Director Brian De Palma on preparation vs improvisation

Director Brian De Palma on preparation vs improvisation

By Tom Seymour 15/08/13

Brian De Palma made his first film in 1960. Since then, he’s directed 38 features, including Scarface, Carrie, Mission: Impossible and Carlito’s Way. As his latest film Passion – starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace – is released, he talks to Tom Seymour about pre-production and working with actors...

You’ve worked with some of the biggest performers in the business. How much direction do you give your actors?

It so much depends on the material and the actors. Directing is about meeting particular needs. Some actors require a lot more directing than others, whereas sometimes you just can just sit back and watch what they do and give them very subtle directions. 

What’s the biggest change in the practical side of filmmaking you’ve witnessed throughout your career?

I’ve always believed in careful preparation. The industry was once all about still photographs: for the locations, for the way shots are blocked, for casting and dressing sets. Now a lot of that – if not all of it – can be done online. 



How much preparation do you do before you shoot a film? 

Pre-production is extensive. For Passion, I spent years laying out the whole movie with computer architectural programs. I scouted the locations myself and storyboarded every shot in the movie. I spent a lot of time working out the lighting for the surrealistic aspects of the film. 

Every film I make, I try and incorporate new technology in order to pre-visualise the movie from beginning to end, and modern programmes allow you to do practically everything. So I designed each storyboard, and when it came to printing them out, I had these huge stacks of the whole movie; I knew exactly what I wanted minute from minute on set. 

Do you believe in improvisation on set? 

Yes, you have to adjust your vision for the film according to what happens on the day. I focus really intently when I’m on set. I’m always looking for emotional shifts, for little interactions between the actors, for what’s happening to the weather or the light. If you have a plan to return to, it affords you the ability to freestyle a little bit. 

Filmmaking is like catching lightening in a bottle; you have to be adept at looking at what’s going on at that moment, because if it’s on the film it will be there forever. 

What motivates you as a director? 

I’m motivated by big cinematic ideas and broad canvasses. I believe deeply in the big screen. A lot of independent films now are walking and talking movies, which hold little interest to me, while the top of the industry is dominated by comic books. There’s a lot of opportunity for people to explore the boundaries of cinema still – even if they’re working on a $2,000 budget – and I’d encourage anyone to do that. 

What’s your advice to young filmmakers?

You can shoot digitally and edit on the computer. All you have to do is write a script, round-up good actors and a crew that knows what it’s doing and shoot the movie. You can do it for nothing compared to my generation. When I started you had to raise $100,000 to get anywhere near what you wanted. My first film cost $23,000; that was a short, and we were so tight on budget it was laughable. I spent a lot of my 20s trying to raise money, but it’s not so much of a problem now.


Passion is out on DVD and VOD now. 

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