While Brian De Palma is best-known for directing sexually-tinged Hitchcockian thrillers such as “Dressed to Kill,” “Body Double,” and “Obsession,” my two fave De Palmas are Stephen King’s “Carrie,” which is being remade with his blessing by pal Kimberly Pierce, and “Blow Out,” starring John Travolta. While De Palma has scored as a studio technician with a strong sense of style–and bravura camera moves– in such movies as the original “Mission Impossible,” “Snake Eyes,” “Carlito’s Way,” “Scarface” and “The Untouchables,” the filmmaker started as an indie in the 1970s and is back in the indie world with European-financed thrillers such as “Black Dahlia” and “Passion,” which recently played Venice, Toronto and completes the fest trifecta in New York. Entertainment One acquired the film for North American distribution; it opens in August 30 in theaters and August 1 on VOD.
(Check out the new trailer for “Passion” on page 3.)
I sat down with the 72-year-old filmmaker, who divides his time between New York and Paris, for an Indiewire Q & A at TIFF’s Filmmaker Lounge.
Anne Thompson: “With Passion,” which screened in Venice, you decided to remake a recent French movie. Why?
Brian De Palma: Well, the movie’s called “Love Crime,” it’s by Alain Corneau and the producer came to me and said he wanted to make an English version because American distributors wanted to buy the rights [for] David Lynch. And I said, “Well, maybe I should do this myself.” So I watched the movie, I saw great things to be done with it, I liked the characters and the interactions between the women, and I had some ideas how to make it craftier, sexier and more fun.
AT: Indeed. How did you come to collaborate with screenwriter Natalie Carter, who co-wrote the original?
BDP: Well, I wrote many versions of the script, and we were having problems casting the bad girl. We got people that were interested in playing Noomi’s part, but not the bad girl. And we couldn’t figure out [if] it was because something in the script was offending them. So I said to the producer, “Maybe there’s something I’m missing here, let’s bring Natalie in.” And then Natalie put in some more material for the bad girl that was in the original script, but was not in the original movie. Then the girls arrived and had a whole different idea about how they were going to play the characters — which, let me tell you, how shocked I was — because we’d been working on this script for weeks and months and forever, and then the actresses come in and say, “No, no, no, we don’t want to do that, we want to do this.” Natalie and I had to go through all their scenes and re-write them with the stuff that they brought in the rehearsals.
AT: In the original, Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier have a mentor-mentee relationship. When you cast Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams, Rachel originally thought that she was going to play the younger part. Why did you want her to play the boss, the dominant role, if you will?
BDP: I saw “Mean Girls.” She knows how to be a mean girl. So, there’s a lot of fun to playing mean girls. Everybody doesn’t have to have a daughter who’s a goodie-two-shoes. The girls came in with their own ideas on how to do this. Though I kept them on track with the mystery involved, their interaction was completely, a lot of it, improvised on the way.
AT: What was it that you saw in Noomi that made you think she was right for this role?
BDP: Danger. Noomi’s very dangerous, and you don’t know what’s going on in her head. She also can be incredibly empathetic, but she can be scary. Believe me, I’ve been scared by Noomi.
AT: From the start there’s sexual tension between the two women. What were you up to there?
BDP: What were they up to, is the question. They did all kinds of things that surprised me because they are very easy with each other, and all their kind of sexual stuff that’s played off each other, like when Rachel’s at the cocktail party and she’s sending Noomi over to interact with somebody, and opens up her shirt a little bit and says, “Show a little skin.”
AT: She gives her a pair of stacked red heels and red lipstick, which she applies herself.
BDP: She did, herself.
AT: So they were improvising a lot?
BDP: In terms of the kisses that they do, they tried a whole bunch of different ways. And they were pretty explosive.
AT: And then you get into some bedtime stuff. There’s a drawer full of apparatus with some S&M elements.
BDP: That drawer was created by Cornelia Ott, the production designer. And believe me, she had other things for that drawer that I said, “I think that’s a little too much.” But she carefully arranged all those things in that drawer, and she said “What do you think?” And I said, “Yikes! Okay!” I love the way Noomi picks these things up,”Holy mackerel, what is that?”
AT: So you didn’t intend in the writing for that dynamic to exist?
BDP: Well, it was important about the mask, we had to establish the mask. But all the toys that they use, you gotta hand that to Cornelia.
AT: You’re also playing around a lot with the question of what’s real and what isn’t real, what’s imagined and what’s dreamed. And you’re also playing with split-screen.
BDP: Well, because I get a lot of ideas when I wake up in the middle of the night, just like Noomi does in the beginning of the movie, the whole movie’s filled with actions like that. She’s constantly waking up and not sure exactly [whether] what came before was a dream or wasn’t a dream. And Noomi’s playing a clever con game with the audience all the time, because you believe that she is an innocent person, she didn’t know what she was doing. “The drugs made me crazy,” and you buy it. A lot of the kind of boring police procedural stuff is put into this kind of dream-like state to make it more interesting, and because two people sitting across a table babbling about evidence can be pretty boring.
AT: You shot in Berlin, in some exquisite European architectural settings, like the Frank Gehry bank building.
BDP: Well, we had a great German art director, Cornelia Ott. And we had a lot of time to prepare for the movie. First we were going to set it in London, but then we were going to do the interiors in Germany. But after looking at some of the stuff in Germany that was supposed to be London, I said, “Why don’t we just shoot it all in Berlin?” It’s an international corporation. So that’s what we did, and we had to find particularly interesting locations, which is always something that I’m a stickler for. If it doesn’t look good in a photograph, then why is it in your movie? Because a movie’s trying to put the camera in a place that’s perfect for a particular action taking place. I think about it all the time.
AT: You work again with composer Pino Donaggio, who you haven’t worked with since “Raising Cain.” The score went in different directions, starting with a comedic tone at the beginning.
BDP: Yeah. Nobody writes those psycho dream things like Pino does, and there’s a long section of Noomi’s nightmare that has big surprises in it, and he’s just the master of that. I mean, we did it in “Carrie,” we did it in “Dressed to Kill,” we did it in “Raising Cain.” And then there’s the other music that’s very lyrical, especially when Noomi’s falling apart, but it’s very touching.
AT: What cameras did you use and how many?
BDP: Well, we had one camera, and we shot on film.
AT: You shot in 35mm? Wow. Nobody does that anymore.
BDP: That’s correct. The problem is that they only make digital things from it, and a lot of movies are released digitally.
AT: Are you decrying the death of 35?
BDP: Of course I am, but when we find a cheaper way to put it in the theaters, they’re going to do it that way. Plus, we have the big problem with everybody looking at things on smaller screens. You could be in your bed with your iPad watching “Lawrence of Arabia,” that’s the problem.
AT: So how did you move the Steadicam around in this movie?
BDP: Well, there’s only one really big Steadicam shot and that’s when Noomi has her breakdown. And I wanted to give her the emotional length to be able to play the emotion, all the way up from coming down the hallway, into the elevator, into the garage.
AT: Now how many takes do you usually do? What would be your average?
BDP: Not a lot, we don’t do a lot of takes. We usually tried different things that the girls would try to do, but after I got it I’d sort of look at them and ask, “Is there anything else you want to do?” And they’d either say yes or no, depending on how they felt about the scene.
AT: It’s been a while since “Redacted” in 2007. What’s your development process with scripts that are coming your way, and the films you want to make?
BDP: Well, it’s been a couple of years of getting films that were sort of like “Redacted,” that were based on the political situations that were going on at the time, and they were done on video, and using old internet things that I used in “Redacted.” I did two of those, but I couldn’t get the finance because “Redacted” of course didn’t make any money. And then I was adapting another script based on an old RKO movie, a Robert Mitchum RKO movie directed by John Farrow, called “This Kind of Woman.” And I couldn’t get the rights for it, ultimately. And then this came along.
AT: And what are you looking for? What is it that you want to do as a filmmaker now, at this stage of your life?
BDP: Every day above ground is a good day. I’m here, there’s all these people, they seem to be happy to see me. What more could I ask for?
AT: But you still want to make movies.
BDP: I still have ideas, that’s the problem. I still wake up with ideas, and then, you know, William Wyler used to say, “Once your legs go, that’s when you got to pack it in.” But I still have ideas, so they still evolve themselves into movies. So I don’t even know what’s going to happen next.
AT: Well, apparently there’s a remake of a Burt Reynolds movie “Heat” that you’re working on with Natalie Carter, who you seem to enjoy working with.
BDP: Yes. It’s an old movie that Burt Reynolds made, based on a William Goldman script, in the late ’70s. On the first day on the set, Burt Reynolds slugged the director. He went home, and then the movie sort of got made by God knows who, and it looks that way. It’s about an enforcer working Vegas, and his relationship with a very crazy 17-year-old that gets into a lot of trouble. There are certain very unpleasant mobsters. But we moved it all to Nice, and to a different casino town, and we’re probably going to shoot it there and in Normandy.
AT: Well you’ve become something of a European yourself. I remember you used to live on lower 5th Avenue? And you’re in Paris now?
BDP: I still live in downtown Manhattan. But I go where the movies go, basically, and I’ve been making a lot of movies in Europe, but I always wanted to do that, even when I was making big studio pictures. I’m the one that moved “Mission: Impossible” to Europe. It was originally set to be in the Midwest.
AT: You’re raising money overseas, like everyone else these days. That seems to be the way that movies are getting made.
BDP: Even the studios seem to be doing that.
Audience question: “I always hear from Woody Allen sets that he writes and then doesn’t direct very much. What’s your approach to directing with actors? Are you commenting all the time, or do you just cast the people?”
BDP: No, no, casting is so important. If we have a long casting process, the actors usually play the part backwards and forwards hundreds of times. When you’re dealing with movie stars where you’re not actually reading them before they get there, you hold your breath and hope that your instinct is right. And normally it is, if you cast correctly. The worst thing that could happen is when you’re a young filmmaker, and I’ve made that mistake myself, is to miscast a leading role. Because there’s no way to overcome it.
Audience question: “What are your thoughts on the “Carrie” remake currently shooting in Toronto?“
BDP: I have many good thoughts on that. I know Kimberly Peirce, I met her I think around 2000, when she was in Paris with “Boys Don’t Cry.” She also lived in New York years ago and we went to the theater together a lot. She called me up when she was going to do it, and we discussed some of her ideas, some casting ideas, and I gave her my blessing.
Audience question: “What’s the one thing that you know now, that you wished you knew when you were starting?“
BDP: Oh boy. Well, to be an emerging filmmaker you have to be completely determined to be able to deal with all the rejection you’re going to get. But never give up hope. If you’ve got an idea, and you want to get it across, just keep at it and you will succeed or not, depending on how hard you work at it.
Audience question: “Can you talk about the importance of improvisation?“
BDP: Well, it’s very important that once the actors have acted the scene from your material, to see what new thing they bring to it. And in this picture, because it’s all about women, for women, I would let the ladies take the scene wherever they wanted to take it. I mean that Mafia kiss that Noomi gives Rachel when she says, “Let’s kiss and make up,” is right out of the soul of Noomi Rapace. And you go, “Whoa!” And then what does Rachel do, when she’s sees she’s being observed by Dani? She kisses her back harder, and then she makes that wonderful sound afterward, she goes, “Mmm!”