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Earlier this year, De Palma was doing more interviews with European outlets where Passion opened between February and May. He then spent much of the late spring and early summer giving interviews for the film’s pending releases in the U.K. (where Passion was released on DVD earlier this month), the U.S. (where it opened in theaters yesterday), and Canada (where it will open in September).
Anyone who has been reading this site regularly knows that we’ve been doing our best to keep up with all the interviews, which are of course full of repeat questions and answers, give or take some minor variations. But each one usually has some other interesting piece (or pieces) of information that can result from the interviewer asking something they are particularly curious about, or else De Palma tries to “put a new twist” on the same old question. In any case, what this all makes entirely clear is that De Palma is proud of Passion, and is doing his best to ensure its release is as successful as can be.
And he should be proud of it. Passion, a remake of Alain Corneau’s Crime d’amour, is De Palma’s most fun, relentless wind-up toy of a movie since Raising Cain, with a killer performance by Rachel McAdams. At its center is a magnificent split screen ballet sequence that compels and frightens simultaneously, leading us deeper into a psychosexual surrealism that is informed by the advertising world in which its characters are engulfed. Within that world, Isabelle, played by Noomi Rapace, is a focused, hard-working creative visionary who wakes up with ideas straight from her subconscious, a semi-surrogate for De Palma himself.
I spoke with De Palma by phone on the last day in July, just as he was getting ready to take a vacation prior to Passion’s U.S. release. And then he was right back at it August 19, discussing Passion on stage at the Lincoln Center and doing even more interviews leading up to the release date. In any case, in the interview below I think you’ll find that we covered at least a little bit of ground that was previously untouched.
This interview contains SPOILERS about Passion.
BDP: Well, if you’ve seen the original movie, you know they reveal the killer halfway through. And I thought that didn’t make for a very interesting second half of the movie, where you’re basically showing the whole planted clues or that they’re not connected to Isabelle, when in fact, they’re set up to make you think it’s Isabelle, but upon closer examination, you find out that they’re false clues. Which of course requires a lot of flashbacks, and a kind of tedious summing up of what actually happened. I thought it was better to make the audience think that Isabelle was all doped up and didn’t exactly know what happened and what didn’t happen. Try to keep the audience as confused as she seemed to be right up until the end of the movie.
GB: Passion kind of has a unique structure too for you, I think, in that for the first half of it, there seems to be two protagonists. We’re not just following Bucky Bleichert, or Jake Scully, or Courtland from Obsession. You kind of employ parallel editing and give each of the two main characters equal screen time apart from each other. Were you trying to angle the audience’s sympathy toward one or the other in the first half?
BDP: I don’t think so. I more or less followed the original movie in terms of the conflict that they were having with each other, basically until she goes home and takes all the pills and, you know, it becomes the surreal dream section. But that’s basically the way the original movie was laid out, and it seemed quite sound to me.
GB: Did you use storyboards for Passion?
BDP: Yes. I took a long time to lay out…you know, I was in Paris for two years. It took me a long time to get the movie cast, so I had a tremendous amount of time to work out every shot in the movie. We had a very industrious production designer [Cornelia Ott] who literally went to every location and photographed every angle I had in my storyboards, which I would then put into my storyboards. As soon as she gave me a photograph, it went into my drawing.
GB: And also for Passion, you worked with an experienced editor [François Gédigier], but one you hadn’t worked with before. Did you learn any new tricks from that kind of collaboration?
BDP: Not really. That was kind of a delightful thing, because I was, you know, a little apprehensive about working with a new editor. I’ve worked with the same two or three editors for decades. But this was somebody suggested by Saïd Ben Saïd, the producer, and I said, "Okay, I’ll give it a try, but, you know, if it doesn’t work out, we have to bring in one of my old editors." But in fact, it worked quite well. We literally had the movie cut by the time we finished shooting. We literally, when we went back to Paris, we were just waiting for the last two days of shooting in order to, you know, be able to work that in.
GB: How did you find the dancers for the ballet?
BDP: Well, that’s a whole elaborate process you have to go through. The Jerome Robbins Trust controls that ballet completely. So if you want to use it, you have to use their costumes. The costumes are always the same. The way the dancer’s hair is, is always the same, which means the ballerina has to wear her hair down. The set is exactly the same. You have to create the set according to the original one. And needless to say, the choreography is exactly the same. The only thing I changed was, instead of having them looking at a mirror, which is what the dancers are supposed to be doing [in the film] when they look straight in the camera, I had them look straight in the camera. And the Jerome Robbins Trust also approves the dancers. Fortunately, we had Polina [Semionova], who is the lead dancer in the Staatsballet in Berlin, and they approved her, but it took a while before they approved a male dancer.
GB: Wow. That’s a really great sequence. I think it works really great in the film.
BDP: Yeah, it looks beautiful. I quite enjoyed shooting it, and I think Polina is just magical to watch.
GB: Yes, I agree. Did you have any other concerns or challenges about shooting the ballet itself?
BDP: No, shooting ballet is pretty straightforward. I mean, we had to shoot it, supposedly, all from Isabelle’s point of view. And you more or less always shoot ballet, you know, shoot it from head to foot. Of course, you cut it closer for some of the emotional reactions of the dancers. But if you look at ballet coverage, they literally just shoot it from head to foot. You have to see the whole dancer’s body. And the only problem was, I would think, that I had to do it so many times that they really got exhausted.
GB: During that split screen sequence, Noomi’s eyes kind of take over the screen at one point, almost as if she’s in two spaces at once. On a second and multiple viewings, we’re pretty sure she’s still dreaming at this point. We don’t necessarily know it on the first viewing. I tend to surmise that perhaps, like in the original movie, Isabelle sat through the ballet one night on her own without letting her assistant know. Is that perhaps why the ballet plays out in her dream? Or is that getting too far off...?
BDP: No no no no. The intention was always to shoot those tight close-ups to make the audience think she is at the ballet, when in fact, later in the movie, I show where that close-up comes from, and I pull back and show that she’s underneath the scaffolding. It’s a trick, basically. I mean, to put her on the left side of the screen, while the murder’s going on on the right, so the audience would never think she could have possibly done it.
GB: Yes, okay. In this movie, you sort of continue the experiment of Redacted, where you incorporated current forms of media and technology within a more traditional narrative. Had you been planning to incorporate similar elements in your John Edwards-inspired political campaign thriller?
BDP: Yeah, but those scripts and those ideas were all completely digital reality, whether they were, you know, reality television shows, or stuff you find on the web. They’re all constructed, like Redacted, over supposedly found footage. This, because I decided to use this commercial for the smart phone, I decided to make it a whole element in the movie. And these, you know, kinds of things that grow out of smart phones, besides texting. One of those is, of course, the commercial, which I basically copied from a real commercial on the internet, of a girl sticking the phone in the back pocket of her girlfriend and walking around, having people stare at her ass. And which was in fact posted on the internet and went viral, and was in fact made by two advertising executives. So I basically copied that commercial completely. And then I added the use of the phone where he’s making the sex tape, and he is f---ing her in the room.
GB: The nightmare sequence at the end I think is one of your best. I read that you came up with the idea for the final shot at the last minute. Were you originally going to end without any shot of Isabelle waking up?
BDP: Well, I knew I was going to end up with Isabelle waking up, but, to give it that last twist, to leave that body on the floor, that sort of came to me while I was shooting the sequence. You know, did she strangle her in her sleep? She got away with one murder, but what is she going to do about this one? I mean, basically, you leave all these questions with the audience.
GB: Yeah, and it kind of makes them laugh when the words “The End” come up.
BDP: Yeah. Her problems are hardly over.
GB: Right. So Isabelle is obviously expecting Dirk to show up at Christine’s party. But when he shows up drunk and crashes his car, it seems safe to say that she becomes a bit like Cain from Raising Cain, improvising perhaps other ways to set up the crime with what’s available. Would you agree maybe there’s a bit of improvisation, even though she’s sort of planned the perfect murder?
BDP: Obviously, I’m trying to create as many suspects that aren’t Isabelle as possible, you know, whether it’s Dani, or the rejected boyfriend, mainly pointing to the rejected boyfriend, so I had to get him to the party. And getting on the premises right around the time of the murder, you know, so he’s implicated, and also have the car there, so that Isabelle could plant the scarf in it.
GB: And she pretty much knew he would be there?
BDP: Well, there could be a certain amount of improvisation. I don’t think she necessarily had to know he was going to be there. But when she saw him, or heard him yelling, you know, “Christiiine! Christiiine!” As in all great murder plots where the best ones are always when you use something that happens in the moment that nobody ever predicts, she used the fact that the car was there and he was stumbling around to really close the loop on who was the primary suspect.
GB: Okay. And in Isabelle’s confession scene, there seem to be echoes of Amanda Knox when she says “I must have done it.” But of course, she feels a certain amount of pressure to confess, in order to go along with her own plan, because they’re processing DNA evidence, and she can’t wait for that to go through…
BDP: Well again, that’s from the original movie. You know, where she says, “I did it. I must have done it.” Which is a kind of a leap of credibility, but she’s trying to, and I tried to play it up, that she was so confused that she’s not exactly sure what she did. But in fact, she knows exactly what she’s doing.
GB: Do you still maintain an active writing routine these days?
BDP: Yeah, you know, I’m always working on something. The ideas I get, I’ll write 20 or 30 or 40 pages. And sometimes they work into a whole script. Sometimes they’re just ideas that I work out, and ultimately get used in something. I mean, the ballet thing is something I’ve been thinking about for years, and appeared in a couple of scripts.
GB: That’s cool. Some of us have noticed a recurrence of Raggedy Ann dolls within girls’ bedrooms in some of your older movies. Is there any pointed significance to this that you know of?
BDP: No. That’s, you know, it’s a Raggedy Ann doll, it’s my subconscious at work. It’s not like I said, “Oh! Let’s put the Raggedy Ann doll in there.”
Karoline Herfurth: I was simply asked by the casting agency that worked for Passion in Germany to audition for them. Then I was invited to come a second time to work with Brian De Palma himself on the scenes.
What were your thoughts upon reading the Passion screenplay? Were you previously familiar with the original French film by Alain Corneau?
No, I´ve never heard of it. But I loved the script and I was thrilled by the idea of working with Brian De Palma. Also working with such huge names like Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace was just overwhelming to me.
What was the rehearsal period like for this project?
We had a whole week to read the script and ask all the questions we have with the story and the characters. It was very intense and a special experience to me, to see Rachel, Brian and Noomi working. Very Inspiring. I learned a lot from these days.
Can you think of anything specific that was perhaps changed or altered after playing it out in rehearsals?
Brian is a Visionary. He knows exactly what he needs for his movie. And he sees every little thing you play for him. For me it was more about understanding what he wants me to do, not to change anything.
Was it a fun change of pace to be able to speak German in some of the scenes?
For me it is weird to switch between the languages. English is a whole other world. It´s like being in an phantasy already. Switching to German is mostly disturbing. It feels hard and dry. I love talking in English. It gives new possibilities of transformation to me.
I have to ask-- Was the "Ass Cam" commercial actually shot from a camera in your own back pocket?
Yes, partly it was :-)
What was it like to work with Brian De Palma on the set? Can you recall any specific direction he gave that stands out in your mind?
Yes. There is this moment, when my character sees through the window into the restaurant and watches her love Isabelle flirting with another man, and, in her eyes, betraying her. Brian wanted me to walk to a certain point, see the two, be hurt and then cry. He was very exact with the timing and I had to redo it certain times. When I finally had it done, he came to me and kissed my forehead without saying any more. He exactly knows, what it means to play those scenes for an actor. He demands everything from you as an actor, but if you give it to him, he sees it as a present and is thankful. He knows that it means giving a part of your soul. And that is very special.
You wrote and directed a short film, Mittelkleiner Mensch, that was well-received at some film festivals last year. How did that come about? And how was the experience of making the film?
In the beginning it was just a joke and to have a little fun with some friends. But after a while it became more serious and kind of developed its own dynamic. It was like a little monster that grew bigger and bigger and all I could do was feed it, because it was hungry. I think, mostly, making movies feels like that. But it is the greatest and most passionate thing to do in the world I could think of. And I loved it. For the first time I was never bored, not for a second. It was a very fulfilling experience.
Do you think you might direct a feature film someday?
I hope so. There is a movie planned for next year :-)
Did you learn anything new about filmmaking while working on Passion?
Yes. A lot. Brian is a director who is prepared to the very last bit. That is very important for a shooting day. Then he knows exactly what he wants without being closed to impulses. To me that is a very important skill and fine balance a director needs to have. Also, the professional way of working, and the script, and on the set watching Rachel and Noomi impressed me.
Was it fun working with Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace?
Yes, a lot. They are fine and very nice colleagues. We had a lot of fun and I loved working with them and learning from them.
Follow Karoline Herfurth on her Facebook page.
Armond White, City Arts
"Apparently nothing in this old-hat story of corporate skullduggery and female betrayal stimulated DePalma creatively as Hitchcock, Lang, Welles and Godard used to–so he also rehashes himself: Passion offers familiar DePalma tropes from multiple point-of-view imagery, T&A shots to an aggressive/seductive Pino Donaggio music score, even a split-screen sequence. Strangely, thereâ€™s no teasing slo-mo; a lack that suggests tepid enthusiasm."
Binx Bolling, City Arts
POSSIBLE SPOILERS-- "The final, overhead shot of Brian De Palma’s Passion twists to reveal an inverted diptych a la Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide. The shot denotes two things: 1) one character waking from a nightmare and, then, 2) another character murdered. The shot also connotes two things: 1) guilt and 2) fear of punishment. It confirms the film’s relationship dynamics as based on authority and power...
"Later, in the events leading up to the murder and following in its investigation, De Palma and dp Jose Luis Alcaine use stylized lighting and wide-angle lenses to approximate a barbiturate p.o.v.—but this proves another red herring (aimed at fooling both the legal authorities and the movie audience).
"Finally, the appearance of a fictional twin (the return of the authority figure) begins the climactic nightmare. In it, the boss brings vengeance upon her subordinate in wild De Palma fashion: slow motion signifies dread inevitability in every impotent effort to dispose of evidence and regain control of the narrative."
Damon Houx, Screen Crave
"The Maestro is back! For those who’ve loved his thrillers like Sisters, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Body Double, etc. this is a delight. And though it’s disappointing that a great piece of film like this only gets a limited release and is mostly avaiable through VOD, it’s one of the best films of the year."
Lou Lumenick, New York Post
"Auterist critics have been raving about De Palma using a split screen to show a murder and a ballet performance simultaneously ever since this played last fall’s festival circuit. But really, exactly what narrative purpose does this serve?"
Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
"Passion, Brian De Palma's voluptuously ludicrous new thriller, features his buzziest cast in a while, and the presence of Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace seems to have rooted him — at least for the first half. The movie starts out as a reasonably contained satire of office politics. McAdams uses her sexy billboard smile and emphatic delivery to nail a certain type of troublemaker boss who embeds her aggression in pert 'sincerity.' And Rapace, who appears tremulous and servile but may be a more competitive head case, keeps you guessing.
"The women's sisterly bond teeters into romance and then treachery, but it's all just an excuse for De Palma to go wild with indulgence. Having kept his gliding-camera 'Hitchcockian' impulses in submission for close to an hour, he then gives in to them like a recovering alcoholic reaching for a shot of Wild Turkey. Why, for five minutes, does half the screen show McAdams walking through her house, tracked by camera movement that's less Hitchcockian than Halloween-ian, while the other half depicts the ballet performance Rapace is attending? Passion turns into vintage De Palma — which is to say, the film seems almost engineered to get you giggling at the extravagance of its absurdity. Any enthusiasm in the viewer is bound to be a shadow of the film's passion for itself."
Justin Craig, FOX News
"One of the great joys of any De Palma film is getting swept up in the cinematography, editing and music. Whether or not the acting or story work in any given De Palma film, you can almost guarantee a masterful aural and visual canvas. De Palma’s frequent composer Pino Donaggio’s noirish score fervently delivers seduction and suspense from start to finish. José Luis Alcaine’s cinematography is visceral and striking; shots pop like a sleek magazine ad and often lingers right on the edge of inclusion, as if the audience is watching a psychological experiment from behind a double mirror."
Michael Koresky, Reverse Shot
"If it’s difficult to tell what’s business and what’s personal in the film’s intricate set-up, it’s even harder to separate reality from fantasy as the film slithers along to its boffo third act. Here is where De Palma breaks most drastically from Corneau’s film, plummeting down a rabbit hole of delirium that proves he was just using the original narrative as a basic skeleton to indulge in the ridiculous sublime. Whereas Corneau set his narrative up in a clinical and cold-blooded manner (perfectly acceptable for the sleek austerity of the setting), De Palma plunges into excess, positing the characters’ actions as dreams within dreams, and using nightmarishly canted frames and elegant split-screens to toy with both the audience’s perspective and his characters’ subjectivity (Pino Donaggio’s driving, tango-ish score begins to have an identity crisis of its own, starting to sample bits from Debussy’s 'Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune,' foreshadowing a thrillingly staged ballet scene). There’s an audacity to this that elevates it far above matters of style: De Palma is making pliable a rigidly established film that had clear emotional in and out points, reconfiguring its emotional makeup in a way that confuses, or even rejects, easy identification—with both character and reality."
Glenn Heath Jr., San Diego City Beat
"Brian De Palma's lustrous thriller Passion is one nasty parlor game. It constructs a sleek 21st-century world where fantasy is as pervasive as technology or sex. The desire to fulfill such urges drives us to befriend and betray, compete and consume.
"Hints of primary color populate the crisp modern architecture and décor, giving reality a dreamlike glow and infusing delusions with a scary sense of contorted normalcy. Sometimes, even hallucinations have hallucinations."
Sean Burns, Philadelphia Weekly
"Such are the vagaries of arthouse distribution these days that works by the masters now premiere on your cable box. Following in the footsteps of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder and Paul Schrader’s The Canyons, Brian De Palma’s Passion opens this weekend in a scant few cinemas, but is already available via Video on Demand. I wish it were possible to see Passion on a big screen locally because it’s a kinky corker, the most gloriously lurid and downright De Palma-est Brian De Palma movie since 2002’s Femme Fatale, which I may have once watched twice in a row just to soak in all the sleazy, giddy abandon. (I might have done the same with Passion, but I’m not ready to admit as much in public just yet.)"
Marshall Fine, Hollywood and Fine
"Passion isn’t Brian De Palma’s first remake, but it may be his worst: an over-inflated, melodramatically hot-blooded version of what was a cool French thriller."
Drew C. Taylor, U.K. Film News
"A significant, and powerful change made by De Palma was in making the lead characters closer in age. The competitiveness has a more natural feel, like the kind that might arise between siblings. This shift in the interpersonal dynamic between Christine and Isabelle helps the film focus on the occasionally poisonous dynamic between women in the workplace without also bringing in the psychological baggage of age.
"With Rachel McAdams, De Palma attempts to give us a femme fatale we ultimately hate ourselves for desiring. So selfish, so self serving, so morally thin and sadistic, McAdams presents a Christine who fears – at any moment – she could be interchanged with any colleague, especially Isabelle. So hungry for power and recognition, Christine is the embodiment of everything a person could come to fear in a co-worker."
'RAISING CAIN' RECUT BY SOME YOUNG DIRECTOR NAMED PEET GELDERBLOM
De Palma brings up the Raising Cain Recut once again in response to DeSalvo's question about any films he would like to go back and change. "In Raising Cain," De Palma says, "I initially had thought to tell the story with the wife's story. But because John Lithgow was so fascinating playing these multiple characters, I started the movie with his story. Then some young director recut it and put the wife's story first. I looked at it and said, 'You're right. That's the way it should have been done.' So, yes, my initial instinct was correct."
A YOUNG AL CAPONE ON SCREEN
DeSalvo asks whether De Palma would like to see any of his characters come back for a sequel. De Palma responds, "We were working on the prequel for The Untouchables, so a young Al Capone. But I guess they are doing that on television now [on Boardwalk Empire]. We were working on the prequel for many years, but it was under the former administration at Paramount."
DE PALMA LIKES 'KISS KISS, BANG BANG'
DeSalvo asks De Palma, "What is a guilty-pleasure movie that you love that everyone else seemed to hate?"
"A movie I really liked that didn't do well was Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," replies De Palma. "It didn't do well at the box office, but I thought Shane Black did a fantastic job."
My favorite part of the interview is when DeSalvo says that "Passion is probably the first movie to feature someone using their toe to send a text." That leads into a discussion about how technology has changed the way we communicate with each other. When asked what is the "craziest criticism" he's ever read about him, De Palma replies, "That I'm a misogynist. I love women. I love working with women. I love to photograph them. I like stories where they are the principle characters. I'm interested in beauty and sensuality. That would be hard for someone who is supposed to be a hater of women."
NON-RETIREMENT & 'HAPPY VALLEY'
The interview concludes with these two exchanges:
De Palma: No, I would never make an announcement about that. I mean, who the hell cares?
Fandango: What movie would you like to make after Passion?
De Palma: I got interested about a year ago in the Joe Paterno case, and we're developing a screenplay for Al Pacino to play Joe Paterno. This is very distressing material, but I think we can make a really terrific movie from it. We're working on it now.
SPOILERS - ROUNDTABLE FROM LAST YEAR'S TIFF
Slant's Fernando F. Croce yesterday posted his edition of a roundtable interview De Palma did at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. In discussing the viral ad in Passion's narrative, De Palma said, "I originally had thought of an incredibly more complicated commercial, all these dreams on top of one another. It got a bit too much like Inception. I showed it to a few director friends of mine, and they all said, 'What are you, crazy? Simplify!' [Laughs]"
At one point, De Palma is asked what his intention was with the split screen in Passion. He responds, "My intention? Now, what could that be? One interpretation is quite simple: Noomi is at the ballet. We're showing her watching the ballet at the same time somebody is stalking Rachel at her house. On the half of the screen where you see the ballet, we cut to a close-up of Noomi's eyes. [Mock-excited] Aha! Well, she must be at the ballet! She couldn't possibly be at the house, now could she? Meanwhile you see all these things going on back at the house, and when the POV shots start we don't see any more close-ups of Noomi's eyes. Viewers have become conditioned to expect A to lead to B, and accept it without question. The juxtaposition of the images on the screen seals a destination on viewers' minds, but do we go there or do we undermine it? Again, the important thing is to look actively at what's unfolding before us."
Asked how the screenplay influences him as a director, De Palma replies, "I tend to start with the camera. Some directors start with the characters and then proceed from that. Paul Thomas Anderson is a good example of somebody who builds his stories from the people on screen. Same thing with Noah Baumbach. They're very different from the way I do it, but that's why I like their movies. When I think of a scene, the people in it and what they're saying are just one element in a visual frame. And I like to use the entire frame instead of cutting from shot to over-the-shoulder shot, which I find very boring and TV-ish. I love when actors can play the scene continuously, the way you see in many films from the '40s or '50s. Maybe I'm becoming a bit anti-close-up in my old age. [Laughs]"
In discussing movie studios, De Palma mentions that Mission To Mars was affected by too many producer meetings. "As much as I want to think of myself as an outsider," De Palma says, "I've been able to work within the studio system for years. If your budget gets big, producers start to have too many meetings and chip away at the movie, which was the case with Mission to Mars. I guess it was around the time of Bonfire of the Vanities, the early '90s, when I started getting piles of notes, suggestions from the producers. In the beginning, in the 'day of the director' which is now long and far gone, you could make your movie and then preview it, say, in a theater in Texas and then be handed reports on audience reaction. You could still say, 'Sorry, that's it. I'm not changing a thing,' and get away with it. That's become harder and harder, and the directors of my generation just no longer have the stamina to deal with it. Hence our crotchetiness. [Laughs]"
When asked if he has any comments on Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, De Palma pauses, then chuckles before saying, "There's something very interesting about books like that. Here's my question: 'Who's talking to the writer?' Is it the unhappy ex-girlfriend? The bitter producer? The partner who got screwed out of some deal? They sure do a whole lot of talking, don't they? But the people who were actually making movies during that time period? They don't talk. Like me, for instance. You don't see me participating much in these books, which strikes me as very gossipy and reductive. You know, feeding into the whole sex, drugs, and rock n' roll myth."
PODCAST INTERVIEW FROM LAST YEAR
And finally, yesterday Rooftop Films posted a "Filmwax Radio" podcast in which De Palma is interviewed by Adam Schartoff. The interview appears to be from about a year ago, when Passion was still playing film festivals and prior to having a U.S. distributor. There's discussion of Passion, as well as Redacted, and more.