Why Eternal Film Student Brian De Palma Loves Shooting Women

By  · Published on August 2nd, 2013

Passion, by all means, is a Brian De Palma movie. You’re either sold on that pitch or you’re not. De Palma has never been one to satisfy everyone despite coming from a generation of filmmakers ‐ Scorsese, Spielberg, and Lucas ‐ who are famous for achieving the opposite effect. The polarizing nature of his work has been affecting viewers ever since he briefly attended NYU.

In his own words, he’s a film school reject (even if spent two semesters at one of the most prestigious film schools on the planet).

His remake of 2010’s Crime d’amour pits Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace against each other, two actresses De Palma is clearly very fond of. Getting a chance to speak with him, the writer/director couldn’t stop himself from cracking up about the playfulness between the two (when you see McAdams’s performance you’ll understand why), reveling in the sheer joy of his work with the pair.

But first, he noticed the website name.

De Palma: Are you really a film school reject?

I actually couldn’t afford to go to film school.

I am a film school reject! I took a two semester course at NYU. The teacher and Martin Scorsese were so unhappy with my movie. The problem was I shot it in three days, but it was supposed to be done in eight weeks. He took my whole unit off my movie and put them on another movie, leaving me alone in the editing room. They never liked me at NYU. Well, I am a film school reject, so I can identify with your site [Laughs].

Why didn’t they like you at NYU?

You know, if you haven’t been to film school, you shoot 100 feet of film, people talk about it, you shoot another 100 feet of film, and everyone talks about it. I shot all my film on a weekend. I wasn’t interested in what they had to say about my 100 feet of film. That was the end of my film school experience. Later on I taught, so I went to the other side of it.

Would you recommend film school?

Yeah. When I was in graduate school I had a very good theater teacher where I learned a lot. I’d absolutely recommend it.

Delving into Passion, Christine has more than a few quotable lines. Did you direct McAdams to play those more over-the-top moments straight or that it was okay to ham it up?

Which lines are you talking about? They made up some of them, especially when they were toying with each other.

I’d say the party scene where Christine confronts Isabelle. “Oh, it’s just a joke.”

“Oh, it’s just a joke! Let’s all laugh together!” [Laughs] It’s hysterical and cruel. What was great about that was how Noomi played it. I didn’t know what she was going to do, but she came up with that crazy laugh. You can just see the murder in her eyes. That was quite a day on set.

[Laughs] Were there a lot of surprise like that?

That happened a lot of times. The girls are very used to working together. They really liked each other on Sherlock Holmes. Noomi was the first one that was cast, and then she brought Rachel in. She was going to be an older woman, but we adjusted the material for them.

What kind of dynamic do you try to create with an actor?

The whole key is casting. You gotta cast it right. These two came as a duo. They were very good at toying with each other. Basically, you just get out of the way. It’s a murder mystery, so there’s some cruelness they get to play. I mean, when Rachel is on that Skype call and goes, “Hi! What a surprise!” [Laughs]. They made me laugh so many times.

I like how both Skype and smart phones are used as weapons in this movie.

I’m always fascinated by technology. I was a science fair winner and I used to build computers. In the original film, there is no commercial. There’s some deal she takes credit for, so I came up with this idea of a commercial. Of course, what’s the most instrumental thing that has changed the way we live our lives? The smart phone. I weave the smart phone all the way through the movie. I used it as a tool of discovery, humiliation, and all the ways it can be used.

What’s the key to writing women? There’s some male writers, even great ones, who falter there.

It depends on the material. This was very much in the original script, and the girls took it to another step. I sort of followed the original script. Then we got together and did the scenes, which is where we changed things that would work better. On the day, they would throw in stuff that was exciting and kept each other off balance. Like, as she sends her over to talk to the guy at cocktail table, she’s unbuttoning the blouse and says, “Let’s see a little skin.” [Laughs] That’s all Rachel.

[Laughs] It’s obvious you had a good experience working with the two of them. Is having fun important to making a movie?

Absolutely. When the actors are having fun, we’re all having fun. That’s even the case for difficult material. It’s also great fun to play the spider lady. Those are always great parts to play in those film noir movies. They had fun teaching, flirting, and twisting each other. Of course, I was an appreciative audience. I’d be laughing on the set. To this day, I quote a lot of Rachel’s lines back to her. [Laughs] When she has a complete meltdown and throws her phone down, but then picks it up and finds another guy available! “You want to come over?”

[Laughs] When do you know what the visual language of a film is going to be? When writing the script for Passion, do you know exactly how the camera should move and the aesthetic you want?

Well, at the beginning of the movie, you’re basically dealing with girls talking to girls across a desk, so you have to find an interesting location to put all that. I found a fantastic office building in Berlin. When you get into what Isabelle is dreaming and what actually happened and what didn’t, then you get a chance to really pull out all the stops and make it very visually evocative. Of course, I love to do stuff like that.

Over the past few years, from The Black Dahlia to Mission to Mars, you’ve taken on notable challenges. At this point, is it still easy to find challenges?

Every film has its challenges. As long as you have ideas and ways to solve them that are interesting to your particular aesthetic, it’s great fun to do. This film had a great opportunity because it’s all women, and I love shooting women.

Even the German girl who played Dani was another fabulous actress. She had a very difficult part because she was acting for her first time in English and she had all that complicated exposition. I mean, with “Dani the explainer” in that kitchen scene, her job is to make that interesting. That was quite a feat she managed.

She has a such a distinct look as well.

Yeah, she was in Perfume as well. I’m a friend of Tom Tykwer’s. When I saw that red hair in Perfume, I thought, “That’s what we want!” I wanted red, but not that red [Laughs]. I love that film.

Same here. There are a few filmmakers from your generation that have kind of lost their touch. What’s the trick in maintaing that initial spark?

You mean, how have I not become a fossil?


Thanks. How do I answer that? Well, with fame and success, people tend to insulate themselves. I tend to still be very much the film student, basically. I’m the only director that goes to film festivals just to see movies. I’ve been saying this for 30 or 40 years, but nobody seems to have caught on. When I go to a film festival they ask, “What are you doing here? Do you have a movie coming out?” “Well, no.” “Then what are you doing here?” I say, “I’m here to look at the movies!”

I don’t have bodyguards or an entourage. I go to the movies like if you were at a film festival. Also, I hangout with a bunch of young directors. I miss the fraternity we had in the 1970s, because all my friends from then are in different parts of the country. I hang out with directors who live in my neighborhood. That keeps you lively. What can I say?

Passion is now on VOD and opens in theaters on August 30th.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.