"ALWAYS SHE'D BE THERE - NEVER BETWEEN US, ALWAYS IN THE MIDDLE"
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It’s hard to say if Brian De Palma spent the majority of his career working in the thriller and horror genres just because he felt most comfortable there, or if Phantom Of The Paradise kept him there. The rock musical was a both a critical and box-office failure, but it has gained a cult following in the years since for how distinctly strange it is. Anchored by the original music (and an unlikely leading role) from pop maestro Paul Williams, the movie is a glitzy riff on The Phantom Of The Opera about a disfigured songwriter who lives inside a theater owned by a benevolent record producer who — as the immortal tagline states — sold his soul for rock ’n’ roll.
Despite its lofty ambitions as a modern-day Faust or Dorian Gray (in addition to Phantom of the Opera) that seeks to satirize the music industry, the movie is perhaps best viewed as a wonderfully gaudy spectacle that would make a great double feature with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. De Palma’s success with his next film, Carrie, launched him into the stratosphere of great genre directors, and though De Palma would never direct anything this zany again, Phantom Of The Paradise still has plenty of the director’s trademarks. Though his films often have a kind of meticulousness that lends him to the obsession of many a movie nerd, he’s also prone to the kinds of bombastic flourishes (see John Cassavetes’ entire body exploding in The Fury) that make this such a cult-y delight.
Happy 83rd Birthday to Liv Ullmann!
Imagine this: Liv Ullmann getting stabbed to death in the elevator in Brian De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL. Huh?!
Little known factoid: Liv Ullmann, the brilliant muse of Ingmar Bergman in CRIES AND WHISPERS, PERSONA and FACE TO FACE, was Brian De Palma’s first choice to play the role of “Kate Miller” in DRESSED TO KILL — the role that ended up being played so iconically by Angie Dickinson.
The character gets shockingly stabbed to death in an elevator — an homage to Janet Leigh’s character “Marion Crane” getting stabbed to death in the shower in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO.
In both movies, it was essential to cast big-name stars in these parts to make it all the more shocking when they are unexpectedly bumped off early in their respective scenarios.
In the summer of 1979, when DRESSED TO KILL was in preproduction, I was working as Brian De Palma’s assistant. I was 23 — and a very big fan of Liv Ullmann — who had won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in THE EMIGRANTS (1971) and nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Actress in THE EMIGRANTS and FACE TO FACE (1976). So, you can imagine my excitement when Brian handed me a copy of the DRESSED TO KILL script and said, “I want you to hand-deliver this to Liv Ullmann at the Majestic Theater. She is expecting you in her dressing room.”
Liv was currently starring on Broadway in Richard Rodgers newly-musicalized version of I REMEMBER MAMA. I would be going to drop off the script between a matinee and evening performance.
I arrived at the stage door with a large envelope in my hand. I knocked and after a few seconds, the door cautiously cracked open as though it were a speakeasy. A crusty old doorman peered out from the shadows and said, “Yeah?”
“I’m here to see Ms. Ullmann,” I explained in my best business-like voice.
The doorman gave me the once-over, spotted Ullmann’s name written on the envelope, concluded I was just a messenger boy — which, admittedly, was pretty much what I was. He sneered, “A delivery? I can take it to her.”
He creaked the door open a little further and held out his gnarly hand, expecting me to give him the package.
As if. I wasn’t going to give up the chance of meeting Liv Ullmann when I’d already come within breathing distance. I gulped and stood my ground. “I have been instructed to deliver this to Ms. Ullmann personally. She is expecting me. My name is Sam Irvin. From Brian De Palma’s office.”
Poker-faced, the doorman said nothing for what seemed like an eternity.
Finally, he withdrew his empty claw and shut the door in my face.
Had I been summarily rejected? Should I knock again and demand to speak to someone higher up the food chain? My job was on the line! With all sorts of desperate thoughts running around in my brain, the door suddenly popped back open.
“Ms. Ullmann will see you now,” the doorman grunted, annoyed that he’d been out-maneuvered.
I stepped inside and followed him to her dressing room. He knocked and walked away. The door swung open with a breeze of perfume to reveal the resplendent, welcoming smile of Liv Ullmann attached to her entire being. In person. Yep. I was starstruck.
She graciously greeted me. We exchanged small talk. I gave her the script and she said, “Tell Brian I am looking forward to reading it. Thank you for bringing it to me.”
I departed on Cloud 9 and floated back to Brian’s office. Mission: Accomplished.
Sadly, Liv eventually passed on the project.
Nancy Allen, who played “Liz” in DRESSED TO KILL, recalled, “Liv was Brian’s first choice. He wanted it to be out of character for the actress who played the part to be having the sexual encounter with the stranger in the museum. Someone you might think of as sexually repressed. I suggested he send her flowers and take her to lunch. Ultimately she declined the role because she didn’t want her children to see her in that way.”
Then Brian had me deliver a script to the wonderful Jill Clayburgh, hot off her Oscar nomination for AN UNMARRIED WOMAN (1978). A long-time friend of De Palma’s, Jill had made her movie debut in his early feature film THE WEDDING PARTY (1969) opposite the young Robert De Niro. My encounter was brief and similar — but equally cherished and memorable. Unfortunately, she also ended up passing due to scheduling conflicts.
Ultimately, Angie Dickinson ended up with the role and knocked it out of the park.
Nevertheless, it is intriguing to imagine what the movie would have been like with Liv Ullmann in the role.
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! The recent issue of BOOBS AND BLOOD No. 4 is entirely devoted to my memoir of DRESSED TO KILL! 56 pages! 13,000 words! 175 photos!
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.
The DRESSED TO KILL Special Edition of BOOBS AND BLOOD No. 4 is available to order here:
Thank you to editor-publisher Miles Flanagan!
"I was very intrigued by the relationship between my character and that of Rachel McAdams. They are very complex and desperate women, with a whole set of admiration, seduction and hatred. I felt like I was in a minefield, you never know when it's going to explode. It was a very difficult shoot, psychologically. I did a lot of research on psychopaths and met a professor who specializes in the subject. I was playing a woman with a sociopathic disorder, which means she has no empathy. It was a different way of working.
With Brian De Palma… [she pauses, Editor's note] there were a lot of clashes! He's from another era and I have a lot of character myself. I think he's used to filming with women who do whatever he asks. We held on long enough, and then we finally found a working rhythm. He was an old movie maestro who met a young rebel, obviously… But it was a very interesting and stimulating shoot."
BTL: You work with a lot of other directors and filmmakers as well, a lot of people multiple times as you mentioned. Do any of the other directors you work with use temp music, either your own or someone else’s that they cut to, or do you generally get a dry edit with no music?
Desplat: Well, directors like Wes Anderson, like Roman Polanski, they don’t use temp. They never use temp, they don’t need it, because they have their own idea of what the music should be, and what the editing should be without using temp. Some others, they mix existing scores of mine or other composers. It’s a bit of a battle each time for the director to forget this temp that is heard again and again and again and again and again and again. And again. And again. And again. It’s always difficult to convince him that you can look for another sound, another pace, that the bass is not right, or the sound is not right, or the placement is not right, which is another story all along. I have to deal with it, and I try to convince the director that my choice is best. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.
BTL: I’ve spoken to quite a few composers about hearing your own past music over new images, and the composers I’ve spoken to know right away that it’s not the right music for those images. I’m not sure if that’s just a natural knack one has a composer or the instinct of not wanting to lose scoring work to his or her past self. How do you feel about temp music even if it’s your own?
Desplat: There’s this famous scene between Brian de Palma and Bernard Herrmann coming to a screening where he used his previous cues, previous music from Hitchcock, and Bernard Herrmann just stormed out, saying it was impossible to use that music in this film, because it was wrong. And I understand. When you see a film, and you hear the music that you’ve written for something else, it’s disconnected. It’s just not right. You know that there’s something else that can be cooked by the chef.
5th Annual Masters Roundtable Tribute - Brian De Palma. Rising Filmmakers; Terry R. Wickham (Devil's Five, Double Vision, Gruesome Threesome), Christopher Garetano (Montauk Chronicles, TV shows The Dark Files, Strange World), Patrick Rea (Nailbiter, Arbor Demon, I Am Lisa), Glenn McBride Jr. (Traffic Cops, Supply & Demand), and Film Historian/Author John Kenneth Muir (The Films of John Carpenter, Exploring SPACE: 1999, The Art of Horror: Wes Craven) sit in a virtual roundtable to share their deep appreciation for the Master of Suspense and pinpoint which movies you should see from the visionary director of Sisters/Carrie/Obsession/The Fury/Dressed To Kill/Blow Out/Scarface/Body Double/Untouchables/Casualties of War/Raising Cain/Carlito's Way/Mission Impossible/Snake Eyes/Femme Fatale/Passion.
Music by Michael James Romeo (Guitarist Symphony X / Film Music Composer)
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1st Annual Tribute - George A. Romero & Tobe Hooper
2nd Annual Tribute - John Carpenter
3rd Annual Tribute - Wes Craven
4th Annual Tribute - David Cronenberg & Stuart Gordon
SUBSCRIBE to Wickham's YouTube Channel (It's FREE) to see all Tributes and every Episode of his YouTube Channel Show Into the Depths with Terry R. Wickham
How much papier-mâché ended up on your body?
It took quite a bit to get off at the end of the night. I would just soak in a tub and get all of that papier-mâché off. They really stuck me in that sculpture, and Cheech and Chong carried me around. It was pretty easy to look claustrophobic in it with just my eyes.
The movie was originally going to end with you remaining in the sculpture, but test audiences didn’t like that fatalistic outcome, right?
Yeah, it was too claustrophobic. It didn’t give them any release. They worried about the boy in the sculpture: Is he ever going to get out? Marty showed it to his friends Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg. We just came up with ideas. I forget whose idea it was that we got so excited about, which was that in the basement, Verna Bloom would go, Come here, quick, hide! She’d point to herself and then it would be a quick cut to her being pregnant with me. I think she was going to give birth on the West Side Highway and I was going to come out covered in plasma. And David Geffen, who financed the movie, went, No way, that is a disgusting ending.
I can’t say that I disagree with him based on that description.
No, I know! We were desperate for an ending, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. He brought us to our senses, and then we came up with Paul flying out of the back of the van and he cracks open and off he goes to work.
How long did it take for them to glue you into that sculpture?
It was in two pieces, and I fit into it in an embryonic kind of way. Getting into it was not a big problem; it just took a while to seal me in. I would be in that thing for quite some time before we rolled, and I wasn’t getting out between takes.
In his new version of West Side Story, Steven Spielberg tweaks that dialogue a little bit, and he manages to cleverly throw in a nod to the title of a Brian De Palma film from 1980: "Be there, 10PM, punctual-like, dressed to kill, walkin' tall!"
Meanwhile, in an interview with The Guardian's Ryan Gilbey, Spielberg talks about being the last one of the "Movie Brats" to make a musical:
The most famous and widely cherished film-maker in history is all twinkling eyes and gee-whiz charm today. He is about to turn 75 but first there is the release of his muscular new take on West Side Story, which marks his third collaboration with the playwright Tony Kushner, who also scripted Munich and Lincoln. Spielberg is at pains to point out that this not a remake of the Oscar-laden movie but a reimagining of the original stage musical. “I never would have dared go near it had it only been a film,” he says. “But, because it’s constantly being performed across the globe, I didn’t feel I was claim-jumping on my friend Robert Wise’s 1961 movie.”
Spielberg and West Side Story go back further than that. He was 10 when he became obsessed with the Broadway cast album, which his father brought home in 1957. He even got in trouble for belting out the show’s comedy number Gee, Officer Krupke. “With my dad right across from me and my mother next to me, I sang, ‘My father is a bastard / My ma’s an SOB … ’ Oh my God, they got so mad. ‘You can’t say “bastard” at the dinner table! Where did you learn that?’ I said, ‘It’s on your record!’”
It was Jerome Robbins who had the idea of transposing Romeo and Juliet to New York’s Upper West Side. Leonard Bernstein provided the score, Arthur Laurents the script and a young greenhorn named Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics. Tony and Maria, played in Spielberg’s version by Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler, were the star-cross’d lovers, while two warring gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, stood in for the Montagues and Capulets. Which gang did the young film-maker run with during his adolescence in Arizona and California? “Me in a gang?” he splutters. “Yeah, right! No, I was in the Boy Scouts of America. And a movie club. My friends and I made movies on 8mm when we were 12 or 13 so I was just part of that nerdy, geeky little club.”
He did, however, come to be known in the 1970s as one of the Movie Brats, so-called because they were the first generation of US film-makers to have absorbed much of their education from the screen and went on to electrify and transform Hollywood. Of that quintet – Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese were the others – Spielberg was the only one who hadn’t made a leap into musicals. “Francis did it with Finian’s Rainbow, Brian with Phantom of the Paradise, Marty with New York, New York. I do think you have to consider American Graffiti to be George’s musical. Which means all the Movie Brats have done it now, and I was the last. I’m proud to be the caboose.”