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NPR Arts & Life

For Filmmaker Brian De Palma, It All Started With Alfred Hitchcock

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Two filmmakers, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, had the opportunity to sit down with an idol of theirs and ask him anything they wanted. Well, apparently it was a lot because he sat for...

BRIAN DE PALMA: Five days, 30 hours.

SIEGEL: That is Brian De Palma. And there was a lot to cover in his movie-making career of more than 50 years - his thoughts about casting his first feature, "The Wedding Party," in which he discovered a young actor nobody had ever heard of.

DE PALMA: We were just casting in a loft on Broadway downtown, and Bobby came in - saw our ad in Show Business and came in. And we looked at him, and he read. We said, this guy's really good.

SIEGEL: Bobby was Robert De Niro - two years later, trying to persuade Tom Cruise to think big for their blockbuster.

DE PALMA: I said, Tom, this is "Mission: Impossible." We can shoot all over the world.

SIEGEL: And everything in between - from "Carrie" to "Scarface" to Scarface to "The Untouchables." But for Brian De Palma, it all started with watching the films of his idol, Alfred Hitchcock, especially "Vertigo."

DE PALMA: A movie I saw in 1958, and it had an incredible impression on me way before I was interested in making movies. And there was something about the way the story was told and the cinematic language used in it that connected to me, even though, at that point, I was studying to be an engineer.

SIEGEL: There's a great example of that, I think, in a movie - in your movie, "The Untouchables," in which there is a scene that involves Sean Connery confronting an intruder in his apartment. And you describe in the documentary how one might have presented that in a formulaic way and how you managed to present it in a more creative way. What's the formula for - for - Sean Connery's in the house, and some - some guy comes in?

DE PALMA: Well, there are no formulas. You have to figure out what's demanded in the script story-wise, and then you have to figure out a way to shoot it. It's the point of view of the assassin. It's a kind of cat and mouse because Sean is - realizes he's being watched and leads the assassin up a hallway, where he knows he has a shotgun hidden in a Victrola, and turns around and says that famous line - just like a [expletive] to bring a knife to a gunfight.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE UNTOUCHABLES")

SEAN CONNERY: (As Jim Malone) Get out of here, you dago bastard. Go on, get your [expletive] out of here.

SIEGEL: It's a murder. I mean, what we're looking at is violence. How - and we associate you with - with scary violence, with blood. Is it - did you always feel that way as you began making movies, that you wanted to make scary, dangerous movies?

DE PALMA: No, I started out making sort of street movies, political movies. I was at Columbia in the late '50s and early '60s, terrified of being drafted. So I made movies about not wanting to go to Vietnam - very much the politics of the day. And then I decided I wanted to start learning how to tell stories with pictures. So, of course, Hitchcock is the great master of that, and I saw a lot of his movies and began to use some of his story ideas and techniques in order to learn how to do that.

SIEGEL: That was all happening in New York City.

DE PALMA: Correct.

SIEGEL: You began making movies there. You went out to Hollywood, and the group that you were working with in the studio - you speak of Marty, George, Steven, Francis - Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola. What a stable of talented filmmakers. And I had no idea, frankly, how closely you all worked together in developing ideas that someone might think up, then somebody else might actually turn into a movie.

DE PALMA: We were very close. We were all at Warner Brothers at a certain time in the beginning of the '70s. I came out to direct a comedy with Tommy Smothers called "Get To Know Your Rabbit." Marty was there editing the "Medicine Ball Caravan," which was a documentary about a rock group traveling from the West to East coast.

SIEGEL: That's Scorsese, yeah.

DE PALMA: That's Scorsese. Francis had, obviously, shot "Finian's Rainbow" on the lot. And George was finishing off "THX" with a deal that Francis had made with Warner Brothers. And of course, all these films were catastrophes, which brought us all closer together.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) But - but they were often collaborative catastrophes, also. You would - there's a time when, I guess, you're making - is it "Carrie"? - and George Lucas is making "Star Wars," and you're both casting. And it seems like it's almost a collaborative casting project involving two movies and two different directors. Do I - do I have that right?

DE PALMA: Yes. We were both using young people. George had a very young cast, and so did I. So we said, well, why don't we do this together? We have to look at everybody. And it wasn't necessarily star-driven. There weren't any stars. I mean, Travolta became a big star.

But I remember it so distinctly because we went over - I went over to George's, and we both sat behind the table. And the casting director would bring in one young actor after another, and George would talk to them, and then I would talk to them. And then, if we felt that they were right for our movie - and sometimes - it's interesting because, if you look at the "Star Wars" casting tapes that are online, you'll see some of my actors from "Carrie" reading. Amy Irving read for the princess. Bill Katt read for Luke Skywalker. And you can see them, you know, because they were all later put on tape by George. I mean, Carrie Fisher came and read for me, and then she read for George. We sort of filtered it down to the best people and, they wound up in either one of our movies.

SIEGEL: So (laughter) - so one can sort of try to imagine each movie with the cast of the other movie in it, as it - as it might conceivably have been.

DE PALMA: Well, you can look - you can look at George's additions - they're on tape - and say (laughter), do you like Amy Irving playing the princess? It's all there.

SIEGEL: You mentioned catastrophes. I gather, if you're a filmmaker, you - you'd better brace for your share of failures. You talk about a few of them. You made "The Bonfire Of The Vanities," the movie, and I'm one of the people you refer - I'm one of those guys who read the book and loved the book and thought that the movie missed the boat.

But for me, that was two hours of - an evening that wasn't as satisfying as I had hoped. For you, I assume, that was a year or a couple in which you're totally immersed in a project. Where do you grow the hide, you know, the skin to take the reviews or the bad box office when a movie comes out that doesn't work that well?

DE PALMA: Well, you shouldn't be in the movie business unless you can live through disaster, you know, and realize when you have a success by the grace of God. Appreciate it and thank God that you've got it and not be surprised that the next thing may be a total disaster. You have to survive your disasters. They are tremendous.

SIEGEL: Thank you so much for talking with us.

DE PALMA: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's filmmaker Brian De Palma speaking to us about his work. The new documentary that profiles him is called "De Palma." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.