No American filmmaker has enjoyed as many diverse career stages as Brian De Palma. From the early countercultural perspective of “Greetings” and “Hi, Mom,” he dovetailed into deliciously stylized Hitchcock homages with “Sisters,” “Obsession” and “Carrie.” The next decade’s highlights included a pair of seminal gangster movies, “Scarface” and “The Untouchables,” followed by the ultimate conquering of the blockbuster arena with “Mission: Impossible.” But De Palma has faced his disappointments as well, from “Bonfire of the Vanities” to “Snake Eyes” and “Mission to Mars.” And these days, he’s working on a radically smaller scale: His last two features, “Redacted” and “Passion,” were both limited releases made on small budgets.
Many of these ups and downs are recounted in “De Palma,” a new documentary co-directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow that opens in New York next week. The film takes all of its cues from the director himself, as he walks viewers through nearly every film in his career. But the chatty director has more to say than the nearly two-hour film can contain. Sitting down at the Metrograph Theater in Lower East Side, De Palma spoke to IndieWire about why he has stepped away from the Hollywood arena for good and given up on working on television. He also offered an original suggestion for who should be running against Donald Trump in the current presidential election.
In the documentary, you talk about how you waded into the studio system in the early seventies, along with folks like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. What compelled you to do that in the first place?
We all wanted to get into the studio system. I was the most iconoclastic of the group who was most disenchanted with the studio system, because it had a really corrosive effect on what you did. They basically want you to duplicate the same thing over and over again. I always felt that was not good for an artist. I would fall in and out of the studio system. But you need to make hits in order to make movies. So I would go in and make a hit, be able to make a couple of weird movies, then have to start over again.
“Mission to Mars”
It seems like you finally swore off Hollywood with “Mission to Mars.”
That movie cost a $100 million. Where is this going? I just thought that was a tremendous amount of money to spend on a movie, and there are a tremendous amount of pressures caused by it. I mean, you’re basically fighting over how many special effects shots get done. Because the executive that started the movie left, and another guy took over, so I’m constantly dealing with a new administration that doesn’t like the movies of the past administration. At the end of “Mission to Mars,” I didn’t have the money to make the kind of shots you need in order to make them as spectacular as they should be.
So you’re done with that system for good?
I can’t imagine making a studio movie now. The whole system’s changed so much because of the effect of cable television and all the cable stations making their own series. They’re really into writers and producers, which is like the old studio system. The directors came in, directed, and were sent off. That’s what you’re getting with all these television projects.
Speaking of which: Weren’t you going to make a mini-series for HBO about Joe Paterno with Al Pacino?
We couldn’t get it set up as a movie and it was finally set up at HBO. But I’ve never seen such studio interference. I mean, I would get stacks of notes, over and over again, from multiple sources. It’s changed. They want to be included on everything. I remember throwing executives out of the room during a reading for “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Are you kidding? I can’t have these actors performing in front of studio executives during the first reading! They claimed they wouldn’t say anything, which was nonsense. I had the same thing with the Paterno project. I said, “This is the first time Al has heard this material. I can’t have executives sitting here.” They were offended beyond belief — sulking, tense. I finally walked away from it.
If you’ve seen HBO’s “Project Greenlight,” the HBO executive on that show, Len Amato — that was the guy I was dealing with. On the show, there’s Len in the editing room, making suggestions. That’s like my worst nightmare. I have never dealt with a producer in the editing room. And you can’t get final cut on television. Can you believe that Martin Scorsese doesn’t have final cut on television? I’m going to ask Marty if he does.
Do you ever try pulling rank in that kind of situation? “Don’t you know who I am?”
It doesn’t work. It’s a whole different system.
How does Spielberg pull it off?
Well, Spielberg has a tremendous amount of power, because he makes very successful movies. And so does Marty — I mean, he has his hits and the ones that don’t do so well. But he’s America’s preeminent filmmaker. I’m sure he gets as much leeway as you can get. But it’s a different system. When you think about how these series are run by producers and writers, the directors come secondary.
In “De Palma,” you talk about how you called up Spielberg and Scorsese to chip in some funds to finance your 1980 film “Home Movies.” Do you ever consider tapping them for more resources?
Maybe. I don’t know. It’s so inexpensive to make movies these days with all this digital stuff. If it works out, fine, and if it doesn’t…I don’t really worry about it much anymore. Guys like Noah Baumbach grew up in that Sundance generation, which is a whole different way of making stuff. But I started out making 10 movies before I had a big hit. I made some successful independent movies but only two of my first 10 movies were studio.
How do you keep up with current cinema?
When I used to go to film festivals a lot, I was the only director who went just to watch movies. Roger Ebert used to see me at Cannes year after year and ask me what I was doing there. I said, “I’m here to look at the movies. Isn’t that what one does?” At one point, I would go straight from Montreal to Toronto, spending three weeks at festivals. There were so many movies and so many languages.
What’s impressive to you among newer releases?
I liked the new “Star Wars,” but it was basically the old “Star Wars.” Good idea, George — it worked again. I liked “The Lobster,” it was really interesting. And I liked Tom Tykwer’s “A Hologram for the King.” But nobody said anything about it. I know Tom because I tracked him down after “Run Lola Run.” He’s been a friend for 20 years. I just called him and said, “This is fantastic!” You don’t know what to expect. It’s so subtle. There’s nothing big about it. It’s obviously based on a very good novel. I saw “Cop Car” at the Beaune International Thriller Film Festival, which is basically a mystery film festival. They had a tribute to me. That was really good, that movie.
Do you see any value in blockbusters today?
The first “Star Wars” was very original. When you remake it 73 times, it doesn’t get more original. I think you can work in this big canvas, but you have to come up with original ideas. We’re running into terrible clichés with these big action pictures. They’re pre-visualizing everything because the set pieces are so expensive. They send them over to an effects house and there’s some guy in a computer room pre-visualizing your action sequence. The universes are completely artificial. They’re basically inside the computer. We’re being very much affected by the years of gaming. This all came out of ILM, basically.
Nobody could do a movie like George Lucas because they couldn’t afford to do a movie like George Lucas. I think he sort of ran the gamut and wanted to do other things. But when I was making “Mission to Mars,” I realized how much each of these shots cost. And every question was about how whether we really needed that shot, which would cost $150,000. You constantly have to fight that battle.
In the seventies and eighties, you really made a name for yourself with movies that had your trademark style attached to them. Who do you think does that now?
Well, look at Tarantino. He’s got a benefactor in Harvey Weinstein and makes completely original movies whether you like them or not. And Wes Anderson is really unique.
But unlike those guys, your movies have generally maintained a very edgy, politicized view of the modern world.
Yes, I was always a political filmmaker starting in the sixties.
And where is that sensibility these days?
Yeah, I was saying that to a friend of mine recently: “Where are the American political films?” We’ve been at war for 10 or 15 years now. Where’s the outrage?
You captured some of it with “Redacted.”
I made that, and everybody screamed at me about it, but it’s amazing to me that there isn’t more of that. I guess there are films dealing with sexuality and climate change. But the war machine is non-stop.
Who’s going to make the great movie in response to this year’s election?
It’s crazy. I was watching George Clooney’s movie “Ides of March,” and it got me thinking. You have all these political people on television interviewing actors. When is George going to run for president? Is there anyone to stop him now?
“Ides of March”
He’s obviously very politically oriented, and he’s got this great wife. When you look at these movies, and the way they get George interviewed by Charlie Rose, or Chris Matthews — well, we can’t tell the difference anymore. That’s the situation with Trump. There is no difference between the theatrics of media and the movies. People ask how Trump could exist. Well, we live in a reality TV world, where if you can show juxtapositions of the guy saying opposite things right next to each other, nobody cares! He lied, so what? I remember when that was a bad thing.
Do you watch a lot of reality television?
The one I used to watch was “Survivor,” which is ridiculous in the sense that people think it’s real. People whispering on the side of the beach while a camera crew watches — and then they cut away to a snake approaching them. We’re supposed to think the snake is near these people? [laughs] I love the absurdity of it all. Talk about manipulating images.
What’s the biggest threat to the future of movies today?
Well, we have a big independent field of movies filled with strong visions that are odd and original. Then you have the Marvel world and the prequel world. Good luck with all that. The other problem is that the actors people want for serious movies are going to television. There’s this terrible problem that started with the rise of the agencies when the studio system broke down. The agents control the actors. You can’t get access to actors to get your movies made. They’re all going into television series.
Of course, there are exceptions, like Clooney. He can get anyone for his movies because he knows everybody. And Marty has a great way of attracting actors, as does Woody Allen. So they can get their movies made. But they’re the exceptions rather than the rule. I’d like to make “Retribution” with Pacino, but it depends on whether we can get it cast. Everybody’s out there trying to get those four financeable actors to get their movies made. When you don’t get them, it can go on for years.
In spite of all this, you sound pretty chipper.
At my age, I don’t really care. I enjoy every day. I’m 75 years old and it’s good to be alive. My movies seem to get better with repeated viewings. There’s a lot going on in my movies — and a lot of movie history in my movies. So they’ll be writing about them for quite a while. How many books have been written about Hitchcock? Now they can write books about De Palma and Hitchcock. That could go on for another couple of decades.
What sort of advice do you give to new filmmakers?
With young directors, you can give them the advantage of your experience, but at the end of the day, they’re working in a different world. They’ve come up in the Sundance generation and they’re used to making inexpensive movies with very personal stories. It doesn’t bother them that it takes two or three years to make a movie. They were never part of the era where you had to make a hit — a big hit.
It must be nice to have stepped away from that.
Well, I’m 75 and have been making movies for 50 years.