Brian De Palma on his thrillers

We chat with the suspense expert about his classics, coming to BAM.

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    BODY DOUBLE (1984)

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    BLOW OUT (1981)

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    DRESSED TO KILL (1980)

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    CARRIE (1976)

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    FEMME FATALE (2002)

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He's ruffled feathers and shocked audiences—so maybe it's time for the cultish affection surrounding Brian De Palma to be acknowledged with a retrospective. Programmed by superfan Noah Baumbach (director of The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg), BAM's "De Palma Suspense" should make plenty of converts. TONY wrangled De Palma and Baumbach for a three-way call.

These ten films cut right to the essence of cheesy coolness. What's the appeal for you, Noah?

Noah Baumbach: My parents [film critic Georgia Brown and novelist Jonathan Baumbach] were huge fans of Brian's—both actually wrote about him at different times. That was my initial experience of him: They would talk about his movies in a visceral, emotional way. So when I finally saw the films, I felt like I was being invited into a mysterious world that was scary and sexy and strange.

And forbidden—I remember sneaking into Body Double at age 13. Brian, I've read that you made that film in reaction to censorship.

Brian De Palma: I had quite a confrontation with the MPAA over Scarface, which came right before it. They kept giving me an X rating. And we won that case, so it was a triumphant moment for me. But I'd been battling with them ever since 1980 and Dressed to Kill. Even Greetings [his 1968 breakthrough] got one of the first Xs. So I've had a long relationship with the ratings board.

Noah, I hope you'll jump in with questions if you want.

Baumbach: Brian's been inundated with my questions for years.

When did you two meet?

De Palma: I met Noah in the Village—I guess it's 15 years now?
Baumbach: I was putting together Mr. Jealousy and he was writing Snake Eyes. It was a birthday party for Paul Schrader. The girl I was dating knew Paul, so I went along. And Brian was there. I think I got pretty loaded. I remember spewing out my entire knowledge onto him.

Pauline Kael gushed too. But there have also been the naysayers, those who say Brian is ripping off Hitchcock.

De Palma: Look, it's part of what I do. I build upon what I've seen throughout the history of cinema, which is really what everyone does in every other art form. For me, it's somehow taken on this tone of stealing or plagiarism, but all art builds upon the past, whether it's painting or writing or music. You want to use the best of what there is, and take it further.
Baumbach: See? Brian is so open about it. There's so much other stuff coming out of a director's unconscious when he makes a movie. It's why his films are original, even if you do see plot elements from other thrillers.

Why is the thriller so perfectly matched to cinema?

Baumbach: As opposed to the movies I make. [Laughs]
De Palma: Because you can tell a story in pictures. You don't have to rely on character and dialogue. I'm fascinated by silent movies. I love the ballet. It's amazing to me that few directors want to do that anymore.

Some of the films in this series—especially Raising Cain and Femme Fatale—seem like self-parody. Are they supposed to be in-jokes?

De Palma: They're like boxes within boxes—sometimes too many boxes! The idea for Raising Cain was great: I had a girlfriend that used to stay at my place after work. She was involved with somebody else. And I always wondered what would happen if she fell asleep and stayed overnight and didn't go home. What excuse would she make? Unfortunately, all the John Lithgow stuff was so dominant, nobody was interested in the wayward housewife.
Baumbach: People don't realize that many of these stories actually come from personal places in Brian's life. He's just put them into a thriller form. Whereas I tell my stories only about a layer or two removed.

Carrie and Sisters definitely don't come from Brian's life. How do I convince my girlfriend that his female victims aren't stereotypes?

De Palma: I've answered this question a thousand times. In a thriller, women are more vulnerable. You care more about what happens to a girl in a negligee wandering around a haunted house than Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's just a simple element of the form. Plus, like many artists, I like photographing women. They're beautiful and empathetic.

Noah, how do you explain De Palma to women?

Baumbach: That sounds like the title of a book. For me, there's a real sense of humor in the movies. For instance, the drill scene in Body Double: It's pitched to such a thrilling, crazy degree with the blood and the dog. To me, it becomes something beyond the literal. So I don't think, How could you put a woman in that situation? I understand people being sensitive to it. But there are movies coming out every week from Hollywood that I find incredibly sexist. And nobody talks about them that way.

Plus they don't even have a drill coming through the ceiling.

Baumbach: No, they just have Katherine Heigl.

Meanwhile, Brian, you don't seem that concerned about the perception. You're in Paris now, prepping a new thriller, right?

De Palma: That's exactly what I'm doing. I'm in the process of getting ready for Passion. And there are going to be a lot of beautiful women in it.

Can you tell us more?

De Palma: It's based on a French film called Love Crime with Kristin Scott Thomas. It has an extremely complex relationship between two women executives who are basically destroying each other—plus it has a murder in the middle. It's great material to visualize and make erotic and fun.

That sounds amazing—Noah, don't you agree?

Baumbach: Yeah, I'm hoping Brian has it finished by the end of this BAM series!

"De Palma Suspense" opens Fri 8 at BAM Rose Cinemas.


Visit the official site for showtimes and tickets!

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