ARMOND WHITE INTRO TO ARTICLE IN FILM COMMENT, MAY 1991, AS REPRINTED IN HIS COLLECTION, 'THE RESISTANCE'
(Thanks to Mike!)
Hello and welcome to the unofficial Brian De Palma website.
Here is the latest news:
a la Mod:
OMG! The fabulous, ageless goddess Nancy Allen (DRESSED TO KILL, CARRIE, ROBOCOP) is helping me spread the word about this great honor:
Nominated for a RONDO AWARD!
Best Article of the Year!
DRESSED TO KILL: THE INSIDE STORY
by Sam Irvin
Anyone can vote!
You don’t have to vote in every category!
Please vote here:
The DRESSED TO KILL Special Edition of BOOBS AND BLOOD No. 4 is available to order here:
56 pages! 13,000 words! 175 photos! You MUST read my first-hand inside chronicle on the making of DRESSED TO KILL on which I worked as director Brian De Palma’s assistant! This issue of BOOBS AND BLOOD No. 4 is entirely devoted to my memoir of DRESSED TO KILL! And it’s for a great cause, too!
All profits from the sale of the magazine go to the breast cancer charity Keep a Breast Foundation.
Thank you so much, Nancy, for your generous support and friendship! And thank you Jay Moriarty for snapping this great photo of Nancy! (I can see you in the reflection of the DRESSED TO KILL poster! Your Hitchcockian cameo! 🤣)
Perri Nemiroff: I just have too many Mission To Mars questions. I think it's also on my brain, because of current events. So, actually, speaking of that, do you ever think about that movie, which I believe took place in 2020, now that we've had some major recent events in that sphere happen in 2021? Just like comparing, contrasting where you guys pictured us being, and where we actually are.
Connie Nielsen: I mean, it was so crazy when we were reading the word "twenty-twenty." I don't know what we were thinking that we would have progressed into. You know, technologically, and socially. But what was great was that, in fact, the women were very much part of the mission control. And it was so cool that it was prescient that way, you know. And modern that way, too, you know? Super modern. And then I thought that it was... there were so many parts of the story that, in hindsight, so many people still, even scientists, are finding, well, was there life then on Mars? And those are questions that we were raising at the time.
And so a lot of the science has really held up, and it's worth noting that we worked with Buzz Aldrin. And that we worked with NASA on the whole film. My coach was Story Musgrave, a rocket scientist. And I remember, we were in Vancouver. We were shooting in upper Vancouver, and he invited me out to dinner, and I was just plucking his brain. He was the person who was part of the two-team [of] people who were the first free space walkers. Who repaired the Hubble Telescope when, you remember, it was put up and it didn't work? And so they had to go up there, and actually walk in space, and repair it. And he explained to me how they did that.
And you know, that's one of the things I love the most about being an actor is that you get to have these incredible experiences with real life geniuses that you get to learn from and listen to. And I was obviously so in awe of all of the stuff he showed me. He showed me pictures he'd been taking with his own camera from when he was going around the Earth, and seeing the Earth from outside. And I saw all those incredible pictures.
And he said, "You know, what you see... you see all those incredible patterns and movement and sand, and all this ocean. And it's just like... we have this unique and rare thing to see Earth, and when I'm out there, I really notice that the most extraordinary thing about Earth, is life. And that's where you come in, Connie. You're an artist, and I love what you do, and what you bring. And that's the true beauty of what humans are. It's art." And it was just so beautiful that here was a rocket scientist who thought that artists were the shit.
Perri: So much of that taps into why I'm obsessed with movies in general. It's just the closest I can come to experiencing things that are out of my reach, or even just understanding someone else's truth that is just so polar opposite to mine. I know Brian De Palma has referred to that experience as being relentless. Is that just because he was at the helm of that film, or were you able to feel any of that while you were on set as well?
Connie: Yeah, we were a lot of actors on that set. And I think that we had some problems with the storyline still. I think that the stories were not really resolved in some of the cases, I think. But we also had amazing actors, like Don Cheadle. I just love Don Cheadle, and I just loved working with him, too. And what a fabulous guy that he is, and amazing actor.
I remember, I am standing inside of this giant white space. And I'm asking him [De Palma], what will that creature look like? Just so I know what I'm looking like. Just so that I have a sense of, what am I supposed to do? And it's worth noting that we're inside of what these spacesuits would really look like. We are hoisted up underneath the sky, like underneath the ceiling of the thing, and trying to emotionally react to-- for example, my husband, dying in front of my face in the middle of the mission. And not being able to move a muscle in my body because in space, you don't move. Like, if you move at all, that motion would send me flying through space like a dead stone, you know, or a piece of ice, forever and ever in that direction that I moved.
And so, having to do all of these things and being able to only communicate with my co-stars and with my director via this radio, I am wearing a cold suit underneath it, through which they are pumping ice water so that I don't overheat and die inside of my suit. And, at the same time, you know, when you're then walking, you can't hardly move.
So at this point, we're shooting the scene where I'm supposed to see, what is this mysterious thing that's inside of this piece of ice on Mars. [She thinks for a moment and laughs a little] And so he can't really explain over the radio, so we said, "Do you mind just coming over here and telling us, like, what are we going to be seeing?" And as he walks towards us, he falls over some cables, and he literally gets this contusion on his foot, if he doesn't actually break it. [Laughing at the absurdity of the situation] "It doesn't matter [shaking her head], I'll pretend I understand what I'm seeing!" Because I just literally could not believe that. Yeah, [still laughing] it was relentless that way.
Perri: I understand. It's like, you know, if you've got some frustrations and stressors and you bump your head, it's ten times worse than it really is! [laughter] All right, so this is like, half Mission To Mars, because it's another thing that Brian said that kind of taps into your experience a little. He had mentioned, I believe this was in the documentary about him, that the Hollywood system destroys you, and that that wound up being his last movie in the states. You, on the other hand, based on how you're describing everything, have had a wonderful experience in Hollywood. So what do you think it is about your experiences making movies in Hollywood that keeps you coming back to them?
Connie: I mean, there have been a few times, I am not going to lie. There have been a few times where in the process of making a movie, I have really questioned whether it's a place for women. Because it's been... it's been really difficult at times to stand up for women, on film and in film. Inside of films where the director was given absolute leeway to change the script completely, and make it unrecognizable from the project that you actually originally signed on to. And then you were caught, and you were kind of like, "But my character is not supposed to be this character, and we... what?!?" And then all of a sudden it becomes a two-hander between two guys and now the girl is like the third wheel on the, you know, on the bike here.
And it's just... it's been extremely frustrating. And I think that if you go into that, you have to have an enormous amount of resilience. And you have to know that it's worth fighting for what you are fighting for. And I think I do. I think I just do believe it's worth fighting for. I do think it's worth fighting for films that will ultimately tell different kinds of stories about women than the stories we're telling, or were telling, up to now. And we're still figuring out how to tell those stories, but they're coming, and they're being made. And I think that will change how we treat women in general, and how we see them.
Neither film is in service of any sort of exclusive genre categorisation, their incisive political interrogations forwarded by the undergirding emphasis on the granular activities of their characters, which, among other things, offers up a wealth of moments wherein ranging emotions – fear, satisfaction, camaraderie, anxiety – are telegraphed by a simple shot of an actor’s face, taken in tandem with whatever else has transpired. An important motif, considering that Blow Out and Cutter’s Way are predicated on how much we trust our own senses, and how the unimpeachable qualities of our personal sight and hearing can be swiftly and ruthlessly denied by authoritative powers. Remaining content within an already skewed environment isn’t enough; one must commit to the final word of politicians, business executives, corporation heads and the like, even if they knowingly present zero verifiability.
Critic J. Hoberman brings the two films together with erudite concision in his book Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan (they also screened as a 2019 double feature at Film At Lincoln Center as part of a retrospective tailored to the release of Hoberman’s book), writing, “Both movies used patriotic displays as ironic backdrops. De Palma’s invented Liberty Day Jubilee conceals a brutal political killing, while San Barbara’s annual Old Spanish Days celebration is a cover-up for fat-cat malfeasance.” Similar points of origin in both films (someone saw/heard something they shouldn’t have) lead to similarly, unintentionally, tragic destinations as architected by America’s political rot. But Blow Out and Cutter’s Way are best viewed through the lens of a malleable relationship of conversing details, rather than two perfectly parallel narratives.
Blow Out’s ticking-clock drama is set in motion when John Travolta’s sound man, Jack Terry, inadvertently records a presidential hopeful’s Chappaquiddick-esque assassination (and rescues Nancy Allen’s Sally, the one-night companion of married politician and presidential-hopeful McRyan), whose status as nothing more than an accident he works to disprove. This ambition is emboldened by his superlative talents as a craftsman, as he is able to uncover the inconsistencies of the incident through the basest––and therefore, purest––filmmaking tools. Cutter’s Way is just as predicated on coincidence, but its tenor is one of disaffection, with Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) and Alex Cutter (John Heard) ultimately left unmoored in a climate where the rich enjoy the privilege of moneyed immunity, after the former thinks he’s spotted a prominent and powerful businessman at the site of a teenage girl’s vicious murder.
As Jack, Travolta is the disgraced wunderkind (a former technician for undercover sting operations to pinch corrupt cops, his own equipment’s inadequacy having led to the gruesome death of a participant), whiling away his time doing foley for crude slasher films, repeatedly reminded by his director that he’s smarter than what the immediate material demands. The film begins as a movie-within-the-movie, a steadicam-led, first-person POV of a killer’s journey through an all-girls’ dormitory, before the paltry shriek of a victim announces the jump to Blow Out itself. Suddenly transplanted to some cheaply appointed editing suite, Jack enacts the first of the many aforementioned reaction shots, one of giggly disbelief directed at what’s on the screen. In contrast to his prior wiseass behaviour, Jack flaunts an impressive focus when he’s out recording nighttime sounds on the Wissahickon Bridge, just southwest of downtown Philadelphia. He’s tuned-in, and his near-expressionless focus suggests a momentary communion with the surrounding nature – that is, until McRyan’s tire is shot out.
De Palma’s gamesmanship, both narrative and visual, is in crystalline form in Blow Out. His signature use of split-screen and split-diopters finds a simpatico partner in cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, the clean widescreen and long lenses often losing and once again finding characters within crowded spaces. De Palma had already flaunted such nimble camerawork in the museum sequence of 1980’s Dressed to Kill, but not yet with the sinuous unease that Blow Out maintains as its consistent tenor. The reaction shots lift Jack and Sally from their paranoia-laced circumstances, before plunging them back in once again, each time more violently than the last. Jack’s visage runs the gamut from righteous elation to gutted confusion, such as when he is able to assemble his own stop-motion recreation footage of the same incident, that when played with his audio, proves both aurally and visually it was no accident. This very tape is erased by John Lithgow’s trigger-happy hitman Burke, another stumbling block for Jack and Nancy. Later, when all three major players come (crash) together at the Liberty Day Jubilee, Pino Donaggio’s emotively gaudy score envelopes the scene – but only after Allen’s impossibly shattering, reverberating scream echoes – left are we only with the profound dread colouring our heroes’ faces.
The reductive line of comparison would posit that Cutter’s Way is the “muted”, character study equivalent of Blow Out, but this is only partly true. Passer’s film is merely bereft of De Palma’s pyrotechnics, its languorous progression symptomatic of its characters’ own nonexistent prospects. Blow Out interpolated Chappaquiddick and the Zapruder film, its totemic points of reference already burrowed in the minds of all Americans. Cutter’s Way is more uniformly assembled, awash in the miasmic fallout of the Vietnam War, evidenced by Jordan Cronenweth’s jaundiced cinematography (in a 2016 interview in Film Comment, Passer wittily offers: “Did you notice there’s no blue in Cutter’s Way?”), and embodied by John Heard’s paraplegic, one-eyed, amputee veteran, Alex Cutter.
In true De Palma fashion, the director makes sure that the only thing we can come to expect is the unexpected, utilizing plot points that center around heists and suicides, double identities and double-crosses, revenge-seeking ex-cons and sexual manipulations, only to deliver a final twist no one could have seen coming. Throw Thierry Arbogast’s impressive cinematography style and Bill Pankow’s precise editing into the mix and what you get is a bold and exciting thriller celebrating a fierce and intelligent woman coming up on top.
1. Embrace canted angles
One of the most subtle things in this movie that I don't think a lot of other directors utilize are the canted or "Dutch" angles.
This is a spy thriller, so it's the perfect genre to mess with the camera angle to make the audience feel worried and uneasy. De Palma does this all with a graceful touch.
When it comes time to do your movie, think about shaking up the camera angles from the boring norm.
2. Set pieces must be memorable
One of the best things about the first Mission: Impossible is that it set the standard for set pieces. From the opening mask switch to the break-in at the CIA, these set pieces were all perfect trailer moments. I mean, Cruise hanging from the rafters is one of the indelible images in all of film history now.
When you set out to make your movie, think about how the set pieces stand out. As the story goes, Paramount wanted more of a talky spy movie, but Cruise and De Palma said that the only way the public would embrace it is if the set pieces wowed everyone.
They were right.