A24’s De Palma, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, is about as direct a documentary as you could find. In just under two hours, film legend Brian De Palma recounts his entire filmmaking history, from his years at Columbia in the ’60s to his big-budget hits in the ’80s, ’90s and beyond.
The style is refreshing, in that De Palma’s story is told solely by himself. There are no filler spots for others to weigh in on his style or methodology. This creates a reflection for his own thoughts that, at times, are brutally honest and critical, not only of himself, but of those he worked with. Each film is a stepping-stone to the next, rolling forward and meshing into one another, revealing the intricate processes of the film industry and Brian’s role within it.
Working around film legends like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas in the early years of his craft just proved that cinema was his calling. For a career in something like show business, being able to network is the key to success. Yet, many seasoned actors were often the hardest to work with for De Palma. Orson Wells and Sean Connery couldn’t remember their lines, while Cliff Robertson’s unenthusiastic performance created rifts on set. Though the quarrels of having to work with actors proves tough, De Palma’s expertise proves also that directors with a great vision can make the tough things work.
No one expected a movie like Carrie to create Oscar buzz for Sissy Spacek or Piper Laurie. It was almost through sheer luck that De Palma’s history working with Spacek was enough to get her a screen test that became an inspiring performance. The way Brian discusses the movie gives insight to how frustrating Hollywood is for many filmmakers. Budgetary guidelines, casting choices and thematic elements were all qualms for MGM and United Artists while producing the movie. Before it took off as the horror classic that it is, the studio limited its press because of the image it would give them. By the time Dressed to Kill was being released, Brian was fighting with the ratings board about violence against women in the film, when he primarily just wanted to push boundaries and do something that hadn’t been done yet.
The documentary, in a nutshell, is the ever constant pull and tug that goes with having to please executives while maintaining the creative integrity of a product De Palma is proud to showcase. Sometimes the movies don’t quite come together, but mostly they hold their own. For the love of filmmaking, De Palma’s home movies were the essence of his passion. He concluded that, rather than getting caught up in the rigors of the film industry, students simply needed to know how to make a low-budget movie. In an understanding of the vainness of trying to make it in Hollywood, De Palma iterates, “What’s disappointing about teaching film is that 99 percent of them are going nowhere. Anyone that has a career, it’s a miracle.”
What’s most interesting about De Palma is understanding his own thinking and methodology as he progressed throughout the years. Drawing life experiences both on and off set helped him whenever he would need it. Whether it was following his father around to catch him in an affair that would influence his work or learning to integrate new industry equipment in ways that progressed a story, De Palma’s intellect is perhaps what makes him such a notable director. He constantly reflects on styles and instances in earlier films that influenced his movies. Films like Vertigo were inspiring for De Palma, while Hitchcock, himself, was notorious for going into extreme detail to make his own creations as perfect as possible.
While the pushback from producers and studio heads never seemed to cease for De Palma throughout his career, his clout became big enough to strong-arm them for needs essential to his productions. De Palma has proven that to roll over and give in to everything others wanted from him would ultimately cause an inferior end product. His vision is clear, and his understanding of how to make it is profound. When all is said and done, his movies would become a reflection of himself. Everything he has ever made is now an unchangeable archive that would represent him for eternity. He is truly one of the greats.