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De Palma’s Coming To TIFF, So Here Are 5 Highlights

Unlike most of the filmmakers he socialized with in the ’70s (Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg), Brian De Palma struggled to achieve widespread critical acclaim or commercial success. In part, this was because of his preference for schlocky subject matter—or “trash,” as it was affectionately described by outspoken De Palma admirer Pauline Kael—and his tendency to imitate, paraphrase, or expand on the ideas of Alfred Hitchcock. While the actual quality of De Palma’s work has declined in recent years, his reputation has grown immensely, thanks in part to a generation of filmmakers who have imitated or simply praised his idiosyncratic work. Quentin Tarantino is the best example of the former, while Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young) has become the most visible (and unlikely) example of the latter.

A longtime De Palma friend, Baumbach interviewed the legendary filmmaker for Criterion’s releases of Dressed to Kill and Blow Out. Working with Jake Paltrow, he has continued this tradition with De Palma, an extended, career-spanning interview that gives the director a chance to share memorable (and occasionally unfamiliar) anecdotes concerning the entirety of his eclectic filmography. In conjunction with that film’s release, TIFF is launching Split/Screen: The Cinema of Brian De Palma, a comprehensive retrospective of the director’s work. In honour of both, here are some of the documentary’s most memorable anecdotes, along with TIFF showtimes for the films in question.

Casualties of War (June 18 at 7pm)

Over the years, De Palma has regularly been rejected by audiences because of his preoccupation with tragedy—a dramatic form that is almost entirely absent from modern movies—and that was especially true of Casualties of War, a devastating true story about rape in the Vietnam War. While the director speaks affectionately about Sean Penn (they reunited four years later for Carlito’s Way), he explains that the actor’s immersion in the irredeemable role of Sgt. Tony Meserve took a toll on Michael J. Fox. During the shooting of one key scene, Penn pushed his co-star to the ground and underlined the characters’ conflict by hitting the Family Ties star with the ultimate ’80s acting insult, dismissing him as a “TV actor.”

Obsession (July 14 at 9pm)

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Around the same time that screenwriter Paul Schrader and composer Bernard Hermann joined forces with Martin Scorsese for Taxi Driver, they teamed with De Palma for this intriguing Vertigo knock-off. When it became clear that Québécois actress Geneviève Bujold was stealing the show from Cliff Robertson, De Palma says the actor went out of his way to sabotage Bujold. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was so outraged by the actor’s behaviour that he emerged from behind the camera to attack Robertson, derailing at least one day of shooting.

The Fury (July 15 at 8:45pm)

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Actor-director John Cassavetes was known for taking roles in mainstream films, in order to finance his more intimate directorial efforts (Faces, A Woman Under the Influence). While The Fury’s reputation has improved over the years—De Palma has mixed feelings, but he’s proud of select sequences—Cassavetes was driven crazy by the elaborate special effects requirements of the film’s explosive finale.

Body Double (July 17 at 3:30pm)

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Combining elements of Rear Window and Vertigo, this inventive Hitchcock pastiche is also De Palma’s most outrageously sleazy film. Partly set in the world of pornography, Body Double provided Melanie Griffith with her breakout role, but De Palma had a very different actress in mind: adult film star Annette Haven.

Scarface (July 23 at 8:45pm)

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During the shooting of Scarface’s epic finale, Al Pacino grabbed a red-hot gun by the barrel and suffered severe burns. As a result, De Palma had several weeks to gather unplanned shots of attackers invading Tony Montana’s compound and suffering all kinds of elaborate deaths. During this period of excess and indulgence, Steven Spielberg even visited the set, helping his old buddy come up with inventive new forms of bloodshed.

De Palma opens in Toronto on Friday and Split/Screen: The Cinema of Brian De Palma gets underway on Saturday night with Casualties of War. The documentary makes a great prelude to the retrospective and the trailer—which you can watch below—makes a great prelude to the documentary. For a different take on De Palma’s career (because you can never have enough), check out our beginner’s guide.

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