"SO HERE I AM AT 116TH STREET AT 3 IN THE MORNING, STARING INTO AN EMPTY TUNNEL, SAYING, I'M GOING TO DIRECT THIS NOW"
This week, Alec Baldwin's Here's the Thing podcast features last October's on-stage conversation with Brian De Palma at the Hamptons International Film Festival. Baldwin provides an intro to the episode:
The Untouchables, Casualties of War, The Bonfire Of The Vanities, Raising Cain, Carlito's Way, Mission: Impossible... Brian De Palma didn't just make all those movies, he made all those movies... in a row. Nobody balances suspense, action, and character better than he does. Each film is a master class in building tension, with tracking shots, disconcerting angles, and split screens. And then he releases that tension with the blunt shock of violence. In any De Palma film, the camera is ultimately the star. De Palma is the son of a surgeon, and he went to Columbia for physics. But he quickly discovered where his true passion lay. You know him as a virtuosic movie director, but before that, he was a fixture of the experimental Greenwich Village movie scene of the 1960s. That's where he cast a then-unknown actor named Bobby De Niro. Fitting, since De Palma later became known for working with all the greatest actors. His very first Hollywood movie starred Orson Welles. Last summer, the Hamptons International Film Festival gave Brian De Palma the Lifetime Achievement Award. I was honored to speak with him in front of a live audience when he came to accept it.
At the start of the conversation, Baldwin says to De Palma, "Directing is an unbelievably difficult task. When did you know you could do that?"
De Palma responds: "This is a long funny story. I was head of the Columbia players. And the Varsity Show is a very big thing at Columbia. So there were two shows up to be voted for. And I was just an apprentice that was going to take over the Columbia Players the following year. So, in these situations, everybody's, you know, got their own sort of corrupt intent, because, if you do my play, I get to play the lead, and you get to direct, da da da. I knew nothing about this. There were two really good scripts. One by Steve Rossen, who was one of my school mates at Columbia, and the other one by Terry McNally, a very funny comedy." [A Columbia College obit of McNally, who passed away earlier this year, notes that "McNally wrote the 66th Annual Varsity Show, The Streets of New York, in 1958."] "And they fought for hours, and they were deadlocked, you know, like six-to-six, and it was getting late, and it was about midnight, and they said, they looked over to me, because I had read both scripts, and they said, well, let the kid decide. So I said, well, I think that Terry McNally's script is funny, let's do that one. 'Great!' Everybody leaves.
"That night, I was shooting my first short, which consisted of Pan coming out of the tunnel at 116th Street. I was not the director, I was just author and cinematographer. I get to the location and my director arrives, Gene Marner, I'll never forget his name. And he comes with his very Sicilian girlfriend named Charley. And she comes over to me, and she says, 'You fucking idiot! You didn't vote for the Rossen play? Didn't you know that Gene was going to direct it?' And I go, 'Huh?' [Baldwin laughs] And then they walked off. And they took the lead actor with them. So here I am, at 116th Street, at three in the morning, staring into an empty tunnel, saying, 'I'm gonna direct this now.'
Baldwin: "And that's it."
De Palma: "That's it."
Baldwin: "And you found some waitress at an all-night diner and said, 'Come with me, you're my lead!' You didn't need any actress for the shot?"
De Palma: "No, I had to go out and find my own actors and start all over again."