Over the course of a fabled 50-year career spanning every genre under the sun, Brian De Palma’s most steadfast muse has remained the American fever dream, in all its wild permutations. Here, the veteran director revisits five unforgettable films from his personal archive.
Based on Stephen King’s debut novel, and adapted when the writer was still unknown, Carrie (1976) follows a shy, bullied teenager (Sissy Spacek) gifted with telekinetic powers. Tying supernatural fright to the universal traumas of adolescence, De Palma’s coming-of-age screamer became an instant classic and earned Spacek a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
“At first I wasn’t going to cast Sissy. I had my mind set on another actor, someone I had been grooming for the part. But because Sissy’s husband Jack [Fisk] was the art director on the film, I decided to give her a shot. Sissy was such an extraordinarily unusual actor at the time that the studio was even reluctant to test her. Eventually Sissy did audition and her screen test blew everyone away. As for the famous climax—the dumping of the blood at prom—that was, of course, in the book. But the studio wasn’t very happy about it. They thought it was too graphic. They said, ‘Maybe you can do something else?’ Like what? Confetti? No, it had to be pig’s blood. It had to be shocking.”
With a raging screenplay by Oliver Stone, who called the film his swan song to cocaine, and a mesmerizing performance by Al Pacino as the refugee-turned–drug kingpin Tony Montana, Scarface (1983) redefined the immigrant fairytale, and remains De Palma’s most controversially brutal—and eminently quotable—spectacle of corruption.
“Some people say this film is excessive—I disagree. The script was a direct report by Oliver on the places he visited in Miami. He saw all the clubs, the coke on the tables. People were cutting each other up with chainsaws! We had a battle with the MPAA because they wanted to give it an X rating. We even had narcotics cops from Florida come to testify that people should see this film because it showed what was actually happening. On a deeper, thematic level, Scarface is about something that recurs in a lot of my films: the megalomania of American society that can lead to excessiveness, greed, and very cruel interplays between people who are desperate to stay on top. Wealth and power isolates you. Whether you’re Walt Disney or Hugh Hefner, you create a bubble around yourself. It’s that old cliché: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Pacino conveyed that perfectly. He kept his Cuban accent, on- and off-set. His sidekick in the film, Steven Bauer, was Cuban, so they were constantly speaking in that accent during the shoot. There are a lot of quotable moments in the film but my favorite is, ‘Every day above ground is a good day.’”
De Palma’s playful adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s best-selling satire cast Tom Hanks as a hapless Wall Street banker scapegoated by a scandal-obsessed New York, and Bruce Willis as the drunk reporter bearing witness to the follies and hypocrisies of a media circus. Famously scorned at the time for its departure from Wolfe’s novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) now ranks as one of De Palma’s most underrated and exuberant studies of the absurd theater of American politics.
“The opening tracking shot was a very important way into the film. It took about 27 or 28 takes to get it right. The idea for the shot actually came from observing Truman Capote stumbling into parties completely drunk or drugged-up. I had been to a lot of those parties and I thought that’s how it should be for Bruce’s character: the voyage from the parking garage up through all the different strata of New York high society until his arrival at the huge palm garden of the World Trade Center. I started out making political comedies, caustic commentaries about the state of our society. The Bonfire of the Vanities felt like an extension of that. When I read the book I quite liked it. I thought it was an acerbic rendering of a particular madness going on in the ’80s. When I was adapting it I thought I should make the central banker character a little more sympathetic than he was in the book, and Tom [Hanks] was a good choice for that. But, of course, the film unnerved everybody because it wasn’t like the novel, which was, by then, a treasured icon of the New York literary scene. I changed things to make the film more palatable but they ended up upsetting a lot of people and it got very bad reviews. Looking back, I find it a very successful picture. It just isn’t the book.”
A reimagining of the 1960s television series of the same name, De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (1996) featured a hit theme song, Tom Cruise at the helm of a sleek crew of covert CIA operatives, and a chain of set pieces including the now-famous vault sequence and the final high-speed chase atop a TGV train. The combination proved irresistible, launching a franchise and making the film one of the biggest blockbuster treats of the decade and De Palma’s greatest box-office success.
“This was the first film Tom ever produced. Because I’d produced a couple of pictures at that point, he and his partner Paula [Wagner] at times relied on my judgment. I remember that Tom was very responsive and straightforward. There were two very difficult scenes in the film: the CIA vault scene and the one atop the train. We had a jet engine creating the wind for the train sequence. You couldn’t stand up without being blown off. The shot where Tom does the flip, that’s really dangerous stuff for anyone to do. He did it twice for us, which was very brave. We were on top of that train for weeks and weeks. As for the CIA vault, that was my idea. I’d wanted to do an incredible action sequence that was completely silent. And then I had to think of all the things that could go wrong as the character tried to lower himself upside-down into this mythic vault. It was a sequence I thought about for months and months before I actually filmed it. Whatever people say, it’s always exciting to have a blockbuster. Everybody thinks you’re a genius for 30 seconds.”
De Palma’s latest film, his first in five years, orbits around the vaguely sapphic and very manipulative relationship between an ad agency assistant (Noomi Rapace) and her conniving boss (Rachel McAdams). De Palma adapted Passion (2013) from the recent French thriller Love Crime, but with its labyrinthine murder mystery centered on corruption and greed, it’s clear we’re back in vintage De Palma territory.
“I liked the relationship between the two women in Love Crime, but I didn’t like the way the flashbacks were used to explain everything. And I didn’t like that it revealed who the murderer was while the murder was being committed. Thrillers are supposed to keep the audience guessing, so in my version I kept it a mystery until late in the movie. We were very fortunate that Noomi and Rachel had worked together on Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, so that when Noomi got interested in the part, she brought Rachel along. They were game to do anything together. They weren’t reluctant to try things—they can go from kissing to crying to backstabbing so fast you get dizzy.”