At first glance, the idea of pairing filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Brian De Palma together for an onstage conversation doesn’t seem to make any sense at all. After all, what would the filmmaker behind intimate character pieces like “The Squid & The Whale” and “Greenberg” have to say to the master stylist responsible for “Scarface” and “Carrie,” whose career has been built on swooning, impossible camera moves and nail-biting suspense? This idea only appears unconventional until you see Baumbach (accompanied by girlfriend/actress Greta Gerwig) at two showings of DePalma’s latest, “Passion,” which is now screening at the New York Film Festival. As it turns out, the filmmakers are friends and mutual admirers, and organizers have been trying to coordinate an onstage pairing for years.
So it’s quite serendipitous that the event came together this year when both directors have films in the festival. Baumbach is back with his seventh feature, the buoyant back-to-square-one “Frances Ha,” while De Palma is here to present his 29th film “Passion,” which recalls the erotic thrillers of his ’70s/’80s heyday. Moderator Scott Foundas was on hand at the Walter Reade Theatre on Sunday night to lead the career-spanning conversation between the filmmakers, showing contrasting clips from De Palma’s work (“Body Double,” “Dressed To Kill” and “Carlito’s Way”) as well as Baumbach’s (“Greenberg,” “Margot At The Wedding” and “The Squid & The Whale”). Connections, of course, were not easily drawn as the filmmakers are essentially opposites cinematically, but that didn’t prevent them from discussing each other’s work, their “fraternity of filmmakers,” and how there’s always an exception to the rules of filmmaking.
The unlikely pair first met at filmmaker Paul Schrader’s 50th birthday party in 1996. Baumbach didn’t know Schrader but was accompanying his girlfriend at the time and said he drank a “considerable amount” before he felt comfortable approaching De Palma, one of his cinematic idols. Baumbach recalled that he was so nervous, he basically just ended up “rattling off all of [De Palma’s] movies” to the elder director. Thankfully De Palma had seen his first two films and stopped Baumbach to say that he was an admirer of his work as well. Since they both lived in the same neighborhood, the filmmakers began a casual acquaintance that eventually blossomed into a full-blown friendship. Baumbach even offered him a role in his third film “Mr. Jealousy” which De Palma refused. “I even turned down Woody Allen!” he told the young filmmaker at the time. (The role of the therapist was played by another ’70s icon, Peter Bogdanovich, who is now also close with Baumbach.)
But Baumbach’s first exposure to the films of De Palma, once dubbed the “Master of the Macabre,” was through his parents. “I knew about Brian’s movies before I had seen them and knew them as these kinda weird, creepy, sexy things that when I got to be older, I would get to see,” he said. “And when I saw them I loved them. And I think what’s interesting is since I’ve become a filmmaker I can’t intellectualize movies anymore. I come at it from a much more practical, emotional place and I discovered very quickly [that] Brian does not think of movies that way either.” He said he attempted to intellectualize some of De Palma’s films during that initial meeting but the director waved him off. “A lot of what we talk about when we get together to talk about movies — our movies or other peoples movies — it’s very un-theoretical. we don’t come at it from a critical standpoint. It’s much more from some other place.”
De Palma acknowledged that they are diametrically opposed in their directorial approaches but that their differences are actually helpful in giving each other feedback. “I think why we get along so much is because we approach things so differently,” De Palma said. “Noah builds these character pieces. I’m fascinated by movies that are built on characters because this is something that I approach the completely opposite direction. I’m looking for plot, visual structure and I’ve got to plug the characters in…I’m fascinated by directors like Noah who generate whole stories starting with the characters.” While De Palma said he is a great fan of Baumbach’s films, which have a very controlled shooting style, he’s often bored while watching films that are shot in a standard way without thought to the visuals.
“When I see a character movie, see a two-shot in a restaurant, I suddenly start getting very sleepy,” De Palma groused. “I see that two-shot, I see that over-the-shoulder, I think ‘Oh God, this is boring.’ But of course, you need scenes like that in order to build character relationships. I’m very aware of it. But to me, because I think in all these developed cinematic terms, it’s not very challenging to me. You know, the worst thing I could say about a director is that he ‘covered the scene,’” he said, adding that “any idiot could do that.”
Another cliche that seemed to irritate De Palma was lazy movie openings. “How many helicopter shots have you seen of Manhattan? Or a car driving up to a house? And also in the beginning of movies when they waste all this time going into the city and you see all the second unit going out there shooting all this arriving in New York or arriving in Chicago while the titles go across. In the beginning of a movie you’re ready for anything, you’re all excited. And suddenly you start seeing this terrible travelogue?” he said annoyed. “It drives me crazy.”
Baumbach agreed, “How you start the movie is critical. And how often you feel that there’s no reason for how it’s starting. And every so often you get the helicopter shot in ‘The Shining’ and you feel like the scariest thing is about to happen and you don’t know why.” De Palma interjected, “Well, that’s Stanley Kubrick, please. And he’s always the exception to the rule.”
Baumbach’s films have evolved visually over his career but says he would never attempt to shoot one of his films using a more theatrical style like De Palma’s. “I love how Brian approaches his movies visually, the things that he’s known for — the long shots, the split screens — I’m in awe of that when I’m watching his movies. I have the museum scene from ‘Dressed To Kill’ and the scene in the mall in ‘Body Double,’ they play on in my head. There’s pieces of all his movies that I have in there and will reflect on at different times. But they’re not things that I feel like I could imitate or would want to imitate.”
Foundas struggled to draw similarities between the two filmmakers (because there really aren’t very many practical ones to be had) but De Palma offered some help offering up the obvious, “Well, I think we’re both interested in women,” he said. “Beautiful women.” A pair of sex scenes were screened for the audience which included the “Relax” sequence from “Body Double” and the awkward oral sex scene from “Greenberg.” DePalma said the key to a good sex scene was “a good idea,” saying that “just shooting naked people rolling around in the bed together is not very exciting and you’ve seen it a billion times.” For the scene on “Body Double,” he said, “The idea is that he’s in a pornographic music video that doesn’t exist,” before lamenting that, “unfortunately MTV never showed it because I guess it was too pornographic.”
Another pair of clips were shown from “Dressed To Kill” and “The Squid & The Whale,” which supposedly showed autobiographical sides to each director. De Palma had been a shy nerdy kid just like Keith Gordon’s character Peter (he even built a circuit board just like the one in the film). Baumbach’s autobiographical elements in ‘Squid’ have already been much discussed so he seemed slightly weary of dredging up the topic again, saying that sometimes the most personal elements in the films are not the obvious story beats but sometimes smaller details that make their way into the film. De Palma agreed, saying “most of the film [sequences] that people think I dream up usually come from some direct experience I’ve had.”
When DePalma was a student at Columbia he and a friend that used to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to pick up girls, so for “Dressed To Kill,” when he was looking for some place to stage a set piece, he thought back to these experiences. “[Always] walk the location,” he advised to other filmmakers. The elder auteur also warned that sometimes setting out to make an autobiographical film can have the adverse effect. “What happens when people make autobiographical films, the problem is that they have the least insight into themselves sometimes. And they usually miscast themselves.”
Turning the focus back to De Palma, Baumbach praised his idol’s elaborate choreography as well as his innate understanding of onscreen geography. “The more I make movies I feel like — and this is something that nobody’s better at than Brian — is figuring out really simple things like geography and taking advantage of the space and making it clear. It sounds kinda simple and maybe not even that interesting, but there’s a clarity [in his filmmaking that allows him] to do all these other things.” De Palma added, “Coverage is like the worst thing in the world for me because you’re just recording what the actors are doing. I’m always trying to maximize what the actors are doing. And you have to watch the actors very carefully.”
He also had some quibbles with most modern action sequences. “In shootouts you never know where things are,” De Palma said. “People are shooting and people are fall. You’re going, ‘Are they close? Or are they far? Am I in danger?’ And it drives me crazy to watch things like that.” DePalma cited his famous Odessa steps sequence in “The Untouchables” (itself a nod to a sequence in “Battleship Potemkin”) as an example of the kind of shootouts he prefers. But executing action sequences that give the audience a sense of the space “require a lot of thought.” Baumbach said that he makes shot lists with the DP for pre-production but then allows himself the opportunity to change everything once he gets the actors on the set. Making sure the actors are being taken care of was something both directors agreed on the importance of.
De Palma told a story about how Al Pacino was feeling “very uncomfortable” filming the climactic shootout at the end of “Scarface” and asked for a rehearsal while the film was already over schedule and over budget. “I went back and I was watching what was going on with the rehearsals and then I figured out by watching Al move around, I could see the room was too small. It was something as simple as that. He wanted to have that big table so he could move around it,” so the production rebuilt the table 4 times bigger and reshot the scene 3 weeks later. “It seems so simple when I tell you now, but unless you actually witness this stuff happening, it’s quite something.”
Sometimes it takes more than one person to come up with creative solutions, and that’s why both directors are happy to have someone they can show their work to for advice. De Palma’s new group of cinematic confidantes includes Baumbach, director Wes Anderson and director Jake Paltrow. He said his friendship with this new group reminds him of his time with the Movie Brats of the ’70s. “When I was starting to make films in the ’60s and went out to Hollywood, there were a group of directors known as the Movie Brats: Marty [Scorsese], Steven [Spielberg], Frances [Ford Coppola] and George [Lucas]. We all hung out together and we were all making movies, movies that all bombed of course, but we were all making movies. And we forged an alliance where we would look at each other’s rough cuts, help each other with editing, suggest scripts, and we did that for quite a while until we all went off in our different places. And I kinda miss that fraternity of directors.”
He said he was fortunate to be in a new group of directors, but “it’s a small group and it’s not going to get any bigger.” For “Passion,” DePalma had passed the script to his fellow directors and originally included a convoluted dream-within-a-dream structure that they eventually convinced him to discard. “They read it and they liked the script very much but I’d done this dream sequence and done a take off on ‘Inception,’ a movie I quite liked. And the whole idea was the phone was in the safe in the third level dream and my fellow directors looked at me and said, ‘Get rid of that.’”
“It took three of us, too.” Baumbach added.
“It was unanimous, when you have unanimous consent [that’s what you do]. So it’s very helpful,” DePalma said.
“There is an isolated experience to being a director,” Baumbach said. “It’s very communal because there’s a crew, but it’s only you. You’re the one on the hook. And seeing it in the tradition of Brian and the people he came up with and hearing stories of how they worked on each other’s movies. And Steven [Spielberg] came in on the set of ‘Scarface’ and directed a few shootouts in the final big battle. Both it’s cool to hear those things and it opened us up. It made it less precious in a way, all of us, we can talk about it and help each other.” When Wes was having trouble coming up with how to visualize shooting wind for the climax of his latest “Moonrise Kingdom” he turned to De Palma who offered up a solution: make sure you have things in the air. Simple, but it works.
“Essentially we feel the same about movies and moviemaking but we come at it in entirely different ways,” said Baumbach.
“Passion” will be released by EntertainmentOne in 2013. “Frances Ha” will be distributed via IFC Films.