“I see myself as an outsider” – Brian De Palma on Passion

Legendary New Hollywood firebrand Brian De Palma talks to The Skinny about his new erotic thriller Passion, where he discusses being an outsider in Hollywood and bemoans the lack of political filmmaking in the new generation of filmmakers

Feature by Tom Seymour | 09 Aug 2013

“The worst thing a woman can do to another woman is humiliate her in front of her peers,” says Brian De Palma, the 72-year-old director of 38 films, including Scarface, The Untouchables, Carrie and Mission: Impossible. He is sitting in his Manhattan living room talking on Skype about his new film Passion, a trademark noir romp in which a high-powered, icy-cool advertising exec and her talented protégée are caught in a death spiral of sexual game play. “Two beautiful women in a manipulative, destructive form of love?” he says. “What a great idea for a movie.”

Based on the French film Love Crime by the late Alain Corneau and starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, the film is 2013’s latest steamy thriller, following on from Danny Boyle’s Trance, Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects and Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy. Yet De Palma, in time-honoured fashion, pushes the envelope; Passion is never explicit, yet it's relentlessly, almost aggressively, suggestive.

“I've always been controversial,” he says as a way of explaining the film. “I’m not like my peers that went to Hollywood in the 70s” – these peers include the movie brat pack of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola – “They became the establishment, but I’m not liked in certain quarters of the industry because I’ve always tried to do things on my own terms. I see myself as an outsider.”

The ability to use sex as control stems from the film’s earliest scenes, in which Rapace’s Isabelle coins a “revolutionary” viral ad campaign by sticking a cell phone in the back pocket of her slinky assistant’s jeans, creating a montage of all the people – from old men to young girls – who check her out as she walks down the street. “That’s a real advert,” De Palma says. “I was looking for examples of women working in advertising and found it on YouTube. Turns out it was shot by two advertising executives in New Zealand.”

Passion is not an atypical De Palma project. From his earlier films Dressed to Kill and Obsession through to later works Femme Fatale and The Black Dahlia, De Palma has always traded in high-end erotica. As such, he’s also had to contend with accusations of sexism. In a review of Femme Fatale, Reverse Shot labeled De Palma ‘A smut-peddling misogynist with a fetish for women naked or dead (or preferably both).’ The celebrated critic David Thompson said of him: ‘There is a self-conscious cunning in De Palma's work, ready to control everything except his own cruelty and indifference.’

Yet the charged interplay between McAdams’ Christine and Rapace’s Isabelle came, De Palma says, from the actresses themselves: “The girls had very strong ideas about who these characters were and how they wanted to play off each other,” he says. “They were very, very good at flirting and toying with each other. There was a lot of improvisation because they were constantly coming up with ways of surprising one another. I basically just turned on the camera and pointed it in their direction.”

But despite the A-list cast, the big time director and the provocative Euro-arthouse themes, Passion is not coming to a cinema near you, but a website and supermarket shelf near you.

Metrodome, the film’s UK distributor, have deemed the film a non-starter for the cinema, instead sending it straight to DVD and video on demand. They said in a statement to The Skinny: “Brian De Palma has an in-built fan base, but a genre like this can be difficult to release theatrically. It’s a turbulent theatrical market and we felt this was the best way to launch the film to UK audiences.”

"I’m not liked in certain quarters of the industry because I’ve always tried to do things on my own terms. I see myself as an outsider” – Brian De Palma

It’s a marked decline for a director who deserves to be considered an A-lister. Years before Martin Scorsese was on the scene, De Palma was giving Robert De Niro his breaks on the streets of New York with anti-Vietnam films Greetings and Hi Mom!, and comedy of errors The Wedding Party. In the mid-70s, he handed Scorsese the Taxi Driver script. In his first Hollywood gig, Get to Know Your Rabbit, De Palma directed Orson Welles. He was the man George Lucas turned to when he got stuck on the Star Wars "A long time ago…” prologue. He was selected by Tom Cruise to kickstart the Mission: Impossible franchise, creating the iconic image of Cruise hanging suspended above a neon-white, touch-sensitive room, a bead of sweat hanging from his glasses. Now he’s pinning his hopes on the whims of iTunes, Sky Box Office and Tescos.

It seems a strange decision, but Metrodome have crunched their numbers. De Palma, though, is sanguine about the release: “I made this film, as I’ve made all my films, to be seen on the big screen,” he says. “But I’m in my seventies now, and I see my daughter watching most of her films on her laptop. Technology will continue to change everything, so what are we going to do about it? Anyway, the cinema to me seems more about pre-sold franchises, and that has absolutely no interest to me whatsoever.”

This isn’t the first De Palma film to scale the murkier depths of British film releasing. Femme Fatale never saw the inside of a British cinema while Redacted, 2005’s deeply controversial “fictional documentary” about human rights abuses – on both sides – of the Iraq war, got a brief and limited theatrical run before disappearing from view. “Redacted did something that no film has ever done; it criticised the American troops,” he says. “That’s unheard of in America. You just can’t question the boys. But the film came from stories soldiers were sharing of their experiences and posting online. I still find it gob-smacking – disgusting –that we tried to claim victory in that country.”

Redacted, he concedes, may have impacted on his ability to find funding for his films. But he doesn’t regret making the film, seeing it as a return to his formative years. The young De Palma consciously positioned himself as “America’s Godard,” spending the 60s independently making angry liberal firebrand films on the East Coast before Hollywood called as he hit 30. It is, he says, the great failing of the generation of filmmakers that will follow him: “I’m confounded by the lack of political films out there by young directors. The corruption that exists in the circles of power, be it in Washington or Hollywood, remain industrial. It hasn’t changed since I was young. But where are the political filmmakers? Where’s the outrage? The public relations people are in control of the media now.”

Passion is released on DVD/VOD on 12 Aug by Metrodome