Brian De Palma is a household name, and for good reason. After decades of pioneering and controversial filmmaking, not to mention a few great Hollywood hits, he’s earned his place in the film world, and yet he is also one of cinema’s most underrated, and underappreciated filmmakers. It’s impossible to talk about modern film without bringing up his films, including Scarface, Carrie, and The Untouchables, to name a few, but some of his lesser-known work is as good or better than those iconic titles.
What makes De Palma even more fascinating is that he’s simply a fantastic and hilarious storyteller. After so much time working in and around Hollywood, and a multitude of other icons in the industry, he has a deep history to share, and insights into filmmaking that are almost impossible to hear about otherwise.
That’s where Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow come in. These are two directors who already knew De Palma well, and realized that they had to make a film about the filmmaker where he could share those stories, while also showing off the genius of the legend.
The result is De Palma, a documentary like few others, which is essentially a history of filmmaking from the 1960s to today.
Paltrow was in Toronto during the Hot Docs film festival, and I had the opportunity to interview him and find out more about making the unique and vital documentary.
De Palma opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox today, Friday June 17, and then opens in select cinemas across Canada starting on July 1 at Vancouver’s Vancity Theatre, and Calgary’s Globe Cinema.
TIFF Bell Lightbox is also running a special retrospective on Brian De Palma called “Split/Screen: The Cinema of Brian De Palma”, which kicks off tomorrow, Saturday June 18 with Casualties of War and runs until September 3. Find out more about the special programme at TIFF.net.
Question: Was it difficult to talk Brian into doing this? I know I’ve heard him say before that if he’s not promoting a movie he does not want to be interviewed.
Jake Paltrow: “No, I know. No, it ultimately wasn’t because it really grows out of us being close friends. I had this friendship with Brian, and Noah had a friendship with Brian independently, and then we all became friends and started spending a lot of time together.”
“After a couple of years and having lots of dinners with Brian and asking him a million questions about the movies he made and making movies in general and the shift… the landscape of movies from when he started to now, and just everything. Anything that you could think of in terms of the financing structures of movies to the release, to people you could work with to the notes the studios give, all that stuff that’s in the movie…”
“The way he replies, which is not only so articulate, but so clear and so rich, that one day probably walking or something, home from one of the dinners, we’re like, ‘If he would do it, we’ve got to ask him to, if we could get on film what he does at a dinner.’ Just for us, selfishly, really thinking selfishly about it. He in fact agreed right away.”
“My recollection of it is that he agreed right away to the point where then we got the stuff together very quickly. He might have agreed and we may have started filming a week later. One of those things. Let’s hope he doesn’t change his mind. Then we did it for a week straight, and I think then we knew. Something that first started off as an archive or a testimonial or something, we didn’t know what it would be–as we started doing it, we realized in just the way he was talking. Just sitting there it’s so electric, that it was like, ‘This feels like a movie already.’ It not a typical documentary, I don’t know what you would call it.”
Andrew Powell: I briefly met him a couple years ago, and when you start asking questions, he just talks and so many stories come out. Was there anything though that he was reserved about talking about? Was there anything that he didn’t want to talk about?
Paltrow: “No, because the other big thing that the approach of the movie is like, this is an extension of two directors grilling this legendary director about directing. Yes, there are parts of the movie that segue with stuff in his life, but none of it’s really being driven by what’s going on in his life. It’s being driven by what’s going on in these movies. We never were getting close to areas of that stuff where someone would say, ‘You know, actually, I would prefer not to talk about…’ I think because we’re not even asking those questions.”
Andrew: He even was talking about stuff that you’d think most directors would shy away from.
Paltrow: “Yeah, you got lucky. He’s not like that with everybody. Yeah, that’s pretty good.”
Q: How much direction was there involved? Some of these conversations would be pretty epic. Were there any points where you had to steer him in the right direction, or was it just a question of letting him go?
Paltrow: “No, that’s a good question because a lot of the stuff that’s in the movie is stuff he had said to us where you’re sitting there going, ‘We’ve got to get him to tell us the thing about that.’ You want that, and you ask the question again. He was always very good about picking up the thing without us saying, ‘What we’re trying to accomplish is this. Remember you told us …’ There’s none of that. We just talk, and because we spend so much time talking in life generally, it has a nice, natural flow to it.”
“There were some surprises of the things we hadn’t talked about before. Once we had exhausted all the stuff we knew, we started to get into new areas of things we hadn’t heard, which is probably the part of the most directing.”
“Then it’s the edit. You have thirty hours–beyond that, the only reason this movie works is because he’s talking. You know what I mean, and the way he talks. Obviously all the great films he’s made, but he has a quality of communication that’s rare and very electric.”
Q: I was surprised how candid he was about things. A part of me was wonder, ‘doesn’t he care if he works with a studio anymore?’ He doesn’t want to piss off people who’ll be needing stuff. Was there anything that he felt uncomfortable with?
Paltrow: “No. I think Brian’s point of view with all this stuff is he’s going to tell it as he experienced it. Even if he’s telling this story that seems like “That person was a pain in the ass on the set,” or something like that, if you actually listen closely, he hasn’t disparaged anybody.”
“The only thing was the Cliff Robertson stuff, but again, he’s saying it as he experienced it, which was throwing off eye lines. His experiences that he had an actor that was taking over, or insecure about something. Then he tells you about the thing. If you actually look at all the other moments that happened in the thing, he doesn’t disparage anybody. Really. That’s just also a unique quality and also a relationship with a perception.”
“We could call it truth, but that’s not interesting enough in a way because what does that mean? We want this subjective experience of this guy in his own movies. If we wanted something else, if it was a testimony or something, then we’d affect it with opinions of other people who were there. Then you’d get, ‘That’s not quite what I remember,’ somebody would say or something, but that’s not what we’re interested in. We want as much… we just wanted what he’s got, which is a lot of great stuff.”
Andrew: Do you have favorite De Palma work? Not just a favorite film, but also some less appreciated stuff because his catalog is massive, and some of it is stuff that most people don’t even talk about.
Paltrow: “Yeah, I know. I think that Phantom of the Paradise, luckily it has enough of a cult following in some circles, but other people don’t have any idea what it is. I don’t even know how well people know Sisters outside of real movie fans, and that’s a masterpiece. That’s the beginning of taking a film technique and applying it in the best way that thing could be used.”
“I love them all really. Blowout might be the masterpiece. There are certainly more than one, but maybe that one, because that one has the top five endings for me. Top five endings ever. From Casablanca to anywhere else. It’s Casablanca and there were four others, and Blowout‘s one of them. That is one of the greatest endings period.”
Q: Yeah, and it feels like the De Palma-esque movie.
Paltrow: “Exactly. It really does. And people ask me, ‘Which of those films’, and I shy away from saying, but I said the one that’s been on my mind the most is Carlito’s Way, which in a lot of ways is the great expression of now De Palma as the elder statesman, the master filmmaker, the master artist, who now takes all of the tools, all of the things, and constructs these sequences in a very emotional tragedy. Yes. All of it. We all know how good they are.”
Q: You mentioned how much you and Noah had just been working, sitting around a dinner table with him, and I’m curious, how much did you learn making a movie about the guy who were sitting around the dinner table with him? Did it borderline on almost a meta experience of ‘We’re making a movie with the guy…’
Paltrow: “It probably would’ve felt meta if we weren’t coming to it from such a just warm… it was just an extension of the friendship.”
“If it had been ‘Dear Brian De Palma, let’s strong-arm him into doing this.’ Now we’re doing it. Then it probably would’ve started to feel pretty weird. No, I think toward the end, you’re just thinking, ‘I hope Brian likes it.’ You know what I mean? We were really excited about it.”
“I think we just had this feeling, and we’d joke about it a lot, even still where it’s the only thing that either of us have ever made where we feel like we can just sit and watch it. ‘Where was the day we…’ This one, I still laugh at stuff that he says. I just find myself always watching him, and that’s Brian. I really like listening to Brian.”
Q: Do you think he’s sincere when he says that he doesn’t want to make movies anymore? There have been a couple…
Paltrow: “No, he wants to make movies. I haven’t heard him say that.”
Q: At the end he seemed like he said, ‘Directors in their seventies shouldn’t really be…’
Paltrow: “No, he’s talking about your best movies. His big thing there is just about ‘make your best movies in your thirties, your forties, and your fifties,’ and then he uses Hitchcock as the example, which is a really strong opinion. He’s just talking about, ‘I’m still making them. They may not be my best ones,’ and maybe he’s right. Maybe he’s wrong, but he’s got a strong point of view about it.”
“He’s got this empirical evidence to back it up, as far as it goes. That’s interesting. That’s the big thing, and I think it’s also why a friendship is something that we sought out and cultivated, whatever. Whatever you do with friends, I don’t know. He talks in the way you always hope everybody is going to talk about stuff, where they know something or done something, or everything else I think. It’s unique, it’s really cool.”
Andrew: Do you think that some people, who maybe don’t know much about De Palma, might watch the film just to learn about the film history of the seventies, and filmmaking through the decades? Was that an intention?
Paltrow: “It’s definitely something you recognize in talking to Brian—this isn’t just a movie about a director. This is also about the shifting economics of movies, why they’re making some, why they’re not making others. What happens when things go really, really well, what happens when they start to not go as well. What happens now when studios are really worried about the bottom line, so they protect it through creative means, like notes and these things. Things that didn’t exist when he started.”
“In one way, yes, it’s obviously probably something, if you like movies at all. It’s in degrees. If you like De Palma, you’ll love it. You know what I mean? If you don’t know De Palma, you might be interested in… I think you’re probably going to be interested in watching some of these movies. If you don’t like movies, you might be interested in buying De Palma. He’s a really interesting, non-political… he’s political, but he doesn’t speak in a political way. He doesn’t hold back.”
“Is that enough to make it a movie that everyone’s going to go see? I don’t know. I hope people find it. He’s super compelling.”
Andrew: He had such an archetypal career path. You could make a movie about his career path as a character in a movie.
Paltrow: “Right. Right right, yes.”
Q: In many ways, this movie really does feel like almost an extension of that ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’ moment. Does Brian appreciate that?
Paltrow: “Yeah. I guess when Noah and I were like, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this,’ we both re-read that book. In the Bogdanovich ‘Directed by John Ford’–in a lot of the Bogdanovich, the books, even Allan Dwan, whatever the ones are. There’s so many of them…”
“Yeah, the Hitchcock/Truffaut one’s so great because it’s also… that’s one where not being friends and nobody being interested in what he’s interested in, literally it’s like a volcano. What comes out of that. I guess there’s this love of movies in France. I’m sure there was a little bit of it in New York, and little pockets in urban centers and stuff, but then you get this guy who’s obviously a master filmmaker before he’s thirty. He’s probably saying some things to Hitchcock that even Hitchcock is going like, ‘How does he know this? How is he seeing it?’ Also remember, there were no DVDs. You can’t rewind a reel. The amount of watching and paying attention and being so plugged into it.”
“That would be the flip side. It almost feels like now, to get that version, being friends with the guy. Having the warmth and the trust and those sorts of things, whereas that one is having such a deep knowledge that nobody else is interested in. Then he just taps the thing and it’s like a flood.”
Q: Why do you think there’s never been more projects like this where somebody looks up Scorsese or a Coppola? Really this is the first time since the Hitchcock/Truffautthat it’s been done.
Paltrow: “Yeah. We would like to do some more and I hope we will, but the big component we feel for making this one work is that we’re friends. You never know who you’re going to be friends with, and we could go try it out.”
“It’d be great to go try it out. We have ideas for a couple of other ones. I think that’s part of the thing that maybe mainly made this one work. You have to come up with something.”
“You have to find somebody, but there’s no undiscovered Hitchcock in that way. There’s no guy that hasn’t had something. A film, I don’t know. Not that it requires that, by the way. No, it’d be great. There are people that I feel like would be amazing if they submit to it and trust us. That’s the biggest thing. In some ways, that’s the calling card for the way you do one of these things is like, ‘See, we’re not going to ask you anything about the stuff you don’t want to talk about.’ You know what I mean? It’s just about the directing.”
Q: Is it tough not to include a bunch of split screens?
Paltrow: “Yes, but as Brian said, “It’s not good for action.”
Andrew: Was there a lot of re-watching involved for you? How much of his catalog did you re-watch?
Paltrow: “Everything. There were some I hadn’t seen. I hadn’t seen Murder à la Mod. The first time I’d seen it was when we were doing this. I saw The Wedding Party after I became friends with him; so, late.”
“There were ones I hadn’t seen at all. Then the shorts, which I only saw during the editing. The Responsive Eye, the MOMA documentary thing. A friend of ours sent us a link and it was, ‘I’m sure you guys are putting this one in,’ and we’re like, ‘What one?’ We talked about it, but things fall out.”
Q: How much balance did you have to put in to not geek out?
Paltrow: “Yeah, the geeking out went away quickly. At a certain point, you go, ‘Now we got to make this. Shape it and really decide what we want to do and what we want to…'”
Q: And eventually he has to see it.
Paltrow: “There’s that part too, but also that’s what I mean that’s where the directing part comes in. That’s where the things make you… your intuitive stuff, your sensibility, your restraint. Whatever the things, I don’t know. Whatever you apply to what a director is, we’re doing it here in the edit.”
“Then the things you sacrifice. We’d rather have this than that. It’d be fun to have both, but we don’t want it to be two things. We don’t want it to be a two-hour and thirty-minute movie. We want it to be under two hours. Maybe we’ll release something? Should we do the rest as a book? You actually start thinking it through. What is the best version of this? I remember there was a bunch of stuff we were like, ‘It’s too bad, it’s gone.'”
Q: There isn’t a four-hour cut?
Paltrow: “There could be a twenty-hour cut. There’s definitely a three-hour and something minute cut. You’re assembling it, not obviously thirty hours, but assembling all these things, and then you’re just figuring out how much we have to dedicate to each thing. We did it before we were talking. ‘Should we do it in two parts, and release this…'”
Q: I was going to ask about maybe even a TV thing.
Paltrow: “Yeah. Yeah, which would be easier. It felt like this matched the energy of him and we’ve talked about that. Maybe in the future, there could be something where it’d be, if you did a DVD, we should put a bunch of other stuff in the back some of those things where it’s worthwhile. It’s creating progression and a movie that’s going to feel like it took you some place. That’s the way to do it.”