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NYFF: Brian DePalma & Noah Baumbach Discuss Friendship, Fraternity & Filmmaking In A Career-Spanning Conversation

Photo of Cory Everett By Cory Everett | @modage October 10, 2012 at 10:02AM

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.
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Another pair of clips were shown from “Dressed To Kill” and “The Squid & The Whale,” which supposedly showed autobiographical sides to each director. De Palma had been a shy nerdy kid just like Keith Gordon’s character Peter (he even built a circuit board just like the one in the film). Baumbach’s autobiographical elements in ‘Squid’ have already been much discussed so he seemed slightly weary of dredging up the topic again, saying that sometimes the most personal elements in the films are not the obvious story beats but sometimes smaller details that make their way into the film. De Palma agreed, saying “most of the film [sequences] that people think I dream up usually come from some direct experience I’ve had.”

When DePalma was a student at Columbia he and a friend that used to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to pick up girls, so for “Dressed To Kill,” when he was looking for some place to stage a set piece, he thought back to these experiences. “[Always] walk the location,” he advised to other filmmakers. The elder auteur also warned that sometimes setting out to make an autobiographical film can have the adverse effect. “What happens when people make autobiographical films, the problem is that they have the least insight into themselves sometimes. And they usually miscast themselves.”

Baumbach Squid

Turning the focus back to De Palma, Baumbach praised his idol’s elaborate choreography as well as his innate understanding of onscreen geography. “The more I make movies I feel like -- and this is something that nobody’s better at than Brian -- is figuring out really simple things like geography and taking advantage of the space and making it clear. It sounds kinda simple and maybe not even that interesting, but there’s a clarity [in his filmmaking that allows him] to do all these other things.” De Palma added, “Coverage is like the worst thing in the world for me because you’re just recording what the actors are doing. I’m always trying to maximize what the actors are doing. And you have to watch the actors very carefully.”

He also had some quibbles with most modern action sequences. “In shootouts you never know where things are,” De Palma said. “People are shooting and people are fall. You’re going, ‘Are they close? Or are they far? Am I in danger?’ And it drives me crazy to watch things like that." DePalma cited his famous Odessa steps sequence in “The Untouchables” (itself a nod to a sequence in “Battleship Potemkin”) as an example of the kind of shootouts he prefers. But executing action sequences that give the audience a sense of the space “require a lot of thought.” Baumbach said that he makes shot lists with the DP for pre-production but then allows himself the opportunity to change everything once he gets the actors on the set. Making sure the actors are being taken care of was something both directors agreed on the importance of.

This article is related to: New York Film Festival, Brian De Palma, Noah Baumbach


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