Genius? Hack? Genius?

Brian De Palma comes clean on his tawdry new film, the old "Scarface" controversy and the reason "Bonfire of the Vanities" flopped.

Published November 6, 2002 4:00PM (EST)

Genius or hack? Innovator or rip-off artist? Master craftsman or manipulative shockmeister? Since making his feature debut three decades ago with the madcap comedy "The Wedding Party," Brian De Palma has been a constant source of contention. His movies, often rife with over-the-top violence, gratuitous nudity and flamboyant visual pyrotechnics, polarize audiences and critics alike.

His latest film, "Femme Fatale," starring Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as a jewel thief and Antonio Banderas as the freelance photographer who busts her cover, is already splitting critics down the middle. On one side are those who say the film is trashy, kinky fun. On the other are those who say it's just sleazy. De Palma is used to as much.

The Sarah Lawrence-educated auteur made a modest name for himself in the late '60s and early '70s with a couple of zany, subversively risqué satires ("Greetings" and "Hi, Mom!") featuring a young Robert De Niro. Following the marginal success, De Palma did a creative 180 and tackled a genre that would eventually become his stock in trade: the psychological thriller. "Sisters" (1973) is a creepy, blood-drenched chiller starring Margot Kidder. While many deemed the film a worthy homage to Alfred Hitchcock, others dismissed it as rank plagiarism -- right down to the claustrophobic close-ups and the piercing Bernard Herrmann score. From here on out, every other article about De Palma would call him a "Hitchcock wannabe."

In 1974, he made "Phantom of the Paradise," his inimitably baroque take on "Phantom of the Opera." The Faustian satire was a resounding flop but it has since amassed a deserved cult following. Two years later, De Palma revisited Hitchcock with "Obsession," an elegant and skillfully rendered variation on "Vertigo," and then finally cracked Hollywood's A list in 1976 with the adaptation of Stephen King's "Carrie." Setting a pattern, he squandered his momentum with two duds, "The Fury" and "Home Movies."

De Palma rebounded in 1980 with his masterwork, "Dressed to Kill." The psychosexual thriller is a nerve-fraying exercise in suspense, crafted by a director at the peak of his macabre talents. The split screens, extended tracking shots and dreamily lush scores from that film still show up in films like M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" and on TV shows like "24." Next, De Palma unapologetically lifted the premise of Michelangelo Antonioni's mod classic "Blowup" for "Blow Out," a voyeuristic nail-biter about political corruption starring John Travolta.

Now a bankable commodity, De Palma turned to Howard Hawks' 1932 "Scarface." With a meaty, tirelessly quotable script by Oliver Stone and Al Pacino's bombastic performance as a Cuban drug lord, the film was as popular as it was controversial. The following year, De Palma gave his critics more ammunition with the fetishistic sleaze-fest "Body Double."

In 1987, De Palma made his first real foray into the big-budget studio picture. "The Untouchables," a classy and rousingly entertaining gangster saga set in Al Capone's Chicago, proved that De Palma could deliver a crowd-pleasing popcorn picture without losing his distinctive visual touches, like the breathless, "Potemkin"-inspired baby carriage sequence. The searing (if uneven) morality tale "Casualties of War" followed, but De Palma had lost his audience.

His commercial drought continued into the '90s with the notoriously ill-fated adaptation of "Bonfire of the Vanities." Marred by obscene budget overruns, incurable script problems and profound casting blunders, it became the subject of journalist Julie Salamon's "The Devil's Candy," a bestselling account of the making of the film and a cautionary tale about Hollywood excess. The "Bonfire" debacle rendered De Palma a near pariah; in what looked like an effort to regain respectability he returned to familiar terrain with hodgepodge "Raising Cain."

In 1993, the director bounced back with "Carlito's Way," a crackerjack gangster tale based on the real-life exploits of Carlito Brigante, a reformed Puerto Rican street hood who just can't shake his criminal past (portrayed with swaggering nobility by Al Pacino). Rife with bravura camerawork, an expertly used disco soundtrack and richly memorable performances (particularly Sean Penn as a sleazy, coke-sniffing shyster), the film remains one of De Palma's most unjustly overlooked achievements.

On the strength of "Carlito's Way," Tom Cruise tapped De Palma to helm the big-screen version of "Mission: Impossible." Although the $80 million actioner was lambasted for its impenetrable plot, it went on to become the third-highest-grossing movie of 1996. In typical De Palma fashion, however, he parlayed the biggest hit of his entire career into a series of trifling misfires, the obtrusively gimmicky "Snake Eyes" and the inert space odyssey "Mission to Mars."

In his latest film, "Femme Fatale," De Palma returns to the tawdry playfulness of his '70s masterworks. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos stars as a seductively conniving jewel thief who ditches her partners and adopts a new identity. While on the lam, she happens to catch the leering eye of a paparazzo (Antonio Banderas), who gradually gets sucked into her treacherous vortex. Voyeurism, lesbianism, sexual depravity, pitch-black humor, leggy doppelgängers -- all De Palma's favorites are on proud display. It's a formula guaranteed to alienate (or indoctrinate) a whole new generation of moviegoers. And he wouldn't have it any other way.

A lot of people are calling "Femme Fatale" a return to your earlier works like "Dressed to Kill" and "Sisters." Do you agree?

Yes, in the fact that it's written and directed by me like those pictures were. It's very much a movie that's driven by visual ideas, as opposed to character-driven or story-driven. This is kind of a meditation on film noir. I don't think I've ever done anything quite like that before that.

What was your initial inspiration?

I always wanted to make a movie with a film noir protagonist because I think these women are so much fun -- they're dark, they're sexy, they're manipulative. I tried to find a venue to make that work in and then I got this idea of putting this noir story into this dream sequence, because I don't think you can do noir straight in a kind of realistic setting.

I like to do different things and go to different genres and have different moviemaking experiences. I'm 62, I've made a lot movies in the system and outside the system, so to me it's like taking an interesting excursion up the Nile. I mean, if the terrain is interesting and you can make a movie there then I'm ready to go.

How do you feel about being a director-for-hire on films like "Mission: Impossible" as opposed to writing and directing films you develop from the outset?

Well, that is not really a correct perception. With "Mission: Impossible" I developed the story and the screenplay. They were working on it for quite a while and I came in and started from scratch. So, "director for hire" isn't exactly the right thing. When you read a script, it's either developed for the studio, or they want you to start from scratch on it -- they basically let you do what you want. And if they don't like what you do, you wind up not making the movie. This concept of "director for hire," which I read a lot about, I don't quite understand what that means in the present way film business is conducted.

Well, there has been this perception that you've taken on high-profile projects, namely "Mission to Mars," as a deliberate attempt to go "mainstream." Is that off-base?

I basically do things because I'm interested by the script. Whatever anybody thinks about "Mission to Mars," I liked the script and developed it with a very good writer [Ted Tally, who wrote "Silence of the Lambs"]. I had a good time working on the material. Whether people think it's successful or not is something else.

It was a terribly difficult movie to make, but I think journalists don't have the right idea the way this sort of system works. When they hire a director like me who is a final-cut director -- you got a big item there. So, you better want to let me make the movie the way I'm gonna make it or hire somebody else. You can get them for cheaper and have more control over them. [Laughs]

So despite the bureaucracy involved in big studio films, you've never had a problem putting your personal imprint on them?

That's why they hire you.

Would you concede that your body of work is better appreciated in Europe than in the States or is that another misperception?

That is also a perception I'm not sure about. The reason my movies do so well in Europe is because they're visual and not driven by dialogue, so you don't have to have a lot of subtitles. I get some pretty staunch, diehard De Palma admirers here in the United States. There may not be as many of them, but they are indeed impassioned. Of course, in my movies there's always some kind of battleground. I have always been very popular right from the beginning with "Sisters." My first real success was "Greetings!" which won the only big international prize I ever had at the Berlin International Film Festival.

To be making movies at my age, going into my fourth decade, having my hits and misses, you have to be commercially viable in order to continue to make movies. Even though "Mission to Mars" got quite a drubbing by the critics, it still did $100 million worldwide. People seem to forget that. Do we ever hear the grosses on "Red Planet" and "Ghosts of Mars?"

Do you feel any more pressure than usual for "Femme Fatale" to succeed both critically and commercially?

Of course, you always want your movies to succeed on all those levels. But I had a lot of fun making "Femme Fatale." I think it's a kind of unique, very sophisticated, witty, fun, sexy idea. So, if it connects -- great. It was done relatively inexpensively and it's all been paid off because of the advances and the way it's been doing in Europe. If it does like $20 million-$30 million, it'll be a huge hit for us here. That's all that matters to me -- it paid everybody back and I can go out and continue working.

To this day, your visual style remains an influence on so many directors. How did your own style evolve?

Oh, I don't know. It has a lot to do with being very driven by visual ideas and being a great admirer of Michelangelo Antonioni and Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa, directors who were great visual stylists. You connect with them because you sort of see the world as they do. It gives you a history of material to know that you're working in an area that has been, needless to say, done exquisitely before. My particular style started to grow from the actual way I laid things out. Slow-motion, parallel action sequences, the use of the Steadicam, which gives you more mobility and allows you to use longer takes, split screen -- I sort of developed these things as one developing, specific technique for specific material.

Then, of course, I kinda liked them because I like silent filmmaking. I like using pictures and music. I found myself, after 20 or 30 years, sort of alone in this area. Not too many directors do stuff like that, and I also find that they don't really think too hard about where they stage their scenes -- stuff which I am obsessed with. People stage chases or shootouts and it doesn't look like they think about where they're placing the people. Whether you build a set or go out and find a location, I will prowl these places, take photographs of them, create computer modeling of them -- I go through all the options and it gives me all kinds of interesting visual ideas for the sequences.

The museum scene in "Dressed to Kill," in which you use a lengthy tracking shot, is frequently cited as an exemplary piece of filmmaking. What were the origins of that sequence?

A lot of what I think is misunderstood about me is that most of the things you see in my movies are usually not based on somebody staying at home in a dark room watching old movies all the time, but someone who actually experiences the sequence. I picked up girls in the Museum of Modern Art when I was in college, so I was used to walking around, looking at paintings, talking to people.

Are you surprised by the renown that scene has acquired over the years?

Well, it's beautifully done. It's like a ballet. And the scoring is beautiful. That's why it lives. It's a very good idea and that's what makes great sequences, much like the shower scene in "Psycho." That's a great idea. It was greatly figured out how to shoot it, where the camera positions were, etc. That's why those sequences stick with us.

At the time you were filming "Scarface," did you have any idea it would pervade popular culture like it did?

No, no way. There was such a political furor -- everything about "Scarface" was controversial. Just to get out of the experience alive was more than I could ask. We were embattled about "Scarface" from the inception of it right through the release.

In retrospect, do you understand why the picture resonated? The majority of critics panned it, but audiences seemed to eat it up.

Some audiences ate it up. I remember many screenings where the movie was loathed by the audiences.

What do you think it is about your films that divides so many people?

It kind of surprises me when they just go berserk over something like "Mission to Mars." I mean, you might not like it or you might not like the genre or think it's dreamy or surreal or whatever, but the vehemence of the critical response was kind of shocking.

Do feel that you've finally lived down "Bonfire of the Vanities?"

I have nothing to live down about "Bonfire of the Vanities." I made some aesthetic choices that I like and nobody else did. Most of the people who were upset about "Bonfire of the Vanities" were people who thought if I changed the book it was sacrilege. I made changes because I felt that there were too many anti-Semitic characters in the book. So I changed the Jewish jokes to black jokes, and I made Tom Hanks' character a lot more sympathetic than he was in the book. If I had made him, or the whole material, as tough as the book was, we would have had "The Sweet Smell of Success," which will be revered now but ended [director] Alexander Mackendrick's career.

Were you surprised by the uproar?

When you make a movie, you sort of step into a little kind of shell and stay in it until it comes out. You have no idea how, exactly, it's going to affect the audience or how strong their feelings are going to be. I've usually been very surprised one way or another about how audiences or critics have reacted to my movies. They never seem to go by anything I can predict.

Does it ever bother you that you sometimes don't get the critical respect of fellow film-school grads like Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola?

I have enough esoteric doctoral theses being written about my work. [Laughs] We'll just see what lives through time. I have this big retrospective at the Pompidou in Paris and I've noticed that most of my fans are extremely young. I think you kind of live off of that. That's why I know about Salon and a lot of the Web sites. I've met the people who run my Web site and the French guy just graduated high school. If I want to know anything going on about my movies, I go to De Palma à la Mod. [Laughs] This guy [who runs the site] has an ability to find everything.

You know, I really believe in these Web sites. I think this is where our legacy will exist. This is not flattery, but I do feel the most interesting people are writing on the Web sites if you want to read criticism.

Why do you think your work inspires such rabid devotion?

I guess it has to be pretty tough to defend me all the time, so they have to have their stuff together. [Laughs] If you like De Palma, I guess you're going to have to square off with the establishment ideas of what De Palma is and hold your own.

Voyeurism and violence are two recurring themes in your work. Why?

Well, these are two things I've been talking about for close to 40 years and everything I say about them, I feel like I'm throwing a paper airplane against the wall that keeps bouncing back. I will explain it for the nine-hundred-thousandth time and maybe when you write it down and somebody reads it, it will get through. I haven't been lucky so far. [Laughs]

The reason violence is interesting to me is because it's filmic, it's action, it's movement. And sometimes movements can lead to death and sometimes they can lead to chases -- whatever. It's visual. That's why I am drawn to it. And since I'm a visual stylist, I have people following each other, running after each other, stabbing each other, stalking each other. I use situations that have these kind of musical beginnings which get faster and faster and onto some kind of crescendo which works very well on film. It's the only forum that you can use these kind of visually violent images.

Voyeurism is just one of the primary tools of cinema. Hitchcock and directors before him in the silent era, when you shot a close-up from somebody's point of view, you were tying the audience very directly into the experience. It's the only art form in which you are showing the same piece of information to your character and the viewer in the audience simultaneously. That's what's unique about it and that's why people are drawn into film -- because they're experiencing the same visual information as the character.

How do you respond to those age-old charges that you're a misogynist?

It comes out of making my thrillers in the '70s and early '80s; I had women as protagonists and we had a strong feminist movement emerging. If you put a woman in a situation where she's gonna get killed or chopped up or stabbed, you were a misogynist. I make thrillers; I think women in peril are more interesting than men; and I like to have a woman in a negligee wandering around in a dark house rather than Arnold Schwarzenegger. I'm sorry. It works for me better.

Do you enjoy your controversial reputation?

I don't know. It's whatever works as far as I'm concerned. I'm just interested in getting my movies made. I'm not interested in picketing in the streets. We're in a big, money-grinding industry, and I'm not interested in antagonizing anybody. I basically just want to make the best movie I can, hope people enjoy it, go to see it, but if they don't -- too bad. On to the next one.

By Ian Rothkerch

Ian Rothkerch is a New York writer.

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