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6 Filmmaking Tips From Brian De Palma

Learn from the legend how to get by in this crazy business.
By  · Published on June 9th, 2016

If you ask Brian De Palma what advice he has for new filmmakers, as Indiewire’s Eric Kohn recently did, the legendary director will probably skate around a direct answer. “You can give them the advantage of your experience,” he told Kohn, “but at the end of the day, they’re working in a different world.” Still, fans and followers of the man who gave us Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables, Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, and other classics will find a lot to learn from the master through the new documentary De Palma. Many are even saying that watching it is like attending a kind of film school.

You should see the doc, which is directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, and hopefully you’ll find some indirect (and maybe even direct) advice there. But we also already have decades worth of instructive input, inspiration, and insight from De Palma in interviews and more. Below is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to filmmaking tips from the never Oscar-nominated yet six-time Razzie-nominated writer/director/producer.

Join a Filmmaking Fraternity

No, you don’t need to seek out the house on your college campus with the Greek letters ΔΓΑ on the front. Fraternity for De Palma just means a brotherhood of fellow filmmakers who support each other with constructive criticism and influence. He discusses his original collective in a 2012 NYFF conversation with Baumbach below (via Indiewire).

When I was starting to make films in the ’60s and went out to Hollywood, there were a group of directors known as the Movie Brats: Marty [Scorsese], Steven [Spielberg], Francis [Ford Coppola], and George [Lucas]. We all hung out together and we were all making movies, movies that all bombed of course, but we were all making movies. And we forged an alliance where we would look at each other’s rough cuts, help each other with editing, suggest scripts, and we did that for quite a while until we all went off in our different places. And I kinda miss that fraternity of directors.

He has found similar fraternity in a new generation of filmmakers, where he’s the elder member of a small group that includes Baumbach, Paltrow, and Wes Anderson. Those three aided De Palma in the development of his last picture, Passion, and have been great confidants in part due to their contrasting filmmaking styles. “A lot of what we talk about when we get together to talk about movies ‐ our movies or other peoples movies ‐ it’s very un-theoretical,” De Palma told the NYFF crowd, “We don’t come at it from a critical standpoint. It’s much more from some other place.”

He continues to highlight their differences in that conversation, and he’s mentioned the perfectly unlikely union between him and his new director bros elsewhere. “I tend to be attracted to filmmakers who are not like me at all,” he states in a Guardian interview from last fall when De Palma premiered at the Venice Film Festival. “I met Noah almost 20 years ago ‐ I immediately liked him, he’s very bright. Because we approach cinema from different directions, we were fascinated by our different views on how to tell a story.”

If you worry that such a group can bring about rivalries or jealousy, De Palma says in a recent interview with Business Insider that it surprisingly doesn’t happen:

People have always asked that, but even with our group in the ’70s, as successful as those directors were, there was never a competitiveness. It’s kind of odd. We were young directors trying to get into the Hollywood system on some level and we all basically met at Warner Bros., and all had disastrous experiences, which I guess bound us together for life. We used to hang out together in Hollywood. We were young men. Going out to dinner together. I miss that. I remember going to the premiere of Goodfellas, so that was the ’90s, and by then we were beginning to disperse. We were going into different areas and weren’t that close anymore, in the sense of calling each other up and saying, “Let’s go have dinner.” I missed that and that’s when I went and assembled this next group.

Have Talent, Persistence, Luck, and a Sense of Humor

He also noted last fall at Venice (via Reuters), “There’s no point in teaching film students unless you have this great ability to keep going no matter what they tell you.” But he did actually offer some great advice during a press conference for De Palma, seen below. “You better have a sense of humor,” he says. “You must persist and you must also be lucky. You have to have talent, persistence and luck to survive in this business.”

Good Actors Will Save Your Movie

What if you don’t have the talent part? Find people who do have skills and put them in your movie. “The biggest mistake in student films is that they are usually cast so badly, with friends and people the directors know,” De Palma said way back in a 1979 interview with Take One (via author Gerald Peary). “Actually you can cover a lot of bad direction with good acting.”

His appreciation and eye for good acting began in the early 1960s as a grad student in the theater department of Sarah Lawrence College. In a new interview with Filmmaker magazine he says, “Acting myself, being directed, and taking those classes really gave me a lot of direct experience and taught me that actors will either save your movie or ruin it.” But it does also help to have skill in directing those actors, as he states in the same interview: “I developed an ability to intuitively select good actors and sensitively direct them ‐ which is something you either have or you don’t, and you’re not going to survive as a director if you miscast.”

Feel Free to Borrow From the Greats

De Palma is known for being extremely influenced by the films of Alfred Hitchcock and borrowing from many other classics, as well. Some go so far as to call his movies rip offs. But “it doesn’t bother me,” he confesses in a 1975 Cinefantastique interview (republished in the book “Brian De Palma: Interviews”) when asked about accusations of ripping off Hitch for Sisters. He continues here:

It’s a very eclectic profession, and you draw from whatever sources you can. You can re-interpret good material in different ways, into your own framework. If you have a style of your own and individuality, you’ll take good things from other people and make them better. Great artists have done it, and it sure doesn’t scare me.

Visualize Extensively Before Shooting

As he states in the above quote, it’s important to have a style of your own, whether you’re working with borrowed material or not. De Palma may be influenced by others, but he’s certainly a unique filmmaker, and to be such requires extensive pre-production. Part of that for him involves studying a shooting location in depth and visualizing the entire scene ahead of time. Watch him discuss doing so for Phantom of the Paradise below.

And below, talking with Baumbach in a video from the Criterion Collection home video release of Dressed to Kill, he similarly discusses the geography of the location and his visualization of one of his most famous scenes from the movie. “Then the chess game can begin,” he says, “But you’ve gotta know the board. You’ve gotta know what the pieces can do.”

This sort of planning doesn’t eliminate room for improvisation, though. In fact, it helps with it. Here’s what he says in an in a 2013 interview with IdeasTap about improvising once you’re on set:

You have to adjust your vision for the film according to what happens on the day. I focus really intently when I’m on set. I’m always looking for emotional shifts, for little interactions between the actors, for what’s happening to the weather or the light. If you have a plan to return to, it affords you the ability to freestyle a little bit.

Filmmaking is like catching lightening in a bottle; you have to be adept at looking at what’s going on at that moment, because if it’s on the film it will be there forever.

Appreciate the Film Critics Who Know How to Appreciate Films

Finally, I could obviously find something about De Palma’s reasons for using split screen or why he doesn’t recommend (at least for himself) bothering with the Hollywood studio system of today, but instead I’m going with something admittedly self-serving. And it’s actually a good place to end since we started with his appreciation for filmmakers of his generation and now a younger group. In spite of all the negative reviews he’s received over the years, De Palma recognizes good criticism where it exists and does seem to value it, even if he doesn’t necessarily let it affect or influence him.

Here’s another quote from the 2012 Indiewire interview regarding his latest dividing of critics with Passion:

I basically make the movies the way I see it, and I don’t really worry too much about what the reviews are. Movies like Scarface, Carrie, and Blow Out had some terrible reviews, and those, again, are movies that people are still talking about. So I can’t really take it too seriously. With the reviews, basically, you’re being judged against the fashion of the day, and, of course, the fashion of the day changes all the time. So what endures is what’s important, I guess, and I’m just very fortunate that I’ve made movies that seem to have endured.

The below quote from nearly 40 years earlier from the Cinefantastique interview is even more interesting regarding his appreciation of proper film criticism, and although it’s about writers who are now the elder (out of date?) voices of the form it’s still relevant to both them and many of the better young critics of today

[Criticism] does affect the business. I find that critics of my generation, people who have been brought up on film as something very basic, who are knowledgable about the making of movies or may have gone to film school, usually review my films very well. But the older generation critics, in their 50s or late 40s, come from a whole other place, and you must suffer with their idiosyncratic, out-of-date ways of looking at movies. That’s always been a problem with Establishment critics: they seldom see the innovative films as they happen. It is only years later when a kind of revisionism occurs. Look how Lolita or 2001: A Space Odyssey were treated when they opened. It’s unbelievable.

What We Learned

Fuck the Establishment, basically. And the haters. Find friends you can count on for support, find influences that you can adapt and pay homage to with a unique approach and style, and appreciate those approaches and styles that contrast with your own. It’s important to have talent but also maybe more importantly to surround yourself with talent. Put thought and care into your work, with distinction, and you’ll see that people who think and care about that distinction understand and appreciate it. Appreciate them, too. Most importantly, good luck and learn to laugh at how ridiculous this business is.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.