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Days of De Palma (Part 20): De Palma (2015)

I feel like Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary De Palma was made just for me.

As I was finishing my lengthy “Days of De Palma” project of watching all of the films directed by Brian De Palma, I learned of the existence of this documentary.  Oh my god!  How perfect!  I decided I needed to wait until I finished my re-watch project before I’d watch the documentary, but as soon as I finished watching 2012’s Passion (the final film released, so far, by Mr. De Palma), I immediately turned to this documentary.  To say that I loved it would be an enormous understatement.

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This documentary, simply titled De Palma, is unlike almost any other documentary I have ever seen.  There’s no array of talking-head interview subjects, no fancy graphics, no complicated narrative.  The set-up is deceptively simple.  The documentary is just an extended interview with Mr. De Palma, who is sitting and talking directly into the camera.  The interview looks like it was filmed on two or three different occasions.  Mr. De Palma talks a little bit about his background and upbringing, but for the most part De Palma is simply a film-by-film retrospective of Mr. De Palma’s long and storied career.  Film by film, in chronological order, we move through Mr. De Palma’s filmography.  We watch clips from the films and listen to Mr. De Palma’s many fascinating stories about the making of those films.

That’s it!  That’s the whole documentary!  It’s like the ultimate DVD special feature for a (nonexistent) box-set collecting all of Mr. De Palma’s movies.

What a perfect, extraordinary film for me to watch after having just watched all of Mr. De Palma’s movies!!

This film was amazing.  It works because a) Mr. De Palma has made so many great movies over the years, and b) because Mr. De Palma turns out to be a wonderful storyteller.  It is a tremendous joy listening to him spin yarn after yarn as he recounts his experiences, good and bad, in Hollywood.  The film feels intimate, like Mr. De Palma is a good friend and we’re just sitting around together, shooting the shit and reminiscing.

The film is filled to overflowing with fantastic stories about Mr. De Palma’s experiences over the course of his career.  We learn that he and George Lucas cast Carrie and Star Wars together.  We hear a terrific story about a young De Palma having to find a way to work with the great Orson Welles who was unable or unwilling to learn his lines.  We learn that events in Dressed to Kill were inspired by Mr. De Palma’s actual experiences, as a young man, of learning that his father was cheating and following him to his office and threatening him with a knife until his dad’s mistress came out of the closet in which she was hiding.  One of the best stories in the movie, one that so perfectly captures the crazy business of Hollywood, is a tale about how Mr. De Palma originally quit working on Scarface when his writer got fired because Al Pacino was unhappy, and so Sydney Lumet was hired to direct Scarface instead of him, while Mr. De Palma moved onto another project called Prince of the City about a whistle-blowing cop.  But then Mr. De Palma was fired from Prince of the City and replaced by Sydney Lumet, so he went back to direct Scarface and the rest is history.  Is that nuts or what?

I also loved Mr. De Palma’s very funny (and somewhat sad!) story of working on Mission: Impossible, only to discover that Tom Cruise’s producer Paula Wagner was firing David Koepp, the (wonderful) writer with whom Mr. De Palma had been working on the project.  “How do you convey this to your pal?”  Mr. De Palma recalls, laughing.  “Dave, the good news is we’re making the picture.  The bad news is you’re fired!”

Is there a more Hollywood story than that??

(Actually, that story gets even better, as the replacement writer, Robert Towne, didn’t wind up working out, so Mr. De Palma brought David Koepp back on board the film.  Mr De Palma recounts: “I literally had one screenwriter in one hotel, and another screenwriter in another hotel, writing simultaneously.  Never in my history of making movies has this ever happened to me.”)

Mr. De Palma also spends significant time talking about his approach to directing, and to the many stylistic techniques he uses in his films.  (In particular, Mr. De Palma gives a fascinating explanation of why he enjoys utilizing P.O.V. and split-screen shots, which are signature elements of his movies.)

If you’d like to learn more about this documentary, click here for a terrific, in-depth Rolling Stone article listing the fifteen things they learned from De Palma.

It’s clear that co-directors Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg) and Jake Paltrow are enormous fans of Brian De Palma.  I love that they have created this project in his honor, as a salute to the man and his work.  Mr. De Palma is an enormously talented director with a clear mastery of the cinematic form.  He has helmed some enormous and much-loved hits (films like Scarface, The Untouchables, and the first Mission: Impossible).  And yet, Mr. De Palma does not have the general acclaim that his peers George Lucas or Francis Ford Coppola do.  Mr. De Palma has directed some enormous stinkers to go along with his hits, and he has some “pulpy” tendencies (such as his frequent use of nudity, particularly in the first half of his career) that can give some of his work a less “artistic,” less serious tinge.  This duality is part of what interested me in the idea of watching all of his films in the first place.  And it’s why my “Days of De Palma” viewing project has proven to be so fascinating for me, and so much fun.

I love that Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow have set out, via this documentary, to give Mr. De Palma the credit that they feel he is due.  And I adore them for eschewing the usual route of having other famous people on-camera talking about how much they love Mr. De Palma’s films, or how influenced they have been by them.  Instead, Mr. Baumbach and Mr. Paltrow have chosen to allow simply Mr. De Palma himself, in his own words, to make that case, with the only supporting evidence being footage from his films.  This is a wonderfully unique, brave creative choice, and it works like gangbusters.

Having just completed my “Days of De Palma” project, I ate this film up.  I loved every minute, and I feel that I need to watch it again immediately.  But I think that anyone who loves movies will find De Palma to be a fun watch.  This is a fascinating master class in the art of making movies, and I suspect it will make you want to track down some of the many varied films Mr. De Palma has made over the course of his long career.  It made me feel that way, and I’d just finished watching them all!

Days of De Palma: Part 1 — Carrie (1976); Part 2 — The Fury (1978); Part 3 — Dressed to Kill (1980); Part 4 — Blow Out (1981); Part 5 – Scarface (1983); Part 6 – Body Double (1984); Part 7 – Wise Guys (1986); Part 8 — The Untouchables (1987); Part 9 — Casualties of War (1989); Part 10 — The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990); Part 11 — Raising Cain (1992); Part 12 — Carlito’s Way (1993); Part 13 — Mission: Impossible (1996); Part 14 — Snake Eyes (1998); Part 15 — Mission to Mars (2000); Part 16 — Femme Fatale (2002); Part 17 — The Black Dahlia (2006); Part 18 — Redacted (2007); Part 19 — Passion (2012).

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