Brian De Palma
Riding elevators up to their apartments, most New Yorkers switch their minds off for an interlude of numbness between the street and home. Not Brian De Palma, the controversial, embattled director of Paramount’s new blockbuster, The Untouchables. “I was on an elevator in my building the other day,” says De Palma, 46, as he pokes away at his roast pig, rice and beans in a Cuban restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. “This little girl gets on with me. Of course I find elevators very claustrophobic. The door closes. And as she leaves, I think, ‘What if as she gets off at 5, the door starts to close, and I watch her go down the hall. Suddenly I see a psychopathic killer rush down the hall after her, and the door closes. I get off at 10 and frantically try to go back to 5. When I get there I walk on the scene—it’s too late. Then people arrive and see me—the Master of the Macabre, right?—with her.’ Those things pop into my head as I move around town.”
Flashback: Michael Caine, playing a psychotic transvestite in Dressed to Kill, razor-slashes Angie Dickinson in an elevator; Nancy Allen—the ex-Mrs. De Palma—glimpses Caine in a mirror and nearly gets it herself; and when the police arrive, they suspect her of the murder.
While many Americans these days are prey to visions of random violence, no director has translated such nightmares onto film as relentlessly and stylishly as Brian De Palma has for the past 20 years—and none inspires the same love-hate reaction from audiences and critics. Since Obsession and Carrie in 1976, the prolific De Palma has forged an utterly distinct cinematic identity by mastering what he calls the complex “grammar of filmmaking.” No one challenges his genius for fluid camera motion, but his fascination with grisly violence, sexual perversity, dark unconscious urges and creepy, teasing psychological terror have made him a favorite target of feminists, evangelists, sociologists and many critics. His 1983 Scarf ace got a hard-gore X-rating (changed to R on appeal) because of a chain-saw execution and a numbingly violent, vulgar orgy of cocaine madness; the murder weapon in Body Double was a massive drill bit that chewed through a woman’s torso and the floor beneath her. De Palma’s friends, and even his ex-wife, swear that the man himself is nothing like that. “Because of the subjects, people read all sorts of things into his movies,” says Nancy Allen. “I’m no psychiatrist, but if Brian was a psychopath then I am, too, for having been married to him. He seemed normal to me. I had a great time with him.”
Not everybody does. Particularly in public, De Palma can seem guarded to the point of being intimidating. Like his film grammar, his speech is taut, precise and graceful, charged with intelligence and stripped of waste. In conversation he sits, arms folded, head tilted back, with a brooding curious look. Nonetheless he is not as chilly as he sometimes seems. Director Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, The Color of Money) recalls how De Palma “took me under his wing when I went out to L.A. in the ’70s, introduced me to De Niro, Paul Schrader and other people, got me started. He gave me the Taxi Driver script, which he had read. I once had very bad asthma, and Brian visited me in the hospital, took me home and took care of me until I got better. He is a warm, passionate, compassionate person who, I think, puts on a tough front.”
“I’m kind of a solitary guy,” De Palma admits. “I’m a very strange person to be a film director because I don’t like to be the center of attention or surrounded by a lot of people looking at me to answer questions. I much prefer to be at home by myself.” His social life revolves around dinners with close old friends like Scorsese, TIME contributing writer Jay Cocks, Spielberg and Lucas. Otherwise he stays in, watching movies and reading. Despite his laconic ways, however, De Palma harbors a sense of humor that friends describe as “devilish” and “wickedly sarcastic.” It isn’t readily apparent from Carrie or The Untouchables, but his humor even finds its way into his films. Three of his first low budget features—The Wedding Party, Hi, Mom! and, Greetings—were offbeat, youthful satires.
Those three early efforts, released between 1968 and 1970, had one other notable bit of common ground: They all starred a boyishly exuberant newcomer to film named Robert De Niro. Now the $25 million Untouchables, about Eliot Ness’s efforts to bust Al Capone, has brought De Palma and De Niro together again—with a little more money involved. De Palma’s fee was somewhere near $1.5 million; De Niro pulled in an estimated $1.5 million, even though his role as Capone took only two weeks. He seems to have been worth it. The Untouchables grossed $15.9 million in its first week and may well match Beverly Hills Cop II as the summer’s biggest hit. The movie is also De Palma’s biggest critical triumph. “This is the best response to any picture I’ve made,” he says. “I’ve always gotten mixed press. For Scarface and Body Double, the press was unpleasant and combative. This film works.” TIME called the movie “a masterpiece of American moviemaking.”
It is a measure of De Palma’s past excesses, however, that he can describe his bloody Capone saga as “a pretty tame gangster movie. It’s not Snow White,” he admits. “But,” he demands, referring to The Godfather, “how about a horse head in the bed? How about garroting, a knife through the hand?” Sean Connery, who gives an Oscar-caliber performance as a tough old beat cop, says he felt much of De Palma’s earlier work “lacked soul and was too clinical, detached. After all, to watch a drill bit go through a chest and not be engrossed or disturbed or pleased tells you the emotional side was not too evident. But with this film, he may have been aware of the shortcoming and decided to explore well-conceived characters.”
Actually, De Palma claims the social climate has made him quit portraying women as victims—at least for now. “No more violent stalking of women. You just can’t do it anymore. It’s become almost impossible to make a thriller or suspense picture. The media reaction is too strong.”
But no trend can blunt De Palma’s passionate, meticulous approach to filmmaking. He has written or co-written about half of his films, does all the painstaking storyboarding for each camera shot and shoots all location stills himself. The gliding, probing tracking shots, jarring overhead angles and long, unbroken sweeps are all designed to heighten suspense or arousal and tell a story through the movements of the camera. They have also earned him comparisons to the all-time master, Alfred Hitchcock. As Scorsese puts it, “There is a whole school of thought that style is content, and Brian’s work perfectly illustrates that.” At work, De Palma is driven. He spent one full day—and 33 takes—shooting the complex, four-minute, continuous interior shot in which Connery and Kevin Costner, as Ness, hear one of their men get shot (in an elevator, naturally). The film’s tense climax, on the steps of Chicago’s Union Station, is a masterly choreography of cuts, silent close-ups and slow motion. De Palma took six night shoots to get it down right.
“Brian is a perfectionist,” says Allen, who met him when she got a small part in Carrie (they married in 1979 and split in late 1982). “The movie is already shot and done in his head before he gets to the set. Every shot is worked out. He gets obsessed. But he really understands the actor.” He has also helped a lot of them: Besides De Niro and Allen, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, John Travolta, Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, John Lithgow and Jill Clayburgh all got their big film breaks through De Palma. “I learned from him just how far you can go,” Mastrantonio recalls. “His environment is very intense, but the right kind of intense. He saw I was very uptight. He said, ‘Elizabeth, if you look bad up there, it’s my fault, honey.’ ”
Not long ago De Palma himself could have used that sort of encouragement. After a particularly disappointing screening of Scarface in 1983, Scorsese recalls, “He and I had dinner in L.A., and we were so depressed—a film of mine had just been canceled at Paramount—that we asked, ‘Is there something else we could do?’ We were dead serious. Maybe it was all over. I said what about teaching, and he said, ‘Yeah, but there’s more money this way.’ ” The flop of Body Double a year later, De Palma says, left him “shell-shocked. I just sat in my room and stared at the wall.” Trying for something different, he made a gangster comedy, Wise Guys, with Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo. “It is not a movie I’m putting in my pantheon,” he says.
Despite or because of his perfectionism, directing is an ordeal for De Palma. On location, he says, “I get numb. I hate it.” His friend Jay Cocks calls such periods his “snowman” mode, when De Palma becomes even more remote and haunted. “I don’t like my time to be totally regimented from 6 a.m. on,” De Palma says. “I like to get up when I want. Making a movie, you need total concentration, and you’re at the beck and call of the moviemaking machinery. You wake in the middle of the night, you can’t get things out of your head. You feel very isolated and alone. This goes on for close to a year. It’s horrible, but let’s not get carried away. They do pay well, and you’re not paid to have identity crises in the middle of your movies.”
De Palma grew up around Philadelphia, the son of an orthopedic surgeon. He was a science whiz who often watched his father, Anthony, perform major surgery. One summer, Brian says, he even worked in the accident ward and developed a high tolerance for the sight of blood. “But I was more interested in building my own computer. Back in my day, it was still relays and those electric tubes inside radios. I made it out of war surplus parts. It was like Frankenstein in Plexiglas, so you could see everything clicking and whirring.”
A few years later, as a physics student at Columbia, De Palma got hooked on the French New Wave films of Godard, documentaries by the Maysles brothers and the classics of Hitchcock, Ford and Howard Hawks. He hocked all his scientific equipment for a Bolex movie camera and began making films at Columbia, NYU and Sarah Lawrence. By the early ’70s, supporting himself by making documentaries and promotion films, he had completed his three movies with De Niro and earned a job directing Tommy Smothers in Get To Know Your Rabbit. His next pictures—Sisters, with Margot Kidder as a murderous, schizophrenic Siamese twin, and Phantom of Paradise—did poorly, but then in 1976 came Carrie. Suddenly the name De Palma meant money.
So far, success hasn’t changed De Palma’s life much. He has rented the same modest two-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village since 1970. He also owns an airy, sunny home in the Hollywood Hills and likes moving back and forth. For the past year he has been dating independent film producer/director Tina Rathborne. Says Cocks: “Brian seems to hold particular appeal for women who enjoy being challenged intellectually, and I think Tina is especially equipped for it.” Of his marriage to Allen, De Palma says, “It was difficult to work and go home with the same person day in, day out. Sometimes it isn’t helpful to a marriage to bring the stresses of moviemaking home. Also, Nancy got a lot of bad raps from people who didn’t like my films. In those movies where she was victimized, she took the brunt of the feminist attack, which wasn’t fair.”
De Palma likes good food, but he doesn’t cook (“I wash dishes. I’m very good at dishes”), and his apartment has the comfortable look of a wealthy kid’s dorm room, if you don’t count the rooms full of computers, which are his only apparent material indulgence. “I have no desire to buy things,” he says. “I have no drug problem. I have a pension fund, conservative things. A low profile life-style. I live the way I lived during college, except there’s a lot of money in the bank.” Talk about computer games—especially the flight simulator—quickly makes him unusually animated. “You can go into World War I and have dogfights,” he raves. “They have scenery for the whole country—storms, clouds, fog, wind. Hours of enjoyment. Then the word games. Questions, puzzles, riddles. I mean, days can go by before you take your eyes off the screen.” Those are about the only games he goes for. “I read once that all the exercise you do gives you about as much life as the time it took you to do all the exercise. If I exercise for five years, I’ll get five extra years of life? I think I’d rather dissipate.”
By now De Palma should be feeling some endorphin rushes just from watching the Untouchables grosses rack up, but, he says, money only counts as power. “The more money they have to pay for you, the more power you have. Big difference between a $100,000 director and a million-plus director. That’s what they understand. Money.” De Palma seems to have a sane, protective aloofness about his stature and bank-ability as well. “Even Woody [Allen] has to work within budgets,” he says. “I know I’m a major player in this business. I have no economic reason to make movies anymore. I want to concentrate my energy on things I feel strongly about. I’ve been making movies 25 years, and I’m going to be here another 25 years. I have a very unstressful life-style because movies have a lot of stress and they occupy large chunks of your waking and unconscious life. Relationships and how you conduct yourself are every bit as important as the movies you make, and I’m very happy in my life. In the immortal words of Alfred Hitchcock, ‘It’s only a movie. It isn’t life.’ ”