“Would you mind awfully if Brian De Palma was also present at your interview?” is maybe the definition of a rhetorical question. In Venice to promote the terrifically entertaining documentary “De Palma,” directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow (review here), the co-directors, who were due to do interviews as a pair, and the film’s titular star, had decided to do all their press engagements as a threesome. In reply, employing my world-class poker face, and, sounding only very slightly put out, I told the organizer that no, I would not mind awfully. In fact, of course, I was delighted to be meeting De Palma, and had I not been, for some crazy reason, prior to watching the film, “De Palma” would have seen to that. It’s a doc so genial and witty and candid that could turn even a lukewarm non-fan into a weak-kneed acolyte.
One of its chief charms is a sense of intimacy achieved because De Palma is the only character in the film, aside from in the many well-chosen clips, and when he speaks, it’s like he’s speaking directly to the viewer. So it was slightly disorienting to sit down in front of him for real, with Paltrow and Baumbach flanking — a little like this interview was simply a continuation of a conversation we’d already been having. I apologized in advance for any overfamiliarity that might ensue as a result.
There’s a great sense of intimacy in “De Palma” that results from the directorial decision that no one else, not even you two, appears in the film, even in voiceover. How did you hit on this approach?
Noah Baumbach: I think it was an early idea.
Jake Paltrow: You know, we never even miked ourselves. We felt, this is not about us.
NB: It’s true. We never miked ourselves. So we’ve must’ve known way back then — and we did the interviews over five years ago. I think it felt intuitive.
And yet it being you guys behind the camera does have a very clear effect.
NB: Yes, I mean, it wasn’t about us, but obviously the relationship would be present. Like you said, you felt like he was talking to you. The intimacy, the relationship, the friendship, the candidness is a kind of story in the movie — without being the story. And it seemed like the best way to tell that was directly rather than, you know, cutting to us nodding. And doing that whole “let’s take that nod from the bit about ‘Blow Out‘ and use it in ‘Mission: Impossible.'” That just wasn’t relevant.
Lillian Ross did a great book of interviews with actors where she took her voice out, so it’s just them and that was something we talked about at that time too. I think, as you pointed out, it creates a particular effect. It’s like listening in. I mean, this is sort of what Direct Cinema was, you know, like the Maysles and Pennebaker. They’re supposed to not be there and be there at the same time. In “Grey Gardens” you very much feel that they’re talking — she’s flirting with him — and yet they’re not really there.
Yeah, I sensed a lot of flirtation going on in this film too.
NB: Oh yes, Brian… Brian is a terrific flirt.
Ha! So the interviews took place five years ago. Brian, has anything changed since then? When you watch the film, is there anything that you think of differently just because of the passage of time?
Brian De Palma: No, not really. And I think unless I told you it was five years ago, you wouldn’t really know… it sure feels like it was yesterday. It was [Jake and Noah] who told me we did this interview five years ago and I said, “Really?”
NB: Because we feel like we do it every Thursday.
So you do you all meet regularly?
BDP: Yeah, Thursday nights.
NB: We try to be pretty strict with it.
JP: But now it’s like kids, families and things.
BDP: [sounding genuinely irked] That always happens! The family thing.
NB: But Brian, you were away! You were all, “I’m still in the Hamptons, boys. I’m not coming back!”
Ah, so you’re the one who’s been flaking?
BDP: Lately, maybe. But you were in Los Angeles….
NB: Yeah, I’ve been gone a bit too.
JP: I stick around!
NB: You guys have met without me! I always hate that.
BDP: But we do manage to make it the three of us usually. I don’t think we’ve ever gotten down to just two?
NB: We’ve done two. But two doesn’t count as a group. It’s just like you and me chatting.
JP: Like it was the two of us ended up meeting the last time.
BDP: Huh, that’s right.
But it’s great that you work on keeping it up, after such a long time. It was like ten years ago or so that you all first met, according to my press notes?
JP: Longer than that. Noah’s is definitely longer, like twenty or something.
NB: It was ’97 — no, earlier. ’96.
BDP: Was it at Paul Schrader’s?
NB: Yeah, his birthday party. I got loaded and hit on Brian, talking about his movies. I remember Brian at one point saying to me [incredulously]”‘Get To Know Your Rabbit‘?!” — I mean, I was really overdoing it, trying to get my bonafides out there.
Right, as in “I have honestly seen absolutely every thing you’ve ever made!”
NB: Yes, and Brian was basically not gonna have “Get to Know Your Rabbit.” He wasn’t buying it.
So you approached him as a fan first and became friends thereafter?
NB: Yeah, and then Jake met him separately.
JP: I met him through another friend of ours. I’d just finished my first movie and was editing it. And it had gotten into Sundance and I was thinking of making these changes — I didn’t know what to do. I remember, I talked to him a bit about it that night and then my friend emailed me the next day saying, “Brian would love to share some more ideas about this, would you be up for that?” And I remember thinking: “Wow.”
BDP: And I remember my advice: “Don’t do it, Jake! Don’t use your own money! Stop!”
NB: Now that you say that, I think that Brian called me too. I woke up the next day after the party thinking like, well that was fun to have met Brian De Palma. But then Brian called me that day and he was like, “Let’s get together.” He was so open.
You must get approached by people all the time, Brian, so why do you think you became friends with these particular gentlemen?
BDP: There was just an immediate rapport. And directors are desperate for friendship from other directors they respect. And since I came up in the ’70s with a lot really talented directors, I got used to the fraternity of directors. And I think I sort of missed it. When I came to New York, I was looking for another group to join.
So this film would probably not have been made had this particular group not coalesced?
NB: Yeah, I think it’s safe to say, this film wasn’t going to be either us or another film crew. It was either this, with the two of us, or never.
JP: It grew out of the way we talk and interact. The more you talk to Brian, the more valuable this stuff is and at a certain point, we just thought, “It must be recorded!” Even just for us — selfishly at first. And then when we started doing it, we realized that 50% of this really is the delivery. The way it’s being told. That itself is so alive, that it’s its own movie, kind of besides the content of what he’s giving us.
Very true, and it’s also edited so in such a rapid fire manner that it really does give the impression that there’s loads more stuff there, like you could make six more of these…
JP: I think we’ll hopefully see some more stuff, like on the DVD or something. All twenty-nine hours of it.
NB: Jake thinks it’s 30 hours. I have that it’s more in my head.
JP: Maybe it’s more, maybe it’s 40.
NB: In digital, you can just keep talking.
How well did Brian take direction?
NB: We never directed him except in ADR.
JP: I only ever remember directing him with, because we’re not that technically oriented: “No maybe don’t lean too far forward because the focus is so shallow.”
“Stay on your mark!” basically.
JP: Heh. I mean it was a good, professional camera but we couldn’t really follow focus. That was about it, right?
NB: Yeah, and Brian would hit his mic sometimes in gesturing. That was about the only direction we gave. Or like, “You’ve got a hair here…”
And Brian, did you feel at any point the desire to leap in and do a whole “you’re doing it wrong” thing?
BDP: No, never. The good thing about directors working with directors is they understand how to be directed. It’s the advantage when a director acts in somebody else’s movie: he understands the process very well. He knows that they’re basically trying to make you as good as you can be and the suggestions, you should listen to. But there really wasn’t a lot of direction here. It was just, “Don’t hit your microphone. Don’t lean out of focus. And wear the same shirt.”
Aha, that’s the magic of movies then, because it does give you the impression that it is all taken from one continuous interview
NB: It was a short period of time, but it was not just one interview.
JP: Several sessions, yes.
NB: And just to elaborate on the last point, because I’ve worked with a few directors in fiction movies too…
Bogdanovich, for example, right?
NB: Yeah, and Ben Stiller‘s a director. And Jake, actually — Jake had a small role in “Greenberg.” I actually find directors are … because they’re so controlling on their own things, they are actually happy to give it up if they trust the person they’re working with. It’s actually a relief. I can totally understand that.
But it is an ego-driven profession — did that cause any problems with co-directing here? Did you two split the directing duties up?
NB: We were in it together.
JP: Really, it was so nice. People always feel envious of the Coens, like they get to have two minds on everything. Now I don’t have any idea what their process is like, but that thing when you just feel like there’s someone else to pick up on things… It was a great experience.
NB: I mean, our relationship as co-directors came out of friendship too. Jake and I met separately from Brian, and then when we all started hanging out, it had the pleasures of like, “We’re having dinner anyway, so let’s work on the movie.”
In the film, several times you mention your theory that it’s only when directors are in their thirties, forties and fifties that they make their most interesting films…[Here De Palma’s partner, who is sitting in on the interview and has obviously had words with him before about this act of gentle self-sabotage sighs “How many times did you have to say that?” and De Palma lets out a gust of laughter in response]
BDP: I’m sorry! What can I say? I’m a student of directors, and I noticed that.
Yeah, and the Hitchcock example you give in the film is perfect.
BDP: Exactly. “Torn Curtain” is not really the greatest picture. And let’s not forget “The Birds” with that model stumbling about.
So what does that mean for your future directing career?
BDP: I’m finished. I’m done.
[Widespread protest. Expressions of disbelief.]
BDP: Anything else is just for kicks.
You can’t be.
JP: You have like three things on!
NB: Oh dear. It was this interview that did it. The final ending.
JP: Oh come on, when are we gonna see your “Trouble with Harry,” Brian?
BDP: [relenting a bit] Oh, I don’t know. I always have ideas, and being on the independent film making stage, we try get them together. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. But yes, I’d like to keep working, because the brain keeps clicking. I guess I’ll keep doing it until in the immortal word of William Wyler, “You can’t walk anymore.”
Pshaw, you can still be wheeled on.
NB: Thing is, you get to prove yourself wrong now. So with your next movie, all the critics will say, “Brian proves himself wrong, makes his best picture.”
JP: All shot in your apartment from your La-Z-Boy
BDP: Maybe. If it was shot in the apartment.
JP: That would bring its own aesthetic.
Honestly, I feel like if you’d had a Kickstarter up at the end of the screening last night the audience would’ve have put their hands in their pockets and you’d probably have got instantly financed.
NB: So maybe now’s the time to strike!
BDP: I’m open to offers….
You must have some passion projects somewhere in a drawer.
BDP: Oh, there’s always passion projects…
[At this point I’m given the one-last-question signal, but De Palma kindly insists the PR gives us a little more time]
So obviously, you’re quite famous for having a few run ins with censors…
BDP: Ugh, the ratings board.
I wonder if you feel that there’s any role for censorship whatsoever or should it all be abolished?
BDP: The interesting thing is now, with cable, they don’t have those problems. That puts the movies in a kind of strange situation, because they have to meet a rating code and the guys on television can put all that stuff in and then we can’t put it in movies. That’s kind of odd. Certainly in terms of eroticism, you can’t compete with stuff on cable or the internet, that’s why I think it’s left movies for the most part. Because they can be a little more explicit, a little more dangerous on TV, that you can never get away with in making movies. When you’re making a studio movie, there’s all this pressure to be, what is it…? You try to make your action [movies]…
NB: Because then everybody can see it.
BDP: PG-13, yeah. But normally, my pictures were all X. They were always X. My first successful picture, “Greetings” was an X. “Hi Mom” was X. I battled with the ratings board for years and with “Scarface” we even overturned it, right? But today it’s kind of strange, because of cable. Certain things have gone out of cinema, that I used to deal with all the time.
And speaking of cable, I understand you yourself had a slightly miserable experience with HBO? [on the mooted Al Pacino/Joe Paterno project, which was cancelled].
BDP: Yes, I did.
So you probably wouldn’t think of going to cable yourself?
BDP: Eh, it’s just the old studio system. Now you have a lot of intrusive executives who sit there and give you tons of notes. It’s basically a producer/writer medium and the directors just come in by contract. I mean, with the big successful shows, I assume with something like “Breaking Bad” they had to wrestle in the beginning, but because of the success of the show then they basically leave you alone. I guess, I don’t know, I would assume — because they’re pretty wild in what they do, and they’re very original. But you have to get through that first process which is dealing with the tons of notes and I found it very intrusive. And everybody says you can’t get final cut on television which is what you fight for as a director. Once you get that, you never want to give it up.
Yes, it’s hard to imagine how your films would look if you didn’t have final cut, it seems crucial to your style. Speaking of, it’s a style that’s very different from that which we associate with Noah or Jake. What is it about De Palma’s films that particularly attracted you despite a seemingly different sensibility?
NB: I think just the personality. That they’re so of him. I mean, they are some of my favorite movies anyway, and there are personal filmmakers I don’t like too. But I think in terms of my “in” to them, before I met Brian, it was the personality of them. That they were just singular. And I think every movie I‘ve made, to some degree, brings me back to my childhood — even just the desire to invent something out of nothing. And Brian’s movies were part of that. They were also things I heard about before I could see them.
Because of those ratings.
NB: Because of all those Xs. My parents loved them and were also disturbed by them. My father was the big champion, my mother was initially upset by them, then she became the huge champion. And so I had an idea of them before I even saw them and I think I even had to see them a few times to almost figure my own reactions, because they had loomed so large in my life. It brings me back to that, to thinking about movies for the first time.
Yes, I think that that’s quite easy to do with a lot of De Palma movies. Watching the movie, you think about movies, you think about the process of movie-making.
NB: You do. And then also you get totally involved in it.
In the story of course, yes. Do you have a favorite De Palma film?
BDP: That is a terrible question.
It is? Oh God, I apologize.
BDP: Why do people keep asking that?
It’s a nice sound bite? It’s an easy line? It moves us from the general to the specific?
BDP: It’s the worst question in the world! Because there really is not an answer. We have to make one up to please you.
I’d be okay with that.
NB: Heh, you know, having worked on this and also knowing Brian, it has almost become like with our own movies, where you can’t pick a favorite. I almost feel like I can’t pick one of Brian’s now.
JP: Though I do go through jags with some of them. Like “Carlito’s Way,” a few months ago, was on my mind so much, I kept thinking about it, going back to it. And — related to it what Noah was saying, all of which I totally agree with — but my household was probably a little bit different. I wasn’t allowed to see R-rated movies.
But I had a friend who was very into his movies and I was able to talk my parents into starting to let me see these films because I was very into special effects — that’s where I was hoping my life was going to be, in making movies. So I kind of tricked them into letting me see some of Brian’s films for like the blood and guts. And so they’re just so elemental in my mind.
I don’t think you’re alone in having a De Palma movie be your one of your first experiences of all that. Brian, I think you’re probably responsible for introducing a lot of people to blood and guts and sex and all those good things — for which an entire generation or two of filmgoers thank you.
[Baumbach and Paltrow laugh in agreement, De Palma allows himself one tiny, fleeting moment of self-congratulation as he accepts the compliment and I feel redeemed after my “favorite film” faux pas.]
“De Palma” will be released in the U.S. by A24.