Filmmaker Brian De Palma releases his first crime novel
Movie theaters may be shuttered across the country but there is still newly released work of lurid and pulpy goodness from Brian De Palma.
The 79-year-old filmmaker has released his first work of fiction, “Are Snakes Necessary?” a crime novel he wrote with his partner, Susan Lehman, a former editor for The New York Times. The book, full of snappy dialogue and sharp knives, bears plenty of the hallmarks of De Palma. Movies are baked into it (the title refers to a book Henry Fonda is seen reading in “The Lady Eve”). Martin Scorsese sums it up in a blurb: “It’s like having a new Brian De Palma picture.”
Just over two weeks ago, I drove out to East Hampton, on Long Island, to meet De Palma (the director of “Carrie,” “Scarface,” “Body Double" and “Carlito's Way”) at an inn near the house he and Lehman stay in when they’re not in New York.
The conversation spanned his new book (a John Edwards-inspired tale about a senator having an affair with a young staffer), his grim thoughts about the advent of streaming (“The industry is eclipsing the artistry”) and his plans for a movie partly inspired by Harvey Weinstein.
An abiding passion for cinema coursed through De Palma's reflections. Lately, he’s been soaking up westerns. The day before, he said, he watched John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine” again — a movie De Palma, noted, that knew how to shoot a shoot-out.
AP: Why is “Are Snakes Necessary?” a book and not a movie?
De Palma: Too many ideas and not enough time to make all the movies. You write a lot of stuff that never makes it into a movie. With my partner, Susan, we just basically did it because we had fun doing it. We had never written a novel before, neither of us. I had an idea for a script I had never developed based on the Edwards campaign and the girl (Rielle Hunter, the woman he had an affair with) making webisodes, those little intimate things she shot. As I was watching this happen, being a director, you can see someone flirting with the camera. We started with that.
AP: A few years ago at the Tribeca Film Festival, I saw a restoration of “Scarface” and was overwhelmed by the colors. I don’t normally sit up close in a theater, but I did then.
De Palma: I did, too. I hadn’t seen “Scarface” in years. I’m always amazed by the performances. The acting, it’s like “Yikes.” It doesn’t get old. It’s extremely vivid.
AP: Do you think that kind of bold, widescreen filmmaking is still being practiced?
De Palma: The things that they’re doing now have nothing to do with what we were doing making movies in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. The first thing that drives me crazy is the way they look. Because they’re shooting digitally, they’re just lit terribly. I can’t stand the darkness, the bounced light. They all look the same. I believe in beauty in cinema. Susan and I were looking at “Gone With the Wind” the other day, and you’re just struck at how beautiful the whole movie is. The sets, how Vivien Leigh is lit, it’s just extraordinary. If you look at the stuff that’s streaming all the time, it’s all muck. Visual storytelling has gone out the window.
AP: You directed the first “Mission: Impossible," a franchise that's up to its seventh installment.
De Palma: Stories, they keep making them longer and longer only for economic reasons. After I made “Mission: Impossible,” Tom asked me to start working on the next one. I said, “Are you kidding?” One of these is enough. Why would anybody want to make another one? Of course, the reason they make another one is to make money. I was never a movie director to make money, which is the big problem of Hollywood. That’s the corruption of Hollywood.
AP: Are you still working on the Weinstein-inspired project, “Predator”?
De Palma: Yes, but I had an original title I went back to. When I heard about the whole “catch and kill” thing with the Trump scandals, I immediately said that’s a great title — long before Ronan (Farrow) got a hold of it. Fortunately, I copywrited it. So it’s “Catch and Kill” now. It’s basically a horror movie based on real things that have happened in the news.
AP: And inspired especially by Weinstein?
De Palma: Harvey Weinstein is part of it but being in Hollywood in the ‘70s, there were some abusive actions going on that irritated me quite a lot. When I was casting “Carrie,” George Lucas and I were seeing every young actor in Hollywood.
AP: He was casting “Star Wars” at the same time.
De Palma: Yes, we were casting together because we were looking at all the young people. There was one director-actor who was also casting a movie and he was trying to (expletive) these girls while he casting — which got me extremely annoyed. As a director, it offends me because the actor is just trying to get the job. To take advantage of that it, it’s like a doctor doing something against the code of ethics.
AP: Scorsese has wondered how many movies he has left. What’s your expectation?
De Palma: I think we’re getting near the end here. I have a bad knee. William Wyler said when you can’t walk, it’s over with. Now, if you write these books, that can use up our creative imagination. But as long as I can do it, I will do it. But I’m not going to miss not doing it. (He laughs).
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