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Brian De Palma Q&A
The legendary director on everything from Daft Punk to Dexter

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Though he's been making movies now for 45 years, Brian De Palma still keeps up to date with pop-culture and the latest tech. When he agrees to talk to Empire about new thriller Passion from his home in New York, he suggests doing it over Skype (sadly, at no point does the window go split-screen to reveal a knife-wielding John Lithgow), and the freewheeling chat that ensues touches on subjects as diverse as Inception, viral videos and Mad Men, a show he thinks is "getting a little tired". For all that and a lot more, read on...

Brian De Palma Q&A
De Palma on the set of Passion

Do you use Skype a lot?
Yes, I do. Mostly for talking to my kids. When I was in France I used it to talk to them. And I've just recently been working with a screenwriter - he's in California and I'm in New York, so we've done most of our conferring over Skype.

I'm guessing that you keep up with technology...
I do. I've got it all. When I was in high school I used to build computers, so consequently I've been very interested in technology. I've had every computer that came out, starting probably in the early '80s.

Do you also still see a lot of films? Is it true that Inception was an inspiration for Passion?
Well, at one point I was going to have the commercial [in the film] be based on Inception. The whole secret that's hidden in the safe somewhere, the three levels of dreams. I thought it was rather clever and liked it. But I showed the script to some of my director friends and they said they liked everything except the Inception commercial. I said, "But I love Inception." They said, "We don't care. It doesn't work." So I went back to the drawing board and tried to figure out another commercial they could do. And then I discovered on the internet the commercial you see in the film, in which a couple of girls go out, stick an iPhone in one of their jeans and have people watching her ass as she walks around Los Angeles. It was uploaded and went viral. Later it was revealed that they were two advertising executives. It's real - you can go online and look at it. I think it's called "Ass Cam Girls" or something.

You might find some other things if you type that into Google. What kind of sites do you check out when web-surfing?
Mostly news. You know, business stuff - my business. That's about it. They're doing live trials online now, so I've been watching the Zimmerman trial. I'm not really a YouTube guy. I basically use the internet for information. When there's something you want to find out about, you Google it. It's very useful, of course.

A lot of bits from your movies have been put on YouTube.
Somebody re-edited Raising Cain and put it back in the original order in which I cut it. I said, 'I should have left it that way'.
It's all part of the zeitgeist, I guess. You can watch any little bit or section of a movie. Sometimes they're rescored. In one case somebody re-edited Raising Cain and put it back in the original order in which I cut it. I looked at it and said, "I should have left it that way."

A scene from Passion that is bound to end up on YouTube is the fantastic split-screen sequence at the ballet. Are those sequences laborious to put together or a pleasure?
Afternoon Of The Faun was always a ballet I really enjoyed. I discovered the Jerome Robbins choreography of Afternoon Of The Faun, which of course was originally done by Nijinsky. I saw the original and it was like a single shot, black and white. I think it was shot in the late '50s. And I said, "This is fantastic." I've always wanted to use this in a movie. I think it's absolutely beautiful - the idea of the two dancers, the way they look... straight at the mirror in the original piece, but in my piece I had them look right into camera. Because they're dancing and they're watching themselves all the time. Which ends with him actually kissing her, which kind of crosses the boundaries that they set up between the two dancers. I've always wanted to use the sequence and when I was writing this piece I had this great way to do it. Because I could establish that Noomi [Rapace] was at the ballet - I could keep cutting to this really tight close-up and the audience would assume that she was at the ballet. It had never been done before. And I thought, "Jeez, is this going to work?" I kinda liked the way it turned out and I think the dancer, Polina Semionova, is just absolutely beautiful to watch dancing.

There's so much energy driving the film. You still seem as passionate about moviemaking as you were in the '80s...
Well, I like working in Europe. I like living in Paris. I like living in Berlin. Whenever I get a chance to get out of the United States, I take it. I've shot all over the world and I've shot practically every city in America. I just enjoy being in Europe, so when this opportunity came I thought, "Great, I can go live in Paris for a couple of years."

A lot of big directors have got involved with TV shows, like Scorsese and Boardwalk Empire. Have you been offered anything?
I have had offers, but I just think it's a tremendous amount of work. And I'm basically a visual stylist - these are long narrative forms with great developing characters. Television is really a writer's medium.

Dexter often seems inspired by your work, especially the John Lithgow season...
I watched Dexter in the beginning, but I find when they try to extend these shows for six or seven years they sort of run out of ideas. I watched the first couple of years and was fascinated by it, and then I thought it got forced and tired. I didn't watch the whole John Lithgow arc, so I'm kind of unfamiliar with it. But needless to say he's a fantastic actor and I'm sure he was good.

Do you watch any other TV shows?
Well, of course Mad Men. But even that I'd say is getting a little tired now it's in its sixth year. I just think they run them into the ground. They just keep going because the longer they run, the bigger the syndication is. These things are ten times longer than War And Peace. How are you supposed to sustain the idea? The first couple of years are usually really good. And it is a unique form. Writers can develop characters at a length that's never been done dramatically before.

Brian De Palma Q&A
Directing Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible (1996)

You're a huge fan of Hitchcock, the man. Did you see Hitchcock, the movie?
Yes. I bought the book to see if it was actually real, what happened. I don't remember Hitchcock having problems with his marriage during the making of Psycho. So I thought it was an interesting idea, but is it true?

Is that a project that would have appealed to you, had you been offered it?
No.

Is there anything you've seen recently that's really impressed you?
I thought Dexter got forced. Even Mad Men is getting a little tired. They run these shows into the ground.
Well, I was in Cannes and I saw an Iranian picture called The Past. That's the best thing I saw there. It's really good.

Did you see Prometheus?
Yes. I didn't think it was good as the original. It had a lot more technical expertise and stuff going on, but it's again revisiting something he did so well many years ago. I don't think it's building upon it. It's not like Godfather I and Godfather II.

You were talking about revisiting something yourself, with another Untouchables film. Isn't that risky?
The second Untouchables was going to be a prequel, set before. They were a lot younger, before what happened in The Untouchables. But no, it's a very dodgy thing to do. I've been offered sequels to my movies before and I didn't want to do them. They wanted me to do another Mission: Impossible.

Were you ever tempted to make a sci-fi film yourself?
There's a great Alfred Bester book called The Demolished Man, which I always felt would make a terrific movie. But the rights are all tied up at Paramount and I think it has a lot of development money against it. It would be an extremely expensive movie to make. And Spielberg kind of did it with the movie he did with Tom Cruise. The story is about a society of Espers - they can read people's minds. So you have a society in which it's impossible to commit a crime because your mind can be read by the police. In this movie, a great economic titan figures out how to kill his wife and not get caught.

What are you actually working on at the moment?
I'm working basically on the Paterno movie, Happy Valley. Which is about Joe Paterno, Sandusky, the whole Penn State scandal. We've got a script. Al Pacino is going to play Paterno, and we're trying to cast some of the other people now.

Brian De Palma Q&A
With Al Pacino on the set of Scarface

Pacino did a talk in London recently and talked enthusiastically about Scarface. Do you have similarly fond memories?
Well, it was a very difficult movie to make. And we got chased out of Florida by the Cuban community. We wanted to shoot it all in Florida and they chased us out. We had to move. When we went back for a couple of weeks to shoot some of the exteriors, we had bodyguards. Our lives were threatened. So it was kind of a tense thing. And Al worked extremely hard. He was practically in every scene. It was a fantastic experience, but it was a lot of hard work.

Paul Williams is having a bit of a revival at the moment. He did a song with Daft Punk that's very much a riff on Phantom Of The Paradise. Have you heard it?
I've seen both Cranks and I love them. I don't think there's a Jason Statham film I haven't seen.
They were interested in doing something with Phantom Of The Paradise and I met with them in Paris. We discussed Phantom Of The Paradise and their interest in it. There was talk of doing something together, but I haven't heard anything since then.

Finally, you were talking not long ago about working with Jason Statham. Is that still on the cards?
I worked on the script of Heat, with another writer. Heat is set Vegas in the '70s and '80s. It's a very good William Goldman script. But we were thinking about moving it to the south of France. And we introduced a whole bunch of different ideas and different character motivations. We did quite a good script, I felt, but they were not happy with it. They wanted to go back to the original script. And I said, "No, this is really good." So that's where we parted ways. It's already been shot by a different director.

Have you seen a lot of his stuff? Have you watched Crank, for instance?
Oh yes, I really like Jason Statham. I've always wanted to make a film with him. And I was excited about this, but they did not respond to the way we adapted it. They wanted to go back to Vegas in the '70s, which doesn't exist any more. I've seen both Cranks and I love them. I don't think there's a Jason Statham film I haven't seen. I know Jason and I think he's a terrific actor. I was really hoping we could take him in a new direction. I think he's doing too much of this action stuff, driving cars and beating up people. He needs more of a Steve McQueen type part. But it didn't work out.


Passion is out now on DVD

Interview by Nick de Semlyen

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