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Wednesday, March 18, 2020

"You've got to believe in the movie when you make it." That is one of the key statements Brian De Palma makes in this terrific interview with Jake Coyle of Associated Press. Read on, also, as De Palma tells Coyle his new title for what has, up until now, been known to the public as Predator:
NEW YORK (AP) -- Movie theaters may be shuttered across the country, and projects delayed, but there is still newly released work of lurid and pulpy goodness from Brian De Palma.

The 79-year-old filmmaker has written his first work of fiction, "Are Snakes Necessary?" a crime novel he penned with his partner, Susan Lehman, a former editor for The New York Times. The book, full of snappy dialogue and sharp knives, bears plenty of the hallmarks of De Palma. Movies are baked into it (the title refers to a book Henry Fonda is seen reading in "The Lady Eve"). Martin Scorsese sums it up in a blurb: "It's like having a new Brian De Palma picture."

Just over two weeks ago, I drove out to East Hampton to meet De Palma (the director of "Carrie," "Scarface," "Body Double" and "Carlito's Way") at an inn near his and Lehman's Long Island house.

The conversation spanned his new book (a John Edwards-inspired tale about a senator having an affair with a young staffer), his grim thoughts about the advent of streaming ("The industry is eclipsing the artistry") and his plans for a movie partly inspired by Harvey Weinstein.

An abiding passion for cinema coursed through De Palma's reflections. Lately, he's been soaking up westerns. The day before, he said, he watched John Ford's "My Darling Clementine" again —- a movie De Palma, noted, that knew how to shoot a shoot-out.

Q: Why is "Are Snakes Necessary?" a book and not a movie?

De Palma: Too many ideas and not enough time to make all the movies. You write a lot of stuff that never makes it into a movie. With my partner, Susan, we just basically did it because we had fun doing it. We had never written a novel before, neither of us. I had an idea for a script I had never developed based on the Edwards campaign and the girl (Rielle Hunter, the woman he had an affair with) making webisodes, those little intimate things she shot. As I was watching this happen, being a director, you can see someone flirting with the camera. We started with that.

Q: Has the straightforward process of fiction writing been a welcome alternative to the struggles of filmmaking for you? Your last film, 2019's "Domino," had financial difficulties and wasn't released in the U.S. [a la Mod editor's note: Domino did have a limited release in U.S. theaters]

De Palma: It's a very sad situation. It was under-financed. I was there 100 days and shot 30. They weren't paying anybody and I had a whole bunch of people working for me. We finished it. But I was so disenchanted with the people who financed it ... that I said, "Guys, here it is. Good luck." And I didn't do any publicity for it.

Q: Did that sour you on making more films?

De Palma: I had never been in a situation like that except way back when I first was starting to make independent films like "Sisters," which I think was budgeted at $150,000.

Q: What struck me reading your book is how enduring your obsessions are. "Vertigo," for instance, makes a cameo. In the book, it's being remade.

De Palma: It was a very influential movie. I saw it in 1958 in Vista Vision, I might add, at Radio City Music Hall, I believe. It left a very strong impression on me, obviously. As I've gotten older and made a lot of films, I can see there's always lessons to be learned from Hitchcock the way he sets up certain sequences. And "Vertigo" is the whole idea of creating an illusion and getting the audience to fall in love with it and then tossing it off the tower twice. Very, very good idea.

Q: Are there any Hitchcock films you don't like?

De Palma: I thought the late Hitchcock stuff was not that good. When he got finally discovered by the French and all the critics started to write about him, that's when he was in his decline, I thought. I don't think he ever reached the pinnacle that he did after "Psycho" and "Vertigo."

Q: Do you think of your career as having a pinnacle?

De Palma: Sure. I've studied directors' careers my whole life. Susan doesn't like me to say this, but you get older. You have a very good creative period, but if you're making decent movies after you're 60, it's kind of a miracle.

Q: What's that pinnacle for you then?

De Palma: In my mid-50s doing "Carlito's Way" and then "Mission: Impossible." It doesn't get much better than that. You have all the power and tools at your disposal. When you have the Hollywood system working for you, you can do some remarkable things. But as your movies become less successful, it gets harder to hold on to the power and you have to start making compromises. I don't know if you even realize you're making them. I tend to be very hard-nosed about this. If you have a couple of good decades, that's good, that's great.

Q: You must have gotten accustomed to your films, years after critical or commercial disappointment, reemerging as cult classics.

De Palma: You've got to believe in the movie when you make it. The fact that the audience didn't respond to it and 30 years later they think it's a masterpiece is always gratifying. Your instincts were always right. I've always said that the movie you make is measured against the fashion of the day. That shouldn't stop you from trying to do what you think is correct, what works for you.

Q: A few years ago at the Tribeca Film Festival, I saw a restoration of "Scarface" and was overwhelmed by the colors. I don't normally sit up close in a theater, but I did then.

De Palma: I did, too. I hadn't seen "Scarface" in years. I'm always amazed by the performances. The acting, it's like, "Yikes." It doesn't get old. It's extremely vivid.

Q: Do you think that kind of bold, widescreen filmmaking is still being practiced?

De Palma: The things that they're doing now have nothing to do with what we were doing making movies in the '70s, '80s and '90s. The first thing that drives me crazy is the way they look. Because they're shooting digitally they're just lit terribly. I can't stand the darkness, the bounced light. They all look the same. I believe in beauty in cinema. Susan and I were looking at "Gone With the Wind" the other day and you're just struck at how beautiful the whole movie is. The sets, how Vivien Leigh is lit, it's just extraordinary. If you look at the stuff that's streaming all the time, it's all muck. Visual storytelling has gone out the window.

Q: Is that what irks you most about today's films?

De Palma: The whole system is changing. You used to go out and make a movie. Our generation, we wanted to take over the studios. Which we did. I think what's so interesting about the generation I came up with, they got very rich, extremely rich, working within the studio system. Now, we're into this endless streaming. Everything has 10 parts and six seasons. It's sort of moved back to the old studio system where the producers and the writers are the king. The directors, who knows who directs one of these things from another? Then you have the whole Marvel universe, which is digital action stuff, all computer generated. When I made "Mission to Mars" and spent a year working on these shots with three or four digital houses -- one was working on the ship, one was working on the smoke, one was working on the dust -- I would storyboard a shot and it would keep coming back to me for a year as they added things. The shots are hopelessly expensive. You say: "What am I doing?" That's when I went to Europe and said I can't make movies like this anymore.

Q: "Mission: Impossible" is up to, what, it's seventh installment?

De Palma: Stories, they keep making them longer and longer only for economic reasons. After I made "Mission: Impossible," Tom asked me to start working on the next one. I said: "Are you kidding?" One of these is enough. Why would anybody want to make another one? Of course, the reason they make another one is to make money. I was never a movie director to make money, which is the big problem of Hollywood. That's the corruption of Hollywood.

Q: Are you still working on the Weinstein-inspired project, "Predator"?

De Palma: Yes, but I had an original title I went back to. When I heard about the whole "catch and kill" thing with the Trump scandals, I immediately said that's a great title -- long before Ronan (Farrow) got a hold of it. Fortunately, I copywrited it. So it's "Catch and Kill" now. It's basically a horror movie based on real things that have happened in the news.

Q: And inspired especially by Weinstein?

De Palma: Harvey Weinstein is part of it but being in Hollywood in the '70s, there were some abusive actions going on that irritated me quite a lot. When I was casting "Carrie," George Lucas and I were seeing every young actor in Hollywood.

Q: He was casting "Star Wars" at the same time.

De Palma: Yes, we were casting together because we were looking at all the young people. There was one director-actor who was also casting a movie and he was trying to (expletive) these girls while he casting -- which got me extremely annoyed. As a director, it offends me because the actor is just trying to get the job. To take advantage of that it, it's like a doctor doing something against the code of ethics. There was a particular actor-producer that was doing this and that's the sort of centerpiece of "Catch and Kill." The Harvey Weinstein character wanders into this. It's scary and it's fun.

Q: Do you have a target for shooting "Catch and Kill"?

De Palma: Hopefully in August.

Q: Women in your films has always been a flash point. Some have called your movies misogynistic. The bloody drill-bit scene in "Body Double" is hard to imagine happening today.

De Palma: That was the movie that was attacked relentlessly when it came out, but I can't tell you how many people come up to me and talk to me about "Body Double."

Q: Do you feel time has disproved those criticisms?

De Palma: They always considered I was somehow a misogynist director because I had women as focal points in my thrillers. Well, I'm sorry. I prefer to photograph women walking around rather than men. (laughs) I think some great philosopher once said: The history of movies is of men photographing women. I've always said: "If I have to follow somebody, I'd rather it be a beautiful woman than Arnold Schwarzenegger." I'm sorry.

Q: Hitchcock lamented never getting to film certain sequences he had always envisioned. As a practitioner of such set pieces ("Untouchables," "Carrie"), are they any you wished you had shot?

De Palma: Yes, they go into the books. I constantly point out whenever I'm asked about these long visual sequences and why they work -- and I never quite realized I was doing it -- when you have an action sequence, you've got to lay out the geography. The trouble is with 99% of directors, they don't. Hitchcock knows how to do it. I know how to do it. (Steven) Spielberg knows how to do it. (Stanley) Kubrick knows how to do it. You have to lay out the geography of the location so the audience knows where everything is before you set the action going, whether it's two armies colliding, it's a shootout in a train station or it's Cary Grant at a crossroads in the Midwest. The key is that you've got to slow everything down. If you look at every shootout you see, you have no idea where anything is. I've said this a thousand times and I think I'm the last practitioner. I'll go to the grave with it.

Q: Scorsese has wondered before how many movies he has left. What's your expectation?

De Palma: I think we're getting near the end here. I have a bad knee. William Wyler said when you can't walk, it's over with. Now, if you write these books, that can use up our creative imagination. But as long as I can do it, I will do it. But I'm not going to miss not doing it. (laughs)

Posted by Geoff at 8:13 PM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, March 18, 2020 9:12 PM CDT
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Last night, San Francisco native Sarah Goodwin posted the Carrie illustration above to her Instagram page, with the following caption:
I’m fine. Everything’s fiiine. 🙋🏻‍♀️
. . . . .
. . . . .
#carrie #sissyspacek #imfineitsfineeverythingsfine #covid_19 #shutdown #endtimes #stephenking #briandepalma #sarahgdrawsgood

Posted by Geoff at 8:14 AM CDT
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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Two more reviews today of Brian De Palma and Susan Lehman's Are Snakes Necessary? --

Chuck Bowen, Slant

Three male and three female protagonists (De Palma, a former engineering student, values such symmetry) are sent by their hungers and ambitions on an elaborate collision course against the backdrops of heavily mythologized, movie-ready cities such as D.C., Paris, and Vegas. Barton Brock is a manager-slash-fixer for Lee Rogers, a Republican senator up for re-election who hires as an intern 18-year-old Fanny Cours, the daughter of one of Lee’s former conquests. Also mixed up in this inevitable sexual melee is Elizabeth Diamond, the trophy wife of a rich art collector, and Nick Sculley, an aspiring photographer who, like John Travolta’s character in Blow Out, requires a bit of real-life tragedy to inform his art with meaning.

The fun of the book springs from its abject, unapologetic horniness, which is more distinctive in our timid times now than it was in De Palma’s heyday, and from attempting to figure out which formula it’s going to settle into. (Short answer: several at once.) Much of the novel is devoted to these characters hanging out and discussing status and strategy, so that De Palma and Lehman may note their designer apparel and particularly their varyingly terrific bodies. (Fanny is said to be in the “full flush of carnality” and there are sentiments offered about the bodies of French women, bedroom voices, and the fit of white T-shirts on young, cut men, among other things.) Though there’s a consistent amount of sex here, the book still feels like an act of extended foreplay, as we’re conditioned by De Palma thrillers to await the violence that goes with the carnality. The climax atop the Eiffel Tower and its resolution ingeniously pay off the various story strands, offering a tragedy and its inadvertent avengement.

Still, Are Snakes Necessary? also illustrates the limitations of attempting to recapture the visceral qualities of cinema via prose. De Palma and Lehman’s writing is confident, but it still only faintly conjures the wrenching, surreal power of a classic De Palma sequence, whether it’s the prom scene in Carrie or the anguished murder in front of a Fourth of July fireworks display in Blow Out. The Eiffel tower sequence in Are Snakes Necessary?, with its vicious, mathematical toggling between various parties as they hurtle toward violence, is clearly meant to suggest one of De Palma’s greatest hits (the authors even specify which part of action is meant to be seen in slow motion), but the poetry is missing. De Palma is a maestro of juxtaposition, composition, and performance calibration, not of words on a page.

Though there’s fun in figuring out which of De Palma’s staple of actors might have played each role in Are Snakes Necessary?—Brock is the Gregg Henry character, Fanny is Nancy Allen, and so forth—on the page these characters are just mice being moved through a narrative contraption. Without De Palma’s stylistic gamesmanship, without the poignant, daring melodrama of the director’s preferred style of acting, the personality and obsessiveness of De Palma’s worldview is compromised. Are Snakes Necessary? offers a fascinating glimpse, then, as to how a script for a director is fleshed out by the other stages of a film’s creation. The book is a serviceable, even compulsive page-turner, but it could be a hell of a movie.

Leanna, The Crime Review
The writing style of the novel comes directly from De Palma’s film background; sparse, quick-moving prose, present tense delivery, brilliant descriptors that are an evocative shorthand for what is going on in a character’s mind. It almost reads like a screenplay, but that pacing and near-abrupt style adds to the noir feel.

And this is a noir novel, all the way through. It is filled with femme fatales, rogues and scoundrels, shadowy fixers and a somewhat jaded outlook. Despite all that, it walks the line between too much and too little admirably, refusing to take itself too seriously, and managing to steer shy of being too camp.

Part of what keeps it from veering into the too-camp territory is the plot, which is a truly stunning series of masterstrokes. Without spoilers, this novel manages to wrap together several increasingly disparate plots in several surprising, satisfying ways. Needing to know what happens next in the crazy rollercoaster of events kept me turning pages without putting the book down even once; I sat down and read this from cover to cover in one sitting.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, March 18, 2020 2:14 AM CDT
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Monday, March 16, 2020
https://www.angelfire.com/de/palma/snakesbirthex.jpgWhile Birth. Movies. Death. today shares an exclusive excerpt from the first chapter of Are Snakes Necessary?, Peter Sobczynski reviews the new novel for RogerEbert.com. Sobczynski states that the book, which was co-authored by Brian De Palma and Susan Lehman, "so thoroughly fits in with De Palma’s cinematic oeuvre that anyone reading it will feel as if their mind’s eye has suddenly been outfitted with a split diopter attachment." Here's an excerpt from Sobczynski's review:
From the way that it freely mixes numerous political scandals in the manner that the JFK assassination and Chappaquiddick helped to inspire his 1981 masterpiece “Blow Out,” to the use of favorite narrative tropes and numerous cinematic allusions (even the title is a vaguely obscure reference to a book that Henry Fonda was reading in “The Lady Eve”) throughout, Are Snakes Necessary? is so obviously a De Palma creation, one in the vein of such original works as “Dressed to Kill,” “Blow Out” and “Femme Fatale” that if it had been published under a pseudonym, readers versed in his work would have figured out who wrote it in an instant. Fans will no doubt relish all the things in it that they have come to know and love from his films—the caustic, cynical wit, the audacious storytelling, and a wild finale that practically unfolds in slow-motion on the page, in the best possible way.

Those not as enthralled by De Palma’s legacy may be a little more suspicious of a book written by a filmmaker who is primarily renowned for his visual style and whose plots have not always held up to scrutiny from a logical or dramatic standpoint. Yes, there are a couple of points when the cheerfully pulpy prose gets a little too purple for its own good—at one point, Fanny’s breasts are parenthetically described as “(firm, peach shape),” which is pushing it even for a character already named Fanny—and there a couple of instances where the book seems to be drifting into Elmore Leonard territory, which one should probably avoid doing at all unless they are actually Elmore Leonard. And while politics are not exactly at the forefront of the story, some readers may be a bit disconcerted that a book based in that particular milieu would make absolutely no reference at all to what else was happening on the American political scene as a whole circa 2016.

For the most part, however, Are Snakes Necessary? is cleanly written, moves like a shot (most people will probably be able to read it in the same amount of time that it would have taken to watch it if it had been a movie) and does an effective job of recounting its alternately lurid and loony story. In fact, book's only real downside is the fact that De Palma presumably will not be making a movie version of it—a shame, because the climax could have easily gone down as one of the most eye-popping extended sequences of his entire career. This may prove to be nothing more than a lark in De Palma’s career, but it is nevertheless a hugely entertaining one.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
Updated: Tuesday, March 17, 2020 12:06 AM CDT
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Sunday, March 15, 2020

Promoting the upcoming March 31st U.K. release of Are Snakes Necessary?, Brian De Palma recently spoke with Lina Das of The Mail on Sunday's Event Magazine. It is not clear precisely when this interview took place, but keep in mind that it very well could have been before virus fears had swarmed over. All of the De Palma/Lehman book signings in New York City have been canceled just within this past week.

I bring this up because in the article, De Palma tells Das that he is hoping to begin shooting Predator in Paris later this year. It remains to be seen what kind of affect this virus ends up having on upcoming productions, but hopefully, things will work out for the best.

The title Predator is never mentioned in this article, but that was the title of the screenplay that De Palma turned in to Saïd Ben Saïd in early June of 2018. It seems likely that the title would be changed by the time the film is released, in order to avoid confusing it with the sci-fi horror franchise of the same name. Speaking to Das in the interview below, De Palma says, "Having been a director for 50 years, needless to say I’ve come across a couple of the notorious predators in the business."

In the article, De Palma discusses that project, his initial impression in the early '90s of Harvey Weinstein, and, within this #MeToo context, also addresses Jemima Rooper's comments from last November about filming with De Palma on The Black Dahlia. Of course, the interview also delves into Are Snakes Necessary?, and more:

Ask Brian De Palma about his first impression of Harvey Weinstein and he is unequivocal. ‘I saw a bully. Just a bully.’ He had met the now disgraced producer in New York when Weinstein’s company was making a presentation of Neil Jordan’s 1992 hit The Crying Game about the IRA. ‘They wanted me to host the dinner,’ explains De Palma, 79, the legendary director of hits such as Scarface, Carlito’s Way and the Oscar-winning The Untouchables. ‘I’d seen the film and thought it was quite remarkable, but when I first saw Harvey Weinstein, I thought, This is a person I do not want to be involved with.’

The director was so horrified at the tidal wave of sexual assault allegations that engulfed the now-convicted producer that he plans on shooting a film on the subject. ‘It’s a combination of the Weinstein stories and a lot of the other #MeToo stories that came out,’ he says. ‘Having been a director for 50 years, needless to say I’ve come across a couple of the notorious predators in the business.’

De Palma’s first major hit came with in 1976 with a blood-soaked version of Stephen King’s horror story, Carrie. ‘I was hearing stories even then,’ he says. ‘George Lucas was casting Star Wars and we would both hear from these young actresses on other films about how they were being manipulated by the person meeting them. It was the old, “Let’s have a meeting at 6.30pm in the office when nobody’s there” line, and then they would try to seduce them. You want to make actresses feel as safe and as good as possible and the fact that these people then cross the line drives me crazy. It’s against everything you want to accomplish for the film.

‘But it’s not like everybody didn’t know what was going on,’ he adds. ‘People saying they didn’t know – that’s hard to believe.’

That De Palma is such a vocal supporter of women in the industry may strike some as slightly ironic, given that critics have often labelled his own work misogynistic. Beautiful women who meet their demise in gory fashion have memorably featured in his movies (Angie Dickinson in the 1980 hit Dressed To Kill is a famous case in point) and he’s rarely been afraid of nudity either. It’s a criticism that draws a weary sigh from the man himself.

‘I just think it’s incorrect,’ he says. ‘If you’re making a suspense movie, would you rather photograph an attractive woman walking around with a candelabra in a haunted house, or Arnold Schwarzenegger? Being politically correct,’ he adds, ‘has never been my problem. I just do what I think is right for the film.

It’s a code he has adhered to over the years, although it came with its own set of problems. After filming The Black Dahlia in 2006, British actress Jemima Rooper, who had a small part as a porn actress, recently claimed that while filming the pornographic element, De Palma asked ‘if my pants could come off, and I was like, “Oh my God, what do I do?”’ (When it was apparent that she had tattoos on her back that would have been time-consuming to conceal with make-up, the idea was scrapped).

De Palma says now: ‘Of course I realised that she was worried, but Jemima certainly knew what was going to be in the scene. It’s not that you haven’t prepared them for what they’re going to do, but it doesn’t mean that once they get in there, they won’t feel very uncomfortable.’

He recounts a similar experience on the set of Carrie, starring Sissy Spacek, which opens with a scene in the girls’ showers at school. ‘There were many girls who just couldn’t do the nudity and I said, “OK.” But because Sissy had done all the nudity in the shower scene a day before, they said: “Well, if Sissy can do it, I can do it.” But it’s always a delicate situation. You have to be very careful.’

De Palma’s latest project marks a departure from movie-making. He has written his debut novel, the political satire Are Snakes Necessary?, with his partner Susan Lehman, a former New York Times editor. ‘We did it for fun,’ he says. ‘I’m very good at plot and dialogue and I would send her a scene. She would write the descriptions and broaden out the characters and then send it back to me.’

The story follows a senator who is cheating on his Parkinson’s-afflicted wife with the beautiful young videographer trailing his campaign. Events, however, soon take a turn for the worse, and when the senator tries to put things right, deadly consequences ensue. It’s fast-moving, laced with De Palma-esque twists and inspired in part by the real life US senator John Edwards, who fathered a child with his campaign videographer. ‘I follow American politics,’ says De Palma, ‘and that whole thing was like a comedy.’

Eagle-eyed De Palma fans will spot recurring themes of his screen work such as voyeurism – a fascination for which can be traced back to an incident in his own childhood. When he was 17, he followed his philandering father with a camera and after catching him with a mistress, threatened him with a knife (though no one was harmed). ‘One tends to be overdramatic as a teenager,’ he admits. ‘Afterwards I went home, got in my car and drove to the seashore. My parents got divorced and I recovered.’

An ability to capture human behaviour at its most vulnerable and unsavoury has certainly served him well as a director. Scarface, his brilliant portrait of megalomaniacal drug lord Tony Montana (played by Al Pacino), was heavily criticised on its release in 1983 for its excessive violence and profanity, but has since been hailed as a masterpiece.

The making of the film was fraught – not only did Pacino burn his hand on the barrel of a gun, necessitating a two-week stay in hospital, but due to the frequent cocaine-snorting scenes, Pacino has suffered from nasal problems ever since. Did they use real cocaine?

De Palma laughs. ‘No! But I don’t remember what Al was snorting. He worked very hard. It was an exhausting schedule.’

Further problems ensued with the screenwriter Oliver Stone, who went on to direct Wall Street and JFK. ‘He told me that he almost got himself killed one night,’ says De Palma. ‘He was doing research and hanging out with a lot of cocaine cowboys in South Florida and they thought he was a narcotics agent.’

While admitting he has ‘always been controversial’, De Palma has nonetheless enjoyed huge hits including gangster classic The Untouchables, which earned Sean Connery his only Oscar, although having played the indestructible James Bond for so many years, he wasn’t used to being on the receiving end of bullets (‘he hated being shot’). De Palma also helmed the first of Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible outings, although declined to direct the sequel. ‘It was a very difficult shoot and the only reason to do another would be to make more money. How much money does one person need?’

De Palma has also endured bruising failures, such as 1990’s critical and commercial disaster The Bonfire Of The Vanities. Described by one critic as ‘one of the most indecently bad movies of the year’, De Palma admitted that once the movie bombed, ‘I might as well have put on my leper suit [in Hollywood].’ But as he explains now: ‘You’re not going to last very long in the film business if you can’t take a horrendous reception of your movie. Of course it hurts, but I’ve had some of the worst receptions in the history of movies and I’ve managed to go on and make other movies.’

Despite the fickleness of Hollywood, De Palma has maintained a circle of ‘lifelong friends’ including directors Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese.

In fact, Scorsese has been kind enough to give his friend a rave review for his new novel, noting that reading it is like ‘having a new Brian De Palma picture’. And while De Palma has no plans as yet to turn it into a movie, he’s hoping to start shooting his Weinstein/#MeToo-themed film later this year in Paris. ‘It’s a lot of fun,’ he says, ‘and it’s really scary.’

As a description of Hollywood itself, De Palma would no doubt agree, it couldn’t be more apt.

Posted by Geoff at 12:07 PM CDT
Updated: Sunday, March 15, 2020 4:15 PM CDT
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Saturday, March 14, 2020

Electric Ghost's Bobby Vogel reviews Brian De Palma and Susan Lehman's Are Snakes Necessary? Click this link to read the entire review-- here's an excerpt:
Behind intelligent taste for absurdity is heightened awareness of reality. De Palma and Lehman give us a pitiful, medicated Parkinson’s sufferer who doesn’t know how to use a web browser, but they also give us Fanny, a senatorial intern of 18, who makes viral videos and says she believes in “truth.” Her political consciousness is entirely conditioned by social media, which is why she speaks of truth and not tactics (or justice). Politics, in De Palma’s view, is not truth or justice, but the interminable, confused pursuit of whatever can be made to resemble them. Fanny is aware of this but thinks she can surmount it; she sees and wants purity. This is not only youth but an effect of technology: she thinks her videos of the senator are the senator, beyond “spin”, beyond performance; what is filmed and said in private is more real than what is said and done in public. Writing a novel set in American politics, in 2020, risks the obvious, but De Palma is less interested in “Trump” or “nationalism” (the latter is depicted briefly and almost neutrally) than in a social media wizard such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; the novel sees the landscape, but not the one we were looking for.

De Palma and Lehman know that today’s teenagers spend whole weekends in their bedrooms, that daughters tell their mothers about their sex lives now, that young, intelligent men are as inept as ever around girls like Fanny. The novel, which is written plainly, can be sensuous—the visual De Palma has a good eye for clothes—but it is especially evocative in the experiences of women. There is tenderness in the book, and not only because someone is “tenderly” smothered. One woman muses on the married father of her unborn child, imagining all the ways she could tell him, and all the different results, some passionate, some cold; being pregnant is a secret that inspires one’s daydreams. Looking back on that scene years later, she remembers what she was wearing. She is “not the only woman who vividly remembers” such things when looking back on a great moment. This is touching, if a little broad, but later in the book the authors turn it inside out, when they show a different, more pathetic woman try to remember the same and fail.

When women are attracted to men in this book, they acknowledge their feelings with articulate reasons, while the men merely respond with their “animal center.” The reader is repeatedly struck by the coarseness of description—“nice ass,” “giant breasts”—when a man is doing the watching. But the men, when seen by women, have dual, mixed qualities—a “mix of dopey lines and seeming straightforwardness,” an “odd blend of total surprise and…awareness”—which make them ineluctably but mysteriously attractive. This clash of the sexes, when it is irresistible and not vexing, is cinematically caricatured in a moment approaching horror: a two-sided sex scene in which paragraphs alternate between male and female viewpoints. When the man thinks “how can I get her clothes off?” the woman, in her head, is saying “you are the love of my life.” And so on. It is funny, and it is sad, especially when it culminates in a woman’s desire for eye contact and a man’s desire for sex positions which happen to make eye contact difficult. It is De Palma at his raunchiest, but it is also deeply moral, as his raunchiest films have been.

The erotic thriller, as formulated by De Palma, has roots in screwball comedy as well as in noir. Dressed to Kill, Body Double, and Femme Fatale all end in coupling, not doom; the protagonists of these films share an ability to learn which is the province of comedy. In Body Double, Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) is a claustrophobic, cuckolded method actor of the Lee Strasberg variety, in which memories are not only used but ostensibly relived. It’s a mode of passive self-obsession De Palma compares to pornography. But De Palma being De Palma, prudery is not an alternative: Jake only succeeds when instead of lazily watching porn he performs in it himself. His new comfort with artifice is freeing in its falseness: truth was an obstacle; purity doesn’t exist; “body doubles” are everywhere. The ability to act freely is highly related to one’s capacity to tell lies, and, it follows, one’s willingness to forgive them. De Palma’s morality is summed up by Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941), the film from which Are Snakes Necessary? takes its title: “The best girls aren’t as good as you think they are”, she says, “and the bad ones aren’t as bad…not nearly as bad.”

Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn) of Femme Fatale watches a different Stanwyck movie at the start of that film, but by the end of the film, she could be watching The Lady Eve. Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944) is as bad as a virginal Henry Fonda thought she was in The Lady Eve. Laure may want to be as bad as that, to be able to say to someone’s face that “I never loved you or anyone else”, but her own humanity gets in the way. As Stanwyck’s does in The Lady Eve, who looks doubtfully downward in her moment of triumph. The femme fatale of screwball comedy can cry and sometimes mean it, she can regret the revenge she exactingly planned, and yet she can enter into a marriage with her cunning intact: she is cruel for the sake of love, not the other way around. Elizabeth of Are Snakes Necessary? is a femme fatale in training, an autodidact of her own allure. The question of the book, the force of its dilemma to the extent it is asked, is which version of Stanwyck she will choose to become.

The book is at its best when she is feeling her way towards a sexier, cleverer, chillier self. She has natural good taste: she knows from the beginning that “it’s the flash of skin”—not the bare skin itself—that is the pivot of desire; her knowledge that “the point where the conceal and reveal join…is most interesting” is something she shares with De Palma the director. Still, the authors admit, Elizabeth, whose laugh is like “wild poppies,” doesn’t quite know what she’s doing. She thinks flirtation, for example, is a matter of willpower: “does the woman want to go through with it or not?” is the only relevant question. The fate of a femme fatale is to a great extent determined by the men she encounters, and there are no men in this world who might find her routine of “giggle…smile…kiss the boy” tiresome. Nick, her first mark, lets strange women kiss him, pretends to smoke cigarettes, and is proud of his preference for eating peach yogurt: he has little self-awareness and great self-regard. When such a man tells a woman that he’ll be “very good at undressing” her, the fact that he had to say it makes him a pearl in her necklace.

Nick has had a brush with fame, a single photograph that went viral; this does not, impressively, do much for Elizabeth: she prefers “planning and artistry” to the outcomes of chance, another instance of good taste which she shares with her author. But men are not movies, and sex is not something one simply accedes to: desirous she may be, but she is not overwhelmed. And neither is De Palma: there is a great deal of chance in the workings of desire. When a man and woman kiss in this book, “it nearly knocks them out”, but like the boasting of Nick, this is stated as mere fact; the reader is shut out from the feeling and left fully awake. At one point the authors describe sex as “a world far from conversation”, as if talk were not arousing—real talk, not the humouring of a vain man. It may be a reflection of the characters in question, as much of the narration is, but it is too easy in such moments to imagine De Palma’s camera roving and taking over, embellishing the supposed defects of speech with the nimble grace of a deed.

If anything, the flaws of the book suggest the greatness of his films: Brian De Palma is the most musical filmmaker of our time, as audial as he is visual. In a certain sense, the great director he resembles is not Hitchcock but Stanley Donen, who crafted sequences so musical and ecstatic that whatever surrounds them can seem uninspired. Even the experience of watching Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is one of patiently waiting for the drama to stop, for the next extended thrill to descend. And so it is with the ballet sequence of Passion (2012), the overture to Femme Fatale, the finale of Mission to Mars (2000); nothing can top him when he lets himself sing. It is the musician’s fate to be bored with or hate an unmusical world: there is sad vexation in the best of De Palma, and it is there in this book. He treats drama the way Scottie treated Judy in Vertigo (1958): with a certain obliging menace, a friendly unfairness borne of high expectations, a hope that for even mere seconds or minutes the promise of beauty might be more than just haunting.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
Updated: Sunday, March 15, 2020 12:30 AM CDT
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Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Above is a picture of Industrial Light & Magic's John Knoll, who was a VFX supervisor on Brian De Palma's Mission To Mars. The picture is part of an article by befores & afters' Ian Failes, which takes a look back at ILM's evolution sequence for the film.

"One sequence that always remained in my memory was the lengthy holographic evolution shot," states Failes. "Here, microscopic paramecia evolve – with no cuts – into other creatures including fish, lizards, crocodiles, dinosaurs, mammoths and buffalo, with hunting humans featured at the end. ILM handled this moment, which occurs while several astronauts are being versed on the origins of the universe. I asked then CG supervisor Christophe Hery, now a research scientist at Facebook Reality Labs, who supervised the work, how it was pulled off with Cari and some unique approaches to morphing."
Christophe Hery: We ultimately delivered an illustrative look, but in making it we approached it from a more photoreal perspective, going as far as putting detailed displacement on the creatures and the terrain.

The difficulties (and innovations) stem, besides the length, from the fact that we had to morph animals that were shaped quite differently, from early fishes to bisons, in the context of a herd (or school).

We approached these transformations by imposing a common topology on all creatures. This was an interesting exercise for the modelers and the riggers at the time, and they did a great job at that.

A tool was written on top of Cari [aka Caricature, a tool developed by ILM’s Cary Phillips], if I remember correctly, that would weigh the morphs in various regions of the bodies (so we could have, say, legs from crocodiles and necks from diplodocus appearing at different rates). All of this could be tailored and key-framed.

We had very fine control there, per limb, but we settled, again for illustration purposes, into a more unified morph speed. The camera is panning along from above, so it became hard to read the subtleties and we wanted the message to be obvious.

The morph weights were also automatically exported from this Cari extension into the shaders, so we would get a blend of the corresponding appearances automatically.

Surprisingly, the initial push into the water was the most difficult part to render. With all these bubbles motion blurred and very close-by, we were constantly faced with camera near clipping plane issues.

The shot was truly delivered/rendered as one continuous full CG shot (in Renderman). Only the actual footage of the astronauts and the alien hand were composited in (the alien being a separate CG render pass, obviously).


Meanwhile, at The Spool, Peter Sobczynski looks back at Mission To Mars, as well:

Although primarily known for dark suspense thrillers, Brian De Palma’s filmography is studded with a number of seemingly offbeat projects that one might not normally associate with the director of Carrie and Dressed to Kill. Even among his most ardent fans, though, a project like his 2000 effort, Mission to Mars, continues to serve as a bit of a bafflement. If you had to select the least suitable project imaginable for one of Hollywood’s most iconoclastic and cynical filmmakers, you could hardly do better than propose he make an expensive, optimistic PG sci-fi epic for Disney that was loosely inspired by one of their theme park attractions.

The results were perhaps not very surprising. Aside from France, where it screened as part of that year’s Cannes Film Festival and was ranked #4 on Cahiers du cinema’s list of the best films of the year, it was a financial and critical failure. It’s rarely discussed today even amongst De Palma scholars. (De Palma himself only briefly touches on it in the documentary De Palma.) And yet, to watch it again 20 years after its initial release is an interesting experience.

It clearly pales in comparison to such works as Blow Out, Phantom of the Paradise, and Femme Fatale and it’s still wildly uneven in many ways. At the same time, to watch De Palma attempt to embrace new things in both genre and mindset is fascinating. It even contains one of the most absolutely spellbinding set pieces in a career that is not exactly wanting in that regard and as such, the end result makes sense in the grand scheme of his career.

After some discussion of the plot and background of the production, Sobczynski continues:
And yet, as clumsy as it can get at times, Mission to Mars does make for an intriguing addition to the De Palma canon. The film is not without its bleak and grisly moments—one scene features an exploding body that evokes the infamous finale of The Fury, albeit in a resoundingly PG-rated manner. That said, the storyline is ultimately hopeful and while it does lead to some odd moments (including what must be the least cynical deployment of the American flag in De Palma’s oeuvre), it’s surprisingly successful in evoking that kind of spirit without coming across as too forced.

Better yet, the film is a visual marvel as De Palma, along with longtime collaborators such as cinematographer Stephen H. Burum and editor Paul Hirsch, creates any number of stunning images in which the constantly roving camera meshes with the feeling of weightlessness.

The highpoint of the film—indeed, the sequence that even its detractors admit is effective—is the stunning mid-film section in which a micrometeorite shower kicks off a series of ever-expanding disasters that culminates in the demise of one of the nominal stars at just barely past the halfway point. This sequence, which runs about 20 minutes or so, is De Palma at his best. It’s suspenseful, exciting, darkly funny, and constructed with jigsaw precision, and when it comes to its conclusion, it leaves viewers feeling a combination of shock and utter exhilaration at what they have just witnessed.

Seen today, Mission to Mars is just as much of an oddity as it was when it first came out and while it will almost certainly never be regarded as one of the great De Palma films by any stretch of the imagination, it does not deserve its reputation as a wholesale disaster that it gained virtually from the day it came out. (The film remains De Palma’s last Hollywood studio production as he would relocate to Europe after it came out to make films like Femme Fatale, The Black Dahlia, and Passion.)

At its lowest points, it is no worse than any number of anonymous space operas that have been produced over the years (including Red Planet, the competing Mars-themed thriller that it beat into theaters by a few months). At its highest peaks—specifically that still jaw-dropping mid-section—it serves a potent reminder of De Palma’s skills as a filmmaker. This is a film that is undeniably flawed but also undeniably ambitious and in a time when most films of this sort tend to forget to include the ambition alongside the elaborate visual effects, that does count for something in the end.

Posted by Geoff at 11:33 PM CDT
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Tuesday, March 10, 2020
"I know it's hard to imagine a world with men like astronauts, who have this purity about them, but that's what I experienced in the times I spent with them. And also, they have that kind of starry-eyed look, because they've seen things that we will never see. They've been out there, hanging off the shuttle somewhere, fixing something on one of the satellites, and they've been looking around the universe. They come back with this look in their eyes! There's something magical about it. And that was what I was attempting to show, with Gary Sinise's journey through the material. These guys have been somewhere and done things that no man has ever done before." - Brian De Palma, talking to Bill Fentum in 2000


Posted by Geoff at 1:55 AM CDT
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Monday, March 9, 2020

Brian De Palma's The Untouchables will screen in a 70mm Blowup print, with Magnetic Sound, at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago March 14, 17, and 18. The Untouchables was included in an early version of the Music Box's 70MM Fest back in the summer of 2016.

Posted by Geoff at 11:09 PM CDT
Updated: Monday, March 9, 2020 11:12 PM CDT
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Sunday, March 8, 2020


UPDATE 3/14/2020 - The Metrograph appears to be in the process of canceling all screenings at the theater after March 18, which includes the sceenings mentioned in this post.

UPDATE 3/11/2020 -  The Metrograph page for this event now reads, "De Palma will no longer appear in person."

Original Post from 3/8/2020 - Brian De Palma
will spend a Saturday night at The Metrograph in New York City March 21st. He'll be signing copies of Are Snakes Necessary? And he will also present two films: Richard Quine's Pushover (1954), and De Palma's own Femme Fatale (2002), the latter a Metrograph favorite. The choice of Pushover is interesting, as it featured the film debut of Kim Novak, who, of course, would go on to star with James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, the 1958 film that sparked De Palma's interest in cinema. Stewart and Novak teamed up again in 1958 for another Richard Quine film, Bell, Book and Candle, which was a big hit at the box office. Meanwhile, Novak's co-star in Quine's Pushover, Fred MacMurray, had already starred with Barbara Stanwyck in another De Palma favorite, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), which is playing on a hotel television in the opening shot of De Palma's Femme Fatale. When you consider that Are Snakes Necessary? includes a film crew in France who are making their own version of Vertigo, there is sure to be some fascinating intertextual discussion March 21st at the Metrograph.

Here's the Metrograph description of the event:

March 21

Brian De Palma has been an independent cinephile filmmaker emerging from the politically and aesthetically radical 1960’s counterculture of New York City. He has been a director of scrappy, ingenious low-budget genre fare, and he has been an unmistakably personal studio auteur putting the entire mechanism of industrial filmmaking towards creating big, bold, and sui generis thrillers. He survived being perhaps the most excoriated of New Hollywood’s Young Turks, and has become among the most venerated of its Old Masters.

And now he is adding another accomplishment to his astonishing CV—the author of literary fiction. At Metrograph for the release of his debut novel, the political satire Are Snakes Necessary?, co-written with Susan Lehman and published by Hard Case Crime, De Palma will also present one of his own films and an old favorite, as a reassurance he hasn’t left the cinema behind entirely.


C.J. Bunce, borg

The modern pulp noir follows intersecting characters in a smarmy world of cheating, lying, and murder, from Las Vegas to Washington to Paris.

A senator and his majordomo encounter a woman from the senator’s past at an airport, and the senator is eager to welcome her daughter as an intern to document his campaign. Meanwhile, a struggling photographer gets mixed up with the trophy wife of a wealthy businessman in Las Vegas. Two married couples–a cheating wife and a cheating husband–the wife a victim of spousal abuse seeking to get out, and a politician with a sick wife staking out his next conquest. And somehow they all come together during a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, based more toward the underlying novel, which was set in France (I reviewed the novel a few weeks ago here at borg).

In a way Are Snakes Necessary? is De Palma taking a stab at doing his own play on Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski. Fans of The Girl on the Train, Chinatown, State of Play, and the sleazier shelf of 1970s era pulp crime novels will go for this one, along with fans of De Palma’s films. More about 20th century sexual politics than 21st century sexual politics and less about a political campaign, the snakes in the title are the men who continue to get away with manipulation, lies, and sometimes murder.

The setting and players will be familiar to readers of Elmore Leonard–it’s the kind of pulp crime story where men are maulers and women only survive if they’re willing to kill–the kind of story De Palma or Tarentino would put on the big screen, along with the corresponding sex, language, and violence. Almost as an aside, the authors slip in a character something like Melanie in Leonard’s The Switch and Rum Punch, a woman fed-up with her lot who knows herself and finds her way into an off-the-wall revenge plot. The book also has that taste of so many airplane-based movies in the 1970s with those relationships tied to travel, like passengers flirting, something that hasn’t been a go-to plot element for a while.

Are Snakes Necessary? is full of highs and lows–highs in its surprises, lows in its overall familiar tropes of the genre. Tightly written, the story may also seem a bit thin and straightforward, although the authors pack a handful of twists into their tale, including a vivid climactic sequence at the Eiffel Tower clearly written for the screen, which may justify a read all by itself. The authors reveal the scene via a photographer that plays out like a zoetrope–a really nice effect. In fact the entire novel feels like it could have been a screenplay adapted into novel form.

Mark Rose, Bookgasm
De Palma and Lehman provide a nice brisk pace through what is a relatively short novel. And unfortunately, the short length may be the flaw that bothered me the most. The ending seems rushed, unsatisfactory in details, and is way too pat (there are twists I don’t wish to give away). However, there is a lot going on with all of the characters, and they seem fairly well-rounded.

Descriptions are at a minimum but still adequate. Dialogue is realistic. The two stories are strong but could have benefited from further fleshing out. Is it readable? Absolutely. Is it a classic? No. A good read for an airplane ride or your first day on the beach.

Posted by Geoff at 3:55 PM CST
Updated: Saturday, March 14, 2020 9:43 AM CDT
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