It’s shocking how barebones and simple De Palma — a new documentary on polarizing director Brian De Palma screening this week at the New York Film Festival — is. Yet, at the same time, that’s part of what makes it so effective. Here’s De Palma, a director known for his artistry and attention to detail in every shot, just sitting in front of a fireplace talking about his movies. All of his movies. One by one. In order of release. Just him. De Palma is everything anyone would ever want out of a documentary about Brian De Palma.
The first Brian De Palma movie I saw was Blow Out. This wasn’t because I was a cinematic savant from a young age; it’s because I was 8 years old and it happened to be on cable. I had no idea of the backstory; that it was a disaster at the box office despite a positive critical reception. All I knew was that the guy from Urban Cowboy (another cable favorite at the time) had a cool-sound device and was trying to solve a mystery with said cool-sound device. Obviously, I had no idea that what I was watching would some day be considered a classic. I had no idea that, in a way, Blow Out kind of sums up the career of Brian De Palma.
“We are criticized by the fashions of the day,” says De Palma, explaining that it’s only after those fashions change will people look back on a movie and reassess it. Of course, De Palma knows this well: Movies like Blow Out, Scarface, and Carlito’s Way all found their audiences long after they were released in theaters.
Once I caught on to how De Palma is formatted, it became exhilarating. I started counting ahead to the movies that I couldn’t wait to hear De Palma address. I found myself counting down the movies until he got to Blow Out. I couldn’t wait for him to get to Bonfire of the Vanities to see if he’d talk about Julie Salamon’s infamous chronicle of that film, The Devil’s Candy. (He does.) I couldn’t wait to hear De Palma recount his time working with Tom Cruise on the first Mission: Impossible. (De Palma admits it was a tough shoot and he was in a constant struggle with Tom Cruise over who should be writing the script, but knew when it was over he’d hit a home run. In the post-screening Q&A, De Palma said that Cruise asked him to film the second installment, to which De Palma replied, “Why would anyone make another one of these?”)
The surprises come when De Palma talks about the movies he didn’t make — and he discusses at length how he was approached for both Flashdance (which he passed on out of spite) and Fatal Attraction (he seems to acknowledge that was a mistake, but a week after passing, he got The Untouchables).
Part of me wants to say that De Palma is 100 percent in a “no fucks given” mode in the film. De Palma, for instance, is not a fan of Cliff Robertson and makes no bones about that. But De Palma has always been low on the amount of fucks he seems to give in conversation. Regardless, all of it is immensely refreshing. And, hoo boy, does De Palma get giddy when he starts talking about all the inferior remakes of Carrie, saying he loves watching them to see them “make all the mistakes that I avoided.” (It’s also funny how many times De Palma says something along the lines of, “Boy, he was sure mad at me, “ when talking about an actor. A story about Sean Connery in The Untouchables had the theater roaring.)
De Palma gets truly emotional when talking about Casualties of War, of all movies — a film that’s strangely not talked about much today, and which usually gets ranked somewhere below even The Secret of My Success and Bright Lights, Big City on the Michael J. Fox canon. Casualties of War is covered in the early parts of The Devil’s Candy as a way of establishing De Palma’s mindset coming into Bonfire of the Vanities, but I never realized just how much that movie meant to him and how much it truly took out of him. De Palma talking about the on-set relationship between Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn (which was not good!) alone makes the film worth seeing. (I would read a book about the making of Casualties of War.)
It’s kind of crazy that directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow went so simplistic in their approach. They just let De Palma talk about all his movies, one by one, while showing some clips of what he’s talking about. There are no cutaways to De Palma’s director buddies — to an always crowd-pleasing Martin Scorsese facial expression or quote, or something like that. Part of me wishes Baumbach and Paltrow would do a series of these sorts of films, but De Palma is such an engaging and honest subject, I’m not sure it would work. And doing more would probably take away from just how special De Palma (and De Palma) truly is… Because there’s nothing here but De Palma and his words and his movies. All of them.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.