What does “De Palma” say about the role of a director?


De Palma (2015) chronicles the filmmaking career of the legendary, often-controversial director Brian De Palma, famous for Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), Carlito’s Way (1993). The documentary is crafted from a single lengthy interview with De Palma, intercut with footage from his movies and those of other directors whose style influenced De Palma, as well as pictures and videos of De Palma’s childhood. Following a linear progression, from De Palma’s insights on his early life all the way up into his current career, the portrait painted speaks volumes about the man himself. More significantly, it offers universal insights on what it takes to be a director in the industry of film.

In the film, Brian De Palma not only provides access to his own inner and outer world. He also serves as the audience’s chauffeur around the cinematic landscape. By no means sentimental, De Palma doesn’t hold back when it comes to speaking harsh truths about the world of filmmaking. He is hardened by years of bludgeoning interactions with money-minded studio executives and frustrating projects for which he had no feeling of personal connection. In a scene wherein De Palma recounts hearing about the death of composer Bernard Herrmann, who was working on De Palma’s Obsession (1976), the director is more irked by the idea of having to find someone to finish the music than he is by the passing of one of his idols. This is not an idealistic or naive filmmaker; this is someone who knows what goes into getting a film made and will muddle through the frequently arduous and frustrating process.

Al Pacino in Scarface (1983)

The film also explores the difficulty that big name actors can bring to the filming process, with insight into how the egos of both Cliff Robertson and Tom Cruise affected the filming of Obsession and Mission Impossible (1996), respectively. De Palma is unemotional but frank when discussing their sometimes negative contributions to his process. According to De Palma, Cruise, who brought big name power to Mission Impossible, thought that he had the right to an extensive say in the filmmaking decisions, while Robertson was irritated that he was being overshadowed by his more talented female costar, Genevieve Bujold.

De Palma operates on the principle that it is his job to get the mechanics of filmmaking and the egos of the actors out of the way, so that the actors and production team can work together as seamlessly as possible. His role is that of a facilitator of good acting, as opposed to the stylized directorial approaches of people like Wes Anderson or Stanley Kubrick. Whether or not one agrees with his approach, his insights are enlightening when trying to understand the varying approaches to being a director.

Perhaps the most valuable thing we learn about the inner workings of De Palma is that he is a conflicted and somewhat damaged person.Throughout the interview, De Palma comes across as gruff and cynical, with occasional laughter giving us glimpses of his more likeable side. De Palma reveals to the audience that as a child he would follow his father to his office to see that he was cheating on his mother, where De Palma would threaten his father with a knife and demand to know where his lover was. We later find out that, in adulthood, he himself cheated on his wife, following in the footsteps of his father. Further, De Palma depicts himself as a foil to his brother, who he feels never had the hard edge necessary to survive in the aggressive, erosive business of filmmaking.

Besides revealing the story of Brian De Palma, the movie shows that being a director is difficult and unglamorous work, and that health and happiness are not necessarily the end result of good filmmaking.