In the 1970s, movies were ruled by “New Hollywood.” Made up of the likes of Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Michael Cimino, and William Friedkin (to just name a few), these filmmakers had differing levels of success, but they attained legendary status by bringing a more adult, sobering storytelling to movie theaters in an era absorbed by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.
A few known as the “Movie Brats” managed to create works that would redefine how generations of filmmakers work, and how we see movies now. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma were the five core members. They quickly formed a close bond and pushed each other to make movies that audiences had never seen before. And they did, with “Jaws” (Spielberg), “Star Wars” (Lucas), “The Godfather” (“Coppola), “Taxi Driver” (Scorsese), and “Carrie” (De Palma).
De Palma was the glue of the group.
Looked up to thanks to his film-school success (often casting a young Robert De Niro), De Palma was never too shy to give his opinion. And he was known for fighting hard to get his vision, influenced greatly by Hitchcock, in works like “Sisters,” “Carrie,” “Blow Out,” “Scarface,” “Body Double,” “The Untouchables,” and “Mission: Impossible.”
In the new documentary “De Palma” (in theaters June 10), directed by Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Frances Ha”) and Jake Paltrow (“The Good Night”), the legend gives his usual unfiltered thoughts while looking back on his incredible career and explaining the struggles that went on behind the scenes.
Business Insider sat down with De Palma, 75, at the Metrograph in New York City (which is running a retrospective of his work in June) to talk about being brutally honest, ditching the Hollywood system, the movie he regrets making, and why he gave George Lucas a hard time about “Star Wars.”
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Business Insider: Did it take a lot of convincing by Noah and Jake to get you to agree to this?
Brian De Palma: No. No. No. No. It was very informal. I’ve known Noah for 20 years. Jake I met 10 years ago and we used to get together – because we all live in the same neighborhood – for dinner once a week.
BI: Do you guys still do that?
De Palma: Oh, yeah. It’s like a directors’ group at dinner and we would tell our various war stories and what we’re working on. Then Noah and Jake were interested in this new digital camera and they wanted to do some tests for it. And having talked about various experiences over many years we decided that I would sit down in Jake’s living room and Jake operated the camera and Noah monitored the sound and they would just ask me questions, basically saying what we had talked about over dinner. It was very informal. They had no idea what they were going to do with it. We shot it for a whole week.
BI: And were you thinking, “These are just shooting tests. I can say anything.”
De Palma: Yeah, absolutely.
BI: But suddenly they came to you and said, “We want to make this into a movie”?
De Palma: No. The interviews were taken five years ago and in their moviemaking schedules they had time and decided they wanted to do something with it. And that’s what they did.
BI: This sounds very similar to what you were involved with in the 1970s, building a community of directors – Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg.
De Palma: That’s very true.
BI: There’s never been a competitiveness with other directors?
De Palma: People have always asked that, but even with our group in the ’70s, as successful as those directors were, there was never a competitiveness. It’s kind of odd. We were young directors trying to get into the Hollywood system on some level and we all basically met at Warner Bros., and all had disastrous experiences, which I guess bound us together for life. We used to hang out together in Hollywood. We were young men. Going out to dinner together. I miss that. I remember going to the premiere of “Goodfellas,” so that was the ’90s, and by then we were beginning to disperse. We were going into different areas and weren’t that close anymore, in the sense of calling each other up and saying, “Let’s go have dinner.” I missed that and that’s when I went and assembled this next group.
BI: Did you ever find yourself competing for projects with them?
De Palma: Not really. I don’t think we ever competed for projects because Steven was off in his own world and George was making “Star Wars” movies. It’s interesting, some of them, like Francis, were very interested in making studios.
BI: Did Francis want you involved with American Zoetrope [the studio Coppola attempted to make]?
De Palma: Marty [Scorsese] and I went and saw Zoetrope. I remember seeing the flatbed editing machines. Marty and I went because Marcia Lucas [George Lucas’ wife at the time] was editing Marty’s movie. She edited “Taxi Driver.” [She was a supervising film editor.] So we went up and stayed with George. But what Francis was doing wasn’t for me.
- Mark J. Terrill/AP
BI: In 2007, Lucas, Coppola, and Spielberg introduced the best director Oscar, which went to Scorsese. Why weren’t you also onstage with them?
De Palma: Yeah, that’s interesting. You know, Vanity Fair wanted to do a picture of the five of us at one point in one of their Hollywood issues, and I was shooting a movie in Europe so I wasn’t going to fly back to take this picture. I said, “No, thank you.”
BI: But seeing Scrosese’s friends handing him his first Oscar, it was puzzling to me that you weren’t there.
De Palma: I was always the anti-establishment member of the group. I’ve never been nominated for an Oscar. I’ve never worked within the Hollywood establishment on any level. I made a lot of people very mad.
BI: But at the same time wealthy.
De Palma: Absolutely. We all made a lot of money. But I left the whole system and went to Europe after “Mission to Mars.” I started making movies that were internationally financed. So I really left the Hollywood system completely. Steven is obviously in it, Francis is financing his own films, and George left completely.
BI: Have you talked to George since he sold Lucasfilm? Is he content with stepping away?
De Palma: I only know what Steven says. I think he misses it to some extent. Steven sees a lot more of George than I do. He went and sold his franchise to Disney and it’s something he so carefully cultivated for so many decades so I don’t know. I think he does miss it.
BI: One thing that grabbed me in the documentary was your openness about your relationship with your father. [Who was never around during De Palma’s youth and, the director says, cheated on his mother with other women.] Do you think the stories you tell are based on your feelings toward him?
De Palma: Well, we’re all a product of our upbringing to some extent. But my older brother was very influential too because he sort of represents that egomaniac that appears in many of my movies. My father was basically a very hardworking orthopedic surgeon, very much involved in his work. Whatever happened between he and my mother by the time I was born, they were at odds with each other and just hung in there until I went to college, basically. So it’s interesting, the times I spent with my father I can count on one hand. I remember going to see a John Wayne Western with him.
BI: Which one?
De Palma: “The Horse Soldiers.” That’s about it.
BI: But in “Home Movies,” the character Denis peeps on his father, which you say is based on you confronting your father with a knife and accusing him of adultery. Did doing that scene close a chapter in your relationship with him?
De Palma: I actually approached it as a comedy. A bizarre comedy. It all happened, but by the time I made the movie I saw the absurd aspects to it. BI: Anything you regret saying in “De Palma”?
De Palma: No, because when you’re talking with people about experiences in show business – whether they are actors, directors, cinematographers – they are usually extremely careful because they want to work again.
BI: I experience that on a daily basis.
De Palma: Right, as you know trying to get an interview where someone says something negative about anybody is very difficult. I’ll never forget an actor talking about working with another actor, and they did the interview at an old-age home. They were like, “How did you like working with so-and-so?” And he said, “He was awful. He was just impossible.” So that’s how I went about this, a candid look at what it’s really like.
BI: The projects you turned down – “Fatal Attraction,” “Flashdance,” “Taxi Driver” – do you regret not taking any of those?
De Palma: Boy, that’s a hard question to answer. I think Adrian [Lyne] did a very good job with “Fatal Attraction.” Now a movie I wish I hadn’t done was “Wise Guys.” The studio changed their minds and didn’t want to make it. They just wanted us to go away. I should have just taken my money and walked instead of dealing with a studio that didn’t want to make the movie.
BI: Legend has it you were very hard on George the first time he showed you guys “Star Wars.”
De Palma: That is not correct. [Laughs] I am sarcastic. I am considered the class clown, but a sarcastic clown. So I would make fun of certain things. Because everyone would take this stuff too seriously.
BI: So you were just messing with him about not liking the opening crawl?
De Palma: No, the crawl didn’t make any sense at all. And I kept kidding him about the Force. I was like, “What is the Force?” [Laughs] But you have to understand, we used to look at each other’s movies in order to be helpful. We might say some things that weren’t nice. You know, I remember reading an account where Marcia [Lucas] was very upset with me. And I don’t remember this, but there was an account where Marcia told me, “You’ve hurt George’s feelings and you should be gentle with him.” I don’t remember that. I really don’t know what they’re talking about. I was basically myself. The thing the guys could always count on with me is I would say what I thought. I wasn’t holding back. I remember having a big discussion with Steven about “Close Encounters.” There were some sections I thought didn’t work. And this was considered a crowning success of his career. And I was like, “I don’t know, this doesn’t really work for me.” [Laughs]
BI: Do you remember a part that didn’t work for you?
De Palma: I don’t remember. But I remember going to a screening up on 55th street and afterward going to him and saying, “I don’t know, Steven.” But I think we have to do that, and I do it with Noah and Jake and these directors. If they are going to show me something or I’m going to show something to them, I want them to say what they think and not what will make me feel better.