DE PALMA TALKS ABOUT 'THE FURY' - EXCERPTS FROM 'FILMS IN REVIEW' AUG-SEPT 1978 ISSUE
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In the book, Melody Thomas Scott recalls her work as a child actor and young adult, leading up to her role in The Fury and beyond. At 8 years old, she was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, cast as the young version of Marnie in Marnie (1964). "Days with Hitchcock were long and arduous," she writes, "partly because, unlike any director I've ever worked with since, he would take excessive effort to literally push us into position."
In 1971, she worked with Clint Eastwood on Don Siegel's The Beguiled. "Clint would greet us girls each day with a gentle kiss on the cheek. He was such a gentleman." She went on to have a small part as the kidnapped girl in Siegel and Eastwood's Dirty Harry.
And although Melody never once mentions Kirk Douglas in her chapter on The Fury, she has a chapter about being called to an interview at an office in Beverly Hills, where Douglas himself, after braiding her hair, cast her on the spot in a new western he was directing, Posse (1975). "The next thing I knew, he started braiding my hair," she writes in the memoir. "I know this sort of thing would never happen in today's culture but I can assure you, it was completely innocent. Kirk Douglas braided my hair."
After the filming of a scene with John Wayne in what would turn out to be his final film, The Shootist (and again with Don Siegel directing), and then angering John Landis by refusing to agree to do a topless scene in National Lampoon's Animal House ("He says he never wants to see you in his casting office again," Melody's agent told her, followed by "And you'll never be cast in any of his films-- end quote"), the book turns to the De Palma project:
It was June 1977, and I had an interview at 20th Century Fox with Brian De Palma, the director for Mission: Impossible, Carlito's Way, The Untouchables, Scarface, and many more. Of course, back in the late seventies, Brian was mostly known for directing Carrie, the [Stephen] King book-to-film adaptation that changed the world of horror films forever. It featured Sissy Spacek and a giant bucket of pigs' blood.
Pigs' blood aside, my very first interview was with Brian himself and Amy Irving, the star of the movie. Brian was very much a "throw the script down and let's improv" kind of director, which suited me fine. Plus Brian seemed to take a liking to me right away, which also suited me fine. When he asked me to stay to read with some of the girls auditioning for other roles, I happily agreed.
I should be honest. I hadn't seen the movie Carrie, so I didn't know who Amy Irving even was. Not that it would have made much of a difference anyway. I had the sort of personality where it didn't matter who you were, I was going to be unfiltered and friendly regardless.
"So do you have a boyfriend?" I remember asking Amy during one of our audition breaks.
"I do," she said.
"Oh really? What does he do?"
"Mmm... He's a director," she said.
"Oh, really? What's he directed?" I asked nonchalantly, as if gabbing with a friend from school.
I could feel her unwillingness to answer my nosy question. She murmured quietly, "...Jaws."
Jaws? I certainly knew who Steven Spielberg was. This girl must be somebody special, I remember thinking. She's dating one of the most famous directors in the world! She would, of course, go on to marry Steven Spielberg, but that, I'm afraid, is not my story to tell.
I ended up being cast in The Fury as LaRue, best friend to Amy's Gillian Bellaver. Amy and I became fast friends during our time filming in Chicago. Or maybe she just couldn't fling me off! I stuck to her like glue, mesmerized by all that she was. Amy was sophisticated, savvy, world-traveled. Her father was a famous theater director and producer and her mother a well-known actress. Her best friend was Carrie Fisher. She traveled in circles not only with Steven Spielberg, but also Harrison Ford, George Lucas... I mean, Laurence Olivier was one of her family friends. To say she was out of my league would be a gross understatement.
In addition to forming a bond with Amy, the entire cast and crew became quite close. We'd play poker in the evenings up in Executive Producer Frank Yablans's penthouse suite where "everybody" was doing everything. I hate to dismiss the drug scene with a casual oh, but it was just the times. But... it was the times! Still, I had never experienced this scene face to face in my youth and here it was, presented to me for the first time. Not to sound like a goody two shoes, because I'm no angel, but I never did join in on that particular part of our cast bonding. No judgment for those who chose to go under the influence of drugs, though. I simply never trusted what drugs would do to me.
For more innocent fun, we could always count on John Cassavetes, who seemed to know Chicago like the back of his hand. He was always surprising us with impromptu dinners at amazing Italian restaurants. But there's one outing he treated us to that's hard even for me to believe all these years later, and i was there!
The King Tut exhibit was at Chicago's Field Museum at that time. Between our shooting schedule and the long lines at the museum, there was no way that any of us would be able to take a quick peek at King Tut. But it was a huge tour and the whole city was talking about it, and we desperately wanted to go.
One night-- I believe it was a Saturday-- Cassavetes treated us to yet another meal at an award-winning Italian restaurant. But our dinner was much later than usual, and we didn't leave the restaurant until around 11:30 p.m. After climbing into our waiting studio vans, our drives followed strict instructions on where to take us next. We were not going back to the Continental Plaza Hotel yet.
To this day I don't know how he did it, but Cassavetes had made arrangements with who knows how many museum contacts and employees. At midnight, our vans pulled up to a back entrance at the Field Museum; we got out, having been prepped in the vans to keep our voices down and do exactly as we were told. Abracadabra, and poof! We were taken into a private back hallway of the museum. Hocus pocus, and poof! We were ushered into its great public rooms by silent security guards. The next step was a bit trickier, as we had to bend down and jump over invisible alarm beams. I know! Seems preposterous, entirely made up, like something out of a spy movie-- but I was there. We did indeed see the King Tut exhibit that night, and afterwards were whisked into our waiting vans as secretly as we had arrived, then on to our hotel. Another unbelievable evening courtesy of John Cassavetes! It was certainly one of my most memorable filming experiences.
The film was coming to an end and we all worked hard to finish the location scenes in Chicago, including a sequence shot at a real high school where actual students were cast as extras. One of those extras was a young girl named Daryl Hannah. She wasn't known at the time, but years later I thought, my goodness! That's the girl who played one of the extras at the girl's school. Watch the film very closely and I bet you can spot her!
As is often the case, my friendship with Amy came to an end as soon as the shoot did. But the thrill of working with Brian De Palma became one of the highlights of my career. Boy, what a talented director. He is such a master collaborator that he manages to not only make all cast and crew comfortable, but compels them to bring their absolute best to the table, in order to assist him in his ultimate vision. Not an easy feat to pull off. I was disappointed that The Fury didn't do very well with the critics or the box office. But I wouldn't have given up this wonderful experience for all the gold in the King Tut exhibit!
As soon as I got back to the states, I had auditioned years before for these guys I'd never heard of named George Lucas and Brian De Palma. And they were casting together two little movies... this weird Star Wars movie that I thought made no sense, and a movie called Carrie, which was actually appropriate for me and my age at the time. But De Palma elected to go with William Katt and Sissy Spacek, who were a half a generation older than me. But he had remembered me, and I got an audition for this movie called The Fury. And he actually booked me for the role. The problem was, I was under contract to Universal Studios, and I had to get permission to be loaned out from Universal to 20th Century Fox. And the studio just paid me my rudimentary, probably $500 a week, and negotiated a big salary for me on The Fury, and took all the money. But what complicated matters was that I was shooting an NBC Universal series at the time called The Oregon Trail, and we were in Flagstaff, Arizona. So the studios worked together, Universal and Fox, to work out a schedule, and I bounced back and forth continually from Flagstaff, Arizona to Los Angeles, Chicago, and ultimately Israel, where we shot The Fury.
Kirk Douglas couldn't have been nicer. He was warm, he was embracing, he was paternal, he had no attitude whatsoever. And when I really saw the grandeur of his iconic celebrity was when we got to Israel, and he was the biggest star in the world in Israel. [Andrews mimics an Israeli accent] "Kirk Douglas! Kirk Douglas!" Because Kirk Douglas was Jewish, and he was revered and loved by all Israelis. And he was like... imagine traveling with The Beatles, and still, he was... he was gregarious, he was not reclusive, he was inclusive. And when we shot a whole sequence in Caesarea-- we originally based in Tel Aviv, and then went to Caesarea where we shot the terrorist sequence where I think my dad's been killed, and John Cassavetes whisks me away-- and Kirk and I had sort of a swimming competition [starts laughing] I remember that when we got in the ocean and we were racing in to shore, actually, I was beating Kirk Douglas, and De Palma said, "Slow down, slow down." He said, "You can't win, and at the most, you have to tie."
So, but it was a great scene, sitting around this table there. De Palma set a dolly track that was 180 degree semi-circle, and we shot the scene in one take. We did several takes of this particular one-take, but there were no cuts in that scene where we're eating and talking, and then Cassavetes comes over, I think I go to the men's room or whatever, and then all hell breaks loose.
The Fury was my first starring role. This was a real big deal for me. And I had a certain way of working, getting myself there emotionally to play the character. I wasn’t very experienced in front of the camera at all. So, while Brian De Palma was setting up shots, I was sitting in my little director’s chair, in my own world, concentrating on where I’m at in the scene — I was taking it really seriously and getting myself into an emotional state. And as tears were rolling down my face, Kirk came over to me.
"Are you all right?" he asked. I told him I was just preparing. He said, "Amy, first of all, you’re what, 23 or 24 years old? You’re never going to make it to 30 if you put that much into everything while they’re lighting the set. My advice to you is, A, save it and use it when the camera is rolling. And, B, did you not hear what lens he was using on this shot? With that lens, you’re going to be the size of a pea on the screen. It really doesn’t matter how emotional you are."
It was a really good lesson. And he was right. I probably would not have made it to 30 if I had not had that sage advice from Kirk Douglas.
In an obituary at The Hollywood Reporter, Mike Barnes and Duane Byrge describe Douglas as "the son of a ragman who channeled a deep, personal anger through a chiseled jaw and steely blue eyes to forge one of the most indelible and indefatigable careers in Hollywood history."
After working on The Fury in 1977, Douglas had heard De Palma was making an independent film with film students at Sarah Lawrence College. According to De Palma (in an interview with Gerald Peary for Take One magazine), Douglas had called him and said, "Maybe I can help you out." After reading the script, Douglas wanted to play a part. He became an investor, putting in some of his own money, and also became the star of the film, which would be titled Home Movies (from a script De Palma had written years prior). With a big star like Douglas on board, playing a character called "The Maestro," no less, De Palma feared some of the students might feel a bit intimidated, which might then affect the quality of the film they were making. De Palma made the decision to take on the official role as director of the film, even though he let his students direct the scenes wherever possible. In addition, he hired professionals to head each department.
"All of Kirk's stuff is shot cinema verite," De Palma told Peary, "and his own Star Therapy is to have cameras running on him all the time. He's constantly directing the camera crew that's shooting him, telling them to come around for closeups, over here for a medium shot. When the lab saw the stuff, they thought Kirk was directinig the movie."
Here's an excerpt from the Hollywood Reporter obit:
Douglas walked away from a helicopter crash in 1991 and suffered a severe stroke in 1996 but, ever the battler, he refused to give in. With a passionate will to survive, he was the last man standing of all the great stars of another time.
Nominated three times for best actor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — for Champion (1949), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Lust for Life (1956) — Douglas was the recipient of an honorary Oscar in 1996. Arguably the top male star of the post-World War II era, he acted in more than 80 movies before retiring from films in 2004.
"Kirk retained his movie star charisma right to the end of his wonderful life, and I'm honored to have been a small part of his last 45 years," Steven Spielberg said in a statement. "I will miss his handwritten notes, letters and fatherly advice, and his wisdom and courage — even beyond such a breathtaking body of work — are enough to inspire me for the rest of mine."
The father of two-time Oscar-winning actor-director-producer Michael Douglas, the Amsterdam, New York native first achieved stardom as a ruthless and cynical boxer in Champion. In The Bad and the Beautiful, he played a hated, ambitious movie producer for director Vincente Minnelli, then was particularly memorable, again for Minnelli, as the tormented genius Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life, for which he won the New York Film Critics Award for best actor.
Perhaps most importantly, Douglas rebelled against the McCarthy Era establishment by producing and starring as a slave in Spartacus (1960), written by Dalton Trumbo, making the actor a hero to those blacklisted in Hollywood. The film became Universal’s biggest moneymaker, an achievement that stood for a decade.
Douglas’ many honors include the highest award that can be given to a U.S. civilian, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The broad-chested Douglas often bucked the establishment with his opinions, and he had the courage to back them up. “I’ve always been a maverick," he once said. "When I was new in pictures, I defied my agents to make Champion rather than appear in an important MGM movie they had planned for me [The Great Sinner, which wound up starring Gregory Peck]. Nobody had ever heard of the people connected to Champion, but I liked the Ring Lardner story, and that’s the movie I wanted to do. Everyone thought I was crazy, of course, but I think I made the right decision.”
Never one to toe the line with synthetic, movie star-type parts, Douglas played classic heels in a number of films. In 1951, he showed a keen flair for portraying strong-minded characters like the sleazy newspaper reporter in Billy Wilder’s The Big Carnival (aka Ace in the Hole) and the sadistic cop in William Wyler’s Detective Story. He played more sympathetic types in Out of the Past (1947), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) as Doc Holliday, Paths of Glory (1957) and The List of Adrian Messenger (1963).
Douglas was very particular in his role selection. “If I like a picture, I do it. I don’t stop to wonder if it’ll be successful or not,” he said in a 1982 interview. “I loved Lonely Are the Brave and Paths of Glory, but neither of them made a lot of money. No matter; I’m proud of them.”
His independent nature led him in 1955 to form his own independent film company, Bryna Productions. In the post-World War II era, Douglas was the first actor to take control of his career in this manner. Captaining his own ship, he soon launched a number of heady projects. Most auspiciously, he took a risk on a young Stanley Kubrick with Paths of Glory and Spartacus, films that feature two of Douglas’ finest performances. (He hired Kubrick for the latter after firing Anthony Mann a week into production.)
Indeed, Douglas backed his artistic and political opinions with action: His public announcement that blacklisted writer Trumbo would script Spartacus was a key moment in Hollywood’s re-acceptance of suspected communist figures.
During a Tonight Show appearance in August 1988 to promote his first book, The Ragman’s Son, Douglas told Johnny Carson that he often drew from personal experience for his work on film.
“What I found out when I wrote this book is I have a lot of anger in me,” he said. “I’m angry about things that happened many, many years ago. I think that anger has been a lot of the fuel that has helped me in whatever I’ve done.”
The Fury is the best X-Men film ever made, and in an ideal world it’d be considered a model for what pop cinema can be. But as Brian De Palma’s follow-up to his masterpiece Carrie it was destined to disappoint, in part because of how much they have in common. Both are based on novels about a telekinetic girl. Both feature Amy Irving as an empath who tries and fails to save a peer-in-need. And both enjoy playing at an offbeat pitch; but while Carrie does so within an unmistakable horror designation, The Fury is an ice cream sundae of genres – a coming-of-age supernatural espionage government conspiracy horror-thriller. Got all that? Add an experimentally self-reflexive cherry on top, and you have a film that audiences and critics did not, and largely still don’t, know what to make of. But to De Palma devotees (and some film devotees) it is an essential work, and an irresistible opportunity for writers to intellectualize De Palma’s relationship with cinema through cinema. It’s an exercise that often, for all its worth, makes the film itself sound like a narrative thesis. There is often a clinical disconnect that obscures The Fury’s entertaining and emotional immediacy.
Watching The Fury, the main thing you notice is that even through its early slower section it is blisteringly alive, as if De Palma has some unspoken knowledge that this will be the last film he ever makes (spoiler alert: it wasn’t). It is so in tune with its own wavelength, and with the emotional stakes of its characters, that the preposterously schlocky story feels like it matters (this is greatly helped by John Williams’s momentous Herrmann-eqsue score, by turns eerie, epic, and playful. “For Gillian” is his Harry Potter before Harry Potter). It maintains the same two-fold hold on me every time I watch it — a mix of uncommonly strong investment in the characters and story, and a near-constant awe at its formal power. With an opening set-piece that involves a betrayal by way of (who else but?) John Cassavetes, a terrorist attack, a kidnapping, and a shirtless 62 year-old Kirk Douglas letting loose with a machine gun, an “all-aboard!” line is drawn in the sand. Either hop on or get ready for a long two hours.
That ice cream sundae also contains eccentric pockets of comic relief. Scenes open on oddball peripheral characters, whether it’s the cop who just got a brand new car, the little old lady who delights in helping out a trespasser, or the two security guards who pass the time by negotiating trades of Hershey bars and coffee (it also has the priceless reveal that the elderly Kirk Douglas’s ingenious disguise is to make himself look, wait for it, old!). All that Kirk and quirk gradually give way to the more sincerely executed dilemmas of the teenage Gillian (Amy Irving in a performance that belongs in my personal canon), a new student at the Paragon Institute coming to grips with her increasingly cataclysmic and all-seeing powers.
It’s trademark De Palma to toy around with the nature of cinema, and as The Fury unfolds it begins to self-engage, reaching back into itself in ways that are still hard to fully fathom. Gillian’s telekinetic link to the missing Robin (Andrew Stevens) is depicted visually, including us in the intimate and exclusive psychic link they share. Since Gillian’s visions are triggered by touch and experienced by sight, she acquires information by watching scenes play out in front of, or all around, her. She learns and we learn through her. She becomes submerged in cinema — part of the audience. Gillian experiences harrowing psychic access to Robin, and through the immediacy of the filmmaking we are given that same experiential access to Gillian. This is cinema as the ultimate form of communication, information (surveillance is a recurring theme here too, another De Palma favorite), and feeling, seen as capable of transcending the confines of the screen. As part of his brainwashing, Robin is even shown the first five minutes of the film. Cinema weaponized and all that jazz.
The tricks in De Palma’s formal playbook make all this possible. The editing (at times flickering in-and-out like a flip-book) and rear-screen projection are used to emphasize and envelop. Characters are brought together by overlapping space and sound. The camera often tracks conversation by circling around characters, knowing that the more an image changes, the more we can percieve. A bravura slow-motion sequence turns the notion of the escape scene into a cathartic reverie gone wrong. It isn’t until the end that we realize the slow-motion is in fact stretching out a character’s final moments. It is the perfect encapsulation of how De Palma, at his best, uses pure stylization to not only enhance, but become emotion. Gillian’s shake-ridden fright and confusion, Hester’s (Carrie Snodgress) heartache and longing, and Peter (Douglas) facing the consequences of his quest, are all deeply palpable through this fusion of performance and form.
The Fury carries the devastating punch of his most emotional works like Carrie, Blow Out, or Carlito’s Way, but without the ever-lingering bleak aftertaste. It hijacks the senseless loss that came before with a vengeful ascendance so absolute it can only be called the money shot to end all money shots. And it wouldn’t be The Fury if it didn’t replay from every imaginable angle — wiping our memory out with pure orgasmic vindication.
I like to ask actors about the earliest projects in their careers, but with your filmography, I can’t quite tell which came first: The Fury or Who’s Watching the Kids?
The Fury?! [Explodes into laughter.] I can’t believe you pulled that out of your ass!
I do enjoy my research.
Well, The Fury… Basically, I was a pushy extra, and I got fired.
Oh, really? That I did not know.
Yeah, I was so young and naive. [Laughs.] We thought we were gonna be movie stars! The whole time we were there, we were, like, “Look, there’s a camera there!” And we’d walk in front of it. We were so bad! The assistant director told me, “I was at the dailies, and we looking at them, and there you were over and over and over again. Brian said, ‘Who’s that guy?! Get rid of him!” But ironically, he then came with Amy Irving to Second City and saw an improv show, and John Cassavetes came, too, and it was all okay…or at least it wasn’t too bad! But anyway, my first real film was Thief.
Which is not a bad way to officially start your film career.
No, Michael Mann was the coolest! By the way, as far as getting fired from The Fury, when I did the Letterman show, they got the film, and we counted how many times you could see me on camera. It was, like, four times within a minute clip! [Laughs.]
And the gag that we didn’t end up doing was that we were going to call Brian DePalma on the show, and I was going to apologize to him! Oh, boy, the pure nerve and bravado of the young actor…
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