14-SECONDS - SCARFACE/SOPRANOS/GOODFELLAS
Hello and welcome to the unofficial Brian De Palma website.
Here is the latest news:
a la Mod:
Now a new stage adaptation mixing live actors and puppets—with a book by Timothy Allen McDonald and Christopher Gattelli, who also directs—is arriving at New Victory Theatre in New York City for a holiday run (Dec. 10-Jan. 2, 2022), after a 2009 staging at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House. I’ll be there with jingle bells on, of course. In the meantime, I had a chance to speak to Williams, who started out in show business as a child actor, and whose arrival as a writer for the theatre seems long overdue (but not for lack of trying).
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I should know this, but I don’t: Have you had stage work produced in New York before?
PAUL WILLIAMS: Not really. I’ve got an unproduced musical I’m working on with Gustavo Santaolalla of Pan’s Labyrinth, with Guillermo del Toro, but everything came to a sliding halt in the last couple of years, of course. But the theatrical experience of mine that has had the greatest success has to be Bugsy Malone, and that’s been more in the United Kingdom. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that…
Oh, yeah. I’m the ideal age for your work; I grew up on this stuff.
Well, it keeps going, you know, with new generations. What’s wonderful is that the things I did in the 1970s or early ’80s that were not successful seemed to create fans that over the years would show up and say, “Let’s do something together,” whether it’s Edgar Wright with Baby Driver or Daft Punk, who saw Phantom of the Paradise in Paris 20 times. I never call something a failure; it’s on a back burner, and all of a sudden, eventually something wonderful will happen.
I have a very Jiminy Cricket philosophy about life, especially with anything involving Jim Henson. It was just a magical relationship with the whole family through so much of my life. It started out with just Jim going, “Hey, you want to do this?” It’s kind of an Americana story, a sweet little book that became a one-hour special. I met with Jim and said, “It’s interesting, I keep getting hired to write things I know nothing about.” Have you ever seen Emmet Otter?
It’s one of my favorite things. Can you talk a bit about why you think it’s special?
The fact is that in anything I did with with Jim, and hopefully anything that I really connect with, the songs come out of the story and the characters. The major mistake I’ve seen many pop songwriters who try to work in theatre make is they try to write a hit song. I seem to be able, not only in theatre, to have a spell where I won’t write a hit song but I’ll write something like Emmet Otter or The Muppet Movie or Bugsy Malone, where I just fall in love with the characters.
How was the original Emmet Otter film project pitched to you?
Jim sent me the original book [by Russell and Lillian Hoban] and Jerry Juhl's script. The songs and even the underscoring happened very quickly. I was on the road in Vegas and I went into the studio with my road band and I was singing and even playing lines of underscoring. It was very organic and it was so enjoyable — there was an enthusiasm that I felt that was bounced back at me. It's interesting; there's something about the Muppets that unleashes kinds of music in me that I had never written before.
Did the stage musical happen the same way?
One of the really amazing things was that we had had a conversation with Tim McDonald about a couple of things, and we talked about Emmet Otter, which we all thought was just a natural. Right after that, he reached out to Chris Gattelli, and out of the blue, Chris said he wanted to do Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas as a musical. All of a sudden, it was like we were getting a nudge from Jim Henson's ghost or memory. We did it at Goodspeed two years in a row, and now it'll be nice to see Emmet after all these years again.
Tell me about the musical material that you added for the stage show.
I wrote four new songs, but it doesn't feel like a major change from what I wrote originally and what I added. The spirit of Emmet and Ma and all the characters pretty much lives on. There's a visit from Pa Otter who reassures Ma that she's not an old dreamer. It becomes this song "Alice, keep dreaming/I'm right here beside you/I'm close as the sun/when it's warm on your fur." Everybody always asks me about "Born in a Trunk," which was cut from the film and why there isn't a full version of it, so I wrote a full version of it. "I was born in a trunk in the great oak tree that was used to build the stage of the Palace." When I can have that much fun writing, it just isn't work.
What's your takeaway from the 2021 reappearance of Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas after all these years?
One of my favorite things to remind myself is "don't call something a failure just because it doesn't get done right away." You know, Phantom of the Paradise, which was a Brian De Palma movie I did in 1974 had the world's tiniest audience. And now, Daft Punk and Edgar Wright and all these people have showed up saying "I love that movie." It's not too late.
The quality of acting and that mixture of Muppets and live actors in Emmet Otter on stage is a really interesting combination. I think that it has the sentimentality, but Tim and Chris maintain the level of edgy humor that is just so important in everything Jim Henson ever did. I think you will be really, really pleased.
Coming in at number 24 on the list is Carlito's Way, with a summary provided by Matt Zoller Seitz, although we have to question whether the "World Trade Center subway platform and elevator system" actually appear in the film. De Palma had planned to shoot at the World Trade Center PATH Station, but two days prior to the scheduled filming, it was the target of a terrorist bombing. The climax was filmed at Grand Central Station, instead. Here's the Vulture summary from MZS:
The second collaboration between director Brian De Palma and star Al Pacino, this 1990s blockbuster apes 1970s New York urban potboilers while infusing the story with a melancholy gentleness that’s uncharacteristic of the filmmaker and positioning it as a life-affirming answer to their other team-up, 1983’s Scarface. Pacino plays the title character, a Puerto Rican gangster who gets out of prison and tries to reconnect with his young girlfriend (Penelope Ann Miller) and go straight but inevitably gets drawn back into the criminal life via his coked-up, mob-connected lawyer (Sean Penn). The plot mechanics owe a lot to westerns where an old gunfighter wants to settle down but can’t walk ten feet without some punk dragging him into a duel. The final action sequence, which sees Carlito fleeing Italian Mafia goons on foot through the subway system en route to Grand Central station, is the greatest use of the city’s underground transit system ever captured on film, geographically accurate down to the tiniest details of platforms, transfer points, and local-versus-express routes: MTA-map-nerd heaven. Keep an eye out for a voluptuous cameo by the World Trade Center subway platform and elevator system, which would cease to exist eight years after this film’s release.
Matt Zoller Seitz also provides the summary for #69 on the list, God Told Me To:
A repository of 1970s fears of urban decay, random violence, mass murder, UFOs, goverment conspiracies, and cult machinations, this thriller from schlock maestro Larry Cohen (It’s Alive!, Q) starts with a sniper killing 15 random pedestrians with a rifle from his perch in Times Square and gets weirder from there. Tony Lo Bianco stars as Detective Peter Nicholas, who fails to talk the sniper down (“God told me to,” the man says before leaping to his death). He suspects a connection between that tragedy and the random mass murders that follow (including two more mass shootings and a mass stabbing) and eventually uncovers a mystery that feels like an unholy fusion of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Rosemary’s Baby, The Fury, and half the conspiracy thrillers released during the ’70s. New York is presented as a mecca for madness, a nexus of every chaotic and sinister impulse obsessing Americans at that time.
Alternately conniving and seductive, the ensuing power dance between these two master manipulators puts “Nightmare Alley” right up there with “Sunset Boulevard” (with its sordid battle of the sexes), “There Will Be Blood” (where commerce clashes with religion) and other period studies of opposing forces. And true to the cynical essence of the noir genre, both sides are shown to be equally corrupt: The way Stan sees it, he and Lilith are in the same racket, leveraging what they know about the universal pillars of human desire — health, wealth, love — to give their customers false hope. “Fear is the key to human nature,” as Gresham observed, and both psychiatrists and spiritualists exploit it in their way (religion does too, though del Toro downplays that most damning dimension of Gresham’s critique).
Back at the carnival, Pete had advised Stan to steer clear of “spook shows,” where a mentalist pretends to commune with the dead. But Stan’s fatal flaw — the one most likely to trip him up — comes in the way this slick talker tries to compensate for his own sense of inadequacy by convincing himself that he’s superior to everyone else. A sworn teetotaler, Stan dismisses Pete as a drunk and figures he can fool gullible strangers into paying to speak with their dead lovers, sons and so forth. (Enter Richard Jenkins as a deeply damaged man with all the money in the world, looking to buy some peace of mind.) By the end, however, he’s hooked on booze and haunted by visions of his dead father — the nightmare alley of the film’s title.
There are few things more dangerous than a con man who believes his own spiel, and here, del Toro takes that dynamic to its inevitable conclusion. Once things escalate, the director can hardly resist a bit of the old ultra-violence — a weakness that infects nearly all his films, as he insists on pushing our faces into the gory, bone-crunching consequences of his characters’ behavior. He darkens some of the details from the book, so that the culprits “deserve” what’s coming to them, but for most audiences, the sight of mangled faces will be too much, especially after all the magnificent visuals del Toro and his creative team — especially DP Dan Laustsen, production designer Tamara Deverell and costume designer Luis Sequeira — have provided.
From re-creating a vintage circus with its pickled animal fetuses and hand-painted sideshow banners to evoking the stratospheric heights to which this social climber aspires, the movie ranks as the most stunning modern noir to behold since Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables.” Dark as del Toro’s vision may be, it’s a glorious homage to an American experience all but lost to time. For centuries, carnivals of some kind offered an exotic alternative to small-town life, as customers willingly sacrificed their quarters for illicit thrills. And now that experience lives on, immortalized in a cautionary tale for the ages, its arc an elegant full circle, like the giant Ferris wheel that signals from afar that something wicked this way comes.
In the interview, Lieberman brings up Brian De Palma While discussing Blue Sunshine:
You just mentioned that BLUE SUNSHINE was compared to Cronenberg. I can see that. But when you made the film, was that something you were aware of?
No, because at the time I didn’t even see his movies. I saw SCANNERS. That’s the only one I saw. At that time there was only one filmmaker that worked in the genre that I even paid attention to and was impressed by. That was Brian De Palma. There wasn’t even a number two or three. I thought he was a genius. He was constantly being criticized for trying to be Hitchcock and I remember thinking about that when I learned filmmaking. I knew what it took to do what he does. Yeah, he was influenced by Hitchcock but his personality is in everything he does. Hitchcock never used the camera the way De Palma did, never had that incredibly vicious wit about everything he did. De Palma got really slick. And then after CARRIE he became mainstream Hollywood – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I can’t think of anybody working in the genre that had that kind of mastery that De Palma has and it’s strange that nobody even talks about it. John Carpenter and Wes Craven are not even in his league. It’s a whole different level.
If De Palma has one weakness it’s that he was too dependent on the material. I don’t care how good a filmmaker you are, you have to marry yourself to the material. I have the advantage of being a writer. If I didn’t write, how am I going to use my directing skills on a piece of material like SATAN’S LITTLE HELPER? What I want to express as a director goes hand in hand with what I want to express as a writer. I can’t find that out there. I wish I could, because writing is a bitch.
When watching De Palma’s movies while you were learning the craft yourself, did you want to make movies the way he did?
Yes, I did. I didn’t copy anything – I have enough of my own ideas – but there’s something in the adventurous spirit in the way he made films that I found very inspirational. Also the way he found humor in places where you never before thought you’d find it. He did that again and again. Even in SCARFACE you have that scene with the chainsaw in the bathroom. Any filmmaker would move the camera away from that, because you hear the chainsaw, you hear the screaming. There’s no need to show it. Let the imagination of the audience do the work. That’s pretty much how I would shoot it. But De Palma – and this is signature him – goes: Yeah, that’s what you think, but we’re going back in! That’s what I’m talking about. That is fucking brilliant! When I saw that, I thought: This guy hasn’t lost anything. At the time I wished he would just do horror movies and show everybody else his level. He was so fresh and incredible.
Before you made your debut with SQUIRM, did you have any film experience?
Yeah, I made SQUIRM when I was twenty-five. But the first film I ever did was called THE RINGER. It’s on the DVD of BLUE SUNSHINE as an extra. It’s a twenty minute short. I’m in it. It was the film that got me a job at Janus Films, an American distributor that was mainly founded on all the early Bergman and Truffaut movies. So, I got to see all the movies by Vittorio De Sica and Antonioni. When I saw BLOW-UP I knew I wanted to make movies. Before that I thought I was going to be a commercial artist. I went to art school, doing painting and drawing. I had no interest in movies when I was a kid, aside from the stuff all kids like. Monster movies at the Saturday matinee. But I never thought I wanted to make films until I saw BLOW-UP. You remember that one sequence in BLOW-UP where you just have the trees in the wind? That one sequence was like taking drugs, without taking drugs. Using sound and visuals in such a way that is exactly like a drug experience. That’s what made me want to make films.
You had some drug experience yourself back then?
It was the sixties. It was foremost in my mind, what LSD did and what other drugs would do, altering your reality. But hallucinations held no interest for me. To me it was all about heightening reality, seeing clearer. Reality is right in front of you. So, if you could project something without taking drugs, that would certainly be better. And with film you could do anything you want. That one sequence in BLOW-UP has no music. If you watch JUST BEFORE DAWN there are so many sequences with no music at all, where you just hear cicadas and the wind. That was me in my BLOW-UP mode. Brad Fiedel, who became a huge film composer, didn’t fight me on that. He got it and he complimented me on the way I used his music.
The FIRST EVER Midnight Mass Podcast screening is coming soon, Dec. 15th at @roxie_theater!!! Don’t miss this rare and special screening of Brian De Palma’s 1974 rock opus, THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE! Join your hosts Peaches Christ & Michael Varrati for a stage-show version & recording of their Midnight Mass cult movie podcast before a rare screening of the film like you’ve never seen it before. To help them best delve into the psychotronic, Faustian world of this masterpiece they’ve invited Trixxie Carr to do a live performance. They’ll also be joined by the Phantom Mayor himself Ari Kahan, curator of The Swan Archives, which has been dedicated to the preservation of PHANTOM history since nearly the beginning. Ari will share an incredible slide-show presentation! And please don’t forget to DRESS UP for the glam rock lip-synch competition! Tickets are now on sale at ROXIE.com