“De Palma,” the first documentary in which Brian De Palma talks in-depth about his life and career, world-premiered positively at the Venice Film Festival Wednesday. Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, and also De Palma himself, spoke about how he got drawn out to make this candid reflection on an extraordinary career.
Noah and Jake, you are from different generations than Brian and you’ve never done a documentary before. How did this one come about?
Jake Paltrow: It really comes out of our friendship. Noah and I have known and admired Brian De Palma as a director since we were very very young. Making this movie comes out of us spending so much time with him, and talking to him about making films, and watching films. I can’t tell you how many films I’ve been introduced to by Brian, and Noah, and our group.
Brian De Palma: and vice-versa.
As directors there aren’t that many apparent affinities in your movies except that, in different ways, you all make personal pictures. Was De Palma a big influence?
Noah Baumbach: Yes. I think most of the movies I’ve made have some connection to my childhood, making something that purely comes out of your imagination. Brian’s movies had a major effect on me even before I’d seen them because as a child I would hear about them. I would hear my parents talk about them, I would see the ads in the subways. Even just the “Dressed To Kill” poster had an effect on me, independently from the movie, which I couldn’t see at the time until I was a little older. When I saw “The Untouchables,” it was the best thing that could ever happen to me. Now I have a friendship that’s almost twenty years old with Brian, a history, a personal relationship, and now this. The movie brings it all together. A silent narrative of the movie is precisely the personal relationship.
The film grew out of spending time with Brian for over ten years. Over how much time was it actually shot?
Jake Paltrow: five years ago we filmed for one week, and had Brian wear the same clothes every day to keep a continuity.
And then of course you had to weave in the materials, which you did with such directorial flourish.
Jake Paltrow: we wanted to maintain the rhythm of conversation, and let Brian’s storytelling direct us, in a way. The clips were brought in to illustrate things that Brian was talking about. It was often, like, ‘what clip from which movie would go well here?’
Brian, I don’t think you’ve talked that much about yourself before. How come?
Brian De Palma: because I’m basically a recluse. I only really talk about movies when I’m on a publicity tour. I had two French journalists follow me around for about seven or eight years, very bright people. I talked to them and they produced a book that’s quite good. But it’s all in French and I’ve never read it.
Noah Baumbach: in terms of us, the friendship was already in place. So it was in some ways a document of it; in other words an extension of it. From when we met Brian the first time, we were peppering him with these kinds of questions anyway. It was really for us like: ‘let’s document this; let’s have it.’ Brian is a singular, unique, amazing filmmmaker; but it’s also kind of universally about filmmaking, only the way that someone as great and as personal as Brian can tell it.
It seems as though with these guys (Jake and Noah) you’ve recreated some of the same spirit there was among the New Hollywood directors in that era.
De Palma: it’s unusual to have a group of directors who are bright, talented – some even genial – who get along with each other, who are not competitive, who are not trying to cut each others’ throats for some job. I have been very fortunate to grow up with a group like that and to find a new group like this more recently. It’s a lonely profession unless you have other directors to talk to.
One thing that emerged from the documentary is that since “Mission to Mars” (in 2000) you have been working in Europe. It’s difficult, I guess impossible, for you to find financing within the U.S. studio system. Why?
De Palma: well, I’m a very troublesome director, because I’m a final cut director and that’s very difficult to obtain in this day and age. I discovered, when I was making “Mission to Mars” that they were spending a tremendous amount of money, and we didn’t even have enough money to finish the picture the way I would have liked to. I’m saying to myself: ‘we are spending a hundred million dollars on a movie. Yikes! This is crazy! And these days it’s more like three hundred million dollars. You don’t get much satisfaction worrying about what the grosses are the Saturday morning the movie opens; whether you are alive or dead.There is so much pressure on you that has very little to do with the quality of your work. I’ve made big hits, I’ve made big disasters, obviously it feels better to make a hit. And in order to make movies at that level you have to have that kind of success. It’s a terrible road to be on!
How about TV dramas? Some say that’s the way to go if you want to do things that are more original?
De Palma: I find that television executives are very intrusive. I’ve never had so many meetings with so many notes about a script than the one I developed for Al Pacino [about the fall of Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno] that HBO wanted to influence in a way that made it unworkable. I got to a point where I said: ‘guys, I’m done.’”