One of the original 70s movie brats and a populist with a sneaky subversive streak responsible for a string of classics like Carrie, Scarface, and The Untouchables, Brian De Palma is one of those directors who never seems to get his due. Particularly when working in his personal brand of self-conscious thrillers, the filmmaker is almost destined to be equally revered and criticized for making tongue-in-cheek odes to stylized entertainment. Movies like Body Double, Raising Cain, or Femme Fatale are practically dark comedies when viewed in a certain way, while also being designed to operate as straightforward thrillers for audiences not interested in film-literate in-jokes.
His latest thriller Passion stars Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace as a pair of manipulative advertising executives whose competitive work relationship escalates into a war of public humiliation. This being a De Palma movie, sexual mind games and violence are of course not far off. Almost inevitably, the film has premiered at The Toronto International Film Festival to an equal mix of praise from followers and condemnation from critics who just can’t seem to get past the sensationalism to see the knowing laughs. Collider recently got a chance to chat with the director about his latest film, the split reactions it caused, his controversial legacy, that long delayed Untouchables prequel Capone Rising (including who he was going to cast), and his upcoming feature with Jason Statham. Hit the jump for more.
Collider: I haven’t seen Alain Corneau’s Love Crime which Passion is based on, but from what I’ve read the set up is at least identical. So what was it about that film that made you want to remake it?
Brian De Palma: Well, I thought there were many good ideas and character relationships in the original film, but it was sort of a younger woman and a more experienced woman in the Corneau version. I made them the same age and they are very competitive. There’s the leader of the company and then the ideas person who Noomi plays. In the original version you see Isabelle kill Christine and once you know that she’s done it there’s not much mystery in the second half of the film. You basically see how she confesses and then leaves a lot of clues that the police pick up on and then ultimately find out are phony clues, which gets her out of it. Then it ends with the assistant saying, “I know what happened.” That didn’t seem to me to be very dramatic. So I knew there were some ways that I could change the movie to make it more exciting.
What was it about Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace that made you think they would be right for those parts?
De Palma: Well that was basically serendipity and good luck. I was trying to cast an older and younger woman and I couldn’t get an older woman to play this kind of very dark, manipulative she-devil, basically. I was in New York and ran into another director friend of mine who was talking to Noomi about doing a film for him and he had all of her Swedish movies that she had made before the Millenium series. I saw them all and I said, “wow, this one is something.” She’s an extremely good actress. She’s very mysterious and potentially dangerous. So I had my producer get in touch with her and she read the script and she wanted to do it. Fortunately she had just worked with Rachel on Sherlock Holmes 2 and they wanted to work together again. They’re both represented by the same manager, so it came together almost immediately. When my producer asked me, “what do you think about Rachel McAdams for the other part?” I said, “Are you kidding me? I would be overjoyed.”
It was interesting that there were two very strong female characters at the center of this given that you’re often mistakenly criticized for being misogynistic. Was that something you were actively interested in exploring?
De Palma: Not really. I love working with women. I think they’re beautiful. I like to photograph them. I like the way they interact. I’m used to dealing with groups of women. When I was in high school I used to hang out with the girls. When I went to graduate school, I was in an all girls school. So it’s something I’m very familiar with and quite fascinated by.
I really enjoyed the successful ad in the film, which is quite funny and very much in the same in realm of the satirical pop culture voyeurism that you’ve played with as far back as the Candid Camera spoof in Sisters. Where’d that come form?
De Palma: It’s a real ad.
De Palma: Yeah, two girls did it on the internet. They put a phone in one of their back pockets and walked around the streets to see who was looking at her ass. Then the video went viral. Everyone said, “wow, who are these girls?” And it turned out that they were two advertising executives in New Zealand.
De Palma: No, my first idea was to make a very elaborate commercial based on Inception which goes through three dream levels to finally open a safe and find the phone. But, my director friends who read the script said, “no, no, no you don’t want to do Inception. You want to do something original.” I said, “But, I love Inception.” They said, “yeah, we love it too, try to find something else.” So that’s when I started to look around the internet for phone commercials and stumbled onto this.
Another touch that I found really amusing and wanted to ask about was the mask that Rachel McAdams’ character has of herself that she makes other people put on during sex. Again, very perversely amusing and true to you. What was the inspiration there?
De Palma: Well, the mask kind of evolved. I had to put a mask on Noomi later on, so I had to establish that Christine [McAdams] uses masks in her sex play. So I set that up in beginning where she’s masked and her lover is wearing a mask. Then the question was who is the mask of? That’s when I came up with the twin sister idea. She’s in love with herself, she’s in love with her twin. So we made the mask that’s basically of Rachel’s face.
I couldn’t help but notice that the financing for this came entirely out of European sources, so I was curious if you’ve pretty well given up on working within the studio system?
De Palma: Well, even the studios are internationally financed now. They are constantly selling territories and making deals with companies to pick up part of the financing. It’s sort of happenstance. Every film gets put together a different way. My last big studio picture was Mission To Mars. Femme Fatale was financed by a Tunisian producer working in Paris. The Black Dahlia was an Israeli group. Redacted was an internet billionaire who gave $5 million dollars to certain established directors, Soderbergh made a few of them, to make a movie about anything as long as it was shot digitally, so that’s how that emerged. And this one was a French/German co-production.
Do you even bother trying to pitch to the studios anymore?
De Palma: Well, you get offered stuff by the studios, but I haven’t gotten anything that particularly interests me. They’re making all of these movies about Hitchcock now, needless to say that they were all sent to me first, but there wasn’t anything that interested me.
Obviously you’ve done many types of movies, but there is a certain type of thriller that’s distinctly your own like Dressed To Kill, Body Double, or Femme Fatale and Passion certainly falls into that category. Do you approach those movies self-consciously, aware that there are certain things you do well and like to play with?
De Palma: Well, you don’t want to fall into the rut of recreating your last hit no matter what the genre happens to be. You don’t want to make four Batmans or ten Spidermans just because you can get a huge audience to come see it and make a bit more money that you don’t need. So, I managed to stay away from that basically because I try to go out in different areas and look for different situations, different locations, different types of stories. I try to avoid making the same genre, but of course I have made a few of these. They mostly come out of my student study of Hitchcock and using a lot of the Hitchcock story forms and grammar in the 70s to learn how to do this.
Yeah, obviously the Hitchcock connection comes up a lot, but who I always curious to ask you about was Dario Argento. Certainly his early movies very much remind me of your work in that he takes that Hitchcock grammar and heightens it to a European sensibility with certain extra flourishes like unmotivated camera moves for atmosphere.
De Palma: Actually, the only Dario Argento movie that I really know is The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. That’s the only one that I remember seeing. I think that was in the 70s right?
Yeah, I think even 69.
De Palma: Right, that’s the one. I’m not a big follower of Dario Argento. I know I get compared to him, but the giallo cinema I’m not a student of at all. I know that they think I look at all these films and take ideas from them, but believe me, the only one that sticks in my mind is The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. And Mario Bava, I remember Marty [Scorsese] showing me some of his movies in the 70s and I couldn’t even tell you what titles are now.
The elevator scene in Dressed To Kill always really reminded me of the elevator sequence in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage.
De Palma: I don’t even remember the elevator scene. Could be from it. Who knows? I haven’t seen that in 30-40 years.
I really loved the split screen sequence in Passion and have always enjoyed those in your work. I always wondered because they sync up so perfectly, do you have to time that out almost like a dance while shooting?
De Palma: Absolutely, that’s very important. On this one in particular there were certain things like not being able to use the shot of Noomi’s eyes the entire time. When she goes up the steps in the point of view shot, you can’t use the close up on the left side of the screen anymore, so it had to be timed out very carefully against the ballet and create action on the right side of the screen to juxtapose against the ballet so that you could get to the section at the end of the sequence with the throat slash.
Can that be tweaked in editing at all or do you need to have that all nailed down during shooting?
De Palma: This was something that was all very carefully storyboarded and timed because it was connected to the ballet of the Afternoon Of A Faun. That choreography never changes, so it’s like a clock. You know exactly where you are at any time because of that and have to choreograph the images on the right side of the screen to match it.
I really enjoyed Passion and know a lot of people who do as well, but for those who didn’t it’s almost like the copied and pasted comments a review of Dressed To Kill from 1980.
De Palma: That’s exactly how I always feel.
That must get irritating to hear the same thing over and over.
De Palma: Yeah, it’s disappointing because I’ve had it my whole career. There are all the DePalma tropes that they list. You know, Hitchcockian, overdramatic, whatever it is. They go down the list and it’s like, “what’s that got to do with this movie?” If anyone doesn’t see the beauty in this movie, I don’t know what they are looking at. I love when they say, “shoddy” or “trashy.” What movie are they seeing?
There’s one moment of violence in the film.
De Palma: Not only that, but there’s nothing trashy about anything in this movie. The locations. That beautiful building where the business takes place is by a classical architect. The cloths these women are wearing. The way they’re photographed. The ballet. How “shoddy” and “trashy” gets into this, I’ll never know.
What I always love about these thrillers is that to me they seem to work on multiple levels. You can watch them as a straightforward thriller, but also you being well schooled in these types of movies are also aware of certain absurdities in the genre and have a tongue-in-cheek about the material. Is that fair to say on your end?
De Palma: Yeah, if you watch the movie with an audience there are many laughs. This stuff is funny. Some of the things that Rachel does and says are so outrageous, you have to laugh. They are just so cutting and vicious. When she attacks Dani and shouts, “I think I’ve been sexually assaulted!” [laughs]. Watching these girls is hysterical. When they kiss each other, holy mackerel!
De Palma: No, I quote these lines of Rachel back all the time and burst out laughing.
And with melodrama, is that something that you like to tweak to the point absurdity?
De Palma: Well, I’m a very stylized director, so the shots are stylized, the lighting, the colors. It’s very vivid. It’s operatic. That’s what I like to watch. I like it to be larger than life and very pleasing to the eye.
Yes, very playful all the time. That’s who I am. I find humor in the darkest of subjects.
Since you’re someone who likes to play with homage and references, how do you feel when you get referenced in other movies yourself, like that sequence in Kill Bill?
De Palma: Fabulous. I mean when you take something from another filmmaker, build on it, and make it your own, I think it’s terrific. Tarantino’s obviously done it many times and I’m fascinated to see that evolves in other filmmakers.
I’ve heard you say before that you get very bored by the visual style you seen in many filmmakers now. So, I was wondering who are the people that you find interesting?
De Palma: There are many talented filmmakers that work in completely different forms that I do that I admire. Wes Anderson has a visual style that’s totally unique and his characters are totally unique. The Coen Brothers, again very visually oriented directors with idiosyncratic stories. And PT Anderson. These kinds of guys are fascinating. I love their movies.
How about Michael Haneke? He always struck me as someone up your ally.
De Palma: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I remember seeing Benny’s Video in the 80s and becoming very interested in him. I went to a film festival in Europe where met him and we went to a private screening room together and he showed me a couple of his films. I’ve made sure to see all of them since.
The Untouchables was a huge favorite of mine growing up and I was always excited the few times your prequel Capone Rising would move forward before fizzling out. Is there any chance of that happening at this point?
De Palma: I don’t know. We’ve had it cast many times, but we’ve just never been able to get everything together at the same time. It’s owned by Paramount so there’s nothing I can do.
Who did you plan to cast in that?
De Palma: At one point I think I had Nicolas Cage playing Capone. Gerald Butler was going to do the Sean Connery part. I think we even had Benicio Del Toro as Capone at one point. We had so many great people attached. It’s one of those legendarily great scripts that actors would die to play, but we’ve just never been able to get it all together with Paramount.
De Palma: Yeah, it’s based on an old William Goldman script and a novel called Heat. It’s about an enforcer in Vegas in the 70s. It was made with Burt Reynolds initially, I think in the 70s. I think that Burt Reynolds slugged the director on the first day of shooting, so the movie ended up being directed by no one and it’s kind of a mess. But it’s got some really good ideas in it. So we took the Goldman script and since Vegas doesn’t exist like it did in the 70s anymore, we’ve moved it to Nice.