Interview: Brian De Palma talks ‘Passion’

Starring Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams, Passion (2012) sees American director Brian De Palma return to his favourite stomping ground of the overblown psychosexual thriller, a sub-genre which he made his own with such schlocky delights as Body Double, Dressed to Kill and Blow Out. The 71-year-old director spoke with John Bleasdale at last year’s Venice Film Festival about the changing film industry, the impact of technology and why he should have really been a silent film director. Five years after 2007’s angry Iraq War j’accuse Redacted, Passion – an English-language remake of Alain Corneau’s 2010 thriller Love Crime (Crime d’Amour) – sees De Palma in a more playful mood.

Passion is a good mystery story,” the director explained on the Lido. “I liked working with women. I set out to make what I thought was a clever mystery even cleverer. Redacted is completely driven by men and so making this we’re doing the opposite.” Employing Pedro Almodóvar’s regular DoP José Luis Alcaine, De Palma takes an obvious pleasure in capturing the competing femme fatales. He continues: “It’s a bunch of conniving business women who are passionately entwined, and it’s like George Cukor’s The Women. It’s all these women manoeuvring.” The sexual tension is perhaps more explicit than the Corneau film, one could suggest: “It was more implied in the original, but the girls wanted to play with that. They had very definite ideas about how they wanted to play their relationship with each other, and I more or less let them go.”

For all the sexual adventuring, the women’s primary motives are more to do with their careers than men. “They have all sorts of motivations,” De Palma recalls. “Rachel’s character is quixotic. She could be weeping and telling you a sad story one moment and jabbing a knife into your heart the next. It’s a fascinating character that she’s brought to the film.” One gets the impression that De Palma isn’t as interested in the characters as how he films them. Although Passion uses many giallo tropes, he’s quick to dismiss any link. “That’s a genre I’ve heard a lot about, but I’m completely unfamiliar with. Martin Scorsese talks about them all the time. He’s shown me a few movies a long time ago, but I’ve never connected with it.”

A trademark scene comes in the middle of the film when a long sequence, occasionally employing split-screen, shows characters watching a ballet while a murder is taking place in another part of town. “In my whole career, I’ve been fascinated by long, silent periods which are punctuated and scored by music. I should have been a silent movie director. I just love that form. And I’m probably one of the few directors who’s still practising it. Whenever I do a sequence in a film everyone says “Yikes! What’s that?” Why isn’t everybody talking all the time. Everybody is brought up on television. All you have is heads talking to each other. It’s very easy to shoot – a close-up here, a close-up there – but for me this is boredom. We have a big visual screen here, we can do all kinds of things with the camera, so I try to find material which lends itself to that.”

Passion also continues De Palma’s collaboration with Venetian composer Pino Donaggio, dating back to his 1976 breakout hit Carrie. “He’s a master at doing the kind of things I like to do in my movies. He knows how to write it. The music is very lyrical sometimes, it’s suspenseful and dramatic. We’ve made seven movies together so we have a short hand and so for that last sequence, his music is astonishing. It makes the whole sequence work.” De Palma’s view of the industry is ambivalent. He has the satisfaction of having confirmed masterpieces on his CV as well as the stoicism which comes from having weathered some extreme (and not undeserved) critical panning, including 2006’s James Ellroy atrocity The Black Dahlia. He shrugs. “If you make a hit everyone loves you; if you make a bomb nobody wants to know you.”

At the same time, De Palma is keenly aware of the revolutionary changes currently sweeping the industry, which sees his contemporaries, even Spielberg and Lucas, fretting. “The big problem today is if the screens are getting smaller and smaller, we’re going to see much more talking heads. And the big spectacular movies, the ones that are on IMAX are kids movies basically. Marvel comics. I’m seventy one years old and Marvel comic heroes don’t interest me. I wonder why. Yes, at one point in your life they’re interesting but they’re not interesting any more to me. They’re very expensive movies to make, they have huge economic possibilities and you’re going to see a lot more of them.”

Does De Palma worry about the future of serious cinema, then? “No, because there’s a whole independent cinema. It’s cheaper to make movies. You can make a film with your high definition camera and edit them on your Mac, so you can make personal movies that cost nothing. Whether you write a novel or paint a painting, it’s always difficult to get anyone to look at it.” The Scarface director does, however, feel fortunate that he has for the most part avoided the ‘film-by-committee’ that studios now insist upon. “When you’re making a big studio picture there are a lot of meetings and you’re getting a stack of notes on your script. I grew up in the era when the director was the superstar and said, ‘Fuck you, take your notes and throw them out the window.’ And we got away with it for a while.”

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John Bleasdale