At first glance, the idea of pairing filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Brian De Palma together for an onstage conversation doesn’t seem to make any sense at all. After all, what would the filmmaker behind intimate character pieces like “The Squid & The Whale” and “Greenberg” have to say to the master stylist responsible for “Scarface” and “Carrie,” whose career has been built on swooning, impossible camera moves and nail-biting suspense? This idea only appears unconventional until you see Baumbach (accompanied by girlfriend/actress Greta Gerwig) at two showings of DePalma’s latest, “Passion,” which is now screening at the New York Film Festival. As it turns out, the filmmakers are friends and mutual admirers, and organizers have been trying to coordinate an onstage pairing for years.
So it’s quite serendipitous that the event came together this year when both directors have films in the festival. Baumbach is back with his seventh feature, the buoyant back-to-square-one “Frances Ha,” while De Palma is here to present his 29th film “Passion,” which recalls the erotic thrillers of his '70s/'80s heyday. Moderator Scott Foundas was on hand at the Walter Reade Theatre on Sunday night to lead the career-spanning conversation between the filmmakers, showing contrasting clips from De Palma’s work (“Body Double,” “Dressed To Kill” and “Carlito’s Way”) as well as Baumbach’s (“Greenberg,” “Margot At The Wedding” and “The Squid & The Whale”). Connections, of course, were not easily drawn as the filmmakers are essentially opposites cinematically, but that didn’t prevent them from discussing each other's work, their “fraternity of filmmakers,” and how there’s always an exception to the rules of filmmaking.
The unlikely pair first met at filmmaker Paul Schrader’s 50th birthday party in 1996. Baumbach didn’t know Schrader but was accompanying his girlfriend at the time and said he drank a “considerable amount” before he felt comfortable approaching De Palma, one of his cinematic idols. Baumbach recalled that he was so nervous, he basically just ended up “rattling off all of [De Palma’s] movies” to the elder director. Thankfully De Palma had seen his first two films and stopped Baumbach to say that he was an admirer of his work as well. Since they both lived in the same neighborhood, the filmmakers began a casual acquaintance that eventually blossomed into a full-blown friendship. Baumbach even offered him a role in his third film “Mr. Jealousy” which De Palma refused. “I even turned down Woody Allen!” he told the young filmmaker at the time. (The role of the therapist was played by another '70s icon, Peter Bogdanovich, who is now also close with Baumbach.)
But Baumbach’s first exposure to the films of De Palma, once dubbed the “Master of the Macabre,” was through his parents. “I knew about Brian’s movies before I had seen them and knew them as these kinda weird, creepy, sexy things that when I got to be older, I would get to see,” he said. “And when I saw them I loved them. And I think what’s interesting is since I’ve become a filmmaker I can’t intellectualize movies anymore. I come at it from a much more practical, emotional place and I discovered very quickly [that] Brian does not think of movies that way either.” He said he attempted to intellectualize some of De Palma’s films during that initial meeting but the director waved him off. “A lot of what we talk about when we get together to talk about movies -- our movies or other peoples movies -- it's very un-theoretical. we don’t come at it from a critical standpoint. It's much more from some other place.”
De Palma acknowledged that they are diametrically opposed in their directorial approaches but that their differences are actually helpful in giving each other feedback. “I think why we get along so much is because we approach things so differently,” De Palma said. “Noah builds these character pieces. I’m fascinated by movies that are built on characters because this is something that I approach the completely opposite direction. I’m looking for plot, visual structure and I’ve got to plug the characters in...I’m fascinated by directors like Noah who generate whole stories starting with the characters.” While De Palma said he is a great fan of Baumbach’s films, which have a very controlled shooting style, he’s often bored while watching films that are shot in a standard way without thought to the visuals.