The Director's Chair Interviews

Hollywood's foremost visual stylist revisits familiar territory with the fight night whodunit Snake Eyes.
by Wade Major

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Having directed some of the most memorable and controversial films of the past 30 years, Brian DePalma can afford to relax a little. So why doesn't he? Because he loves what he does, that's why. As he begins his fourth decade as one of Hollywood's most in-demand directors, the maker of Scarface, Carrie, Blow Out, Body Double, Dressed to Kill, Carlito's Way, and The Untouchables is enjoying his status as an entertainment industry institution, a visionary stylist whose past films continue to inspire and provoke new generations of filmmakers as well as his own contemporaries.

Having only recently scored his biggest career success to date with Mission: Impossible, DePalma is enjoying more creative freedom than he has had in years. It comes as little surprise, then, that he should seize the chance to once again return to the genre for which he is best known, the psychological thriller. Starring Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage and Oscar-nominee Gary Sinise, Snake Eyes is a highly-stylized, claustrophobic, real-time thriller set during and after an Atlantic City boxing match where the United States Secretary of Defense is assassinated. Sinise plays Navy Commander Kevin Dunne, the head of the security detail charged with protecting the Secretary. Cage is Dunne's childhood buddy, a tainted Atlantic City police detective forced to rise to the occasion when the murder literally falls in his lap. Together they must race with fate and an impending hurricane to unravel a labyrinthine puzzle meticulously designed by DePalma and his preferred screenwriter of late, David Koepp (Mission: Impossible and Carlito's Way).

Still, all due labors on the script notwithstanding, it wouldn't be a true DePalma film without the director's trademark visual fireworks. And on that count, DePalma makes it clear that, if nothing else, Snake Eyes is a way of celebrating his own personal independence day.

Just when you finally appeared to have left the Hitchcock comparisons behind, what drew you back to doing a thriller?

The thing you can determine from me and my career is that I never gave a damn what anybody thought. I always did what I thought was best for myself, and if anyone else thought it was like Hitchcock, too bad! I was there, basically, to learn something, or else I was interested in a piece of material. And if I wanted to make that kind of movie and everybody else thought it wasn't the right thing for me to be doing, or if they had some kind of comment about it, it never made any difference to me. As long as I thought I could get the movie made, I didn't care.

Could you talk about designing the visual map of the film, specifically conceiving the complex visual and flashback structure?

Hopefully, because we thought of it from the ground up, we came up with a strong visual idea for the film. David [Koepp] wanted to write a movie from multiple points of view. Well, when you do multiple points of view, how do you do that? Also, the big problem of going back and forth over a crime is that you're at the same place all the time and you just keep going back and forth. So you ask yourself, "Does it feel repetitive?" and "Are our flashbacks going to stop the story from going forward?" So I had to come up with a visual way in order to do that.

The whole trick of it was to get the characters back to where they started and make it look different and let them find out information they hadn't had before. That was a big physical challenge. Plus there was the whole challenge of whether I could make a movie where we're basically indoors the whole time, working in these very limited spaces. Could I get away with that? It's that Rope concept of trying to box yourself in aesthetically. It's like Rear Window where you can't move the camera outside the room. How do you make that work? It forces you to come up with all kinds of ingenious solutions and pushes you into a visual area that would have never even occurred to you before.

How hard was it to execute that elaborate opening tracking shot?

 Basically you have to find the spaces to do it in. You start on the boardwalk with the television interview which is on the monitors. And from the monitors you have to follow Nic upstairs and then he's got to see Luis and chase him down the escalator and sort of beat him up. And then you've got to start this voyage of the bloody hundred-dollar bill. I think we did that in three sections. Then you've got to find a place to wipe the frame so that you can go from one section to another so it'll look seamless. And then once you get them downstairs, there's the stuff in the arena. We actually go around the arena twice—once he walks around the arena and then he goes once around with Gary. And then you've got to sit them down and you have to have them look at all the places around them and try to make that work as a shot, make it visually and aurally exciting so the audience is listening to stuff so that later on it's going to drive them crazy when they're hearing the fight but not seeing it. Nobody's been to a fight where you never saw the fight. Then they're going to really want to know what happens when the fighter tells his story. Are we going to see the fight now we just heard? And after you do the fight, then that reveals the woman in red, and who the hell is she? But I'm taking you all the way through the movie now.

Did you conceive that the first shot was going to be continuous or did that evolve from the script?

As we laid out all this exposition in the beginning, and I was wrestling with the idea of how to make it visually different from the different flashbacks. It occurred to me to do it like one steadicam shot, make it all on Nic, his world, his life, and make it move as fast as you physically can, make him talk a mile-a-minute, just get the energy pumped up to the max and make it look like a freight train going by so fast the audience can't take everything in. I find movies so redundant in the way that they're photographed. I mean, you're like, "Oh, please. Get me out of here." The ideas are redundant. The visual ideas are hopelessly redundant. So you want to give them just a taste, and then you're going to force them to go back.

One of the big problems with detective movies is it's basically going from place to place and getting information. Well, that may work great in a novel but it's kind of boring in a movie.

But not in this movie.

 Because we made it so that it's not that place you've seen before. It looks a little different because you're in an entirely different place in the arena. And the other reason is you've got some clues from the first time you went through and now you're starting to put the puzzle together yourself.

How hard was it to work out the flashbacks and the splitscreens so that the simultaneous threads all intersected just perfectly?

I'd say the trickiest part was the splitscreen because there's so much information that it's hard to follow both sides of the screen simultaneously. [The film] was a lot longer in earlier cuts, and there was a lot more of the splitscreen stuff. But you can't absorb it all. There's too much going on. So it's like, "Whoa! Wait a minute." I worked on that for a very long time. I couldn't even follow it there was so much going on. It is very tricky and, again, like with the end of the movie, we kept pulling stuff out, pulling stuff out, because it becomes too much to take in. You get confused. And once you get confused, you're dead in a movie like this.

As long as you brought it up, why was the tidal wave sequence cut from the end of the film?

When we did the water sequence, we had a big wave and it just took people out of the movie. It was too big for the story, dealing with this confrontation and then suddenly they were looking at this big wave. This isn't a meteor picture. It was my mistake, basically, because I thought we needed the storm to be "The Storm," and it got a little out of hand. So we cut it all out.

Wasn't that hard to do?

We can make mistakes. It's possible.

That almost seems antithetical to present Hollywood thinking, where the end always has to be beefed up with bigger and bigger set pieces.

It's quite ironic. The trouble is you begin to find the shape of the movie and when you start putting it in front of audiences they react to certain things and not to others. And it sort of tells you what works and what doesn't. So you change it. It's just like previewing a show. Of course with the press and everyone else watching everything we do, they think, "Oh, my God! They're in trouble! They're changing the ending!" But this happens all the time. When you read 400 preview response cards and 399 of them say, "What's up with that wave? That didn't look right!," then you start to realize that maybe something is wrong with your wave.

Would you agree that your work falls into two categories: the uniquely obsessive and very personal Brian DePalma stuff—Sisters, Blow Out, Obsession, Dressed to Kill—and everything else like Scarface, Mission: Impossible, Carlito's Way and The Untouchables?

I kind of think it's like a writer that writes under two names. I get tired of making these Brian DePalma movies. You get tired of your own obsessions, the betrayals, the voyeurism, the twisted sexuality. I've made a lot of movies like this, so you're glad to get out there with those Cuban or Puerto Rican gangsters. It gives you a little relief. That's not to say you won't be drawn back to your particular world, but I look upon them as a welcome relief from what's going on in my brain.

Does it restore you creatively to switch off between the two?

Yes, it does. When I'm thinking about Puerto Rican gangsters, I'm not thinking about long tracking shots down corridors.

Have you ever found yourself at a loss for new visual devices or new ways to keep the style of a film fresh?

No, I've never had that. You are up against your limitations to some extent. So there are certain things I try to keep away from. I try to keep away from comedies.

Why no comedies?

Because I just feel that I have a kind of 60s sense of humor and you cannot compete with the kind of comedy that you see on television. It's a mastery of comedic form. You've got all those great writers and those great comedians. And making comedies in movies is almost, I think, one of the most difficult things to do. They're all standups and they train in front of live audiences. That's invaluable for comedy. It's really hard to be directing a comedy on a sound stage and have a sense that this is really funny. So I try to avoid that.

 But, quite to the contrary, I'm feeling quite invigorated as I come to the end of my fiftieth year because I've made the most successful movie of my career, Mission: Impossible. It's better to make them at the end rather than at the beginning. And I'm full of ideas, more ideas than I can ever make. My head is just bouncing. I was up until 3:30 this morning working on the Howard Hughes movie that David and I are writing for Nic. And I've got a couple of other ones that are rummaging around in my brain. So I feel like I don't' have enough time now. That's why I have so little patience with everything. Plus I have a couple of children. So my life is basically divided between making movies and my children.

Since you are going to go on and work with Nic again on the Howard Hughes biography, is it fair to say that your pairing on this film worked out well?

We're very similar in many ways. Nic is an accomplished performer and he's a dedicated artist. And he loves to work, which is how I would describe myself, basically. Plus, he has no ego. It's all about the work. Which is exactly how I feel. How do we make it better? And he's a real gentleman. That always sounds like something from the nineteenth century, but it's true. He has incredible manners, he's very sensitive to how other people are feeling about things, and he feels real lucky, I guess, that he has all this opportunity, just like I do. How did we get here? This is great. We're going to get a chance to make a movie about Howard Hughes? Wow. And we're both Italian-Americans—maybe that has something to do with it. He's got brothers, I've got brothers. I don't know. Maybe there's a whole bunch of stuff there.

Considering all the changes you've seen in the industry, from the escalating budgets to the role of special effects, have these things made your job easier or more difficult?

 I think that something new is coming. I really think that the conventional moviemaking world is over and the greatest work is behind us. I really do. The industry sort of peaked in the forties, fifties and sixties. Mainly because of the turmoil, the wars, all that stuff. The European influx into Hollywood. That was the beginning of the movies, and it's over. It's never going to be again. I think the next thing that's going to happen is going to happen on the internet and with interactive media. Now you can have all this video technology, your own little video camera and edit stuff at home. You can make movies like novels now, you really can. You can make them very inexpensively and get your friends together. You can do the whole thing yourself, post it on the internet for everybody to look at and have an immediate audience of billions of people. I think you're going to see some incredible things.

Does this mean that the art of filmmaking is a thing of the past?

This form, I think, is over. I really do. I mean, everybody complains about how they're not as good as they used to be. Well, they're not.

What would you say has been the downfall of the art form?

Well, again, I feel it has a lot to do with what's happening in history. What's happening now? Nothing. Can you remember the eighties? Do you remember anything? I was talking to one journalist and she said, "Well, I remember the sixties." And I said, "I remember the sixties. Things were happening in the sixties. But the seventies? Disco? What is there to remember? What is there to remember in the eighties? And the nineties? Greed is good. That's what we remember. That's the signature for the end of this century.

So if we're moving into a new phase, what is it that keeps you motivated?

Because I'm a guy that used to build computers. I'm right at the cutting edge of what's going on in this whole new revolution. I watch this stuff all the time and I'm fascinated every time some new development happens—and it happens every other month in this industry. Every time something new happens, every time some new technology comes in, you see whole new story forms developing and you go, "Wow. This is exciting."

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