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NYFF 15: ‘De Palma’ is a masterclass on the film industry from a prolific director

NYFF 15: ‘De Palma’ is a masterclass on the film industry from a prolific director

De Palma
Directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow
USA, 2015

Noah Baumbach isn’t exactly the first name in a list of directors that comes to mind for a documentary about renowned filmmaker Brian De Palma. With Baumbach’s own work as of late revolving around young and somewhat hip New Yorkers (Frances Ha and his recent release Mistress America), it’s not what anyone might naturally expect him to take on as his next project. But he does so with the help of writer-director Jake Paltrow, together delving into the filmmaker’s extensive and diverse filmography in the aptly named De Palma.

Going chronologically through all of his films, De Palma explores the career of a man with many substantial successes under his belt and a handful of failures along the way. The film is essentially one long interview with De Palma, intercut with footage from his movies. The only person ever seen onscreen in the interview is De Palma himself, answering questions from a voiceless source. For those not very familiar with De Palma’s work (except maybe his most prominent films like Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible), it’s still a worthwhile look into the life and labors of an artist who switched back and forth between go-to Hollywood director and Hollywood outsider.


De Palma is candid about his work, not at all shy to talk about flops like Bonfire of the Vanities and Snake Eyes. It’s a good decision on Baumbach and Paltrow’s part to keep their own voices out of the documentary so that the audience, especially people new to De Palma, can come to understand him as a director and a member of the movie industry. He reflects on his portfolio with extreme ease, discussing which films worked and which ones didn’t and why. It helps that he’s such an engaging personality, aware of his talent but also aware of the projects that put a dent in his career.

His honesty about himself and Hollywood is a reason why every aspiring filmmaker should make this a must-see film. Despite De Palma coming from the same group as Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, there was a point in his career where he drifted away from big studio productions, mostly after his enormous success with Mission: Impossible. After that, critical and box office failures like Mission to Mars and Snakes Eyes pushed him to make movies outside of the US, separating himself even more from Hollywood. Now it seems that he’s back to an experimental phase, going from the relatively low-budget Redacted in 2007 to Passion in 2012 with big actors like Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace that had an estimated budget of $30 million. Young filmmakers must realize that even the most seasoned directors don’t have a set path. This documentary leaves us hoping that he’ll make another film soon so we can see where it will take him next.

De Palma is a master class on filmmaking. By solely focusing on De Palma, Baumbach and Paltrow (through their apparent friendship with the director) create a captivating documentary in which he presents the story of his life’s work chiefly from his point of view. From the industry itself to the technical facets of filmmaking, this doc serves as a tool for young filmmakers and film buffs who are looking for a clearer understanding of filmmaking as a craft and of the ups and downs that a career in film can have. De Palma is worthy of retrospection; he offers significant insight into an industry that is kind to only so many talents for so long.

The 53rd New York Film Festival runs September 25 – October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Visit the fest’s official website.