15 Things We Learned From the 'De Palma' Documentary - Rolling Stone
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15 Things We Learned From the ‘De Palma’ Documentary

From sharing ‘Star Wars’ casting auditions to quitting ‘Scarface,’ some key revelations from the stunning doc on the director

Brian De Palma and Al Pacino on the set of 'Scarface.'Brian De Palma and Al Pacino on the set of 'Scarface.'

Brian De Palma and Al Pacino on the set of 'Scarface,' in a scene from the documentary 'De Palma.'

The setup to De Palma, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s engrossing new documentary about the life and career of controversial filmmaker Brian De Palma (opening in theaters on June 10th), couldn’t be simpler: The 75-year-old director dissects most of his films and shares analyses and behind-the-scenes anecdotes in between clips. Forget talking-head testimonials from collaborators, flashy visuals or dramatic reenactments. You just get the man himself, looking back and holding court in all his verbose, insightful glory.

And that is more than enough. Known primarily for his obsession with voyeurism, murder, and his controversial use of violence (especially when it involves women in peril), the man behind Dressed to Kill and Body Double is amiable, self-effacing and a endlessly compelling storyteller. De Palma works because De Palma works as a raconteur — and the man in the safari jacket has endless tales to tell about his film-brat peers, the New Hollywood era and the creation of some of the most memorable American movies of the past 40-plus years. Here are 15 things we learned from this essential new doc.

Orson Welles Didn’t Know His Lines in Get to Know Your Rabbit
De Palma’s early, absurdist 1972 comedy sees Tom Smothers leave the stress of his routine life to become a tap dancing magician under the tutelage of, yes, Orson Welles. But there was one problem: the man behind Citizen Kane could never remember his lines. “We had cue cards all over the place and I’d never seen this before,” the director says. “You just look at it and you say, ‘This isn’t right. This is sloppy.'” De Palma was forced to shoot Welles’ scenes repeatedly until the legendary actor-director nailed his part: “I’m in my 20s [and] I’m going ‘Holy Mackerel.’ I’m telling Orson Welles he’s gotta do this thing again.”

Bernard Herrmann Scared the Crap Out of Him
While editing Sisters, De Palma used the music of Psycho, composed by Hitchcock’s favorite composer Bernard Herrmann, as a temporary guideline for what he was looking for in his own film. “It worked so well, [my editor and I] said, ‘Where’s Bernard Herrmann now?'” De Palma brought him to New York to screen a cut for the “grouchy” legend, who shrieked when he heard his own music in De Palma’s editing room. “It was scary,” the director recalls. “You don’t sit there going through note by note with [Herrmann]. He sees the movie and goes home and writes the score.”

Led Zeppelin Sued Him Over Phantom of the Paradise
De Palma’s fatal flaw with his 1974 cult musical comedy was not making a camp glam-rock satire before its time; it was failing to take out errors and omissions insurance, which protects producers against lawsuits stemming from libel, slander and unauthorized use of titles, plots and characters. The result: four lawsuits, including Universal’s infringement claim for Phantom of the Opera, a suit brought by the creators of the Phantom comic strip and legal action by Led Zeppelin, owner of Swan Song Records, over the film’s fictional Swan Song Enterprises label. “We had to physically change the negatives” with the new label name, Death Records, producer Edward Pressman told the New York Times in 2014.

George Lucas and De Palma Cast Carrie and Star Wars Together
It’s true: The master of the macabre was casting for his adaptation of the Stephen King novel at the exact same time as longtime friend was scouting for his galaxy-far-far-away saga, so the two streamlined auditions. According to De Palma, Lucas was “looking at every young actor in Hollywood,” and while Amy Irving eventually earned her first major role as Carrie‘s vicious Sue Snell, the doc’s subject said in an alternate movie universe, she almost got the role of Princess Leia.

He Hates All Other Adaptations of Carrie
The filmmaker minces no words when discussing the myriad, inferior takes on Carrie that have rained down on filmgoers since its release. “They’ve made so many versions and so many mistakes,” he says, “that it’s wonderful to see what happens when somebody takes a piece of material and makes all the mistakes that you avoided.” He especially singles out the ones that stay overly faithful to Stephen King’s book, which kill Carrie’s mom with a heart attack rather than the infinitely more creative “telepathically induced flying-knife crucifixion.”

His Obsession With Split-Screen Is to Help You
De Palma’s use of split screen – dating back to 1970’s Dionysus in ’69 – has long been one of the director’s most enduring and trademark stylistic techniques, used in everything from 1973’s Sisters to 1998’s Snake Eyes. In the film, he explains his love of, and reliance on, the device. “The thing about movies is that you’re telling the audience what to look at,” he says. “With split-screen, the audience has a chance to put two images together simultaneously and something happens in their head. You’re giving them a juxtaposition instead of [points finger in air] ‘This.'”

He Once Threatened His Cheating Dad With a Knife

Given the director’s predilection for murder, revenge, voyeurism and sexual depravity, fans will naturally wonder how much of his films are based on De Palma’s real life. The filmmaker discusses his “turbulent” upbringing as the son of a serial philanderer, detailing one particularly traumatic event. “I used to follow my father around when he was cheating on my mother. I took photographs of him,” he says. De Palma’s father would take his mistresses to his office down the street from his house. “I had broken into the office by ramming my fist through the glass door,” he recalls. “I had a knife with me and I threatened him and I said, ‘Where is she?’ I searched through the office and I finally found her in the closet.” De Palma based Keith Gordon’s magnanimous Peter Miller in Dressed to Kill on his own real-life experience. As for his father’s reaction when he busted him? “He was a bit surprised to say the least.”

De Palma’s Real-Life Sound Technician Inspired Blow Out
While mixing Dressed to Kill, De Palma grew weary of having a small stable of sound effects and instructed his sound technician to go out and “get something better.” “He would go out in his backyard and record new stuff for me,” the director says. The simple idea of sound recording became the basis for Blow Out, one of De Palma’s seminal works starring John Travolta as a sound man for films who witnesses and records an assassination of a governor.

Sidney Lumet Almost Directed Scarface
When producer Martin Bregman asked De Palma and writer David Rabe to work on the remake of the notorious 1932 gangster movie, the duo had already spent the past year developing Prince of the City, the story of a narcotics cop who exposes police corruption. Rabe agreed to write the script, but quit after Al Pacino was unhappy with the draft. “I came up in an era where you went down with the writer,” De Palma says. “If the writer got fired, you walked.”

He then quit Scarface and signed on to do the other project, with director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Oliver Stone coming on board to replace him. Like the film equivalent of a Hollywood swingers party, United Artists later fired De Palma from Prince of the City and gave the film to — wait for it — Lumet. “I feel Sidney had basically stolen this movie from me,” he says. De Palma then went back to Scarface, and the rest is yayo-cinema history.

The doc also reveals numerous fascinating Scarface trivia, including Pacino’s two-week hospital visit after burning his hand on the barrel of a gun, Stone’s forced removal on the set for talking to the actors too much and De Palma’s refusal to do a rap soundtrack to the film as the hip-hop community began embracing the movie.

He Turned Down the Chance to Direct Flashdance
After Scarface, producer Don Simpson offered De Palma the chance to direct, of all things, the 1983 tale of a welder blessed with ripped sweatshirts and dreams of being a dancer. De Palma was so angered over an alternate project he was working on wasn’t getting made, that he toyed with Simpson, making him offer an exorbitant amount of money – “I wanted to really run up a big deal” – before walking away from the project. The gig would eventually go to Fatal Attraction‘s Adrian Lyne and become a huge hit. De Palma would end up directing the Rear Window-cribbing erotic thriller Body Double.

Despite Playing James Bond, Sean Connery Hated Getting Shot in The Untouchables
Connery’s veteran police officer/mentor Jimmy Malone meets his end when he’s lured out of his apartment to a hailstorm of gangster Frank Nitti’s bullets. But while the actor had much experience with guns playing James Bond, he was clearly used to being on the other end of the barrel. “When I put all those hits on Sean, he was so mad at me,” De Palma says. “He’d never had hits [squibs designed to explode and replicate bullet wounds] put on him before. I said, ‘You’re James Bond. You’ve never been shot?’ ‘No.'” Connery would later be hospitalized after getting dust in his eye during the scene, causing the filmmaker to “beg him” to return to the set for a second take.

He Built His Own Jungle for Casualties of War So No One Would Get Lost
Sometimes too much can be worse than too little. While shooting his 1989 Vietnam war drama on location in Thailand, De Palma was forced to construct his own artificial jungle to prevent the cast and crew from losing their bearings. “It was a very difficult movie to make,” he says. “You walk three paces and you could be anywhere. There’s no orientation in the jungle so I said, ‘Let’s build the jungle set and move the trees around.” The director also reveals the real-life tension between stars Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox, which he credits for turning helping the amiable “TV actor” get into character as a pissed-off whistleblower.

His Affair With a Married Woman Led to Raising Cain
De Palma admits during the doc that, at one point, he was involved in a relationship with a married woman. “She used to come by after work and we would make love and ’cause she was tired, she fell asleep,” he recalled. “I remember watching her sleeping [and] thinking, ‘What would happen If I just let her sleep all night. How would you explain that to your husband?'” The scenario formed the basis for Raising Cain, De Palma’s 1992 return to thrillers starring John Lithgow as a sadistic murderer with multiple personalities.

He Planned a World Trade Center Shootout in Carlito’s Way Two Days Before the First Terrorist Attack
Every director has to improvise, but no one could have predicted what would happen to De Palma’s 1993 hit. “I had elaborate storyboards of this whole shootout on the escalators that were in the World Trade Center,” he says. “I spent weeks and weeks photographing it … and a couple of days before we were about to shoot, they blew it up.” De Palma moved the action to Grand Central Station, leading to one of film’s greatest Steadicam shots.

Mission: Impossible: Battle of the Screenwriters
“I was determined to make a huge hit,” De Palma says of his decision to take on 1996’s blockbuster adaptation of the Sixties TV show. “With Tom Cruise [and] Mission:Impossible, I’m ready.” Oh if it were that simple, Brian. The director enlisted Carlito’s Way screenwriter David Koepp to pen the first draft — then producer Paula Wagner told De Palma she was firing Koepp and bringing on legendary screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) to rewrite the film. “How do you convey this to your pal? Dave, the good news is we’re making the picture. The bad news is you’re fired.” De Palma was unhappy with Towne’s draft and convinced Koepp to come back and rewrite Towne’s rewrite. “I literally had one screenwriter in one hotel and another screenwriter in another hotel writing simultaneously,” he says. “Never in my history of making movies has this ever happened to me.” The two would ultimately get co-credit.

In This Article: Documentary, Star Wars


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