If you were making a list of the filmmakers who influenced Noah Baumbach, the names you’d come up with are pretty obvious: definitely Woody Allen, probably Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Mazursky, maybe Eric Rohmer. You’d have to work through quite a few others, it seems, to land on Brian De Palma, the visually baroque stylist and creator of numerous psychosexual thrillers — and that’s a point that doesn’t seem lost in the filmmaker. I asked him about De Palma’s influence on his work at the press conference following the New York Film Festival screening of De Palma, the new documentary he co-directed with Jake Paltrow, and he grinned. “Isn’t it obvious?”
For Baumbach, it was less about the specifics and more about the mood. “I remember hearing about Brian’s movies before I saw them, because my parents loved his movies and would talk about them a lot. And there was something even about the way you talked about them that was just kind of shocking and alluring and interesting. So by the time I was old enough to start seeing them — which was in the ‘80s, I think maybe Body Double was the first one I saw in the theater of that kind — I felt like I was kind of being let in on some secret. It felt like the adult world in some kind of intuitive way, some dark version of the adult world.”
He’s got that right. Over the course of a nearly five-decade career, De Palma’s directed over two dozen films, which you can parcel out into basically three categories. There are the political films, anti-establishment comedies (like Greetings and Hi Mom) and anti-war polemics (Casualties of War, Redacted). There are the mainstream entertainments, multiplex-friendly blockbusters (Mission: Impossible, The Untouchables) and almost-blockbusters (Mission to Mars). But when most film fans think of a “Brian De Palma movie,” they’re thinking of his thrillers, suspense pictures like Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Body Double, Femme Fatale — lurid, over-the-top potboilers with a pronounced sense of wit and flash, owing no small debt to the works of Alfred Hitchcock.
In De Palma, the filmmaker makes no attempt to hide Hitchcock’s influence — in fact, it opens with him describing the formative experience of seeing Vertigo at Radio City Music Hall, something he says he “will never forget.” If anything, De Palma seems confused that more of his contemporaries weren’t influenced in the same way, situating themselves similarly as “practitioners” of the vocabulary Hitch perfected.
The two filmmakers now also share the experience of walking through their careers with younger directors who idolize them, and De Palma has both the scope and specificity of the essential text Hitchcock/Truffaut, covering the entire career (even the movies we don’t really talk about) while pausing for in-depth explanations of the reasoning behind certain iconic shots, or the aesthetics of trademark techniques.
“We really wanted to do all the movies in there,” Paltrow explained Thursday, “and then not affect Brian with other people talking about Brian.” Thus is De Palma separated from recent, similarly named director bio-docs like Altman and Milius; instead of reaching for a comprehensive, multi-perspective view, it’s a conversation, the filmmaker holding court, “in the same spirit,” Paltrow says, “as having coffee with him.”
And he’s a terrific storyteller, candid and charming and likable, occasionally grinning and giggling at battles fought and won, and telling wonderful, no-fucks-left-to-give stories out of school (Cliff Robertson was impossible to work with, Robert Towne’s contributions to Mission: Impossible were not terribly helpful, Orson Welles didn’t know his lines, neither did De Niro on Untouchables). While shooting those interviews, Paltrow said, he and Baumbach (who were the entire crew) were struck by “how good he was at telling these stories, how he told them exactly the way on camera as he would at dinner.” In fact, such dinners were what gave rise to the film; after enough of them, Baumbach says they visualized a documentary as “an opportunity to just sort of have it all there, and we approached him, and he was open to it, so we thought we’d better just do this now.”
On the subject of careers, De Palma says in the film, “We don’t plan them out… We do the thing we can do at the time.” And yet, those snatched opportunities have amounted to a body of work that’s wildly uneven, occasionally troubling, frequently thrilling, and undeniably his own. In wrapping up the Q&A, Film Comment contributing editor Amy Taubin said of its selection, “When we looked at this, everyone said, ‘Oh, this movie makes me want to go back and look at every Brian DePalma movie.’” There are certainly worse things for a film to accomplish.