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Brian De Palma on "Passion," passion and film

May contain spoilers
Brian De Palma on the set of "Passion"

With "Passion," his first film in nearly six years, controversial filmmaker Brian De Palma makes a triumphant return to the suspense thriller genre of which he has long been a reigning master through such cult classics as "Dressed to Kill," "Blow Out" and "Femme Fatale." In this remake of Alain Corneau's 2010 French thriller "Love Crime," two employees in the German office of a multinational conglomerate—rising executive Rachel McAdams and equally ambitious assistant Noomi Rapace—become involved in a rivalry that ranges from the boardroom to the bedroom and which involves professional backstabbing, personal (and public) humiliation and a very sharp knife. The film is a brilliant return to form for De Palma—sleek, stylish, sexy, darkly funny and containing a centerpiece sequence juxtaposing a ballet performance with another highly choreographed act that is the most breathtaking piece of pure cinema that you are likely to see in a theater this year.

Recently, De Palma, whose next project is reported to be a film about the Jerry Sandusky scandal featuring Al Pacino as Joe Paterno, sat down to talk about subjects ranging from the making of "Passion" and its unusual distribution (while it opens in theaters on August 30, it is currently available as a video-on-demand title) to his thoughts on the upcoming remake of his 1976 horror favorite "Carrie" to revealing just how close (or not) he came to making "Paranormal Activity 2." (Warning: There are spoilers about "Passion" ahead.)

Although you have done remakes in the past—"Scarface," obviously, and the big-screen versions of "The Untouchables" and "Mission: Impossible"—"Passion" is the first that has you working with a property in the suspense-thriller genre for which you are best known. What was it about the original French film "Love Crime" that interested you and what was there about it that inspired you to try to make it your own?

I thought it was an intriguing story: the two executives who are dying for power and who are manipulating each other and the fact that one humiliates the other and seemingly breaks her down to the point where she is the prime suspect in Christine's murder—and in fact confesses to the crime—until the police discover that the clues don't lead to her. It was an intriguing idea and I thought that I could make it better because I didn't think you should reveal the identity of the killer halfway through the movie.

In a weird way, with the increasingly cruel treatment that Christine perpetrates on Isabelle, the film sort of reminded me of "Carrie," minus the supernatural element and with the cruelties transplanted from the locker room to the board room…

That is true. In "Carrie," she is being tormented by her fellow students and seemingly set up and destroyed by another woman. There is a similarity but I must say that did not occur to me as I was making the movie.

Although you have been criticized in some quarters throughout your career for your alleged on-screen mistreatment of women, many of your most interesting films—"Femme Fatale," "Dressed to Kill," "Carrie," "Sisters" and certainly "Passion" among them—have told stories in which women were the central characters while the men were largely relegated to the background. As a filmmaker, do you have a preference for telling stories where the women take center stage or does it simply depend on the story that you are telling?

I like making movies with women. I like photographing women. It is like being a painter who likes to paint nude women instead of nude men. I just find them to be more intriguing and more beautiful—I think it was Godard who once said that all you needed to make a movie was a girl and a gun.

The most talked-about sequence in "Passion" is the long split-screen sequence about halfway through in which a ballet performance is juxtaposed with another series of highly choreographed moves of a much different nature. This is the kind of scene that you have been famous for throughout you career and I wanted to know your concept was for it in this case as well as the particular challenges that it posed.

I am a big fan of that ballet and I saw the original choreography on YouTube—I think it was done sometime in the late Fifties or early Sixties. I like the way that Jerome Robbins choreographed "The Afternoon of the Faun" and I have always wanted to figure out a way to use that particular ballet in a movie. It presented itself because in the Corneau version, she goes to the cinema and then sneaks out the back and I said "Why can't she go to the ballet?" I used this particular piece in order to juxtapose Christine waiting for her lover with a ballet having to do with two dancers in a rehearsal studio who are going through their exercises while there is a growing sexual tension between them. I thought it would be an interesting juxtaposition between the two venues of action.

It is very intricate but the advantage is that I shot a test of the ballet before I actually shot that sequence and when I was shooting the material of Christine being killed, I had my test footage of the ballet to play it against in order to determine how one scene juxtaposed against another and how it was working. By the time I got down to the shooting of the ballet, which was during the last two days of filming, I knew exactly what I needed in order to properly juxtapose the murder.

The casting of Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace in the roles originally played by Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier adds another level of intrigue to the proceedings. By making them closer in age than before, it serves to make them seem even more interchangeable to their unseen corporate bosses—who switch a potential promotion between the two so often that it hardly seems to matter to them who gets it—and helps to justify, in a weird way, Christine's ruthless determination to get ahead at any cost.

A lot of the casting was happenstance. I was talking to another director about his film and he was considering Noomi Rapace and he had some Swedish films that she made before the "Dragon Tattoo" series and he said that I had to look at this stuff because she was an extraordinary actress. I did and I was quite impressed, so I sent her the script and she liked it. Fortunately, she had recently worked with Rachel McAdams on "Sherlock Holmes 2" and they quite liked working together. Rachel came on to the project and the girls were overjoyed to act together and to play off of each other.

When I first heard about their casting, I must admit that I immediately assumed that Noomi would be playing Christine and Rachel would be Isabelle instead of the other way around.

Fortunately, I had seen these Swedish movies that Noomi had done before she had become this international star of the "Dragon Tattoo" films where she plays this demonic creature—films in which she played vulnerable characters and mothers—and had sort of a fuller grasp of her acting talent.

Can you talk a little about your working relationship with composer Pino Donaggio, with whom you have worked numerous times over the years—including such iconic films as "Carrie," "Dressed to Kill" and "Blow Out"—and who contributes a magnificent score to "Passion"?

Pino likes to work with temp tracks, so I will give him some orchestral piece that I think is in line with the mood I want for certain sequences and he will compose something and send it to me. For the most part with all the sequences here, we got excellent responses from him but we had a lot of trouble coming up with exactly the right cue for the scene where Noomi has her breakdown and beats up her car. We tried a whole bunch of things for when she was walking down the hallway and going down the elevator to get to her car. Finally, I wrote down the right kind of orchestral thing and it sparked an idea in Pino and he wrote a very eloquent and poignant piece.

"Passion" is, of course, a remake, but you now find yourself in the odd position of seeing your own films being remade as well—there was a new version of "Sisters" a couple of years ago with Chloe Sevigny and this fall sees a new version of "Carrie," which is obviously based on the Stephen King novel but which is arguably more famous because of your adaptation, that is being directed by Kimberly Peirce and starring Chlöe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore in the parts played for you by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie

I know Kimberly Peirce very well—we used to hang out together in New York many years ago—and I was happy to hear that she was interested in doing "Carrie." We talked about it for a little bit in regards to her approach and from the visual material that I have seen so far from her shooting, it looks like a very intriguing interpretation of the material. It has a fantastic cast—they look great together—and I am sure that it is going to be terrific.

In addition to its upcoming theatrical release, "Passion" is also currently available for home audiences as a video-on-demand offering, an option that has become an increasingly popular choice amongst indie films these days—even the latest offerings by such known directors as David Gordon Green ("Prince Avalanche") and Paul Schrader ("The Canyons") have gone this way in just this month alone. On the one hand, making it available at home greatly expands the potential audience for the film but on the other, "Passion" is the kind of film that would benefit from the communal experience of a theatrical showing. What are your thoughts about this new distribution concept?

That is the strategy of the distributor—they are the ones that paid for the movie and they have an idea about the best way to exhibit it in order to maximize their investment. I have no idea if this is going to make the movie any more successful as opposed to opening it in a more conventional way. However, I do know that the generation of my daughters—who are basically teenagers—watch things on their iPads. It is a changing technology.

"Passion" is the first film that you have made since 2007's "Redacted" and in that time, your name has come up in connection with a number of potential projects—a thriller with Juliette Binoche, a prequel to "The Untouchables"—but there was one I was especially curious to learn about. Exactly how close did you come to directing "Paranormal Activity 2"?

Not very. Basically, I think one of the producers was an admirer of my work and they talked about it but nothing really came of it.

As someone whose works have always managed to inspire passionate debate—both pro and con—in the critical community over the years, what are your feelings towards the current state of film criticism, a field in which, thanks to the Internet, practically everyone can now comment on films at length but not necessarily in depth as was the case during its heyday?

I think that some of the best film critics nowadays are on the web. Dana Stevens over at "Slate," Stephanie Zacharek over at the "Village Voice"—they write some of the best criticism around.

Over your career, you have had a number of films that failed to connect with viewers when they first came out but went on to become cult favorites in later years—"Scarface" is an obvious example and even "Blow Out" is now generally recognized as a classic as well. Are there any of your lesser-seen films that you would like to see get rediscovered by audiences in such a way?

The public basically decides the movies that are going to be remembered and you have named a couple of them. Anyone who likes a director's work is exposed to them by the best-of movies, and then they start digging. Take someone like Fritz Lang—you start by seeing things like "Metropolis" or "The Big Heat" and the other fantastic films that he made and then you start exploring the ones that are less well-known. I assume that is what people do with me—they know the movies that are well-known and then ask "Who is this guy?" and start digging into the others.

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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