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Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow Talk the Form and Function of ‘De Palma’

Written by on June 8, 2016 

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To interview the directors behind a film that is itself a feature-length interview presents some interesting challenges, not least of which because said film makes for so engaging and revealing a discussion — but so it is when the subject possesses as much experience and honesty as Brian De Palma, an artist about whom people are never lacking opinions. The directors are Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, who I spoke to in the main theater of New York City’s Metrograph — the site of a full, ongoing retrospective — about the form and function of De Palma, film and filmmaker alike.

This was not my first time speaking to them — only the first in a truly “official” capacity. Our previous experience helped start off the interview, which I’d like to get into now, since you, fan or skeptic, should be planning a trip to soon see their great film. And believe me: this is far from the last thing we’ll have to say about Brian De Palma.

The Film Stage: We’ve sort of spoken before. At last year’s NYFF press conference, I asked what De Palma movies you tend to defend the most —

Jake Paltrow: Oh, yes.

And you, Mr. Baumbach, said something about loving the bit in Wise Guys where they say, “Thank you, Mr. Acavano.”

Noah Baumbach: “Thank you, Mr. Acavano.”

You, Mr. Paltrow, couldn’t come up with one, and I was hoping that perhaps you can sit on it a bit and, when we come to this interview’s end, you’ll have an answer.

Baumbach: You should’ve said that then to him. “I’m gonna come interview you in six months, and…”

Paltrow: “Come June, you better have an answer.”

At that same press conference, you, Mr. Baumbach, made a comment I found really interesting: that what we see in this movie is “a version” of the conversations you often have with De Palma. I’d like to know how what we see here changes from when the two of you talk in private. What about the comments here might be more fitting for a film?

Baumbach: It’s organized, because we went in order: we started at the beginning and went through every film chronologically and let him kind of tell the story of each movie. We’d ask follow-up questions and things, but there were things we knew we wanted to cover, stories we knew we wanted him to tell again, but it really was a kind of free-ranging conversation that had a structure to it. We always knew where we were going to go, because we had to get to the next movie.

I think something we discovered, too, is that Brian, in agreeing to do it, also kind of knew what the task was an actor in a movie. So he was telling things, I think, in more concise — or trying to — ways. The timing on many of the stories is often very funny. It’s very much Brian being himself, but he’s also aware of, “This is the version that’s being filmed and I’ve got to do it.” I think having a filmmaker as the subject, in a way, he knows what’s needed to tell the story properly.

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I’m wondering how you, Mr. Paltrow, might have brought something to the Noah-Brian dynamic that helps give this movie its ultimate shape.

Paltrow: I don’t think… this all grows out of our sort-of-shared experience of talking with Brian. Before we filmed the movie, there were several years of having access to him in this unusual way, of him being open to tell these stories or versions of stories that aren’t necessarily in the film, and also recognizing this isn’t the way that people talk, who’ve had his experience or success or these sorts of things about movies, and if he’d agreed to do it on camera, the way he does at dinner, it’d probably seem very valuable. So that part of it’s really just an extension of our friendship with him.

And I guess there’s a real give-and-take with the two of us on one side of the table talking to Brian, just in life, that translated sort of seamlessly to doing it. Like, there’s no version that’s really just, like, co-directing on the floor with Brian, beyond us talking the way we normally talk. I think if there’s any sort of us “directing it together,” it’s us in the editing room — going through the footage and agreeing, and, when there are disagreements, sort of talking those things through. But it was very… yeah, I don’t think there was anything that would really be different.

You shot tens of hours of footage, but the final film is a pretty lean 100-or-so minutes. How much did you know, from the moment it was said, would be included in a final cut?

Paltrow: I mean, probably there were, but that’s the directing of the movie: the editing of it is the place where you go, “Well, you want to cast the same spell in a movie of Brian talking about his experiences as you would in a narrative fictional movie.” So all those same things apply, and that’s when you’re relying on creative intuition to make this movie work and have a certain pace and timing and everything else. Like Noah said before: Brian brings a screen presence. He knows what the task is. He’s not, you know, meandering through the ideas and figuring out what he wants to say. He’s concise and sharp and he’s funny and he knows timing, and he knows how to do it. So I’m sure there were things he said while we were filming that we thought [snaps fingers] “That goes in.”

Baumbach: But you knew… there are certain things that you’re not going to make a De Palma movie and not include. Like when he’s talking about split-screen or —

Paltrow: And we’re leading that. That doesn’t just “become a topic.” Those are things we know we want to discuss, like, “How do you come up with these sorts of screen techniques?”

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One of my first impressions and most pleasant reactions is how this “looks like a movie,” which is to say it’s not as if you took a cheap camera, set it up on a stool, and hit record. Cinematographically, it’s quite pleasing — and you said, Mr. Paltrow, that it was shot in your apartment — so tell me about deciding on matters of lighting and camera distance.

Paltrow: Well, it’s all natural light, and so the day would start with a bounce card over there [points at wall], and as the light would go down, we’d end the day. We’d stop when the bounce card was basically in the shot. [Baumbach laughs] So we wanted a naturalistic sort of look to it, and not bring a sort of studio light to it. And also, because we were trying to approximate the intimacy of the way we talked to him at dinner or something, it seemed like a good idea to talk to him in our apartment, which is easy, and in terms of the shot —

Baumbach: I think also to keep it simple. If you brought in all this studio lighting, it makes it, immediately, “a movie.”

Paltrow: And requires people in the room, which we didn’t want to have. The one thing we knew we didn’t like is when you have one camera here, and some sort of profile or off-access shot only so you can slip in edits. Our feeling was like, “We’ll figure it out another way.” And we did.

Baumbach: We didn’t shoot coverage. We occasionally did different sizes, but…

Paltrow: Right. We’d pick up the camera and say, “So, for this section, we’ll do a medium shot,” but that became sort of intuitive, too. “Well, we’re going to get into this stuff, so maybe we’ll get into close-up.” There are not a lot of close-ups in it, but the cameras picked it up. It was all one lens.

Given his previously expressed distaste for coverage, I’m sure he’d appreciate that.

[Both laugh]

Baumbach: Yes. Definitely.

I remember a comment he made, Mr. Baumbach, in your Blow Out Criterion interview about coverage being a dirty word. His presence and tenor there is similar, but the overall feeling is different because we don’t see you at all. I wonder if you thus felt a relief and freeing-up in your conversation.

Baumbach: Well, I think it was something we knew very early on, that we were going to take our voices out — that it was just going to be Brian. it was a way to capture an intimacy in our friendship and ongoing relationship, but not for it to be about the friendship or to put ourselves as character, or anything like that. It’s a kind of given, in the movie, that he’s talking to somebody that he knows well, and he refers to us at a few different points, and we made the movie… so you can assume that we were there, in some way. But it felt like the right way to do it: to take ourselves out of it and not to muddy it up. It gives the viewer the experience, at least an approximation, of what it would be like to hang out with Brian.

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There aren’t many De Palma movies I don’t have a solid opinion on, and so, naturally, I have disagreements at certain points when he assesses the work. I’d love to hear where, if anywhere, you found yourselves differing in what he particularly likes or dislikes.

Paltrow: He probably underrates The Fury a bit. It’s probably more accomplished, or something.

Baumbach: But in terms of the movie, we were letting him tell the story. It doesn’t even have to be entirely accurate, some of his recollections. This is how Brian remembers. This is the story as he knows it and understands it, and these are his feelings about what he did and why he did them. It isn’t journalism. I think to be open, as friends, to letting him tell it, it doesn’t mean we don’t have… Jake’s example, I agree with. You can have different feelings about the movies and disagree, but I think that, in some ways, makes it more like your experience. The movie is open to that, to disagreement, to feel like either, “I don’t like like that one,” or… it doesn’t matter. It’s Brian’s experience of it.

Metrograph is doing this big retrospective of his work, and I’d like to know how and why you value seeing his movies in a theatrical setting.

Paltrow: I mean, that’s a bigger-than-Brian sort of thing. Obviously, they were composed for the big screen at the time, sort of pre-dating the video assist and these sorts of things that can approximate a TV screen. I can’t imagine that’s something Brian was ever thinking about through the first half of his career — about how these movies look on a TV screen. So when you’re composing for that, it’s seeing it in its, like, natural habitat, so to understand them fully, it’s probably integral to seeing them in their format.

I guess that’s all the time I have. I don’t know if you came up with an answer to the noted question…

Paltrow: Oh! Well, I don’t know about “favorite,” but you were saying one… in thinking about that, when Brian says in the movie [does De Palma impression] “You know, it wouldn’t necessarily be your first choice,” in talking about The Fury. He talks about being an interpretive director and he doesn’t like doing car chases, but all those sequences are pure De Palma, and I think that’s something he just can’t get away from, even in something he thinks is less successful.

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De Palma enters a limited release on Friday, June 10.


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