Brian De Palma on Contemporary Noir
Brian De Palma discusses his critically-acclaimed cult film Femme Fatale, and the art of building suspense.
By David Konow.
Structure can be difficult for many filmmakers. A director who likes to fly by the seat of his pants may find preplanning things too constrictive to his creative freedom, but there can be a lot of room for great things to happen in the right structured environment. Brian De Palma is a filmmaker who, like one of his heroes, Alfred Hitchcock, has the whole movie laid out like blueprints in his head, laying down a strong foundation for terror and suspense. “I loved to work with Brian because he always knew what he wanted,” says cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who shot Obsession, Blow Out, and Bonfire of the Vanities for De Palma. “He storyboarded everything because he wanted to see the pacing of each sequence.”
Well known for his complex camera moves and great shot compositions, De Palma is a director with a strong command of the language of cinema. “Brian has a rare ability to construct scenes without dialogue that are involving and that function almost as silent films,” says editor Paul Hirsch, who cut Carrie, Obsession, and Mission: Impossible among others for De Palma. “They are not action scenes, they don’t involve car crashes or any of the usual conventions of Hollywood filmmaking. They are cinema.”
De Palma came out of the “new Hollywood” of the ’70s. Carrie was a film that transcended the horror genre and truly captured teenage alienation. Dressed to Kill, which had Michael Caine pulling a Norman Bates as a killer in drag, is a modern-day classic. Blow Out is one of the most underrated films in recent memory and features one of John Travolta’s finest performances. Scarface? Fuhgeddaboutit. One of the greatest gangster movies ever made. Not to mention a number of other great De Palma films such as Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Obsession, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way, and more.
De Palma has written a number of the films he’s directed including Femme Fatale, a puzzle of a film with a lot of interesting pieces. It’s one of those films that melts in your mind, and like the title, the film is deceiving. At first you might think you’re going to see a period thriller, but De Palma has built a lot of twists, turns, and blind alleys while constructing his latest maze.
Creative Screenwriting talked to Brian De Palma about Femme Fatale.
What was the inspiration for Femme Fatale, and why did you go back to writing your own screenplay for this film?
I always had an idea of trying to make a contemporary noir movie, and trying to find a world where that could exist today. I’m a great admirer of noir movies. But it isn’t the ’40s, and I was trying to find a way to do it in a contemporary setting. So I figured that the best way to do it was to make it kind of a noir dream. The noir part of the movie is when she falls asleep, then wakes up, and you sort of set it up in the beginning of the movie by having her watching one of the great noir movies, Double Indemnity. And then I had a story idea I had been playing around with for a year about a character who is involved in a heist who double-crosses all of her compatriots. They pursue her, and she stumbles onto a double whose life she steals. Those were the ideas that created Femme Fatale. I only write things when I think I have a really good idea. I’ve written many screenplays over the years that I ultimately don’t make for one reason or another, because I don’t think the ideas are good enough, or I can’t get the movies financed for one reason or another. This was an example where everything seemed to work out.
Who or what was the inspiration for the femme fatale of the title?
It was just a great noir spider-woman basically. I love these characters like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Jane Greer, Rita Hayworth, all these wonderful, great noir women, and I was trying to find a story where I could stick one in. I like these kinds of manipulative, sexy seductresses. The genre’s pretty clear, and the noir women are fairly standard: the woman leading a man to his doom. It was difficult to find a terrain where that works today. I was trying to find a way to make noir work. Noir has a very pessimistic worldview, and noir women are not particularly politically correct, that’s why we don’t see many of them; but they’re a hell of a lot of fun to make movies about.
When you come back to writing your own scripts, does it take you a while to warm up your writing skills or do they still stay sharp?
No, I basically write all the time. I just sort of look at what’s the best screenplay. I enjoy working with other writers and other genres, it gets me away from my particular material. So you can find me making movies like Mission to Mars or Mission: Impossible. I like moving into other people’s sensibilities. I like to work as a director and not do the whole thing.
You’ve made a lot of films during your career, and you’ve also written a lot of your films. Do you prefer to work fast when you write?
The problem with writing a movie is you’ve got to have a great idea. I loved the idea for Femme Fatale and it came very quickly. Dressed to Kill was another great idea, and Blow Out was a very good idea. Those scripts came very quickly. But when you don’t have a good idea, it can take years. These ideas rattle around in my head forever. The idea of somebody fleeing, then they run into their double and take their life, I’ve been thinking about that for ten, fifteen years, and I never found a way to put it into anything. So it’s very much circling in your brain, and then you get to a certain place, you have a certain experience, and it all kind of jells. Then it’s easy to write. You’re in a terrible situation where you have to turn the pages in when you don’t really have a good idea. And of course, I guess 95% of what we see is like that.
When you see a stunning idea like Memento or Boogie Nights, or something by the Coen Brothers, when someone comes up with a tremendously interesting idea, you take your hats off to them, because you know what a difficult process that is. I’ve had a couple of pretty good ones throughout my career, and if you read as much as I do what everyone else is doing and what kind of trouble they’re having, and if you’re a student of the history of cinema, you realize there aren’t that many good ideas out there. That’s why there’s some extraordinary movies, and some that are sort of okay. You have to be in the right place at the right time with the right actors and the right economics. Something like On the Waterfront, Kazan was in the right place at the right time. Orson Welles was in the right place at the right time with the right contract with Citizen Kane. That’s why those movies are so extraordinary.
You use split screens in Femme Fatale like you have in a number of your films. How do you decide when to use it in a scene?
Split screen is just another storytelling technique. You just have to find a place where it’s appropriate and it can be effective. I use it where, like everything in my movies, whether it’s a crane shot, or a steady-cam shot, or a point-of-view shot, I try to find exactly the right word or the visual grammar for the place in the movie. I’m very much interested in visual storytelling. I think it’s kind of a dead form; you don’t see very many directors working in it. I try to find story ideas that are driven with visual ideas, unlike the traditional sort of storytelling with character development, dramatic development of your characters where the antagonist and the protagonist come up against each other, and you have a three-act structure in your movie. I find these story forms are almost exhausted by television, which is almost completely driven by dialogue and close ups of people talking to each other. Contemporary filmmaking has beaten them to death, so there’s very little to do with that kind of storytelling. Not to say that it isn’t effective if it’s used well, but to me I’m practicing a visual storytelling that not many people are interested in. I like the unexpected. I like being surprised.
When you started making films, was there more of an emphasis on utilizing the language of cinema?
Well yeah, because we were looking at directors, a lot of them had started making movies in the silent film era where there was no dialog, so they had to learn these techniques. Whether it was Hitchcock, Ford, or Fritz Lang, you had to learn these techniques and not try to solve all of your problems in dialogue.
When you’re planning a camera move or a cinematic technique, do you plan those during the writing process or does the visual planning come later?
When you write a script, or when you direct somebody else’s script, as you read it, if it’s somebody else’s script, you start getting ideas of how to tell the story visually. When you write the script, and when I do scripts of my own, they’re usually driven by a visual idea. Not a character idea, not even a story idea; it’s usually a visual idea, because this is what I think cinema is all about. That’s why the images are so compelling because you’re dealing with pure, visual storytelling. That happens when I’m putting the ideas together for the story. The trick of Femme Fatale was getting in and out of the dream without the audience groaning, because it’s a very old idea, somebody waking up and everything you saw wasn’t real. But I think I came up with such a stunning image of her underneath the water, that you can surprise the audience because it’s such a strong visual image, to get past that transition. And then I had this other visual idea of Antonio Banderas being a collage artist, and I literally created that collage with my brother Bart, who’s a painter. We literally created that huge panel of pictures over a period of like four months. The movie is very much like the picture. The completed image is the last piece in the puzzle. And again, it’s a purely visual idea.
Christopher McQuarrie has said he works closely with the composers of the films he’s writing, and he’s found they can make valuable changes to the screenplay before the film starts shooting. You had worked closely with Bernard Herrmann on Obsession, and he also made contributions to the story. Do you usually work closely with the composers in this regard?
Not much in the beginning. I’ve worked with many fine composers, and in this day, you can literally listen to the score on a computer before you record it, which is quite unlike how I started out, and you can really adjust the score at that stage so that by the time you get to recording it, more or less all the problems are solved. This movie I very much had the Ravel Bolero idea at the beginning of the heist, and then I abandoned it because I wanted to use a lot of eclectic music. The first pass at it, [Ryuichi] Sakamoto wrote a very Mission: Impossible-type score, and it was quite good, but I went back to my Bolero idea. I said, “This isn’t Mission: Impossible, this is a seduction, and there’s no more seductive music than Ravel’s Bolero.” He did a version of Bolero that fit in with what we had done with the picture.
One film journalist has written that a theme you deal with in many of your films is the “moral consequences of the failure to act, or acting too late.” We’ve seen this in Carrie, Obsession, and Blow Out, and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos says in Femme Fatale, “No good deed ever goes unpunished.” Why do your films often return to this theme?
I think things like that are buried deep in your subconscious. I’ve thought about why I have doubles in my movies? It’s the kind of stuff I don’t quite understand, and you see it in your movies over and over again, and you’re intrigued by these ideas. Sort of like a painter who likes to paint the same cathedral or the same bowl of fruit, you’re drawn to certain images over and over again for kind of inexplicable reasons. It’s an insight into what’s going on in your subconscious. This movie is so much driven by a subconscious idea that… it just feels right. I guess that’s the best way I can say it, and I don’t quite understand where it all comes from. I was always fascinated by that phrase “no good deed goes unpunished.” I find it’s something that happened in my own life many times! I wondered where it came from, I finally looked it up, and it was Claire Booth Luce talking about politics. I guess in politics no good deed goes unpunished. It seemed like such a strange idea, but in many ways very true.
What are the keys to building a suspenseful scene?
Withholding information. Just keep withholding information. And not quite showing everything. Slowing things down is always very effective.
Hitchcock had famously said that suspense is two people sitting at a table, then the camera shows us that under the table is a bomb, and we have no idea when it’s going to go off. That makes me think of the scene in Carrie with the bucket of blood, where we have no idea when it’s going to get dumped on her. Were you trying to follow that rule of suspense when you were constructing that scene?
Well, Hitchcock laid down all the classic ways to use suspense. He’s done it so many times in so many movies, it’s all there. You see what works and what doesn’t work. I’ve taken some of those ideas, and taken them a little farther. I try to make it even more uncomfortable for the audience by shooting it in slow motion. I really make it just the worst kind of thing when you know it’s going to happen. The bomb starts ticking extremely slowly. And I have many balls in the air at the same time, so that you can drive this thing so slowly. I’ve used that technique, whether it’s in The Fury or the Odessa Steps in The Untouchables, where you just slow everything down. You need all this parallel action going on, because slow motion, if it’s not really cut very well, can be very boring. So you have to find a way to drive it with all kinds of counter action. And you need a great score, because you’re completely relying on the music to get you through.
What were the most important things you learned from watching Hitchcock’s films?
Well, it’s like when you see things the same way [as someone else], you find a writer who writes how you think. You say, “This guy is speaking to me.” Hitchcock always spoke to me right from the beginning, and I took many of his techniques. Like the use of the point-of-view shot, which is seen in Rear Window in the umpteenth degree, where you convey information directly to the audience. The character sees something, the audience sees something; there’s no other form in which the character and the audience sees the same information but the movies. It’s an essential building block that is completely unique to cinema. That’s what I’m constantly striving to find in making movies–these things that are purely cinematic. That’s what makes great cinema great to me.
When you started your film career, you tried to work within the system and stay true to yourself at the same time. Now that you have a lot of films under your belt, do you still have to fight to make the movies you want to make?
Oh sure. It’s always a fight if you have some kind of personal vision. You’re always struggling to convince people to put up money for it, and since I make movies that have very elaborate sets and very expensive film toys, they can’t be done for a million or half a million dollars in a couple of bedrooms in Brooklyn. I’ve made movies like that, and then I evolved out of that. So it’s always a struggle, and every once in a while, you have to go out and make a big hit so you can continue to make movies. You have to go back and forth. I have a particular visual style that I can apply to genre movies; so I can go in and out of the system. If you’re completely independent of the system, so much time can be spent just raising money. You can certainly make movies like that, but like John Sayles, you’re constantly struggling to get money to make your particular movie, and having to do other jobs to pay for them, much like Orson Welles did. I’m a big student of Welles, I knew him very well because he was in Get to Know Your Rabbit, and I had studied his career, which seemed to me to be the classic example of what not to do with the system, and how cruel the system can be to a great artist. I think there’s many good things about the system, and there are many things that aren’t so good about it. But I’m an American, and I’m working in the American movie system. To try and say that Hollywood doesn’t know what they’re doing is absurd. Hollywood’s made some of the greatest movies in the world, and you can make that system work for you.
This article first appeared in Creative Screenwriting volume 9, #1
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