For more than 40 years, Brian De Palma has been directing feature films that divide audiences, from box-office hits decried for their violence (Carrie, Dressed To Kill, Scarface, The Untouchables) to box-office flops that draw passionate defenders (Obsession, The Fury, Blow Out, Femme Fatale). But few De Palma films have been as controversial as Redacted, his impressionistic recreation of a rape and murder committed by U.S. forces in Iraq. Based on an actual incident, Redacted takes a variety of approaches to its story, with the core characters seen from surveillance-camera footage, video blogs, cable-news reports, and their own "home movies," among other sources. In its festival run, Redacted caused a stir in the media for its relentlessly damning portrait of American soldiers and its heightened sense of drama. Redacted distributor Magnolia Pictures has also balked at the film's closing montage of photographs of dead Iraqis, over worries that without permission from the victims' families, there could be legal trouble down the road. De Palma recently spoke to The A.V. Club about his intentions with Redacted, the controversy surrounding the film, and how he's navigated through a career that's won him as many detractors as fans.
The A.V. Club: Next to Scarface, Redacted may be the film of yours that's gotten the most attention from news reporters, pundits, and other people who aren't necessarily film buffs. Is that something you relish or regret?
Brian De Palma: Well, you never can predict these things. I knew the movie would get a reaction, because it's showing a different vision of our soldiers in Iraq. All we ever get told is that they're valued and we support them, and as they're represented on television, they're true-blue and honorable. Which is true, for the most part. But there's another side. When you see these representations of them, you must realize they are representations. They're propaganda for the Marines and the Army and the Bush administration. The soldiers aren't allowed to say what they really feel or think. They're just supposed to parrot the administration's talking points, and that's what their job is. You should view these stories about them with that in mind. Because I noticed when I researched this material—which is based on an incident very similar to the one in Casualties Of War—that soldiers, when they're not "on camera," so to speak, express a whole different view of the war. And talking to a lot of soldiers who've returned from Iraq confirmed that.
AVC: Do you think that the people criticizing the film understand it? Do you think they're conversant enough with your work to get what you're going for?
BDP: No. It's like the whole way this war was prosecuted. They had an opinion before they got any information. And if the information doesn't work with their opinion, then they just get rid of it. Or ignore it. And it's basically the way they've proceeded with this war, saying that when someone reports the reality of what's actually happening, it's just "negative media stories." I was talking to a journalist today, and I said about the Oklahoma bombing a decade ago, "Suppose we had one of those every day. What kind of world would we think we were living in?" When you put stuff in perspective, you realize that well, the administration can complain, "The media isn't telling the stories about how we're building schools blah blah blah," but has anybody read any of the blogs from the Iraqis who are living through what our occupation is doing? There've been a couple of them that have been printed into books, and they're fascinating. You get a whole different view of what's going on over there, all of which has been redacted from the mainstream media. And for obvious reasons, because the architects of this war, who are my age, learned the lessons of Vietnam, that you've got to keep the pictures away from the people, and you've got to make the information fit into the mold of how you want to present it.
AVC: What's the status of the closing montage at this point? Is it going to be cut from the film altogether, or included, but with bars over the victims' eyes?
BDP: I think it's going to wind up with the bars over the eyes. I cannot get [Magnolia] to accept the liability, even though I've got first-amendment lawyers saying that nobody has ever brought a suit against a war picture, and probably never would. But that never makes any difference to the insurance companies. It just makes me wonder, are we being redacted by insurance companies now? Are they the arbiters of what we see? Seems to be. I mean, it's like something out of Double Indemnity. These are war photographs, and you can't show them? Something's not right about that. The fact that Redacted got redacted somehow is an irony that I think is worth leaving the way it is.
AVC: There are obvious similarities between Redacted and Casualties Of War, but also to your earlier films, like Hi, Mom! and Greetings, which were more loose and experimental. Do you find in general that to really "see" a Brian De Palma film, it helps to have seen a lot of other Brian De Palma films?
BDP: I think that's true of any director, or any writer, or any painter, or any poet that you like. Of course, if you're struck by a certain work, then you want to go back and see what they did before, and you want to get a biography and figure out how it all fits together. Absolutely. I do that all the time.
AVC: A lot of the complaints about Redacted have been about the acting, which is abstracted and outsized. But that acting style isn't unusual for your films. Do you think those critics are misreading your intention, or is it a valid criticism to say that the acting is wooden?
BDP: I think it's completely wrong! The thing about this movie is that it's like nothing you have seen before. The visual devices I'm using to convey the story, you haven't seen before. There's never been a movie that's structured and strung together in a way like this before. So you're seeing something that you really can't pigeonhole, and when you attempt to pigeonhole it, you can make some serious critical mistakes. You should just sort of relax, take a step back before you start spouting off some cliché that occurred to you five minutes after the screening. Of course the acting is a little over-the-top. They're mugging for the camera! Have you ever watched people shoot video? That perception to me is so dimwitted that I don't exactly know how to react to it.
When they watch the people on Survivor conniving over in the corner of the beach and whispering to each other about how they're going to betray one of their campmates, do they think that's real? Do they think that's acting? Do they think that's documentary? I mean, there's a whole new range of what we consider "real" now, because we've been looking at reality television for almost 10 years.
AVC: One of the film's visual devices is your version of a foreign documentary being made about these soldiers, which plays almost like a parody of the kind of deliberately paced, formalist documentaries you might see at a film festival. Was that intended to be funny?
BDP: Well, I had to slow the movie down there, to show that the soldiers are involved in extremely boring, repetitive actions. In order to understand why this atrocity was committed, you've got to get into their state of mind and try to let the audience experience what would make a bunch of regular guys do something so crazy. That's always the challenge, when you make a movie like this. So the whole French documentary was me trying to slow the movie down, and shoot the soldiers in a whole different style, because as they're represented by different media, they look different. And they act different too. If they're appearing in a French documentary, they're going to try to look like the kind of soldiers that embedded reporters see.
AVC: Do you think your future is in more movies like Redacted?
BDP: I don't know at this point. You know, I'm 67 years old. I'm happy to be healthy, and enjoying my daughters as they get into their teens. If I get excited about something… Well, I'm curious about everything. Look at Sidney Lumet, he just made a very interesting movie, and he's in his 80s. I don't know if I want to be directing movies that long, but I'm just trying to enjoy it. It's been a rough and bumpy ride, but I'm very proud of what I've accomplished, and if I accomplish a few other things, that's great.
AVC: Would you like to someday be on the Academy stage, fêted with a lifetime achievement award like Lumet was a few years ago?
BDP: I don't think that's ever gonna happen. I'm much too polarizing. It'll take a couple of decades for it all to settle down. When I consider what I went through with all the thrillers, and then even with Greetings and Hi, Mom! and the gangster pictures… Ai yi yi.
AVC: What prompted the change in your career from the avant-garde comedies you were making at the end of the '60s to the thrillers you made in the '70s?
BDP: I wanted to learn how to tell stories in pictures, and suspense movies were the best way to do it. Where you have very simple situations: the monster's going to get you, or somebody's going to kill you, or how to get rid of a body. And you have to figure out ways to make that exciting visually. That's how I developed the long visual sequences that fascinate me to this day.
AVC: What kind of movies excite you right now? What are you seeing out there in world cinema that makes you perk up?
BDP: Well, the Koreans. I'm trying to remember their names. Kim Ki-duk and directors like that. Really interesting stuff. I saw a movie of Kim's, Address Unknown, in Montreal a decade ago or something, and I thought, "Wow." A kid is using his sister as a target, throwing darts at her. [Laughs.] Wow. This is something. I've sort of watched him and that guy [Park Chan-wook] that did Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, that trilogy. A year ago, I saw Bruno Dumont's Flandres, and that really got me thinking about war movies. I find his stuff extremely inventive and very compelling. So I went back and looked at all his movies. I'm usually most excited by foreign movies, though of course we have some really great American directors. I'm very interested in seeing Paul Anderson's new movie, because I really love his stuff. I thought Magnolia was unbelievable and very touching, and I think he's a very audacious director who takes a lot of chances. Of course the Coen brothers have been good for decades, and Wes Anderson. We have quite a good group.
AVC: Are you collegial at all with these younger filmmakers?
BDP: Absolutely! I hang out with them wherever I can find them.
AVC: And the older ones too, are you still chummy with Spielberg and Scorsese and Coppola and Lucas and all that gang?
BDP: Sure, we're still together. We're always very happy to see each other and exchange our various war stories. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you pay attention to the critics who've devoted themselves to your work, like Armond White or Pauline Kael?
BDP: Well, you do like the critics that like you, but I've also found that these writers, whether it's Armond or Charles Taylor or Pauline, they're all really interesting to read. God knows I don't agree with Armond all the time, but he's one of our most interesting writers. He can go off on tangents much like Pauline used to, and I always find that interesting, whatever he's writing about. It isn't always about movies. I was talking to a writer friend of mine about book critics, and finding critics today where you go, "Boy, I want to read what he has to say about this." Not only because you respect his perceptions about the material, but you enjoy the writing. And I can't say that about too many film critics today. Most of the good ones, I think, are on the Internet. They're young critics and they're out there, and you discover them on Rotten Tomatoes, and you read a whole bunch and you say, "Who's this? Whether he likes or hates a movie, is he interesting to read? Does he have an interesting point of view?" But when they start basically repeating the plot synopsis with the same old anti De Palma clichés, you sort of turn the page.
AVC: Those critics that study you, do you think they get it right when they talk about, for example, your fascination with voyeurism, or your operatic style? Do you find that they're clicking with what you're intending to do, or are they seeing things that you didn't even know you were doing?
BDP: Both. There've been some books about me where even the titles are too complicated for me to tell you what they are. And if they examine my work in terms that don't make much sense to me, after a couple paragraphs I sort of go, "I don't get this, and I don't know where this guy is going, and it doesn't really make much sense." Very flattering, of course, that he spent all that time on my work, but it doesn't really connect. But it's always interesting to find a critic that gets it, like Manohla Dargis, when she wrote about Femme Fatale. She's like the only critic that really figured out what I was doing there. She wrote about it extremely well when she was writing for the L.A. Times, and I was quite stunned by that. That doesn't mean she liked my next film. She didn't. But at least she got it. Not only did she get it, she defended it vigorously against people that attacked it on all types of levels. And then there are the Mission To Mars defenders that go off the charts… Which is fine, if they're making some sense in their defenses.
AVC: When you make a film that the critics clearly don't get, do you think, "Hmm, it wasn't supposed to be that hard to understand, maybe I should try something different next time around?"
BDP: No, not really. Some of my most controversial movies, or even my most unsuccessful at the box office, are some of my best. Blow Out was a catastrophe when it opened, but everybody constantly talks about it as one of my best movies, and I find it a movie that I am really very proud of. Did it get decent reviews? A couple. Pauline liked it, and a few other people, but that was about it, and it died. You've got to remind yourself all the time that you're being measured against the fashions of the day, and if your work truly has any kind of staying power, well, people will be talking about it in 20, 30 years. I'm going to a revival of Carrie next week, and that movie was made in 1976. I guess there's something about it that works, if they're still looking at it 30 years later. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are you satisfied with your films generally, or do you nitpick them after they're done?
BDP: No, I'm very happy. I've been on the firing line many times. I'm proud of a lot of movies that I've made, and a lot of movies that I've fought for. And I'm very happy with this one.