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Brian De Palma on "Snake Eyes"

by Henri Béhar

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Brian de Palma is a fixture on the festival circuit, and said circuit habitues, particularly in Montreal and Toronto, leave him alone: he's a film buff, he's come to pig out on celluloid, we all did. We're used to his scraggly beard and messy hair flowing in the wind; we're used to seeing his, ahem, rotund figure bounce from one theater to the other.

Brace up, you're in for a shock: Hair cut short, beard trimmed, the "Carrie" and "Scarface" auteur is fifty pounds lighter and looks fifteen years younger. How? HOW? "Good work out and a diet." Shucks! We thought - hoped! - he'd found the miracle tablet...

Brace up for shock # 2: "Snake Eyes" is dynamite, and the opening shot will sock it to you in the gut and right between the eyes. In that one twenty-minute-long shot (take that, "Bonfire of the Vanities"!), De Palma introduces you to the corrupt local cop played by Nick Cage extorts money or favors then you get into the Atlantic City auditorium where a championship boxing match is to take place, the Defense Secretary arrives with entourage, back to Nick Cage, back to crowd, back to Cage hooking up with old pal (and co-New-Jerseyite) Gary Sinise, now the Secretary's Chief of Security, then to a redhead woman watching the fight to Nick Cage observing it all to Gary Sinise getting worried about the redhead to her going away quickly to Sinise following her to Nick Cage watching the fight but also the redhead episode from the corner of his eye to the champion being pummeled by the challenger to the crowd roaring to a blonde woman sitting next to Cage, chit-chat, then she turns to the Secretary to Cage watching with horror the champion being knocked out and falling to the Defense Secretary being shot and blood gushes from his throat and there are TV cameras everywhere and it's mayhem in the auditorium and, and, and...

If it reminds you of Kurosawa's "Rashomon " (multiplicity of points of view), it's perfectly intentional; if it reminds you of the Kennedy assassination, it is no less deliberate.


BRIAN DE PALMA: We didn't set out to do a "Brian De Palma Signature SteadiCam Shot". I wanted to show the whole universe that the Nick Cage character was in. I wanted to show HIS world, I wanted to show it really fast, and I wanted to show it whole, in an exciting venue: with that particular fight night, and the money stuff before the fight and the murder during the fight and the aftermath of the fight AND of the murder, he has a lot of problems to solve, and they're all tied up, in a way.

QUESTION: Same for the ending.

BRIAN DE PALMA: That's right. I wanted the movie to start with a long, incredibly long shot. I wanted it to start on the boardwalk and end on the boardwalk. With a very long shot. I think the first shot is 13 minutes long and the last one about 10 minutes.

Q - But the first one may get all the credit, so to speak. The logistics for such a shot must have been....

BdeP - ...extremely complicated. Basically, there's no net. You make a mistake, you have to go back to the beginning. It's akin to a high-wire act: you can get very exhilarated trying to pull it off. It's also very energizing for the actors. There is a kind of excitement in their performance that you don't get when you start shooting in master shots, then medium shots, then close-ups...

We really had a very good time doing it all. But I'll tell you, while we were doing it, we were looking at each other, we were, like, "Whoa!" I've worked with the same crew on several films, we did that opening shot in "Bonfire of the Vanities", we've done a lot of complicated shots. But you always try to set the bar a little higher. And as you do it, you discover things that are happening right in front of you or just in a corner of the frame and you go, "Why not try and integrate that into this?" And you get excited doing it. "Wow! Can we pull it off?"

Ultimately, it goes very fast, because you really do the whole thing in one take. The studio would call:

"That's great, but where is the coverage?"

- There is no coverage. That's it.

- W-w-w-w-wait a minute! Suppose it doesn't work?

- It's GOTTA work!"

Basically, we shot the first twenty-some pages of the script in less than twenty minutes. We rehearsed it all day, then we shot it.

Q - All in one shot...

BdeP (looking faux-contrite) - Well... Not quite. It's actually four SteadiCam shots. They don't make twenty-minute camera magazines, so we had to use four or five of them. Basically it's like three or four five-minute shots.

Q - But it's absolutely seamless!

BdeP - It had better be! You're not supposed to see the seams, but they're there. The cut is there. I faked it the same way Hitchcock faked his real-time no-cuts thing in "Rope".

Q - Throughout "Snake Eyes", all the characters review - or relive - the events leading to the murder from THEIR perspective, THEIR point of view... Always the same, yet always different.

BdeP - Well, if you're going back to the same sequence many times, the secret is to try and hold back information all the time. If I want to keep you interested in going back, it's a must. Otherwise, if I keep showing the same shot over and over again, you'll fall asleep. So (scriptwriter) David Koepp and I tried to find different ways to go back to the same event.

For instance, in Nicholas Cage's sections of that first shot, you never see the fight. I want you to be interested in seeing it because it's an important part of the conspiracy, but I'm not going to show it to you right away; you'll have to wait to see it. And it will be preceded by what the fighter has to say; then you'll have first-person stuff from different characters. You're constantly changing the way you're seeing it.

It's only when the (presumably blonde) girl at the end goes through it that all the shots get tied together. It's quite complicated, script-wise.

But if you don't, if you keep going back to stuff you've seen before, it'll be boring. Basic repetition tends to stop the dramatic action. Almost like in a musical: everything stops when somebody sings, let alone reprise the same song...


Q - Speaking of same song... Once again, you are fighting with the Ratings board because it gave "Snake Eyes" an R rating.

BdeP - Well, we're kind of in a difficult situation here. On the "Snake Eyes" press junket in Los Angeles, nobody had one question about violence, which is quite unusual for me, as I seem to be Mr. Violence-Question-Person, you know what I'm saying? I always get asked about "Violence in films." Since there is no violence in this movie, nobody asked a question about it.

And we get slapped with this R rating? Over what?

I just felt that I was singled out by the Ratings Board because I fought them my whole career. As far as I am concerned, they censor movies. No question about it. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to appeal the rating. I made some changes in the fight - and it's still getting an R.

Q - What was the Ratings Board's beef?

BdeP - They felt there were too many punches in the fight.

Q - Say what?

BdeP - Seriously! I'm not joking! "Too many punches in the fight." And the spurting blood gushing when the Secretary is shot. And Nicholas Cage getting beaten up too much. What you see is a PG-13 now rated R..

Q - In the past, thought, one might have felt you sported this "Mr. Violence" label as if it were a badge to be worn proudly.

BdeP - It's not a question of proudly or not proudly. Violence is justified in certain movies. The level of violence in something like "Saving Private Ryan" makes sense because Spielberg is trying to show something about the brutality of what happened. I think in "Scarface" the violence was warranted; what I showed on the screen was nothing compared to what's happening on the news every night, where they find people cut up in garbage dumpsters. That's what they did to them: they sawed them up! I felt certain uses of intensity in a movie came out of... truth. I threw a tremendous amount of it out of "Scarface" But what's there I think is important to keep in the movie. All in all, I think the Ratings Board has affected movies. Deeply. Violence is not even a question anymore. There's a lot of violence in the films you see, but today, "Godfather" would have an X, or an NC-17. The first movie I ever made, "Greetings" had an X - - If you take a look at "Greetings," you'll LAUGH at the idea that this movie has an X. So, please!

As you probably know, this is a smoke screen. The real battle is on television. They want the ratings to focus on the movies because it keeps us - - as everything in our culture - - from addressing the real problem, which is your son or your daughter can walk in and turn on hard-core pornography. But nobody really wants to talk about that.


Q - Rumor had it that you initially had Al Pacino in mind for the part Nicholas Cage now plays.

BdeP - That's true. The whole thing evolved. We had to have two actors that worked together well. We did work one version of the script with Al in mind, but we were not sure the other guy, for Sinise's part, could play a dark character, whereas Sinise had. We then also the idea of making this an older man-younger-man rapport, but Al had just done it in "Donnie Brasco" so he was, you know, uncertain about it. Then Gary became available and... it became Nicholas Cage and Gary Sinise as two guys about the same age, with the same background, sort of childhood buddies.

Q - The two actors come from completely different acting styles.

BdeP - I like actors, I love good actors. They make my life a lot easier, they bring a lot to their characters. At least the ones that are interesting... Sinise has a lot of theatre training, he's a director himself, he's very tough on the script, we wrote a lot of stuff concerning his back story: why he was doing what he's doing. Actually, that's how the final ending emerged.

Nick will always come up with something unexpected - - which is great! You're always looking for actors that surprise you. Nick had never acted at that pace before, he'd never spoken lines at that Howard Hawks-like speed. I told him, "I want ' Front-Page' speed here." I had to show some of that stuff so he'd know what the hell I was talking about. "I want a Cagney kind of delivery all the way." And Nick's real rhythms are not like that. His characters are generally sort of slower rhythm, jazzy rhythm, but he'd never done this kind of machine. But once he got into it, he really got excited about it.

Q - As soon as Cage's character is introduced, you know he's absolutely corrupt, loud, gaudy, tacky... And yet somehow he must be charming enough for the audience to want to follow him, if not BE him, to the end.

BdeP - Yeah.

Q - What part of that comes in the writing, what part of that comes from working together, what part is his?

BdeP - It's a combination of all of the above. He's a dark, 'noir' character, basically. But he's happy about it. You mean, because it's a film noir, everybody should be depressed all the time? The problem is that generally they don't represent evil well: they obliterate the fact that it's a lot of fun! This guy is the king of the Shore, he's really enjoying himself! And he's very unhappy when he has to make a moral decision. What's the worst thing that you can think of in hell? Make a moral decision. Nick really got into that. HE came up with the suit! I was in Montreal, he called me and said, "I found this suit, you gotta see it!" When I did, I laughed my head off: he was absolutely right! And that Hawaiian shirt? Hilarious!

I was trying to make something very concise, very high-powered, something that moved fast. I'm so bored with films today! They're always too long, and very sloppy. Don't go to a movie with me, you'll never get through it. I go by myself, 'cause I seldom stay for the whole movie anymore. Life is too short to waste on this stuff. YOU have to, it's your job! (he laughs)

To tell you the truth, if I had your job, I'd go nuts! You see the establishing shot, you know what the whole movie is going to be like. And you start looking at your watch. "What time is it? This is going to go on for another 90 minutes? Of what? "


Q - Why is that, then?

BdeP - Why? Because we're witnessing the decline and fall of... cinema. We're at the end of a cycle here. We had a great run, which began with the beginning of the century, kind of peaked in the middle of it, and is now sliding down to the end.

Q - To be replaced by what?

BdeP - I don't know. It will probably evolve into something that is in a computer form. That's going to be the next aesthetic form, that people are going to get interested in, once they get over the technological novelty of it and start finding different ways to tell more personal stories that are going to be downloaded across the Internet. You'll be able to do your own little thing at home and everybody will be able to see them all over the world. This whole thing called the Big Hollywood Movie will go the way of the musical. It's finished, it's over! Those who say it'll come back have got to be kidding. I turned on the television the other day and watched Vincente Minnelli's "The Bad and the Beautiful". Is there anything as good as "The Bad and the Beautiful"? Please!

Q - Maybe Joe Mankiewicz's " All About Eve"?

BdeP - I'll accept that! (laugh) You see, these movies were brilliantly constructed. And you wonder, "Why can't I do that? Why can I not make it as tight and concise as that?"

Q - Has the writing changed so drastically? Were writers better in the 40s and 50s?

BdeP - I've been thinking about that a lot lately. Because they all came out of the theatrical tradition, they were used to the three-act structure, used to developing characters. Now they're all coming out of the television tradition, more specifically MTV. It's the Michael Bay syndrome. "If a cut is longer than four seconds, that's bad." So it goes like this (he bangs on the table real fast). Developing characters and story demands a slower rhythm, and they're afraid to do that. Plus the fact that we live in the era of surfing and zapping. So when someone like Cameron or Spielberg makes a long shot, people go nuts! "Wow! Great! I've never seen that!" Because they're so used to this kind of machine-gun and TV approach. I directed a lot of plays when I was in graduate school, so I have a real sense of the theatrical tradition. I don't think anybody does that anymore.

But hey, I'm a dinosaur! A dinosaur heading for the ridge. In spite of which, I'm betting on new technologies. I'm very interested in computers. I started out as a computer nerd, basically, I went to a lot of computer fairs over the years, the most interesting stuff that is happening is in this area. Once we get over the rip-offs of "Star Wars", we'll see fantastic things develop.

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