PASSION is back-to-basics Brian De Palma: a sexy, slippery corporate thriller infused with just enough kink to call to mind the full-blown eroticism of classics like DRESSED TO KILL, BODY DOUBLE and FEMME FATALE. Based on the 2010 film by Alain Corneau, it's an unusually contained movie for the director; this is close-quarters combat between two ambitious women (Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace) desperate to maintain and/or acquire power within a major advertising agency. Their battlefield is the company's Berlin office and the bedroom, and, this being a Brian De Palma film, there are cameras observing every last inch. Surveillance is a given. They're watching. We're watching. It's a twisted little game of shifting and constantly unreliable perspective.
PASSION also finds De Palma picking up where he left off eleven years ago with FEMME FATALE. While that film was a genre study of a female archetype resisting her predetermined-by-gender doom, this latest work unfolds in a workplace seemingly controlled by women. There are men knocking about, but they're pawns relegated to the periphery of De Palma's narrative (this is his first movie without a major male character); there's nothing to overcome here but another woman. Though two films aren't enough to categorize this as a phase (especially when they're broken up by two testosterone-heavy movies), it appears pretty obvious that De Palma, after decades of pondering male inadequacy, would prefer to keep cinematic company with women exclusively.
But by his own admission, De Palma isn't currently in a position to dictate the direction of his career; the next film is basically the one that finds financing first. In fact, had he managed to get THE BOSTON STRANGLERS or THE UNTOUCHABLES: CAPONE RISING off the ground at Paramount, it's likely PASSION would've never been made. So the extent to which there is a phase nowadays, even for one of our greatest living filmmakers, is accidental. You make what's greenlit.
Fortunately, De Palma is not one to remain idle. While he's out promoting the joint theatrical/VOD release of PASSION, he's moving forward with HAPPY VALLEY, his Joe Paterno biopic starring Al Pacino. There's also the possibility of a Daft Punk musical based on the director's 1974 cult hit PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. De Palma's still raring to go, and the dextrous staging of PASSION - in particular the split-screen set piece juxtaposing a murder with a performance of Debussy's AFTERNOON OF A FAUN - proves there's plenty of zip left on his fastball. It's just a question of whether studios or financiers understand that there's a hunger for what it is he does as well as anyone out there: pure cinema.
Mr. Beaks: This is a genre you know well. Having made so many thrillers, how do you apply your style without repeating yourself?
Brian De Palma: It's great to start with something that's pretty good to begin with. The Alain Corneau movie has a very good character relationship: these two women who are basically destroying each other. I use a lot of that dialogue in the beginning. But in his original movie, it's revealed right at the beginning that Isabelle kills Christine. I wanted to keep the audience guessing right until the end. I thought that that would make it a very good mystery. Christine... she's got enough enemies around the office, and to put Isabelle into this place of "Did she do it? Did she dream it? What the hell happened?" Just keep the audience guessing right until the reveal at the end. I had a chance to do all of these surrealistic sequences where you're not quite sure whether it's happening or not.
Beaks: Which is a hallmark of yours. It's also something I think movies are afraid to do nowadays, which is to completely befuddle the audience.
De Palma: It's that kind of mystery procedural drama that's done all the time on television, so you've got to come up with something a little different.
Beaks: This is a film that's very contained in terms of locations, which forces you to place a very high premium on locations. You've chosen some visually striking interiors that also seem to comment on or reflect the twisted nature of the power struggle between these two women. How did you go about finding these locations?
De Palma: Good art director and a lot of good luck. A lot of it takes place in offices. We were first going to set it in London, and we were going to shoot the interiors in Berlin. But when I went to the London location, I said, "Why don't we shoot the whole thing in Berlin? It's an international corporation." There are a lot of really great exteriors in Berlin that no one had seen before, so we moved the whole production to Berlin. And we were very fortunate to get this great office building that was vacant because of the recession, so we could sort of take it over. That's always the problem with office buildings: you've got to work around the office. But this was not the case here. It was a great looking building that gave us interesting office locations, which, of course, can be extremely boring.
Beaks: Did you design all of your shots ahead of time, or did you allow yourself leeway to invent stuff on the day?
De Palma: What's interesting about this one is that we had a long time to work on the script as we were preparing production and casting it, and I also had the advantage of the other movie. So I literally laid the whole movie out, every setup and every shot. I had these architectural programs where you could put people in them and move them around. And I could reference the other movie: two women talking to each other from across a desk. I could take a shot from the other movie and put it into my storyboards. "Oh, that's the scene where Isabelle comes into Christine's office and they talk about A, B and C." I printed them all out, so I could stack 8x11 printouts on my desk and walk anyone through the whole movie.
Beaks: How familiar were Noomi and Rachel with the movie?
De Palma: I'm not sure how familiar they were with the other movie, but they'd worked together on SHERLOCK HOLMES 2 and were familiar with each other. We cast Noomi, and then she brought Rachel in because they like acting together. They had a whole interaction worked out between them: very flirtatious and twisty and serpentine. We basically adjusted the material to what they were doing.
Beaks: I think this is really your first remake. Obviously, SCARFACE was inspired by Hawks's film, but it's very different. This is explicitly a remake of Corneau's film. I know you wrote a remake of TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE long ago that put an interesting spin on Huston's film. What's your feeling about remakes in general?
De Palma: Well, if you have a very good idea… obviously, TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE is a fantastic movie. To remake that is a little madness. But I had a very good idea: instead of gold, I was going to make it about cocaine. You get it up there in the mountain it's kind of dealing with dust, but when you get it on the streets of New York it's like solid gold. And not only do you get corrupted because of the money, you get corrupted because of the drug. That gave me a really good idea. I came up with that idea so many years ago it's hard to remember. But it's very difficult to remake a classic movie. We were very fortunate with SCARFACE. Howard Hawks's SCARFACE is really good.
Beaks: Whatever happened to your TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE?
De Palma: I have no idea. I wrote it so long ago, I don't even remember what I even did with it.
Beaks: I found a copy of the screenplay.
De Palma: You're kidding! I didn't even know there was a copy of the screenplay.
Beaks: I'm always hunting for those scripts of yours that never got made, and a friend of mine tracked this one down.
De Palma: How is it?
Beaks: It's great! I love the twist you put on it. It starts out so much like the original film that I wasn't sure what you were up to, but then it begins to go its own way, and it's really terrific. If you could ever get that together, I'd love to see that movie.
De Palma: Man. I haven't thought that about that in thirty or so years. (Laughs)
Beaks: Getting back to PASSION, and the power struggle dynamic between Noomi and Rachel, there's that great kissing scene that Rachel turns back on Noomi. Was that scripted?
De Palma: Absolutely not. The girls did it on the day. When Noomi grabs her and gives her the kiss of death, and Rachel kisses her back leering at Noomi's assistant in the doorway... (Laughs) I would just sit behind the camera and smile. "My god, these girls are really doing it!" They did a lot of stuff like that. The way she's playing with her in the car. "I want to be admired! I want to be loved!" She kisses her, and Noomi's like, "What the hell is going on here?" And Rachel picks up the lipstick and says, "You need a little color." (Laughs) It's hilarious!
Beaks: It's very kinky, and it's very much of a piece with your other erotic thrillers. By the way, how do you feel about being the "master of the erotic thriller"?
De Palma: Well, I don't think we can be that erotic anymore on the screen. We can't compete with cable. It's kind of amazing. We can't do the kind of nudity they do on cable. I don't know what's comparable to an X these days, but you'd get in a lot of trouble doing that stuff they do on cable on the big screen. Eroticism and pornography have sort of gone to cable television and the web, and I don't know if you can do much of it in movies anymore. You can only be very suggestive. But this is a movie about women for women basically, and you don't have to get too explicit. That scene where the guy uses the camera to videotape their making out in the hotel room, I basically just gave them a camera and said, "Just do whatever you would do." (Laughs) Believe me, they did some incredible things.
Beaks: When we spoke before, you mentioned how Hitchcock would take a break from his major works to just make a well-made play like DIAL M FOR MURDER. Where does PASSION land for you in terms of the personal and simply telling a story?
De Palma: In your career, you really don't predict how these things happen. I was working on a lot of projects, and they were all tied up, and I couldn't get them launched in that five-year period. THE BOSTON STRANGLERS was all tied up at Paramount, as was the prequel to THE UNTOUCHABLES. The problem with these movies is that these scripts get a lot of money against them. A guy wrote a script based on an old RKO movie that Mitchum did called SOME KIND OF WOMEN, and I couldn't talk the RKO people into giving me the rights. So there's a lot of frustration with respect to development. So this movie sort of came to me because they wanted to make an American version, and I said, "Great! I can go to Paris and work on this!" That's how it happened.
Beaks: You mentioned TV, and it seems that many of the great writers are flocking to that format. It allows them to write longform. Has that been a temptation for you?
De Palma: I'm essentially a visual stylist. I could make silent movies. I greatly admire these longforms that are developed on cable. The writer and producer are kings; you don't even know who the directors are. You look at something like DEXTER. I know a lot of the directors who direct each segment. It's kind of hard to tell one from another, but DEXTER goes on. It's basically a producer-writer genre, and they get a chance to develop these characters like WAR & PEACE. Ten hours, twenty hours, thirty hours... it's a saga! You can't do that in a feature film. I think it's great. It's a fascinating new form, but it's essentially a dramatic character form. It's not a place for a visual stylist. I need the big screen in order to do what I have to do. I admire it, but I really have no interest in trying it.
Beaks: I was fortunate enough to do a screening of BLOW OUT a few years ago, and Paul Hirsch came to do a Q&A. I remember we were standing in the back of the theater watching the train station sequence, and he said, "There's no coverage." For most filmmakers nowadays, coverage is a necessity. Can you still get away with doing zero coverage?
De Palma: Coverage? That's like a bad word to me. I have a very specific idea of where the camera should be, and that's the shot I shoot, and I don't shoot anything else. I truly believe it's what's going on in front of the camera, and the position of the camera in relationship to the action before it. It's critical. The idea of setting up a bunch of cameras and shooting close-ups, over-the-shoulders, master shots, straight down, straight up, and figuring it out in the editing room… that doesn't ever occur to me.
Beaks: What's the status on HAPPY VALLEY?
De Palma: We're working on it. We've finally got a script, and now we're working on a production plan.
Beaks: Lately, there's been a resurgence of interest in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. Daft Punk just did that song "Touch" with Paul Williams for RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES. How do you feel about that?
De Palma: It's great to be remembered! I met with Daft Punk in Paris. We talked about PHANTOM, but it was just a preliminary discussion. I don't know what will come of it. We've always had a stage version we wanted to do, but it's never really come together. I saw the Paul Williams documentary, and thought it was charming.
Beaks: Why do you think that film has made such a big comeback?
De Palma: Who can explain it? Who can tell you why? Some films just catch on, and decades later people are still interested. Other ones you never hear about.
PASSION is currently available via VOD, and will hit theaters on August 30th. Please see it theatrically if that option is available to you.