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a la Mod:
AFTER READING WAR SCRIPT, DE PALMA THOUGHT AVRECH HAD RIGHT SENSIBILITY FOR WHAT BECAME 'BODY DOUBLE'
OpEdNews' Joan Brunwasser last week posted an interview with Robert Avrech, screenwriter of Brian De Palma's Body Double. Avrech discussed working with De Palma, and the screenplay he wrote about the Yom Kippur War that led to De Palma hiring him for Body Double.
"I was in Israel in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War," Avrech tells Brunwasser, "and I wrote a pretty powerful script about three women whose husbands were on the front lines. The script cut back and forth between fairly brutal scenes of war, and the more mundane, but tortured lives of the waiting wives. The structure was complex, but it read effortlessly, and the characters were quite vivid. I knew that this script was special. It was just a gut feeling that finally I had written something that was professional and entertaining.
"Writing a screenplay based on an idea by someone else, if the idea is solid, is just another corridor in the (futile) search to craft a flawless, air-tight narrative. What happens with me, and I suspect, all professional screenwriters, is a process of of internalization: The story becomes you.
"Brian De Palma came to me with a very general idea for Body Double. I immediately responded to its Hitchcockian theme of an innocent man drawn into a murder by a beautiful woman (Deborah Shelton), who then sets out to solve the mystery with the aid of a beautiful blonde (Melanie Griffith). Both Brian and I were, and are, huge fans of Alfred Hitchcock's movies. Together we screened Rear Window and Vertigo, and discussed the narrative strategies Hitch used in both films. So in a sense, I was working off of De Palma's ideas of Hitchcock's ideas."
Continuing with Brunwasser, Avrech notes, "One must also keep in mind that movies are a collaborative endeavor. The Hollywood screenwriter works alone only when he's at the keyboard. In truth, a professional screenwriter is always working with a studio/network, a line of producers, a director, and of course, when the film goes into production, his words then become the property of the actors. Obviously, the army of technicians who go into the making a multi-million dollar Hollywood production are vital: the cinematographer, the set designer, the costume designer, the prop people, etc.
"Another issue when working from someone else's idea is there are only 36 plots in the universe of narratives. Thus, every story is a reworking of an old myth or legend that we have seen and heard countless times. The trick is to reinvent these 36 stories in a manner that makes them feel new and original. So, in a very real sense, a screenwriter is always working from a classic idea. And in the end, it's really just one idea: because all great stories are... love stories.
"I was hugely intimidated by Brian De Palma... for about ten minutes. And then, as with all Hollywood celebrities with whom I have worked, he became just another homo sapiens, with all the virtues and flaws one finds in our species."
Interviewer: In 1984, you ended up in the Brian De Palma movie, Body Double. How did that happen?
Deborah: Same way—I went on an interview and they were looking for a blonde. [Laughing] There’s something about... Yeah, I have a blonde personality. And I met him, and he was very quiet. And the executive producer was talking to me all the time, and the casting person. And Brian just sat there and was like [lifts her chin up to mimic De Palma, slowly nodding as if quietly watching and contemplating what he was seeing]. And sometimes he looked away, and he didn’t… I thought, “Oh, get me out of here. This is a lost cause.” And when I left there I stopped off at the bathroom on the way out of the building. And when I finally got out of the building, the lady who was the casting director was running around hysterically outside searching for me. And she said, “Where were you?” Then I told her I’d just stopped off. And she said, “Brian wants to see you tomorrow at his office, and he wants to work with you.”
And he worked with me, with the screenplay… oh, I can’t think, with Liv Ullmann… Scenes From A Marriage, on a scene where she had just learned her husband was fooling around for a long time, and that her best friends had known it. She was very angry and frustrated. And another scene from Body Heat… where the two meet on a bridge. And so, he told me he wanted the sensuality of Body Heat, and the frustration and panic, and those kind of feelings from Scenes From A Marriage. So we worked on those two scenes, and those are the ones I did with my screen test. Because my part didn’t really have so much dialogue. And I got it.
And how was he as a director? I mean, on the set…
He’s very intense. He almost has an unnerving way about him. And you know Vincent Price? The actor? He has a way of looking, the piercing eyes, that just kind of go into your backbone, and take feelings out of you. And I think that’s the way Brian is.
Meanwhile, another De Palma a la Mod reader, Chris Baker, caught a screening of the 4K Body Double at San Francisco's Castro Theatre, where it was the tail end of a double bill with Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window on May 18th. Baker tells us that the film "looked and sounded phenomenal."
The month of July brings a De Palma series, "Deja Vertigo," to the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon. The series starts with the digital restoration of Body Double on the weekend of July 5th-July 7th. The other three films in the series (running each weekend in July) will be presented from 35mm prints: Dressed To Kill, Blow Out, and Scarface. The theatre website admits that the latter film does not fit the theme of the series, which focuses on De Palma's Hitchcockian psychological thrillers. "This series will focus on the early 80′s," states the site's description, "when De Palma crafted gripping tales of mystery and murder, brimming with operatic set pieces, off-kilter camera work, steamy sexuality, and nail-biting suspense." As a bonus on the final two days, the theatre will also screen a 35mm print of Howard Hawks' Scarface from 1932.
I remember going to audition for Body Double, and I read for a different role, and when I went in, I read the part, and Brian said, “Put the script down, let’s just improvise.” And I’m comfortable with that, so we did. And by the time I got home, I had a message on my machine from my agent, saying, “Hey, Brian loved you! He doesn’t necessarily want you for the part he read you for, but he really loved you and wants to use you. It’ll be three or four days.” And I said, “Oh, great!” Mind you, I was in my late 20s at the time, Brian De Palma was a big deal, and it was a Columbia Pictures movie, his first movie after Scarface. So they just said, “Your call time is such and such, you’re going way down on Melrose, way past Hollywood. It’s Melrose and Heliotrope, it’s an abandoned warehouse, and you’re going to shoot your stuff there.”
So I drove down there, and they said, “Your scenes are going to be with Craig Wasson and Melanie Griffith, the stars of the film.” And I remember Steve Burum was the director of photography, a very well-known and excellent DP, and, of course, De Palma’s there, too. Now, I knew that the movie had something to do with the adult-movie business, but I didn’t know that I was going to be involved in the parts that were directly involved in the adult-movie business. [Laughs.] But when I got down there, they just kind of handed me the script and said, “You’re this guy.” And then the guy that was playing the director in the adult movie was Al Israel, a really intense actor who got a lot of notices for being the chainsaw guy in Scarface. So I was already thinking, “Wow, this is really weird…” And then as I was getting ready to do my scenes, they brought Melanie and Craig in, and then they also had a bunch of extras who were real adult-movie actors, and… It was all just really bizarre for a young man from Flint, Michigan. [Laughs.] I mean, I’d already been out here for about five years or so by that point, but it was still pretty disconcerting. But I didn’t have the guts to say, “I can’t do this.” I don’t think it was purely discomfort. It was a little bit of consternation, but also going, “Wow, what the hell is going on here?”
So these folks were all in various stages of undress, and Melanie was very uncomfortable with all of the people there, so the only crew that were allowed on the set were the DP, Brian De Palma, and… that was it, actually. The rest of us were actors. And it was a very odd circumstance. They shot more than [they] ended up [using]. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. [Laughs.] I was on the movie for three days, and I remember coming home and telling my wife, “Wow, that was a bizarre experience. At least I know I’m making some diaper money, but it was pretty wild.” Luckily, I didn’t have to take off my clothes. Nobody’s going to want to see me naked, anyway. Trust me.
Years later, my son was about 16, he had a bunch of buddies over, and they were watching movies. I’d already gone to bed, and he came in and said [whispers loudly], “Hey, Dad!” He woke me up, and I said, “Yeah! You okay?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Uh… Were you in a movie called Body Double?” And I heard my wife immediately laugh. He and his buddies were watching Body Double, and they saw me. Then he said, “That was so cool!” I said, “It wasn’t really that cool, buddy, but…” [Laughs.] So it came back to haunt me. And it shows up every now and then in articles like this or whatever. But, hey, if you decide to be in show business or politics, your life is an open book. So I have no problem with people asking about it. I suppose it’s a left-handed compliment: When you achieve a certain modicum of celebrity—and I don’t consider myself a celebrity, but other people do—your past is available. Whether it hurts you or helps you, it’s all fair game.
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