No director has had as many ups and downs as Brian De Palma. In the early ’70s, the New Jersey native was the ringleader of a group of Hollywood boy wonders that included George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese. He also helped launch the careers of Robert De Niro, John Travolta, and Sissy Spacek. But by the end of the ’80s, De Palma had come to symbolize the glorious (Scarface) and not-so-glorious (The Bonfire of the Vanities) excess of the decade. Since then, De Palma has gone in and out of fashion more often than long sideburns. His latest comeback bid is The Black Dahlia, a lavish noir starring Josh Hartnett, Hilary Swank, and Scarlett Johansson. De Palma describes the bruise-black period film as a look at ”the dark side of the Hollywood myth factory.” And after more than 40 turbulent years in that factory’s engine room, he should know what it looks like. We sat down with the 66-year-old director to discuss his legacy behind the camera.
Reeling from the disaster of his first studio film, 1972’s Get to Know Your Rabbit, De Palma retrenched with this bloody, low-budget thriller about a pair of separated Siamese twins. While some critics praised the film as ”Hitchcockian,” others thought he was ripping off the master — a familiar refrain during his career.
”Get to Know Your Rabbit was a catastrophe. I had an unhappy star, Tommy Smothers, who looked at Warner Brothers as the enemy. And pretty soon, I was the enemy too. He didn’t even want the movie to come out. I said to the studio, ‘My way or the highway,’ and they showed me the highway. I had to start my career all over again. That’s why I made Sisters independently. I made a conscious attempt to learn how to tell stories with images, and Hitchcock is the master of that. I used some of his ideas. I have no apologies for it. Most times when critics say I’m ripping off Hitchcock, it’s a shorthand way of describing me when you haven’t really thought about what I’ve been doing.”
Based on Stephen King’s debut novel, Carrie was De Palma’s first hit, thanks to a lot of pig’s blood and its famous hand-from-the-grave ending. But the cast, which included Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, and John Travolta, almost landed in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.
”George Lucas and I were both looking for young actors at the same time, so we held our casting sessions together. We both really wanted Amy Irving — he wanted her for Princess Leia. I don’t know where I got the idea for the ending of Carrie. In the original script, the big climax was Carrie giving her mother a heart attack. I remember saying to the producer, ‘This is the big scene?! Carrie looks at her mother and she clutches her chest?! I don’t think so!’ You know, it’s actually Sissy’s hand that reaches out from the grave. They put her in a box under the ground. I planned on using someone else. I mean, who would know if it was her hand? But she wanted to do it.”
Dressed to Kill 1980
Right from its opening — a shower scene with Angie Dickinson that left little to the imagination — De Palma was branded a misogynist. That didn’t stop audiences from making the controversial thriller a hit.
”Angie’s not shy about appearing without her clothes, but she felt that a younger body might look better in the shower scene. She was like, ‘I’ll do it, but I think you’ll be better off with a body double.’ So that’s what we did. In any movie, as soon as you see a girl, you’re waiting for her to take her clothes off. You’ll sit there and watch her forever for this to happen. I get attacked for putting women in jeopardy and having them get attacked, but I’m sorry, if I’m going to photograph someone in peril, showing a woman in a negligee holding a candelabra is a lot more interesting to me than some guy walking around with a flashlight.”
Blow Out 1981
A riff on Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Blow Out stars John Travolta (at the height of his fame) as a movie sound man who overhears what may have been a murder. De Palma’s obsession with surveillance pops up in several films; he traces the theme to an incident in his youth.
”When I was 17, my mother thought my father was cheating on her. And she kind of recruited me to follow him. When he made a date with this girl, I followed him and took some photographs, like a little detective. Ultimately I confronted him when I broke into their love nest and caught him with the other woman…. Blow Out was supposed to be a little picture, but John had just done Saturday Night Fever and Grease back-to-back. So when he wanted to do it, that made it a much bigger picture. He was terrific, but it was expensive and when you have a bummer ending like Blow Out’s… I’ll never forget when the distributor saw it, they almost had a coronary.”
The Oliver Stone-penned saga of Cuban drug lord Tony Montana features more bullets, blow, and bad accents than you can shake a rolled-up dollar bill at. But it remains De Palma’s most iconic and lasting film.
”It just goes to show you never know which are the films people will still be talking about 25 years later. Oliver Stone almost got himself killed researching it. He was hanging out with a bunch of drug dealers and they thought he was an undercover agent. The movie’s grand opera, so of course Pacino played it big. He’s on cocaine, for chrissakes! When he took Michelle Pfeiffer’s hat in that scene with the two of them in the car, he did that spontaneously. It’s one of those magical moments. The thing I’m proudest of is Al’s performance. If I’m watching TV and I come across that film, I’ll sit and watch it for a while.”
The Untouchables 1987
Written by David Mamet, De Palma’s period epic about Eliot Ness’ crusade against Al Capone features an impressive cast — in retrospect.
”Originally, I had Bob Hoskins as Capone. And I told the head of the studio, ‘We have a cast for an episode of Masterpiece Theatre. We need a big star as Capone.’ So we went to De Niro. I spent weeks trying to convince him because he would have to put on weight and he had a couple of other pictures he was doing. No one had heard of Kevin Costner yet. And Sean Connery — he hadn’t had a hit since 007. Now the cast looks great, but at the time, it wasn’t quite as hot. In the end, Hoskins had a pay-or-play deal, so he got paid $300,000 for not doing the movie. To this day, he says to me, ‘It’s the best job I ever had!”’
Casualties of War 1989
De Palma’s Vietnam film had the misfortune of hitting theaters after Full Metal Jacket and the same year as Born on the Fourth of July. Despite powerhouse performances by Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox, it got lost.
”The other Vietnam movies had something to do with it. And also that Michael J. Fox was considered a comedy star at the time. When you make a movie like Blow Out or Casualties of War, which is unending agony to make and to watch, your audience isn’t going to sit up and go, ‘God, that’s great! I’m going to go tell my friends about this one!’ I mean, the movie’s devastating. It’s about a girl that gets raped and killed. Vertigo is one of my favorite movies. Hitchcock was mortified when it wasn’t a success. Maybe it’s a bummer, but you have to look beyond that. You have to stick with your instincts. And sometimes, unfortunately, you go down with them.”
The Bonfire of the Vanities 1990
Speaking of going down, Bonfire was not only a turkey but one with a bull’s-eye painted on its tail feathers. Critics had it in for De Palma’s take on Tom Wolfe’s novel from the get-go. Not that they were being unfair; the film’s a mess — as De Palma himself admits.
”We tried to make Sherman McCoy likable. That was my first mistake. That’s why we hired Tom Hanks. But Sherman McCoy is a prick and an arrogant aristocrat. And that’s the way it should have been. Ultimately, Tom was wrong for the movie. The reaction to the film was mortifying. You love this book, you make some decisions you regret, and you think, well, you just have to go on. In my career, I’ve been burned down to the ground about every 10 years. Finished! And somehow I’ve managed to rise up out of the ashes. It’s not a particularly pleasant cycle.”
Carlito’s Way 1993
Al Pacino’s world-weary Carlito Brigante is like Tony Montana lite. The standout in the film is Sean Penn as Pacino’s nerdy, psychotic, coked-out lawyer. De Palma says the actor was just as intense as the character.
”I was reluctant to read the script because it was gangsters again. Do I really want to go back there? But when I got Sean Penn into it, it got much more exciting. The only person who was close to getting Sean’s role — because Sean has never been a favorite of the studios — was Kevin Spacey. I know some people have problems with Sean, but I never have. I remember in one scene he got very unhappy with the way it was being done and he wanted to do a lot of takes. It was the scene where he’s all coked up, trying to convince Al to go on the boat with him. Sean was crazy that whole day. He was so into character. We’d done about 15 takes and I said, ‘Let’s move on.’ But Sean wanted to do 15 more. I looked over at Al and he was fine with it, so we did 15 more.”
Mission: Impossible 1996
The franchise’s first installment features several signature De Palma sequences, like the break-in at CIA headquarters with a dangling Tom Cruise. De Palma liked Cruise, but says one Mission was enough for him.
”Tom asked me to come back for the second one, but I said no. I saw the sequels. The second is very much a John Woo picture. I can hardly remember anybody else in it besides Tom Cruise. I think that’s a mistake. The problem with the Mission: Impossibles is they’ve been copied so much on television now. And then in the third one, where you have a television director [J.J. Abrams] directing it, you’re going to get a long episode of 24. I don’t understand why people are ganging up on Tom. I’ve worked with two of the biggest Scientologists — Travolta and Cruise — and I don’t think people understand Scientology. As for Paramount recently canceling their deal with his company, well, you’ve got me in a difficult spot because I’m trying to do a sequel to The Untouchables there.”