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Here's a further excerpt from Taylor's article:
In June, 1975, Mission to Mars was first launched. It featured many of the same animatronics and even some of the same footage in the pre-show and ride film, but new elements were made to the show itself, both in terms of effects (inflatable seats would be inflated or deflated, to simulate space travel) and story points (hello, hyperspace travel). In 1975 Mission to Mars was installed in Disneyland too. But by the early 1990s, it was starting to show its age. It lacked the visceral thrills and excitement that modern audiences demanded and much of the science and technology was outdated and creaky. It closed in 1992 in Disneyland and 1993 in Walt Disney World. The mission had come to an end.
Or had it?
Since the late 2000s, Disney had been noodling with the idea of turning some of its beloved theme park attractions into equally beloved big screen events. The test pilot was Tower of Terror, a 1997 horror comedy starring Steve Guttenberg and Kirsten Dunst that aired on Wonderful World of Disney and, more crucially, acted as an 89-minute commercial for The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror, an innovative attraction that opened at what was then known as Disney-MGM Studios a few years earlier. (Part of the movie was actually filmed at the attraction in Florida. At the time MGM-Studios took pride in the fact that it was a fully operational production studio, even though hardly anything was ever shot there.) The movie was enough of a hit that several other projects inched through development, among them were big screen adaptations of Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion, along with Dinosaur, an animated film that was using state-of-the-art technology and was being developed alongside an attraction set to open at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Ah, synergy.
But the film that would ultimately make it out of the gate first was Mission to Mars. Part of this had to do with an arms race Disney was having with Warner Bros, who was developing their own Mars-themed project called Red Planet. (A couple of years earlier Disney had found itself in a similar situation as its own Armageddon squared off against Paramount and DreamWorks’ Deep Impact.) And part of it had to do with the fact that the studio really didn’t publicize that it was based on the theme park attraction, which at the time had been shuttered for the better part of a decade. The movies-based-on-theme-park-attractions idea appealed to Disney chief Michael Eisner but it still made him nervous. It was Eisner who made the last-minute decision to add the cumbersome subtitle to Pirates of the Caribbean in an effort to distance itself from the attraction. If Mission to Mars was a success, so be it. But the connections between the theme park attraction and the movie were not going to be explicitly drawn.
And, truth be told, the movie, directed by Brian De Palma from a screenplay officially credited to Jim and John Thomas and Graham Yost, doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the original attraction. Sure, it’s about an expedition to Mars. But there aren’t any direct parallels to be drawn, save from that amazing long shot, set to Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away,” which features a rotating circular centrifuge, that explicitly recalls a similar image on one of the screens in the Mission to Mars preshow. (It’s a deep cut, I know.) Where there could have been references, there are emphatically not. You’d think that some of the characters could have had the last name “Morrow” or “Johnson,” references to the audio-animatronic figure that gave you the rundown in the ride’s pre-show. But, alas, there is none. De Palma, whose experience on the film wasn’t particularly positive (“It was relentless,” he said in the De Palma documentary), never mentioned the original attraction. It’s unclear if he even knew the film was an adaptation of a popular theme park attraction.
When Mission to Mars came out in the spring of 2000 (happy 20th!), it lost money, making $111 million internationally from a budget of over $100 million. De Palma was so broken by the project that he left the United States. “The Hollywood system we work in does nothing but destroy you,” De Palma said in the documentary. “When I finished that movie, that’s when I got on a plane and went to Paris. Mission to Mars was the last movie I made in the United States.” (Mission to Mars did get some strong notices from critics, particularly overseas. It was #4 on Cashiers du Cinema’s collective Top 10 that year, outranking The Virgin Suicides and In the Mood For Love.) But box office be damned, Mission to Mars was going to live on.
EPCOT had wanted a space pavilion since the early 1990s. It made sense. EPCOT (formerly EPCOT Center) was the science and discovery park. Space should have always been there. Initial plans called for a giant pavilion wherein several attractions would be accessible (one would have simulated a spacewalk, with guests suspended from an overhead track, peering into the outside of a space station) but budget cuts and the popularity of Horizons, a sort-of space-themed attraction about futuristic communities, occupying the same land that the new pavilion would have been placed, meant the space pavilion was off the table. But the idea was being revisited at the close of the decade; Horizons had lost its corporate sponsorship and a large sinkhole had been detected underneath its massive show building. They could finally do the really-for-real space pavilion and they had a cutting-edge idea to go along with it: spinning centrifuge that would make you feel weightless. They also had a flashy Disney movie they could piggyback on: Mission to Mars.
Disney enlisted Gary Sinise, one of the stars of Mission to Mars, to host the preshow for the new attraction, now called Mission: Space. (Sinise essentially is playing the same character but his name is never spoken.) And the big, wheel-shaped room from the “Dance the Night Away” scene is actually a part of the attraction’s extended queue, along with several model spaceships from the film (much of the visual effects work for the movie was provided by Dream Quest Images, Disney’s in-house visual effects company, that was shuttered following Mission to Mars’ release). On a narrative level, this new attraction borrowed heavily from the Mission to Mars attraction, including the conceit that you are being trained to make the journey to outer space and the patina of pseudo-scientific education. But this time the emphasis was on thrills.
So Mission to Mars, a movie inspired by a Disney theme park attraction, inspired another Disney theme park attraction. Moving in a circle, just like the astronauts in the movie. Who has the Van Halen?
About midway through the discussion, host Scott Wampler talks about how his wife watched the film recently. "She was saying that, as much as she enjoys the movie, and feels that it's successful, she was saying she kind of wishes that a woman had written it. And... do you have any feelings on that? Does it make a difference to you if it's... if it resonates, does it matter?"
To this, Kusama responds, "I think when it resonates, it's a window into all of our capacity to have empathy, to think from another point of view. And to me, the great victory of the movie is that it is such a female point of view. Like, I don't believe that I'm looking at an interpretation of a young woman's inner life from a perspective that isn't female. And so, for me, you know, look: when [De Palma's] camera is glorious slo-mo, just tracking through a locker room and we're watching a bunch of naked girls, of course I'm aware that they're naked, but I'm also aware that they're like... I'm aware of the swagger, and the power in their nakedness. And the power in their femaleness together that to me feels akin to a locker room filled with boys. Like, I guess to me, the movie has the complexity of... I just want to say, these hopeful currents that run through it that are actually giving us access to female experience. So for me, I guess I see it as like a kind of thrilling openness on the part of the writer and director to put themselves in the psyche of this tortured girl. And I guess that, to me, says that this is where gender questions and our sort of hope for more representation gets a little murky. Because to me, this is actually a great representation of a female character as imagined by a male writer and a male director."
At this point, Wampler is so delightfully stunned by Kusama's answer that he tells her so. After a bit of laughter, Kusama continues: "Look, I'm always hoping to see... you know, some of my favorite movies have to be movies directed... most of them end up being movies directed by men. Because that's simply the... that's what was available and has been available for so long. And so if I'm going to see a touch point of deep empathy, almost uncanny willingness to go into the heart of the female consciousness, I just have to take my hat off and say, I respect that effort when it's successful. I have a lot to say when it's not successful. And don't get me wrong, I think it's just so easy for us to misunderstand and misrepresent people. That's just part of the trial of storytelling. And so, to just have... I mean, I don't know, personally, the movie has such a sort of florid sensuousness that to me it's like the female in De Palma directed that movie."
As the conversation moves on, there is talk about the shifting of tone within De Palma's film, and how one of the hosts hadn't seen it for 20 years, and didn't realize until he recently watched it again for this episode how much of a De Palma film it is. There is talk about how iconic the prom scene is with Carrie in split-screen, drenched in blood and her wide eyes, and how these are the images most people think of when they think about Carrie. "It's really incredible to me, and it shows how great a director De Palma is," co-host Eric Vespe says, "is being able to handle that tone shift, from that goofy, bouncy, lets-go-shopping-for-tuxes scene, and moving directly from that into one of the most skin-crawling moments."
Wampler then asks Kusama if that is the first sequence she thinks of when she thinks of the film. "It's funny," Kusama replies, "I actually think more about Piper Laurie in her scenes with Carrie, only because that performance was so specifically... the engine of it is sexual repression that is so intense that it just oozes out of every pore of her body.
"But, I mean, I do think that that prom sequence is iconic in so many ways. And it is true that there's a kind of technical willingness from De Palma to be just sort of firing on all cyclinders, trying a bunch of things. Really, quite literally kind of wanting to be awe-inspiring, you know. And that's the quality of, like, Medusa walking through the school gym. There are moments-- there are cuts in that scene that are so, so powerful. You know, even the idea that we haven't really seen Carrie full-body until we cut to that first moment that she starts walking off the stage and just through the mayhem that she's created. So, it just gives you shivers, you know, and that, I think... my memory of Carrie was always about that mom relationship, and what does it mean to feel like maybe your parent doesn't want you, on a most fundamental level, but also might actually kill you. [Laughs] I think that that kind of terror is so profound that it then gives... it's sort of the emotional underpinning to, then, this sort of incredible technical achievement that De Palma has with that final sequence in the prom.
And I just want to go back and say that, like... when you were talking about the De Palma-ness of the movie... I reread... I remember reading, when I was on a huge Pauline Kael kick where I was just reading every review she had ever written. I remembered her review of Carrie being kind of rhapsodic, and I went back to it to read it again last night, and was so struck by how she had nailed, not just what De Palma was doing, but also what kind of pleasure it brings. Because she said, you know, there's scary and scary, and funny and funny. But scary and funny might be the most potent combination in cinema. And that is Carrie. You know, that you can both laugh, in this kind of horrible way. And even sometimes just sort of laugh at the floridness of the filmmaking. It's like De Palma gives you permission to say, like, whoa, dude, that's a little over the top, you know. And then he just, in giving you that permission, he just goes for the jugular. And I just think there's something about that definition of De Palma's sensibility that is actually like a really important reminder of what it was that he was doing, which were these incredible experiments in tone. So he was willing to have Piper Laurie's character kind of be ridiculous when she goes to see Sue Snell's mother. But then the minute Sue Snell's mom says, "Here's five dollars. No, here's ten dollars," and you see Piper Laurie crawl back into herself... you're just like, this is gonna be such a scary movie. [laughter] So I do think there's something, too, just about the De Palma signature blend of asking the audience to kind of be in on the joke with him, and then just sort of pulling it all out from under us. That's De Palma at his best, in my opinion."
There's a lot of great discussion beyond this in the podcast, which I highly recommend listening to.
Think of Brian De Palma’s first novel — Are Snakes Necessary? — as his COVID-19 movie. Produced under duress, during a period when De Palma was blocked from green-lighted big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, rather like shelter-in-place restrictions, it is as full of movie references as any De Palma film.
Are Snakes Necessary? is also politically charged, continuing the obsession with skullduggery and government suspicion that goes back to De Palma’s earliest films, the anti-draft satire Greetings, and the radical activist/media satire Hi, Mom! This time. modernist De Palma satirizes the very form he essays — the hard-boiled crime novel with its built-in plot twists and duplicitous femme fatales.
Lead character Elizabeth de Carlo follows such puckish De Palma heroines as Grace and Danielle in Sisters and Laure/Lilly in Femme Fatale, where identity folds, multiplies, contrasts, and mirrors. Elizabeth and a mother-daughter duo, Jenny and Fanny, are involved with untrustworthy males: a photographer, a politician, and his political consultant, who variously exploit the women sexually and politically. Elizabeth, de Palma writes, has “innate grace.” She goes by the rule that “knowing how to speak to the animal in the man is half the game.” (She’s like Rebecca De Mornay in Alex Cox’s The Winner, a sign of De Palma’s instinctive cinematic good taste).
Tension and humor, De Palma’s two best tricks, propel the narrative, which deliberately references specific Kennedy and Clinton scandals (although De Palma indulges typical liberal petulance when labeling the offenders “Republicans”). But the villain of the piece, with his gruesome comeuppance, reveals the true political intent of Are Snakes Necessary? It is an apologia for De Palma the (supposedly) sexist pop artist.
This would be unnecessary in a fairer, more erudite era that was not held hostage to #MeToo coercion but, instead, appreciated that De Palma created more memorable and sympathetic female characters in Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Femme Fatale than any female filmmaker. The sops to feminism in Are Snakes Necessary? might be the result of De Palma’s collaborating with his wife, Susan Lehman, a former New York Times editor.
In De Palma’s own field, where his virtuosity has no contemporary parallel, it isn’t likely that he would share the role of auteur with another byline. Lehman, credited as co-author, may be providing cover for De Palma’s usual misunderstood, bad-boy fantasies: “He never thought he could have everything — brains and beauty and sexy and sweet and light and hot — in one package.” Yet the novel’s strict adherence to female empowerment (“the one and only rescuer in Elizabeth’s story has been Elizabeth”) and revenge renders the novel trite. Its stock plotting lacks the larger, cosmic fate that ultimately made Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and Casualties of War so powerful and that lifted The Fury, Blow Out, and Femme Fatale into awe-inspiring, cosmic visions.
De Palma’s decision to write a novel supports his brave, hold-out position as a cinéaste who resists television. Before television conquered cinema, especially for the “golden age of cable-TV” generation and today’s streaming culture, there was a concept called “la caméra-stylo” (camera-pen), formulated by critic and filmmaker Alexandre Astruc to describe filmmaking that was as fluent and expressive as writing. The museum cruising scene of Dressed to Kill fits Astruc’s theory, as does the carefully built final sunlit tableau of Femme Fatale: pure cinema.
Although De Palma finds no literary equivalent to his famous split-screen device in Sisters or even the binocular sequence in Richard Quine’s Pushover that influenced De Palma’s voyeur fetish (which culminated in the noir extravagance of the nighttime sound-recording sequence in Blow Out), he tries writing such effects. Most of it is narrative wind-up. It takes a while before we get to the first movie moment of visual contradiction: “Rogers can’t see the paper, which if he could would stop his heart (not to mention his campaign): in clear bold print, the paper says Paternity Test Results: POSITIVE.” It’s a naughty joke, like Angie Dickinson discovering the venereal-disease health notice in Dressed to Kill combined with Obsession’s incest revelation.
Some moments show De Palma’s media sophistication (“videotaping has the potential to change how we campaign”) and his yearning to make cinema (“I need to feel the rush and shoot it”), especially his reference to The Great Gatsby’s Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, whose bespectacled eyes, on an old, faded billboard, stare down at Gatsby — an ideal De Palma image. He is a Hitchcock buff here: “Nick, crushed by the ending he has orchestrated, drops his camera to his side and looks over the railing” like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. He pays secret homage to Fritz Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. And he is his own best critic here: “It all happened in that funny slow-motion way events unfold in the heat of certain moments.”
There’s also some plain good writing:Rogers has the same general regard for applause. He treats it the way porpoises regard the shiny red balls they balance on their noses, He chases it. He relishes it. He plays it for all it’s worth. Applause is his favorite toy.
Best of all are the last 15 chapters, mostly short, one-page action-filled accounts that evoke De Palma’s suspenseful, contrapuntal crosscut editing style.
In March of 2019, in an on-stage chat at the Quais du Polar in Lyon, France, De Palma had mentioned Thérèse Raquin as both a film idea he's had for years, and also as the subject of their next novel. With Lehman on stage with him, the subject came up during the Q&A when an audience member asked De Palma, "Are there any French characters, authors or films that inspire you?"
"I've made a lot of movies here," De Palma began in response. "And Thérèse Raquin is an idea I've... always had an idea for a movie for. Thérèse Raquin's been made many times, but I think I have a new way of... in fact, that's sort of the subject of our next novel, isn't it? We love the French, that's why we're here. They're very kind to me."
In fact, De Palma was close to getting his film version of this story, to be titled Magic Hour, made in 2013 with producer Saïd Ben Saïd. The pair had just made Passion together the year before. Screen Daily's Geoffrey Macnab reported that Emily Mortimer was to play the lead in the film, which was described as a "loose adaptation of Emile Zola's Therese Raquin, featuring both period and contemporary elements." Macnab added that "the story is about a film director and two actors shooting a movie version of Zola's novel and finding that it reflects experiences in their own lives."
"IT IS A KIND OF FILM TESTAMENT"
Earlier in 2013, without naming the project, Ben Saïd told Nicolas Schaller about a film he was then developing with De Palma: "This is a film about cinema that is not devoid of humor or cruelty. It happens on a shoot between a director, an actor and an actress. De Palma wrote it by drawing on things that have happened to him. It is a kind of film testament."
Here is the bulk of the interview that follows then, with the help of Google translation:
De Palma, who turns 80 in September, speaks from his home in East Hampton. And in isolation with Susan, a dog and a cat: "What do I think of the American response to the virus? They are dealing with it badly and I hope this administration will end in November."
How was the book born?
"It is inspired by political events that were happening when the idea came to us. The scandal of Gary Condit, for example, when the intern with whom he had an adulterous relationship disappears: only later was she found dead in a park in Washington DC. Another episode was that of Senator John Edwards and the filmmaker who worked on his campaign. When I saw them it seemed to me that they were flirting, and in fact in the end he had an affair with her, and a girl was conceived. "
What makes a politician like him so interesting that you want him as the protagonist of this story?
"The fact that politicians are involved in sexual scandals is part of a cliche. The two I mentioned instead are rather unique in their kind. A flirtation with a girl who is filming episodes on the campaign ends with a pregnant girl. Amusing."
Do you believe that we will return to talk about morality in politics?
"It's not like we were sleeping, but in reality we wrote the book before Trump's election. We narrate two unique political situations, which involve the promiscuity of two great political figures. Politics and sex are two naturally compatible elements. And then in the book there is the idea of finding the characters on a set in Paris. Taking advantage of my experience as a film director, I also wanted to bring this element into the story. For some reason, French critics took this very seriously ... "
There is a fun chapter on Arnold Schwarzenegger. Why him?
"Because he had a son with his housekeeper, more or less the same time he had a son with Maria, his wife. Very funny."
And you didn't even want to try to hide the name, you put it out in the open.
"Well, the story was in People magazine. Can't get more out in the open than that..."
How does writing a novel differ from writing a screenplay? Is it similar?
"I like writing scripts, because essentially they are made of dialogue, characters and places, you don't have to write descriptions. Writing descriptions is not my strength, but Susan is very good at that and also with writing the inner emotional life of the character. When you write a screenplay, you don't always consider the depth of a character, because depending on who will interpret it, it will be modeled on that specific actor. So it is much more similar to a draft, unlike a book, which instead is complete in the setting, the moods, the inner life of the characters."
In the final chapters the character of Nick, the photographer, finds himself on the set of "Vertigo". Again, a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. Why do you see it so often in your works?
"I've been answering this question for 50 years! (Laughs) Okay, it seemed very funny. Vertigo is based on a French novel, and I thought it would be nice to set the climax of the book in a very high place. So I said, why not at the foot of the Eiffel Tower? It was the way to bring the characters from the book together in one big scene. It's fun. People keep comparing my works with those of Hitchcock and, as I've said numerous times, Hitchcock was a great master and pioneer of visual storytelling. I learned from what he did and at the same time I experimented with new ways of telling something visually; I think I am the last practitioner of this form."
Some women in the book are victims, the wife, the lover, the daughter, but in the end there is a redemption, they become protagonists, they are the ones who take the action in hand.
"We decided to write a story of female revenge, but to have a redemption, you must first put on the victim's clothes. And the dramatic positions they are in at the beginning, with treacherous husbands and liars, it seemed to us an effective summary of what happens to women. If you want to write a story of women's revenge, your bow will start from the opposite situation. You will start with some kind of abuse."
Much more than the mature plot, however, Dressed to Kill’s kaleidoscopic atmosphere – its watery, soft-focus lens, garish colour palette and flashy, optical tricks such as slow-motion, mirrored surfaces, split screens and dioptres – was a feast for my languorous, pre-teen senses. On several occasions, I would wake up to catch the film at its midpoint or nod off before the ending, allowing the collage of images and music to splice into the edges of my sleep. The tense melodies of Pino Donaggio’s soundtrack and the likeness of an androgyne wielding a straight razor would soon become a Proustian madeleine from which countless reveries of my nocturnal childhood would unfold.
De Palma’s mastery of atmosphere was on no greater display than in the film’s early, museum set-piece – a 10-minute, dialogue-free sequence in which the director’s viewfinder glides around Dickinson’s character and through the Met’s galleries and corridors while she pursues, then is pursued, by a potential suitor. As the scene’s tension and pace builds, the labyrinthine interior assumes the contours of a De Chirico painting, or to my child’s eyes, the floating floorplan of a dream. Multiple viewings would reveal another surprise: a split-second cameo of the murderer embedded in the set dressing.
This scene, followed by another silent, slow-burn sequence that culminates in Miller’s grisly death in an elevator, proved to be an exhilarating initiation into the architecture of suspense. The lead character’s abrupt exit from the screen and the subsequent narrative switcheroo to Blake’s story also demonstrated how film could manipulate red herrings and false leads so that, more than mere plot devices, they appeared to me like celluloid apparitions captured in time. While the role reversals of the “good” doctor and “bad” hooker, and the multiple doubles in the film’s climax, hinted at cinema’s intimate bond to secret identities and masquerade.
These lavish visual and rhetorical sleights of hand fed into the richness of cinema’s dream language.
The film’s pleasures were not only abstract. Within the nests of set-pieces and dream sequences, De Palma’s images also produced a montage of New York City at the beginning of the 1980s, a place and an era that I recognised only from a distance. The elegant uptown and slummy downtown, insular high-rise and turbulent subway car, baroque interior and darkened streetscape. These landmarks helped to plot my own imaginary atlas years before I would move to the city as a university film student and discover its very different, millennial landscape.
To a suburban child with an appetite for suspense, De Palma’s masterpiece of urban atmosphere both terrified and enthralled, and inspired in me a lasting passion for genre cinema.
Casualties of War (1989)
Best known for his work in the genres of suspense, crime, horror and thrillers (like Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables and Body Double), director Brian de Palma takes a harrowing plunge into the battlefield with this take on a real-life incident about how an American soldier finds himself on the outside of his rogue squad when they kidnap a young Vietnamese woman and rape her. Michael J. Fox (who took time off from TV’s Family Ties to film) and Sean Penn give riveting performances on opposite sides of the situational-ethics line, and the movie marks the first film appearance of John C. Reilly.
The conflict in Vietnam spanned decades of fighting, from the outbreak of the war with France in 1946, through to the political and ideological division of the country into north and south which formed the foundation for the US involvement in Vietnam. That involvement escalated through advisory roles through the early 1960s, until emerging as full conflict around 1965.
For the USA, the era of the Vietnam War is surrounded by socially and culturally significant events in the homeland, the passage of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon through the presidency and a rich depiction in a wide range of movies. There are a vast number of productions that owe their stories Vietnam, from the Rambo series, to Forrest Gump, the characterisation of The Simpson's Principal Skinner - "I was in 'Nam" - to those movies that actually tell the stories of Vietnam itself.
Here we present many of the best films that address Vietnam. We think the best order is chronological, based on the dates of the events depicted. But we're also giving a number of different approaches, which you can jump to in the table below, avoiding spoilers if you want to.
The best Vietnam movie viewing order (spoilers)
These are the movies we consider to be essential viewing not only for the stories that they tell, but how they tell those stories. They are ordered to fit the unfolding of events in the Vietnam War, although in some cases we deviate from that timeline when the emphasis of the film is on the return home, for example. Where there's no clear event being portrayed - because it's a fictionalised work - we've placed that movie in its position based on its content and context in the passage of the conflict.
And here is Hall's description of Casualties Of War:
Casualties of War takes us into 1966, telling a true story reported by Daniel Lang in The New Yorker in 1969. Michael J Fox plays Max Eriksson, a "cherry" in Vietnam who joins a squad to head out to Hill 192. Squad leader Sergeant Meserve, played by a powerful Sean Penn, has other ideas for the mission, kidnapping a Vietnamese girl to take with them for a little "R&R". It's a haunting tale, depicting the breakdown of any sort of moral standards and the conflict between comrades that ensues. The 1989 film from director Brian De Palma pulls at many of the threads we see across Vietnam movies, particularly the dehumanisation of the Vietnamese reflected in the US GIs. Watch out for Dale Dye's appearance, who also stars in Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July.
The second season of Homecoming premiered yesterday, with Esmail keeping no more than an executive producer role. It turns out that the new director, Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who directed all seven episodes of season two, was a big fan of the first season and fought hard to get the job. The Advocate's Daniel Reynolds has the details:
Another exciting addition is Kyle Patrick Alvarez, a gay Latinx director known for films like C.O.G. and The Stanford Prison Experiment; he also holds TV credits with Netflix's 13 Reasons Why. For Alvarez, these were great expectations of steering the second season of Homecoming after its acclaimed debut in 2018. “You want to live up to people's expectations,” said Alvarez, who said his goal was to create a “digestible and fun season that moves quick and surprises you [and] keeps you really engaged throughout.
This is the first time Alvarez has helmed an entire season of television. Since The Stanford Prison Experiment, the director has worked in TV to direct episodes of various shows, but nothing of this scope. He landed the job the old-fashioned way, through lobbying a producer. “I was a massive fan of season 1,” he said. He then “fought really hard” for the position; he pitched creators [Eli] Horowitz and [Micah] Bloomberg with specifics on how he would film the entire season. His pitch worked. “I'm grateful that they certainly took a chance on me,” he said. “I’m not quite sure how I got that lucky.”
One of the challenges for Alvarez was making the show his own following Esmail, who directed the first season with the distinctive visual style of aspect ratio changes, an “inspired move,” said Alvarez. Alvarez said he had an “open-door policy” in his own artistic choices. While he did not “want to rewrite the book on how this show is shot,” he also did not want to establish Homecoming as “that show where the bars change.”
Thus, the bars no longer change in season 2 — although split screens between characters provide their own moments of dramatic tension and revelation that reference the techniques of the first season while also expanding their meaning. “I was trying to stay in the spirit of it while following my own intuitions,” Alvarez said.
Additionally, Homecoming brought in a composer for the music of its second season; the first used classical scores. Alvarez characterized season 2 as more of a “traditional thriller,” with chase and suspense scenes that require customized sound. Thriller titans Alan J. Pakula and Alfred Hitchcock were clear artistic influences in season 1. And while Alvarez also channeled these filmmakers, he additionally “leaned into” the “grandiose style” of Brian de Palma, especially in the split-screen sequences.
There’s also the cast itself. Notably, [Julia] Roberts does not appear in season 2. While Alvarez did “love” her performance, he would have been “wary” of including her character with the way her storyline ended. “It was a relief to say hey we're going to start at a different place with a different person,” said Alvarez. That person is [Janelle] Monáe, who Alvarez was “thrilled” to have on. “PrimeTime,” from her work as a musician, is the most played song in his iTunes library, he admitted.
What was your favorite scene, second season, that you've got to make?
Kyle Patrick Alvarez: Oh, man. Probably the end of episode ... There's a few, but I think the sequence I was most excited about, or the most invested in myself, was the end of episode two when Janelle and Hong see each other from across the crowd as the balloons are falling, and we go into split screen. Because I remember in my first pitch, I said, "Look, I think this season ..." Split screen was used in a very utilitarian way in season one. It was, "Hey, we're going to be ..." It's an immense amount of phone calls in season one, but it never weighs on you because the split screen is always keeping you engaged on both sides of it. So here it was like, "Okay, we only have two phone calls this season, maybe three. So how else can we utilize split-screen as a narrative device?"
And so for me, when I came in, I said, "Well, look. Episode two is all about her tracking this woman. She has no idea who she is, and tracking her and tracking her, and it's this labyrinthine thing going around this building. And we need to make this the biggest, De Palma, over-the-top kind of meeting we can, because obviously it leads to a bit of a twisty moment. And so for me, that's one of those rare moments where everything you conceive of, it ends up working and clicking.
Usually, filmmaking is about unexpected surprises, both good and bad ways, and that's one of those scenes that just ... It worked. It was how we storyboarded it, it was the score fit in how we imagined it. It all clicked into place, and so I watch it, and it feels very planned and fulfilling to me because I'm like, "Oh, that worked." So I'd say I'm the most proud of that. It was just technically really difficult having that incredible amount of extras, only being able to afford to drop those balloons a couple of times. There was a lot of pressure on how we're going to pull that off.
I would call this quite a departure from your work on Tales of the City or 13 Reasons Why. This is a potboiler thriller, and at times, a very surreal one. How did you land the job? How did you develop your approach?
Getting the job meant a lot to me. I was a big fan of Season 1, and actually watched it while we were shooting Tales. I was in New York and watched it all in my hotel room and loved it so much. It’s a show that asks a lot from a director. The visual style is baked into what the show is and how it’s built. Sam [Esmail, director of Season 1] had built this beautiful fresh thing for TV, so it became about evolving it, making it different. For me, the last movie I’d done was The Sanford Prison Experiment which was in the same style of 70s filmmaking, all the stuff Sam was drawn to. I suspect we like all the same movies, because watching Season 1, it felt like someone made the show for me.
In the interim, I’d done a lot of TV work with Tales and 13 Reasons. So was going back and forth between a lot of genre stuff. Honestly, I was waiting for an opportunity like this to get to direct every episode and have a voice. It’s not like directors don’t have a voice in TV, but it’s different. You’re the substitute teacher. You come in, do your episode, and leave. Here, I was there from the moments the scripts were finished until the very last special effects shot. It feels really gratifying.
Absolutely. And it is very much yours. That’s one thing I love about it—it has a cohesive voice and visual style. You like to use a lot of very long takes, and a lot of split-screen. I’m guessing you’re a fan of Brian DePalma, in that sense. The long zooms feel like something out of Kubrick, especially The Shining. What do you love about that approach?
You know, it’s interesting. Even though I think the styles are relatively similar between the seasons, I feel like Season 1’s North Star, in terms of a director, was Alan J. Pakula, with The Parallax View being essential. This season I kind of went into a little bit pulpier, like let’s do DePalma. I always joke that there are a couple of moments where, if he is watching, he’ll roll his eyes. I obsessively watched the end of Carrie and especially Blow Out. It’s one of my favorite movies.
It’s just about making sure you’re not copying a filmmaker you love; you’re taking inspiration from how they evoke a feeling. That’s how you avoid imitation. Kubrick, obviously, the set was out of 2001. But zooms kind of went out of fashion. I love them. I think it’s kind of wrong; there’s a lot you can do with them. I just love what they do.
That’s wonderful. And I wouldn’t be too self-conscious about borrowing from DePalma. He’s borrowed from other directors—Hitchock, Eisenstein, Antonioni—his whole career. It’s everywhere.
That’s very true. He may have invented the idea of referential directing.
But it fits. It adds an almost surrealistic feeling to the action. Do you storyboard or rehearse?
We didn’t have the time to rehearse. We did storyboard a lot. Weirdly, for me, the process of storyboarding is where you get the value. Storyboards themselves are more for everybody else. Me and the storyboard artist would meet from 6-7:30 every morning before everyone showed up and try to draw as much as we could. When you have 500 extras, you can’t improvise.
A crane shot can take three hours to set up, so you have to be so exact. If not, you won’t make the days.