Director Jake Paltrow (Young Ones, The Good Night) met Brian De Palma at a party. He’d had a few drinks and worked up the courage to talk to the legendary filmmaker, who turned out to be surprisingly open and kind. The next day, Paltrow got an email from the friend who threw the party: “Brian would like to continue the conversation.”
Paltrow and De Palma would go on to have dinner together up to three nights a week, joined by fellow director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha), who’d met De Palma under eerily similar circumstances. After 10 years of dinners, Paltrow said, “If we can get him to talk to us on camera like he is right now, it would really be something.”
In Paltrow and Baumbach’s new documentary De Palma, their friend and hero sits in his home library, telling his life’s story through film. He doesn’t leave the chair. There’s one camera angle. No one else is interviewed. It feels like a familial interrogation, and a generous bundle of film clips and archival photos — meticulously selected — illustrates the stories. At times, De Palma appears to be thinking through his emotions before he speaks, though he’s always candid and honest. Much of what he’s saying is pointed criticism of the film industry, but as Paltrow points out, none of his recounting of being pushed out of the studios comes off as “political” — De Palma doesn't point fingers, hold a grudge or try to sway anyone's opinion. And for a director with his kind of iconic stature, he’s also shockingly self-deprecating and introspective.
“What makes him such a great subject for the movie is when he talks about difficulty he had, or his perceived failures, he feels very much in the moment as he’s talking,” Baumbach says. “It’s not dispassionate. But he also has the distance to put it in context — of his career and of history.”
It may not seem that De Palma has always made “personal films” — how close can he really be to the subject matter of a girl with telekinetic powers getting her period? — but it’s evident in watching this documentary that every film he’s made is personal. When he talks about Blow Out, he even lovingly recites the last lines John Travolta says as his character, Jack Terry, listens to the recording of his dead lover’s scream: “It’s a good scream. It’s a good scream.” De Palma doesn't just reserve his reverence for his critical darlings, getting soft-spoken and nostalgic when he talks about the ones that aren't as celebrated.
“Movies that were attacked by some critics, like Body Double, when you hear him talk about it now,” Baumbach says, “in some ways you realize kind of how meaningless those old reviews are today.”
It’s true: For every bad review, there’s another — or a think piece — to explain why the first one got it wrong, even for old movies that have found favor with adoring audiences over the years. A quick search for Body Double reaps multiple lengthy essays written somewhat recently on why it’s a masterpiece and the critics were wrong. That's nice for De Palma now, but it doesn't change the fact that the studio told him the only thing saving his film from the chopping block was Melanie Griffith, or that critics originally labeled Body Double misogynist schlock.
De Palma shows here that he actually once cared deeply what the critics and studio heads thought. If anything, that revelation largely dismantles what we’ve come to think about drunk-with-power “auteurs,” who do or say whatever they want when they want under no influence of others or with little regard for the naysayers. Alfred Hitchcock, an auteur to whom De Palma often paid affectionate homage, was known to have had major control issues — the guy blackballed Tippi Hedron (who, not so coincidentally, is Melanie Griffith’s mother) after she told him she wanted to pick out her own lipstick colors.
De Palma is the opposite. His stories depict a great admiration for his collaborators and even his detractors. Sure, we get the lowdown on actor Cliff Robertson trying to sabotage the performance of co-star Geneviéve Bujold on Obsession, but the director plays it off as just part of the game and Robertson doing what he had to do to remain the star of the film.
De Palma has often been described and depicted in the past as a lone wolf, blazing a path for weirdo genre cinema both in the studio system and then without it. De Palma shows an unexpected side, that of a director who’s passionate but diplomatic and very connected to other people.
“If Brian were here and you asked him about his involvement in this documentary,” Baumbach says, “I think he would actually talk about it in relation to our friendship first. He likes a community of directors and likes openness and the sharing of ideas. That’s what was going on back then. In passing, he’ll say he was in the editing room with 'Marty,' and then 'Schrader' stops by. It’s exactly what you might fantasize was going on back then, and those are his stories.”
This may be a film about one man and his career, but it’s also about the evolution of the moviemaking industry as a whole — the intersecting paths of craftspeople, like Robert De Niro, Sissy Spacek and George Lucas, who went on to make history. De Palma joins the possible curriculum of first-year film classes alongside books like Peter Bogdanovich’s series of director interviews in Who the Devil Made It? and critic-cum-director Paul Schrader’s Schrader on Schrader. Paltrow and Baumbach just happen to be the lucky students at the head of De Palma’s class.