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The Brian De Palma Interview

(The following interview is from Cinefantastique Magazine)

How did you first get involved with CARRIE?

BRIAN DE PALMA: I read the book. It was suggested to me by a writer friend of mine. A writer friend of his, Stephen King, had written it. I guess this was almost two years ago [circa 1975]. I liked it a lot and proceeded to call my agent to find out who owned it. I found out that nobody had bought it yet. A lot of studios were considering it, so I called around to some of the people I knew and said it was a terrific book and I'm very interested in doing it. Then nothing happened for, I guess, six months.

When I sold PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE to Fox I found out that they had in fact bought it for producer Paul Monash who had a multi-film deal with the studio. I met him and told him what I had in mind and that I wanted to do it. He listened to me, but nothing happened for another six months because somebody was writing a script from it -- some lady from Texas had done the first draft. Then I heard from George Litto, my producer on OBSESSION, that the producer for CARRIE had called him and asked how I was and how I'd worked with him. George and I had struck up a good relationship on OBSESSION. Now the CARRIE project was in the hands of United Artists, and the head of production, Mike Medavoy, and the president, Eric Pleskow, were emphatic that they wanted me to direct the film. They didn't think it should be made by anyone else. Paul Monash, however, was not sold on me and it was only because of pressure brought about by the studio people that he came around to thinking that maybe I was the right person for his film. So that's how I came to direct CARRIE!

Did you ever have anyone else in mind other than Sissy Spacek for the title role?

BDP: Yes. As a matter of fact, I had another lady in mind and had always felt that she would be the ideal person to play the part. Sissy read the book and liked it quite a lot and mentioned to me that she would be interested in playing the part. I knew Sissy quite well because she's Jack Fisk's wife, and Jack has designed a lot of pictures for me. Sissy came in to try it out, and of course she was quite good. She played all the parts -- she played Sue Snell, Chris Hargenson, Carrie. She played everybody -- and played them all really well -- and I was sort of keeping her in the back of my mind, but I was still very much oriented towards this other girl. Then when we finally had our screen tests Sissy tested for the part of Carrie, and made everyone else look silly.

You won't tell us who the other actress was?

BDP: It was . . . It'll come to me . . . [It doesn't.]

Why did you cast Piper Laurie, when she hadn't worked for so long?

BDP: Piper Laurie was suggested to me by an executive at United Artists who lived close to Piper in Woodstock, New York. He told me Piper was interested in acting again and this would be a very good part for her to play. I said fine, I thought she was quite good in THE HUSTLER and would like to meet her. So when I came to New York I met Piper and she came in looking like Margaret White with this red hair and black outfit and I said "My God! This is it!" I liked the idea of making Margaret White very beautiful and sexual, instead of the usual dried-up old crone at the top of the hill.

Amy Irving's real mother played Sue Snell's mother in CARRIE. Any particular reason?

BDP: I've done this before in SISTERS. Jennifer Salt's real mother, Mary Davenport, plays her mother and Amy sort of suggested this to me. I knew her mother, Priscilla Pointer, was an actress, 'cause I was familiar with the stuff she did when they were part of San Francisco Repertory, when I met Priscilla. She was ideal for the part and there's something about mothers and daughters playing scenes that takes on a reality, like a documentary reality, especially with the relationship between mother and daughter. They've had so many scenes together that suddenly the scenes they play in a movie have the authenticity of twenty years of a relationship that's hard to manufacture by anyone else.

Did you cast John Travolta because of his popularity on WELCOME BACK KOTTER?

BDP: No. I cast him before that. In fact, I never saw that series. He doesn't have a big part in CARRIE. But John was always the best for the role. He helped immensely. He was very cooperative, very helpful.

You tried to put across the timelessness of the high school prom.

BDP: Yes. I did a lot of research about proms, having remembered my own. They're very much the same as they were. They haven't changed. The Senior Prom is the Senior Prom -- it's still the big dance of the year and who's-with-who! I went to a few recently to check out to see if they had changed much -- and they hadn't at all. A prom is like your first sexual experience. It never changes. In 1980 or 2001 we'll still be having puberty, adolescence, young manhood.

It's the same with the actual prom song, by Pino Donaggio.

Pino Donaggio wrote the score for DON'T LOOK NOW. I was put on to him by a good friend of mine, the "Time" magazine film critic Jay Cocks, who had always liked his music and suggested him to me when Bernard Herrmann unfortunately passed away and I was looking for another composer. I listened to his records and talked it over with him and felt he was the right kind of combination.

Margaret White's crucifixion scene has a direct lift from PSYCHO underlying it. Is this part of a tribute to Herrmann?

BDP: When we originally put temporary music tracks on the film, we used a lot of Herrmann's music. You know, when you show a film without any music you put in what you think is appropriate for the scene. We first used some of SISTERS, then PSYCHO, and in the sinking of the house we used some of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. A whole pastiche of Herrmann.

In the end, we used a very famous Italian piece of music for the processional walk to the grave -- Albinoni I think it was -- a very beautiful piece of music. Then when the hand comes up we cut back to SISTERS. I think Pino was definitely influenced by SISTERS. The flexing sound is very PSYCHO. I put in a temporary track and for all the flexes I put in a PSYCHO violin. We couldn't find the right sound, but anyway, it worked. Bernard came up with it, and Bernard, I'm glad we used it again!

He'll probably be very unhappy -- he hated listening to his music being played against other films. When he first came to look at SISTERS I put his music in it all the way through -- you know, VERTIGO, PSYCHO, MARNIE and whatever else I had. He heard it, and went into a rage! "Turn it off, turn it off!" "But, Mr. Herrmann . . ." "Turn it off! How can you play that while I'm listening to the film. I don't want to listen to that -- oh, don't do that!" He didn't want to hear his music played with the wrong movie. When he first saw OBSESSION he said, "It's a great movie and I can hear the score." He was looking at it and he heard the music in his head.

The music is brilliant. You obviously admired him a lot.

BDP: He was a great man. I loved him. He had a terrible temper. I hope he'll forgive me for using his violins, but they're very effective.

Is Wendy Bartel, your production secretary on CARRIE, any relation to Paul, the director?

BDP: Yes. She's his sister. She's a very good production secretary. I'd seen her working with Paul at New World Pictures and I got to know her and hired her away from New World. She's very good.

Variety calls CARRIE "camp." Any comment?

BDP: God -- they're still using "camp"? The terminology of ancient persons . . . No, I don't think that it's camp at all. It keeps very serious within the realm of its own world. It has a very adolescent reality and it's very true to it.

Unlike the novel, Carrie's telekinesis was basically played down in the film. Why?

BDP: I felt the telekinesis was basically a device to trick, and I wanted to use it as an extension of her emotions -- her feelings that were completely translated into actions, that only erupted when she got terribly excited, terribly anxious and terribly sad. It was always a little out of control, almost like FORBIDDEN PLANET where the Id monster is an intellectual man murdering people because he subconsciously wants to. I never wanted to use it arbitrarily, floating stuff around. In a movie that's kind of boring. Okay, she moves objects. As soon as you've established that, I don't think you can do anymore with it. Just use it when it's needed and dramatically valid. To play with it, to me, would be very boring and ultimately it has to do with credibility. If you do it too much people will say "Come on!" In the cinema it's a trick: "Oh yeah, they put wires on the lamp and that's why it floats through the air!" You never want to get the audience to be so analytical and disassemble the trick. I only ever wanted to use it as an emotional expression of her passions.

Gregory M. Auer did the special effects for CARRIE. You used him for PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, too.

BDP: He's very good. He's a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy . . . very soft spoken. He used to work for Disney. Special effects are like blind faith -- you have to tell your man what you want to do, and hope to God when you get there he's figured out how to do it. Otherwise, you get the situation like in JAWS where the shark doesn't work -- and if you wait six years maybe it will work! I was terribly worried about the special effects as I was on a very tight schedule. How much did CARRIE cost?

BDP: $1.8 million. A fifty day shooting schedule. Everything worked -- except in the book stones hit the house. We had this conveyor-belt with rocks on it going up and pelting the house. The house that collapses was built to half scale. Jack Fisk designed it and did a very good job. It's very convincing. This was the last shot of the film and it's four o'clock in the morning. We had this conveyor-belt started and we had fires planted and the house ready to collapse, and the conveyor-belt started and rocks got jammed in it. The rocks were too heavy. Well, it's late already, and the sun's coming up. Everybody's been up all night and the police are arriving due to the noise -- they nearly arrested us! So we just went ahead and burned the house up and let it fly apart and sink into the earth. We thought, "Oh well . . ." and went home really depressed. But when we looked at it, it looked great -- terrific! "Forget about the rocks!"

Did the extended slow-motion Prom scene present any problems?

BDP: I felt it was a very audacious step to try and shoot that kind of suspense in slow-motion. I had to make a choice to do it or not to do it. So I chose to do it, and hoped to God it would work out! I really wanted to stretch the suspense scene out for as long I could.

Cutting slow-motion is very tricky -- there is a whole different pace to it. It took us weeks and weeks to figure it out, to get the right cutting rhythm. Your editor has to get into the whole slow-motion form. It's really interesting.

The shower scene I always wanted to shoot in slow-motion. I wanted to get involved in this lyrical eroticism before the blood comes, and it's all wonderful, beautiful . . . the steam, Carrie's touching herself . . . and then WHAM! As soon as you cut from slow-motion to regular motion you're already in a jolt, because you're so used to the time sense. But I'd say the trickiest section was the Prom.

The other tricky one was the split-screen sequence. I felt the destruction had to be shown in split-screen, because how many times could you cut from Carrie to things moving around? You can overdo that. It's a dead cinematic device. So I thought I'd do it in split-screen. I spent six weeks myself cutting it together. I had one hundred and fifty set-ups, trying to get this thing together. I put it all together and it lasted five minutes and it was just too complicated. Also, you lost a lot of visceral punch from full-screen action. Then my editor and I proceeded to pull out of the split-screen and use it just when we precisely needed it. Each time I use split-screen I continue to learn more and more about it. This worked some ways, but didn't work others. It's the one thing that makes me think every time I look at the movie and say, "Well, maybe I didn't make the right choice there . . ."

Sex is kept very low-key in your movies.

BDP: I used it well in CARRIE without going over the top. Straight sex scenes are very hard to shoot because it's been so exploited and shot from fifty different ways. I mean, how many times can you show people getting into bed with each other -- what is there to shoot?

Give us your views on explicit horror, in the vein of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

BDP: I haven't seen that. I must see it. I've heard so much about it. I guess I'm getting really disturbed by the fact that movies are getting so cruel and crude -- stabbings and choppings -- but it's all terrain that's been explored before, and unless you invoke it in a different way a good idea is going to look like all the other stuff that's around.

Do you want to remain in the horror genre or not?

BDP: I've made so many films and people still keep saying "The Horror Genre." They never seem like horror films to me! Horror films are "Hammer Films" -- vampires and Frankenstein. I love those pictures, but I don't feel it's exactly what I'm doing. Maybe I'm trying to hammer out a new genre, somehow . . .

We'll give it a name and people will use it!

BDP: Yes . . . Hitchcock did it. I don't know what people called it before they coined "Hitchcockian"? They must have had some dimestore novel name for it. You never know . . . De Palmian?!?