women, beautiful locations, you have very stylized lighting. I haven't seen this done digitally well yet, but I'm sure they'll get there.

NOTEBOOK: It's a texture, too, I would think.

DE PALMA: Yes, but I'm sure they'll get that look with digital, in time.

NOTEBOOK: You were working with a new cinematographer with Passion, José Luis Alcaine, and also used a new, different DP for your last film. Is it tough re-starting that relationship with a new photographer after working with someone like Stephen H. Burum for so long, someone who understands the look you're going for?

DE PALMA: Not really, you just tell them very specifically what you're looking for. You know, José shot all the Almodóvar films, and lights women beautifully, so I was very happy to have him.

NOTEBOOK: I was reading that you were originally going to shoot Passion in London, but it ended up being in Berlin. Was this dictated by where the money came from or was there something about Berlin that grabbed you?

DE PALMA: The initial thought was to shoot the exteriors in London and the interiors in Berlin, because it was co-financed out of Germany, but after finding all the English locations and then realizing we'd have to change certain things in Berlin in order to make it look like London, I said “Why don't we shoot it all in Berlin?” After all, Berlin is an international corporation. Being on a movie set and speaking English, I feel like I'm in an international corporation, because everyone speaks English but then they all will go back to their native tongues. In our case, it was German and French...and Spanish! All three languages were spoken on set.

NOTEBOOK: I love that the film is ostensibly set in Berlin but it's not until two-thirds the way through the film that people are speaking in German and are subtitled. It really does feel “international.” I remember the first time I went to Berlin was for the film festival, which is centered at Potsdamer Platz, which is also where much of Passion is shot. I couldn't believe that this was Berlin, was a city, this strange, anonymously post-modern mall / office complex / multiplex. It was unreal to see this expressed in your film, this transnational corporate space. It could have been London, or many, many other places.

DE PALMA: Yeah, and we also have the advertisement for the [film's] ballet on Potsdamer's big screen, but I don't think many catch that.

NOTEBOOK: One of the things I really love about your films is that they are real records of the technology being used at the time of their creation. With Passion, its use of Skype and cameras that can record video—you're no longer making phone calls, you're making video calls. When you're writing the screenplay, are you integrating this technology into your plotting?

DE PALMA: I'm very aware of technical innovations. I used to build computers when I was in high school, knew every new technical advance. That sort of Internet, computer stuff I sort of play with as a hobby. It's fascinating to me. The most strange thing you notice in the last ten years is everybody walking around with these things [picks up my cellphone]. I'm always looking at people walking down the street looking like this [peers intently at the screen, mimes touching the phone's buttons], talking across tables and doing this. So, I thought to use this as a sort of weapon, almost, in a movie, first start the whole things as a commercial for this experience. It's very funny, ironically with the new iPhone there's all these competing smartphones that have commercials which try to satirize this very use and experience. Originally, the cellphone commercial in the film was going to be based on something out of Inception. The whole movie deals with dreams and the creation of this idea from Noomi [Rapace]'s subconscious. I had this whole, very complicated, three level thing where they finally find the key and it's the key to a vault and in it's the Panasonic phone. But I had some director fans of mine read this, and they liked the script but said “You can't do Inception!” And I asked why, commercials are constantly copying movies; but they suggested I think of something else. I thought for a while and looked on the Internet and there was this commercial—that I replicated, practically. My commercial is based on a real one, with two girls, one of whom stuck a phone in her back pocket, had people staring at her ass while it photographed them, and put up on the Internet. It went viral but people found out a week or two later it was created by two advertising executives.

NOTEBOOK: You say you replicated it, and while I haven't seen the original, one of the first shots of the commercial is very much your image, of a multi-paned mirror and the women refracted across it.

DE PALMA: We did add the mirrors, but it's very much like the original commercial.

NOTEBOOK: Clearly whether directly or not, the original commercial is inspired by the sort of paranoia of surveillance technology you've been making films about for ages. I suppose you are satirizing something that is already playing off your cinema. Yet, in something like Dressed to Kill, this surveillance technology is a niche thing, the boy is a geek and he happens to have this as a hobby. Whereas now, at the end of your new film we see a character recording an entire crime with a cell phone—this is no longer an unusual act performed by an outsider. Any consumer now has a device in their pocket that can record a crime or blackmail a person.

DE PALMA: Or follow someone and record them.

NOTEBOOK: Exactly. It's not strange any more, the potential seems to be pervasive.

DE PALMA: That was the whole idea, having the phones and their many uses play across the whole movie, leading into the surrealistic last dream. Phones are always ringing—that's something else I've observed: in a restaurant a phone rings and everyone grabs for theirs. It could be their phones, whose phone is it?

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of digital technology, I was wondering if you see a difference in cinephilia now that both audiences and filmmakers have such easy digital access to film and film history. When you were making movies in the 60s, 70s and 80s, the films that informed you as a filmmaker were harder to see. Now it's as easy as turning on my computer, and I can integrate film history into my daily life, and, if I was a filmmaker, my work.

DE PALMA: It's like having a reference library. All the books you refer to on your bookshelf, now you can access the whole history of cinema, practically; and the ones that are very difficult to find, you find somehow! The problem of course is that everybody is looking at films on television screens and iPads, so the image is becoming smaller and consequently the concept of this size image [spreads hands out to indicate a huge frame size], that's overpowering, the grand image that we remember from those big movie houses with the big screens...I guess IMAX to some extent manages to move you back to the CinemaScope, VistaVision era. I don't know...most of those films are reserved for special effects, adolescent adventure movies. Which is sort of unfortunate...except for The Master, I suppose, which I haven't seen...

NOTEBOOK: Paul Thomas Anderson in that film uses 65mm film to photograph a scene like we're having now, a small conversation in a small room—an intimate approach to a “grand” format. In the 80s, or maybe even earlier, I know they started integrating into camera viewfinders little frames that showed what the full film image would look like cropped to a television ratio. Do you use these, are you thinking about the end viewing of the home video audience?

DE PALMA: No, I'm composing for a big screen. Ironically enough, in this day and age you see your movies at film festivals and then probably never again until they are on DVD. Everything is going to DVD and video on demand so quickly that the only time you see it in a theater is at a film festival or when it opens, you go to the opening. The first time I saw Passion on the big screen and with an audience was at Venice and Toronto.

NOTEBOOK: Can you explain how you ended up choosing the music for the film?

DE PALMA: I think the cues are very specific. In the beginning, we have "go to work" music. [Hums a bouncy rhythm.] Then we have erotic music, when the tension increases between the main characters, during the dinner sequence. Then the sad, lyrical music when Noomi's character is humiliated, a very simple piano piece as she stumbles down the stairs and into the parking garage. Then we have the strange, obsessive beats. [Thumps an ominous beat on the table.] And then we have the dream music towards the finale, which is the most emotional of all.

NOTEBOOK: You haven't collaborated with composer Pino Donaggio for about twenty years. This film definitely exists in a continuum with the other films he has scored for you. Was there a specific reason you haven't worked with him in a while?

DE PALMA: I've made different kinds of movies since Raising Cain. He's the perfect person for this movie. It's the seventh movie we've done together. I like working with different composers, different screenwriters, and in different genres. So I tend to move, from one to another, because I think it replenishes yourself because you have your own way of seeing things, your own kind of stories you tell. But then I'll throw myself into something completely different to see what happens.

NOTEBOOK: Your filmography features quite a mix of great soundtrack collaborations: Herrmann, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Morricone...

DE PALMA: These are the best composers in the world, though they aren't always available. And there are new guys coming up...

NOTEBOOK: The composers you listed, they have a long history of classically based, or orchestral composing. Do you think contemporary, newer composers are doing similar, interesting work?

DE PALMA: Yeah, I listen to some new composers, like the one Joe Wright uses. Atonement is a fantastic score. I'm always listening to scores, because when we finish movies we use temp tracks and listen to all kinds of orchestral music all the time.

NOTEBOOK: Many of the sequences in this film, as a viewer, they really seem to hinge on the music—I can't separate the image and the music, they move as one.

DE PALMA: I like long, silent sequences musically scored. I like ballet, I like opera, I like long orchestral pieces where you just rely on the image and the music. You don't see much of that in cinema these days.

NOTEBOOK: How do you work with your composers? Do you describe the type of music you want over a scene?

DE PALMA: Exactly. And I select music that I think will inspire the composer for that theme. Some composers don't want you to do that at all. Some composers don't want you to put temp tracks in, and you have to describe the music or say “it should be a little like Mahler's 3rd” or “a little of Puccini here,” you sort of describe the music to them and they go off. Morricone was like that, Herrmann was like that. But some people like you to give musical suggestions and I give them very clear musical ideas of what I had in mind. With Bernard Herrmann, you never give him any soundtracks or he'll kill you. I once had one of his soundtracks as a temporary score in one of my early movies, and he got furious. He screamed, [imitating Herrmann] "Get that out! Stop! STOP! I can't hear a thing!" I think it was the score from Vertigo that I was playing [laughs]. I also worked with Johnny Williams in The Fury, and he's very much from the Herrmann school. Some composers like you to put temp tracks in with the footage so they can get an idea of the kind of moods the film is going for, and with others, like Ennio Morricone, you have to describe the feeling of the scene, the emotion of it, sometimes point them to classical pieces so they get ideas.

NOTEBOOK: And with this one?

DE PALMA: With Pino, I worked on temp tracks for each of the cues, then changed them as we got closer and closer together to the feel of the scenes. One typical example was Noomi's breakdown, where I originally had that marvelous music from Contempt. There's nothing more beautiful than that, so our goal was to try to approach it.

NOTEBOOK: Are there any particular scores that were composed for you that seemed independent of what you originally wanted?

DE PALMA: Yeah but we work that out in the process, they bring stuff back to you and you say “no, no, no, it's gotta be more like that.” I think only of one instance in my whole career where I had selected a composer that was way off base and I had to replace him, but that only happened once.

NOTEBOOK: So it's a very tight collaboration, usually?

DE PALMA: Well, you know, it's like you cast actors, you cast composers. I've worked with, I think, the best in the business.

NOTEBOOK: It's funny you mentioning the advertisement parodying Inception, as dreaming is so key to this film, dreams within dreams, and by the end and the final shot it's not clear whether you're outside of any dream yet, and the final title card, “The End,” is almost a joke on this. Dreams are very key to your movies, waking up from dreams, waking up but still finding yourself in a dream. Is this something you are personally interested in or is this a property of movies?

DE PALMA: It's a property of movies and it's a property of my life. I wake up three or four times in the night, and as soon as I wake up I'm not sure whether I'm in a dream or not. It takes me, you know, thirty seconds or a minute to realize “Oh! I just woke up.” And that's very much what happens at the end of Passion, where you aren't quite sure...is she really dead? Did she really kill her? [Laughs.]

NOTEBOOK: One of the things I liked best about the film was in the middle third the movie takes on a different style that the audience assumes is being motivated by a subjective drugged experience. But is later revealed to be not motivated by that at all, so thinking back on it as a viewer, what we're seeing is the world Noomi is presenting to people?

DE PALMA: Yes, you're seeing the unreliable narrator.

NOTEBOOK: Along with dreams, then, it seems like deception is a key element of cinema—

DE PALMA: —Yyyyyeah! Well, this is a mystery with many twists and turns to try to keep the audience off balance. And Noomi does a great job of completely convincing you that she had absolutely nothing to do with the crime. Which is very important, because if you have to go through those explanation scenes at the end, if you've already figured it out and you know who did it, like in the original movie where you see Ludivine [Sagnier] bump off Kristin Scott Thomas half way through the movie, what's there to explain? “Oh those phony clues I set up...oh well there really weren't phony clues.” To me, this is the nightmare of the procedural mystery story, where you have to go through all of the explanations, verbally explaining everything. The Corneau film had all these flashbacks, explaining this, explaining that. Flashbacks always bring things to a kind of dramatic halt. I tried to remove as much of that as possible. I didn't want to reveal who was the murderer, so you were guessing right up until Danny reveals everything at the end. So when she's giving the old “George the Explainer” scene, you're kind of interested in what she's saying, you haven't exactly figured it out yourself.

NOTEBOOK: Talking about changes you made from the Corneau film doesn't strike me as a particularly interesting line of discussion, but...

DE PALMA: —Plotwise, the main changes were I didn't reveal the identity of the murder, number one. I hid it as carefully as possible. I put all that boring detective stuff into the dream so you're not quite sure whether it's real or not, but you get the information.

NOTEBOOK: Across several of your films, scenes in police stations are some of my favorite, as they tend to undermine the function of police both in society and in the movies. The scenes are ostensibly there so the police can exposit information, but they never seem to know what's going on. What they're worried about is never what the protagonists are worried about, so there's this disconnect.

DE PALMA: Yeah but they still always feel like a wrap-up scene, straight out of Psycho, someone explaining everything. I had a similar scene in Dressed to Kill, “oh here comes Joe the Explainer...”

NOTEBOOK: That's true, but I think both Dressed to Kill and Psycho, I mean I remember when I was younger I understood those scenes as close-the-book explanations, but now I feel like those explanations never add up. I listen to the psychologist—“Oh, of course, Norman Bates, it was the mother!”—but, wait, this doesn't explain the strange horror of this movie at all! You wish this could be wrapped up, and the last shot is of the car being dredged from the pond and it's so horrible, there is no explanation for the mystery. The police in your film are among the few male characters in Passion. The film is really a woman's piece. I love the main actor you have, but he's not important, at all, in the scheme of things.

DE PALMA: The men are drones.

NOTEBOOK: Other than Femme Fatale, I haven't seen a movie from you in a while that's about women. Was this a fun story world to explore again?

DE PALMA: I like photographing women. I like women characters, women's interactions. So, yeah. Needless to say I've made completely men's films, Redacted's all men. So, again, I go back and forth so as not to get stuck in one thing.

NOTEBOOK: The story is that of a thriller but there's stuff in this movie that you really don't see in movies very often, friendship between two women in a corporate space, what the dynamic is like, the competition, is the friendship true or false, the kinds of masks the women have to wear...

DE PALMA: It is like The Women! [Laughs.] When you think about it. It was funny seeing Noah [Baumbach]'s movie the other day [Frances Ha had just screened for the press at the festival], about the relationship between the women. Much more nurturing. It's completely unsexual, while mine is filled with dark desire! [Laughs.]

NOTEBOOK: Well, the two women in Frances Ha wear their hearts on their faces, these people were always direct with one another, always speaking who they were to each other. Whereas with the women in Passion I'm never sure if what I'm seeing is someone's true face or a degree of what they're presenting to others. Rachel McAdams' amazing monologue about her dead twin sister, at a certain point I was like, “This cannot be a real thing, it's an act she's putting on for Noomi.”

DE PALMA: Masterfully done, as is all the crying over the fictitious [laughs] twin sister.

NOTEBOOK: With the two actresses, did you work with them separately?

DE PALMA: No, they sort of came as a unit, they'd worked together on Sherlock Holmes 2, they were very friendly. They'd worked out their psychosexual mindfucks on each other. So I sort of just let them go.

NOTEBOOK: Did they stick to the script, then?

DE PALMA: They did, but they would add little sayings, little things only one woman would add in order to mindfuck another woman. You know, when I see Rachel I liked repeating her lines, because to me they are extremely funny. “Why don't we kiss and make up?” [laughs] “That dyke brain of yours!” “I think I've been sexually assaulted!”

NOTEBOOK: The film is very funny, despite being a sex-murder-thriller.

DE PALMA: I find it to be very funny!

NOTEBOOK: It's very coy.

DE PALMA: Yeah! And that wonderful line she has when she has a complete meltdown at home, picks up the phone and says “Would you like to come over?” [Laughs.]

NOTEBOOK: You describe it as a mindfuck, and to me it's a film that almost entirely exists in the mind; in terms of both the violence and the sex it's actually very graphically tame.

DE PALMA: I think it's a film about women, for women. The women look beautiful, they're photographed beautifully, like my fabulous ballerina, who was just extraordinarily beautiful.

NOTEBOOK: What was it like to direct the Debussy ballet?

DE PALMA: Well, it's one of my favorite ballets and she's an extraordinary dancer. It was a great honor to have her in the film. And I loved the romantic music. All that stuff works for me. I've always wanted to use that ballet, and I thought Jerome Robbins' choreography of “The Afternoon of a Faun” was incredible.

NOTEBOOK: Very devious to use that ballet performance with the split screen, which is a technique that really tells the audience that these things are happening simultaneously. Showing the ballet and having a reverse shot of Noomi's eyes, this must be what the character is seeing. All of the meaning gained from the techniques used in that sequence is undermined by the end of the film.

DE PALMA: Thank you! Be sure you put that in your piece so you can instruct the other critics.

NOTEBOOK: That's the whole purpose, no?

DE PALMA: No kidding!

NOTEBOOK: You see her watching the ballet on one side and the other side is an entirely different space, and you realize later that the entirely different space was actually what she was watching in the reverse shot.

DE PALMA: Thank you.

NOTEBOOK: I take it, then, you find it joyful to play with these conventions?

DE PALMA: Yeah, I mean that's obviously what I'm doing, and it always amazes me that people don't see it. It's not like I'm showing where the rabbit comes from. “What is this strange blue with the tilted cameras?” There's a shot of drugs on a table, pills everywhere, you pan over and she's going to sleep and you see shapes across the blinds, the blue, and suddenly we're in a dream sequence. It's like I invented something that's actually gone back to, I don't know, German Expressionism!

NOTEBOOK: I don't understand those reactions. You visually guide the audience very pointedly, which really rings out differently in a cinema, and a genre, where most form is sloppy.

DE PALMA: That's what I also don't like, when they say “shoddy” and “trashy,” when we try to make these people look as gloriously beautiful as we can. I keep wondering, “What are you watching? Are you watching the screen?”

NOTEBOOK: You have a reputation of being an avid movie-goer; I know I've seen you at different film festivals as an audience member. You're still watching a lot of movies?

DE PALMA: I'm the only filmmaker. I've said it for many years, I've said it over and over again; I don't understand it. I'm the only film director that actually goes to a film festival to look at the movies. Everybody's there usually promoting a movie. When I go and people like you see me at screenings they walk up to me and ask me what I'm doing. And I say “I'm looking at the movie, like you!” Because I like to go to film festivals and see stuff I know nothing about, from the most obscure places imaginable. When I go to festivals I don't go to the big ticket items, because they'll come out in New York. The screenings I'm at, there are usually five to ten people. Some obscure Iranian movie. That's how I've discovered a lot of things, new ideas, new actors, new composers. I quite enjoy it.

NOTEBOOK: Are there any films or filmmakers recently in the last couple years you've been excited about?

DE PALMA: I'm a big Kim Ki-duk fan. I saw Address Unknown either at Montreal or Toronto, it's gotta've been five or ten years ago. I saw Run Lola Run at Montreal. So you see these films that people haven't discovered the filmmakers yet and you're struck by the originality. I always tell my director friends “Come! Come with me!” and I've never been able to get anybody to take the ten days off and go up to Toronto or Berlin—I've been to all of them. Most of the films I see at these festivals will never make it into the United States, they'd never be picked up by distributors.

NOTEBOOK: But you do live in New York, which is pretty much the film-going center of the United States....

DE PALMA: A film like Flanders, the Bruno Dumont film, which I saw I guess in Toronto, I was struck by, I said “My god!” and it gave me much food for thought. It played, I think, a week at the Cinema Village [in New York]. People don't know these films. Living and spending time in France, you see a lot of stuff you don't see here. Stuff from all over the world. This is really what film festival directors do, going all over the world and looking at all the obscure films at odd festivals in order to bring these discoveries to their festival. This is the part I like to play, it gives you ideas. Everything's so homogenized by the time it gets into America, the distributors are obviously looking for things they think are commercial la di da di da, but you don't see innovation in something that one would consider commercial.

NOTEBOOK: Do you ever attend the experimental cinema programs at these festivals, or do you focus more on narrative/dramatic features?

DE PALMA: More narrative, and retrospectives. I remember, I went to Berlin in 1969 and there was a Minnelli retrospective. It was like “Yikes!” Beautiful, Minnelli. The Pirate, I remember. Borzage, Borzage is great. There was a retrospective on him, I think in Edinburgh, about four years ago. Which was amazing! I'd heard about a lot of these movies...and obviously you can see some on TCM [the cable television station, Turner Classic Movies], TCM is great. You see stuff there you'd never get to see otherwise.

NOTEBOOK: The more I see, the deeper I push into a filmmaker or genre, I feel like I'm not crossing things off a list or closing doors but rather end up inadvertently, always, opening up new passages in cinema, finding stuff I'd never heard of...

DE PALMA: Absolutely. All the silents playing on TCM, all the early Greta Garbo films. She's unbelievable, those silent films are just...striking.

NOTEBOOK: In 1985 one would have to wait until MoMA shows Frank Borzage films on film, and now a filmmaker in a small town can turn on TCM and watch fifteen films from the 1930s in a day. A cinema class just by keeping TCM on.

DE PALMA: Yeah, but you need to know what to look for! Ironically, because they didn't tell me about the press conference for my film [laughs] until too late, I was sitting at home watching a Greta Garbo, John Gilbert film on TCM! I get a frantic phone call, “you're supposed to be here!” It was one I hadn't seen, A Woman of Affairs. Quite something.

NOTEBOOK: Garbo's interesting in that her reputation is entirely founded, now, on her stardom, not her movies. Because except for Lubitsch most of her movies were never made by auteur filmmakers, known filmmakers; people seem to know her but not know her movies.

DE PALMA: I think that's also true of Spencer Tracy, because of his contract at MGM. They had a few great directors over there, but a lot of them didn't like working for Louis B. Mayer so they went over to Paramount or Fox. I once was on a French program and they asked me to do a discussion on Spencer Tracy and his films over the years, and I realized that Tracy very seldom worked with really good directors. They didn't loan him out much, which might have been the problem. Obviously, working with Minnelli he was very good.

NOTEBOOK: He was also in a terrific Borzage, Man's Castle, from the early 30s where he ekes out an existence with Loretta Young, the love of his life, in a shack they built in a Manhattan, Depression-era shanty town.

DE PALMA: There you go, there's another great one I haven't heard of! As I've gotten older I've realized how much I don't know. There's so much still to see, there's all this stuff out there! 

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