Massive red letters travel horizontally across the screen spelling out De Palma. Then, he starts talking and doesn’t stop talking for another hour and fifty minutes. The only way that this could be a better filmmaking masterclass from Brian De Palma is that if we were sat in the room with him, able to ask him our own questions. De Palma takes us through every feature film he has ever made, starting with 1968’s Murder a la Mod and ending with 2012’s Passion. He talks eloquently and, as we would somewhat expect from De Palma, rather grumpily at times about every film, giving his insight into the choices he made and the meanings behind each one. It deals with his successes and failures in equal measure. The failures, if anything, are the most interesting, as we get to see how a filmmaker as accomplished as De Palma copes with it, a valuable insight for anyone exploring creative ventures themselves.
De Palma is essentially one long interview. We always see De Palma from one angle, sat down, faced towards the camera, talking. The chronology of his films are neatly woven from one film to the next but that really is the extent of the filmmaking in this documentary. Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow focus on the man and his films and nothing else. True, De Palma does reveal aspects of his personal life but only where relevant in the context of his filmography.
There are some lovely anecdotes in the film and great moments of humour, particularly when talking about Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox shooting Casualties of War, and why the famous shootout scene in Scarface is so long. They won’t be revealed here in this review as part of the reason the film is worth seeking out is because of these lovely moments.
Unfortunately, if you’re not a film buff then this might not be a documentary for you. Unlike other film documentaries like Life Itself, De Palma does little to elevate itself above just being simply about the craft. Instead, the film inhabits the same territory as something like Side by Side, it is a documentary about film made for people who love film. Brian De Palma is a fantastic, funny character and is constantly engaging, never boring the viewer. However, it is hard to speak for an audience member that might not have the same interest in the craft of filmmaking and the struggles of a creative mind. As the film is literally Brian De Palma speaking to the camera about his films, one fears that the layman will switch off quickly.
Essentially, De Palma is a near two hour long masterclass on filmmaking from one of the greats. De Palma is rarely brought up when talking about the greats like Spielberg or Scorsese, but the truth is his filmography speaks for itself. Casualties of War, Scarface, The Untouchables, Carrie are all films that are remembered years after their creation and will live on for many more to come.
Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow should be commended for securing and conducting this truly revealing and insightful interview. Yes, on the surface, they’ve done nothing astonishing in the construction of the film but actually they have done something very special. They have just let De Palma talk and let his words and work say anything that needs to be said. Really, they didn’t need to do anything more. If you have an interest in film or how they are put together then it would be deeply surprising if you didn’t find this engaging. One can only hope that Baumbach and Paltrow manage to convince others to follow, it would be an absolute joy to see other filmmakers pick apart their work in the same manner. De Palma isn’t just a film to be watched but also a lesson where you can really learn something special.